Going overground

Underground Tel Aviv artists flirt with the mainstream but stay true to their roots.

herzl art 88 298 (photo credit: )
herzl art 88 298
(photo credit: )
It's hard - and rare - to become a successful artist. The art world is notorious for superficial allegiances, cruel snap impressions and tales of miraculous transitions from anonymity to art world stardom, often after the artist's death. In the past decade, Israeli artists have managed to make their way into established museums and galleries along unconventional routes. So-called "alternative galleries" have also gained popularity among wealthy art collectors. Yet even once they touch the top of their field, it's possible for some artists and gallerists to hold onto the idealistic values of the "underground" and their ties to friends who might still be there. Many curators, collectors and fellow artists are attracted to those who seem authentic - fresh artists who are not yet jaded or people who are determined not to sell out. A special aura surrounds talented artists who are solid human beings, especially when they're secure or aloof enough to continue their work regardless of popular opinion. On a recent Thursday night, the Saloona bar in Jaffa sparkled with this special energy. The place was full of young and forever-young people hailing from the worlds of art, design and underground music. It was a bubbly atmosphere full of champagne, upbeat music and the shimmer of designer Roy Roth's giant loofa chandelier. Yet the real reason for the positive energy that evening was the launch of Ido Shemi's Art in a Box project. For one night only, Shemi installed about a dozen of his sculptures, collages, drawings and ephemera into the already stimulating environment. The works were not for sale and everyone knew the art was just up for the party, so the mood was pure fun without the usual art world business. Shemi's main gig nowadays is art, but he doesn't come from that world and is not eager to join it. He's self-taught - what politically correct art historians call an "outsider artist" - and it shows. His art, informed by street culture and his free-spirited life experiences, lacks the esthetic refinement achieved by spending years in art school. This artist's work is raw, silly and personal, yet reflects a profound understanding of the human condition. You either get it or think it is fluff. In fact, many mainstream art people respect Shemi but don't take his work very seriously. One Tel Aviv gallerist who has exhibited in alternative art fairs all over the world says, "Ido is a fascinating human being but no, I don't like his work." The artist's background definitely adds to his appeal and accounts for the grand turnout of what Shemi terms "positive supporters" at Saloona. Before he decided to focus on his art, Shemi gained fame among Tel Aviv hipsters through his legendary nightclub Dinamo Dvash (1995 - 2002). He originally wanted to study photography, but the former kibbutznik could not afford the studies so he started to work as a barman. Determined to make pictures, he bought a camera, built a dark room, and in 1991 had an exhibition of his photo-collages in a Tel Aviv bar-caf called Hasifria. Critics called his work "decoration," an especially derogatory term for fine art in Israel at the time. This was Shemi's first bitter taste of art world politics. According to the artist, there was a personal conflict between the newspaper and the exhibition's curator, hence the negative reviews. Feeling the arbitrary bite of art criticism, Shemi decided to go back to working underground and poured his energy into Dinamo Dvash. Without financial backers and the guidance that investors sometimes bring, Shemi and his partner gutted and decorated Dinamo Dvash with their own four hands. For seven years the club was the "It" place in town and the first of a now-ubiquitous species in Israel: the D.J. bar. Back when it was common for bar managers to pop in a cassette and forget about the music until it needed to be flipped, Dinamo Dvash hosted a different D.J. every night. The musical genres were diverse - ska, hip-hop, drum-and-bass, punk - but always fresh, and a community of Dinamo Dvash regulars grew. The club occasionally hosted D.J.'s from abroad, and enthusiastic descriptions spread throughout the underground club scene in Europe. In 2001, Dinamo Dvash was featured in a book entitled Club Spotting 0.2, showcasing five of the top night spots around the world produced by the Italian design collective Delicatessen. While Shemi achieved prom king-like status in his own club, he was still a nobody to the art world north of Sderot Rothschild. Meanwhile, Shemi's close friend artist Eliezer Sonnenschein was busy making himself known to the establishment through guerrilla tactics and unauthorized exhibitions, most notably at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Sonnenschein, unlike Shemi, had attended the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem where he studied graphic design, which did not position him well for a career as a fine artist. Without important friends or teachers to work as his advocates, Sonnenschein decided to pull pranks on the museum or, as his gallerist Irit Sommer says, "illegally infiltrate" it. In the 1990s, Sonnenschein overrode the museum's protocol by calling the registrar and pretending to be a curator. For the opening of the 1998 Phoenix Collection exhibition - a ritzy event guests entered via a red carpet - Sonnenschein installed without permission a series of plaster camera sculptures to harass the guests like paparazzi. His work was the uninvited guest everyone noticed before they entered the actual show. These and other more subversive acts are now appreciated as performance art by some of those curators who did not originally want to work with Sonnenschein. In 2001, Swiss curator Harald Szeemann chose Sonnenschein to participate in the international section of the Venice Biennale, the contemporary art exhibition held every second year in Italy. Sonnenschein's piece depicted the hierarchy of the art world and functioned as a map to work oneself up the art world's political ladder, using recognizable symbols and icons. By this point, the artist could no longer be considered underground, but his work continued to critique the art establishment. Ori Desau, an independent curator who is working on a show at the Tel Aviv Museum, believes that Israeli arts institutions today "know how to react" and that underground local artists are quickly absorbed into the mainstream. Yet Sonnenschein continued his bad boy antics for years before the Tel Aviv Museum finally invited him to install his work inside its official gallery space in 2002. That year, the Israeli art world also began to recognize Sonnenschein's friend. In 2002, Shemi experienced the epiphany of the "Lucky Shirt" he refers to in his autobiographical work Promised Land Adventures. In a moment of dramatic self-belief, he gave away his share of the successful Dinamo Dvash club to devote himself to his artwork. Then the artist met a mysterious woman - he calls her "my Madonna of the underdog" - who fell in love with his work and decided to promote it among her collector friends. But Shemi's biggest break came thanks to an act of radical brotherhood: Sonnenschein decided to give Shemi the central space within his first official Tel Aviv Museum show. Sonnenschein's paintings were on the walls, while Shemi installed a giant maze constructed of hundreds of cardboard boxes painted red. The work was called "Welcome to the Right Hemisphere of the Brain of the Fantazist (sic)." Viewers were forced to wander through the maze, stumbling upon Shemi's "sacred trophy" sculptures, texts, drawings and sound installations along the way, as a soccer-based metaphor for his own pseudo-spiritual quest. Critics wrote gushingly about the exhibition, but Shemi was not invited to exhibit anywhere for another two years. Shemi continued making art, despite the fact that he could not afford to rent a studio. He would build his sculptures on the floor of his apartment and clean everything up before picking his son up from kindergarten. Then a surprising thing happened. The Alon Segev Gallery - one of the most uptown mentality galleries popular among wealthy, established collectors from Israel and abroad - offered Shemi a show. "Here comes the Messiyah's (sic) Sound System" was installed in the gallery in August 2004. Segev recalls seeing the artist's acrylic-on-papier-mach sculptures in his studio and being struck by his unusual technique and sense of humor. Plus, Segev says, "I never saw an artist so obsessed with soccer." According to Shemi, every work from the Messiyah's Sound System was sold to top Israeli businesspeople two days before the exhibition opened. After the exhibition, Shemi says that Segev offered him a contract binding him as one of the artists the gallery exclusively represents. For many artists, striking a deal with Segev would be considered a major breakthrough, a signal that an artist has arrived and matters to the art world's institutions. Yet according to Shemi, "Each gallery has 20 artists they use and abuse. An independent artist is an artist in limbo… I don't mind cooperating on one project but I don't want someone to be my boss, to sell my work and never know how much it went for." Shemi calls the gallery system "bullshit Babylon stuff," Babylon being the counterculture term for everything that's evil about Western culture. "Ido and I worked together for a year and it just didn't work out. He's an interesting artist," says Segev, diplomatically. While Shemi and Sonnenschein could be considered anti-establishment artists - albeit in different ways - the latest alternative galleries consciously aim to create a more comfortable experience for artists. Last September, Eldad Barnoon and Simon Ben-Shabat opened the Raw Art gallery in the rundown south Tel Aviv neighborhood of Neve Sha'anan. According to Raw Art's official statement, the gallery aims to "create a lively, dynamic exhibition space, one that will enable its artists to work in a supportive and encouraging environment, thus creating an atmosphere of togetherness and familiarity." While the gallery is new, Ben-Shabat has been tangentially involved with the local art scene for decades through his Tel Aviv frame shop Pe'er that also functions as a non-traditional gallery. Through his business, Ben-Shabat became close to young artists, bartered with them over their frames, and developed his own collection of contemporary local art. Ben-Shabat is an unusual kind of collector. While some people start buying art once they've crossed into a certain financial bracket, he began collecting art as a result of joining a certain social scene. So it's not surprising that Ben-Shabat and Barnoon have an open-minded vision for Raw Art. They looked in south Tel Aviv neighborhoods where struggling artists live, not in the center or north of Tel Aviv where the established galleries and collectors are. To cover the costs of a second-floor gallery space, they decided to operate a bar on the ground floor. As a result, the gallery does not operate according to a typical schedule - it's open at night when the bar is open, which forces viewers to see art at an hour and in a location that breaks with the usual routine. The art is not typical, either. One Raw Art project, Christodoulos Panayiotou's 48-hour "Slow Dance Marathon" that took place in Rabin Square in April, is not the kind of event that galleries tend to sponsor. Raw Art was the major backer of this Cypriot artist's performance, which recreated adolescent awkwardness on stage to the accompaniment of love songs from the 1980s and 1990s. The event was a self-conscious celebration of sentimentality - an odd way to highlight the uncool yet beautifully human core within each participant. It was an emotional event full of spontaneous hugs among the crowd. Participants were surprised by how intense the experience was and said things like "It felt like being with a boy for the first time" and "after a half hour of dancing like that, the only thing to do is get married." The fact that Panayiotou's Slow Dance Marathon was Raw Art's first high-profile event says a lot about the gallery's ambitions. The gallery intends to show fresh art that affects people on an authentic emotional level, even if it's not fully appreciated across the mainstream art world. Asked if the Slow Dance Marathon was a smart investment for the gallery, Ben-Shabat shrugged a loaded smile. Since Raw Art does not conform to established trends of what's known to be lucrative, the gallery could truly become an avant-garde presenter of new art. If the quality of the art matches the organizers' intentions, it just might be possible. Raw Art is endeavoring to create the space to realize this dream. Sometime soon, Ben-Shabbat and Barnoon will open a third gallery space with pristine white walls, a slate black floor and excellent lighting, video and sound systems. By contemporary art world standards, the interior of Raw Art's new gallery is elegant and well proportioned, but its exterior is not as polished. From outside, the gallery is visually lost within a mammoth building in a rugged neighborhood near Rehov Shocken. The tough fa ade enhances the gallery's identity as a mediator between the underground and mainstream art worlds, especially once visitors realize the gallery's unassuming inner quality. Raw Art might offer artists a way to sell their work without selling out, but Ido Shemi seems content with his own, independent system. Shemi simply invites collectors to his studio in Florentine and allows them to see his artwork. Sometimes they buy, but Shemi insists, "The main thing is activity, hard work, believing and modesty." Perhaps this kind of attitude sums up what it means to be alternative.