About face

The Israeli art world could not possibly work without Facebook.

The statue of David, by Michelangelo, gets an update with sunglasses with the Facebook logo in the frames. (photo credit: COURTESY KARNI GAMLIEL)
The statue of David, by Michelangelo, gets an update with sunglasses with the Facebook logo in the frames.
Basing an art exhibition of the first decade of Facebook can be a risky business.
On the one hand, the theme is open to very varied artistic interpretation; on the other hand, in a way, the very idea of having a corporeal art show seems to be almost the complete antithesis of the world of instant and global communication promulgated so effectively by virtual social networks.
A visit to Hangar 2 by the gently lapping waters of the Jaffa Port a few days ago, as the artists arrived with their contributions to the “Bookface” exhibition, revealed a consummately free and eclectic approach to the subject matter. I espied a relatively small number of works with explicit reference to the inverse name of the eponymous social network, but there was an abundance of creations that more than alluded to the nature and possibilities the software incorporates, with regard to how we can present ourselves to the world.
“The idea was to see how each artist relates to his or her own profile,” explains Maimon Peer, a Bookface organizer who evidently fully appreciates the pitfalls, as well as the undeniable efficacy, inherent in social networking. “Basically our profile is something akin to a fake. We wouldn’t put our own ugly face in our profile image, would we? We want to show our ‘better’ side. We choose what we want to show the world.”
But isn’t that, in an artistic context, a contradiction in terms? Surely, a work of art is an expression of our true self, warts and all, irrespective of the subject matter on display. If we are looking to beautify the image we project to the world, we are dabbling in the realms of self-PR and marketing rather than putting ourselves out there, come what may.
“With Facebook we are conveying only a part of who we really are,” Peer concurs, adding that he was looking forward to seeing how much of the “inner me” the contributors to the show would proffer.
The idea of a Facebook-inspired collection of artworks clearly has mass appeal. In the hour or so I spent at Hangar 2, dozens of paintings and sculptures found their way into the cavernous premises.
All told, around 100 artists brought in close to 200 works.
“The works are very varied,” continues Peer. “Some really brought out their emotions in them. One woman, who is trying hard to become pregnant, put that out there in her work.” The creation in question comprises a clay sculpture of a winged female torso with a golden orb in its belly.
Nataly Grossman’s five paintings also convey some layered sense of the social network machinations, which allow us to reveal selected aspects of our world while concealing others, or tailoring our profile to our own needs. At first glance, for example, a couple of her works appear to lean strongly towards the abstract side of the visual art tracks, but gradually you begin to make out defined flamingo shapes. Or, in another, a cello – albeit a somewhat distorted one – seeps into the spectator’s consciousness.
Nir Yitzhak’s contribution to Bookface appears to reference the exhibition theme, both on a visual and philosophical level. His copper brown oil and tempera painting Shay shows around a quarter of a face, with the image of a boy in the eye. The youngster is Yitzhak’s son, aged three. Shay is now 41, but despite the fact that the painting precedes Facebook by over two decades, Yitzhak felt it was suitable for the exhibition.
On the face of it – pardon the pun – 70-year-old Yitzhak does not really appear to be the right person to put forth Bookface material.
“I am a very low-level Facebook user,” he declares, “but I have participated in lots of exhibitions and, of course, Facebook is a very useful means for publicizing your work.”
Yitzhak got his inspiration for Shay from a work by 20th-century Dutch illusory artist M.C. Escher, Eye of Death, in which Escher portrays a skull reflected in his own eye. “The skull is, of course, a symbol of death so I decided to use a symbol of life in my painting – my son,” explains Yitzhak, adding that, in contrast with Facebook – where anyone can disseminate any message they wish to the world and, more crucially, any image – as an artist he engages in the real thing.
“All my works are based on things that actually exist,” he notes, adding that his art is basically a means of immortalizing moments, places and events. “None of us lives forever.”
That, as far as Yitzhak is concerned, includes social networks. “No one expected this [Facebook] to take off so quickly, and to spread so far. There is so-called intimacy between people who look at pictures on the computer and read stories that other people write, and you share your own stories with others. It’s all one big pretense; it’s a sort of global craze. I don’t believe it will last for much longer.”
Still, why not make the best use of it while it’s still around? “Today , when these social networks are so well-developed and people are so lazy, they are more engrossed in all the marginal stuff – instead of the actual work. It’s like [pre-Castro Cuban dictator Fulgencio] Batista said – there are the few who act, the many who talk about things and pour scorn on them, and the majority who have absolutely no idea what’s going on. Virtual networks can be genuine too, it just depends how you use them.
“Most people prefer some kind of fake intimacy – you know, I have 300 or 3,000 ‘friends.’ They’re not real friends. You don’t talk to them, you hardly talk to yourself. Art, real art, is something else.”
Photographer Dor Ashkenazi also prefers to get out and about, and spend time in the real, material world before putting his creative talents to good use. The 23-year-old Jerusalemite recently returned from six months on the road, and his two works in Bookface were culled from hundreds of images he captured on his travels in Southeast Asia, Australia and New Zealand.
“I like to get to know my subjects or the places I want to shoot,” he says, “and then the work I produce can reflect that knowledge.”
Ashkenazi’s exhibits are a beguiling picture of a woman from southwest China, and a captivating photograph of an Aborigine. It is clear from the expressions on the subjects’ faces that they trusted Ashkenazi, and that he had carefully laid the groundwork before setting finger to digital shutter button.
Ashkenazi says you can, indeed, convey yourself to the world via social networks, in any guise you wish, but there is no faking it at the “money time” end of the spectrum. “I am a firm believer in presenting a profile in which the person stares unflinchingly into the camera, just as you see in my photographs. That really gets the person’s story across. I think you can look at my pictures and get the subject’s story.”
The young man did so throughout his six-month odyssey. “I tried to capture the things you don’t see on an everyday basis, and to be the roving photographer and not the traveler who takes pictures.”
That, for Ashkenazi, also means telling the story as is. “I may fix something in a shot relating to lighting, or maybe a bit of color, but I try my best not to intervene in the process. At the end of the day, I want to produce a photograph which accurately depicts what I saw with my own eyes.”
This involves a process which follows as natural a course as possible, even in this day and age of instant replay of digital images. “I prefer to take 10 good photos, rather than take 1,000 pictures and end up with one good one,” Ashkenazi declares. “I don’t mind missing a moment I could have captured, and spend time thinking and planning the shot, so I get a frame I am happy with.
“The proof of that mindset is on display in Bookface.
I took lots of portrait shots in Cambodia and China, but only one in Australia, and that’s the one in the exhibition.”
As far as Michal Sadan is concerned, the exhibition is the result of an ongoing natural continuum.
“Today, the Israeli art world could not possibly work without Facebook,” says Sadan, who conceived the idea for the show. This works right down to the logistical nuts and bolts. “If I didn’t have Facebook, I wouldn’t be able to control this whole venture.”
There is also a herd instinct to the whole social network scene. “People want to belong to some social framework or other,” continues Sadan. “Families no longer lead such a nuclear lifestyle, there are divorced people and single mothers. And the whole organization of the exhibition, and bringing in sponsors, like Concept Academy, was so much easier through Facebook.
“That’s the way the world works today.” ■
“Bookface” closes on October 1.