The third Herzliya Biennial of Contemporary Art, which opens Monday, challenges every expectation of the urban biennial art event: It does not strive for grandiose dimensions, it does not boast virtuoso works that celebrate art, and as a whole, it is not a celebration at all.

"Second Strike," curated by Ory Dessau, appears to reverse traditional roles and resists imposing its thesis on the artists whose work it features. They in turn dismantle the proposed thesis and continuously reconstruct it all over again, differently each time.

Herzliya has been sleepy in the days leading up to the biennial opening. Scattered about the city are signs announcing the event, and the difference between this biennial and the previous one is evident in the works of the Picnic group, which focused on a colorful, visual celebration.

The name of the new exhibition, "Second Strike," takes its inspiration from a concept that emerged during the Cold War. It refers to the ability of a country surprised by a nuclear strike to respond with a nuclear strike of its own, despite the destruction that spreads as a result. The concept, Dessau explains, "carries within it the potential for mutual destruction, whose very possibility creates a balance of fear that has the power to halt the use of nuclear weapons ahead of time and prevent any other kind of attack as well."

Dessau delved deeply into the museum's space in a way that makes the familiar space unfamiliar, and moreover, dictates a planned circuit to the visitor. The facts presented in the exhibition do not translate the concept into a direct artistic act and are not clearly interconnected, but they do have a cumulative effect. Dessau reiterates that the works do not tend toward political activism or accepted social practices. He suggests the idea of metonymic art that swings back and forth between the factual and historical.

Nearly all the artists featured in the exhibit have worked previously with Dessau, some of them more than once. It is clear that the long relationship and the trust built up over the years contributed to the perspective of the artists, the exhibition and the curator, as well as to Dessau personally, deepening his understanding of their works.

Propaganda vs. propaganda

The first work that visitors encounter upon entering the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art is Christoph Buchel's large video installation in a black space. It shows a parade of hundreds of soldiers in Iran whose movements form a Star of David, the letters "U.S.," a swastika and missiles aimed at them.

Dessau specifically opens with a concrete look at an actual balance of fear, but the work is more complex: Buchel uses a video clip filmed in Tehran, and available on the Israeli Foreign Ministry's website. It was uploaded there as a form of propaganda meant to counter the anti-Zionist propaganda in Iran.

Gil Marco Shani's work, featured near Buchel's, is one of the biennial's surprises. Shani installed a carefully done and masterful installation like the one he did at the legendary 2003 "Helena" exhibition. The architectural installation simulates an existing environment that is not concrete but rather generic, an association to a term coined by Hannah Arendt, "the banality of evil."

Shani has not created a work like this in some time, mainly because of budgetary reasons. If a good biennial is significant, it is undoubtedly due to its ability to enable the production of large works of this kind.

Other works created specially for the exhibition are by Eran Nave, Michal Helfman, Adam Rabinowitz, Avi Nevo, Peter Buggenhout and others.

Another notable work in the exhibition is a piece by Zvi Goldstein that spans two rooms: One features a sound piece that fills the entire space, in which many speakers are installed. Each speaker simultaneously emits a voice reading a different passage from Goldstein's book, "Room 205." Together, they create a total cacophony. The other room features a display of images, including images of Goldstein's travels from his home city of Jerusalem to various African countries.

Ruti Nemet, who has been living in Los Angeles for several years, and who rarely exhibits in Israel, presents a few new works in which drawings are superimposed on photos that serve as ready-made backgrounds of sorts. It combines pastoral, but also cruel, scenes from nature, showing animal corpses and archival images of important local historical and political figures (from 1948, for example ).

A crisp expanse

Some of the works are installed in public spaces, but unlike in previous Herzliya biennials, Dessau refused to meld with the urban fabric. Instead of an integrative approach, he explains, "the exhibition seeks to place in the city a network of enclosed expanses that are simultaneously inside and outside, in the periphery and in the center."

For example, he demonstrates "the work by Peter Buggenhout, which I commissioned especially for this event."

"Buggenhout placed the ruins of a building on the surface of a 12-meter tow," he explains. "He positioned the tow in a parking lot on Ben-Gurion Street, the city's main thoroughfare. The situation created is one of something that is out of place, evidence of destruction that was not removed. The content of the work, the physicality of it, its dimensions and location, appear stuck like a bone in the throat of public order. Presenting such a work in a remote city in Western Europe is one thing, but featuring it in Israel, where the public space is in any case crisp, and whose legitimacy and correctness is not fully resolved, is another matter."

Next to the municipal synagogue, 300 meters from Buggenhout's sculpture, stands a work by Ravit Mishli. A Star of David-shaped, iron construction coated in large jewels, it can only be described as an almost pagan display, certainly when it is located next to a house of prayer belonging to an anti-pagan religion. This work then becomes an act of heresy.

The current biennial, given its name and most of the works it features, appears to be an anti-biennial. It is apocalyptic, disturbing and threatening.

Dessau explains: "Immediately after I got the job, and when I realized, and in effect also worked toward, the fact that this would not be a purely Israeli exhibition - Israelis after all do not see beyond themselves in anything - I decided that doing an exhibition that was entirely a celebration and the appearance of normality meant doing something that was incorrect, false. The ground is burning, after all, but more than that, the historical conditions in which we live are a resource that is worth using and should be used. And perhaps something in the structure of the concepts that comprise this installation make it possible to say something about contemporary art and about its relationship to itself and to the world. That is the goal. The result is something between a mid-sized biennial and a group exhibition posing as a theme exhibition."

Dessau adds that what motivates him in this exhibition, as it has in previous exhibitions, is "an unresolved connection between the political and the aesthetic, between art as a reflection of historical circumstances and art as an alternative, independent world."