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A new Israel Museum show gives us our first look at a large number of recent acquisitions of Israeli and international contemporary art, all quite beautifully displayed in both the Spertus Gallery and the adjoining Sachs Pavilion of Israeli Art. Much of the wall space is given over to enormous video projections. One can see why these may be preferred by museums whose storerooms are overflowing with acquisitions. Video discs take up little storage space.
Each of the exhibits is accompanied by curator Susan Landau's lengthy explanations of what they are all about and are generally an excellent guide, though in some cases they lard it on a bit thick, particularly when the work itself is on the banal side. It's axiomatic that conceptual art often depends for its survival on exegesis.
For the first time at this museum, an attempt has been made to light the small caption cards. But some, inexplicably, remain in darkness, while the lighting of others is meager. The card for the entrance installation (an extended accordion) is virtually invisible; it took a search to find it.
There isn't much of an echo of traditional art in a show like this, but an exception is the superb head of a pensive young woman carved from limewood and gently painted by Paloma Varga Weisz, a German born in 1966. This head is a direct descendant of centuries of devotional limewood carving.
Nearby is an empty room with what appears to be a dying sparrow lying on the windowsill, the work of two Scandinavians working in Berlin, Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset. The bird is animatronic, stuffed with tiny motors of the type used to animate stuffed animals in movies; it is an uncanny piece of deception.
Micha Ullman (Israeli, born 1939) is represented with Month, 1994-95, the ultimate in finger-painting, 29 freehand sheets drawn (or painted) in tempera and red sand on paper, a "mythical time of creation, the lunar calendar and a single, ephemeral moment in the life of a solitary individual." The names of the drawings include astronomical and astrological terms and references to biblical events.
Wedding, 1995, by Israeli Zvi Goldstein (b. 1947) might also have been called The Large Glass, for it is enclosed by a large plexiglass showcase containing a group of stylized geometric figures and objects alluding to exotic cultures, with rich Oriental brocades draped over a group of cones, an Ethiopian monk's hat, a model of a molecular chain reminiscent of enlarged Muslim prayer beads, and photographs of baggy sharwal pants and a fez. Positioned among the figures are rulers marked with different units of measurement, "which represent the efforts of Western culture to define the strange and the unfamiliar by rational, scientific means."
Tiger, 2001, by Yigal Nizri (b. 1973) is a cheap childhood blanket printed with a tiger and latterly cut in the shape of a tiger, becoming a tiger-skin rug. A leopard with a radio collar is the subject of a monochrome oil painting by Assaf Romano (b. 1964). His Shlomzion, 2002, was made after a newspaper photo of the leopard's release. So what?
The Hula A, 2004, steel wool on plywood, is the first drawing/relief in a series created by Gal Weinstein (Israeli, b. 1970); it is based on photographs from Peter Merom's book The Death of the Lake (1960), which documents the draining of the Hula Swamp. This famous project proved to be an ecological problem and the Hula Swamp was re-flooded in the early 1990s.
Fields of Flowers, 2005, glass beads threaded on plastic netting, is by Erez Israeli (b. 1974). Curator Landau sees the poppies as a lonely red stain on a soldier's grave and travels as far as Genet's novel Our Lady of the Flowers, which describes prison inmates weaving funeral wreaths.
I was much more impressed by Swing of the Scythe, 2002, a rhythmical sculpture based on stop-action photography resulting in a series of lacquered iron scythe forms by Efrat Natan (b. 1947). The scythe evokes of course the pioneers who strode in the forefront of the Zionist revolution.
The scythe also identifies Chronos, "Father Time," but it is equally the menacing attribute of the Angel of Death, who appears in City Watcher, 2004, a digital C-print by Cao Fei (b. China 1978) which shows the Grim Reaper on a city rooftop, complete with scythe. This work is linked with a new generation of young urban Chinese who call themselves Xinxin Renlei (New-New Human Beings). They have been influenced by Otaku, a group of Japanese teenagers who live in a virtual world of computer games, comics and animated films and who dress up as their favorite characters from these genres and reenact mythic battles to save the world.
I was really impressed by Mr. Butterfly, 2004, a six-minute loop on a plasma screen, the work of Haluk Akak e (b. Ankara 1970, active New York and London). A series of geometrical shapes, including door-like flaps, move in a continuous composition that resembles a Bauhaus abstraction brought to life and endlessly re-inventing itself. This fine work has a connection with that of Ann Lislegaard (Norwegian, b. 1962). Her Bellona, 2005, a 3-D animation on a slanted screen, offers a tour through a series of empty rooms in which doors and windows open and shut without apparent human intervention. In the course of the 11-minute loop, a woman's voice reads from Samuel R. Delany's 1974 science fiction novel Dhalgren, which tells of a fictional American city called Bellona that is nearly destroyed.
The J-Street Project (Index), 2002-5, by Susan Hiller (b. US 1940, lives and works in London) is a chilling wall hung with 303 archival color inkjets of streets in Germany with names like Judenberg, Judengasse and the like. Hiller found that "in Germany there are 300 streets named after their former Jewish residents, but hardly anyone notices them. These street names are ghosts of the past, haunting the present." All the locations are identified on a facing wall.
Over a period of five years, Alec Soth (American, b. 1969) traveled along the Mississippi from Minnesota to Louisiana, capturing with his camera the culture and life unfolding on the banks of the river and on the margins of society. His remarkable large C-print, Cemetery, Fountain City, Wisconsin, 2002, is ostensibly of a classically American filling station standing boldly below an immense snow-dusted crag. The cemetery is hidden in between, as though the dead were forgotten.
Other artists in this entertaining show include Michael Borremans, Sigalit Landau, Leandro Erlich, Jesper Just and Angela Strassheim. The exhibition is also a tribute to the large number of donors and the selective eye of curator Landau.
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