My Word: Seeing is not believing

Israel Museum exhibition, ArTricks is more bemusing than amusing; journalists, and their children, enjoyed mirror images.

June 13, 2013 21:07
TIM NOBLE and Sue Webster’s ‘Youngman’

TIM NOBLE and Sue Webster’s ‘Youngman’ 370. (photo credit: Blain/Southern Gallery, London)

I couldn’t believe my eyes as I wandered around the Israel Museum’s Youth Wing earlier this week – which was just the point. The Israel Museum’s summertime activities and exhibits for children are based on optical illusions. During a press tour, curator Daniella Shalev pointed out that even when it caters for a younger crowd, the museum is aware that it has to keep the adult visitors who accompany them interested, too.

We were all – children and grownups – more than interested – we were amazed. The exhibition is called ArTricks in English, an obvious play on words. The Hebrew name for the display, “Tatu’im,” means illusions, but with a hint of mocking or darkness.

ArTricks is more bemusing than amusing, but it got me thinking, particularly as I climbed upstairs.

The female journalists didn’t like the stairs as much as their children did, to be honest: The image of your back as you ascend is projected in front of you, giving a new connotation to the concept of hindsight.

Conventional wisdom has it that you should keep your eyes on the goal, but sometimes it might help to know what’s going on behind your back as you believe you’re making progress.

We nearly all enjoyed the elevator that leads nowhere, like Tevye the Milkman’s staircase “going nowhere, just for show” in Fiddler on the Roof.

Indian artist Gigi Scaria’s “Elevator from the Subcontinent” doesn’t go any place, but it serves as a virtual time machine, observing urban growth and the social cost. You get the impression that you’re in a lift and every floor, with the help of a video installation, shows a different level of the caste system.

The higher you get, the closer you come to feeling on top of the world.

It is, of course, an illusion. Or an allusion. The higher you seem to go, the more removed you are from what’s really happening on the ground. A delusion.

Several artists have works in which it is hard to say what is real and what is artificial. “There is a moment when doubt arises,” Shalev noted.

“Illusion enables us to capture a moment that is imperceptible in real time,” as artist Orly Hummel writes in the accompanying explanations, describing her “Tire Swing,” where the viewer doesn’t at first notice the break in the chain links.

One of my favorite exhibits was “Youngman” by British artists Tim Noble and Sue Webster. They have assembled scraps of wood, the debris of carpentry workshops and abandoned planks found elsewhere, and turned them into a sculpture of a boy – visible only as a shadow.

Without the ray of light and the right angle, all you see are the piles of junk – a deliberate socio-environmental statement.

ArTricks has dedicated a large section to the paintings of Dutch artist Maurits Cornelis Escher, whose works Shalev collected from the Israel Museum’s graphics department.

Walking through the Escher section is a little like being Alice in Wonderland. My eyes played tricks and my mind was filled with riddles.

In Escher’s paintings one thing turns into another, often impossibly.

A waterfall activates a wheel before falling; a hand draws a hand drawing a hand; fish turn into birds; and black turns to white – right there, in front of your puzzled eyes.

In one drawing, ants crawl along a figure-of-eight shape, known as a Moebius strip, where the interior and exterior merge, for infinity.

Some of the pictures are the sort of optical illusions based on the blurring of boundaries and juxtaposition of contrasting colors that give the (slightly dizzy making) impression of movement.

“The resolution of the illusion is extremely simple – and yet, the illusion of the eye recurs each time anew,” writes Ra’anan Harlap, whose wooden boxes appear deceptively deep.

Roni Reuveni’s “Still Life” from Fimo (polymer clay) is shocking in another way. At first glance, it seems to be a collection of fruit and vegetables, but by the time I got to that part of the gallery, I knew better than to stop after a first glance. Closer up, it is clear that the inside flesh of the fruit and veg is meat, and the kernels of the corn on the cob are teeth.

“Illusion rouses us and sharpens the senses that misled us in the first place. The moment when we are unable to grasp things and classify them according to our prior knowledge and past experience is a powerful one – one I strive to attain,” explains Reuveni.

A dedicated vegetarian, I believe that if more people were to internalize that schnitzel, veal and sausages are not fruit that grows on trees, far fewer would eat their way through Old MacDonald’s Farm.

Some of the exhibits reminded me of the Hebrew saying favored by politicians – once they’re in office: “Dvarim shero’im mesham lo ro’im mikan,” things we see from there, we don’t see from here.

Tal Amitai-Lavie and Haimi Fenichel prove to be masters of disguise with their shelf full of books, which turn out to be nylon strings.

The journalists, and their children, also enjoyed the mirror images which were illusions: What seems to be a reflection in a mirror is actually superimposed images on glass in Tamar Harpaz’s work. And The Chair, by the late Buky Schwartz, reconstructed by Eyal Rapaport, has only one real chair, but the illusion of two more – with the help of a video camera reflecting the images drawn from the floor.

Talia Keinan’s Untitled (Horse) video installation and sounds demonstrate, (as Shalev pointed out early on in our visit), that we use our eyes more than any other sense to check our reality.

What we feel, what we hear, what we smell, we confirm with our own eyes – even if they can easily be tricked.

Time stands still for no one, particularly not the visitor enjoying a day at the museum. Melik Ohanian’s Trouble Time(s) clock raises the question posed by Shalev: Is it true that the time experienced by those waiting is longer than usual? Certainly, time went fast as we were enjoying ourselves.

It was soon time to visit the bathroom – or at least the life-sized trompe l’oeil by Eran Reshef titled Gates, which seemed to show the entrance to the washroom, sink and soap clearly and realistically visible.

“Illusion in painting was not intended to deceive the eye, but to calm it. The more persuasive the depiction, the easier it is to forget the physical presence of the painting and to immerse ourselves in its immanence,” explains Reshef in the accompanying literature.

My son and I left the museum in good spirits – the visit had a hallucinatory, yet calming, effect. It was as if I had done a neat disappearing trick from my usual news-oriented daytime work.

Back home, I turned on the television to catch up with “the real world.”

Borders blurred. The calm of the museum had served as a pleasant mirage.

Austrian members of the UN peacekeeping mission were pulling out of the Golan Heights, via Israel – scared off by the Syrian civil war; a conference on cyber warfare discussed well-hidden threats; Iran was readying for a pretense of polls; Turkey’s prime minister was claiming to champion human rights; America was discovering the illusion of privacy, or how freely others can see behind our backs as we forge ahead; Waze was being purchased by Google for the extraordinary reported sum of more than $1 billion; and everyone was discussing the ever-elusive peace with the Palestinians.

Since I didn’t know what to believe anymore, I turned the television off and pretended all was well with the world.

The writer is the editor of The International Jerusalem Post.

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