Return of the repressed

The Haifa Museum of Art is offering a rare peek at works the general public almost never sees.

Haifa Art nuseum (photo credit: Courtesy)
Haifa Art nuseum
(photo credit: Courtesy)
What do an iceberg, an individual’s personality and a museum have in common? The answer is that all three have much more going on beneath the surface than what they show to the world.
A floating iceberg, as any seventh-grade science student knows, has up to 90 percent of its mass hidden below the surface of the water. The small remainder – the proverbial “tip of the iceberg”– is what we are able to see.
Similarly, a person displays only a small part of who he or she is in speech and day-to-day behavior. The inner realty of that person’s psyche lurks below the surface, in the subconscious, usually hidden from view.
And whatever a museum chooses to exhibit at any given moment is typically only a minuscule fraction of the pieces it keeps in storage, hidden in labyrinthine warrens that snake their way underneath the museum, or in unmarked warehouses and storage facilities scattered around the city. Either way, the vast amount of artwork stashed away is hidden from public view and awareness.
An unusual exhibition is attempting to provide a glimpse into what lies below one museum. Called “Lights On: From Storage to Display,” it gives us a rare look at the contents of the storerooms of the Haifa Museum of Art, a now-or-never perusal of more than a century of artwork, virtually all by Israeli artists, that the public has rarely if ever seen.
Museum spokesman Dror Wolf emphasizes, however, that we are not looking simply at the contents of a warehouse trucked over to the museum, dusted off, and then dumped around a couple of exhibit halls. This is, instead, an artistic installation in its own right, with a very important theme.
In his introduction to the exhibit, curator Gideon Ofrat identifies that theme as a battle between light and darkness.
“The essence of the museum, one may state somewhat simplistically, is embodied in the tension between the storage room and the exhibition gallery… based on the two-way movement from the lower gallery, or storage room, to the upper gallery, or exhibition gallery, and back again.
“The storage room houses works because they have received a certain degree of recognition; they are brought back up to the exhibition gallery in a gesture of appreciation, representing ‘the return of the repressed.’ By contrast, the works removed from the exhibition galleries to the storage room are subjected to a cruel historical process of waning recognition or repression.”
The premise of “Lights On” is that hundreds of Israeli artists who enjoyed some degree of fame in their lifetimes have now faded from memory – sunk into the dark recesses of the storeroom, forgotten or defined as obscure. The show’s purpose is to temporarily lift these artists and their works out from the dark realm of oblivion and up to the exhibition gallery for a fleeting moment back in the limelight.
Ofrat draws a fascinating analogy between psychoanalysis – exploring a person’s subconscious – and the exploration of the “subconscious” of a museum, which he says “Lights On” is attempting to do.
The exhibition, he writes, “constitutes a rare and unique act of museal psychoanalysis: Like the psychoanalytic process, it coaxes the museum’s unconscious contents out of the dark depths of its storage rooms and accompanies them into the realm of light and of cultural recognition… Between light and darkness, between the consciousness and unconscious of art, there exists an eternal war.”
“LIGHTS ON” presents us with a representation of the contents of the storage rooms as they exist in that dark lower realm. Paintings hang almost randomly – irrespective of artist, fame or “quality” – arranged according to neutral museum categories like accession numbers or alphabetical order.
Well-known artworks, once considered masterpieces, hang side by side with paintings by artists now either totally forgotten or never known at all. Well-known sculptures by once-famous artists are jostled on their shelves and pedestals by unknown works that occasionally border on kitsch. One or two objects are still wrapped in the dust protectors in which they have been stored, and the gritty realism of a museum storage room is achieved with the addition of things like storage drawers and cabinets, along with paintings still standing in storage racks.
Despite the attempt to recreate a more or less realistic storage-room ambience – right down to the inclusion of lined, two-column catalog forms and little white identification tags – “Lights On” is very much an art installation, to be seen and not touched.
This point was brought home very clearly during our visit by a museum security guard, who needed to politely ask visitors to refrain from taking pictures and had to explain patiently to one indignant woman why she could not pull paintings out of their storage rack.
The emotional effect of viewing this collection of painting and sculpture – temporarily trotted out of mothballs, retrieved from oblivion and brought once again into the light of public awareness – is simultaneously exhilarating and somewhat sad. Exhilarating because a lot of good work by now-forgotten artists is getting some fresh attention; sad because we know where all these things are going when the exhibition is over and the lights, once again, go off.
In addition to “Lights On,” the Haifa Museum of Art is offering several ambitious exhibits at the moment, notably “Overview: Israeli Video 2000-2010.”
Evolving from a show of contemporary video art at the Tate Modern in London earlier this year, “Overview” presents a selection of work from the past decade by 25 Israeli video artists.
ACCORDING TO exhibition curator Sergio Edelsztein, the videos reflect the diversity and fragmentation of Israeli society during a tumultuous 10 years of war, intifada and changes in culture and identity.
As might be expected, some of the artists have chosen to confront these events with socially and politically oriented videos. But at the same time, says Edelsztein in his introduction to the show, “the sense of impotence in the face of political reality, and the shock caused by the undermining of core values in Israeli society, led many artists to respond by turning inwards. As this exhibition reveals, this strategy was given expression in a growing preoccupation with personal concerns rather than with national and political ones.”
“Overview” thus presents us with a miscellany of work ranging from angrily political to almost hilariously funny, with stops at “disturbing” and “cleverly amusing” along the way.
A particularly witty video is Keren Cytter’s Dreamtalk (2005), which presents a love triangle among two men and a woman, who mouth idiotic clichés about love and relationships while engaging in clichéd domestic behavior.
The characters’ outfits, wooden behavior, zombie-like speech and deliberately wretched acting make them look like stereotypes of themselves, of films and TV shows, and ultimately of life.
In her video, Economy of Excess (2005), Tel Aviv-born artist Karen Russo equips a robot with a camera to take us on a tour of the sewers of Essex, England – with robot and camera flowing through the sewage pipes, along with… well, you know what.
Somewhat more appetizing is Shahar Markus’s Sabich (2006), in which the video artist pays homage to Jackson Pollock’s action paintings by documenting the preparation of this popular Israeli street food. To the accompaniment of a dramatic musical soundtrack, he scatters the dish’s ingredients onto a gigantic round pita bread laid on the floor.
According to the exhibit’s brochure, this four-and-ahalf minute video attempts to undermine the self-important myth of the artist and absurdly blur the distinction between the creative process and everyday Israeli experience.
Definitely more disturbing is Playground (2008), in which producer-actor Malki Tesler sits herself down at the top of a Tel Aviv playground slide and refuses to let a long line of children climb up and slide down. The parents of the children react first with bafflement, and then quickly resort to verbal abuse and physical violence to force Tesler to move.
Insults and threats are directed not only to Tesler, but to the camerawoman as well. The video ends with Tesler dislodged from the slide, lying on the ground, being punched and kicked by the small children.
In case we missed the point, the printed explanation of the video informs us that it “points to the automatic use of violence as a default reaction, which arises even in the absence of a serious existential threat.” The explanation does not inform us, however, whether the action in the video is real or staged.
Fascinating is the only word to describe Nira Peleg’s Shabbat (2008). In this 17-minute video, we watch with the detached perspective of a sociologist as two haredi children and three adults usher in Shabbat by closing their Jerusalem neighborhood to car traffic with police barricades. The camera stands away from the action and a quiet musical soundtrack plays softly in the background, both creating an almost dreamlike vignette that ends in darkness slowly falling over empty city streets.
Rounding out the museum’s exhibitions this season is “Adrenalin,” presenting the works of emerging Israeli artists Avi Sabah and Hila Toony Navok, as well as a retrospective video show of Yair Garbuz – often called the father of Israeli video art.
All of these exhibitions are ongoing until January 1, 2011.
For further information, visit the Haifa Museum of Art’s web site,