Guerrilla artists of Tel Aviv

A self-described "art cooperative" composed of mostly young Anglo artists presents ‘Momento,’ a mixed-medium art exhibition – in a quirky setting.

guerrilla collage 311 (photo credit: Nitza Avigayil)
guerrilla collage 311
(photo credit: Nitza Avigayil)
Like any other world-class city, Tel Aviv can boast numerous elegant streets and avenues. Stately Rothschild Boulevard and chic Dizengoff Street spring readily to mind as examples.
Salame Street does not. Dilapidated and almost theatrically down-at-heel, the street meanders through the Florentin section of south Tel Aviv like a jagged old wound etched across the city’s underbelly.
Number 97 Salame stands – like an exhausted old lady trying to catch her breath – in an area of rundown old buildings housing dark, cramped apartments, some haphazard light industry, small retail shops, the occasional falafel stand and numerous empty storefronts. Novelist and short-story writer Raymond Chandler would no doubt have described the place as “Sorry Street, between Somber and Gaunt.”
Venture into Number 97 during the next two weeks, however, and you will find yourself in an unexpected world of cutting-edge painting, sculpture, photography and poetry, courtesy of  BreakOn, a self-described “art cooperative” composed of a mostly young, mostly Anglo group of artists. Along with one or two guest artists, they are pooling their work for “Momento,” a mixed-medium art exhibition that will run until April 22.
Boston native Diana Brody, 29, painter and driving force behind the exhibition, explains: “We look for spaces to show our work in buildings that are about to be renovated. We get the space for free, in exchange for cleaning it up ourselves and drawing attention to the building.”
The group’s previous exhibition, held in December 2008 and called “Desert Life,” is still remembered for a similarly quirky choice of venue. “Our last show was in what’s called the ‘Ma’alit Building’ on Herzl Street. It’s a historic place, the first building in Tel Aviv that ever had an elevator. The first floor was abandoned – the residents of the building either couldn’t or wouldn’t live there. They couldn’t rent it out, so they let us have an exhibition there,” Brody recalls.
Glancing around a still somewhat raw-looking room in 97 Salame, she adds, “This space was a knitting factory. The rest of the building was residential. Now it’s being renovated, and our deal with the landlord, Judea Regev, was that he would donate the space for our exhibition if we would help him rent the apartments out afterward.”
Haven’t these people ever heard of art galleries? All professional artists, BreakOn’s members are well aware of the local art scene; but one needs to understand the “ethos” of this unusual group to comprehend why they are showing their works in ramshackle old buildings instead of galleries and museums.
BreakOn is the brainchild of Hannah Rendel, a recent immigrant from London, who arrived in Israel and wanted to exhibit her artwork. After discovering that local galleries were, at best, unenthusiastic about new artists – especially new immigrant artists – she decided to form a group of artists that would make their own opportunities instead of waiting for them to someday appear. Through the magic of Facebook and a lot of email traffic, BreakOn was born.
Rendell explains her choice of the name as something powerful and assertive, but not destructive. The group consists of four permanent members – Rendell, Brody, Daniel Klein and Nitza Avigayil – as well as guest artists who join the group for exhibitions.
Brody insists that the group is not anti-gallery. “We’ve been described as anti-gallery, but this is nothing to do with that. We’re interested in having art exhibitions in alternative spaces, not because we’re anti-gallery, but because it’s really beautiful to be able to take the initiative and not wait for someone to tell us, ‘Okay, this space is free, so now you can do a show here.’ Or waiting to be told, ‘We accept you’ – or not.
“We also feel that the process of renovating the space and creating our work around the space that we find is a wonderful thing. We just like the idea of showing art in alternative spaces because art can be shown anywhere.”
BreakOn member Avigayil agrees. “Art is everywhere! Art is the expression of the soul. Some people think they can view art and then put it down and keep it separate from life. The artist picks it up and says, ‘Look, here’s a piece of your life.’
“When we go to a play, we see someone who has captured something from life, an experience, and dramatized it for us so that we get to know ourselves more.  In all of the arts, we’re talking about life, about everyday life. Artists say, ‘Something has spoken to us, and we want to share it with you.’” 
At age 65, Avigayil is not only the oldest member of BreakOn, but can also boast the most interesting past. Formerly known as Mercedes Gail Gutierrez, this California native comes from a family that she says has always been aware of its descent from Spanish and Mexican crypto-Jews – Jews pretending to be Christians to avoid the Inquisition. Avigayil formally “returned” to Judaism in 2001 and immigrated to Israel six years later. She continues to travel and research her family’s history.
Asked to what extent BreakOn’s somewhat peculiar venues might affect viewers’ perception of their artworks, Klein, 30, replies, “I think in our case it has a big impact on the viewer. Museums and galleries a lot of times try as much as possible to create neutral spaces to exhibit art – lots of empty space around you, high ceilings and white everywhere. Our space isn’t like that at all. In fact, because of the way the space is, it kind of becomes part of the exhibit. The space becomes part of the art. It forms the concept for the show. I’m not sure if that’s a positive or a negative, but it adds an interesting element to the exhibition.” 
Klein, who immigrated to Israel three years ago from Washington DC, is also asked whether this type of venue might limit the types of work suitable for exhibition. “Yeah, I guess,” he replied. “But I haven’t really exhibited my work in many traditional spaces anyway, and I’ve really enjoyed fitting my work to this environment.”
Avigayil insists: “These old buildings are full of memories, of people’s histories, of the city’s history. There are things on the walls, holes in the walls, graffiti on the walls that recall other people’s lives, other people’s experiences. That’s one of the reasons we have our exhibitions in these spaces.” And, she adds, “it’s because we get the exhibition space for free.”
The inspiration and driving force behind the current exhibition is Diana Brody, who found the venue – “The man who donated this space is the father of a friend”– and provided the inspiration for the theme.
“The idea of ‘Momento’ is from the fact that I will soon be moving back to New York because my fiancé is starting school there,” she explains. “I was doing paintings that were impressions of the trees on my street in Tel Aviv. I realized after talking to the group that it was kind of like I was taking them as mementos back with me to America.
“And this space – there’s just so much history here. We’re finding things in here and on the ground outside as we’re cleaning up that are giving us the feeling of capturing time and capturing history, and making us think about how we do that in our own lives. So this show is about the different ways people capture memories. Some people do it visually, others physically. It’s been a really fun and really inspiring project.”
True to her word, one of the works Brody will be displaying is, in fact, called Momento, consisting of a handsomely framed piece of trash – a broken Tuborg beer bottle, actually – serving as a “captured memory” of the work that went into cleaning  and renovating the dilapidated rooms to make a suitable exhibition space.
Says Avigayil, “The theme of the show is ‘mementos’ – things that recreate moments from the past – and I’m showing a lot of mementos that I’ve picked up while traveling over the last decade or so. They’re just ordinary things. But when I pick them up and look at them, I think, ‘Oh this train ticket was from when I went to Pisa, and the bus driver went crazy and drove us round and round the city four or five times. I remember things like that that are unique to me, and everybody else does also. We get on a train and put the ticket in our pocket, and later on the trip turns out to be something that’s memorable. And that little train ticket can bring that memory back to us.”
Avigayil is showing two collages of maps, train tickets, schedules, advertisements and a myriad other objects gleaned from some of her recent journeys.
Not to be outdone, Klein informs us, “Professionally I’m a graphic designer. As an artist, I do mostly printmaking, with a little bit of painting and drawing as well.  For Momento, I’m making silk-screens that are not multiple prints – which is what’s usually done in printmaking – but ‘one-off’ prints instead. And instead of printing on paper, I’m printing on wood and metal panels that I found lying around the building. I plan to have around four or five pieces.”
Despite her Israeli-sounding surname, Patricia Ezratty, 28, is a recent immigrant from New York and a guest artist at this exhibition. She says, “With the theme of the show being ‘mementos,’ I chose pictures that were relevant to my experiences in New York and here in Israel. They show kind of two sides to the same life. I’ve been here now for a couple of years, and I still feel like I’m in a limbo place when I go back to New York, and then again when I come back here. So these pictures help me remember what I experienced and how I have felt.”
Ezratty’s signature piece is a photograph of her grandmother and her sister, taken from behind. “My grandmother has stopped allowing people to photograph her face because she thinks she looks old and doesn’t want people to remember her like that. She’s also become a lot different in the past few years, not the person I remember as a kid.” The picture is thus a ‘memento’ for Ezratty of her grandmother, without anger or angst about the passage of time.
Other guest artists include Einav Uziel, who is contributing sculpture and a large installation; and Mya Guarnieri, freelance writer and occasional contributor to Metro, who, as the exhibition’s designated “voice,” has several of her poems on display.
The group is uniformly optimistic about the exhibition’s success. “Wehave a real diversity in the people who are showing, and a welldecided-on theme. It’s going to be interesting to see how everybodyinterprets it,” says Avigayil.
A lot of their enthusiasm is no doubt being generated by memories of“Desert Life,” their last show. As Brody recalls, “It drew a hugeaudience and a huge variety of people. We invited a lot of people wewere connected with in the art world. But also, because the show was ina historic site, so tour groups came practically every other day tovisit the building, and they became part of our audience. A lot ofyoung people came because they liked the idea that something‘underground’ was going on. And it was on a part of Herzl Street that’skind of a funky area, with lots of clubs and bars. There was also a bigBank Leumi auction nearby, plus a lot of other art events.”
While they acknowledge that their current venue on Salame Street doesnot have quite the same cachet, the group remains excitedly optimistic.A good show will always find its audience, wherever it may be.
Momento is showing at 97 Salame, Tel Aviv until Thursday 22April. Monday-Thursday 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 6-9 p.m., Friday 11 a.m.-3p.m.