Mechanical life - Two exhibits take no-nonsense look at virtual relationships

LIU BOLIN’S ‘Hiding in the City – Demolition’ work references the rapid urbanization process in China (photo credit: LIU BOLIN)
LIU BOLIN’S ‘Hiding in the City – Demolition’ work references the rapid urbanization process in China
(photo credit: LIU BOLIN)
The Museum on the Seam is a unique cultural establishment in these parts. While it is true that any repository of works of art should leave the visitor with a sense of pleasure – although that is not obligatory – it should definitely send the consumer home with food for thought. The Museum on the Seam does that on a regular basis, and the two shows currently on display there are patently aimed at that denouement.
In the current pandemic zeitgeist it seems perfectly natural to delve into such thought-provoking domains as the perils of technological advances and to consider whether we are about to lose control of the fruits of our cerebral loins. The “Golem” exhibition addresses that sticky matter in a no-nonsense manner.
As our lives become increasingly tailored to remote virtual relationships; and basic everyday activities are conducted via the Internet, email and social media, without the need, for example, for manufacturers to meet their end users in person; while Facebook allows us to flit between non-corporeal liaisons with unrestrained abandon, one might ask where is this all leading.
However, it is far from being a new, exclusively 21st century, topic of discussion. More than a century and a half ago, New Zealand newspaper The Press ran an article by Samuel Butler called “Darwin among the Machines” in which he suggested, “We are ourselves creating our own successors” and “The machines are gaining ground upon us; day by day we are becoming more subservient to them.” That was in 1863, almost six decades after the invention of the steam train, and close to a century after mechanized processes were introduced to Britain’s cotton industry.
“Do we have good reasons to worry about the ultimate human-like machine we are developing, and will it very soon prove us severely mistaken?” poses museum founder and chief curator Raphie Etgar. “Or, in other words, is humankind on the verge of a struggle for control versus man-made machines, which are beginning to form their own independent thoughts?”
GERMAN DIRECTOR Fritz Lang’s landmark 1926 ‘Metropolis’ movie warns of the dangers of capitalism and the enslavement of the working class. (Fritz Lang)GERMAN DIRECTOR Fritz Lang’s landmark 1926 ‘Metropolis’ movie warns of the dangers of capitalism and the enslavement of the working class. (Fritz Lang)
“GOLEM,” INDEED, poses troubling questions. It looks at master-slave dynamics, at “mechanical life” which may very well be inherent to exponentially evolving high-tech. As veteran American professor of architecture, planning and preservation Mark Wigley muses, we may be looking at an Armageddon-like scenario whereby the human being is becoming “a prosthetic being that expands its biology and mentality with layers of technology.” That doesn’t sound too heartwarming, especially in this day and age of (anti)social distancing and Zoom-enabled “encounters.”
Then again, as Chinese artist twosome Sun Yuan and Peng Yu portray in their aptly named five-and-a-half-minute video work Can’t Help Myself, there may be limits to the ability of computerized machinery to get the job done. The star of Can’t Help Myself is an industrial robot equipped with visual-recognition sensors, which does its damnedest to contain a viscous, blood-red liquid within a predetermined area. The video shows the assembly line-like contraption frenetically shooting off in every which direction to prevent the dense fluid from overstepping the bounds of its prescribed realms of modus operandi.
There is a voyeuristic side to the work with members of the public looking on as the hapless man-made state-of-the-art gizmo goes about its Sisyphean task, which is clearly doomed to failure. As Etgar suggests in the exhibition catalogue notes, “In this case, who is more vulnerable: the human who built the machine or the machine which is controlled by a human?”
That seems particularly poignant at this time, when we are required to adhere to edicts intermittently issued by the authorities limiting our freedom of movement and, even, our freedom of expression.
BOTH “GOLEM” and the similarly dystopian-leaning “Metropolis” exhibition duly set the cogitative wheels in motion across an array of areas and on all sorts of levels. One, Etgar submits, relates to matters of scale. “[Dutch architect, architectural theorist, urbanist] Rem Koolhaas, in his article [in the “Metropolis” exhibition catalogue] talks about the ramifications of size, or bigness, for our quality of life and also for the way we live.”
Koolhaas’s comments are principally made within an architectural context, and reference the increasingly virtual or artificial nature of life.
“According to Rem, the bigger the building the more we introduce to it functions that start to become so relevant to our everyday lives that people, gradually, lose the need to leave the ‘building,’” Etgar continues. “The building, or structure, provides for man’s every need – restaurants, swimming pools and everything they require.”
That may not be the healthiest way to live.
“This approach gradually creates cities within cities, or buildings that no longer need the city around them,” the curator explains.
CHINESE ARTISTS Sun Yuan and Peng Yu convey the limitations of technological creaitons, and human voyeurism, in ‘Can’t Help Myself.’ (Sun Yuan/Peng Yu)CHINESE ARTISTS Sun Yuan and Peng Yu convey the limitations of technological creaitons, and human voyeurism, in ‘Can’t Help Myself.’ (Sun Yuan/Peng Yu)
That seemingly idyllic, all-services-provided ethos conjures up images of the modern-day hospital. If anyone out there remembers, say Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv, or Hadassah Ein Kerem in Jerusalem, pre-1990s, back then they were just that – hospitals. Now they are termed “medical centers,” located in spacious grounds that take in shopping malls, hotels, synagogues and other everyday amenities. Basically, once inside, there is little need to leave and encounter the real world outside.
“I think that approach distorts a person’s connection with their surroundings – their natural surroundings - on a social level,” Etgar ventures. “That comes across in an almost violent way in China. There they forced people to live in that kind of [enormous] building, and pulled down the old small red brick buildings.”
OF COURSE, especially when you are talking about projects of such a challenging nature as “Golem” and “Metropolis,” the pandemic-oriented reality in which most of the world finds itself, very much comes into play. While the exhibitions were conceived before COVID-19 emerged, Etgar says it resonates throughout the showings.
“The coronavirus has certainly impacted on our lives, but also this line of thought of a city based on skyscrapers turns us into a different kind of person.”
Here he invokes the aforementioned Chinese duo.
“If you bring in robotics, which is certainly a sort of process, we might, at first, be amused by it, then we are surprised by it, and then we are amazed. Ultimately we worship.”
Therein, he says, lie the perils of over-reliance on technology.
“We are then, automatically, provided with ready-made products and services. Then we start saying: that’s nice, we don’t have to do anything. We have everything. But this robot is a dangerous creature. Not just in technological terms, but also on an ideological level, with regard to what we do here, in this world, as human beings.”
Sounds like a sort of Tower of Babylon scenario whereby apotheotic strivings get the better of us and we end up losing our way, on a basic human level. Judging by some of the reactions witnessed to, for example, mask-wearing these days, when fear of the possible consequences of not toeing the official directive line sometimes completely eradicates any semblance of decorum or etiquette, perhaps we are not too far away from that undesirable social state of affairs.
The dizzying and dehumanizing effect of large-scale architectural projects features several times in “Metropolis.” The To the Mountain Top video work by Portuguese artist Rui Toscano creates an unbroken schematic continuum of skyscraper facades, soaring higher and higher in a never-ending motion. Vertical cityscape growth is prevalent in large urban areas the world over.
AMERICAN-ISRAELI artist Shai Kremer’s ‘World Trade Center: ConcreAbstract’ series feeds off documentation of the site’s reconstruction. (Shai Kremer)AMERICAN-ISRAELI artist Shai Kremer’s ‘World Trade Center: ConcreAbstract’ series feeds off documentation of the site’s reconstruction. (Shai Kremer)
That intensity of urban residential living also comes across in a hyper-detailed ink-on-paper drawing by Washington DC-based artist Ben Tolman, depicting the densely constructed environment and the effects it has on the people who inhabit it. His Refuge creation from 2016 marries the impersonality of enormous housing projects with stripped back innards that polished end products tend to obscure.
Tolman also has a couple of works in “Golem” that similarly impart the idea of the grand scale of man-made structures that dwarf individuals and make them, at least visually, insignificant.
Several landmark cinematic offerings spring to mind while we’re on the subject of automated, technology-dominated life. Woody Allen’s superb 1973 futuristic comedy Sleeper foresees a world in which sexual pleasure is totally devoid of physical contact between people, while Chaplin’s classic Modern Times sees the worker as just a cog in the great conveyor belt of industrial yields.
Etgar goes for a couple of universally loved, time-honored literary gems. “You can find everything in Alice in Wonderland,” he states, “and in The Little Prince.”
AT THE end of the day, Etgar would like us to leave the Museum on the Seam with something to mull over, in the hope that it will eventually leave its imprint on the way we live, and interact with the people around us and planet Earth.
“As a society we need to believe that after we [the older generation] are no longer here, things will be better. I don’t think there is much education around these days, so I target everything we do here, at the museum, to that end. That may sound grandiose and pompous but, today, at the age of 73, I think I can allow myself to look in from the outside at what is going on around here.”
What is “going on” at the museum is, at the very least, an attempt to shake us up a little and get us thinking about how we live, and how our deeds – or non-action – impact on our own milieu and on the wider planetary scene.
“This little, poorly budgeted museum is sending out as universal call to take a step back, relax a little and think how we can do something good for others,” says Etgar, adding that “Golem” and “Metropolis” do not constitute a rallying cry against the evils of technology per se.
“I think the perfect situation is a combination between nature and technology,” he states. “There shouldn’t be warfare between them. Technology can contribute to nature and nature can support technology. That’s my hope.”

“Golem” and “Metropolis” are on show until October 31. For more information:
www.mots.org.il/