Orient Express

Having fun with Islamic culture.

‘What in the World?’ The ‘What in the World?’ archeology TV series aired on CBS in the 1950s. (photo credit: COURTESY ISLAMIC MUSEUM)
‘What in the World?’ The ‘What in the World?’ archeology TV series aired on CBS in the 1950s.
Any genuine art should, at the very least, offer a new perspective on the way we view life, and provide us with some food for thought. Hopefully, we’ll also gain some aesthetic enjoyment from the work in question and, possibly, even move on to the next creation with a smile on our face. Nevet Yitzhak’s Orient Express exhibition at the Museum of Islamic Art duly provides all that, and more.
In fact, Yitzhak has taken the reevaluation business a step further. Orient Express, curated by Sally Haftel Naveh, comprises half a dozen video and animation works that not only shed new and more user-friendly light on some venerated avenues of creativity in the sphere of Islamic culture, it does so with items housed in the very repository which hosts her exhibition.
“I went for broke with this show,” admits Yitzhak. “The museum has been wonderful.
They cooperated with me all the way and allowed me complete freedom to do what I wanted.”
Yitzhak burrowed deep into the museum’s artistic and cultural stratigraphy and ended up drawing on a wide and somewhat quirky range of artifacts, from the very precious to the utterly mundane.
The artist says she approached the project with an open mind and a pretty clean slate.
“I really didn’t know how to go about this exhibition. I didn’t know how to get into things and what to do at the museum. I could have brought previous works of mine, which may have fused with the context of the place.”
But Yitzhak soon realized that the enterprise called for a fresh line of attack.
“I wanted to bring something new to the exhibition space, that would be site specific and would engage the place, with its baggage and its special collection.”
This, however, was never going to be a conventional foray into the annals and channels of Islamic art. “I wanted to approach it differently, in a less methodical and less academic way,” she notes.
The latter area of pursuit features in a couple of the video-animation elements. American-born senior-citizen visitors to the museum may enjoy something of a nostalgia trip when they see the excerpt of the What in the World? TV series which ran on CBS in the 1950s.
The show features three suited and period- compatibly stilted archeology experts who are presented with an ancient find and try to nail the object down to a specific culture, part of the world and era. We get to see the delightfully dated TV excerpt after an animated old decorated chest opens, as if we are being invited to peek into a hidden world of treasure.
That, in a nutshell, is very much what Orient Express is about, but with a definitive left-field supplement. “I wanted to relate to the sphere of Islamic art, but also to the research side, which predominantly comprises Western research,” notes Yitzhak. “There are two sides to this. There is the academic research but, on the other hand, I wanted to relate to the museum itself, the artifacts it houses and how it displays them to the public.”
Yitzhak went beyond that and also took in the archival process of the works of art and archeological finds. As you enter the exhibition area there is, of course, some background material on the show and the artist’s line of thinking, in English, Hebrew and Arabic.
But, on the opposite wall of the entrance corridor you see half a dozen laminated archive record entry cards which are, in fact, facsimiles of the original tickets that were filled out by the museum staff of yesteryear when the artifacts were first taken in by the institution.
The actual structure of the museum also came into Yitzhak’s exhibition planning equation.
“I examined the building as a means of preserving the artifacts from the Islamic culture and all its riches,” she continues. “That, for me, was also an integral part of the creative process.”
The monochrome video and animation images give off an olde-worlde sensibility that is both charming and helps present the work as neutrally as possible. In fact, the blown-up reproductions of the artifacts were originally in color, and the black-and-white display is designed to convey a feel of an archive, and the history of the items on display, and the culture from which they hail.
THE EXHIBITION exudes a level-playing-field ethos, which allows the viewer to draw his or her conclusions from the display. The artist and, indeed, the museum are clearly allowing you to have your own personal experience there. Even the What in the World? video excerpt is open-ended.
“In the original show they give the information about the archeological find, but I left that out of my exhibition,” says Yitzhak. “I left it open in order to infer that research, as much as I appreciate it, is also limited and cannot provide all the answers.”
Alternative, contemporary, fun and eminently human approach notwithstanding, Yitzhak takes an admiring, almost loving line on Islamic culture. Those of us who have been living in Israel for, say, 25 years or more may recall the Arab movie which Channel 1, then the only TV station here, screened every Friday afternoon. Over the years the slot gained iconographic status, and that makes an animated appearance in the exhibition too.
Meanwhile the image of the decorated sword in Orient Express pays tribute to Arabic poetry, and next to that, Yitzhak salutes the early cinematographic efforts of the fledgling Egyptian film industry of the early 20th century.
Orient Express offers an entertaining and aesthetic entrée to Islamic culture and art, in an enjoyable, street-level, completely non-academic context.
 For more information: 566-1291/2 and www.islamicart.co.il