The great wet

The latest theme show at the Israel Museum's Youth Wing, Water in Art and Life, is one of its handsomest, at least when the the galleries are mercifully empty of unsupervised children intent on wrecking the exhibits.

Shira Zelwer art 88 298 (photo credit: )
Shira Zelwer art 88 298
(photo credit: )
The great wet MEIR RONNEN The latest theme show at the Israel Museum's Youth Wing, Water in Art and Life, is one of its handsomest, at least when the the galleries are mercifully empty of unsupervised children intent on wrecking the exhibits. Its clean, minimalist look is devoid of fuss, except in a small gallery devoted this time to antiquities related to the theme. The exhibit, largely devoted to photographs and videos related to the sea, swimming pools and bathing, manages to remind us and inform the kids that all life on our planet, including ourselves, is composed largely of water (except in a few countries where many humans are composed largely of beer, though this beverage is water-based too). The planet's surface is itself mostly water and just as well! An absence of water spells an absence of life and evolution. There isn't much high art or painting in this exhibit, but there are a few conceptual banalities, like that of Shachar Marcus and Roy Mordechai, Sea to See, 2007, a 10-minute video purporting to document a 70-km. walk by the pair from the Mediterranean to Jerusalem, while carrying a bucket of seawater suspended from a metal rod (this apparatus is also on view). The sole paintings are three low-key but lackluster miniatures of a lake. There are, however, two sculptural installations that are both inventive and successful on several levels. The first is a brilliantly original kinetic work seen earlier at the museum and made by C leste Boursier-Mougenot, Untitled (Series #3), 1999-2002. It consists of nothing more than a dozen varied-size ceramic bowls floating in a circular kiddy pool. Thanks to a small concealed pump which moves the bowls in a circular motion, the compositions formed by the bowls undergo constant change, while their occasional collisions produce varied tinkling sounds, the pitch of which varies according to their size and thickness (this delicate music cannot be heard when there are children present). This work is less well-lit than it has been on previous occasions, but is still a gem. Also intriguing is Amit Levinger's Rain Bird, 2005, a transparent case almost full of water and containing a submerged but working butterfly garden sprinkler, the movement of which gives the water a kinetic surface. The familiar sound of the sprinkler adds life to this curious but clever installation, which is viewed from below. Two humorous painted wax sculptures by Shira Zelwer, previously seen at the Jerusalem Artists House, are fun; her large frieze of a garden pool solves all sorts of problems of depth and pseudo perspective. Zelwer's tub expresses the joy we all feel in coming clean. The ageless ritual aspects of bathing, baptism and purification are recorded by a number of camera artists. Dan Arnon shows foot-washing and a water sanctification ceremony at the Mar Saba monastery. Other photographs by Noel Jabbour and Yossi Zeliger document rituals from the Jordan River and the Ganges, while classic ritual lavers are to be found in the antiquities section, together with a statuette of Aphrodite rising from the sea. The goddess is a wonderful reminder that all past and present life emerged from the oceans. A contemporary touch is a certification provided by the operatives of a mikve. There are brilliant color shots of our beaches by photographers like Roi Kuper, Elyasaf Kovner and Naomi Leshem, among others; and impressive records of waterfalls by Ruri (Iceland), Ido Bruno and Eldad Shaaltiel. My apologies for not being able to mention all the many other photographers in this show. All the Hebrew/English captions to the exhibits are, as usual, in the smallest possible typeface. In the lower gallery, these cards are all unlit and virtually illegible. Why aren't they well lit and in large Hebrew typeface, to be read by whole groups of children? The Israel Museum's long tradition of hostility to large and legible captions never ceases to amaze me. Some years ago I discussed this with the museum's director and got a sympathetic hearing, but nothing changed. Exhibitions are not for the benefit of the participants and the esthetic pretensions of the museum's designers, but for the visitors. Just prior to my leaving this show, the upper gallery was suddenly invaded by several groups of running, whooping, unaccompanied schoolchildren, mostly 11-year-old girls, led by the traditional fat boy, who proceeded to stick his hands into every accessible liquid exhibit. I summoned the sole guard, who kept his cool and attempted to reason with the children. The racket produced by these well-dressed kids was unbearable. I found their teachers in the lobby, chatting away oblivious of what was going on upstairs. But the teachers are not to blame; they don't know any better. Many regard a visit of their class to the museum as a day off. It is the museum's responsibility to ensure that a liaison person receives and instructs every visiting school group about how to behave and show consideration to others, and ensures that the teachers themselves behave quietly and keep control of the kids at all times. THE ISRAEL Museum's Billy Rose Pavilion, that mausoleum of the ambitions of two generations of conceptualists, is currently filled with Just Be Good to Me, an esoteric two-part installation by Michal Helfman that will leave most visitors bemused, if not bewildered. The opening video shows the artist changing her daughter's nappy in what appears to be a nursery room, but as the child is carried away it becomes apparent that the corner of the room is just a prop set up in craggy desert wadi. A rapid series of stills shows the two figures disappearing down the wadi while the sun sets and shadows creep up the canyon's rocky walls. All that is left is a rock lit by a bedside table lamp. Hoping for enlightenment, I ascended a polished black ramp that led to a shiny black stage that supported part of the rest of the installation, a shapely bronze of a tall young woman. Facing her were some jagged mirrors and covered wall lamps. The general effect was that of a smart fashion boutique. Curator Amitai Mendelsohn must have approved the text which suggests a rite of passage that is also filled with "uncertainty and terror"; and is "personal and intimate, while also evoking a collective experience, with references to art history, theater, cinema and dance." Gee. I would have been happy if all this much ado about very little had told us something new and profound about just one of these matters. Conceptual art has long had its day and survives notably in this country. Helfman's production is physically a cut above most, but has painfully little to say.