A change of scenery

With an exhibition by artists from the former Soviet Union, director Joshua Simon is injecting new life into the Bat Yam Museum for Contemporary Art

Arcadi Greenman, ‘Diorama’ 370 (photo credit: Lena Gomon)
Arcadi Greenman, ‘Diorama’ 370
(photo credit: Lena Gomon)
Built in 1961 by David Perlstein, the architect responsible for planning most of the town, the Bat Yam Museum for Contemporary Art is an unusual-looking two-tier building-in-the-round, similar in design to a Greek amphitheater. It’s a nice exhibition space.
Last summer, the museum appointed Joshua Simon director and head curator. With a background in curating, writing, film and editing poetry journals Simon is clever, well-informed and has the sort of well-rounded and eclectic intelligence which should serve him well in the position.
Indeed, word on the street has it that he is now the “hot young thing” of the Israeli art scene.
In between assuming directorship and preparations for the latest exhibition, “Cargo Cult,” Simon and his team have organized varied and interesting events and activities.
As well as talks by international artists and curators there have been outdoor film screenings in cooperation with The Third Ear music and film store, a street-art project with the Arab-Jewish Center in Jaffa and a series of filmed dance and theater performances which will be available for viewing on the museum’s soon-to-be-launched website.
Simon was active in the 2011 social protests, and some of this spirit has entered into museum activities. At a tongue-in-cheek event hosted under the banner of a “Pirate Party Convention,” a mock court was established and victims of the Public Housing Authority gave their testimonies throughout the day.
Since 2007 the museum has focused on hosting international group exhibitions of contemporary art. Simon intends to continue this practice, but also envisions the museum as playing a role in the cultural and educational life of the neighborhood and its surrounding communities.
Working in unison with the municipality, the museum has extended its educational activities, under the direction of Meir Tati, to include play-writing workshops for single mothers, which lead to the production and staging of a play dealing with their personal experiences, and art classes for children.
“We see it as our responsibility,” says Simon, “although it is not dependent or conditional on us receiving our budget.
“The average kid in Bat Yam wouldn’t go to see an exhibition,” he continues. Art isn’t part of the core curriculum in Israeli schools, he explains, so “unless you pay an additional fee children can’t attend art classes. With a view to our future audience, we at the museum are asking ourselves: who are we exhibiting for? If you are not exposed to the language and rules of art it makes no sense.”
The activities are meeting with some success in the neighborhood. The recent opening of the museum’s first exhibition under Simon’s direction showcased, among others, a group of artists known as the New Barbizon Group. The five artists have similarities in their approach, style and subject matter. Their informal, realistic, impressionist depictions of Tel Aviv life made them a fitting choice to conduct a painting class given on the museum lawn to people of all ages.
Simon sees this approach as “a part of each show’s curatorial mission. Opening a show is simply the beginning; from there on we are looking to ‘activate’ each show by creating events for audiences that revolve around some of the ideas that crop up in the exhibition.”
Simon invited Max Lomberg, an artist who partnered with Anton Smirnsky to create a work titled Birobidzhan, to curate the first show. The exhibition is titled “Cargo Cult,” which according to the catalogue text is a reference to certain “religious practices that appeared in tribal societies, as a result of their interaction with technologically advanced non-native cultures.”
For the purposes of the exhibition the “cargo cult” theme has been re-imagined in relation to artists from the former Eastern Bloc. In most cases the artists presented either live in Israel or travel back and forth from their country of birth.
Given that some 30 percent of Bat Yam residents are of Russian descent, “Cargo Cult” became a way to tentatively take a look at some of the effects of this cultural intermingling and how the resulting traffic manifests itself in an artistic capacity.
“The network and platform of artists that Max brought with him, and [the] alternate set of cultural references, their strong ties to the Old Country, offered us a totally different perspective on the Russian diaspora,” says Simon.
Visitors to the museum get a hint of the migrant experience in the form of the enormous sign, printed in Cyrillic letters, that greets them at the entrance, for a moment creating a slight feeling of confusion and alienation, typically experienced by any new immigrant when first confronted with a new language.
This is Lomberg’s first curatorial experience and he’s put together a smart and entertaining exhibition, high on absurdist humor. Initially, he says, he was approached by the museum with the suggestion to put on a show centering on the theme of Russian nihilism.
“I had to think about how (or whether) the term would apply to Russian artists working in the local Israeli art scene,” he says. Elaborating on the theme and choice of works, he says, “It was hard for me to define contemporary art in terms of Russian nihilism. There is always a local language (defined by social and folk characteristics, etc.) which becomes dissolved in the universal language of art. Basically we all exist in the same context.
This can however, result in a slightly schizophrenic effect of a little bit of everything.”
Illustrating this concept is a work specially created for the show, by Ivers Gravlejs, titled Shopping Poetry.
Gravlejs creates his works by selecting and purchasing various items from a supermarket with the intention of photographing them, but also wishing to create a kind of rhyming poem from the product names on the accompanying receipt. The photographs are displayed alongside their now framed counterpart, the receipt.
This “low-tech” method of making art occasionally produces setbacks, as Gravlejs has found himself in the position of needing to purchase an item for the sake of the “poem,” but also realizing that said item is too expensive. His solution to the problem is to have the item charged, but then return it, thereby ensuring the appearance of the product name on the receipt.
Noticeable in the exhibition are the varying and disparate styles of the artists. This was intentional on Lomberg’s part.
“I was interested in showing a slightly different artistic process in each of the museum alcoves,” he says. He also refers to how he was struck later on, or “unconsciously driven by the importance, or lack thereof, played by the role over the course of the show of an artwork’s title, in relation to each specific work.”
“In Ivers [Gravlejs’s] case,” he says, “the work is almost made to fit the title. Further on [for example in Andrey Lev’s series of photomontages and drawings, The Baroque Dump], the title coexists with the work, while in Efim Poplavsky’s works the title is significant.
“The further we proceed into the show the less important the title becomes in relation to the work, to the point that it appears irrelevant – it could be there or not, but doesn’t add anything to the work; the image itself is sufficient.”
The importance of a work’s title might seem like a moot point, but Lomberg is refreshingly candid and open about his curatorial thought processes.
He also revealed that while giving tours of the exhibition, he found himself delivering the same lines about the artworks in such a repetitive manner that at a certain point he started questioning himself and his own interpretations, finally asking himself, “Well, is it so?” and, “What led me to choose this work?” The humor and irony of this was not lost on him.
The works in the exhibition are at times as raw as raw gets. Igor Guelman-Zak uses metal staples, molars and insects as well as other materials to construct his intriguing, mixed-media, miniature figures. The figures, housed in plastic boxes, are either solitary or stride in military formation through a detritus-ridden world of overturned jeeps and cars, waste material and a tattered Palestinian flag. A red, neon-lit sign reads “Change” on an adjacent wall.
Exhibited under the pseudonym “Maxim KomarMyshkin” are 10 paintings by Efim Poplavsky, grouped under the title “Astrological Paranoia Series.” The delicately painted stellar constellations in hues of blue, black and white are at odds with the disturbing and edgy titles given the works.
Given the title of the series and paintings with titles such as Sick Jewish Skies, The Last Words of a Murdered Journalist and A Conspiracy, it’s hard not to form an image of a somewhat disturbed mindset; this despite the fact that the works are lovely to look at.
Other visually strong works in the show are Arcadi Greenman’s wonderful diorama, the Kollectiv’s modern take on Michail Grobman’s paintings, highlighted through the use of ultraviolet light, and the Birobidzhan installation, a specially designed construction housing an organ and an old Russian film, the overall effect seeming like a paean to days gone by.
Things look promising for the future of the museum. At present Simon and his team are contemplating future exhibitions and plans are afoot to renovate the adjacent building to display exhibitions from the permanent collection.
This comprises almost a thousand works and includes Israeli modernist painters and sculptors such as Issachar Ber Ryback and Yaacov Epstein, as well as the estate of Sholem Asch, containing works by Modigliani and Chagall.
“What’s very exciting about this is that the people of Bat Yam don’t know about it, they don’t know about the estate and its collection,” says Simon.