From limited to expansive

The small spaces available during the Israel Museum's major architectural overhaul are forcing curators to find novel ways to exhibit

clay man 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
clay man 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It's not every day that a museum mixes it all up. Museums tend to be conservative, with very specific classification systems that help determine how works are displayed, generally by technique, period and origin. Rarely is a Peruvian antiquity, for example, displayed with a contemporary Peruvian painting to show references and relationships. Even more seldom will an encyclopedic museum pull together works from every department from now and then and here and there for an exhibition. The Israel Museum's "Secrets and Ties" exhibition on connections between works of diverse cultures and eras (opened July 25) has a little bit of everything - antiquities, ethnography and Judaica, and photographs, videos, paintings, sculptures and installations from North and South America, Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Its curator, David Ibgui, is hoping that the juxtaposition of 38 seminal works from the museum's vast holdings will be provocative to the viewer, inviting interaction and questions about what the artists and the people they represent have in common. The exhibition is kicking off a series that will combine ancient to contemporary works from various cultures to highlight unusual connections. "The minute you take barriers down something magical happens," Ibgui says. At the show's entrance, an unsuspected powwow is in session among a cross-legged pre-Columbian figure with a jaguar coming through his stomach used for burning incense; a 1944 Max Ernst bronze of humanized chess players as pawns by the animal-like king; an Israeli sandstone sculpture of a froggy-looking Nimrod hunter with a falcon; and an Ephraim Moses Lilien art nouveau allegorical painting about returning to Zion. In the works, says Ibgui, are questions about how man and his society have traditionally defined identity, seen through symbols of creation and destruction, animism and the relationship between past and future. To give viewers a modest clue about how to make such intellectual leaps, the sections are loosely separated by themes of identity, memory, being, forces and forms. In the latter, for example, similar geometric forms are found in a Jericho/Transjordan Beduin dress symbolizing marriage and prosperity from the early to mid-20th century and in fertility figurines from the Beersheba region dating to 3500-4500 BCE. Despite giving areas subject matters, another hope for the show is to demote the powerful position of the museum curator in controlling the way people see art in museums through the linear arrangement of works according to labels and categories. "We try to mediate between the viewer and the museum space. Here it's a democracy; the viewer and the curator are on the same ground," Ibgui says. "The visitor is invited to be an active observer, to create new connections and to charge them with personal interpretations and meanings." Some associations are easier to make than others. Circling around the sections holding a Picasso image of his own shadow cast over his former lover; ancient Egyptian urns; a 1925 Elijah's chair; a Sophie Calle photograph of her ex-lover's bathrobe; an Andre Serrano photograph alluding to the Last Supper; and an installation altar with lights illuminating fuzzy photos of Jewish schoolchildren in 1931 Vienna, there is an echo of longing for the past, memories fading, and objects, bodies and ideas decaying. Originally there were dividers between sections, until the curator and exhibition designer Ido Bruno realized that more connections were coming to light, between distant sections as well, when the walls came down. Beyond the possible associations in imagery or ideas among the disparate works, viewers may simply enjoy taking a second look at many of the diverse, influential or beautiful works coming up for air from storage, like a bronze Giacometti sculpture, an Escobar Marisol sculptural assemblage of the Kennedy family, Rubens's Death of Adonis or a South African ceremonial doll. The lighting is unusually dim in areas, while a gong echoes softly in the background, a decision the organizers made to help encourage a feeling of meditation and contemplation. THIS CONCEPT for exhibiting works grew out of a logistic challenge. At the height of a $100 million redesign and expansion, the museum has had to make the best use of its available exhibition space and its 500,000-plus works, from prehistoric antiquities to contemporary art, while the overhaul is under way on most of the grounds. While the series is a solution to a major space crunch and a way to rotate important works from the permanent collection for viewing, it is also certainly a larger metaphor for walls coming down, both in the larger art world and especially at the museum itself. The major design changes going on are not a rebellion against the old times or against chief architect Alfred Mansfield, who designed the museum's sprawling campus. Slow growing and evolving interiors and exteriors were, in fact, part of Mansfield's vision, when he laid down the 88-dunam (22-acre) site in 1965. Together with interior designer Dora Gad and designer of the sculpture garden Isamu Noguchi, he designed the spaces to grow organically. Through the prism of modernism, they imagined the campus as another village on a rocky Mediterranean hillside, with low-rise geometric stone buildings and gardens built along a grid of retaining walls. Like all such villages, rooms and plots would be added and changed accordingly with the times. Four decades later, as the museum embarked on its most major renovation and expansion since its founding, the cubist pavilions had already grown from 5,000 sq.m. to 50,000, and New-York-based architect James Carpenter was hired to add another 8,000 sq.m. Efrat-Kowalsky Architects, which specializes in early Israeli modernist architecture, is redesigning 17,000 sq.m. of internal gallery space. The museum understood, of course, that it would have to close large sections during the ambitious three-year plan, while continuing exhibitions to the public. Despite the smaller number of open galleries, and an occasional crane, monthly attendance is at its highest since 2000, before the intifada, when tourism to Jerusalem stalled. The challenge of choosing which works to display and how, in limited space, led to the idea of putting disparate pieces together in "an unconventional and surprising meeting which can [illuminate] different aspects of each other," says Ibgui. The next in the series on connections among works across cultures and eras, "Bizarre Perfection," opening in December, will focus on masterful techniques. Beyond the aspects of each work, there is also the discovery of common themes and questions in humanity, that transverse nationhood, religion and era, Ibgui says. "[You discover that] man is a man is a man; an artist is an artist is an artist." "Secrets and Ties" is on exhibition in the Israel Museum Youth Wing through November.