SHIR LUSKY’S ‘The Blue Spot’ examines the twilight zone of dream consciousness.  (photo credit: ELAD SARIG)
SHIR LUSKY’S ‘The Blue Spot’ examines the twilight zone of dream consciousness.
(photo credit: ELAD SARIG)

Israeli university art exhibits explore links between mind, senses


Perception is a funny old thing, isn’t it? Hands up anyone who has ever feverishly searched for something, say a pen, a book or – a highly likely candidate – your specs. Of course, you could be forgiven for missing the latter, probably because you simply couldn’t see them. But how often has it taken us to home in on something, to focus and consciously discern it, when it was there right under our bewildered nose the whole time?

That, in a rough generalized nutshell, is what underlies a couple of exhibitions that recently opened at the Genia Schreiber Art Gallery on the Tel Aviv University campus. The shows are called “In the Mind’s Eye” and “Drawing Art History,” which basically spells out the thematic core.

“The exhibitions shed light on the complex intersection of perception and cognition, as well as our blind spots,” curator Tamar Mayer explains. The collections pose some pretty fundamental queries about the way we handle everyday life. “How can we make sense of the fact that there are things we cannot see, even though they are right in front of us; and then there are things we do see, but we do not know we have seen?” she asks. That, and other associated notions, recur throughout the exhibitions that occupy both floors of the building. 

Mayer is, naturally, keenly cognizant of the location of the cultural institution she oversees, specifically its physical proximity to a rich reserve of academic personnel and experts in their chosen fields. All these areas of study and research, she feels, interface with artistic creation and can shed light on the processes involved in producing art, and how that is imparted to – and perceived by – the public.

The gallery, which partly operates under the auspices of the Michel Kikoïne Foundation, embraces an expansive, interdisciplinary line of thought, culling ideas, philosophical approaches and knowledge from some of the learned professionals who work in the gallery’s backyard, so to speak.

 ATTOUN’S ‘My World Is Empty’ considers conscious and unconscious visual perception.  (credit: ELAD SARIG)
ATTOUN’S ‘My World Is Empty’ considers conscious and unconscious visual perception. (credit: ELAD SARIG)

The art repository was the brainchild of Mordechai Omer, who taught in the university’s Arts Department and later became chief curator of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. The gallery venture began life in the mid-1970s displaying artworks in the lobby of the nearby Mexico Building, which houses the Faculty of Art. It moved into its current home, as a separate physical entity within the campus milieu, in 1988. Throughout its existence, it has made a habit of presenting innovative interdisciplinary projects that combine different fields of knowledge and engage with burning societal issues.

Hence, the dual-pronged perception of art and, by natural extension, quotidian life around us inform the neatly named “In the Mind’s Eye” spread which comprises intriguing works, including installations, that resulted from the Mifal HaPais Artists Greenhouse held at the gallery over the past year. That sponsored project focused on the connection between vision and cognition.

The program made the most of relevant campus facilities as a number of contemporary Israeli artists – Keren Gueller, Noy and Tamir, Shir Lusky, Eshchar Hanoch Kliengbiel, and Maya Attoun – visited labs and met researchers from various disciplines at the university. These included psychology and neuroscience lecturer Prof. Yair Bar-Haim’s research at the Anxiety and Trauma laboratory, and work undertaken by Prof. Yuval Nir from the Department of Physiology & Pharmacology, at the Sackler Faculty of Medicine. Another project on display at the gallery, by Ronen Sharabani, fed off discussions with Department of Zoology lecturer Prof. Yossi Yovel, who oversees the Bat Laboratory. 

Clearly, there are plenty of layers and subtexts to be addressed, and imbibed, in the current showing. 

What do the two Israeli art exhibits show?

AS THE title infers, “Drawing Art History” – jointly curated by Mayer and Jeremie Koering – takes a more archival, documentary approach to the discipline. It also looks at the creative process, how that unravels, and in what way that plays a role in learned exploration and study. Before the computer mouse began to make serious inroads into the use of pens, pencils and other manual means of creating images, drawings and various other forms of illustrations on paper often accompanied and amplified textual material. “Drawing Art History” asks “What types of thinking are facilitated by the unique observation practiced while drawing?” Mayer suggests. “How can drawing, essentially an act of perception that takes place within the operative human body, contribute to the production of scientific knowledge?” The corporeal is front and center here. “The interplay of vision and cognition is examined through drawings made by art historians as a tool of academic research,” the curator continues.

The work of some of the biggest guns in the art history field is referenced in “Drawing Art History.” “This is the first ever exhibition to present new discoveries about how some of the most prominent art historians, such as Meyer Schapiro, Leo Steinberg, and Aby Warburg, have used drawing to study art,” Mayer says. There are some local contributions, too. “This phenomenon is also true of the founder of art history in Israel, Moshe Barasch, whose newly discovered drawings are displayed here for the first time.” The drawings by the illustrious art historians are complemented by intriguing creations by contemporary artists 45-year-old French artist Nicolas Aiello and Tel Aviv-based Hila Laviv.

Mayer says the works in the gallery follow a conceptual continuum and are to a considerable degree a byproduct of the last two or three years and the online information overload to which we are all subjected on a constant basis. “The exhibitions are interconnected. Both engage in the relationship between what we see and what we are capable of knowing or understanding. The exhibitions came out of the corona pandemic, when we were being bombarded with masses of information, and we had to make crucial decisions based on that about how to manage with our lives. We are living in an era of a kind of crisis in terms of knowledge.”

That is succinctly addressed in Maya Attoun’s My World Is Empty, on the ground floor of the gallery. The most prominent item there is a video work which features a basketball-like figure that gradually, almost imperceptibly, diminishes before disappearing altogether and then reappears to begin the whole Sisyphean cycle over again, ad infinitum.

Sadly, Attoun suddenly passed away before the exhibition was opened, but Mayer worked with her closely in the lead-up. “The conversations with Maya in the first few months of the greenhouse program revolved around her desire to marry graphic mythological-hybrid worlds with virtual reality technologies,” Mayer notes. “She was fascinated by studies that draw links between conscious and unconscious visual perception, the relationship between language, knowledge, and sensory experience, and the potential for their constant disruption.”

The latter is central to the basketball video work which, like the ink drawings on the walls, is a highly complex and painstakingly compiled affair. “She made this sketch over a period of two months, and then she erased it. I thought she’d done it on Photoshop but, in fact, she made a drawing manually and then erased it.” That prompts thoughts about the material world, and ethereal qualities. “You invest two months in such a detailed work, and then you delete it. There are over 16,000 [photographic] shots in this – like stop-motion – with 18 frames disappearing every second. That makes you think about time.”

It certainly does. And when you discern the minutiae, you get to thinking about the details of life and how we tend to blithely ignore them and rush onto the next thing.

THERE IS plenty to focus on and contemplate, close up, on the upper level of the gallery building. 

The aforementioned Prof. Bar-Haim contributed a significant helping hand to the creation of Tomato, Tomahto by artist twinning Noy and Tamir. Drawing on Bar-Haim’s research-therapeutic methods, the artists created a traumatic world rooted in their own challenging emotional experiences, triggered by mechanisms of power and control. The titular vegetable appears to the right as you enter the display area and sets off an unexpected audiovisual effect.

The artists utilize commonplace, seemingly innocuous, objects and place them within a far more disturbing context to pose challenging questions. “They ask how we, as a society, internalize cognitive conditioning and learn to accept violent presence as a given, while constantly, naturally, and even unwittingly, learning to repress and deny it,” Mayer observes.

Shir Lusky’s The Blue Spot proffers even more food for thought. The bifurcated image of a building, interspersed by scaffolding – an unambiguous manifestation of the transient – conjures musings about the anchors in our lives, the tried and trusted set against the likelihood of normal service being summarily disrupted. Images of lockdowns reemerge from the memory banks unbidden. The cerebral and the conscious are in the mix. “Shir Lusky’s work inhabits the intermediate spaces between wakefulness and sleep, between reality and dreamscapes, the permanent and the ephemeral,” says the curator. “The work draws its title, The Blue Spot (locus coeruleus), from the nickname of the area in the brain stem that modulates sleep-wake cycles.” The juxtaposing of different elements that separate and merge with one another suggest a twilight zone of “dream consciousness.”

The techniques and artistic disciplines Lusky employs also veer into personal realms. Building elements and materials, like scaffolding and drywalls, meld with a photo of a house under construction as well as an old photo of the artist’s grandfather as a child. The conjunction of the 2D photograph and the 3D-installation brings to the fore questions about what photography fails to capture and how a photo can create the illusion of depth, while a 3D object may appear flat.

That conundrum takes on a different complexion as you get into the work, literally. Walking through the space offers glimpses into hidden areas, moments when an image suddenly takes shape and then immediately disintegrates.

The tangible and the ephemeral are central to mes(e)njer by Eshchar Hanoch Kliengbiel, which also mines the possibilities presented by delving into the unknown. The latter is a nod to an interstellar object that was first spotted in 2017 as it passed through our solar system but at too great a distance to be discerned clearly. The object was dubbed Oumuamu, which we are told, is Hawaiian for a messenger from the distant past trying to reach us – hence, the work’s moniker.

Here, too, the yin-yang dynamic comes into highly visual and physical play as you encounter outsized sheets of paper suspended from the ceiling which, at first glimpse, seem to be colored in a uniform layer. “These are hand drawn,” Mayer advises as I get a closer look. Considering the enormity of the surface area, that is pretty astonishing. Once again, we are talking about macro-micro ebb-and-flow machinations which get us to reconsider our stance, and not take things for granted. As with Attoun’s basketball creation, Kliengbiel has put an inordinate amount of elbow grease into this – the obverse side to the remote control, armchair-ensconced approach to terrestrial existence.

Multisensorial awareness also comes through in Ronen Sharabani’s Resonance sound installation. A flock of pendulums sway back and forth in the gallery space; at first random and chaotic, over time they come together to form a wavy, harmonious and flowing motion. Then the bat sounds filter through, and cacophony and distinguishable melody intertwine and separate as the artist tries to enable us to catch the inaudible and create a strange sensory situation in which we may get the impression that we can see sounds and hear images. An intriguing experience indeed.

The Artists Greenhouse-based series concludes with Keren Gueller’s stirring and disturbing Kiska. The name of the video work refers to a female whale living in captivity, in complete isolation in excruciating conditions in an amusement park in Canada. The work looks into the state of the brain as it tries to deal with stress, and how we view trying circumstances. Kiska is not easy on the eye, or the heart, but hopefully it will trigger some constructive thought. 

‘In the Mind’s Eye’ and ‘Drawing Art History’ close on July 30. For more information:

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