The art-life mutually nourishing equation is explored to the nth degree in the new slew of exhibitions that opened a couple of weeks ago at the Haifa Museum of Art.
Haifaites, according to museum chief curator Dr. Kobi Ben-Meir, are largely engaged with their natural surroundings, in particular the wadis that snake in and out of the urban sprawl. That not only dictates the topography and, thus, the constructional confines, they also offer handy and easily accessible refuges from the hustle and bustle of the hillside city.
The second floor of the museum is currently devoted to the ravines that intersperse Haifa, and explore their geological, aesthetic, social, and cultural attributes. As the exhibition informational material succinctly notes, the term “wadi” appears in Arabic, Hebrew, and English but, in the local context, it also transcends the corporeal and infers a state of mind.
“Wadis in the city create momentary respites from routine and are used for games and alternative community gatherings,” it notes. “At the same time, they contain darkness, waste of all kinds, and complex ecosystems of animals and plants, which exist as a parallel world alongside everyday life.”
All of that, and more, comes through in a diverse spread of works, curated by Dan Hendel, taking in an intriguing seemingly ramshackle affair by Ella Litvitz, who managed to manipulate elemental metal sheeting used to fence off construction sites (iskuriot), into a curious mélange that suggests a topographical continuum which may be reminiscent of the local ravine-hill arrangement.
Several wadis are highlighted in the exhibition, and there is a singular glimpse of the interior of the Elisha Cave in Wadi Siah, in a video work by Netta Lauper. The cave, which was used to house farm animals for centuries, was closed to the public in the 1980s.
For the purpose of the Haifa Museum exercise, the cavern was reopened overnight for just nine hours, with Lauper documenting forays by a variety of curious animals who, one presumes, were not aware of the import of the unique opportunity that came their way, and just sniffed around the ancient space.
Things take a turn for the intimate in a charming and visually alluring work by Roni Azgad-Hamburger. The 11-minute video work compiles stories she gathered from local residents who reminisce about bygone relationships, trysts, and the odd supernatural event they experienced in wadis in their neck of the woods.
The firsthand commentary adds a keyhole view element to the thematic environs, as the interviewees describe their wadi of choice, both as place that is dear to their heart, and a collective space of fantasy, surprising juxtapositions, and discovery.
Haifa proves coexistence is possible
Besides its other attributes, Haifa is a rare example of coexistence in this sectarian troubled part of the world. Somehow Jews, Muslims and Christians manage to get on together despite the political machinations and tension that percolates, and intermittently erupts, through the country’s social and sociopolitical fabric.
The Black Box installation by American-born Eytan Mann succinctly conveys the contemporary intermingling of communities and the interwoven backdrop to the city’s two millennia history. Mann deftly fuses the narratives retold by octogenarian Arab artist Abed Abdi, Yehiel Maman, and architect Dafna Grinstein, all based in Haifa.
The installation feeds off a property that was originally owned by a Christian family and was subsequently converted into a synagogue. Headphones placed around the work, which is encased in white plaster with apertures that offer visual vignettes of the timeworn structure at various junctures of its timeline, allow us to listen to Hebrew-language recollections of the building’s past, and how it hung on to its location.
The various strata of the meandering storyline, not only offer fascinating insight into the way the city has physically evolved, it also draws the visitor into some of the ups and downs of local human history.
Things have not always been hunky-dory up north. There have been clashes between Arab and Jewish residents, and even between Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews – most notably in the late 1950s in Wadi Salib, against a festering sociopolitical open wound inflicted by the Ashkenazi establishment of the day.
The relationship between Mother Nature’s gifts, and the increasingly encroaching presence of human intervention, also requires some attention. The ecological side of the local equation also features prominently in the current Haifa Museum rollout. Themis-Wadi, an avatar of Wadi Siah created by the Vienna-based Miescher-Trexler designed studio, is tailored to catch the eye and grab the imagination.
It takes pride of place in the center of the subtly-lit exhibition space. The animated polychromic work, of plants and animals from the wadi, brings the locale in question into the heart of the museum display, literally, and is projected onto an artificial rock the artists assembled from materials taken from the wadi itself.
There is the odd smile-inducing item at the museum, particularly a photographic diptych by Jerusalemite artist Dan Balilty, which highlights the interface between humans and local wildlife.
Anyone who lives in Haifa, or has spent some time in some of the city’s neighborhoods, may have been surprised to see wild boars roaming the back streets and crossing apartment building gardens. I met a couple of cautious but non-threatening specimens, presumably on the prowl for dinner, as I parked my car one evening in the French Carmel district.
Balilty’s Boars two-parter shows a cute-looking creature peeking out of a bush, and an elderly woman, complete with pandemic constraint-compliant mask, proffering sustenance to a pair of voluminous characters. By the nature of her relaxed demeanor, she might just as well have been feeding sparrows, cats, or squirrels.
As the wall text notes, humans and non-humans interact in Haifa on a daily basis, and Boars imparts a sense of mutual acceptance and mostly healthy existential synergy. “The series captures moments of encounter that transcend the horror of face-to-face meeting with the wild, and step into emotional territories of interdependence and affection.”
There is a rhythm and rhyme to human and other ecological dynamics, which comes across in compelling fashion in the Choreography of Resistance. Frankfurt-based Turkish artists Özlem Günyol and Mustafa Kunt convey the corporeally creative aspects of street-level sociopolitical activity in On the Stage. The dance pattern of the solo performer joins the dots between press photographs of street protests collected by the artists. Perhaps, the next time we wave a national flag – against or in support of the judicial reform – we might pay attention to the more aesthetically appealing side of the demo.
German artist Anna Witt places the concept of civil resistance in an unlikely context in a short video which captures passersby, in various industrial and commercial districts of Vienna, raising a fist in mock-defiance. The volunteers were asked to maintain the position for as long as they could, testing their physical and/or emotional stamina in the process. Individualizing the age-old gesture of protest challenged the subjects, who found themselves having to sustain the “fight,” without the support group that comes with demonstrating en masse.
Local expressions of dissatisfaction shine through in a four-series spread selected by Ben-Meir. The aforementioned 1950s Wadi Salib incident takes us back into deeper historic seams with black-and-white prints by press photographer Oscar Tauber augmented by copies of now-defunct left-leaning magazine HaOlam Hazeh (This World).
Another painful chapter in Israeli history provides the centerpiece of award-winning photographer Vardi Kahana’s Peace Now demonstration series during which Emil Grinzweig was murdered when a grenade was thrown at protesters. The Disengagement from Gaza upheaval of 2005 is also in there, complete with political commentary soundtrack.
Naturally, the current ongoing kerfuffle over the law court reforms could not be overlooked at the museum. Celebrated press and documentary snapper Avishag Shaar-Yashuv’s works chose to pursue the latter discipline in her contribution to the Choreography of Resistance, imbuing the fundamentally antagonistic setting into a personal, and human, circumstance.
One of the most fetching items in the museum presentation feeds off a confluence between reality and fantasy embodied in Jaro Varga’s Travel Tales in The Land installation curated by Ben-Meir. The Slovakian artist, it seems, has a particular penchant for the literary efforts of Karl May. The late 19th/early 20th-century German writer was, by all accounts, a controversial character who engaged in all kinds of subterfuge in his youth and spent time in various detention facilities.
He subsequently put that tendency for chicanery to more profitable use as a novelist, who claimed to have intimate experiential knowledge of life in the Wild West and other parts of the world. His popularity soared as he captured the imagination of generations of children around the world with his tales of derring-do and adventure in fantasy domains across the globe. He came here in 1899, spending time in Haifa, which spawned his best-selling tome Travel Tales in the Promised Land (Palestine).
Varga’s tribute to May accentuates the realms of the imaginary by adding his own covers to physical copies of May’s books. The invitingly impressive structure of the installation is based on reels of video tapes and 16mm films based on May’s writings, as Varga generates interfaces between different cultures, spaces, and times, thereby creating a new imaginary domain.
Plenty of perspectives to get into over at the Haifa Museum of Art.
The exhibitions close on January 1, 2024. For more information: (04) 603-0800 and www.hma.org.il.