Altogether alone: ‘Seated in Seclusion’ at the Israel Museum

The show opened at the Israel Museum on March 4, which transpired as not particularly great timing.

Altogether alone: ‘Seated in Seclusion’ at the Israel Museum (photo credit: ERAN LEDERMAN)
Altogether alone: ‘Seated in Seclusion’ at the Israel Museum
(photo credit: ERAN LEDERMAN)
Any PR or marketing professional would be proud of Eran Lederman and Sharon Weiser-Ferguson. When it comes to advertising stunts, what they pulled off a few short weeks ago – although it already seems like an eternity – must take the promotional cake.
OK, the aforementioned should be taken with several spoonfuls of salt, but what could be more relevant to this trying time of social distancing and isolation than an exhibition called Seated in Seclusion co-curated by Lederman and Weiser-Ferguson?
The show opened at the Israel Museum on March 4, which transpired as not particularly great timing.
“The opening was wonderful,” says Lederman. “Lots of people came, but it turned out to be a sort of end-of-year party before everyone had to stay at home,” he adds wryly.
The seeds for Seated in Seclusion were sown around a decade ago. Lederman enjoys hiking, often following what he calls “a straight line from my house.” The said abode is at Moshav Matta near the Ella Valley and one of the curator’s linear forays led him in the direction of Khirbet Eitab among the ruins of an Arab village abandoned during the War of Independence, with some Crusader remains close by near Moshav Ness Harim. It was there that he came across what turned out to be a widespread phenomenon.
“I suddenly saw a very interesting chair. It was very dilapidated, but it was impressive in terms of its presence and its location.”
Lederman, trained as an industrial designer, currently lectures in the relevant department at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. His seasoned eyes immediately honed in on the expertly crafted aesthetics.
“The chair was in a very recognizable style, of a well-known designer called Marcel Breuer,” Lederman recalls, referring to the Hungarian-born architect and furniture designer who was part of the Bauhaus crafts and fine arts school of thought in the 1920s.
“I couldn’t work out who could possibly have dragged such an amazing chair up to the top of that hill. That must have been quite a challenge. You know, for designers, chairs are a big deal. They bring a lot of baggage with them – in terms of culture, technology, ideas, values.”
The Jerusalem Hills find left a lasting impression on Lederman. It set him off on a voyage of discovery that eventually spawned the Israel Museum exhibition which can now be viewed on the museum website, with Lederman and Weiser-Ferguson providing illuminating backdrop information.
“After that, I started noticing more and more chairs dotted around forests in my area,” he says.

THE VENTURE took on a more meaningful stratum and a dramatic turn on a family outing not far from Matta.
“When my kids were small, I went walking with them to Jerusalem, and we camped out overnight near Ein Kobi [spring, in Begin Park]. It was a dark night at the end of March and as the kids were going to sleep, I suddenly heard a very loud shout from the forest. I was really frightened,” Lederman chuckles. “It was very scary, and I was sorry I’d gone off for a walk with such small children without taking a weapon or any means of protection.”
Lederman felt he had to check out the source.
“I left the children with the dog in the tent, and I went toward the place where the shouting came from, near the spring and I saw a yeshiva student sitting there on his own, in seclusion, shouting and pleading.”
The penny dropped.
“I suddenly understood what the chairs were all about. I had no need to fear the young man there. He was in his zone.”
The youngster was a follower of late 18th- early 19th-century spiritual leader Rabbi Nahman of Breslov, who promoted the practice of daily reflection in self-seclusion, preferably in nature at night, when the young Breslov Hassidim could get away from material distractions.
The research project soon began in earnest.
“I started documenting chairs, all over Israel, over a period of around eight years. I took pictures of them, and I spoke to the hassidim and I took dips with them in the springs.”
The wherewithal for taking the seating venture to the next level emerged by a somewhat circuitous route.
“About two years ago, Bezalel put out a request for proposals for a research grant in the field of Judaica. I was looking for support, and I thought I’d be a wise guy and try for the grant. I thought the chairs were made by Jews so, maybe, that’s Judaica. I wrote a half page of text about a Judaica study project and, to my great surprise, I got the research grant,” Lederman laughs.
It was time to ignite the afterburners.
“I thought that, if I’m dealing with Judaica, maybe I should get in touch with the Israel Museum, and the Department of Jewish Art and Culture – actually [Israel Museum director] Ido [Bruno] suggested I do that. So I got in touch with Sharon.”
Although interested in the topic, Weiser-Ferguson felt there was some work to be done to get the project up to speed and to adapt Lederman’s idea to an Israel Museum setting.
“Eran got to me around two years ago and he asked me if I was aware of different kinds of chairs, and if we had some interesting chairs in the museum collection.”
Easier said than done.
“Actually there aren’t that many interesting chairs, although there are Eliyahu chairs,” she says, noting the ceremonial furniture item used in circumcision ceremonies.
In fact, the museum’s Judaica collection includes a piece of supreme importance for the Breslov community.
"There is Rabbi Nahman’s chair, which is in the exhibition, which now serves as an Eliyahu chair for Breslov Hassidut brit milah (circumcision) ceremonies,” Weiser-Ferguson adds.

BESIDES ITS lofty importance for the Breslov community, Rabbi Nahman’s chair – after several restoration rounds – is quite an eye-catcher. Putting it lightly, one could not say the same for the seating Lederman found and documented on his travels around the country.
“At the time, when Eran got in touch, I didn’t see how that was connected. Also, there was the problem that the chairs in the forests were really garbage. They had been repaired but were not in a good state, not something you could put in an exhibition in the museum.”
If you take the real estate professional “location, location, location” mantra and transpose it into the field of curatorial endeavor you end up with “context, context, context.”
“It was very challenging to try to work out how to bring the chairs into the museum,” Lederman points out. “It is like taking a piece of coral from the sea. It (the chair) is completely valueless as soon as you remove it from the context of the forest. We needed to find the context at the museum.”
The seclusion seats did not make it to the Jerusalem cultural repository in person, as it were, but the show features numerous evocative photographs taken in situ in the forest itself. They make for intriguing and entertaining viewing.
“We couldn’t put the chairs in the museum but Eran’s pictures are very attractive and interesting,” Weiser-Ferguson notes.
They are, indeed. And the large deftly lit prints are complemented by a handful of striking artistic creations, strategically positioned around the display areas, courtesy of some of the leading figures on the international industrial design stage.
Lederman invokes a little poetic license in explaining the integrative philosophy.
“We decided to create a dialogue between two hassidic schools of thought – Breslov Hassidism and the hassidism of design. I am a great hassid of (believer in) design,” he exclaims. “I belong to that hassidism and believe in it with all my heart and soul.”
While Lederman’s snaps manage to convey some of the woodland retreat ambiance where he encountered the elemental pews, the curators decided to boost the visual offerings ante by featuring inventive works created by such global leading design lights as Spanish-born Dutch-resident artist Nacho Carbonell. His aptly named towering Tree Chair combines ultra-modern concepts with primordial shapes in a surrealistic end product. Carbonell’s second contribution, Combi Cocoon 2, echoes the ingenious way some of the Breslov ascetics found to fuse their common-or-garden chairs with their natural setting. There are other alluring design creations by Brazilian siblings Humberto and Fernando Campana, Dutch designer Jurgen Bey and 81-year-old Italian master Andrea Branzi.
The one Israeli design exhibit displayed, the simply titled Chair by Haim Parnass, weaves part of a cypress tree trunk with a lamp, military-grade electrical breaker and tire parts. Parnass says his Chair “examines both local and personal space.”
“The cypress tree is used to mark out the boundaries of different sites,” says Lederman, and noting, “Breslov Hassidim also use materials found in nature to mark their space for self-seclusion, merging them with the furniture parts and other household items they bring to the forest.”
The contemporary works are alluring and thought-provoking, and most combine old and new aesthetics and materials. Lederman says the new seating concoctions suit the religious line of thought.
“We decided to include works by designers from all over the world – all except one are non-Jews – that address values in which Rabbi Nahman and his followers engage. The chairs we brought relate to seclusion, tikkun (spiritual repair) and nature. The dialogue between the chairs of the hassidim in seclusion, the crafted chairs and the Rabbi Nahman writings generates a sort of dialogue whereby the design interprets the texts of Rabbi Nahman for the designers and the general public.”
 
LEDERMAN BELIEVES all parties concerned get something out of the exhibition.
“The Breslov Hassidim get some idea of the world of design – the parallel hassidism – while the general public can get a grasp of both worlds.”
It is a fascinating concept, bringing a private practice of seclusion slap bang into the country’s epicenter of artistic and cultural interest, and the idea of images of a motley collection of rough-and-ready seating arrangements, patently way past their sell-by date, enjoying pride of place alongside the efforts of some of the world’s most celebrated industrial designers.
Returning to the tongue-in-cheek dark humorous reference, running an exhibition with a seclusion-based theme at a time like this, unfortunately, makes the venture all the more pertinent.
“The exhibition touches on two extremely relevant points,” Lederman observes. “There is the matter of isolation, and seclusion, and the other is tikkun (from tikkun olam) – correction. We are all – now – in a state of some sort of isolation and we are painfully aware of the experience of being on our own. But a lot of people I speak to say they suddenly understand what it is to be on their own, with themselves for a while. It is an opportunity to get to know themselves better, and their families.”
There are more far-reaching implications here.
“The issue of tikkun, I think, is coming through very powerfully now,” Lederman adds. “After we all succumbed to the consumerism culture, and glorified new products, even before the coronavirus pandemic, and even more so after it, I think the world is now moving in a direction of tikkun in a far more meaningful way.”
There is also some current environmental zeitgeist added value to be had here.
“A few months ago, the EU passed a law making it mandatory for manufacturers to make products that allow the purchaser to repair them themselves, rather than just throwing them away and buying new products. The Breslov followers managed to find a fascinating way of using polypropylene Keter [manufacturer] chairs, which cannot be repaired. For the Breslovs, repair is a supreme value. I think the world is moving toward repair, patience and tolerance. Maybe this coronavirus will teach us to repair ourselves and the way we live.”
Seated in Seclusion is due to run until the end of 2020. For more information: www.imj.org.il/en


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