Archives in a liquor cabinet

"Daydream" at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design.

Bezalel Academy founder Boris Schatz (right) and Prof. Israel Aharoni visit the Bezalel Museum’s natural collection in 1909. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Bezalel Academy founder Boris Schatz (right) and Prof. Israel Aharoni visit the Bezalel Museum’s natural collection in 1909.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
As we neared the end of the “Daydream” exhibition, Hila Zaksenberg, its curator, turned to me and said without hesitation, “It’s not a very sexy topic, is it?” In theory, the subject matter – the history of the archiving process (or lack thereof) of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design,is one whose sex appeal is limited.
But in truth, what lay within this exhibition – which closed January 6 – is a formidable insight into the pursuit of the past and how its preservation takes many different forms.
Founded in 1906 by Boris Schatz, a Lithuanian artist, extrovert and immigrant to pre-state Israel, the Bezalel academy (Israel’s oldest institute of higher education) has produced some of the country’s finest artists, such as Reuven Rubin, Dani Karavan and Ron Arad. It is no exaggeration when Zaksenberg describes the school’s history as “[central] to art practice in Israel as a whole.”
It is this question of history that “Daydream” addressed, providing a plethora of fascinating exhibits. As one of the earliest hubs for the development of Jewish culture in the future State of Israel, what is striking is the contrast that Zaksenberg highlights in the exhibition between Bezalel’s awareness of its position and its inability to consistently preserve it.
Therefore, in a repeating film clip of Murray Rosenberg’s 1911 The First Film of Palestine, we saw footage of the Land of Israel in which a visit to Schatz and the academy appears to have been a mandatory aspect of anyone’s visit to the region.
On the other side of the room, the exhibition beautifully contrasted the clear-cut preservation of the film footage with a collection of documents from Bezalel’s attempt in 1982 to establish a bona fide archive. Though ultimately unsuccessful, the remains of the endeavor were displayed, from a sketch of the envisioned archive room to a clipping from a color supplement featuring an archetypal 1980s living room, where items such as a sofa and a liquor cabinet were circled in hope of their eventual purchase for the archive.
The scattershot journey that the exhibition took us on was the manifestation of the reality Zaksenberg faced when she was hired by Bezalel five years ago to develop what she describes as a “curatorial agenda” for the institution. Although an archive of sorts had been in existence for a long time, before her arrival considerations regarding both Bezalel’s position in history as well as the benefits of documenting its current activities had been virtually nonexistent. “Daydream” thus served as a study that delved into the academy’s past, as well as into Zaksenberg’s journey in conveying Bezalel’s preserved past.
What was done so well throughout the relatively small space housing “Daydream” was to demonstrate, using Bezalel as a case study, how our conception of archiving need not be confined to stacks of boxes or piles of books but can be found in a variety of places.
Throughout the exhibition, various items were displayed that illustrated the genesis of Bezalel, from a wide range of students’ cards from 1950s to a dictionary put together by a Bezalel employee between 1936-37 in which the Hebrew words for artistic terminology were defined.
Arguably, the testament to Zaksenberg’s exquisite curation, however, was an entire wall featuring three screens, each flashing records from three separate archives: those of the Jerusalem Municipality, the Zionist National Archive and the Bezalel Academy.
Each contained details of items from the Bezalel collection. As there is no central archive, they were placed next to one another, bringing together the pieces and challenging conceptions of how we should view approaches to archiving as a whole.
Information flashed on the wall every few seconds: “26 newspaper clippings”; “Josef Budko [the academy’s second director] correspondence”; “protocols of synod meetings”; “incoming letters 1912-18”; “names of Bezalel supporters”; “people who owe money to Bezalel”; “photos of works by 2005 students.”
The power of seeing these flashes from the past was how they embodied the achievement and success of the exhibition.
It revealed how our conception of the past need not be restricted to what we are told provides us with history but, instead, that our history is something that can be found in a million different forms – even the picture of a liquor cabinet.