Art from the other side

“The aspect of taking things into a different cultural context engages me.”

Feeding off artifacts: Curator Hadas Glazer (left) and Hilli Greenfeld. (photo credit: NOAM PREISMAN)
Feeding off artifacts: Curator Hadas Glazer (left) and Hilli Greenfeld.
(photo credit: NOAM PREISMAN)
The expression “spoils of war” does not, normally, conjure up particularly positive thoughts or pictures. In Hili Greenfeld’s case, at least, the contraband was put to good creative use.
Greenfeld did not do any pilfering herself, but her latest installation-exhibition “The Sweet Water Canal,” currently in progress at Art Cube – Artists’ Studios Jerusalem, directly feeds off artifacts taken from the abandoned home of an Egyptian artist who lived near the Suez Canal during the Yom Kippur War.
The confluence between the young artist and the former IDF soldier’s treasures, which included some delightful diminutive works of art, was, it seems, a matter of pure serendipity. Greenfeld took art studies at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, which is where her path crossed that of the ex-IDF man who, after returning to civvy street (ordinary life), studied at the same institution and eventually took up a teaching post there. Greenfeld was in his class.
We are not told the teacher’s identity but Greenfeld reveals that he visited her studio, to get an idea of what his student was up to on the creative front.
“He saw some things I’d made that reminded him of the things he’d taken home from the war,” she explains. “He could have looked at anything – I had a lot of things in my studio – but he was drawn to those pieces.”
As you enter the secluded exhibition space via a black curtain, you’d be best advised to move to your right. There you encounter a glass cabinet with a bunch of objects, including an appealing figurine of a donkey, a couple of pencil sketches and a sumptuous-looking coffee cup and saucer. They come from the Egyptian’s home and serve as a reference point for the new stuff.
“The Sweet Water Canal,” curated by Hadas Glazer, is laid out like a subtle thematic grid, with objects cross-referencing each other. The scenes in the aforementioned drawings, for instance, are mirrored by the partial partitions that serve as something like doorposts, bracketing the entrance into the further section of the exhibition hall.
The inner area is dominated by a desk and table, a sort of reconstruction of the Egyptian artist’s imagined workroom, or “a tribute” to the anonymous Egyptian, as Greenfeld puts it. The table is covered with a bunch of objects that, in fact, are replicas made by her. They are the “progeny” of items the artist bought in the gift shop of the British Museum, which she calls “coveted objects for plunder.”
“I used and dismantled these things,” she says, referring to her teacher’s takings, “and used them to, ultimately, make my own world.” That was achieved by making casts of the objects and creating her own spinoffs.
That is also the fundamental reason for keeping the IDF soldier’s identity in the dark.
“I didn’t want people to focus on my teacher,” she explains. “This is my narrative. My teacher left it up to me, whether or not to tell people who he is. But, I think not revealing his identity places him on the same footing as the [unknown] Egyptian artist.”
The artist feels that also offers her more room for artistic maneuver.
“That enables me to control the movement, to have control over what is uncovered.”
That, naturally, also allows spectators to give free rein to their imagination. When, for example, you look at the desk, you automatically begin to wonder about the person who may have sat at it and pondered the meaning of life, regardless of whether the table is the real McCoy – it isn’t. You can also begin to assemble your own scenario, and envisage your own cerebral “coveted objects for plunder.”
Greenfeld is an installation artist whose art links fragments of personal memories with cultural narratives. She places a mythical story at the heart of each installation, offering a new form of storytelling. Then again, “The Sweet Water Canal” is based on an actual person – in fact, two actual people – whom we do not know. There is a corporeal and human fulcrum to the installation, which only adds to the mystique and the allure of the objects and arrangement on display.
She employs an expansive textural substratum to the display, taking in ceramics, plastic, acrylic and oil paint and even artificial grass. That provides for an intriguing counterpoint for the cultural swathe that runs through the show, which also lies at the heart of the exercise.
“I was also fascinated by the thought that Egypt and Israel are neighbors, yet we know almost nothing about each other, about each other’s lives and cultures,” she says.
She and curator Hadas Glazer set about addressing that deficiency and, in addition to visiting the British Museum gift shop, they also did the damnedest to hook up with British-based Egyptian artists and, possibly, redress the personal and cultural interface imbalance. That did not go too well, so it was back to “The Sweet Water Canal” and employing one’s powers of imagination to complete the picture.
Greenfeld says she was naturally drawn to creating items that, as it turned out, bore a strong resemblance to her teacher’s booty.
“At Bezalel, and probably any art school, you are constantly given references to art and artists. Ninety percent of that looks to the west – Western Europe and the United States and Israeli artists.”
That made the discovery of the resemblance between her work and that of the unnamed Egyptian artist all the more compelling.
“There was something about this artist – he may have been an amateur, I don’t know – that was very special and, initially, very surprising. Then again, if you think about it, I realized it wasn’t that surprising. We come from a similar geographic region. Israel perceives itself as a sort of island, a Western island, in the Middle East. But, really, Israel and Egypt are neighbors.”
Greenfeld knows a thing or two about cultural baggage spreads. In addition to her time at Bezalel, she attended Slade School of Fine Arts in London, as well as the Literature Department of Tel Aviv University. Her exhibition roster to date takes in shows in Israel, New York, London, Singapore and Slovenia.
The topic of plunder is also central to the show, and ties the project in with the British Museum.
“I have an exhibition in Ramat Gan called ‘The British Museum,’” Glazer notes. “The aspect of taking things into a different cultural context engages me.”
It should be noted that the former IDF soldier did not have designs on the Egyptian artifacts per se. He was motivated by the wish to keep them intact and realized they stood very little chance of surviving in a half-demolished house in a war zone. Glazer sees the teacher’s decision to relocate the works to Israel as an indication of a positive attitude.
“If, for example, you relate to works of art made by an Egyptian, that person becomes someone, rather than just a faceless enemy. That is a good and humane attitude.”
“The Sweet Water Canal,” indeed, exudes a positive vibe and leaves you with an aesthetically provocative viewing experience and food for thought.
The exhibition closes on October 14. For more information: (02) 679-7508 and