When is a jar not a jar?

Noa Arad Yairi’s ‘Splittings.’ (photo credit: LEONID PADRUL-KWITKOWSKI)
Noa Arad Yairi’s ‘Splittings.’
If your idea of what you can do with pottery is make a fetching and/or useful jar or produce some nice kitchen or bathroom tiles, think again. The display at the Eighth Biennale of Israeli Ceramics, which opened on August 1 at the Eretz Israel Museum in Ramat Aviv, amply demonstrates that ceramics- related artistic thinking has come a long way since the days when King Herod ruled the roost here, in not too kindly a manner.
If the biennale is the definitive show of where Israeli pottery art is at right now, you could say that the sector is in rude, bustling health. In many cases, it is almost as though the material were just an excuse for giving tangible form t o some suitably off-thewall ideas.
The eighth edition of the biennale goes by the name “Wet – Fired,” which already gives you some idea of the disciplinary and thematic leapfrogging in which the contributors engaged for the event. The exhibition covers expansive tracts of thought, design and manual application. There are works that have you wondering whether the substance in front of you is actually made of pottery.
One such prominent specimen of textural crossover is Gravity by Drora Levi-Kozlovski. The first impression you get of the large, jumbled work is that you are looking at a pile of old, hollowed out branches that are well on their way to being well and truly ossified. You get the same sense from your second look, too.
Levi-Kozlovski has done an excellent job at masking the nature of the base clay slab medium.
“The saturated living material allows infinite transformations,” explains the artist. “The dry material perishes and returns to the earth from which it was taken, while the fired material leaves its mark.”
It certainly does, and although the appearance is ostensibly lifeless, the work is strangely moving, too.
“The roots represent an internal dimension in a person’s life and twist backward into the person’s personal and cultural history,” Levi-Kozlovski explains, adding that her personal backdrop is in there, too. “The roots are infused with values that created my past, and shape my future. The roots of my future ensue from the gap between commitment to my past and my internal need to grow as an authentic and determining person.”
Exhibition curator Dr. Eran Erlich says the event provides an opportunity for the artists in question to dig deeper into the discipline.
“The objective of the ceramics biennale is to allow Israeli artists to investigate the medium in which they work and employ the capacities of expression in clay to develop an artistic language that will move, arouse curiosity and stimulate viewers,” notes Erlich, who also serves as head of the department of ceramics and glass design at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem.
“Unlike other fields of plastic art, ceramics combines modern art that seeks to challenge ideational articulation and the expression of the human condition, and technical and skilled knowledge.”
The latter comes across in the biennale spread in no uncertain terms. You clearly can’t manipulate clay – physically, aesthetically and conceptually – without knowing every why and wherefore of the material.
By now it had become clear that there was more to the exhibits than meets the eye. There is a subtext to almost all the works which draws you into each item, and has you furrowing your brow and drawn into the creation. Which is just how it should be.
Erlich adds a neat addendum to the crisp show title. “The exhibition is called Wet – Fired, Material as a Metaphorical Domain,” he proffers. “The call to the artists came from that. We had all sorts of discussions with the artists as to the meaning of ceramic material and how that comes across in their work.”
Noa Arad-Yairi, who contributed a charming and intriguing collection of figurines, Splittings, certainly seems to have gone through some kind of cerebral process before she set hand to clay.
Arad-Yairi has pottery in her genes, but although she feels at home with the medium, she says she can’t afford to relax for a second.
“I am ambivalent about the material,” she states. “On the one hand, it is open and natural for me; it has been a part of me since I spent time, as a child, in my grandmother’s studio. On the other hand, it is a mystery to me. It can always surprise me and reproach me for arrogance, for thinking I know everything about it.”
Arad-Yairi took a tongue-in-cheek approach to her slot in the exhibition, choosing to replicate an earlier stage in the evolution of the end product. “The illusion – of painting the fired material in the shade of wet clay – brings out the challenge of coping with what you know, the familiar, and, on the other hand, the totally unknown,” she muses.
Splittings features characters of various demeanors and age groups and includes a couple of halved figures which palpably convey Arad-Yairi’s stated unresolved stance on her craft.
Erlich’s aforementioned ethos stall-setting may seem somewhat facile.
Surely, when artists set about a new project, they must ask basic questions, both of themselves and about the physical means of expression they have opted for.
The curator begs to differ. “When we work as creator, we frequently think about our artistic process, but we often take the medium in which we work for granted,” he states. “When it comes to people who have been working in the field for some time, there is an intuitive aspect, but I wanted to generate a sort of hiatus, to allow the artists to develop a conscious mind-set, which involves an investigative approach to the medium and its implications on all levels.”
Erlich not only wanted the exhibitors to get stuck into their material at hand – literally – but also wants us, the art-loving public, to reconnect with the corporeal.
“If we take a look at art but also at other areas of our life, everything is channeled toward the image, and everything is largely translated into the world of the two-dimensional, and not only are we talking about the two-dimensional, we are often looking at the nonmaterial, the virtual. We are talking about video and about photography.”
Hence Erlich’s powerful attraction to ceramics. “It preserves the tactile, it preserves sound and even smells, and it offers us the opportunity for an experience that is a richer one and proffers more layers than those just used in the sense of vision, which is, today, the dominant sense.
We are flooded with images.”
Images are clearly central in Eleanora Orly Edlavitch’s My Dearest, which takes substance manipulation a step further, deep into the cutting edge of advanced technology, and how it can be used to produce non-virtual works of art. Orly Edlavitch used a 3D printer to produce porcelain exemplars of photographs sourced from her family album across several generations.
Material, in its bulkiest form – albeit in a non-tactile video work – is inescapably at the forefront of Esther Beck and Amihai Bikowski’s work Matter is a Center of Dreaming. In it we see Beck, shoveling, shaping and actually sitting in tons of clay – 4.5 metric tons to be precise. You can almost feel and smell the heavy, semi-liquid, slithering substance.
There is an abundance of surprises, color, textural games and even comedic slots right across the exhibition. Yael Novak’s Distill is a delightful motley collection of seeming common or garden objects which one might encounter in the kitchen or bathroom. The work gives off a sense of crisp shape and feel, with its seamless melding of readymade objects and wheel-thrown pottery, taking in porcelain, earthenware and stainless steel components.
And if it’s color you’re looking for then Karin Zur’s Raving Garden glazed floral arrangement should provide the desired sensory rewards.
Zur admits to taking a devil-may-care attitude to her work. “For me, the material is just the raw material for anything I want to do. I can fashion almost anything I want from it – from delicate, sensitive and fragile objects, to hard and strong things, and from the natural to the artificial.” Raving Garden embraces both of the latter in equal parts.
Rani Gilat appears to have applied the Midas touch to his work Reflection, which comprises two sets of shallow gold-coated porcelain bowls. First, it is hard to believe the vessels are not made of brass; second, the titular capacity for resonating images is more than a little misleading. You don’t get to see yourself in the bowls, but you don’t get a feeling of shimmering reality.
“I’m not sure Narcissus would stop by this work for too long,” jokes Erlich. “He wouldn’t be able to see himself.”
Anna Carmi definitely got stuck into her work in the process of producing Aiming at Ceramic Body. The items in the multifarious exhibit draw the eye, but you soon begin to notice the vessels are not as perfect as you first thought.
The video that accompanies the pottery objects shows how Carmi literally took a shot at her work, firing bullets into the plates and vases to bring the tactile to the forefront, in an inescapable and highly forceful manner.
“The gun is pointed at the ceramic body, a shot is fired which creates, creates a fleeting touch,” says Carmi somewhat poetically. “Wheel work, a gun, a paintbrush, one addictive touch, through which the gates to humility and abundance are opened.”
For Carmi, creation is very much a matter of the here and now, the transience of time. “As befitting a guest, the material encapsulates the moment, the camera documents, every encounter is an event.”
“Wet – Fired” is certainly an event to be savored.
The exhibition closes November 10. For more information: eretzmuseum.org.il