Bright Old Things

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Israel’s formative years as an independent state – the 50’s and 60’s – have produced some examples of a unique style in public architecture. In the aftermath of WWII and the holocaust, its architects and urban planners opted for an antithesis to the European template – classical, imposing and monumental. In those years, anything suggestive of authoritative pomp was pushed aside, in favor of a decidedly humbler attitude. Those architects were relying on a modernist style, by then already the standard in this Bauhaus stronghold. Moreover, these are also times of considerable economic hardships, resulting in a regime of austerity, and a leadership of Labor Zionism. Many institutions across the country – museums, synagogues, concert halls and even the Knesset itself (Israel’s parliament) – were housed in edifices of seemingly modest proportions. That’s, however, from the outside. From within, they turn out to be spacious and airy, their rooms naturally evolving one from another and cleverly lit by skylight. This type of spatial arrangement, when scaled down to a single domestic unit, results in something quite like “Open plan living” – precisely the title of the main exhibition of ArtTLV, Tel Aviv’s first attempt at an international biennial of contemporary art.

It is not surprising then, that Open Plan Living is shown at The Helena Rubinstein Pavilion, a fine example of this type of institutional open-plan (Inaugurated in the late fifties, it is the earliest purpose-built wing of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art). The Pavilion’s spacious exhibition halls, together with its classically modern exterior, no doubt inspired Dr Andrew Renton, chief curator of Art TLV, in thinking up the show’s theme. And so he writes in the show’s leaflet: “Open Plan Living is an exhibition whose title faintly recalls displaced Zionist ideologies. But the title is almost a bourgeois cliché, suggesting some kind of optimum for a contemporary lifestyle. And of course it also alludes to the architectural formalities – Bauhaus and International Style – that are the landmark foundations of Tel Aviv.”

Without really fine-tuning into the specifics of those so called ‘displaced’ ideologies, Open Plan Living, as a group show, exemplifies a distinct trend in contemporary art: that of tackling a “Modernist” past via its stylistic idioms. This is clear when looking at two works by Aaron Curry, both titled “Model for the New Dark Age”. One of them consists of a trio of juxtaposed images: a large, decoratively abstract drawing in black and orange; a publicity image for a trashy sci-fi flick (“Creatures the World Forgot”), where a human is being attacked by what looks like Max Ernst sculptures come to life; and two reproductions of no-nonsense modernist oeuvres – environmental sculptures by Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth – stuck upside-down. Such tampered Modern-era motives are scattered throughout the show – whether in a pair of paintings by Jacob Mishori, that manage to appropriate the elegance of a Kandinsky into fluorescent colors, or two geometrical statuettes by Armando Andrade Tudela – a cross between a lampshade and a Picasso.

But Open Plan Living really opens up to a greater field of “modernity” – or should we say cultural shticks. It extends its bazaar-like display (rather than stylized open-plan) to contemporary art pointing at Pop, Povera, Fluxus and beyond. It stresses “art as junkyard” – if not of disused ideologies, then of re-appropriated objects and artistic practices. The show successfully emanates a messy, low-tech feel. The exiling of nearly all video art to the adjacent Ya’acov Garden (where screenings begin only after dark – a small portion of the show’s opening hours) strongly contributes to that. And besides, the entire surroundings of the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion are currently undergoing a massive reconstruction/destruction process, which has already badly damaged its former pristine, Modernist glory[1]. If Renton has managed to allude to anything “landmark” or “fundamental” in Tel Aviv, he has done so by corresponding to the city’s unstable sense of history, which may assume either the form of a charming, Modernist decay, or an outright vulgarity towards its past.

From within, however, the pavilion is still perfectly worthy of its White Cube credentials, and a favorable environment for such historical and formal interplay. Most of the show’s participants belong to the up-and-coming international variety, and are still relatively unknown in Israel. The show includes also a number of Israeli artists – not as many as to give the impression of forced inclusion. With few exceptions, there aren’t any real big names to speak of, and it’s probably for the best, as it keeps things young and fresh. Better still, in some cases there are several works by the same artist, affording a better look into his work. Tel Aviv galleries have shown a tendency, when exposing foreign artists, of bringing small, isolated pieces that don’t amount to much more than merchandize. I remember once seeing a sculpture by Martin Boyce in Tel Aviv gallery and not knowing what to make of this weird looking metallic dustbin. In Open Plan Living he has a large, Anthony Caro-esque metallic partition that screens what’s behind it – Mishori’s large paintings. The two works form a beautiful tableau of modern art-cum-interior design (well, cum-art all over again).

In the Big Names department, there are two pieces by Sarah Lucas: “Icon”, a 2006 addition to her “Bunny” series (a figure made of cotton-filled leotards, sat on a chair), that greets visitors to the pavilion with its wide open legs; and “Something Changed Raymond”, an installation consisting of a big wooden armoire, light bulbs and a rabbit preserved in a jar. Despite the preserved animal, you couldn’t be farther from Damian Hirst territory. The work belongs rather in a realm of found objects and Neo-Dada. A return to the early aesthetics of Installation Art is found also in Diango Hernandez’s “Mother, the Future Was a Political Lie…”, where a row of desks, turned on their side, barricades a corner of the room. There’s a visual semblance here to radical art of the 70’s, but the political stance is blurred.

Three works by Gabriel Kuri, placed at two of the three main exhibition halls, are at the extreme of unprocessed use of day-to-day objects, and bring a sort of edge to the exhibition. On the other hand, Gedi Sibony, who uses raw construction supplies – in this case galvanized steel pipes and a wall-to-wall carpet –, takes these into a zone of poetic minimalism. His much understated carpet piece hangs next to two prints by Armando Andrade Tudela that enlarge the dotted pattern of offset print in flashy colors – a Pop echo of the barely visible pattern on Sibony’s carpet. To complete the Pop Art picture, there are several colorful silkscreen prints by Wade Guyton & Kelly Walker, all clearly borrowing from the Warhol prototype.

Kathy Temin’s “My House”, presented on the lower ground flour, is Open Plan Living in a nutshell. It is a fairly large miniature house, constructed in the manner of children’s handicraft. Its two floors contain living rooms, an artist’s studio (where an exact model of the model house is being built) and even screening rooms for video art. This is a comprehensive fantasy of ideal contemporary living – at least if you’re an artistic type – seen through the eyes of a child. The house is inhabited by furry creatures, which star in one of the mini-videos, while the other screening room features a woman lip-syncing and dancing to Kylie Minogue hits (we know that Minogue is Andrew Renton’s favorite pop-icon[2]).

It’s worth noting that Helena Rubinstein, who founded the pavilion bearing her name, was an avid collector of antique miniature furniture. Her collection of miniature period rooms, once a fixture on the upper floor of the pavilion, was transferred some years ago to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art (where it is on permanent view). This well-known cosmetics tycoon had it all, from mini-Biedermeier to Victorian dining hall to Venetian palazzo. Even a mini-grimy Montmartre attic was there, complete with mini replicas of Modigliani and the likes. Visiting the miniatures display since an early age, it never seemed to be in sharp contrast to the airy, Modernist Pavilion – after all, the Tel Aviv I knew had crumbling Bauhaus apartments, furnished with massive, adorned furniture brought from far away.

Text Written for the English Edition of Maarav magazine.


[1]Like a bull in a China shop, the Tel Aviv municipality is barging into Gan Yaakov – located between the Mann Auditorium, the Habima Theater and the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion – waving a "preservation and reconstruction" plan initiated by city hall and currently being promoted in the planning committees”. Esther Zandberg, Perverted preservation, Haaretz, 30/10/2007.

[2] Renton is quoted as saying that “Kylie Minogue is the most important artist of this generation”. Lynne Gentle, “From Hair to Eternity”, Artforum, 05/06/07.

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