Seven stories, seven puzzles

An eye-opening exhibition at the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion conveys the message that our eyes often deceive us, our ears can mislead us.

‘Inferno,’ Yael Bartana, 2013.
There is a quote attributed to author Brandon Sanderson, that “the purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon.” In the heart of Tel Aviv, seven highly talented video artists are providing many such questions, telling stories that soothe, challenge, amuse, anger, attract, repulse and, most of all, puzzle their audiences in an exhibition called “Story Time: Or Was It?”
Currently on show at the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion for Contemporary Art, “Story Time” conveys the message that our eyes often deceive us, our ears can mislead us, and our hearts and minds can rarely be trusted to tell us what is “real” and what is not.
“Video art is really the most fascinating medium in the art world today,” says exhibition curator Ruth Direktor, “and I’ve seen many works of video art that I’ve found intriguing. I wanted to think about video as the new version of storytelling. But of course when artists are doing something, when they pretend to tell a story, it’s never as it sounds. It’s always more complicated, more sophisticated. And they are always delivering their messages in a very subtle way.”
Direktor says she first got the idea from “a work we are showing here, called Grosse Fatigue, by Camille Henrot – a French artist working in New York – which I saw last summer at the Venice Biennale. It’s only 13 minutes, in which she is telling the story of the creation of the world.
In these 13 minutes, she puts all the versions of how the world was created – different religious versions, different mythic versions, and different scientific versions, like the Big Bang and evolution. As you watch, you are attacked by this mass of information, both visual and verbal information.
And at the end, you know nothing. What is true? What is fiction? So from this work I had the idea of showing video art that tells a story, but you never know what is true, what is false, what is real, and what is imaginary.
But the video art form has its ways of tempting you, of seducing you, to sit, watch, and at the end say, ‘That was a story – or was it?’” The video art works in the exhibition are relatively short; the longest is 33 minutes. All have English-language subtitles, and each runs in a continuous loop in a different part of the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion – former home of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, of which it remains an “off-site branch.”
Says Direktor, “The Helena Rubinstein Pavilion was inaugurated in 1959 as a very modernist white cube. And we spent two weeks before the exhibition transforming it into a black box. We covered all the windows and blocked out all the daylight. There are seven video installations here, and I say ‘installations’ because that is what each of these works is. Each work has its own space, its own place where you are invited to sit and take some time to watch and listen to the story that each work is telling you.”
Those stories are compelling. They portray, among other things, a Jewish woman and an Arab man seemingly alone together as future refugees, walking north from Tel Aviv to Beirut; the inauguration and spectacular destruction of the Third Temple; a strange attempt to reconstruct the past from the memory of a long-lost photograph; and accusations of the “ritual murder” of a Christian child by Jews.
The reason the curator chose these video works for this exhibition, she says, was that “I wanted them to be new. Most of them were done in the last year. I wanted them to be new videos that were not shown in Israel before. And I wanted them to be telling a story, and deconstructing a story. That’s what I was looking for, and I wanted them to be from a very wide range of perspectives. We have here a Dutch artist, a Finnish artist, a French artist, two Israeli artists – one of them living in Berlin – a Hungarian artist who lives in Berlin as well, and Simon Fujiwara, who is a Japanese-British artist, also living in Berlin.”
ASKED WHY so many of these artists live in Berlin, she says simply, “Berlin is the center of the art world today.”
Surprisingly, of the seven video artists whose works appear in “Story Time,” all but one are women. Is this deliberate curatorial bias, inadvertent sampling error, or do women bring a sensibility to video art that most men lack? “Perhaps they do,” Direktor says. “Video is a new form of art. And it’s a new form of art that came with the feminist awareness in the 1970s. This was when video art began and feminist art began.”
Reminded that women filmmakers had existed long before and were tackling similar issues, Direktor says adamantly, “This is not film – this is video. What’s the difference? The difference is that video is being made by people in the art world. The people who are on show here studied art. They exhibit in the art sphere. They exhibit in places like this, contemporary art galleries and museums.”
Two of the most absorbing works in the exhibition are by Israelis – Thalia Hoffman (no relation to this reporter) and Yael Bartana.
Hoffman’s video, Guava (2013) seems to be a homage to Hiroshima mon amour – Alain Resnais’s 1959 film about memory and forgetfulness between two former lovers, a French woman and a Japanese man, who are immersed in trauma at the end of World War II. Guava, which takes place in 2048 “on a refugee road between Tel Aviv and Beirut,” opens on a young Jewish woman and a young Arab man heading north through the hills of the Galilee toward Beirut. The two are walking in the same direction, more or less in proximity to each other, but rarely if ever “together.” Their conversation is often vague, alternating between warmth and animosity, resignation and accusation. Shared memories arise, but are they personal memories between two people, or allegorical sketches of memories shared by two nations?
While Hoffman fascinates with this 11-minute, oneshot video with a cast of two, Bartana overwhelms with Inferno (2013), a 22-minute cinematographic epic that chronicles the festive inauguration and apocalyptic destruction of the Third Temple – not in Jerusalem, but in São Paulo, Brazil. Apparently shot in Brazil with a cast of hundreds, Inferno blends heart-stopping video photography with clever digital manipulation to create a piece of dystopian fantasy that occasionally looks all too real and all too familiar. Particularly riveting is the aftermath of the Temple’s destruction and the creation of a new Western Wall. Viewers watch spellbound, unable to believe their eyes. But then, are we supposed to?
Meanwhile, Simon Fujiwara’s Studio Pietà (King Kong Komplex) documents his attempt to reconstruct a lost photograph he remembers from childhood, which shows his British mother in the arms of a Lebanese friend, both in bathing suits on a beach in Beirut. Then there is Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s The Annunciation (2010), which follows the rehearsals for a theatrical performance in a rural village in Finland. Ahtila’s 33-minute story is spread across three large screens as it blends human goals and animal behavior in ways that both amuse and confuse.
Perhaps the most gut-wrenching work of all, however, is Hajnal Németh’s False Testimony (Version 3). This 20-minute 2013 video chillingly recounts the disappearance of a Christian girl from a Hungarian village in 1882, followed a year later by a show trial of 14 Jewish men charged with ritual murder. Rendered in a present-day setting that might be a public library, the events are sung operatically by a stern prosecutor, his assistant – seated in front of a laptop – and a boy they are coaching to recite false testimony of having witnessed the ritual murder. A small group of people, seated at the library tables and surrounded by books, sing an unnerving chorus to the false-testimony opera. This is a work that viewers will likely remember with a shudder for a long time afterward.
“Story Time: Or Was It?” runs until November 1 at the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion for Contemporary Art, 6 Tarsat Boulevard, Tel Aviv. For further information: (03) 528-7196.