An exhibition at the Neve Shechter Gallery in Tel Aviv reveals new aspects of Hanukkah and contemporary art.
(photo credit: DIN AHARONI)
I found myself in Tel Aviv, the mini-New York, this week and stumbled upon a quaint gallery somewhat off the beaten track. Nestled in a building complex that spanned the Ottoman Empire and was used under the British Mandate, the complex now houses a gallery that retains elements of its historic past and features curiously vaulted ceilings of stone and odd nooks and crannies.
Curator and gallerist Shira Freedman took me on an enlightening tour of the gallery, which has been brought under one roof in a neatly conceived concept that is both alert to the festival of Hanukkah and to currents in contemporary art.
On the one hand, pure Jewish monotheism prohibits the modeling of three-dimensional forms such as the human figure, whereas the classical ideal embodied by the ancient Greeks – progenitors of sculptural Classicism, philosophy and, to a large degree, the basis of science and mathematics – included a wealth of gods in the shape of human form.
On a simple reading, the Hanukkah story is the victory of pure monotheism and the abstract transcendental ideal of truth over physical form and human reasoning. In other words, the rededication of the Temple required the miraculous and divine over and above pagan idolatry. Yet that is indeed a simple reading. In truth, the ideas and ideals of the ancient Greeks are invested in Jewish culture today and the perennial search in art for meaningful form. Specifically, sculptural form is as much part of contemporary Israeli art as any other.
It is specifically the sculptural that this exhibition focuses on, ranging from large sculptural figures. And then, in an attempt not to “defile” the human form, sculptural images are photographed and manipulated on a two-dimensional surface, a window through which to pier via the medium of video work and smaller figurines, like little pagan gods and goddesses or Buddha’s. Some are quite expressive, distorted, even monstrous, while others (especially the larger works) are more playful and innocent.
There is certain sense of the real when it comes to sculpture that makes it all the more akin to idolatry. And yet the energy of the exhibition is such that the works seem to create a narrative wherein the enlightened ancient Greeks and the Jewish mind coalesce. Indeed, the binary relationship between the two is facile – there is always a cross-pollination of cultures and a give and take. Indeed, Athens is in Tel Aviv!
Speaking more specifically, Leo Caillard, the only male artist exhibiting in the show, records a female dancing among the classical sculptures and paintings in the Louvre. This develops in the process the idea that the past is embedded in the present, in the very movement and torque of the body, a sculptured mass that seethes with life and energy when in health and vigor. Thence, perhaps, the artworks too come to life.
Irit Tamari’s superimposition of sculptural forms in a kind of photographic collage that is then outlined creates a sense of a kitsch magazine cover. At the same time it questions the binary nature between two-dimensionality and the three dimensions, which in turn imply a kind of dematerialization of the figure, thus circumventing its apparent paganism.
I highly recommend going to see these works. The exhibit has been well-conceived. It asks many pertinent questions about contemporary art, specifically here in Israel, and it behooves those interested in how to situate notions of the incorporeal infinite with that of the cult of beauty in such a way as to avoid simplistic polarities. That certainly gives a new spin of the Hanukkah narrative. A Group Show at the Neve Schechter Gallery, 52 Eilat Street, Tel Aviv. For more information, visit neve-schechter.org.il/.
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