Much ado about not very much

The entire cavernous upper floor of the Cummings Pavilion has been cleverly divided up into 17 rooms of varying sizes and even altitudes. To enter one of them you have to descend a ladder.

negro art 88 298 (photo credit: )
negro art 88 298
(photo credit: )
The nicely named (if not original) Other Rooms, Other Voices at the Israel Museum is much ado about not all that much. But it does give us a good look at the types of installations that have flourished in the curious form of mutual backslapping that has developed between artists who do not paint and museums looking for anything lively enough to attract visitors. The works, by more than two dozen artists, are on loan from the collections of the FRAC - Fonds Regionaux d'Art Contemporain (Regional Contemporary Art Fund of France), which decades ago began purchasing works (over 15,000 so far, by some 3,000 artists) for distribution to French museums. Most, but not all the artists in this selection are French, but nearly all are European (Britain included). The entire cavernous upper floor of the Cummings Pavilion has been cleverly divided up into 17 rooms of varying sizes and even altitudes. To enter one of them you have to descend a ladder (don't bother). The accent is on installations that attack one's sense of perception. However, one room is devoted to very varied works by a number of different artists, curiosities that are expected to entertain in the manner of the 16th-century precursor of the modern museum, the wunderkammer. Many of the works require a suspension of disbelief as you read about the idea behind them. Others were made to order by artisans. Note the take-off on Claes Oldenburg's famous bedroom, a huge, perspective-altering installation in false fur by Sylvie Fleury; or the allegedly hypnotic room of 12 opalescent flashing light fixtures near the entrance, by Angela Bulloch of Canada. Perhaps the most frightening room is the creation of Belgium's Ann Veronica Janssens: MUKHA, Anvers, 1997 which consists of a fog-filled chamber that eliminates your sense of location; the heavy door ensures children cannot enter. If you do get in, stand by the door. Another unsettling, almost frightening experience is Marylene Negro's installation of eight huge inkjet prints of closeup portraits of carefully made-up mannequins with unearthly metal eyelets. The gigantic androids mock our 21st-century taste. This eerie exhibit is one of the best in the show. But many of the exhibits are oddly mild, like the array of ninepins threatened by Alain Sechas' Cat with a Bowling Ball; or the squad of nearly life-size but not life-like policemen by Xavier Veilhan. Equally banal is the breakfast table by America's Joseph Grigely, complete with a copy of The New York Times. The most fascinating exhibit is a vast array of 150 knives and cutting instruments, including hacksaws, assembled by Jean-Jacques Rullier. Each is a masterpiece of efficient design, organically developed over centuries of application. These apparently mundane tools make the rest of the exhibits look prissily unreal. A MISHMASH of a show downstairs is devoted to references to the unseen (or absent) God. Poorly designed, itcontinues a recent Israel Museum tradition of bringing together art and artifacts from widely different periods and places. The extremes: abstract paintings by the late Mark Rothko and parohet (curtains that cover the Ark of the Law). The appropriation of an artist's work to make a tendentious point is not only tasteless, but unfair. Rothko would have squirmed and shrieked bloody murder at being manipulated. Well, just who is this show for? The orthodox will shun it; the unbelievers will dismiss the whole premise. As usual, the exhibit captions are unlit (as are many in the FRAC show). Oddly enough, in the adjoining modern art collection, the captions to the pictures are in bold black lettering on white cards and fully lit. Perhaps I should not mention this. The museum will probably change them too. IN THE lower floor of the Israeli Pavilion is a delightful show of works on paper, portfolios made by 18 very different artists at the Gottesman Etching Center of Kibbutz Cabri. The immediacy of the etchings separates the men and women from the boys and girls. More about this show in our next column.