Wealth in Israeli Art

Eli Gur Arie, Rich Seam, 2006

Eli Gur Arie, installation

The duality imbued in the pronunciation of the Hebrew words “richness” and “happiness” escapes expression in visual works of art, even those that convey other dualities. Something in works of art does not permit an exhaustive verbal expression of their components. The history of art, including the history of Israeli art, attempts to deal with this difficulty – inherently meager means of expression, greatly restricting the desire to express something in a perfectly comprehensible idiom that leaves no doubts as to meaning or the creator’s intention. The current exhibition, on the contrary, takes delight in the inability to convey human desires in absolute expressions; the various art works it presents evade clear, definitive answers and prefer the realms of uncertainty. The images in the exhibition (an extended sequel to the exhibition “Beyond Richness”, held this year at the Uri and Rami Nechushtan Museum) are seemingly clear, enticing, stimulating, arousing, saturated with recent local modes of being as only non-verbal works of art can be; and yet, they simultaneously invoke the conceptual opposite – the art work as the essentially personal perspective of a single, individual creator. The personal work attempts to articulate the unique, particular point of view, which cannot be any other’s; however, as is so often the case in art, it is precisely such singular visual expressions that succeed in conveying messages that transcend a thousand words.

Gaya Chechik

Self-conscious elusiveness is an essential characteristic of a significant part of Israeli art today. It is a consistent elusiveness, stemming from an awareness of countless conflicts that function as a driving, stimulating, creative force. The artists are sharp-sightedly aware of the parallel territories in which they are required to act. Exposed to essentially rationalistic theories and to contradictory sensual desires, they attempt to formulate a unique idiom to express these feelings and insights. The traditional dichotomy of emotionality and rational insight has also become blurred, and their unique, or rather bizarre, mixture is now widespread. An examination of key phenomena in local art raises a number of significant aspects of contemporary art as it presents a cultural experience far richer and more diverse than ever before.

The question of aesthetics

Yossi Mark, A priest

Yossi Mark, A priest

For many years, Israeli art has been reluctant to deal with questions of aesthetics as essence versus aesthetics as semblance and appearance; only rare attempts were made to define aesthetic aspects of Israeli culture. Nevertheless, a few contemporary artists are making an effort to decipher the aesthetics that characterizes a specific moment of Israeli culture. These are not openly declared attempts, but rather buds that sprout sporadically.

Although “integration of exiles” was one of the most widespread terms in Zionist discourse at its inception, in the context of the art world integration was a derogatory term. The main artistic trend in Israel for many years called for stylistic purism – and yet it was expected to express numerous contradictions, such as a demand for locality while abstaining from any signs of local identity in order to belong to the universal art world (see the case of “New Horizons”); or the demand to deal with issues of Israeli identity while avoiding questions of Jewish identity. The current exhibition views these internal contradictions as crucial to an understanding of the aesthetics that emerged in the Israeli sphere – in its artistic, cultural, social and economic aspects – and these contradictions manifest themselves in the works exhibited.

Guy Shoham, Nature-Morte

Guy Shoham, Nature-Morte

The matter of history

A discussion of the origins of local aesthetics brings into question the place of history in the field of art. There is an abundance of historical events in Jewish culture, from State memorial days to more ancient history, which are regularly present in daily life and have a considerable impact on national and personal life. It is precisely this intensive historical presence that provokes in many of the artists a strong desire for infinite up-to-datedness, leading to a deliberate disregard even of the past that transpired yesterday. An art piece is present in public awareness for only a brief time and the whirlwind chase after the public gaze sweeps the entire cultural field, from literature, theatre and music to fine arts. The conflict between the historic and the contemporary pushes art works out of the realm of awareness at an awe-inspiring pace. The fate of works exhibited today is to be swiftly removed from the shelves of history and to disappear forever; it seems that the very field that had once relied on accumulated resources is now inclined to discard entire bodies of work.

Dror Daum

Dror Daum

Measures of quality

Powerful forces have acted in the last decades on Israeli culture, pushing aside and ousting traditions and attitudes that had formerly seemed to be fixtures of local culture. Collective, socialist attitudes and their derivatives stepped aside: the individual took the place of the community; the city replaced the kibbutz and the cooperative settlement as the center of activity; in economics, hi-tech replaced the military. An accelerated process of privatization infiltrated fields and sectors expected to be forever identified with the public domain.

In his broad-scope book, Farewell to Srulik – Changing Values Among the Israeli Elite, Oz Almog describes Israel’s changing cultural reality: “Every culture sets moral standards by which its members map and judge reality. The Zionist measure of reality was essentially contribution to the nation, the state, society, the group. The culture of rating, which has developed through television, contributed to the instillation of the economic measure into Israeli public consciousness”; the frequency with which the term ‘rating’ is used “reflects a new Israeli reality”, claims Almog, “in which the demand for a product has become a measure of its quality”.

Yossi Mark, a Boy

Yossi Mark, a Boy

The culture of rating has become one of the catalysts of change in local art.
One such change was an end to the monolithic presence of the most central and dominant trend in Israeli art, a trend that acted under the canopy of what was termed “the want of matter” – an expression coined in the title of a major exhibition curated by Sara Breitberg-Semel in 1986 at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, “The Want of Matter – A Quality in Israeli Art”. In her opening words in the exhibition catalogue, the curator distinguished part of modern Israeli art from its European and American counterparts: “The phenomena were the same, but the inner essence unlike”, she claimed, “the sensuality, that of the world of matter and that of artistic matter, was not to be found in the works”. The exhibition and its underlying argument had a significant effect on art in Israel, further extending the use of the language of lean materials during the eighties. The “want of matter” trend acted within a well defined artistic range, and artists aspiring to be accepted to the core of artistic activity at the time were well aware of its “dos and don’ts”; it was not an easy code to decipher, but its presence was quite tangible.

Eli Gur Arie, PT calf

Eli Gur Arie, PT calf

Alongside this attitude, which favored relative spareness of representational means, there were also other styles, which included expressions of material richness, polish, seduction and elegance, alongside other external and conceptual aspects – as shown in the exhibition curated by Dalia Manor, “Perspective: New Aesthetic Concepts in Art of the Eighties in Israel” (1991). The “want of matter” concept was still dominant, but gradually, with the infiltration of the economic world into the field of art, a variety of other types of creation, designed to attract a new audience, began emerging at the fringes. The new works of art offered new configurations, tactics for creating meaning designed to convey multi-leveled messages; these were designed to tempt the spectator into analyzing the messages underlying, or perhaps hiding behind, the initial enticing façade, and thus to examine and question the social, economic and cultural phenomena of the final decades of the twentieth century and the dawn of the twenty-first.

Structures of wealth

The culture of disposability is a clear characteristic of the economy of wealth, whose mechanisms encourage consumption of the new at an accelerated rate. Are cultural values also commodities to be swiftly replaced? The development of the Israeli art market points to a different possibility. While the contemporary art field constantly seeks the new, its secondary field – “the market”, a black hole of sorts in the local culture – actually prefers those pieces that have proved to be of both cultural and financial value. The parallel action of both fields of activity, while mutually ignoring each other, is one of the most fascinating phenomena of Israeli culture. It stems from the art world’s perception of the art market as inferior, due to its direct, overt relation to money – viewing the values of art as contrary to those of economy. Furthermore, the art field’s stance is that economic considerations must not have a direct effect on the work of art, even when it relies significantly on sources of financial support. And yet, the development of the local economy and the accelerated privatization in the 1990s and early 21st century have led to a structural change in the Israeli field of art.

Annan Zuckerman, a photograph

Annan Zuckerman, a photograph

For several years now it has become evident that the economic changes are slowly also penetrating the field of art. The development of technology has resulted in prosperity in Israel, giving rise to a new class of people of means. The relative spareness – or rather, the deliberate modesty of the art world – no longer fit the aspirations and standards of the newly rich. Unpretentious art galleries, often situated in basements or bomb shelters, were unable to respond to the wish to make the viewing experience, as well as the purchasing experience, more open and inviting. Tel Aviv’s commercial galleries, as well as the two major Israeli museums, have gradually changed their appearance to suit the consumption habits of an affluent society. The hundreds of participants in auctions held by the international auction houses Sotheby’s and Christie’s, who have established branches in Israel, bore witness to a passion for exposure and for visibility in the act of purchasing. The local art world, which had formerly favored discretion, was now exposing its wealth and its readiness to display its investment in it.

The new culture centers, the establishment of the Golda Center in Tel Aviv and the refurbishment and expansion of cultural institutions in the periphery, have also driven others in this field to improve display conditions. The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, and the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, as well as galleries such as Bineth Gallery, which has expanded its space (albeit below ground level), Rosenfeld Gallery, which renovated its space and opened it out to the street, or Alon Segev Gallery, which opened in a space of unprecedented dimensions – all of these attest to a significant change of attitude. Even the Herzliya Museum, whose appearance resembles a bomb shelter, has altered its attitude, despite retaining its exterior of exposed, brutalistic concrete.

Another important expression of the growing symbolic proximity of the artistic and financial worlds is evident in the shifting of the main gallery zone in Tel Aviv from the area of Gordon and Ben Yehuda Streets to that of Rothschild Boulevard – a main street in an area which has come to be known as “The City”, the financial heart of Tel Aviv. Galleries have been moving to this area, where headquarters of most major banks and insurance companies are situated, while withdrawing from the amusement area, the theater and the bookstores on Dizengoff Street. In the course of the nineties, Noga Gallery moved there and three new galleries were opened – Zomer, Tal Esther and Time for Art. Recently, in 2005, two more galleries were established there, ByArt Projects and Gallery 33, making the area a vibrant art center.

These changes correlated with changes within the art works themselves, as well as in their curation. Although mainstream art continued to be influenced by “want of matter” concepts throughout the nineties, since influential art school teachers had established themselves as artists at a time when it had set the tone of Israeli art, other types of expression began emerging at the fringes. The first exhibitions curated by Tami Katz-Freiman started giving exposure to a young generation of artists in relatively glamorous, even somewhat provocative, shows comprising many participants. Exhibitions such as “Antipathos” (The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, 1993) or “Meta-Sex” (The Museum of Art Ein Harod, 1994) marked a change of attitude towards display, particularly towards the materials displayed. These were the first exhibitions where the media played a significant role in determining the exhibition’s expression; the exhibitions’ marketing methods, their display modes and their public relations practices were just as important as the exhibited works. Many of the pieces were chosen with the express purpose of stimulating marketing and distribution mechanisms.

Artists such as Nir Hod, Adi Ness, Eli Gur Arie and others, who were present in both the media and art worlds simultaneously, began introducing meticulous thematic and aesthetic values into their work. Lea Dovev defined this type of action as “art in the fields of power”. Art is intertwined with, and acts within, fields of power, and only awareness of their existence completes the picture and enables us to understand it. “In this universe, art takes an active part in the organization and management of social knowledge. It reflects and supports complex orders of hierarchies, approvals and denials, which are the foundation of both private and collective identities. It is a most important participant in the validation and bequeathal of specific values”, Dovev writes in her book. That is to say, art is not an observer from the sidelines, detached from public, economic and cultural affairs; rather, it is fashioned by a whole gamut of phenomena, to whose shape it simultaneously contributes. Thus, all the variety of elements that shape the period will manifest itself in local art works. Desires, aspirations and ambitions will be incorporated in them alongside criticism, rebuke and bringing injustice to light.

Abundance and accumulation

A profusion of elements in artistic representation indicates a desire to include in the piece, as an intentional statement, abundant multi-layered information. This seems to correlate with the great amounts of information that flood the audience through the media, especially multi-channeled television and the internet. In the past, as mentioned above, Modernism carried the flag of reduction – and in Israel, also that of the “want of matter”. The art work’s meaning or concept resulted from the lack of visibility or the non-prominence of the image, which existed in the mind rather than in actual representation. The symbolic value of the piece was measured more by the possibilities it presented for debate and discourse than by the themes that were actually represented in it.

Since the nineties, the media and mass-media’s inundation of images has equally pervaded the field of art, and many artists turned to art whose meaning is established through excess or a profusion of images. This means of coping was not merely a counter-action against advanced marketing and distribution mechanisms; it also involved the pleasure of subscribing to a rich, seductive and glamorous world, which would open the doors to fame. It seemed as if richness had also opened the door to a
much-desired happiness.

The search for happiness, as presented in countless soap-operas, has become an obsessive one, more and more detached from reality. Both artists and spectators, in their search for ideals of beauty and quality – often artificial ones – are pushed into realms of desire for unattainable richness and happiness. The representations and images are indeed perfect, at least ostensibly, but the awareness of their artificiality and unrealism disrupts the fulfillment of desire – be it a desire for wealth, happiness, beauty, or for belonging to the great world and partaking in the processes of globalization.

Touching on Israeli culture

The current exhibition – which opens with Gaia Tchetchik and Danny Lavie’s work, dealing with the fragility of richness and happiness – examines two specific aspects of the intimate contact of Israeli art with culture, society and economy. The works presented in the first room – by Nir Hod, Anan Tzuckerman, Dror Daum, Yael Feldman and Guy Shoham – involve an extreme preoccupation with themes that stem from reference to the current media world, such as nihilism, perversion, extroversion, cruelty and artificial communication. The works in the second room present a critique on cultural, social and economic phenomena, while dwelling on excess and abundance that often result in loss of way. The works express the artists’ aversion to the world of artificial abundance and to the obsessiveness that informs the desperate search for richness and happiness – a standpoint that is sometimes expressed directly, as in the works of Yossi Mark, and at other times as a critical exclamation, as in the works of Zoya Cherkassky or Aya Ben Ron. The works of Yossi Mark, Eli Gur Arie, Zoya Cherkassky and Aya Ben Ron, exhibited in this section, raise a cry for sanity and a suggestion for a new look at reality.

The Exhibition “Rich Seam”, which was held at the Petach Tikva Museum of Art, Israel, 2006. Curator: Hagai Segev 

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