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Looking back at the last decade of art, many artists and curators speak of the unprecedented international success of Israeli artists. Less spoken of but equally important is the widening of the artistic establishment here - both in terms of institutions and galleries. And yet despite the flurry of activity, it doesn't seem that any unique movement or contribution to art has as yet been identified.
"One can feel that there's much more intensity in the art world," says Jerusalem-based painter Amnon Ben-Ami. "Lots of galleries are opening in Tel Aviv and artists multiply by the hour. There are also more and more exhibitions of foreign artists in Tel Aviv. Jerusalem is still marginal, but even here there has been some awakening."
He adds that more Israeli artists are also now showing around the world. "During my visit to the US last summer I came across the works of three Israeli video artists: Keren Tsiter in New York, Yael Bartana at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Boston and Guy Ben-Ner at Mass Moca."
Indeed, it seems that the buzz around Israeli art abroad circles more around video art than any other medium.
"For a number of reasons, this has been a decade of establishment," says Timna Seligman, who curates the Ticho House of the Israel Museum. "If during the 1990s we were talking about the breakthrough of Israeli artists on the international scene, this became more matter-of-fact during the 2000s. Artists such as Yael Bartana, Michal Rovner, Guy Ben-Ner and Sigalit Landau all exhibited at major international museums. It became accepted that Israeli artists would be part of large group shows at international biennials and art fairs such as the Venice Biennale, Documenta and Art Basel."
But this was a decade of establishment in another way as well, with art institutions opening and expanding their infrastructure in an unprecedented way. In 2000, the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design opened its graduate program in Tel Aviv, headed by sculptor Nahum Tevet. In 2001, the Israel Center for Digital Art began its activities under the directorship of Galit Eilat. In 2003, the Ashdod Museum of Art was opened under the directorship of renowned curator Yona Fischer.
In 2004, Rivka Saker founded ARTIS, a nonprofit advocacy group for contemporary Israeli art abroad. In 2005, the Center for Contemporary Art, founded in 1998 and directed by Sergio Edelstein, moved from a small room in the Tel Aviv Cinematheque to its own building next to the Kalisher School of Art. In 2006, Bezalel announced an architecture competition for a new undergraduate campus in Jerusalem's city center.
In 2007, the Bat Yam Museum of Contemporary Art began its activities under curators Milana Gitzin Adiram and Leah Abir; and in the same year, Israel Museum director James Snyder announced a complete overhaul of the main campus. In 2009, the Shenkar Multidisciplinary Art Department, headed by Larry Abramson, moved into the renovated Elite Building in Ramat Gan. And just a few months ago, Doron Rabina, an artist and curator who came on the scene in the 1990s, took over as head of Hamidrasha School of Art at Beit Berl College from Yair Garbuz, who had taught there for 36 years and for 12 years had been its director.
ALONGSIDE THIS growth there was also some unavoidable reflection. These were, in Seligman's words, "milestones that made the Israeli art establishment take stock of itself, take a look at its history and try to tell and retell the narrative." One of those was the centenary of the founding of Bezalel (1906-2006). Another was the 60th anniversary of the state, which brought with it a countrywide exhibition with six museums each showing a decade of Israeli art. Not every exhibit was equally successful, but they were attended by viewers from all over the country.
"By having the exhibition of each decade exhibited at a different museum and curated by a different curator," continues Seligman, "we ended up with a wide view of the history of art - with focuses changing from decade to decade in a way that would not have happened if it had all been one mega show."
Snyder, director of the Israel Museum since 1996, says that when the idea for the state's anniversary project was advanced, "we immediately asked to be assigned this most recent decade." The exhibition that developed was Real Time: Art in Israel, 1998-2008. "Our collective feeling in the museum was that, in the last 10-year period, Israeli art had taken a quantum leap in terms of expansion of its horizons, success in the mastery of emerging creative mediums with new potential for artistic expression, and liberation of a frame of mind about local identity and global connection. This simply had not been possible on a wide-ranging scale before the cultural and technological globalization that the last decade has experienced."
In his introductory essay to Real Time, curator Amitai Mendelsohn wrote of the "the 2002 Helena exhibition, [in which] Avner Ben-Gal, Ohad Meromi and Gil Marco Shani explored the boundaries between civilization and savagery, the urban and the natural, the flagrantly sexual and the safely concealed." The show was considered groundbreaking at the time.
On a more general note, he adds that, "[a]lthough most leading young artists do not deal directly with the reality around them, they do react to it, either with prophecies of approaching doom, by means of a return to wild primeval worlds or by conscious flight into alternative realms that offer a form of spiritual redress, however illusory."
YET SOME artists remained decidedly committed to a local stance independent from the establishment. With increased buying activity came a reaction against the immediate commercialization of young artists. According to Ruth Zadka, executive director of the Jerusalem Artists House, this began with the creation of the Sala-Manca Group in 2000 by Lea Mauas and Diego Rotman. "[They] said, 'We don't need to wait for galleries to exhibit us,' and showed young artists that all they need is an idea and drive."
Throughout the decade, alternative spaces, short-term exhibits and performances appeared throughout the country. Young artists came together of their own initiative to open and run galleries as collectives - most notably Barbur in Jerusalem and Darom in Tel Aviv. After the economic crash of 2008, some of the established galleries started following the ways of smaller independent initiatives. In April 2009, the Rosenfeld Gallery had not only hired young curator Sari Golan, whose experience came from alternative exhibits, but had moved to South Tel Aviv's industrial complex of Kiryat Hamelacha, home to many artists' studios.
One institution that put itself on the map in the past decade as one of the country's centers for contemporary art was the Haifa Museum of Art. For Tami Katz Frieman, who has curated at the museum since 2006, the language of art itself has changed over the last decade. She believes it has to do with a larger and more grandiose scale - a showiness related to the artwork's production. She explains that in her exhibits at the museum, she has tried to highlight three central elements she believes relate to recent art: increased emotionality, the use of deception through optical effects/illusions and a strong element of obsessiveness in terms of craft and material. Her most recent show, she says, explores changes in the perception of the body through the grotesque - a notion she also believes relates to the last decade.
Snyder points to a similar overall development in the last decade. "The world changed dramatically in this period," he says, "and many new mediums for artistic expression began to emerge from technology - photography, digital composition and recomposition, DVD and installation - all mediums where Israeli practitioners seemed to exhibit a natural facility, so that their creative production started to set a course as leaders rather than followers worldwide."
ALONGSIDE THIS flurry of international attention, Seligman also finds herself "thinking about the artists who passed away during this decade - the indelible mark that they made on Israeli art and the sense of loss at their passing." She mentions Moshe Kupferman, Raffi Lavie, Lea Nikel, Yehiel Shemi and Gideon Gechtman - artists who matured in a less globalized world and didn't see the kind of international integration that some Israeli artists see today.
And yet, "they were each, in their own way, responsible for the shaping of Israeli art as we understand it today. So much focus is placed on the 'next big thing' when, in fact, we need to reflect and recognize the role played by these great artists in creating an environment ripe for the innovation, creation and artistic exploration necessary for the success of the upcoming generations of Israeli artists."
Zadka reminds us that the "decade started with the second intifada in 2000 and ended with the economic crisis in 2008." Large-scale global terror flourished alongside global economic irresponsibility. "It's a decade of embarrassment - both global and local," says Zadka.
"The art world, like others, becomes more global and fluid," observes Ben-Ami. "A much more difficult and interesting question is whether something of interest has happened in Israeli art in last 10 years. Is something exciting or new happening here?" Zadka is willing to take a chance at an answer: "Art is meant to reveal something beyond what is happening. And unfortunately, I didn't see anything like this in Israeli art."
Perhaps this has to do with the growth of the art scene in every direction - and hence without any single, focused development. Or perhaps the decade passed too quickly, before a signature artistic style could say its piece. Or maybe the question of what happened in the last decade is less relevant than another question: How will the unfolding of the last decade be taken up and used by the artists of the next?