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A thread of self-satisfaction ran through the "First Herzliya Biennial of Contemporary Art," whose theme was "The Rear." It was an exhibition that celebrated its own frivolousness with abysmal seriousness. Its spirit ranged from the absoluteness of Louis XIV's declaration "l'Etat, c'est moi" to the togetherness of a Scout Jamboree. The biennial seemed to declare: "The rear is us," and those who constitute "us" are young, beautiful, pleased and sated.

This "rear" - or "home front" in another meaning of the Hebrew word - should not be confused with the scenes of destruction in the North on both sides of the border in the summer of 2006, or with the continuing bloodletting in the South. The accompanying text - at www.herzliya-biennial.com (English and Hebrew) - noted that the event was being held in "an area of Herzliya heretofore considered the backyard [or "rear"] of the affluent Herzliya Pituah. Whereas Herzliya's business zone represents capital, this crossroads represents labor."

The theme of economic disparities certainly has the potential to foment an interesting discussion, but the potential was not realized. The well-padded exhibition had no intention of biting the hand that fed it - the municipality, in conjunction with a particularly affluent business entity, Bank Hapoalim.

Nor did the list of the 75 participants contain any surprises. It consisted of artists who are considered "of the here and now" - Tel Avivans or rising international stars with connections to Israel, such as Mika Rottenberg and Keren Cytter. Many of these artists work with leading galleries, and the general feeling was of homogeneity.

The strength of the biennial lay not in any specific work on display, but in the fact that it realized its declared intention of creating a "public sphere through the various works and the responses they elicit in their viewers." The biennial extended across 14 sites, in addition to the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art. The exhibition in the museum, with notable installations by Itamar Jobani and Elisheva Levy, will continue until mid-December.

The other works, which were on public display for just one week (September 23 - October 1), were scattered along Sokolov Street and the surrounding area, which recently had a facelift. The newly clean, upscale exterior feels artificial in juxtaposition to the run down buildings that have not been refurbished. Still, a stroll through the biennial revealed unfamiliar spaces in these structures and gave them an intriguing atmosphere, as though they harbored a secret.

The sculptures on the street created a successful impression, whether because they were crowd-pleasers - like Or Kadar's dogs on Sderot Chen - or because they sparked discussion, like Ariel Kleiner's guillotine. The feeling of discovery, of a small, alternative voyage across a street terrain is always alluring. Too bad that this particular voyage was made around art that can be described as no more than nice. The general feeling was that no few of the works were done by the same artist: light, superficial, confident that a facade of quasi-irony or a cloak of humor would be enough. It is illuminating to consider this exhibition in the context of "Friends of Minds," a delightful independent exhibition at the end of the summer, which was held in a private apartment on Bezalel Yaffe Street in Tel Aviv with no ambitions beyond openness, independence and a willingness to experiment. Some of the 13 artists in that exhibition were also represented in the biennial (including its curator, Joshua Simon). But what works well in a small space looks thin and disappointing in a large-scale exhibition like the one in Herzliya.

It is not clear what the point was of organizing a formidable bureaucratic apparatus and allocating generous financing in order to mount an exhibition that did not have even one work of true heft that will stay in the memory. At no point did the viewer undergo an experience that generated anything more than a smile.

A reigning mediocrity

The curatorial side of the biennial was puzzling. The curator, Joshua Simon, chose weak works by good artists, works that should never have left the studio. For example, the works by Guy Goldstein, which are on display in the museum - plastic bags gnawed by gerbils' teeth - were far less interesting than the graduation project at the Bezalel Academy of Art extension program, where Goldstein also made use of these rodents.

Similarly, the video and drawing by Talia Keinan that were on display in the Lev Ha'Ir Hall were a far cry from the delicacy and sophistication of the work she is now exhibiting at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.

Among the works that stood out favorably in the more-of-the-same show were the video installation by Ben Hagari, which consisted of a very brief excerpt from Chaplin's "Modern Times" in what appeared to be a home cinema device but was in fact made of cardboard; and the video work "Yeast," by Mika Rottenberg, which addressed the pointlessness of the creative process and evoked symbolic contexts of femininity, food and stereotypes. The two works were on exhibit in a hall on Sokolov Street. Outside the hall was the pungent work by Maayan Strauss - a car coated with a tar-like material, as though it were one with the road - a comment on an urban nightmare of being stuck, but also on a more primal nightmare, in which the artificial somehow morphs into the newly natural.

The Sharoni Hall and the Lev Ha'ir Hall, the two largest concentrations of painting - the most heavily represented medium in the exhibition - and sculpture, featured a number of works that were not actually infuriating but were certainly no more than mediocre. I refer to a painting by Moshe Gershon, a work by Barak Ravitz using a fluorescent light, a painting by Liz Hajaj, and the works by Shira Sagol and Iva Kafri. The latter's work reflects the renewed interest in France in the "Supports/Surfaces" movement, which sprang up toward the end of the students' revolt there in the late 1960s and was based on Marxist ideas involving, among other things, the negotiability of the artistic object. To address this question today is a self-indulgent provocation, as it has already been proved that any art can be sold and that the traditional separations between a painting as "commercial" and a video work, for example, as "non-commercial," are not valid.

Coveted internationalism

The spiral of disposable cups by Ayelet Kestler, which had already been shown at the Tel Aviv harbor, was compelling, as was the work by Maya Lerman - a huge disposal cup whose contents might be either coffee foam or a geographical configuration. Also intriguing was the installation by Bat Sheva Ross: above a photograph of objects used to train dogs hovers a grotesque head made of slashed cushions.

Another work, this one on the street, that succeeded conceptually was the large guillotine executed by Ariel Kleiner. Evoking both violence and a sense of the ludicrous, the guillotine raised meaningful questions about the public space and, more particularly, about the place of violence in this arena, whether under the aegis of public institutions and the state, or under private aegis.

Ari Libsker's concrete sculpture "The Evader," which was situated on a protected traffic island, probably sought to arouse a similar discussion. The only problem was that the only interesting thing about it was its name. The biennial also had two frameworks that screened 50-minute documentaries and a television series. There was something pathetic about the repeated attempt to persuade the audience to sit through an entire film as part of a round of art, particularly in a biennial that ran for only one week. The films on view in one of these frameworks, which included Ariella Azoulay's "I Also Dwell Among Your Own People: Conversations with Azmi Bishara" and Tal Hakim's "State of Israel vs. Tali Fahima," were a fig leaf, a declaration that said, "Look, everyone, the biennial is about the political, too," as though this were a necessary obligation.

The television series on display - "Frame Story - 100 Years of Israeli Art" - recalled the period when it was believed that art museums could attract an audience by hooking computer terminals to data bases. How was it that no one took notice of the absurdity of urging the public to leave their homes in order to see exactly the same thing that was broadcast, and undoubtedly will be rebroadcast, on television?

The three veteran artists who took part in the exhibition - Jacob Mishori, Yair Garbuz and Ido Bar-El - stood out qualitatively amid the prevailing mediocrity. In particular, the works by Bar-El emphasized the groping, searching side of his art - precisely what was missing in the dogmatism that emanated from the works of most of the artists. The three older artists are connected to the generation that was represented in the biennial as teachers and as controllers of power centers, and there is something off-putting in the fact that this seems to have been the criterion for including them.

The use of the term "biennial" for the exhibition was only to be expected, given its pretensions and fashionableness. It is not clear whether some corporate body has already committed to allocating funds for an event like this every two years. But that is not so important. What counts is the sound of the word, which brings coveted internationalism trippingly to the tongue. But what it embodied most of all in Herzliya was the approach that quantity is supposed to be quality in its own right.