Israeli artist Michal Helfman calls temporality to question in exhibition

The sculptor and installation artist transformed a large gallery space into a stripped-down lab, in which she explores how the notion of time can affect the artistic process

MICHAL HELFMAN, Dear A.S.AP, 2019, HD video with sound
In one of his most epic creations, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” Walt Whitman had written harrowing lines that are still considered emblematic of the American spirit almost 200 years after their publication: “It avails not, neither time nor place – distance avails not; I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or so many generations hence.”
By penning these lines, the legendary poet reflected on the notion of temporal boundaries. He seemed to suggest that through the act of creation a narrator can project himself into a future far beyond his lifetime. In her solo exhibition at the newly reopened Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Israeli artist Michal Helfman attempts a similar undertaking to Whitman’s poetic task. The sculptor and installation artist transformed a large gallery space in the museum into a stripped-down lab, in which she explores how the notion of time can affect the artistic process, the artworks that are produced and their manner of display.
Visitors to the gallery are greeted by two large signs set atop dark partitions, their letters glimmering like plaques at the entrance to a theater. One sign reads “Show,” while the other beckons to the viewer “Time.” Spectators are then required to decide through which partition they will enter the exhibition hall, a choice that determines how they will experience Helfman’s show and reinforces the artist’s mission of breaking down the barriers of space and time.
Once they have picked a path and pushed past black curtains, museum-goers are confronted with the remains of a fictional exhibition crafted by a fictional artist: A/P 3. Helfman doesn’t reveal much about the imaginary creator around whom her project revolves, except for some dry details that are gleaned by watching the video work that functions as the focal point of her show. A/P 3 is an artist operating underground, presumably forced to act discreetly out of fear of persecution by the authorities.
A/P 3’s dire situation is revealed through an exchange of letters with the curator Anne Sibylle Schwetter, who invites him to craft artworks in dialogue with the opus of the late German Jewish painter Felix Nussbaum. Voiceovers representing Schwetter and A/P 3 read aloud the letters in the video work, illustrating the concerns and inhibitions that permeate the life of an artist who lacks the freedom so necessary to create. This is where Helfman’s narrative takes a labyrinthian twist: Schwetter is a real curator who agreed to participate in Helfman’s project, and the institution she represents is the esteemed Felix Nussbaum Haus, a museum dedicated to the work of the surrealist painter who was killed by the Nazis in Auschwitz during World War II.
A/P 3 explains to Schwetter that he belongs to a group called Edition of X, composed of artists who carry out actions collectively and then disperse. They, he tells the curator, will perform the work that he cannot stage while in hiding. They are represented on screen by a group of dancers clad in futuristic outfits, who move around robotically while showing Schwetter items that visitors can detect offscreen, dispersed throughout the gallery.
If Helfman’s goal was to use the moving image medium in order to convey a tale of repression and thereby shock the viewers, she fails to do so. The storytelling is intriguing but too fragmented, and the Edition of X’s choreography is far too rigid to remind visitors of the importance of maintaining a culture that allows artists to create unhindered.
However, there are several installations mounted in the gallery that are far more subtle than the video work, and their clever implementation in the space succeeds to jolt where the scripted story doesn’t.
In the corner of the hall, tucked behind the symbol-fraught entryway, is a realistic theater set Helfman built. Replete with remnants of used makeup and stained mirrors, it looks like a ghastly backstage that invisible actors were forced to abandon. Featuring signs that read “Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome,” it is an obvious but nonetheless touching reference to the sardonic song the Emcee sings at the entrance to the Kit Kat Club in the 1966 musical Cabaret. In the play, set in the last days of the Weimmar Republic in Germany, the ominous song is a sign of disasters to come. This echo of a dark period, reappearing in the modern space of an Israeli museum, reiterates Helfman’s message: We cannot escape the traps of time, but we can learn the lessons history tries to teach us.
The most moving component of the exhibition is a small work station, hidden behind empty, geometric white structures scattered in the gallery. It contains a desk that features a book on Felix Nussbaum’s art and tragic life, which visitors are welcome to leaf through. Next to the table, which one could imagine as belonging to the mysterious A/P 3, is a bulletin board full of postcards and pictures. One of them is a text by Belgian artist Francis Alÿs, titled 1943.
Written in 2012, Alÿs’s document is a free-verse, personal musing on European artists who suffered during the eponymous year of the war.
“I think about Otto Dix watching his works being destroyed by the Nazis, I think about Beckmann under siege in Amsterdam, I think about Dali, Ernst and Breton reunited in their New York exile,” Alÿs wrote of the creators who were stifled and silenced by war drums. Helfman photocopied the famous text, pasted it on the board and scrawled its title in hurried handwriting.
This intimate gesture, which viewers can easily miss if they pass by quickly or don’t stop to read the text, is not just a smart nod to recent art history. It contains the very heart pulsing at the core of Helfman’s artistic endeavor: the hope to defeat time, to continue creating against the odds, even if you might be killed or forgotten. This ambition, as Whitman wrote, “avails not, neither time nor place.”
Dear A.S.A/P is on view at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art until December 30, 2020.

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