The Space Between

Prompted by opinionated curators and enthusiastic collectors, art has become as much of a cerebral commodity as it was once an aesthetic experience.

Shoja Azari 88 224 (photo credit: )
Shoja Azari 88 224
(photo credit: )
Prompted by opinionated curators and enthusiastic collectors who follow their leads, art has become as much of a cerebral commodity as it was once an aesthetic experience. Having missed out on acquiring fundamental 20th-century skills, art school graduates with video cameras in one hand and planning notebooks in the other are under the impression that to make 21st-century art all they must do is preserve the umbilical cord that amalgamates technology, hypothesis and analysis. Exercises in good drawing, color theory and composition, flat and dimensional, are slowly becoming obsolete as are lessons in confronting critical questions raised by the study of art history and theory. I am not questioning the validity of contemporary media. What troubles me is the importance placed upon the digital explosion and a reintroduction of conceptual-installation art by both academia and commercial galleries without a consideration for formulating quality standards. In the meantime, the interested public is inundated with a plethora of videos, digital photographs and arcane installations that, if they wish to properly focus, must read a catalog article that will often sow as much confusion as the artworks themselves. Municipal museums in Herzliya and Petah Tikva have adopted a dogmatic position regarding the kind of art they will promote. Directed by curators who advance what they think is cutting-edge contemporary art to the exclusion of the more established traditions, they persistently mount displays of the new media resulting in exhibitions placed on a scholarly footing where an essayist provides meaning and substance to the installation or digital piece, explaining what motivated the practitioner's enterprise and, as a result, all too often, elevate the work to heights that are undeserved. The Space Between at the Petah Tikva Museum of Art is a prodigious attempt by curator Drorit Gur Arie to unite 11 installation and video artists into a singular event. She goes to great lengths with an overflow of literary artspeak to invent, identify and endorse an esoteric theme; and then goes even further to justify her thesis and provide reasons for attacking such a subject. In her introductory remarks, Gur Arie defines her premise by stating that The Space Between sets out to explore the relationship between the private and the public against the backdrop of social and technological changes and their implications on the consciousness of the contemporary subject. It delves into the modeling of space, and the interrelations that regulate the spatial division between private and public and outline the points between the personal sphere, as a locus of intimacy, protection, at times concealment, and the public (museum) space as a site of exposure and as a field of power strategies and mechanisms, gradually become blurred. These few lines have little bearing on the works exhibited, making sense only by means of Gur Arie's continued literary digressions. The major installation around which everything else revolves is entitled Colony (2007) by Nati Shamia Opher. But to reach Opher's multi-segment work, the viewer must navigate a set of corridors erected by architects Raphael Cohen and Nitzan Sat. The ersatz interior has no bearing on the displays that follow but has been constructed to set the stage and offer greater credibility to the exhibition's academic theme. The labyrinth of bland walls and rooms is all the same. Doors, lintels, windows and walls creating unrealized spaces provide a sympathetic and an uncomplicated transition into the main exhibition halls. Colony is a patchwork installation. Spread across a good portion of the museum floor space while using a broad range of quality and inferior industrial materials, a message of home, house, shelter, sanctuary and asylum for the homeless or the refugee is passed on. At the core are skillfully fabricated, cocoon-shaped pup tents illuminated by dramatic lighting and soft neon bars that craft an emotional state of abandonment and isolation despite the sturdy community look. Additional elements in Colony include a bombastic solid cube constructed from ivory-colored plastic louvers, and a battery of giant vinyl sacks sewn together in rows, all carpeted and equipped with a light bulb ensuring its possibility of abode, hopefully for some transient nomad. The sacks are surrounded by a field of small bonfires made from charred planks and a walled garden whose bricks have been decorated with knitted fabric to ease the environmental harshness and make it more amenable to domestic use. Neither ink, pencil nor paint was harnessed by Tal Amitai to reform the linear image of a New Orleans house damaged by the onslaught of Hurricane Katrina. Her medium of choice was black sewing thread attached to a Plexiglas surface. Other than the painstaking effort Amitai has made to create this panoramic illustration, little more can be said about its inherent value as a work of art. Gur Arie raises several questions as to the meaning of house and home, with indications of permanence, instability, security and happiness topped by comments related to the threads of memory. On one wall of a narrow, darkly lit, corridor tucked surreptitiously between spaces of the architectural installation, Ravit Cohen Gan has draped a stitched violet fabric from floor to ceiling to create a space for female mourners, in which a sound track of wailing women in a low timbre echoes through the room. Adjacent to this dismal, over simplified, display of nocturnal bereavement, Nadav Weissman's two-part installation, Ground Floor, bursts forth in a flurry of color and form. A Kelly green house set on the skeletal struts of a pink boat, enclosed by lemon-yellow walls, faces an enclosure that contains a macrocephalic figure embedded below the head on a thick shelf. A lone placid dog with an obvious erection is waiting patiently as he inspects the afflicted figure before him with caution. Gur Arie's comments on Weissman's work are full of hypothesis and supposition related to his use of a public space for a gang of allegorical images. Her essay connotes memory, remorse and traveling to distant places (referring to home) with a cargo of oversized human bones alluding to sexual aberrations. Works of Weissman's ilk cannot survive without someone providing written credentials. In this case Gur Arie uses poetic phraseology to clarify her vision instead of trying to make a critical analysis of a work of art that needs more than lyrical explanations. Public and private, interior and exterior, them and us are in one form or another in this exhibition treated digitally or filmicly in a direct narrative, symbolically or allegorically. Ofri Cnaani's appealing work is a sequential account of herself as the Herculean protagonist moving through an urban setting battling the evils of constraint promoted by mythical metropolitan demons. Sporting bird's wings, a monumental flag, cardboard dog and a lion's head, she confronts the city's antagonists to the chords of a Greek chorus. Having traversed concrete, glass and steel structures with an ever-increasing tempo, she spreads her wings and jumps - an act of desperate madness or the jump of her life into the open skies? The confrontational allegory presented by Cnaani is a masterwork compared to Adriana Lara's discombobulated, overly designed film that takes on the museum establishment with the markets it creates and the social arenas it functions in. Her band of young people roaming an enormous space performing scenes of visitation, observation and destruction, in groups or as individuals, smacks of amateur players rehearsing their parts, causing the entire mise en scène to become a folly of immature storytelling without a cultural message or a social bite. Oreet Ashery's Back in Five Minutes provides a similar, overly digested message of presence and absence in an artist's studio and an ensuing, unconvincing conversation between the visitor and his mate. The fact that Ashery's video is being shown in the museum storage basement filled with sculptures by several generations of Israeli artists expands the digital boundaries of the screen into the real world of convention and tradition. Gülsün Karamustafa has organized a cinema environment in which two separate scenarios are projected, one showing the ordinary private lives of a family in their apartment influenced by the actions taking place in the municipal square beyond its windows on the adjacent screen. Cleverly produced and edited in the neo-realist style of the 1950s, the viewer must observe the two worlds simultaneously and absorb the changes in domestic routines while observing the transformation of personality behavior caused by the disruptions of the documentary spectacles shot in the square. Karamustafa's coordinated two-screen projection is an obvious socio-political commentary on Turkish culture and its para-military way of life. In a pre-determined, melodramatic manner, she provides the viewer with enough visual data to leave the hall feeling a sense of frustration and empathy for the domestic prisoners of a state under siege. A Room with a View, Shoja Azari's attack on public indifference, triggers an opposite emotion. The viewer is kept spellbound as her video shows a couple in rather high spirits watching television in the warmth of their home, while through an outsized window that separates them, a group of men are in the act of raping a young woman in the verdant thicket of a pastoral forest. Nothing could me more defined in the sphere of private and public than in this clip. Simplistic and to the point, it not only relates to the physical presence of the two spheres, but it condemns the ambivalence of society to the evils that are eroding the foundations of its cultural life. In the end, the rogues have fled, the raped woman adjusts her running suit and for the couple, their Hollywood film draws to a close. Everything is as it was. I have left Liav Mizrahi's installation, 360º, for last because it sums up Gur Arie's essential premise of private and public spaces. There has been a great deal of media hype associated with government and corporate encroachment on an individual's civil liberties, from Guantanamo and sex offenses to CIA wiretapping. Agencies, courts and civic-minded organizations are fighting to preserve basic human rights, which include freedom of movement, speech and assembly. Mizrahi, symbolically, has installed ersatz cameras throughout a museum hall creating an artificial deployment of electronic media as a means of protecting the artworks against vandals. Pure subterfuge. The cameras, when real, are mounted to record who was where when and what did he or she do as well as to provide the museum directorate with information on the activities of people without their permission or, as happens often, without their knowledge. Unfortunately, museums are not the private domains of individual curators or directors. To satisfy their community needs, they are obliged to understand and address the requirements of that community. Or, if curators like Gur Arie need to promote personality cults in contemporary art, the educational-explanatory side of the coin must be wrapped in a language that the community at large will easily absorb, understand and appreciate. And, finally, continue to visit the museum. (Petah Tikva Museum of Art, 30 Arlozoroff, Petah Tikva.) Until September 16.