Sleepwalking in Paris
PARIS - Marie Shek sits in a little office in a luxury apartment in Paris listening to the Israeli radio station FM 88 and making last-minute corrections to the catalog of the exhibition she is now curating. In another week, it will be sent to print, and she has to do the final proofreading. Doesn't she get lost in this huge apartment? "I do," she answered with a smile, "but I find refuge here, with my good friends" - namely, the many works of art and art books that fill the room.
Shek, 51, a curator and lecturer in art and a mother of two, came to Paris two years ago with her husband, Israeli Ambassador to France Danny Shek. This was the seventh time she has packed her bags and started over. In her eyes, the repeated uprootings have some advantages. And she has not had to pay for her spouse's success: In every country she has come to, she has advanced her career.
"It's been a crazy journey to seven countries," she said. "Reinventing the wheel seven times; saying that I exist seven times; discovering where to begin again seven times. Like an injured person who has to relearn how to walk and then has to leave when he finally succeeds."
A powerful card
Shek was born in Tunisia and came to Israel with her family when she was 10. Her sister, the artist Linda Zandhaus, instilled a love of art in her. At the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, she studied art history and French culture, which dominated her parents' home. In the French department, she met her husband to be, the son of an ambassador in Israel's foreign service. The day after their wedding, they went to work at the Israeli embassy in Belgium in order to get a taste of what it would be like to work for the Foreign Ministry and live abroad.
Upon their return to Israel, she became a guide in the Israel Museum's Youth Wing. At the same time, her husband was accepted into the Foreign Ministry's diplomatic training program. The couple's first posting was Paris, where Shek completed her master's degree at the Sorbonne mentored by Serge Le Moine, who would later be appointed director of the Quay d'Orsay museum. At the same time, she taught art at the local Israeli school.
Upon returning to Israel once again, she decided to focus on curating, and curated exhibitions at galleries in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Her husband's appointment as the Israeli consul in San Francisco again disrupted the continuity of her professional work, but she was appointed the city's cultural attache. When they came back to Israel, she was appointed art consultant to the then president of Ben-Gurion University, Prof. Avishay Braverman, and set up two galleries at the university, for Israeli and international art.
Four years ago, her spouse took an unpaid leave from the Foreign Ministry and was appointed chief executive of Bicom, the British Israel Communications and Research Centre. Bicom was established by Poju Zabludowicz, one of England's most important art collectors, to increase understanding of Israel in Britain and promote stronger ties between the two countries. In London, as in Paris and San Francisco, Shek worked to promote Israeli art.
"It's not out necessity; I believe in Israeli art," she said. "My role is to present it, research it, be proud of it, get annoyed with it, spark enthusiasm or debate, just as is the case with politics."
During the two years she spent in London, Shek organized a gala exhibition of Israeli and international art at Sotheby's auction house. The sale of the works made it possible to raise some $1.5 million for the benefit of Israeli museums.
Why do you see promoting Israeli art as your role?
"I see culture as a powerful card. I think that we have so much talent in Israel. Because there aren't a lot of people like me, who travel back and forth to Israel - 'emissaries' who are also involved in art - I took the job upon myself. I don't need titles. Just hanging Israeli art in the ambassador's house, a public house that represents the state, is a mission. On my trips, I rely on Israeli art in order to feel at home. It comforts me to travel around the world with my friends."
And indeed, the walls of the ambassador's home in Paris are adorned with Israeli art, with an emphasis on young artists: Gidi Rubin, Yannai Tuister, Noga Engler, Uri Gersht, Gal Weinstein, Talia Yisraeli, Assaf Shoshan. But there are also some veteran artists, including Izhar Patkin, Tzadok Ben David, Gabi Klezmer, Larry Abramson and Shek's sister, Linda Zandhaus. "I have a connection to just about every work hanging here," said Shek.
Shek is now in the midst of curating two exhibits in Paris. In the fall, she will present a collection of video works from Israel, and in July, the exhibit "Insomnia" will open at the Passage de Ritz, whence it will travel to Petah Tikva in November. The Passage is a huge space in a 17th-century municipal palace in Marais, which in the past functioned as the Fried toy factory. Jacqueline Friedman, whose father set up the factory in the 1950s, refurbished the building in the early 1990s and opened a gallery there with some 750 square meters of space. The Passage, one of the first galleries in Marais, has become an important Paris venue, and Friedman, who is active in promoting cultural ties between Israel and France, has invited French and Israeli curators, such as Yona Fisher, to the gallery.
The exhibition curated by Shek was born out of her own experience. "I have insomnia," she explained. "I don't sleep at all, or I sleep a little, but it's an interrupted sleep. While I was lying awake at night, I asked myself what artists do at night. I talked with artists and discovered a huge amount of material. Some of the artists had works on the subject, and for others, it was a trigger for creating."
Shek's dream of being a psychologist is reflected in her work on the exhibition. "More than talking with artists about colors, I try to discover with them how their experience influenced the work," she said.
After studying Freud's writings in depth, Shek collected the works of some 30 contemporary artists from Britain, the United States, South America, the Far East, France (including Sophie Cal and Annette Message) and Israel: Tzadok Ben David, Gil & Moti (who live in Amsterdam), Gabi Klezmer, Michal Hayman, and Moshe Ninio.
The catalog articles were written by Prof. Peretz Lavi, who heads the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology's sleep studies department; theoretician and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva; Jacqueline Friedman; and Shek. "Kristeva was excited about the subject because she also has trouble sleeping," explained Shek.
How do you combine your curating work with the obligations of being the ambassador's wife?
"It is possible to go to a ceremony, to an event, and afterward to the opening of an exhibition. I don't organize meals for ambassadors' wives. I wasn't born to engage in small talk, and I don't think that I'm a classic ambassador's wife. I don't go to the hairdresser's every day and I don't count the dishes at home. In general, events for 'wives of' never interested me. What would we talk about? About raising kids? About flower arrangements? I don't have a 'feminine' perception of the role of the ambassador's wife. There have been and will be women who are better at it than I am. But I bring a different perspective. Art lovers are happy to talk about the subject. Anyone who comes to my home, from Dominique de Villepin to Roman Polanski, raises his eyes and sees something else. A dialogue is created around the artworks displayed here."
Since you are in an official position, do you refrain from hanging certain works in your home?
"This space is public, so I won't hang whatever I want to here. I won't hang nudes or offensive works."
And what about political works?
"There would be a problem hanging critical politic works. I don't believe in censorship, but in life, you have to make compromises. I would like to be more daring, but it's complicated to find a balance between writing, curating, teaching and being an ambassador's wife. I hope that when I return to Israel, I'll open the exhibition space that I've always dreamed about. But it's not easy to find the right works from a distance. You need to be familiar with the scene and have connections. People are sure that all the doors are open to an ambassador's wife, but an ambassador's wife has to find herself. There are people who won't come near her because of her status, and vice versa.
"I decided to focus on the world of art in order to preserve my sanity. Many women drink, get bored and cry. I'm not a victim. As long as I'm here, I want to get the best out of it. Israeli art is welcomed in Paris, as in other places around the world, enthusiastically and excitedly. Ministers, artists and businessmen react in an amazing way to Israeli art. Everyone finds happiness in the Israeli artist he discovered that night. For me, this provides great satisfaction, because I opened another window onto Israeli art."