I don’t like to be led by the nose or told what to think, and when it comes to art – I know what I like: an experience of the senses. Eschewing the excessively verbal in my artistic adventures, I usually go out of my way to avoid guided tours of galleries and museums, but after spending a morning listening to Amitai Mendelsohn talk about the current exhibit at Mani House, I may reconsider.
Mendelsohn is co-curator with Suzanne Landau of “Second Show: Contemporary Art from the Israeli Museum, Jerusalem.” Part of the continuum of exhibits and events of ARTLV, Tel Aviv – Yaffo’s international art biennale, the exhibit opened at the Leumi Bank’s Mani House in Tel Aviv this past June and will remain up until the end of November.
The impact, contrast and placement of Efrat Natan and Tonico Lemons Auad’s sculptures on the first floor are undeniable. As one enters the room, Natan’s “Swing of the Scythe Sculpture” is on the left: a swirl of metal scythes set on a platform against the painted tiles of the floor. On the right is Tonico Lemos Auad’s “Beira da mar/The Shallows” a soft life-sized boat made of cloth and thread in a mélange of muted gray tones shot with delicate veins of bright thread, set on gray linoleum. My conversation with these works was immediate and unmediated.
Yet when Mendelsohn shared his perspective on the works and space with the group, this internal dialogue was enriched. Mendelsohn related Natan’s work to the period in which the Mani House was constructed (1909) – the Zionist spirit of working the land, the kibbutz movement and the circular dynamic image of the hora, yet also connected it to themes, movements and images beyond the local context: Edward Muybridge’s documentation of motion, Futurism, and the angel of death. Despite my interest in movement and images of movement, I hadn’t thought of Muybridge when I first looked at Natan’s work. Mendelsohn’s comment led me to look again, differently.
Of course, the drawback of a tour is that there is no time to look again, one must move on with the group. It’s nice to know that I have until December to return for a second look.
Speaking from an intimate acquaintance with the works, Mendelsohn offered the lucky tour participants a view of the exhibit that was lively and personal. In planning the exhibit Landau and Mendelsohn related the work to the space, a two storey family home. One of the first homes built in Tel Aviv; it was acquired by The Leumi Bank in 1986 and lovingly restored as a visitor’s center and exhibit space.
Mendelsohn described their thinking regarding the space: “We envisioned the first floor as turning inward, a quiet, meditative space, ranging between black and white. It’s not so much a matter of color as of sensation, a monastic introversion. The upper floor is a complete reversal, full of color, sensuality and energy. We wanted to focus on that transition from one register to another.”
The exhibit includes both Israeli and international art. This reflects the curator’s decision “not to insist on nationality” as a way of viewing art and artists, something which Mendelsohn describes as a current world trend. Indeed, national labels are often difficult to define and verge on the misleading. An artist may be born in one country, train in another, live in a third and relate artistically to the artwork of a fourth.
On the second floor, Ori Gersht’s “Pomegranate” explodes with stillness, ominous quiet, color and violence. Referencing Juan Sanchez Cotan’s 17th century still life, Mendelsohn pointed out that while the hanging fruit in Cotan’s painting is a quince, Gersht has replaced it with a pomegranate, creating visual, verbal and thematic associations. The red seeds of the pomegranate resemble blood, while the word itself in Hebrew – “rimon” contains a double meaning: pomegranate and grenade. In Jewish culture, the pomegranate is associated with the New Year and fertility – images of birth and renewal. A work with powerful visual and kinetic resonance, “Pomegranate” also references Harold Edgerton’s stroboscopic photography as a bullet pierces the suspended fruit, shattering the peaceful image.
Red is a dominant color in Erez Israeli’s “Field of Flowers” a work created entirely of beads, depicting a grassy area dotted with red poppies. Poppies have been associated with the passage to another realm since antiquity, relating to both sleep and death. In contemporary times this image has been linked very explicitly to war. The poppy was chosen as a symbol of WWI, after Dr. John McCrea’s poem: “In Flanders fields the poppies blow/Between the crosses, row on row” (1915), recalling the wildflowers that grew on the fields of some of the most bloody battles. In the installation, the connotation with death is enhanced by a slightly raised area within the rectangle, like a grave. Mendelsohn noted that the contrast between the beauty of the work (and materials) and its underlying associations touches on the “death of young people, the beauty that is about to end” and related it to Gersht’s work.
As “spoilers” are another one of my least favorite things, I would prefer not to describe too many of the works included in the exhibit, but remind you that there is ample time to discover its delights for yourself. You won’t have the benefit of the curator’s company as I did, but you will be able to savor the choices they made. For now, I will content myself with adding that Piplotti Rist’s “Pickelporno” both is and is not what you think.
Image: Ori Gersht “Pomegranate” 2006
“Second Show: Contemporary Art from the Israel Museum, Jerusalem”
Curators: Suzanne Landau, Yulla and Jacques Lipchitz Chief Curator of the Arts
Amitai Mendelsohn, Curator, David Orgler Department of Israeli Art
36 Yehuda Halevi Street, Tel Aviv
Sun – Wed 10:00 – 17:00; Thurs 10:00 – 22:00; Fri 10:00 – 14:00