‘New Age’ crawls out of the wreckage

A new Bat Yam museum exhibition explores the possibilities of spiritual forms

A WORK CREATED by Milly Barzellai for ‘New Age.’ (photo credit: HAGAY HACOHEN)
A WORK CREATED by Milly Barzellai for ‘New Age.’
(photo credit: HAGAY HACOHEN)
The floor of the Museums of Bat Yam (MOBY) is strewn with beautiful body parts, brightly colored in green, yellow, red and blue. The parts were carefully placed on the floor after they were used to create a wall-size painting of a pastel sky and a tropical beach. Created by Milly Barzellai, the work is a complex plexus where various nerve endings meet. It’s highly meticulous – the various body parts were created in a laborious process of  building molds and casting paint mixtures while ensuring the various elements congeal without seeping. The result is delightful, like a well-layered birthday cake. It’s evocative of shell shock and infra-red thermal heat vision used by advanced military forces to locate people, as well as action Hollywood movies such as 1987’s Predator, in which the killer alien views humans as prey using such means.
To follow the layered birthday cake motif, it’s cannibalistic in nature, as these same body parts were used to create the wall painting we are seeing. If you visit the artist’s website you will be greeted with the video of a blue human face being grated against a wall in a loop, perhaps to signify the pain and blood sacrifice required when humans bent on making art entered dark caves to produce colorful visions. An open question in the study of ancient cave art is how exactly it was meant to be seen, were you supposed to earn the right to see it after a rite of passage? Was the visual image a sacred thing that, once seen, could not be unseen and would require a cleansing ritual to get rid of?
Hila Cohen-Schneiderman, curator of  “New Age,” the MOBY exhibit that Barzellai’s works are featured in, says that she thinks of Barzellai as a powerful example of ‘outsider art.’ She mentions he was deeply influenced by his service in the navy where he was in charge of electronics and visual technologies aboard submarines [he studies oceanography and physic before deciding to enter the arts].
“Seeing has a passive quality,” Cohen-Schneiderman says Barzellai told her when they were discussing his work in the exhibition. “Images assault you and then you can’t forget them.”
The forensic-like activity of recreating the body and consuming it as paste and paint has the underlay of magical tropical shamanism, as if the Aztec goddess Tlazolteotl might appear and eat the sins and dirt of our past deeds.
The loaded theme of salvation to be attained from the gutters, or spirituality emanating from the flesh, inspired Cohen-Schneiderman in her earlier exhibition which focused on “Plenty” and featured, among others, a work by Zohar Gotesman in which a marble torso was coupled with bubble gum-made genitalia and muscles. Now she focuses on the vibes and whispered promises of the “New Age.”
IN A BOOKLET published for the exhibition, artist Eitan Ben Moshe points out that “the current incarnation of the new age is the continuation, as well as a correlation to, of the encounter between post-modernism, Eastern spiritual thought, and hyper-capitalisms.” Ben Moshe, who is the most heavily invested in New Age concepts among the featured artists, candidly says that “the man of science might see [the new age man] as naïve due to his refusal to seriously consider the countless options the new age man believes he can create.”
The exhibition does not deal with the new age as an academic field of studies and does not pretend to discuss its history, trends, or sociology – rather it uses the new age as a jumping board to go on various artistic journeys.  Cohen-Schneiderman explains that when she enters bookshops, the New Age section is usually crammed with books that offer titles such “How to get rich” and “How to beat cancer.”
“This led me to consider how fragile our modern emotional reality must be, otherwise why are we seeking such solutions?” she says.
She then speaks of the social phenomenon of “the flower children” in the US as a solution-seeking response to the new world order created after World War II and as a response to the Vietnam War. When asked if Israelis can be considered as part of that social-construct – seeing that Israel was not involved in the Vietnam War – she points out that Israel had a shock of its own with the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
Uri Katzenstein, who passed away before the exhibition opened, was a medic in that war and the experience of lifting wounded airmen from their plane wreckage led him to create a figure of the climbing man.  That figure later became a hybrid of an arm and a leg in movement and even lead him to explore the Nazi swastika as a symbol of aggression and movement.
In a heated confrontation over his 2015 work “Backyard,” Culture Minister Miri Regev demanded that a chair shaped like a swastika at the center of the installation be removed from the Tel Aviv Art Museum. Regev discussed the meaning of the work with Katzenstein and came around to his point of view, eventually removing her objection on condition additional explanations be provided by the museum to viewers.
In the video “New Age,” Katzenstein photographed various family members and friends with a blue screen background. He then digitally transferred them to a computer-generated wonderland in which objects and people are stranded in a sunken world after some sort of a major disaster. Strangely, the people seem relaxed and joyful despite their predicament and Katzenstein himself is heard singing a hauntingly beautiful rock ballad.
Written by Ohad Fishof, the lyrics speak of “Golden magic bones / best name for a song” and one man’s voice that is “spreading in this hall / of plastic shades.” The volume of the music and the large screen dominate the space, filling the entire building with a sweet sort of melancholy that is partly Hieronymus Bosch and partly glam rock.
Earlier forms of Western spiritual techniques are conjured up in the exhibition, such as dowsing (a type of divination used to locate ground water, buried metals, ores or gemstones,) and the Victorian obsession to photograph ghosts as evidence of a life beyond the grave. Netaly Aylon created a large cast of her finger which she suspended from the ceiling, creating a pendulum which brings to mind the biblical finger of God that writes divine messages on the walls of corrupt kings as well as automatic writing of the sort used by 16th century English magician John Dee to produce the Enochian language, which he considered to be the language of angels.
In a series of black and white charcoal sketches, Omer Halperin created languid pale portraits that have a smoky quality to them. The faces seem to be pallid and might be vampires or ghosts. The works contrast well with a 1921 work by Issachar Ber Ryback, which was restored by Maayana Flis, in which a figure is portrayed in an almost cubist manner, with one eye seeking one direction and the other another.
“The work was created in Paris after the artist’s father was murdered in a pogrom in the Ukraine,” Cohen-Schneiderman says. “Trauma is characterized by taking things apart and by the desire to invent a new artistic language to make sense of the new reality.”
While New Age is often connected in our own minds with the 1960s and the rise of spiritual communities in the West, it should be noted that spiritual seeking was not invented by baby boomers.
Writing about Madame Blavatsky, Kurt Vonnegut described how the 19th century occult figurehead was turned on to spiritualism by American medium William Eddy who “summoned for Madame Blavatsky seven visible spirits which only she could have known about, and they spoke languages never heard in Vermont before or since.”
Returning to the New Age exhibition in Bat Yam, the works presented allow the visitor to encounter and reflect on issues seldom heard in that city before or since.
New Age at MOBY
Through March 23
6 Struma St. Bat Yam