Step into now

Six major museums are each exploring a decade of Israeli art in celebration of the country's 60th. A look at the Israel Museum's take on 1998-2008.

landscape paint 88 224 (photo credit: Israel Museum)
landscape paint 88 224
(photo credit: Israel Museum)
Choosing artists and their creative works to represent a decade is like having only a few words to sum up 10 years of life. Where does one begin: With the visual trends that marked the era? The current events? Or with a theme? "Real Time: Sixty Years of Art in Israel (1998-2008)" which opened on April 29 at Jerusalem's Israel Museum, has posed a reply to the question of what is the recent Israeli experience and how has Israeli art changed in response. The Israel Museum is the first of six museums to celebrate a decade each of Israeli art since the founding of the state. The other participating museums are the Museum of Art at Ein Harod (1948-58), the Ashdod Art Museum (1958-68), the Tel Aviv Museum of Art (1968-78), Haifa Museum of Art (1978-88) and the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art (1988-98). First impressions of the opening exhibition reveal that painterly and abstract painting is dead; video, technology and figurative images are in; and, most of all, Israelis are restless. They are fearful that they are on a path leading to doom, they criticize, they run away, they dream in images of fantasy, mythology and science fiction. That the artists might be described as anxious in a decade punctuated by tragedy and impotence - the Palestinian uprising, the September 11 terror attacks, a war with Lebanon, the crash of the Columbia space shuttle with Israel's first astronaut Ilan Ramon, the prime minister falling into a coma, the prospect of war with Iraq and Iran and too many governmental scandals to count - is not totally unexpected. But if the gallery environment sounds tense, it's not. Israelis, it seems, despite anxiety, still have their humor. Video artist Boaz Arad has filmed himself with a chicken on his head. The chicken seems content to look around, like a child in a playpen, though he occasionally slips on Arad's bald skin. Will he fall? Peck? Poo? Will Arad be able to trust the chicken not to? Which one has the real power? Doron Solomons has also filmed himself, though not with live props. His shopping expedition chronicles a collage of global product overwhelm that explodes into a visual and audio crescendo finale. In the video Freeze, shot at the museum's Shrine of the Book especially for the show, Shahar Marcus pays homage to the War Scroll housed there, describing the sons of darkness battling with the sons of light. His grand-scale, black-and-white chessboard is fitted with sculpted ice pieces, rapidly melting. In the background a clear, hourglass timer displays the artist upside down. Is there enough time to play the game? While the video attitudes span from slapstick to cynical, one of the more somber videos that will likely strike a familiar chord with Jewish Israelis is the Yael Bartana work that films the Remembrance Day siren and moment of silence of drivers stopping on a Tel Aviv highway. Playing with time sequencing, the moment is captured in a slow motion that gives a feeling of being stuck in time, no doubt an intended metaphor. Photographer Barry Frydlender also plays with time sequencing and the local scene in his image of a Tel Aviv street. AT LEAST one-fourth of the 60-odd works are video and interactive installations, a testament to the transformation of medium and technology used by artists here and around the world in recent years. These works are not interactive like those in a science museum, in that there is nothing to touch and no buttons to press. But the environment is not static: The viewer engages with the work by walking inside or around the installations, being hit by flashing lights, by throwing shadows, or by transforming the perspective of the work by choosing to observe from beneath or above. Nira Pereg's Canicule creates an atypical two-sided triptych with screens reflecting underprivileged neighbors in the outskirts of Paris, enjoying sprinklers in the infamous Dog Day heatwave of 2003. Superimposed images of acidic-looking rain in slow motion allude to global warming. For the exhibition, Erez Israeli has sculpted and strewn a space with concrete masked heads, inviting the viewer to come face-to-face, or rather head-to-head, with the dismembered body parts. Are they terrorists? Ku Klux Klan members? Ancients or moderns? Are they the proverbial them? Or us? Much of the exhibition space was also created and designed around the selected works. Towering over the other oversized pieces at six meters high, Ohad Meromi's Boy from South Tel Aviv can be seen from different rooms and levels, and through a specially created window for face-to-face viewing that is ordinarily impossible with such large statues. An iconic African-looking figure made largely of Styrofoam, the coffee-colored boy actually represents migrant workers in poor South Tel Aviv. The work was originally created for the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, calling the yuppie upper middle class of central Tel Aviv to engage with the issues of the people on the street. A glass encasement was also built to house the apocalyptic installation by Gal Weinstein, selected to create a site-specific work. Red felt roofs peek out from faux volcanic ash, but the ash glitters in a way that makes it at once a symbol of destruction and of glamour. A cotton puff of smoke rising from the ashes seems to make the same double-entendre. The Pompeii-like imagery may reference the museum's own efforts to draw connections between all visual images created from antiquities until modernity. But many of the works are not implicitly critical and waiting for the sky to fall. Some even focus exclusively on the escape into the form of beauty. Masha Zusman's oversized flower drawing was made one painstaking mark at a time with ballpoint pen on packaging plywood, rendering a texture as unique and savory as something one might find in nature. Maya Attoun creates a wallpaper that at first glance is a sensual yet fantastic landscape, though it seems to be ridden with luminous fungus-shaped figures, raising questions about the difference between what is considered beautiful and ugly. Such artists were chosen in part to reflect the growing acceptability in recent years in the art canon of working in styles that are aesthetic and not definitively conceptual. In other words, pretty is cool again, after a long respite. The return of realism, figurative and narrative art is also in play, such as the realistic portrait by Aram Gershuni of his father, abstract expressionist Moshe Gershuni. "Exhibiting Aram's painting of his father in a show that deals with the new trends in Israeli art does two things," explains the show's co-curator, Amitai Mendelsohn, the museum's Israeli art curator. "It recognizes the emergence of realist painting, and it reminds one of an important figure in Israeli art - a kind of father-like image. He is looking at the young art in the show with an authoritative gaze. His red jacket and overall attitude makes him look a bit like a cardinal or a religious authority which also connects him to the surrounding works." Indeed, hanging beside the painting is undoubtedly the most world famous Israeli photograph, which also references early generations of art and religious figures: Adi Nes's untitled work was inspired by Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper, but depicts Israeli soldiers in lieu of the disciples of Christ. MENDELSOHN AND guest curator Efrat Natan considered the works of contemporary Israeli artists living locally or abroad, outside of any consideration to gender, race, religion or orientation. They spent 10 months honing the list and meeting with artists in their studios and on-site. The fact that there is only one Arab in the show is also, arguably, the result of the social, economic and political factors affecting the status of artists in the Arab community, who have less access to training, funding and exhibition, and who do not always identify with Israeli movements or institutions. Haifa painter Sharif Waked's allegorical work, part of the museum's permanent collection, is placed prominently by the entrance. In a series of graphic paintings referring to images from the eighth-century Hisham Palace mosaic in Jericho of a lion and stag, the animals fight in the successive works until they slowly roll into each other and become one figure. Despite the political undertones, the images are more playful and illustrative than heavy. Eliezer Sonnenschein's Landscape and Jerusalem is also playful though apocalyptic. The sumptuous, festive, carnival of images, colors, metaphors, and references to Jerusalem through the ages and its beauty, mythology and catastrophe recalls The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch. Sigalit Landau's giant and eerie installation is a bit like walking into Sonnenschein's painting in person. There may even be an "Oh, how Lord of the Rings," moment. Landau originally sculpted from papier mache the three haunting figures and looming towers to resemble meat for an exhibition in Berlin that dealt with issues of consumption. Today in Jerusalem, the artist, who currently has a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, says the pieces are even more relevant. Some of the images of raw flesh came into focus for Landau when she was watching the news after the slate of terror attacks early in the intifada, and saw the Zaka volunteers collecting bits of flesh for burial. Her figures look like the skin has been removed to reveal the inner musculature. One sculpted tower plays with the image of the renowned Brancusi Endless Column (1938) sculpture, by having a figure hack away at segments of the tower and its perpetuity. Another figure battles with an "Iranian" atomic cloud, she says, while a third works on a futuristic looking flower. Though the exhibition theme may be one of anxiety and even futuristic dread, there is an undertone of hope, though the hope of today is portrayed in a dramatically different and more world-weary way than in the idealistic images of pioneers working the land in the early days of the state. "Everything that is expressive has hope," Landau told The Jerusalem Post. "As long as I am taking what's inside and bringing it outside, that means there still is an inside and an outside." In the corner of her installation, almost hidden, she points out the proof of her hope: An old Israeli foot radiator spells out the word "love" in neon. The light flashes and heats, warming up chunks of dismembered flesh. n Curated by Amitai Mendelsohn and Efrat Natan, Real Time: Sixty Years of Art in Israel (1998-2008) is on exhibit at the Israel Museum's Weisbord Pavillion through summer.