Life in Tel Aviv is a beach

Photo exhibition celebrates 110th anniversary of city’s founding.

BYSTANDERS WATCH as the ‘Altalena’ burns after being shelled near Tel Aviv on June 22, 1948 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
BYSTANDERS WATCH as the ‘Altalena’ burns after being shelled near Tel Aviv on June 22, 1948
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Some things don’t do well in translation. The name of the photography exhibition currently running at the Eretz Israel Museum in Ramat Aviv in Hebrew translates simply enough as On the Coast of Tel Aviv. But there’s a nifty subtitle in there which incorporates some clever world play. Sefat Hayam translates literally as “the edge of the sea,” or “the beach” or “the coast.” However, the other meaning of “saffa” that does not survive the changeover, is “language.” That implies that the coastline of Tel Aviv is an idiom unto itself, which is part of the thinking behind the exhibition.
The chronological pretext for the showing is the 110th anniversary of the founding of Tel Aviv, and indeed, there is plenty in the way of archival material in the layout. There is a highly evocative shot of the port of Jaffa dating from 1865, taken by British photographer Peter Bergheim. And there is a 1921 image by Shimon Korbman, which shows a young couple against a backdrop of an untamed seafront, sans promenade, bicycle lane and all the rest of the tourist-consumer paraphernalia. The monochrome print is cutely framed by a heart shape and designed as a Rosh Hashanah greeting card for the Jewish New Year of 5682. The couple appears to have been caught unawares – a totally unacceptable deed in today’s PC-sensitive and, more considerate, world – and the work simply oozes yesteryear spirit.
But, while there are several items from the pretty distant past, including some definitively “olde worlde” nineteenth century shots, curator Guy Raz says the overall standpoint is of a far more here and now nature. “You could call the exhibition something like ‘Then and Today,’ but it is really more contemporary, taking in works by photographers of this generation and how they look upon the sea now.”
The temporal leapfrogging comes across clearly in some deft curatorial twinning, such as Ephraim Erde’s black and white documentation of legendary Tel Aviv lifeguards Emil and Yoske in 1935, which hangs alongside a full color four-figure arrangement of today’s beach rescue personnel, from Yanai Yechiel’s 2013 Lifeguards series. There are more then-and-now proffering in Paritz Cohen’s 1969 shot of the 13-meter high Pilots’ War Memorial in Independence Park, and Gadi Dagon’s picture of the quirky Beyond the Limit sculpture, taken at Jerusalem Beach 20 years later. The panoramic photo of a crowded Gordon Pool, taken in 1957 by feted photographer Rudi Weissenstein, is also neatly counterbalanced by Meirav Maroody’s stirring sweep of the demolition of The Dolphinarium from 2010.
RAZ ALSO gets to have a little pictorial say of his own, with a brace of lifeguard shelter depictions from 2002. “It’s not the custom for a curator to include his own work in an exhibition, but they show an historical aspect of Tel Aviv.”
The chronological throwback element is central to the whole project, with the thematic marker anchored by an intriguing video creation by Yael Bartana. “The video, near the entrance, really sets the tone of the exhibition,” Raz explains. “It is called The Declaration. You have a young man – you don’t know if he is a Jew or an Arab – who sets off from Jaffa in a boat for Andromeda.” The latter refers to a rock, which rises a mite above the waves in the sea just off the shore of Jaffa Port, the name of which comes from a Greek myth of derring-do by a certain Perseus, son of Zeus, who rescues the beauty who had been strapped to the rock as a peace offering to a bunch of peeved mermaids.
There is some political content to Bartana’s video. “The man places an olive tree on the rock,” Raz continues. “The Andromeda rock has an Israeli flag, which symbolizes sovereignty. The olive tree is equated with roots but also symbolizes peace.” There’s more to the work than immediately meets the eye. “The olive tree is on a rock, not in the earth,” Raz notes. “That talks about peace being a utopian idea. The man in the video is also wearing a singlet, sort of like a figure from the pioneering era.”
Following Raz’s introductory remarks, the exhibition catalogue cites legendary Tel Aviv mayor Meir Dizengoff, the first modern Hebrew city’s honcho who ruled the municipal roost, both in a de facto role as town planner, and thereafter as official mayor, from 1911 to 1935, other than a three-year hiatus in the 1920s. Ever the innovator, Dizengoff noted the manifold potential of the new city’s coastline. “Another area, which offers great rewards, which should be developed – and which can attract large numbers of tourists, visitors and convalescing people – I am talking about developing the seafront,” he wrote in 1932.
It took a while to get the beach up and running in all its open space, sandy, café- and play facility-strewn glory, and many of the various stages of developmental evolution appear in the exhibition. One of the many storied milestones in Tel Aviv’s annals is the operation of the Gale Aviv Café – aka The Casino – on the seafront from the early 1920s through to the mid-‘30s.
Nickname notwithstanding, the establishment never hosted gambling pursuits and served as a popular eatery and dance venue. The 1925 print on show was taken by Belarus-born seminal photographer Avraham Soskin, a pioneer in his field in this part of the world who earned the moniker “the Tel Aviv photographer.”
The sea, the curator is keen to point out, not only offers a breath of fresh air – both in a physical and metaphorical sense – to Tel Avivians enduing yet another sweltering summer – it also connects the big city with its much older and less well-heeled neighbor immediately to the south. “This narrow strip of beach joins its two aspects,” says Raz, “the first Hebrew city, a new and innovative metropolis, and its contrasting older sister Old Jaffa, Arous-al-Bahr, the bride of the sea.”
RAZ HAS GONE the whole hog with On the Coast of Tel Aviv, enlisting works by a wide range of photographers to chronicle as many physical, cultural, historical and sociopolitical angles of the stretch of beach in question as possible. The 50 or so exhibits include contributions from professionals from the last over century and a half, featuring 75 year old Israel Prize laureate Alex Levac; Polish-born trained architect Yitzhak Kalter whose pictures naturally document some of Tel Aviv’s landmark structures; Jaffa-based Yehudit Ilani who references the downmarket neighborhood of Ajami; and nineteenth century French sector leader (March 8, 1831-1885) Félix Bonfils who was highly active in the Middle East and was one of the first commercial photographers to produce images of the region on a large scale, as well as being among the first to employ a new method of color photography, developed in 1880. The American Colony Photographers collective, which was a major force in Middle Eastern photographic documentation from the late nineteenth through the first half of the twentieth century, also has some evocative prints – monochrome and color – on display, and current industry high flyer 60-year-old Vardi Kahana has a whimsical portrait of celebrated pop-rock musician Yoni Rechter in there, too.
Raz has done a good job of covering as many bases as possible through Tel Aviv’s century-plus storyline. On the Coast of Tel Aviv offers an entertaining and compelling microcosm of what has made the country’s busiest metropolis tick across the decades, as the political, demographic and social sands have shifted, along with the constant ebb and flow of the Mediterranean Sea that both marks the western limit of the city and a sense of what lies beyond.
On the Coast of Tel Aviv runs until February 29, 2020. For more information: