Silence prevails in a fifth-grade classroom at the Fichman elementary school in Haifa, where students are engrossed in carrying out Japanese artist Mariko Asai's instructions to draw a "map of yesterday" on a T-shirt.
"A short distance is a short line, and a large distance is a long line," she tells the students. "Sometimes you get mixed up along the way or backtrack, and then a winding path emerges, so every path becomes a memory. And when you wash the shirt and the colors and lines fade, it also symbolizes the time and the memory that has passed."
The encounter is part of a collaboration between the school and the Haifa Mediterranean Biennale, an international exhibition of contemporary art that opened Friday and is displaying its installations inside shipping containers in downtown Haifa, near the harbor. The exhibit will be open through April 20.
Nine artists from countries including Romania, the Netherlands and Japan have visited the school over the past few weeks. The artists, who are participating in the biennale, displayed their works to the students and conducted art workshops for some classes.
During the rest of the year, Fichman offers no art classes and employs no art teacher. It does devote an hour a week to culture, which usually means cinema or the news media.
"Art is a subject that is now dropped at schools," says Belu-Simion Fainaru, the curator and artistic director of the biennale, which is structured around the theme of household goods. "But in the encounters, you can see that the children really hunger for art. They too have the right to be exposed to it, just like everyone else."
For all that the students appear to be benefiting from unleashing their creativity without much prior artistic knowledge, it seems that a decontextualized spontaneity does have some drawbacks.
That becomes clear when Dutch artist Carina Diepens introduces the students to the concept of installations that put people in static situations in a variety of different environments. A previous installation, whose footage she shows the students, involves a bald man who looks threatening; he is sitting on a chair in a museum while an angelic-looking woman stands behind him and squashes a mound of butter into his forehead. Their body heat melts the butter, which slowly drips down the man's face and onto his clothes.
When Diepens asks the children to create live sculptures using their bodies, they happily crowd into the gym and spread out around the room. A few lie on top of each other while others stand on ladders. Diepens photographs some of them, but soon announce she is disappointed they have chosen stances that are too easy. The second try is more successful, but most of the children look more like they're practicing gymnastics than taking part in an artistic installation.
For all the exciting and fun atmosphere that fills the gym, it is clear that while spontaneity has its place, some knowledge and context and most important, the courage to be daring, are necessary in order to create something significant and unique.
Fifth-graders Shir Cohen and Noy Wexler are especially impressed by Belgian artist Herman Van Ingelgem, who works with household materials and sculpts with chewing gum.
"He just stuck it on the wall," says Cohen. "It was cool to see art being made with such simple things."
"Everyone was in shock," says Wexler. "How did he come up with the idea of working with gum? And he showed us other things that had meaning."
One of the works that leave the students gaping is a photo of an elongated sculpture in the style of Swiss surrealist painter and sculptor Alberto Giacometti that stretches down from the ceiling.
"Now I'll try to sell my creation," one of the students jokes as they attempt to imitate the artist. The comment spurs Van Ingelgem to initiate a discussion about the difference between art and forgery.
The Belgian artist displays objects made from Ikea furniture and other day-to-day items that he has turned into representations of the human body. He explains that what inspired him to work with Ikea furniture was the instruction booklet.
"Contrary to the instructions, I create what I want and express myself," he says.
"He spoke to them as if they were adults," says Fainaru. "The idea behind the children's encounters with the artists is to turn their thinking around. Even something made entirely of gum can be valuable and express creativity."
Fainaru has made Fichman an active participant in the biennale with the purpose of exposing children to art and encouraging them to develop critical-thinking skills, says the artist.
"For me this is a one-time opportunity to express and test my ideas in education as well," he says. "Usually, as an artist I don't have a chance to be in contact with students. It's like planting a seed in the ground and waiting for it to bloom. I believe that the teachers, the students and the administrators in education can achieve understanding and change."
Fainaru found an enthusiastic partner for his vision in Sharon Ita, the school's principal, who cleared time for the sessions and supplied materials for the artists as best she could, sometimes with little advanced notice.
Ita isn't interested in art for art's sake, though. She sees it as a means of developing creativity.
"As an experiment, it was very successful," says Ita. "I couldn't believe how much the children related to art. And the stranger things are, the more they are interested. It was amazing how two classes sat hypnotized during one of the demonstrations."
She tells of an artist who showed a photo of a square with benches that he designed in the middle of a highway.
"It's an unusual thing that prompted questions about the odd location. I'm sure this affects them in their classes as well," says Ita. "It's a way of thinking outside the box."
In another session, a group of artists played gypsy music and got everyone to dance during recess. "There isn't a child who will forget that day," says Ita.
The children's considerable interest has encouraged the school to expose the students to still more art. The school is now looking for resources to set up a gallery where professional artists' works will be displayed next to those of the students, and is looking into other ways of letting the students express their creativity.
Fainaru says the head of the Haifa municipality's education administration has promised to cover the cost of a visit to the biennale for all the city's schoolchildren.
"I believe that the children will bring their parents along to see art," says the curator. "The parents will hear explanations from them. It's much harder for adults to relate to art than it is for children."
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