Amid uncertainty, Israeli museum dedicates entire space to COVID pandemic

Dozens of artists participate in exhibition at Haifa Museum of Art, as some museums set to reopen.

Haifa Museum of Art  (photo credit: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/TALMORYAIR)
Haifa Museum of Art
Amid ongoing closures and uncertainty, the Haifa Museum of Art in northern Israel has decided to dedicate its entire space to examining the impact of the COVID-19 crisis.
How has the novel coronavirus transformed our notions of family, home and personal space? These are just some of the questions posed by the 50 artists taking part in the cluster of exhibitions at the museum, likely the first of its kind to address the pandemic on such a large scale.
“When we came to work on this exhibition, we really wanted to find an angle [of how] an art institution can react to this new reality,” Anat Martkovich, an assistant curator at the museum, told The Media Line. “We chose to look at it through the angle of the concept of space.”
Titled “Spaces in Turmoil,” the nine exhibitions on display approach the ongoing crisis from a wide variety of angles and themes.
One of the highlights is undoubtedly a photographic series by photojournalist Yuval Chen that explores how the lives of bats in urban environments have shifted as a result of lockdowns and reduced human activity. Located near the entrance of the museum, the photos hang all down a narrow hallway that is nearly pitch black save for a few carefully positioned spotlights illuminating the artworks in question.
Bats, of course, are thought to have transmitted COVID-19 to man.
“Chen wandered the streets of Tel Aviv and found that suddenly the bats there had much more space to move in now that everyone was under lockdown,” Yifat Ashkenazi, a museum curator, explained to The Media Line.
“They were not scared to go out anymore,” she said. “Essentially, humans stayed indoors and the bats came out.”
The exhibitions at the Haifa Museum originally opened to the public in September, days before Israel went into a second national lockdown due to skyrocketing virus cases.
All museums across the country – along with restaurants, shops and schools – were forced to shut down for months on end.
Museums remain shuttered as of this writing. However, the Israeli government on Tuesday announced it would be allowing a limited number of cultural institutions to reopen in the coming days, among them the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.
While the Haifa Museum of Art has yet to receive approval to do the same, it is hoping this will change.
“Museums in Haifa, like in all other places in the world, were severely affected [by the pandemic],” Yotam Yakir, general director of the Haifa Museums, told The Media Line. “It’s a terrible situation to be in.”
Yakir added that he had the misfortune of taking on the role of heading six museums in the city only two weeks before the pandemic erupted in Israel.
“You don’t want to start a new position when you have to close all the museums right after for several months and send all the workers home,” he explained.
One of the artists taking part in “Spaces of Turmoil” is Belu-Simion Fainaru, a renowned mixed-media artist who was born in Bucharest, Romania, and who immigrated to Israel in 1973.
His visually dramatic installation, “Black Milk,” is in some ways evocative of Leonardo Da Vinci’s masterpiece “The Last Supper.” As part of his multi-sensory work (it has a very memorable smell), Fainaru set up an old table that belonged to his parents when they were in Romania. Atop and all around the table are delicate white porcelain dishes filled with inky black liquid, which emits an odor akin to burnt oil.
According to the artist, he was trying to replicate the sense of a home that has been lost.
“After this supper, nothing happens,” Fainura told The Media Line. “We can relate this to the situation now; we don’t know what will be.
“Normally we have continuity between the past, the present and the future,” he continued. “Now there’s a disruption. It’s something that broke down in the way we live and the way we perceive family.”
Other artists in the show also delve into how family life has been indelibly altered as a result of lockdowns, quarantines and isolation.
One such work is a memorably surrealistic photograph by Israeli artist Meirav Heiman, who depicts what appears to be a family caught bouncing off a trampoline mid-dinner, with their food and dishes chaotically flying off in all directions.
“What makes a family, family? This work is about the fragile moment of families being together eating dinner and in one moment everything can break apart,” Heiman told The Media Line.
For the Haifa Museum of Art, the ultimate goal of the monumental cluster of exhibitions is to confront our new reality. The artworks on display ask many questions but offer few answers.
The same can be said of cultural institutions more generally, as the future of the arts sector in any post-pandemic world remains murky at best.
“Most of the employees have been furloughed and it’s been a very tough period with a lot of uncertainty, especially for those working in culture, whose industry has been classified as ‘nonessential,’” Yifat Ashkenaz, a curator at the museum, affirmed. “Many questions remain.”