Growing Pains

Exhibition by Zadok Ben David spans death and life, logic and emotion, structure and nature, via a single, overarching metaphor - humanity.

Full Circle (photo credit: Gene Ogami)
Full Circle
(photo credit: Gene Ogami)
Visitors to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art last week were lined up in a queue extending to the lobby of the museum, all in order to catch a glimpse of Israeli artist Zadok Ben David's latest work. The installation, part of the exhibit Human Nature, currently on display through the end of February, presents over 20,000 steel cutouts of plants and flowers in two entirely different ways.
Upon entry into the hall, the line of guests was greeted with a bed of sand housing thousands of tiny black steel plants. But as the crowd rotated the room, the mood wasn't the only thing shifting, the colors on the flowers were changing as well. From one side of the room the paper-thin pieces were black, dark, and consuming. Yet from the opposite side, they were gem tones of colorful hues of life.
The installation, titled Blackfield, is one section of a two-part exhibit, which spans two halls and also includes a series of large single standing steel- and aluminum-cut sculptures representing bodies in the image of foliage, and trees whose leaves and boughs offer a silhouette of human life.
"Human Nature is the result of my artwork, which has been evolving around the human figure for the past 50 years," Ben David told The Jerusalem Post. "We can see a relationship - between something very natural and something very well-designed - that almost suffocates nature and shows the clash between logic and emotion in different cultures."
BEN DAVID, who was born in Yemen in 1949 and immigrated to Israel in the same year, developed the concept out of a previous project for Yad Vashem and a long-standing interest in the contrast between nature and structure, with humanity as an overarching metaphor for both.
"About four or five years ago, Yad Vashem approached me to make something commemorating the Partisans, the people who fought the Nazis from the forests, and I singled out one tree, which seen from one side looks like an ordinary tree, but when you come closer you start to see hundreds of figures - from the ground to the branches - of men, women and children, and that's where it started," he said.
"Immediately after that I went in the opposite direction, which for me meant making human figures with trees inside, rather than a tree making up the people... In many ways I'm coming full circle and working on a relationship that's more in harmony with nature, and this is the way I see it."
The Tel Aviv installation, however, came out of a desire to present an entirely different message. The 20,000 plants now all stand together over 140 square meters in Tel Aviv after scaled down versions were presented by Ben David in Portugal, London, Sidney, and Seoul.
"Blackfield takes a slightly different approach. It also has to do with natural images but in many ways, unlike in my other work, the human aspect is almost invisible," Ben David explained.
"On a more psychological and emotional level, when you enter you see a burned forest or something very disappointing or depressing. But when you walk around you gradually see how things change, and when you reach the other end you see that there is a future to everything... I see the black side as a starting point but definitely not an ending point. This piece is about life and death and carries great optimism."
Still, Ben David maintains he doesn't want to force any kind of response from guests - except the natural kind, of course. "Every person gets it according to his or her own life and experience."
FOR ONE visitor, Ben David recalled, the exhibition proved to be particularly wrenching. "A young woman in her early thirties approached me and told me she was really deeply affected by it, and started crying because her husband had died a few months before," he says. "I'm sure she saw it in the contrast; in the dark side, which was very, very dark, and then the bright side, which is hugely optimistic and futuristic, and that clash brought her to tears. So it's not that I expect people to go there and cry but I do expect people to go there and feel something - all according to where they are in life."
The exhibit comes at a time when the career of Ben David, 60, is already well established. He studied at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem 40 years ago, before continuing his advanced sculpture education at St. Martin's School of Art in London, where he later went on to teach. He now calls London home.
"In the late '70s, when I opened my own studio, I really had to think about my vision as an artist in England and the place I come from - questions of identity, and I started to see things I didn't notice before," he said. "At the time, I was working on abstract forms and sculptures, and seeing images such as trees planted in huge concrete pots instead of in the ground really penetrated and affected me in many ways."
Other professional highlights in Ben David's career included representing Israel in the 1988 Venice Biennale, and numerous awards, among them the Grande Biennial Prémio of Cerveira in Portugal in 2007 and the Tel Aviv Museum prize for sculpture in 2005. His largest solo show to date was at the Guangdong Art Museum in Guangzhou, China in spring of 2007, after which he was commissioned to create a sculpture for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
After Tel Aviv, the pieces in Human Nature will be split up and sent to various cities in Italy and Asia. But for now, and through the end of next month, visitors to Tel Aviv can take a look at Ben David's work in full as it stands in his homeland.