Impossible encounters

Controversial curator Doron Rabina, recently appointed head of the esteemed Hamidrasha School of Art, plans to inject some drama into the program.

Doron Rabina 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Doron Rabina 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Regardless of whether he is making a work of art, curating an exhibit, writing a text or teaching a course, Doron Rabina is constantly trying to bring about a deep, real, intimate encounter between himself and someone different from him. "When I work," explains Rabina, 38, who was recently appointed to succeed Yair Garbuz as the head of Hamidrasha School of Art at Beit Berl College, "I first try to create a very intimate, autobiographical act in the culture, which I then intersect in a political or social context." He gives as an example a large-scale project called Engelmann from last September's Art TLV project in Tel Aviv's Rehov Nahalat Binyamin. The project was a collaboration with philosopher Nimrod Matan in which the two investigated the little-known personality of Paul Engelmann, a Moravian-born architect who studied under Adolf Loos in Vienna and was a close friend of Ludwig Wittgenstein's. Engelmann had come to Tel Aviv in the 1930s, and though he is virtually unknown in Israel, he is known abroad for creating the initial sketches of the house he would eventually design in collaboration with Wittgenstein for Wittgenstein's sister. Just as Engelmann collaborated with Wittgenstein, so Rabina worked with Matan to create a series of Engelmann-related objects and spaces - window bars, a decorative barber shop that offered free haircuts for immigrant workers, a video work in which three young men wash a car in the nude, a "problematic and colonialist" request to three video artists to "bring me a black man," and floor plans that superimposed Engelmann's design of Wittgenstein's sister's house in Vienna with the layout of his own apartment on Rehov Ahad Ha'am. Their heavy research also resulted in the publication of a book on Engelmann. Speaking about the project's disparate elements, Rabina explains that he was "trying to deal with the concept of impossible encounters - between an unknown architect and the Israeli public, between immigrant workers and Israeli hairdressers." He believes that he can create a relevant perspective on culture if he sees it from a personal, even physical, point of view. "I try to deal with things that personally excite me, that are relevant to a specific moment I'm in, and in this way to say something relevant to others." FOR THE last eight years, in addition to creating and exhibiting his own artwork, Rabina has been curator of Hamidrasha Gallery in Tel Aviv, where he has just opened his 51st show. As he does with his art, he approaches curating as a chance for an encounter. He explains that he is not interested in the traditional way of looking at a curator - as an investigator or historian, someone who has an objective, cold, functional perspective, who looks down on culture from above. "I want to push the subjective aspect, the relative point of view," he says. "To make it clear there's a subject who is looking at the theme, to not forget for a moment that it's full of autobiographic or even erotic aspects." His curatorial work at the gallery included many exhibits that were both politically and morally controversial. Last year, Rabina curated a show at the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art titled "Eventually We'll Die - Young Art in Israel of the '90s," which was part of a countrywide series of exhibits exploring the six decades of art since the founding of the state. "I looked at the decade through a death-fear," he explains of the curatorial effort that centered on a period when he was making his name as an artist. It gave him a second chance to look closely at his colleagues, he says, and he was repeatedly impressed by the artists of his decade. "Still, while looking at it from this personal aspect, I was also interested in something general - the idea of catastrophe, of the last decade of both a century and a millennium, the concept of death as 'end.'" Currently, he is curating an exhibit called "Behind Guilt" for this year's TINA B, the Prague Contemporary Arts Festival. It deals with guilt as a productive urge, combining the concept of political art with imagination and originality - looking at political art not as an activist's responsibility, but as an urge or emotional need, something that creates ideas and invents shapes. "When I'm curating," he says, "even if it's a big historical, national, or international show, I keep it [a] private and intimate act." In his art as in his other activities, Rabina takes his urge for the intimate act, and repeatedly turns it out to a public he wishes to engage. For him, the biggest part of becoming the head of an art school is to become actively involved in a larger cultural process, to have an influence over art through educating young artists. "When I was first offered to apply for the position, I laughed," he admits. "It seemed like nothing that had to do with my way of life." As a curator he'd always worked with institutions, and liked doing things things he considered radical within the establishment. "For me, it was always more interesting to work not in fringe spaces, but to create my own specific narrative in a place where people will see it. To stand on a platform which has a foundation." He sees becoming the head of a department as a creative challenge to fulfill his vision in a more responsible and generous way, because as a teacher one's first obligation is giving. "I wanted to make my life more interesting, and to do this I have to make the lives of the students and professors more exciting and interesting too." THOUGH HE only takes his new post in October, at which point he will relinquish his position as gallery curator, he has already met with the professors and told them that they deserve new interests. "I'd like to develop new projects that deal with the ideological architecture of Hamidrasha," he says. One of his ideas is to build a small museum space that'll deal not with the history of art but with the history of exhibitions. He'd also like to institute a monthly round-table forum where students and professors will deal with intellectual and artistic questions, bring the magic that often happens behind closed classroom doors into the open dialogue of the art school at large. Finally, he plans to create an ambitious Web project that would an on-line art archive as well as Internet television. The larger aim is so to reawaken the art school, to introduce challenges, to create some "drama" - anything from having new thoughts to seeing things from other points of view. "Reality can sometimes force your EKG down," he says, "and objective facts make it hard to fulfill fantasies in life. I want to make that line jump." Rabina has shown both here and abroad. He himself studied at Hamidrasha, where he started out as a painter. At that time, he created simple graphic works that had a logo-like quality - direct, clear, flat images. "As a painter, I used to deal with the many ways that the body paints," he says. This included the painting of a blue T-shirt with sweat stains around the armpits, the only work of his that he included in the "Eventually We'll Die" show. After painting, he moved slowly on to photography, then video and installation, and eventually sculpture. In most of his works there's an essential connection to sexuality, body and homoeroticism - though never in the direct use of the image of a body, always in a metaphorical or referential way. In one piece, he painted half of a shoehorn black in such a way that, hung on the wall, it looked like a tie - "a way of connecting the whole body through the foot and neck." In 2004, Rabina had a large exhibit in the Bienal de São Paulo in Brazil. One of the large room's walls was covered completely by a vertical venetian blind behind which he had affixed 200 white neon bulbs. "It made the exhibit space into a sort of light-box, and all the sculptures became silhouettes, flattening them from three-dimensional to two-dimensional objects." The effect relates to a deeper contemplation about the function of an artist - an embarrassment about the artist's way of communicating indirectly with the viewer through the art object. "It's something I see as a vulgar need: to transfer metaphysical ideas, which are sometimes not even complete, into an object in three dimensions. It's something I never felt comfortable with. To be a breeder of objects." TO CHALLENGE this aspect of art making, he began to deal with this in the hardest, most physical medium - sculpture. "All my sculptures have a nonphysical, non-sculptural presence," he says, explaining that he tries to focus less on the shape or form than on the physical object's way of working optically - shining or glimmering or steaming. He's interested less in the way an object looks that in the way it functions in a space. "It all has to do with [French novelist, essayist and political activist] Jean Genet's attitude toward darkness and mystery," explains Rabina. "When I was younger, I used to say about my art: I want to create a mystery under a spotlight." He didn't like the romantic way of looking at art or homosexuality as something mysterious because it was dark, unclear, vague. Rather, he wanted to create very clear images that appeared quickly and directly, and for their mystery to develop later. As he says referring to one of his sculptures, to capture the "essence of night surrounded by light."