Pots of material

This year’s ceramics biennale at the Eretz Israel Museum explores the connection between culture and memory.

July 10, 2013 12:01
4 minute read.
Cohavit Ben Ezra Goldenberg, ‘Canned’

Cohavit Ben Ezra Goldenberg, ‘Canned’. (photo credit: LEONID PEDROL)

There is an old riddle that poses the question When is a door not a door? The answer: When it’s ajar.

But when is a pot not a pot? That is an issue that is comprehensively addressed at the Seventh Biennale for Israeli Ceramics, which opens at the Eretz Israel Museum in Ramat Aviv on Monday and will run until November 10.

This edition of the biennale, which goes by the name “Imprinting on Clay – Cultural Memory in Israeli Ceramic Art,” features a wide range of cultural, social and political issues, as well as matters of a definitively tactile and aesthetic nature 

“There are plenty of secondary topics that branch out from the main theme,” says curator Anat Gatenio, adding that it is the interaction between the seemingly inanimate material and the human input that produces great works of art. Part of the latter comes from the artist’s accrued experiences and how they inform his or her creation.

The biennale background information talks about an expansive spectrum of exploratory areas, including “mining the relationship between memory and culture from the conceptual point of view,” says Gatenio. But, according to the curator, it is not just our amorphous memory banks that impact on the fruits of our artistic labors.

“Potters like to use the term ‘the material remembers.’ There is something about clay in particular, that when you touch it, it remembers the movement of your hand or remembers the shape you formed. The material remembers what you do with it.”

It is an intriguing confluence. Material, of course, can mean the opposite of the spirit, while artists invoke their spiritual resources to produce their creations. The “material” in question here refers largely to the clay that acts as the potter’s basic tool of the trade. The words in Hebrew for “material” (chomer) and “clay” (cheimar) come from the same root and, says Gatenio, it is the latter that comes into play more in the biennale.

The Eretz Israel Museum exhibition is a thematically and corporeally rich and extensive affair. Sixty-six artists will present more than 200 works. The common denominator among the artists is their ability to access different cultural contexts and to inculcate them into a personal artistic language that spawns a new interpretation. The works create dialogues between the past and the present, local and Western, traditional and contemporary, handmade art and digitized efforts, unique and global, and individual and collective.

The latter is a particularly fluid aspect in this global village of ours. While in pre-Internet days, access to information about other parts of the world was far more limited and, hence, cultures tended to maintain their individual identity and characteristics far more easily, the demarcation lines now tend to blur at an ever-increasing rate.

“The lines are also blurring between the personal and the general,” says Gatenio. “Today, researchers address personal culture memory and collective cultural memory as close to one and the same thing. There are personal, familybased, things that are still a separate entity, but much of the rest is now shared by us all.”

Noga Malachi’s contribution to the biennale pinpoints that very issue. Her work, Holding On to Memory, is an organic structure made of individual units arranged as a single mass and incorporates all manner of substances, including stoneware and fabrics. The physical aspect of design was inspired by the barnacle colonies that stick to rocks in the sea, and it serves as a metaphor for the structure and power of the collective.

Meanwhile, the concept for the work feeds off Malachi’s own family’s history. Her grandparents were members of the second and third aliya and were founders of Moshav Kfar Yehoshua in the Jezreel Valley, as well as the Nesher cement factory, in an age when socialism ruled and the good of the collective far outweighed any individual considerations.

Lisbeth Biger’s creation, Time Keeps On Slipping, places the technological advances of the last three of four decades in an appealingly stark spotlight. The work comprises three objects – a wind-up watch, a reel of film and an audio cassette made on handmade unfired clay. The work is a statement about the way our collective visual memory ebbs and flows with the strides made by technological progress, and how iconic products are constantly disappearing from our everyday consciousness.

Iris Zohar, like Malachi, looks inward, to her own home base for inspiration. That comes across strongly in her charming The Ashkenazi Sisters’ Collection, which comprises a set of domestic tableware. The titular siblings were neighbors of Zohar’s aunt, and the work is a throwback to their meticulously kept home, with its bountiful porcelain and crystal objects. Tea at the neighbors’ was always served in gold-rimmed teacups, while Zohar’s own Sabra family stuck to aesthetic simplicity and practicality and eschewed their neighbors’ bourgeois customs.

Cultural border blurring notwithstanding, Gatenio says the exhibition at the museum is very Israeli in character.

“The artists exhibit all sorts of issues that don’t come into play in the lives of people who create in other parts of the world. There are works that address globalization and digitization, but there is a lot of typically Israeli content in ‘Imprinting on Clay.’“ 

The works incorporate various interdisciplinary areas too, including video art, and the biennale seeks to represent a wide scope of artists, ranging from youngsters fresh out of college to veteran artists who are among the founding fathers and mothers of contemporary Israeli ceramic culture. All the artists share the ability to touch upon different cultural contexts and incorporate them into a personal artistic language that offers new interpretation.

For more information about ‘Imprinting on Clay – Cultural Memory in Israeli Ceramic Art’: (03) 641-5244 and www.eretzmuseum.org.il.

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