Art is a strange one to nail down. If, for example, you take a urinal and place it in a museum, does that make it a work of art? Some would, unsurprisingly, reject that idea out of hand. But that is exactly what Marcel Duchamp, one of the founding fathers of conceptual art, attempted in 1917 when he submitted the mundane plumbing fixture – which he called Fountain – for display in the inaugural exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists at the Grand Central Palace in New York. Parrying criticism of his seemingly simplistic approach to art, Duchamp declared that such ready-made artifacts are “everyday objects raised to the dignity of a work of art by the artist’s act of choice.” Almost a century later, in 2004, Fountain was voted the most influential artwork of the 20th century by 500 selected British art world professionals.
That serves to impart the idea of the creative sphere having flexible boundaries, and how artists can find their own flow and groove as per their muse, thinking, and senses. It is also a free-roaming mindset that resonates through the program of this year’s Israel Festival, compiled by Michal Vaknin and Itay Mautner. The festival is set to run August 1-11 at three locations around the capital – Independence Park, the Jerusalem Theatre, and the Jerusalem Arts Campus.
There has been a fresh wind blowing through the festival programming for a few years now. In the old days, one might have expected to see on the agenda the name of some internationally lauded classical orchestra alongside a top theater company from overseas, and probably a stellar dance troupe. But things have changed radically.
If the last time you attended the festival or even heard about it was, say, 10 years ago, and you have been living under a rock in the interim, the current lineup will be unrecognizable. Gone are the blockbuster slots with, for example, the New York Philharmonic dropping by to perform crowd pleasers such as Beethoven’s Ninth or Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. The likes of the Royal Ballet company from London and muscular Japanese percussion troupes have no place in the prevailing thinking behind our premier cultural event, either.
Vaknin apportions credit where it is due. “Itzik Giuli, the previous artistic director, who served for six years, did a lot to restore the relevance of the festival. He looked for the most up-to-date and cutting-edge things from around the world and from here.” Vaknin sees that as a return to the fundaments of the venture. “I think that was a change, but it is also about immersive thinking about the essence of the Israel Festival. It is not about bringing more of the same. The idea should be to get the next thing, or something contemporary.”
As forward-thinking as the new incumbents – Vaknin and Mautner took over the artistic directorship last year – clearly are, Vaknin feels the festival is very much a work in progress. “We stand on the shoulders of all the previous artistic directors over the past 62 years. Each one raises the bar.”
Vaknin and Mautner are certainly doing that, with intriguing shows and events dotted right across the lineup. There are a conspicuous number of participatory projects on offer. I wondered whether that was something of a prolonged reaction to the virtual existence many of us led during the pandemic lockdowns.
“It is a bit of a reaction to that, but we have always been interested in the interactive and similar formats over the years,” Mautner notes.
He offers me some pointers with regard to his and Vaknin’s programming philosophy. “It all comes down to what we expect from a work of art, and why we should engage in art at all.” Good question. “I think the most immersive aspect of that is to touch people deep down inside.”
There are multifarious ways of skinning the proverbial cat. “There are all sorts of ways of doing that. But in a world suffused with stimuli, with so many possibilities available to us at any given moment, we want to make a difference,” Mautner declares. “We want to stake a claim and generate some kind of change.”
Try telling that to painters such as Courbet, Manet, and Pissarro, whose work was rejected by the Salon art establishment of the day in France in the 1860s. However, the artists found an alternative route to the eyes and hearts of the public, with an exhibition at the Salon de Refusés, which drew large crowds.
The very definition of art, of creation, is to keep on pushing the boundaries, while artists challenge both themselves and the public. Mautner is all for that. For him, that naturally leads us into the realms of synergy between the creators and the consumers. “One of the ways [to stay relevant] is to facilitate the expression of the mental, physical, and emotional presence of the audience.”
He believes that has to involve some shifting of the goalposts. “There is something about this protectiveness, sitting in a darkened auditorium, in seats 9 and 10 in row 13, which is very protected and safe.” That isn’t necessarily detrimental to the artistic and entertainment intent or the appreciation thereof. “That can be a good thing. It can work well, and we like that a lot. But there is something to be gained from leaving your comfort zone as an audience, which, if it is done properly and sensitively, can create a very meaningful experience that can stay with you a long time.”
One such work at this year’s festival is Short Term, a participatory event devised by Soviet-born Israeli artist Semyon Alexandrovsky, which gets the audience on the stage in a hands-on, corporeal role in the way the show pans out. As one peruses the festival program, one can identify shows and events that are likely to draw people from different age groups. But Short Term bridges the generation gap, both in terms of the subject matter and, hence, the likelihood of attracting younger people and the older folk.
One of the elements of Short Term features a recording of a conversation between various fathers and their offspring. Mautner got on board the Alexandrovsky train in person.
“I taped the dialogue with my father,” he says. “It was an extremely interesting experience.” It should be an evocative and emotive experience for us, too, as we listen to the tête-à-tête and rummage through the common or garden domestic items around us. “It is a very powerful experience, which can open scars and open up the way forward.”
Which South American artists will bring their work to the Israel Festival?
INTERESTINGLY, THERE are four items from South America, with a brace each from Argentina and Brazil. Vaknin says that is a perfectly natural development which suits the artistic directors’ desire to break new ground. It is also just a matter of getting around to things. “That is partly simply due to an accumulation of interesting works which happen to come from the Latin world. Part of that is also down to our desire to broaden our reach beyond Europe and get away from the Eurocentricity which normally informs what we get here.”
There is plenty to see, marvel at, and sink our teeth into in the Latin offerings, which include an incisive piece with the no-nonsense title of F*** Me by Argentinean choreographer and dancer Marina Otero. The show follows a meandering route through fiction and documentary climes, and seesaws between dance and performance. It is a dramatic biting creation, with plenty of nudity, and liberally seasoned with humor, which should make for compelling viewing.
The Brazilian contingent includes a feisty high-energy dance production by Alice Ripoli, who started out as a psychoanalysis student before venturing into the realms of physique and physical movement. The show is called Lavagem – “wash” in Portuguese – exegetically subtitled “How Do We Get Rid of All This Dirt?” Ripoli deftly fuses ecological and other burning existential issues into the artistic baseline, complemented by some tongue-in-cheek sensibilities. As the Lavagem credo observes: “Cleaning’s familiar movements are transformed into a poetic-political dance that expresses the absurdity of trying to live in a clean, unsullied world.” Strong and illuminating words indeed, particularly in view of recent attempts to sanitize and sterilize our living space.
Perhaps the most perspicacious of the lot on this year’s Israel Festival roster is Minefield, yet another contribution from South America. Four decades on after the Falklands War – Guerra de las Malvinas in Spanish – Argentinean actress, writer, and theater director Lola Arias brings together former enemies, from Argentina and Britain, to revisit the traumatic events of 1982. Three vets from each side address their emotional fallout and talk about their memories of the war, with a dose or two of jocularity to help the storyline go down.
It is an absorbing, warts-and-all look behind the scenes of the glory-mongering and patriotism peddling by politicians. It is also a highly personal offering in which battleground-toughened individuals unfurl their thoughts and feelings about the most visceral and feral of human experiences.
“Minefield is one of the most exciting productions we have this year,” Vaknin notes. “When I heard about this, it really opened my mind, even before I saw it. After I saw it, I realized how brilliant it is. The director, Lola Arias, is special. She has the ability to take elements of life and turn them into art.”
Examining both sides of the coin – addressing differences of opinion and accepting the other’s right to adopt a different position on any given situation – is a prominent motif in this year’s festival. Considering the political unrest raging on our streets at the moment, even without the decades-long regional conflict, that is a pertinent artistic perspective.
I suggested that Minefield might serve to provide us with the benefit of hindsight borrowed from a different altercation. Vaknin admits to harboring some semblance of an ulterior motive. “That is some kind of wish that we will be able to arrive at a point when we can create a work of art with people from both sides from one of our wars.” Not that Minefield paints an entirely rosy picture of former foes now exuding pure sweetness and light. “Some [of the vets] still see the others as the other side.” That may be so, but they do have the benefit of 41 years of peace to help temper that.
Martial arts also puts in appearances in a couple of shows, such as choreographer Neta Weiner’s Yama, described as “a multilingual journey to the layer deep beneath Jaffa”; and Love Me Tender, in which Corinne Kitzis looks at love, family, identity, and freedom as she strives for self-acceptance. Famed American radio personality Ira Glass also gets a starring berth, and Itamar Shimshony proffers hope for a better, more accepting societal future with his heartwarming Factory City grassroots venture.
Vaknin and Mautner also take care of the mass appeal quality musical entertainment side of things, with an all-star Israeli-Turkish show fronted by feted kemancha player Mark Eliyahu, with internationally renowned Turkish multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Omar Tekbilek; Persian-Israeli diva Rita; and larger-than-life singer Shai Tsabari in tow. ❖
For tickets and more information: www.israel-festival.org