Garden gnomes are cute, right? Who, indeed, can suppress a smile when they see a diminutive figure, generally complete with beard and cone-shaped elfish hat, peeking out from between the garden undergrowth? Then again, Inbal Hoffman has absolutely no difficulty controlling her garden accoutrement-sparked emotions. Not only does she claim to not like the alfresco statuettes, but her aversion to the little fellas is apparently so intense that she calls her new exhibition “Death of the Garden Gnome.”Hoffman’s latest collection of works is currently on display at the Rehovot Municipal Art Gallery, and will run through to November 18.In fact, rather than being a diatribe against gnomes, the exhibition provides Hoffman with a vehicle for examining the interplay between Mother Nature’s ceaseless creativity and intervention by humankind. That comes through in a variety of forms and shapes in her multidisciplinary exhibition, which incorporates sculpture, ceramics and gardening tools fused with all sorts of natural-looking but entirely fabricated add-ons, such as mushrooms and twig-shaped extensions, video and a structural installation.Moniker notwithstanding, there is only one gnome in the entire show, which occupies the full three rooms of the pleasantly appointed gallery, and that sole representative is badly misshapen, with only the trademark head covering discernible in the molten mess that lies atop a tree trunk slice dotted with artificial semicircular mushroom protrusions. The deconstructed porcelain figure appears to have almost been swallowed up by the detached piece of wood, like an opaque puddle that is being inexorably absorbed back into Mother Earth.
This is Hoffman’s second bash at encapsulating the natural verdant continuum, following her 2013 “The Garden Within” exhibition in which she used three jars to express her thoughts and feelings about the act of creating a domestic garden. With her gnome project, the artist brings the public domain into the residential green space, with all kinds of everyday receptacles used as a breeding ground for potatoes, lentils, sweet potatoes and assorted roots.“I didn’t want to address nature, as opposed to something else. It was more about using nature to relate the story of something that is greater than anything else,” explains Hoffman. The nature venture actually started out from a low-key educational manifestation of cultivation.“I went to my kids’ kindergarten, and there was a table there with beans sprouting on cotton wool in all sorts of jars,” recalls the artist. “It looked beautiful. But as an artist, I saw a sort of illustrative line with lots of movement, but I also saw a natural element that had been isolated from its normal milieu. It gave me the opportunity to focus on just one element whereby, possibly, if I’d seen it outside, in nature, I may not have been able to discern it as a separate entity.”One of the plants duly found its way back to the Hoffman household, and the artist’s creative study of nature was up and running.“Back then, I was still looking for my own individual artistic language, and I thought I should try to create a sketch while the natural process took place. The general idea was to maintain an expressive line.”That didn’t quite work out the way Hoffman wanted, and she says her natural inclinations got the better of her.“When you sketch you want to let go, so the sketch conveys a sense of emotion.But people like me, who are so pedantic, have great difficulty with being expressive and letting go.”Then again, maybe Mother Nature could offer a helping hand. “I thought that cultivating something natural might replace this practicality.The plant makes its own decisions, and I have my own choices. That’s when my work with nature began.”While to call Hoffman a control freak might be taking things a little too far, it would be safe to say that basing a collection of works on how nature goes about its own business, totally oblivious to what some human creator may be looking for, seems like a strange choice of direction.
Added to that, “Death of the Garden Gnome” is very much a work in progress, and demands constant attention. The exhibition includes a display of various forms of vegetation housed in a motley spread of curious containers, such as miniature greenhouses and basic recycled pickle jars.It is precisely this incessant interplay – between the unfolding of the natural sequence and humankind’s tendency to try to set its own timetable – that fuels Hoffman’s imagination and the exhibition in hand.“There is a point of friction between natural creation and the wish to oversee that creation, and all the feelings that go on in between,” notes Hoffman.“Then there is the symbolic value of growth in the sense of cyclicality, which, as human beings, is something with which we are always engaged. It is something that is unavoidable. We think about what will be here after we have gone, what we will leave behind. Does the collective entity of the human species impart some sort of comfort, through its actions? It is always bringing you back to thinking about your place. I think that is what I have engaged in, but I think that, with this exhibition, I have tried to approach it with some sort of narrative.”There are chapters to the Hoffman public story line. “This room deals in growth and hope and promises, and there are elements of death here, too,” she says. The latter principally comes through in the mushroom shapes dotted about the place.“Mushrooms always have some kind of motif that conveys a message of death and dying, and are a little bit threatening,” posits the artist. “In contrast with green vegetation, which process photosynthesis and are responsible for the generation of oxygen, mushrooms are decay and they dissemble the dead material.They occupy a different position from green vegetation in the chain of life.”There is the odd multimedia spot in the exhibition, including an intriguing collection of jars, called Garden Party, which act as small video screens on which one can observe the ebb and flow of life through, for example, the sprawling roots of a sweet potato as they unfurl and contract with the passing of the growth process.There are headphones next to the jars which enable the observer to listen to Hoffman’s audio picks, such the 1965 megahit for The Byrds “Turn! Turn! Turn!” which includes such eminently appropriate lines as “A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, a time to reap that which is planted.”“Besides, that’s one of my favorite songs,” says Hoffman with a smile.
The incorporation of modern technology, including good old common or garden electricity, in her works offers a somewhat tongue-in-cheek approach to natural evolution, whereby vegetation appears to be activated by man-made power and, naturally, ceases to be when the power is turned off.As far as Hoffman is concerned, Mother Nature probably has any man-made attempts at creativity beat from the get-go.“Anyone who has a plant, in fact, is producing a work of art,” she declares.Curator Ora Kraus believes that there is more to nurturing the odd house plant than wanting to have a bit of green about the place.“Back in the ’70s, for instance, we all had a sweet potato growing at home,” she says.“Hey! That’s part of our collective memory,” interjects 41-year-old Hoffman, Kraus’s junior by a couple or so decades. That’s part of how I approach nature, and art.”Hoffman, who lives in Tel Aviv, says she hankers after a garden of her own or, at the very least, a few plants dotted around her apartment. She is appreciative of the unbridled energy of nature, which she semi-comically proffers in the form of artificial blades of grass that appear to be working their way through the floor tiles of the gallery.“Nature will always make its presence felt. It is irresistible. This isn’t luxuriant grass, these are weeds, but this reflects the fact that nature will remain after humankind has gone from this world.”Hoffman also feeds off literary sources in her quest to convey her feelings about nature. These include Virginia Woolf’s 1931 experimental novel The Waves in which the British writer deftly describes how autumnal leaves fall to the ground and await “dissolution.”Woolf’s portrayal of the cycle of life passes through the monochromic prism of black vis-à-vis white, which is an enduring element of the Hoffman exhibition.Time and again, “Death of the Garden Gnome” presents the observer with the seemingly irreconcilable contrasts of life and death, but does so in a way that makes it crystal clear that they are two ends of the same natural sequence, and that they neatly complement each other.“The items I have here are ordered but not too tightly,” notes Hoffman. “They are not just scattered around the place, but they are not too tidy either. Together, they tell the story of the past and the future, of withering and of flowering, and of the celebration of nature.”The titular figurine, paucity of presence in the show notwithstanding, for Hoffman, is central to the general message.“The gnome is the interface, the place where humankind’s efforts and the natural sequence meet. It is fascinating.At the end of the day, nature will always win through, but for that to happen we have to relate to nature as a collective entity and not as just an individual piece of growth. That’s the bottom line.”For more information call the Rehovot Municipal Art Gallery: (08) 939-0390.