Bringing the gallery to the supermarket

For one week, shoppers at Shufersal Dealin Talpiot will be treated to installations and video art by some of the country's top artsists.

Installation shot of aluminum sculptures by Raya Bruckenthal (photo credit: SHARON BALABAN)
Installation shot of aluminum sculptures by Raya Bruckenthal
(photo credit: SHARON BALABAN)
In the 1960s, Andy Warhol famously brought the su - permarket to the art gallery, exhibiting his painting series “100 Soup Cans.” This week, video artist Sharon Balaban will open a special exhibition in which the art gallery re - turns to the supermarket.
“Art deals with the everyday, with consumerism, and art galleries upgrade the objects they exhibit – both in terms of the place and the price,” explains Balaban, who heads the video unit of the screen- based arts department at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design. “What happens when we bring those objects back to the consumer’s space?” This question is at the center of the exhibition – titled “Mivtza,” a Hebrew word meaning both “sale” and “operation” – which is inside the Shufersal Deal Supermarket in Talpiot until January 1.
The show is indeed a special operation: months of preparation by artists, discussions with store managers and executives, planning among a production team including Tair Avshalom and Nitzan Lahav. Additional curators are also working within the larger framework: Guy Biran of HaZira Performance Arts Arena curated performances on the night of the opening earlier this week, and Noa Shakargy and Dr. Gilad Meiri of the Place for Poetry are curating an exhibition of Nano-Poetry in the freezer aisle. All this is appearing in the supermarket for only one week.
“For me, it’s an experiment,” says Balaban. “It’s not a thesis show with a specific idea or message to get across. The supermarket is a space that’s structured, it’s an everyday activity, it’s largely automatic.
My question is how to interrupt this – in the good sense of the word.”
Balaban points out that supermarkets have a narrative of their own. They’re a 20th- century American invention that was meant to democratize shopping, bringing together products previously found in separate shops and putting them on shelves where people could inspect them directly. There was no longer a middleman or buffer between the buyer and the product.
For some, this was shocking – meat and dairy were now only an aisle away from chemical products. But it represented a kind of freedom that was emblematic of democracy, also strengthening the consumeristic model of capitalism. Just as Abstract Expressionism became symbolic of American freedom and democracy on the high cultural level, so supermarkets became similar symbols on an everyday level.
Supermarkets arrived in Israel in the late 1950s.
Balaban explains that finance minister Pinhas Sapir sent a delegation to the US to study the American model; in 1958, the first supermarket opened on Ben-Yehuda Street in Tel Aviv. It was called Shufersal, taking its name from the Aramaic phrase “ Shufra d’shufra ” – “The best of the best.” When Balaban was approached by Hila Smolansky, who heads the Jerusalem Municipality’s art department, to curate an art exhibition in a supermarket, Balaban immediately set her sights on the giant Shufersal Deal across the street from her studio in Talpiot.
“For me, it’s an art store,” reveals Balaban. “I get most of my supplies there. I’m a video artist who deals with objects from everyday life, which you get at the supermarket.
I go to the shampoo aisle to check the different shampoo consistencies.”
Shufersal Deal is a giant store – in addition to groceries and household supplies, it sells clothes and electronics As Balaban puts it, the 7,000-square-meter space aims to answer all the basic needs our modern culture demands.
There is no natural light, and shoppers are invited to lose themselves in the maze-like space – presumably in order to consume that much more.
“We can’t take over the whole place,” Balaban explains. “We also can’t really obstruct the shopping experience itself.”
This means that for the show to come together, she had to integrate it within the infrastructure of the supermarket itself – the shelves, refrigerators, displays, stages and screens that frame the products for sale. “Every section has its language. It’s all very accurately organized according to what are called planograms, there isn’t a lot of flexibility.”
This also involved being in touch with the managers of different sections and compromising on how to incorporate artworks that would cause shoppers hesitation, without completely getting in their way. “I wasn’t really interested in criticizing the consumeristic aspect,” Balaban says. “What I was looking for was the tension of the meeting.”
In fact, the artist is more interested in looking at the material aspect of the art objects that appear among the consumer products, or the abstraction of the consumer products through an artistic intervention. The exhibition is about the experiment of all these things coming together, expressing itself in various ways through the different works that have been chosen.
THE EXHIBITION features works by 22 artists, both veteran figures and emerging artists – all of whom are at the forefront of contemporary art practice in Israel.
Both the artists and their projects show the extent to which Smolansky and Balaban have invested in this exhibition. In a move that is unfortunately rare in such situations, the organizers have even managed to pay each artist for their participation.
In some cases, the works come from the studio and are incorporated into the space of the supermarket. In some, site-specific works were installed the night before the opening; in others, artists create interventions in the space itself.
Etti Abergel, who represented Israel in the 2003 Venice Biennale, reorganizes all the household items in the sales displays. Simon Krantz and Yael Ruhman, emerging artists who work together and have shown throughout Israel, create a light installation inside the refrigerators of the dairy section. Maya Muchawsky Parnas, who works in ceramics, prepares an intricate set of landscapes using casts of large bleach bottles and carving Alpine landscapes taken from a calendar her grandparents brought with them when they moved to Israel from Switzerland. Meidad Eliyahu turns 40 cereal boxes inside out, paints on them, then place them back on the shelves. And award-winning painter Amnon Ben-Ami, who two years ago had a major exhibit at the Yaffo 23 gallery, creates a special six-meter trough filled with shampoo.
Painter Shai Azoulay, who recently showed at the Tel Aviv Museum, presents a series of small works he calls “An Hour Per Day” – quick paintings in which he experiments with new ideas. These are placed on panels that separate different fresh products in the fruit and vegetables section.
Preparing for exhibiting this series, notes Balaban, made her consider aspects she’d never thought about – for example, how high the fruits and vegetables will be piled and whether they will block the paintings. She also says the exhibition shows the courage all the artists are displaying in participating, since the kind of security that exists in galleries and museums simply isn’t there in a supermarket.
Rona Yefman creates a graffiti work inspired by fictional children character Pippi Longstocking, in which she writes “I LOVE MY LIFE” on the mirrors above the fruits and vegetables. David Adika presents photographs of Coca-Cola cans that feature Lebanese singer Nancy Ajram.
Video artist Nira Pereg, whose work recently appeared at the Israel Museum, screens a work filmed in San Diego in which human signs – people paid to stand on the street as advertisements – look like protest signs. Another video artist, Amir Yatziv, strapped a camera to the head of a carrier pigeon, then sent it off to fly over Jerusalem – presenting viewers with an aerial view of the city.
A special program of video art will also be exhibited in the electronics section – with the works being shown simultaneously on all the screens. For this, Balaban chose abstract works, rather than narrative ones – whose effect will be increased by being multiplied, intensifying their images.
In addition to a work by Balaban, the program includes video works by some of Israel’s best-known video artists: Sigalit Landau, Dror Daum, Lior Shvil and Einat Arif Galanti. Other artists showing across the supermarket and at the entrance include Alona Rodeh, Einat Arim, Gustavo Sagursky, Talia Tokatly, Hadassa Goldvicht, Raya Brukenthal and Yahav Ger – all of whom work actively both inside Israel and abroad.
BALABAN SAYS that while a few artists she approached felt this was a cheap or populist platform of which they didn’t want to be a part, the list of artists who decided to participate – which includes some of the best- known names in Israeli art – illustrates that the format is exciting and has power.
“The show is about testing a space where art doesn’t usually exist,” she explains.
“Most of these artists’ works are connected to this tension – between high and low, art and everyday.”
She adds that the audience has no choice but to engage with the works and recalls the literary notion of “estrangement,” put forth in the early 20th century by Russian Formalists – who believed art and literature should interrupt our automatic mind-set.
She admits that art in the public space isn’t something new, but also asks: Is the supermarket a public space? The answer is yes and no.
In relation to Jerusalem, Balaban points out that since there are not very many galleries and art spaces in which to exhibit, much of the artwork has taken to the public space. The first group to do so in the city’s recent history was Sala Manca, a group of independent Jerusalem-based artists that creates in different fields, which starting in 2000 organized public artistic events.
While many Holy City artists show in art centers both in Israel and abroad, the city’s contemporary artistic life remains somewhat marginal, despite the institutional power of Bezalel and the Israel Museum. “Something in Jerusalem goes against the grain. It’s both subversive and authentic; there’s a vacuum that artists who live here have to fight against all the time,” maintains Balaban.
Rather than seeing this as a drawback, she says she gathers strength from the situation: “The power is in the hands of the artists.”
She says that Smolansky of the municipality recognizes the importance of artists working in Jerusalem, and tries to bring them to the greater public. This includes supporting grassroots efforts such as the Koresh 14 gallery and the Great Flood Collective (Hamabul) of artists and activists working in French Hill.
Balaban and Smolansky previously worked together in 2008, on outdoor video screenings at the old Hamashbir Lazarchan department store on King George Avenue – an exhibit called “Talitha Kumi,” which in some ways inspired the current exhibition. The idea was to expand its reach, while connecting to places where there is less art.
“This exhibit is for people coming to the supermarket – it’s not for the art world. It’s for people who come to buy, and see it accidentally. The purpose is to get the art out into the world.” This is also a major challenge – which is why Balaban decided to call the exhibit “Operation.”
“The art scene in Jerusalem is in a bit of a crisis,” she laments, giving as examples the recent closing of Barbur Gallery in Nahlaot and of Yaffo 23 in the city center a year before that. “In the end, the reputation of any city in the world is its strength as a center of art; look at New York, Paris, London. Contemporary art is one the strongest aspects of what we call culture.”
Balaban says Jerusalem artists form a community in which the choice to live and work here is not connected to the art market; this community is always faced with both questions and surprises. The Bezalel Academy is an important part of bringing art to the capital, but the situation remains – after decades – that those artists who stay in Jerusalem do so against the stream, and most move away to Tel Aviv or abroad.
Balaban hears the complaint from outside that there is tension in Jerusalem, but to her, it’s merely a concentrated version of the tension that exists in all of Israel. She also feels Jerusalem is a truly heterogeneous city – which also feeds into her personal experience. “As a Jerusalem artist, I deal with the reality that’s here – even if I don’t deal with it in my work.”
Making art in Jerusalem is working against the odds, she continues, because contemporary art is so limited here and doesn’t fit in with the city in any direct or obvious way.
“But this is why we have to do it,” insists Balaban. “Art deals with human existence.
You’re not in a vacuum – you’re part of the world.
“Since the early 20th century, art has been testing its boundaries. This is interesting anywhere; all the more so in Jerusalem.”