Tel Aviv Open Houses Festival salutes acclaimed sculptor Dani Karavan

Karavan died a year ago, at the age of 90, and his very public oeuvre is currently being saluted with a slew of events as part of this year’s Open Houses Festival in Tel Aviv.

 DANI KARAVAN’S Culture Square creations at Habima Square. (photo credit: DANI KARVAN COLLECTION)
DANI KARAVAN’S Culture Square creations at Habima Square.

It sounds a little akin to the old philosophical teaser that ponders whether a tree falling in a forest, when no one is around to hear it, actually makes a sound. It may follow that a work of art might not exist if no one sees it.

Dani Karavan had no such problems. The celebrated Israel Prize-winning sculptor let it all hang out for all and sundry to observe and touch. Karavan died a year ago, at the age of 90, and his very public oeuvre is currently being saluted with a slew of events as part of this year’s Open Houses Festival in Tel Aviv.

It is only fitting that an artist, who left such a weighty mark on his adopted hometown of Tel Aviv, should be given an official pat on the back, albeit posthumously, in that very city. Saturday’s Karavan rollout takes in a bunch of guided tours of relevant geographical points, including his Adama, Admati (The Earth) creation located at the branch of Bank Hapoalim on Yehuda Halevi Street, comprising cubes of earth, plexiglas, optic fibers and wood. Then, there is his iconic and hugely impressive White Square arrangement, which sits atop a hillock in the Edith Wolfson Park, offering a spectacular view of the urban spread.

And if that doesn’t give the festival goers a sense of the man behind the sculptures, surely the visit to Karavan’s studio should do the trick. That sounds like a bit of a courageous move to allow strangers into the late great artist’s inner sanctum.

“I suppose so, but that is totally in keeping with my dad’s spirit,” says his daughter, Noa Karavan Cohen. “Firstly, to begin with, his studio was in the house, so I got to spend a lot of time there. It was like a funfair, with piles of paper, a sketching desk and lots of other things.” That laissez faire mind-set, she says, applied to people outside the family circle, too. “

"My father was always connected to people, particularly at his main studio in Paris. He loved meeting people and making his work accessible to them.”

Noa Karavan Cohen
 A KARAVAN work at the central courthouse in Tel Aviv.  (credit: DANI KARVAN COLLECTION) A KARAVAN work at the central courthouse in Tel Aviv. (credit: DANI KARVAN COLLECTION)

Even so, Karavan Cohen says it took a while to introduce the studio slot to the festival itinerary. “That wasn’t the first thing we thought of. We thought of Culture Square [in Habima Square] and White Square, Bank Hapoalim, Bank Leumi. But Aviva Levinson, who thought up the event, asked if we would be willing to run tours of the studio. I, of course, consulted my mother first; we immediately said yes.”

It seems there was nothing Karavan liked more than having strangers shuffling up to his works, and getting down and dirty with them. “They called up my father one day and told him people are climbing all over the monument. It’s a disaster,” Karavan Cohen laughs. The piece in question is the hulking Negev Monument in Beersheba. “My dad said: ‘That’s wonderful! That’s just what I wanted to happen.’ He wanted people to get to know his art with all their senses, which is why, I think, music was very important to him.”

The said large scale piece down south, intriguingly, has a tubular tower section with holes in it. The inrushing wind produces different notes, according to the size of the hole and the velocity of the air movement at the time. “He always looked for a way to introduce a musical element to his work,” Karavan Cohen explains. “If there was no music, even just the sound of the location or what goes on there will do.”

Karavan's interactive art

THAT MAKES his art both site-specific and interactive. “He made a video of the Negev Monument, for the Venice Biennale,” Karavan Cohen continues, “and in the film you can hear people crunching across the gravel there.” Hence the soundtrack to the sculpture, I suggested. “Yes,” comes the reply. “That and the wind.”

While, naturally, the Open Houses tribute largely addresses his contributions to the local landscape, Karavan also produced works for commissions received from overseas. That will be conveyed in the Dani Karavan Across the Globe presentation of video clips, projected onto the front wall of Habima Theater.

The screening will feature environmental sculptures located in public spaces around the world, including: the gargantuan Axe Majeur in Cergy-Pontoise near Paris, Murou Art Forest in Japan, and Passages – Homage to Walter Benjamin in Portbou, Spain. Passages references the German Jewish philosopher who committed suicide in the Pyrenees, in 1940, when he realized the fascist authorities in Spain were going to return him and his fellow Jewish would-be escapees back to the Germans.

Karavan’s extensive portfolio includes several Holocaust-related installations, and not all specifically Jewish. There is, for example, his Sinti and Roma Memorial in Berlin’s Tiergarten park, and Way of Human Right in Nuremberg. The latter, in fact, was not in the original purview, but Karavan found a way of connecting the city with its Nazi past and to pointing the way to a better future.

“It was important for him to introduce human rights into a work for Nuremberg,” Karavan Cohen notes. “When he suggested it to the Germans, it wasn’t something that was in the commission, and he was certain they would reject the idea. They only asked for something that would connect the old and new parts of the museum there.” The proposal was to have a positive ripple effect. “They not only accepted the idea, they decided to award a prize, every two years, to a champion of human rights.”

There is more to the Karavan legacy, which is apparent in the Open Houses legacy. “Dad was one of the instigators of the White City project,” says Karavan Cohen, referencing the initiative to apply for UN Heritage Site status for Tel Aviv’s unparalleled collection of Bauhaus, or International Style, architecture. “He went to Chich [Tel Aviv Mayor Shlomo Lahat] in the 1980s and told him there is a treasure here, which must be preserved.”

The person charged with sprucing up the buildings was Nitza Szmuk, and she will be around on Saturday afternoon to lead a tour of some of the relevant architectural gems, and talk about how she and Karavan envisaged turning their vision into enduring reality. “Nitza will also talk about how she became involved in the project because of my father and it will be a kind of homage to Dani Karavan,” Karavan Cohen explains. It will be just one of several salutes to the visionary artist.

Elsewhere across the extensive Open Houses spread, there are opportunities to learn about urban renewal plans for the dusty area around the bus station, a look at how to create sustainable neighborhoods, learn about plans to make Tel Aviv more bike-friendly, pay a visit to a sabil – public drinking fountain – built in 1815, and pop into a design hub located in a converted flour mill.

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