Footloose and artfully free at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art

A new era for the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.

TEL AVIV Museum of Art director Tania Coen-Uzzielli (at right): ‘I felt it was very important to ensure the physicality of the museum building doesn’t disappear.’ (photo credit: GUY YECHIELI)
TEL AVIV Museum of Art director Tania Coen-Uzzielli (at right): ‘I felt it was very important to ensure the physicality of the museum building doesn’t disappear.’
(photo credit: GUY YECHIELI)
To paraphrase an oft-noted saying attributed to late 16th century-early 17th century English philosopher Francis Bacon, originally citing Mohammad and a large rock outcrop, if the people can’t get into museums to get an eyeful of the exhibits, the said institutions should be getting their creations and artifacts out to the people.
That idea has gained increasing credence over the past couple of months or so, as cultural enterprises and institutions across the board have resorted to virtual online means of proffering their content to the general public. Technological means of communication and promulgation, back in the halcyon pre-corona days, may have been vilified by those wary of the resulting social alienation but, clearly, the only way to circumvent imposed social distancing of late has been via Zoom, social media and the like.
Now the Tel Aviv Museum of Art is getting on in the technologically facilitated relocation act – big time. With the proliferation and advancement of digital platforms, conveying spectator experiences from afar without the consumer actually being in the relevant physical space has become all the rage – especially when, like now, there is no alternative.
Museums have been one of the last cultural repositories to utilize Internet-based means to that end, but according to Tania Coen-Uzzielli, all that is now changing. As of a couple of weeks ago, the world-renowned museum has been showing some of its artistic gems to city dwellers at various spots around the metropolitan expanse by projecting them on building walls for the viewing pleasure of one and all. The outdoor screenings take in a curated selection of video artworks on walls, visible from homes in various locations throughout Tel Aviv.
That was partly fired by an enterprising and universally lauded lockdown viral initiative in the Tel Aviv Museum director’s country of birth.
GILAD RATMAN’S ‘The Days of the Family Bell’ forms part of the Desktop archival art project.GILAD RATMAN’S ‘The Days of the Family Bell’ forms part of the Desktop archival art project.
“The idea was, a little, to think of and return to the Italian balconies, with the singing they did,” she says, referencing the delightful impromptu ex-mural neighborhood a cappella sessions that broke out around Italy in the early days of pandemic isolation. “I actually tried to do that in Jerusalem, but it didn’t work out,” laughs the Rehavia resident.
Coen-Uzzielli then invokes a somewhat oxymoronic textural-corporeal connection between accepted and more improvised exhibition domains.
“I felt it was very important to ensure that the physicality of the museum building doesn’t disappear, and the physical experience of art. Otherwise, you can just go to listen to a lecture, and you learn everything. The added value of going into a museum is that, in fact, you are exposed to a work of art directly.”
WHILE, OF course, accepting the Ministry of Health-imposed constraints, Coen-Uzzielli feels there is a better, less compromising, mode of making art available for street-level viewing, quite literally.
“Zoom and all the digital platforms are not an alternative, a consciousness alternative. Yes, when you present art like that, it does remain in people’s consciousness, but it is not an experiential alternative.”
The museum director consulted architectural designer and lecturer Lila Chitayat on how to get the show on the road. Chitayat mooted the idea of getting out and about around town, to enable culture consumers to get a fix of innovative creativity produced by a bunch of top-notch Israeli artists.
“We thought of doing something in spaces around the city,” explains. “Clearly, we couldn’t remove works from the museum, but we could do something with video art. By the way, Israeli art really takes on new life in the video format. I think it is one of the media at which Israeli art excels. Video is one the arts media that Israeli artists really enjoy working with.”
The international acclaim that has been afforded to the likes of Sigalit Landau is cast-iron proof of that.
The project gathered momentum. To date, there have been screenings at Dizengoff Center and in the Florentin district, with more planned in Jaffa and elsewhere around the city over the coming weeks. That will go ahead notwithstanding the ongoing lifting of corona-related restrictions on movement and gatherings, with museums around the country allowed to reopen on May 17. Misgivings concerning the financial viability of readmitting the public, when the numbers of visitors will be pretty strictly monitored, have been voiced by senior museum officials who note that would necessitate bringing members of staff back from unpaid leave while revenue from such scanty customer volumes would leave the already cash-strapped institutions even further in the red.
“In shopping malls, they decide that each person needs a radius of 15 meters. If the same is applied to the museums, that will be very difficult to implement,” Nava Kessler, chair of the Association of Museums and ICOM (International Council of Museums) Israel, recently observed.
‘BARKING DOGS Don’t Bite,' Alona Rodeh‘BARKING DOGS Don’t Bite,' Alona Rodeh
Coen-Uzzielli has a similar take on the income prospects of resuming “normal” service.
“They set the May 17 date, but they didn’t specify the guidelines or financial safety net. We won’t open on May 17. Maybe on June 1.”
So, for now, it is all hands on deck for al fresco artistic presentations.
HENCE THE Desktop project.
“We asked 30 artists to send us a sort of testimony, which could be testimony of their work. Sort of documentation,” Coen-Uzzielli says. “We received video clips, or presentations, of around three minutes.”
In addition to some pleasing aesthetics and dynamic creations, the public also received a pretty broad sweep with regard to what’s going down at the cutting-edge end of the genre these days.
“We got all the material, and then you see you have an overview of all the styles of the artists. We asked each artist to send a sort of a three-minute documentation, from their desktop, as if they each burrowed into their own archives and put together something for us – telling some kind of story fueled by their own work.”
Those efforts will eventually also be uploaded to the museum’s digital platforms and incorporated in one context, thereby enriching the institution’s video art resources into the bargain. The contributor lineup includes such local envelope pushers as Ruti Sela, Yael Frank, Nimrod Gershuni, Naama Tsabar and Israel Kabala.
The museum appears to be making the most of the lockdown situation. The Closed Museum documentary project has acclaimed photographer Vardi Kahana shooting the largely deserted indoor environs of institution’s buildings, with the public barred from entry, although relevant members of staff engage in control, conservation and maintenance. While not exactly overjoyed at having to shut down during the pandemic, Coen-Uzzielli and her cohorts identified the unique opportunity to capture the – thankfully – exceptional state of affairs for posterity. Kahana is currently snapping the permanent display galleries, with the works covered for protection, as well as the temporary exhibitions that opened and swiftly closed as soon as the new regulations were imposed. As the museum blurb puts it, when completed and unveiled, the fruits of the project “will expose the hidden to the public eye and documents the rare, historic passage of time.”
Rather than taking their foot off the gas pedal, Coen-Uzzielli and those of her staff who were not put out to temporary unpaid pasture seem to have shifted up a gear.
“As a cornerstone of cultural and artistic activity and discourse, the museum sees itself as committed to the local community at present more than ever,” she says. “Against the backdrop of globalism that has intensified in recent decades, and alongside the extensive global knowledge sharing between countries in dealing with the corona epidemic, the importance of local resources, including creativity and thought, also became evident.”
The director feels the lockdown only served to heighten the importance of the role the institution has to play in society as a whole, as an interface between the public and the feats of talented creative souls across the generations, with social benefits thrown in for good measure.
“During this extended period of remoteness, seclusion and alienation, the museum serves as an anchor and a place for reconnection, discovery, continuity and belonging. The consumption of digital information by all of us at this time and the increased use of screens cannot replace the actual experience of art. We see great importance in getting out into the physical space, through outdoor art screening, and in interacting proactively with the local artist community.”
‘THE INVERT 2010’ two-parter by Ben Hagari adds an abundance of color to the Desktop documentary artistic series. ‘THE INVERT 2010’ two-parter by Ben Hagari adds an abundance of color to the Desktop documentary artistic series.
All the aforesaid flows through and informs Desktop and the outdoor video art offerings.
AS WINSTON CHURCHILL once sagaciously observed: “An optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” While keenly aware of the downside of the pandemic pandemonium and the ensuing physical and emotional maelstrom, Tel Aviv Museum’s chief curator Doron Rabina appears to follow the sunny line of thought of the feted British statesman.
“The corona pandemic not only causes the loss of human life, it also destroys economies and paralyzes countries,” he notes. “This pandemic also convulses the individual’s self-perception, his relationship to the familiar and to the unknown, and uncovers the arbitrariness or the fragility of many fundamental assumptions. It releases, in a universal, but also in a most private way, the ‘human’ aspect of many safety belts.”
Therein, according to Rabina, lies the interface between real life and the artistic reflection thereof, and spurs the museum ever onward and upward, especially now.
“It is a moment that imposes upon us what art is always interested in, and even strives to achieve: instability, reflection on worldviews, belonging and alienation to the existing order, falsehoods and truths. There is no reason or possibility that the museum will not stop to think and look into the hidden significance of this moment.”
I first met up with Coen-Uzzielli in her spacious office in the early days of the lockdown. It was a strange experience walking through the cavernous ground floor atrium, in the old wing, as I made my way to the elevator. The office labyrinth was, as expected, sparsely populated as we sat down to talk about her professional backdrop.
She succeeded Suzanne Landau at the top of the museum pile in January 2019, having served in various positions at the Israel Museum in her hometown of Jerusalem for 20 years. Born in Italy, she made aliyah at the age of 19 and completed bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the History of Art and Archaeology Department of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and studied ancient art as part of a special program.
Back in March, when it was difficult to even hazard a guess at how things might eventually pan out, in terms of freedom of movement, and how the museum would come through this trying vignette, Coen-Uzzielli grappled with substantial question marks.
“This crisis will pass at some stage. Will people be hungry for community life, for physical contact, for what they didn’t have, to stand in line or will we lose that mode of behavior? Is the experience of looking at a work of art together with other people around us – and not looking at them in isolation on a computer screen – like a muscle that we will have to retrain to respond? I don’t know.”
But she was hopeful.
“I don’t think the virtual experience can act as an alternative to the real thing,” she posited. “I think if we work well, we will manage to generate curiosity in our customers so that, in the end, they will come to see the real thing and not make do with the virtual experience.”
Coen-Uzzielli, naturally, wants the public to flood back to the museum, as and when, and she sees relationship with the art and culture consumer as a type of synergy.
‘THE INVERT 2010’ two-parter by Ben Hagari adds an abundance of color to the Desktop documentary artistic series. ‘THE INVERT 2010’ two-parter by Ben Hagari adds an abundance of color to the Desktop documentary artistic series.
“Once they talked about the visitor. And then, in the 70s and 80s, during the consumerism era they were clients. Today we talk more in terms of the partner.”
Having the paying customer take on a more proactive role can offer dividends all round, especially these days.
“In the current situation, that can help us a little. In what sense are they partners? How can I instill the museum with a partnership experience – partnership in the excitement that comes from art, understanding art and experiencing art with others?”
The jury is still out on that, but the current slew of video art screenings seems like a judicious step in the desired direction.
“I don’t think that opening a virtual museum will stop people from coming back here, when they can,” says Coen-Uzzielli.
Time will, hopefully, soon tell.