DOV OR-NER sees the whole world as a museum. (photo credit: Dov Or-Ner)
DOV OR-NER sees the whole world as a museum. (photo credit: Dov Or-Ner)
New Jerusalem art exhibit crosses boundaries at Hansen House

Dov Or-Ner is made of stern stuff. That much is clear from his hefty and uncompromising oeuvre over the past seven or so decades. That the 96-year-old resident of Kibbutz Hatzor Ashdod is a creative force to be reckoned with is plainly evident from the compelling spread of works now on display at the Mamuta exhibition space at Hansen House.

The exhibition is called “New Works,” curated by the Jerusalem-based Sala-manca group of independent artists. The simplicity of the title is indicative of the straight-talking no-nonsense approach to life and art Or-Ner has embraced from the start.

It all began for the nonagenarian in France, where he was born in 1927.

The start of an artistic career

“I always knew I was going to be an artist, that I was going to create things. I didn’t know how I was going to go about that, but I knew that was going to be the way for me.”

Dov Or-Ner

“I always knew I was going to be an artist, that I was going to create things,” he states unceremoniously when we meet at his house. “I didn’t know how I was going to go about that, but I knew that was going to be the way for me.”

As a child he liked to draw, particularly comic book superheroes, but his artistic and existential trajectory was summarily truncated in 1940 with the Nazi invasion of France. After several spells in the slammer, along with his parents and brother, and separately with his brother, he found his way to a Catholic monastery, where he was hidden, along with other Jewish children, for the remainder of the war. He and his brother were the only members of his family to survive the Holocaust.

 THE MAIN character in the ‘Female Lepers House’ series exudes a captivating oxymoronic mix of sensuality and repulsiveness.  (credit: Dov Or-Ner) THE MAIN character in the ‘Female Lepers House’ series exudes a captivating oxymoronic mix of sensuality and repulsiveness. (credit: Dov Or-Ner)

After the war, after initially taking a state-provided furriery course for war orphans, Or-Ner eventually hooked up with the Maccabi organization. That led to an ever-deepening engagement in sports and, more tellingly, Zionist activity in France. In 1950 he came to the newly born Jewish state to attend a youth leaders’ course and was taken with the pioneering spirit here. Two years later, he made aliyah.

Initially billeted at Kibbutz Daliya, he first encountered local artists there, including German-born painter and sculptor Shlomo Meir, who inspired him to set up a canvas and easel, and he began to produce gouache landscapes.

How he was going to find his way through the intricacies and mysteries of artistic creation occurred over time. He was going to do it his own singular way.

“I am an autodidact,” he tells me. “I took a few classes with [German-born sculptor] Rudi Lehmann. But that’s it.”

YOU COULD say Or-Ner is the quintessential artist. Free of the shackles that formal training can impose imperceptibly on budding creators, he could roam as far and wide as he fancied. The fact that he lived on a kibbutz – he and his gar’in (aliyah group) relocated to Hatzor Ashdod after six months at Daliya – also helped. 

“I had no financial concerns,” he admits. “I didn’t have to worry about making a living.” 

Still, he didn’t get much in the way of encouragement or any other support from his surroundings.

“People here didn’t understand what I was doing,” he shrugs. “They didn’t appreciate my art.” That wasn’t for want of trying. “I wrote something in the kibbutz newspaper to explain my art to people here. But it didn’t help.”

Still, Or-Ner’s gifts were pressed into good practical service.

“I made posters and decorations for various kibbutz events, and sets for shows,” he chuckles.

Ironically, the members of his own community eventually acknowledged his talents and creativeness only when it dawned on them that they had an internationally acclaimed artist living in their midst. By that time, Or-Ner had exhibited across the globe, such as France, Canada and Brazil.

There is a softness in Or-Ner’s one functioning eye which conceals steely determination. His left eye is now covered by a patch following facial nerve palsy, and the left side of his face is partially paralyzed. Until quite recently, Or-Ner led a very active life, which included frequently cycling around his vicinity. But his physical disability does not seem to have dampened his spirit or his desire to continue creating – almost at all costs.

Most of the 70-odd works in the Mamuta exhibition are recent creations and compose three series – My Friend Corona; The Female Lepers House; and The Sculpture Hotel. All feature figures that over the years have become motifs in Or-Ner’s portfolio. “Hitler appears a lot in my work,” he says, with a gently self-deprecating laugh imbued with a sense of irony and dark humor. “He is part of who I am, too.” Considering his early time line, that is a given.

The female character has a sly grotesque appearance and exudes a captivating oxymoronic mix of overt sensuality and repulsiveness, with more than a modicum of the burlesque as well. Female Lepers House is a monochrome pencil drawing series. My Friend Corona is set against a red backdrop, while the dominant color in The Sculpture Hotel is blue. The faces of the leper figures are scarred with numerous pockmarks that convey the severity of their physical – and possibly emotional – condition.

ADVANCING YEARS and physical frailty notwithstanding, Or-Ner gives me a palpable demonstration of the fire that burns fiercely in his heart and body. He also maintains a disciplined approach to his calling. 

“I get up every morning around 7 or 7:30, and I come here and start working,” he says. “Here” is a sturdy black table stationed betwixt the kitchen area and living room. And it needs to be a solid piece of furniture, too. 

“Look,” he says taking a piece of paper and drawing a roundish shape which, I soon see, represents a face. “Then I do this,” he adds, before launching into a furious attack on the paper, rapidly hammering at the circle with a bulky black crayon with an intensity someone 30 years his junior would have been happy to produce. “I use physical force in my work,” he explains, a little superfluously. 

Or-Ner is an engaging character, one of those who don’t try hard to impress, but you quickly take in their intelligence, quickness of mind and tenacity to follow their own path in life. That unrelenting inquisitiveness and unquenchable thirst for new frontiers constantly led Or-Ner into uncharted areas and to eureka moments.

He arrived at one of the major lightning-bolt junctures in his professional life when he installed a sculpture at his kibbutz. That stemmed from Or-Ner’s digging into the past as a means of taking his art, and grasp of life, to the next stage. “The statue was influenced by ancient Egyptian art. There was this sort of megalomania, with all these enormous works. I made some giant models – 10 or 20 meters high. There was a metal pillar which was curved a little bit,” he says.

He noticed that the tall structure had a far greater projection on the surrounding area than its physical dimensions. “It was summer, and it cast a gigantic shadow,” he recalls. It was the start of something big, in more senses than one. “I began making very high masts in a series which I called Distance Demonstration.” That was in 1971, and it took in a number of offshoots that were subtitled Earth, Water, Air, Sea Level and Orientation in Urban Space. “That is how I got into conceptual art,” he declares. He was the first Israeli artist to do that.

True to his go-it-alone ethos, he came across – it would probably be disingenuous to say stumbled upon – that subgenre of art under his own steam and completely independent of anything else going on in the art world at the time. Yes, Marcel Duchamps began the whole conceptual shebang over half a century earlier in France, but Or-Ner, as has been his wont for the past 70-plus years, did things his own instinctive, nonacademic way.

OR-NER’S UNASSUMING mien informs his art as much as his interpersonal relationships. I got the impression that he creates, first and foremost, for himself simply because he has no choice in the matter. That, presumably, is the case with the majority of artists, but with Or-Ner it is more about the gestation and delivery than about proudly sporting the newborn work. 

“For me, it is the process that is important,” he states.

With that in mind, I ask him whether he attaches great importance to the fact that his works get put up on walls and in spaces at museums and central locations here and around the world.

“No, not at all,” he fires back. “For me, it is about the process.”

The name Gustav Metzger comes up. Metzger was a Jewish German-born British artist who died in 2017 at the age of 90. He came up with something he called Auto-Destructive Art, which was a political statement designed to draw attention to governmental corruption and the arms race, as well as the way we treat planet Earth. Or-Ner has also taken political stands on all sorts of issues during his long career to date, largely under the aegis of his Museum of Museums venture, which challenges a slew of accepted practices, including the very idea of the museum as the sole custodian of artworks. That has encompassed a range of events, some of which may be termed these days “performance art,” generally in the public space.

As an artist, he has constantly challenged conventions and mainstream thinking and has stuck to his guns in proffering an alternative, and often subversive, standpoint. In the mid-’70s, for example, he set up his Peace Cage in downtown Tel Aviv, spending hours in self-imposed incarceration and engaging in often heated debate with passersby. That particular project was a protest against what he viewed as the government’s hindrance of progress on the regional peace front.

There have been other ventures that resonate strongly with strident creations by the likes of German artist Joseph Beuys, American pop art trailblazer Andy Warhol, and the aforementioned Metzger. They, like Or-Ner, had a thing or two to say about ecological matters and the way we live. Consumerism was the target of his 1974 How to Live with Television installation at the Kibbutz Kfar Menahem museum in which he set active critical human awareness against passive atavistic conditioned consciousness. 

Ecology and unfeeling capitalism were also behind Or-Ner’s decision to bury a couple of Campbell tomato soup cans – one in Alaska and one by the Dead Sea. The Israeli artist met Warhol in Toronto in the 1970s. He got the iconic pop art pioneer to sign the cans and told him he was going to inter them in the permafrozen ground of the Arctic and in the heated arid Dead Sea area as a swipe at laissez-faire consumerism. Recycling – long before this country discovered it – and solar energy have also come into Or-Ner’s expansive discerning purview.

THE BREADTH and incisiveness of Or-Ner’s ethos are now on show at Hansen House. Fittingly, the process of creation, which is so important to Or-Ner, is also presented at the exhibition in a sound installation by Eitan Haviv. The triptych deconstructs the work continuum, starting with the end product, a large print of pencil marks which we view against a palpable backdrop of hammering sounds. The obverse side of the print reveals the mechanics that produce the sonic substratum, and finally we see a video of Or-Ner’s feral application of pencil to paper.

“He started engaging in sound at the age of 96,” says Haviv. “He is amazing.”

Or-Ner has also spread his creative net into the realms of literature, prose and poetry. The man is irrepressible.

“And there is something to the fact that any medium is possible for him,” adds Leah Mauas, the Sala-manca group member in charge of the current showing. “What he did here was drawing-painting, but it’s not exactly that. He uses photocopies and felt-tipped pens. And tomorrow, he’ll create something in sound. There’s nothing he can’t do.” Or won’t.

“I’ll never stop creating,” says Or-Ner softly as we arrange to meet again and I receive a warm and firm handshake. ❖

‘New Works’ closes on June 30. For more information: and

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