Techno-vision

Over the past decade, Israeli art has garnered unprecedented international success.

Looking back at the last decade of art, many artistsand curators speak of the unprecedented international success ofIsraeli artists. Less spoken of but equally important is the wideningof the artistic establishment here - both in terms of institutions andgalleries. And yet despite the flurry of activity, it doesn't seem thatany unique movement or contribution to art has as yet been identified.

"One can feel that there's much more intensity inthe art world," says Jerusalem-based painter Amnon Ben-Ami. "Lots ofgalleries are opening in Tel Aviv and artists multiply by the hour.There are also more and more exhibitions of foreign artists in TelAviv. Jerusalem is still marginal, but even here there has been someawakening."
He adds that more Israeli artists are also now showing aroundthe world. "During my visit to the US last summer I came across theworks of three Israeli video artists: Keren Tsiter in New York, YaelBartana at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Boston and Guy Ben-Ner atMass Moca."
Indeed, it seems that the buzz around Israeli art abroad circles more around video art than any other medium.
"Fora number of reasons, this has been a decade of establishment," saysTimna Seligman, who curates the Ticho House of the Israel Museum. "Ifduring the 1990s we were talking about the breakthrough of Israeliartists on the international scene, this became more matter-of-factduring the 2000s. Artists such as Yael Bartana, Michal Rovner, GuyBen-Ner and Sigalit Landau all exhibited at major internationalmuseums. It became accepted that Israeli artists would be part of largegroup shows at international biennials and art fairs such as the VeniceBiennale, Documenta and Art Basel."
But this was a decade of establishment in another way as well,with art institutions opening and expanding their infrastructure in anunprecedented way. In 2000, the Bezalel Academy of Art and Designopened its graduate program in Tel Aviv, headed by sculptor NahumTevet. In 2001, the Israel Center for Digital Art began its activitiesunder the directorship of Galit Eilat. In 2003, the Ashdod Museum ofArt was opened under the directorship of renowned curator Yona Fischer.
In2004, Rivka Saker founded ARTIS, a nonprofit advocacy group forcontemporary Israeli art abroad. In 2005, the Center for ContemporaryArt, founded in 1998 and directed by Sergio Edelstein, moved from asmall room in the Tel Aviv Cinematheque to its own building next to theKalisher School of Art. In 2006, Bezalel announced an architecturecompetition for a new undergraduate campus in Jerusalem's city center.
In 2007, the Bat Yam Museum of Contemporary Art began itsactivities under curators Milana Gitzin Adiram and Leah Abir; and inthe same year, Israel Museum director James Snyder announced a completeoverhaul of the main campus. In 2009, the Shenkar Multidisciplinary ArtDepartment, headed by Larry Abramson, moved into the renovated EliteBuilding in Ramat Gan. And just a few months ago, Doron Rabina, anartist and curator who came on the scene in the 1990s, took over ashead of Hamidrasha School of Art at Beit Berl College from Yair Garbuz,who had taught there for 36 years and for 12 years had been itsdirector.
ALONGSIDE THIS growth there was also some unavoidablereflection. These were, in Seligman's words, "milestones that made theIsraeli art establishment take stock of itself, take a look at itshistory and try to tell and retell the narrative." One of those was thecentenary of the founding of Bezalel (1906-2006). Another was the 60thanniversary of the state, which brought with it a countrywideexhibition with six museums each showing a decade of Israeli art. Notevery exhibit was equally successful, but they were attended by viewersfrom all over the country.
"By having the exhibition of each decade exhibited at adifferent museum and curated by a different curator," continuesSeligman, "we ended up with a wide view of the history of art - withfocuses changing from decade to decade in a way that would not havehappened if it had all been one mega show."
Snyder, director of the Israel Museum since 1996, says thatwhen the idea for the state's anniversary project was advanced, "weimmediately asked to be assigned this most recent decade." Theexhibition that developed was Real Time: Art in Israel, 1998-2008. "Ourcollective feeling in the museum was that, in the last 10-year period,Israeli art had taken a quantum leap in terms of expansion of itshorizons, success in the mastery of emerging creative mediums with newpotential for artistic expression, and liberation of a frame of mindabout local identity and global connection. This simply had not beenpossible on a wide-ranging scale before the cultural and technologicalglobalization that the last decade has experienced."
In his introductory essay to Real Time, curator AmitaiMendelsohn wrote of the "the 2002 Helena exhibition, [in which] AvnerBen-Gal, Ohad Meromi and Gil Marco Shani explored the boundariesbetween civilization and savagery, the urban and the natural, theflagrantly sexual and the safely concealed." The show was consideredgroundbreaking at the time.
On a more general note, he adds that, "[a]lthough most leadingyoung artists do not deal directly with the reality around them, theydo react to it, either with prophecies of approaching doom, by means ofa return to wild primeval worlds or by conscious flight intoalternative realms that offer a form of spiritual redress, howeverillusory."
YET SOME artists remained decidedly committed to a local stanceindependent from the establishment. With increased buying activity camea reaction against the immediate commercialization of young artists.According to Ruth Zadka, executive director of the Jerusalem ArtistsHouse, this began with the creation of the Sala-Manca Group in 2000 byLea Mauas and Diego Rotman. "[They] said, 'We don't need to wait forgalleries to exhibit us,' and showed young artists that all they needis an idea and drive."
Throughout the decade, alternative spaces,short-term exhibits and performances appeared throughout the country.Young artists came together of their own initiative to open and rungalleries as collectives - most notably Barbur in Jerusalem and Daromin Tel Aviv. After the economic crash of 2008, some of the establishedgalleries started following the ways of smaller independentinitiatives. In April 2009, the Rosenfeld Gallery had not only hiredyoung curator Sari Golan, whose experience came from alternativeexhibits, but had moved to South Tel Aviv's industrial complex ofKiryat Hamelacha, home to many artists' studios.
Oneinstitution that put itself on the map in the past decade as one of thecountry's centers for contemporary art was the Haifa Museum of Art. ForTami Katz Frieman, who has curated at the museum since 2006, thelanguage of art itself has changed over the last decade. She believesit has to do with a larger and more grandiose scale - a showinessrelated to the artwork's production. She explains that in her exhibitsat the museum, she has tried to highlight three central elements shebelieves relate to recent art: increased emotionality, the use ofdeception through optical effects/illusions and a strong element ofobsessiveness in terms of craft and material. Her most recent show, shesays, explores changes in the perception of the body through thegrotesque - a notion she also believes relates to the last decade.
Snyder points to a similar overall development in the lastdecade. "The world changed dramatically in this period," he says, "andmany new mediums for artistic expression began to emerge fromtechnology - photography, digital composition and recomposition, DVDand installation - all mediums where Israeli practitioners seemed toexhibit a natural facility, so that their creative production startedto set a course as leaders rather than followers worldwide."
ALONGSIDE THIS flurry of international attention, Seligman alsofinds herself "thinking about the artists who passed away during thisdecade - the indelible mark that they made on Israeli art and the senseof loss at their passing." She mentions Moshe Kupferman, Raffi Lavie,Lea Nikel, Yehiel Shemi and Gideon Gechtman - artists who matured in aless globalized world and didn't see the kind of internationalintegration that some Israeli artists see today.
And yet, "they were each, in their own way, responsible for theshaping of Israeli art as we understand it today. So much focus isplaced on the 'next big thing' when, in fact, we need to reflect andrecognize the role played by these great artists in creating anenvironment ripe for the innovation, creation and artistic explorationnecessary for the success of the upcoming generations of Israeliartists."
Zadka reminds us that the "decade started with the secondintifada in 2000 and ended with the economic crisis in 2008."Large-scale global terror flourished alongside global economicirresponsibility. "It's a decade of embarrassment - both global andlocal," says Zadka.

"Theart world, like others, becomes more global and fluid," observesBen-Ami. "A much more difficult and interesting question is whethersomething of interest has happened in Israeli art in last 10 years. Issomething exciting or new happening here?" Zadka is willing to take achance at an answer: "Art is meant to reveal something beyond what ishappening. And unfortunately, I didn't see anything like this inIsraeli art."
Perhaps this has to do with the growth of the art scene inevery direction - and hence without any single, focused development. Orperhaps the decade passed too quickly, before a signature artisticstyle could say its piece. Or maybe the question of what happened inthe last decade is less relevant than another question: How will theunfolding of the last decade be taken up and used by the artists of thenext?