No one expects to see tents pitched in front of an art gallery. But the "Station of Contemporary Art" that Bezalel Academy of Art and Design students erected in Ramle of all places strives to surprise. And that appears to be somewhat reasonable when one considers that a provocative artist like David Vekshtein, who is fond of addressing subjects like the Holocaust, is the project's director.
German students were invited to "Camp Ramle," a week-long marathon of art work in galleries that took place last week at the Station of Contemporary Art. They slept in field conditions together with Vekshtein's Arab and Jewish students. Some of the guests, art students from Bauhaus University Weimar in Germany, were not even aware of the associations with the Holocaust invoked by the marathon's title - until the middle of last week.
In addition to his contribution to the field of contemporary art, Vekshtein has become a social activist. For five years he has led a project in which students mentor artistically gifted girls and boys who live in outlying areas The students meet with youth in weekly four-hour sessions, in spaces, called "art stations," that have been outfitted as galleries. Such stations now exist in Ofakim, Ramle, Nazareth, Rahat and Rishon Letzion, with the cities providing the buildings, and funding coming from foundations and non-profit organizations.
The establishment embraced this project only after a determined, consistent campaign that began some 10 years ago. "Ofakim was in the headlines, then. The typical story of unemployment," Vekshtein recalls. "I decided on social action through art." He traveled south to Ofakim to offer his services to the town's community center. "In my opinion, that's the artist's role," he explains. "Painting in a studio is a private act. Taking the creation from the studio to talented youth and the public that lives on the periphery, rather than just to galleries and the bourgeois audience they attract, is a political, public act."
He later enlisted his Bezalel students to come to Ofakim, and the project has continued that way ever since and is slowly expanding to other cities. This year, art education students in Vekshtein's course at Oranim Academic College participated in the opening of a station for youth in Nazareth, while Kay Academic College students from the Bedouin city of Rahat studied art in Ofakim. More than 200 youngsters work and study at the art stations. About 50 students, who receive grants in exchange for their contributions, teach the pupils. This is a fascinating experience for the art students and their pupils. The youth are exposed to art students in the context of work on a variety of projects. Their collaborations are displayed at the station-galleries, alongside work by recognized artists.
The students learn how to organize gallery space, curate an exhibition and negotiate with "bureaucrats," as Vekshtein defines them (mayors, municipal culture representatives, school principals, etc.). This year, kindergarten children and their teachers also began to visit some of the stations.
The learning process in the art stations does not resemble that in art classes or studio work. It is a living, vibrant, evolving process. The work emphasizes the hierarchy between elder artist (Vekshtein), art students and children, to create master-apprentice relationships that mimic the learning process of classical art.
"I created a little community that speaks art," Vekshtein says. He is convinced that the internal process taking place within every member of this community actually undermines the hierarchy. "There is openness in both directions. The elder artist is also open to the ideas of students and the freshness and vitality provided by the youth. And, by means of feedback, works are produced that are the results of all the absorption that takes place in the stations. That facilitates the production of interdisciplinary currency, and a language is created. A circle of people whose work is based on the same understanding is created, and the work is displayed at the site without a hierarchy."
Vekshtein enlisted top caliber artists of the first caliber, some of whom come to the stations to teach the pupils and also to hang their own art. Micha Ullman, Larry Abramson, Avishai Eyal, Zvika Kantor, and photographers Tal Shochat and Noa Zedaka, are among the artists who have participated. Amar Darbas, a young artist and Bezalel graduate, directs the gallery in Ramle. These artists and others came to the art station every evening during the week of the marathon, to talk about their work with both the older students and younger ones who stop by to visit.
Educational and political results
Vekshtein is solely responsible for the project's artistic vision, from plotting the subject to implementing the work to curating the final product. This occasionally appears to be a somewhat dictatorial process. For example, works called "poor houses" which are now displayed in the station, based on photographs of children in Jewish poor houses in Poland before the Holocaust, were also produced in the Arab city of Nazareth. "Without any reference to Europe and the Holocaust ... the works produced in Nazareth were much more cheerful," Vekshtein comments. A mosaic that he produced in 1997 with a team of students appeared in the Chelouche Gallery in Tel Aviv as his own work. Similarly, his "Tower of Babel" is a giant canvas on which he reproduced in acrylic paints a repeating pattern that originally had been drawn on individual ceramic tiles by a series of boys. On more than one occasion the boys and girls come across as day laborers, particularly when they undertake work that is signed by Vekshtein. The question of exploitation is raised to a great extent. But Vekshtein is convinced that creativity and each young artist's unique working method will naturally develop within this apprenticeship at the station.
Eyal Asulin is an example of such development. "They said that some artist was coming to Ofakim to teach art, and asked me if I knew someone who wanted to study," recalls Asulin, who was a high-school senior at the time, and is now a student at Bezalel and Vekshtein's assistant. "I gathered about 10 talented friends who majored in art [in high school], and we came once a week on Wednesdays to make mosaics with Vekshtein. We drew, sculpted and photographed the work. We trained in almost every kind of medium and also integrated other fields."
Asulin, 28, who is in his third year of studies in the Bezalel Visual Arts Department, is proof of the success of Vekshtein's system, and he is not the only former art-station pupil now studying art. Asulin was a member of Vekshtein's drawing and painting "all-star team," which, in the lexicon of the artist, means apprentices. Between high school and Bezalel, he attempted to put art aside and become a career officer in the army, but his fingers continued to fidget, and he finally surrendered to the desire to study at Bezalel.
"I always loved to draw. Even as a boy. But I debated whether to do so for years," he says. "David told me, 'Go to Bezalel.' But I grew up in a poor family. Studying in art school was like something unearthly to me. How could I go there? But David's voice was always in the air, even in the army."
One day, Asulin dropped by the art station in Ofakim, a small structure that the pupils call the igloo. "It overwhelmed me - the feeling of being in a gallery space, the longing to produce art as an artist, not something on the side, and to feel whole." In less than 24 hours he registered for entrance exams to attend Bezalel.
The studies were not easy at first. "To leap into a place where the language of art is totally spoken was difficult. But I got through it." From Bezalel, he returned to Ofakim as an instructor at the station.
"Eyal is our product, educationally and politically, of what we did here," Vekshtein says, referring to the very notion "that a boy like Eyal has a creative life, not only within the boundaries of the canvas, but that he understands his social responsibility and conducts a dialogue with the world of art."
Vekshtein is certain that the day is not far off in which children from the station will sell their work to the wider, bourgeois public, and then, he says, the circle will be complete.