One hour and 20 minutes. That’s the length of the commute by train from Tel Aviv, where this writer resides, to Haifa, where the northern city’s main museum has just opened a cluster of exhibitions that aim to tackle the various issues and emotions that the coronavirus has given rise to in all of us. In our fast-paced lives, an hour and 20 minutes are a lifetime that passes in the blink of an eye. I insist on stalling the ride, relishing in the respite from the daily race to and fro between interviews and deadlines.
Eventually, one cellphone ping bursts my temporary bubble of tranquility. The text I receive reads: “The museum is closed today.” As the train hurtles forward, revealing the pastoral view of green hills, I resign myself to the possibility that I will have to work remotely from the coastal town instead of reviewing art exhibitions. “Don’t worry,” another message flashes on my screen. “Someone will be there to open the door for you.” The unforeseen hitch in my trip seems to fit right in with the surreal reality depicted in nine new shows at the Haifa Museum of Art. Titled Spaces in Turmoil, they present works created by local artists during the country’s first lockdown, and creations from the museum’s collections. All illustrate the notion of traumatic turnarounds that have characterized our lives since the pandemic broke out. What could be more fitting than to engage with these artworks as I did, wandering between the darkened halls of an empty museum days before Israel entered a second lockdown?
Home sweet home?Of the nine exhibitions on view, the most resonant show, which also displayed very clever curatorial decisions – executed by Svetlana Reingold, the museum’s chief curator – is The Israeli Uncanny. The group exhibit brings together works by veteran artists such as Yosl Bergner and Micha Ullman, as well as paintings and installations created by a younger generation of artists.
The uncanny is a topic that has already been researched to exhaustion by art historians and curators. The term was first coined by German psychiatrist Ernst Jenstch and later expounded on by Sigmund Freud in his canonic text from 1919, Das Unheimliche. According to Freud, the unheimliche (which translates from German into “unhomely”) is the feeling of fear and alienation that is evoked by a familiar object or place.
Reingold can be justified in her choice to return to this subject, because people from all walks of life have encountered it in the past months. As the pathogen forced us all into extended quarantines inside our houses, the home environment transformed from an area of safety and repose to a place that often represents our sense of entrapment. The artworks in the show all symbolize this disorienting foreignness.
Quite literally greeting visitors to the show, perched as it is at the entrance to the exhibition hall, is Ilona Balaga’s Welcome Barrier – an installation that is anything but welcoming. The work is composed of two mundane doormats sporting the word “Welcome” and positioned across from one another like mirror images, and a metal frame supported by two wooden blocks that looks like a door that has been emptied of the material that should hold it together. Balaga’s installation serves as both a peeping hall into the rest of the exhibition and a strangely threatening threshold, evoking questions about whether a home is really a shelter.
Some other highlights from the show are sculpture-installation works by the late Israeli conceptual artist Michael Gross, which were thoughtfully juxtaposed next to paintings by Micha Ullman. Gross’s shutters, made of painted wood, were installed leaning against the walls as though an anonymous hand had just ripped them out of the window frames they were attached to.
The shutters appear next to Ullman’s stern and accurate acrylic paintings of apartment buildings that consist of multiple, identical balconies and one of a window whose shutters cast a long shadow across the canvas. The pairing of the two bodies of work is so instinctive that it appears as though they always belonged together, two separate but cohesive creations that point at the uncanny – here, the sentiment rears its head – resemblance between rows of apartment buildings in the urban landscape.
A room of one’s own
One more notable exhibition is Feminine Difference. This show sought to turn the limelight to the female body, which is so often repressed, marginalized and domesticized.
Some of the strongest works in the show were still photographs, one by art photographer and photojournalist Oded Balilty, and two by artist Angelika Sher. In Hide and Seek, Balilty photographed a woman clad in a bright, neon pink dress. The woman’s midriff and hands are visible, but her face is hidden by a fabric in the exact same shade, which is hanging out to dry on a clothing line. Positioned as she is within a gray and suffocating setting of an unrecognizable backyard, with plumbing or air conditioning cables poking through the wall, the woman in the image is sending a beautiful, albeit didactic message. It is as though she were saying: “Here I am, presenting myself to your gaze; but I am doing this because there is no choice.” Sher, meanwhile, photographed other beautiful women against seemingly unappealing backdrops. One of her subjects, forlorn-looking and wearing a red headdress, is seen looking out the window of a dilapidated building in Jaffa. Another woman is seen standing in profile within the dimly-lit interior of a seamstress’s shop. While the frames belong in the generally ordinary domain of everyday life, the women in the pictures have the alarming appearance of silent ghosts, functioning as visual precursors of a looming catastrophe.
It was especially thought-provoking to visit the exhibition in light of the uptick in reports on women who have suffered domestic abuse in Israel because of the lockdown.
Nonetheless, the viewing experience leaves something to be desired. At a time when women are still struggling to raise their voices against the violence imposed on their bodies and freedom, it would have done well to present more radical artworks that directly address this issue.
The tension within, the horror without
One of the most engrossing artists presenting her work at the museum is Meirav Heiman. Heiman is showing a group of works from recent years, which appear to quite literally personify the title given to the group of exhibitions. In her video works and photographs, she directs domestic environments but imbues in them a sense of austere fakeness, making the viewer question what kind of intimacy the inhabitants of the homes she films actually share. Through her lens, the home is rendered into a space in turmoil, constantly struggling and failing to maintain its fragile balance.
In the video work Living Room, Heiman invited professional acrobats and dancers to create a series of strange gymnastic routines in a living room and a bedroom. Adults and children climb on top of one another, stretching into impossible poses beside a kitchen table and a television set. The bizarre exercise, seemingly out of place in the confines of a home and not a gym, is an apt visual analogy for the attempt all of us are carrying out in our everyday lives, now more than ever: to survive the impossible nearness of our loved ones and still create space for ourselves.
Still other exhibitions demonstrated a curatorial attempt to reflect the hardship of responding to an international phenomenon as it unfolds. But works like the poetic black-and-white photographs of bats by Yuval Chen don’t really merit their own exhibition space. Nor do the memes taken from the Internet and pasted on gallery walls in Endless?, an exhibit that seeks to reflect back to the visitors their efforts to deal with the reality of the pandemic through humor, and via means of mass communication.
The artists whose works are presented deserve all the accolades for pouncing on the opportunity and creating at such uncertain times. However, the nonuniform quality of the works highlights an important conundrum: Should the creative community rush to exhibit works that ponder the repercussions of the coronavirus while they have yet to fully pan out?
As I retrace my steps to the train station, I think about the empty museum, bereft of viewers to interact with the art on its walls. I have an hour and 20 minutes-long ride to grapple with this idea.
Spaces in Turmoil is on view at the Haifa Museum of Art, 26 Shabtai Levi Street, Haifa, until December 31, 2020. The museum is expected to reopen to visitors after the nationwide lockdown.