Not a Pretty Picture (Extract)

An overview of 60 years of Israeli art, at six museums, leaves the viewer with a disturbing sense of doom that peaks in the last two decades

07art (photo credit: Israel Museum)
(photo credit: Israel Museum)
Extract of an article in Issue 7, July 21, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. A monkey - apparently the planet's lone survivor - sits on a windowsill in a darkened room and stares mournfully at the moon. On the other side of the hall, a group of flayed, scabrous figures mill around mindlessly in a bloodied setting that looks post-nuclear. No, we're not in an amusement park chamber of horrors where skeletons fall from the darkened ceiling. These figures, and other equally frightening apparitions, are part of the Israel Museum exhibition "Real Time," a look at Israeli art in the 21st century that gives us a chilling interpretation of the present and an even gloomier view of the future. The exhibition is one of six covering the 60 years of Israeli art since statehood. Each museum, which displays works mainly but not exclusively from its own collection, is charged with a decade. The project, sponsored by the Ministry of Science, Culture and Sport as part of the state's official 60th anniversary celebrations, takes viewers on a comprehensive tour of Israeli art from the early days of the state to its full flowering today. "It represents a massive undertaking of curating and cooperation," says Israel Museum chief curator-at-large Yigael Zalmona, chairman of the steering committee overseeing the collaborative and unprecedented effort, noting that the government allocated $50,000 for each exhibit. By the end of July, all six exhibitions are scheduled to be up and running. By early June, two had opened: At the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, covering 1998-2008, and at the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art, 1988-98. The other four are at the Haifa Museum of Art (1978-88), the Tel Aviv Museum of Art (1968-78), the Ashdod Museum of Art-Monart Center (1958-68) and Ein Harod Museum of Art (1948-58). Charged with the most contemporary decade, the museum defined its task as not only characterizing the present, but also peeking into the future. "And much of that is bright," says Israel Museum director James S. Snyder, who points out that no fewer than 10 artists of the 40 who are participating in the exhibition "are also showing up on the world landscape with lightning speed. Many of our artists have an immediacy of recognition. So it is something to celebrate." While the future of Israeli artists may be sanguine, the same cannot be said for the future of our planet. Evidenced by the grotesqueries of the above-mentioned installations of Adam Rabinowitz's "Tardemon" (the lone monkey) and Sigalit Landau's "Iranian Atom" (the flayed figures), the museum has mounted a hard-hitting show that takes a strong, eschatological position on the fate of the world. It deals with the high drama of apocalypse, escape and the beauty that lies beyond desolation. "Society has pushed us to the brink of extinction, and the art [in the exhibition] captures this state of affairs," says exhibition co-curator Amitai Mendelsohn, who is the museum's curator of Israeli art. Nuance is not to be found here. Life has literally become a world of black and white, good and evil. Entering the Weisbord Pavilion, the visitor sees a video on a continuous loop that screens a chess match played in front of the Shrine of the Book, a circular, domed building on the museum campus that houses the Dead Sea Scrolls. In Shahar Marcus's installation, two players dressed in black stand on a 15 square-foot board with poles that move the black-and-white pieces, made of 10 kg cubes of ice. The venue is crucial, says Mendelsohn: "The Dead Sea Scrolls mention the battle between the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness, which refers to the black and white chess pieces … the fight for our very soul takes place immediately upon entering." In addition to taking on international challenges of global warming, genocide and acid rain, the museum does not shy away from tackling the problems that plague Israel, like Jewish-Arab enmity, Tel Aviv's demimonde nightlife and the proper way to commemorate its war dead. Towering some six meters in a space designed especially to accommodate its giant size is "The Boy from South Tel Aviv," a black styrofoam sculpture (19 ft. 5 in. high) by Ohad Meromi, of a young black African male adolescent, standing tall, proud and naked with his oversized genitals in full view at approximately the spectators' eye-level. The figure represents "global xenophobia, which plays on our inbred fear of 'the other,' especially the foreign worker," Mendelsohn says. We relate to all strangers with fear, the curator remarks, as did the biblical spies who reported to Joshua that the Promised Land was full of giants. With his humongous penis, this African lad is clearly a figure to be reckoned with, an obvious challenge to local machismo. In spite of his slim proportions, he is taut and alert, like a black version of Michelangelo's "David." Global concerns imbue many of the works. In a large installation (6 ft. x 27 ft.), Gal Weinstein creates "Slope," a landscape covered with black cinders that have reached rooftop level. A white puff of smoke depicted by strands of cotton, wends its way skywards signaling the final embers of a horrific volcanic eruption. When all is lost, a certain ironic beauty and peacefulness prevail, notes Mendelsohn. The viewer, he goes on to say, can attribute this end-of-the-world scene either to an impersonal nature or as a kind of divine retribution for a sybaritic lifestyle. But these horrors tell only half of the story. There are also a number of works on display that shows nature's ability to regenerate après le déluge. Engendering a cautious optimism is Tal Shochat's photograph of an apple tree in its natural environment. She places a black backdrop behind the tree, bathes it in an even, warm light, cleans the leaves, polishes the fruit and presents the object as if it were yanked out of nature and reassembled in a studio. It is treated as lovingly as a portraitist flattering her sitter. A fruit-bearing tree bodes well for the future But if the world is ready to throw up its hands and self-destruct, as much of the Israel Museum implies, what could have brought us to the precipice? The Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art attempts to answer this question with the exhibition, "Eventually, We'll Die - Young Art in Israel of the Nineties." Extract of an article in Issue 7, July 21, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.