A wildfire of art in Tel Aviv

A wildfire of art in Tel

tel aviv art 248.88 (photo credit: Mya Guarnieri)
tel aviv art 248.88
(photo credit: Mya Guarnieri)
It's a Thursday night in Tel Aviv and the sparks are literally flying - outside the Engel Gallery on Gordon Street, artist Jack Jano is using a blowtorch to put the finishing touches on his installation, "SoferStam" (Torah scribe). Art enthusiasts mill about, sipping wine and watching from a safe distance. The brave dart past Jano and enter the gallery to explore. A sandy path leads the viewer through heaps of Hebrew, forged from iron. The metal is rusted and, in some spots, coated with a green patina; the font is reminiscent of ancient script. From the piles of letters, words emerge, lying prone on the ground or standing proudly, rising from the surrounding babble. The viewer steps around "emet" (truth), then walks past a large "shema" (hear) - the first word of the "Shema Yisrael" prayer. Following the trail through the Hebrew language, the viewer feels the gravity of the Jewish people's history and religion in this shared heritage. Jano continues to play the role of wordsmith in a video installation in the gallery's inner room. In an endless loop, the artist appears before the viewer on half a dozen screens, in half a dozen disguises, prattling away in multiple languages. While the metalwork seems to assert the importance of language, the video seems to question this same assumption. The viewer is left disoriented, and certain, perhaps, of only one thing - Tel Aviv is anchoring its place on the contemporary art scene. Jano's exhibition is just one of hundreds on display during the Month of Art in Tel Aviv-Jaffa. The citywide art month, which is a part of Tel Aviv's centennial celebrations and incorporates Art TLV, began on September 10. That Thursday evening, more than 80 galleries, studios and exhibition spaces - from Jaffa to north Tel Aviv - opened their doors in the spirit of ohavim omanut ("Loving Art"), the theme of the festivities. Tel Avivians and internationals took to the streets, clutching neon green and white maps dotted with participating venues. The flurry of art events - which include works from the world over - points to Israel's desire for recognition on the international art stage. But this doesn't mean the Israeli scene has lost a local flavor. Rather, Israeli art retains a unique tension that comes from gazing toward the outside world while simultaneously peering in at our own country. Kishon Gallery's group show "Foreign Memories" perfectly fuses both impulses, offering the contemplations of three young artists who are pulled toward other places, physical and emotional: Zero Cents, an American who makes his home in Israel; Klone, a Ukrainian-born Israeli; and Haim Mark, an Israeli who left the religious community as a teenager. Mark's work examines the conflict between the traditional world of his childhood and his own creative impulses. While the two sides are at odds, Mark can reject neither. Mark's attraction to art was born of the rigid environment of the yeshiva he attended as a boy. His relationship with art also began with the yeshiva, in the most literal sense, as he broke into it at night to draw on its walls. Although creativity offered Mark escape, it also pushed him further toward the edges of society. Today Mark, left with a deep, abiding appreciation of the values of the religious community, remains displaced in the secular world. That continued tension is apparent in Mark's work. A tallit - splashed with wine that reminds the viewer of spilled blood - is stuffed into a tight box. Not only is the tallit stained, but the beauty of the fabric is undermined and contorted by the casing around it. "Foreign Memories" also introduces the viewer to work that is sometimes regarded as alien to the gallery world - street art. Using spray paint and acrylic on wooden boards, Zero Cents brings his trademark backward writing and visceral, monstrous images indoors to Kishon Gallery, located on Rehov Frug. A skeletal figure, its eye sockets empty, stares at the viewer. Its teeth extend far beyond the edges of its jaw, seeming to devour the composition. The bottom half of the board is awash in pink, save for the word "nothing," which is scrawled in white from right to left. Zero Cents's work is also currently on display at the Haifa Museum of Art. Klone's creatures are well-known to Tel Avivians, who have seen them wheat-pasted on the sides of buildings throughout the city. Occasionally the figures have snouts, elongated ears and sharp claws. At times their oddities are more subtle - an image that, at first glance, seems human is infused with small changes, mutations that render them animal-like and that only surface when the viewer studies their form. When confronted by these creatures - whether on the street or in the gallery - the viewer is forced to consider how to relate to them. Are they beast? Are they man? Or are they something otherworldly? "I was striving to make a new species," Klone comments. "I was mixing the animals we call predators with humans - the other kind of predator, and a much more dangerous one." Humans, Klone explains, are destroying each other and their environment. "There's a need for some kind of evolution," he says. Though Klone's work may seem to look ahead, it often includes Russian words and phrases, a reminder of his childhood in the Ukraine. SIMILARLY, ART TLV 2009 offers meditations on the past and present while keeping an eye trained on the future. This spirit is perhaps best embodied by the display at the historic Mani House. Located on Rehov Yehuda Halevi, the Mani House was completed in 1913, during the final years of the Ottoman Empire. The first owner was a Jewish resident of Palestine, Shlomo Barsky. In 1930, Rabbi Yitzhak Malchiel Mani, the first Jewish judge of the Supreme Court in Palestine during the British Mandate, purchased the home. The exhibition there, simply titled "Second Show: Contemporary Art from the Israel Museum, Jerusalem," bridges history and the immediate. Upon entering, viewers are greeted with Efrat Natan's iron "Swing of the Scythe." The sculpture is composed of more than a dozen scythes, joined to form a semi-circle that mimics an arcing movement. The tool and the suggested motion invoke the mythological imagery of the kibbutz, filled with hearty pioneers swinging the scythe as they work the land. But the sharp metal is menacing, as well, reminding the viewer of the Grim Reaper's harvest. Upstairs, on the second floor, is Ori Gersht's video installation, "Pomegranate." Initially the image, which is a revision of a 17th-century still life by Spanish artist Juan Sanchez Cotan, appears to be static. But the pomegranate, a fruit commonly associated with both the Middle East and Rosh Hashana, bursts suddenly, suggesting the region's volatility. "Second Show" also includes a variety of work from prominent international artists, as do Art TLV's other exhibitions. Three hundred artists from both Israel and abroad are participating in the event, which is the flagship of the Month of Art. Art TLV offers viewers 10 exhibitions, including the one at Mani House. Art TLV was launched in 2008 by four prominent figures from the Israeli art scene: Irit Zomer, Yehudit Haviv, Rivka Saker and Shifra Shalit Intrator. In the future, the event will be presented every second year to coincide with the Athens and Istanbul biennials, forming a local corner in the Mediterranean art triangle. For a full list of events related to the Month of Art in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, including information about Art TLV, see www.tlv100.co.il.