Group exhibition, "Rites and Rituals," Herzilya Museum of Contemporary Art

"Rites and Rituals" at the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art examines a theme central to the making of art in that, from an anthropological perspective, art developed from within the context of religious rituals. Intended to express a particular perspective on how the universe operates, these rituals came to include objects, the making of which developed over thousands of years. In a sense, then, art that examines the phenomenon of ceremonies and rites represents a kind of introspection.

This sense of looking inward is a connecting thread in the exhibition, which is an interesting show to visit but one that remains stuck somewhere between an introduction to a larger, more extensive exhibition on the subject and a show that has extended beyond its boundaries at the expense of its statement.

The decision to include the work of Malala Andrialavidrazana, an artist from Madagascar who works in Paris, is an excellent one in all respects.

Andrialavidrazana has photographed cemeteries for years, while examining the burial rituals of different ethnic groups that make up the population of Madagascar. Here she shows two series: "D'outre Monde" ?(30 photographs?) and "Tanindrazana/The Ancestors' Land" ?(20 photographs?).

Both of these exhaustive series demonstrate the problem with artwork of this kind. They are interesting on an intellectual level in that they expose the customs of the other but the experience of the work is akin to that of a National Geographic feature devoid of any emotional content.

A more disappointing work in this respect is "A Quest into Islamic Mysticism: Sufism" by Bruno Hadjih, an Algerian-born artist who works in Paris. The 10 photographs that make up the series seem to represent a quintessentially cliched view of Sufism through the eyes of a Western observer. Sufi rituals are characterized by repetition and moments of ecstasy, with the most familiar representative being the Dervish dance.

The accompanying text to the exhibition informs viewers that "Hadjih's point of departure at the outset of the project was one of an anthropologist and a journalist, who objectively observes and documents religious rituals. In the course of time the line dividing the observer from the group was eliminated, as Hadjih no longer settled for mere observation, and started taking an active part in the rituals." This transition must have certainly affected the artist, but it fails to translate into the work, leaving viewers indifferent and offering less of a challenge than Andrialavidrazana's work.

A similarly anecdotal perspective is offered by Zohar Kaniel, who shows a bar-mitzvah ceremony in which the famous hymn "Adon Olam" is adapted to the melody of the Live Aid hit-song "We Are the World." While raising questions about changes in age-old ceremonies and their adaptation to contemporary life, the work's demonstrative dimension ultimately works against it.

Tahini as paint

The pieces in the show that examine ceremonies beyond the boundaries of a traditional anthropological context are the most interesting, with three video works by Israelis standing out. Raya Bruckenthal shows "Bodybuilder," a 7-minute video from 2007 that follows a bodybuilder who performs, as the exhibition text informs us, a set of gestures regarded as integral to the daily routine of anyone in the field. His body is shown against a white backdrop and becomes abstract ?(a bit like Ansel Adams' photographs of peppers from the 1930s or Edward Steichen's pictures of clay flowerpots from the 1920s?). The body in Bruckenthal's work looses touch with initial objectives like strength, power and athletic achievement, becoming artificial, repulsive and even monstrous. Bruckenthal does not show often, but her previous works have been characterized by the same precision and clear-thinking that can be found in the present video.

Shahar Marcus, who has increasingly become identified as a promising artist, shows "Sabich," a 4-minute video work representing a playful and intelligent take on the history of modern art and the celebrity status of cultural heroes. Marcus shows himself painting in a way that mimics the painterly gestures of Jackson Pollock ?(as documented by Hans Nemuth?). Instead of using paint, however, the artist uses tahini, fried eggplant, chopped salad, hard-boiled eggs and more. Marcus stretches to the absurd the gap between modernism's enchantment with notions of artistic freedom and "pure" creative energies in the post-World War II era and the present reality in Israel which translates desires, ambitions and dreams into something corporeal and simplistic.

Marcus' piece relates to "Land Cruiser," a nearly 10-minute video work by Maayan Strauss, from 2007. Strauss does not show any challenging maneuvers but rather a kind of circular dance performed by the SUVs. The work relates to religious rituals and the search for meaning, but like Marcus' "Sabich" ultimately talks about unveiling ambitions and crude desires.

Carwash at the morgue

The attempt to expand the theme of the exhibition is problematic. Dana Goldberg's short film "Alpha," from 2007, which shows a conversation between two women after a sexual encounter, seems like it was included for the sole purpose of adding a sexual dimension to the show. The excellent work by Nira Pereg, "67 Bows," from 2006, follows a flock of flamingos in a zoo. The peaceful community of birds is periodically interrupted with the sound of a gunshot. The birds respond to each shot in perfect concert with a collective bow and then resume their activity. The effect is entirely artificial and the interest in the work lies in our fascination with projecting our understandings about behavior, in this case conditioned behavior, to the natural world.

The three works by Theresa Margolles, an installation and two video works, comprise a show of their own. Margolles talks about emptying rituals of their meaning and of their preservation as a memory that seems destined to dwindle. Despite the fact that Margolles works in Mexico City and that the Catholic dimension is purposely apparent in her work, a viewer who is familiar with the horrors of the Holocaust cannot help but make associations.

The installation "127 Bodies" consists of 127 pieces of thread from autopsies of corpses, anonymous victims of violence. The artist addresses the preservation of a religious ritual, in this case the preparation of the body for burial, which is performed in a mechanical fashion, devoid of the religious and intimate dimensions the ritual originally expressed. When she juxtaposes two videos − one of the washing of corpses in a morgue and the other of cars being washed with recycled water from the morgue − she addresses how commercial culture has abandoned the sanctity of life in favor of the commercial object, which especially in the case of cars, is endowed with the halo reserved for religious and artistic objects of the past.