When the Dust Settles on a Tel Aviv Street

The exhibition 'Collecting Dust in Contemporary Israeli Art' shows the material as a carrier of memory and loss.

Galia Yahav
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Galia Yahav

The exhibition “Collecting Dust in Contemporary Israeli Art,” currently showing at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, situates itself as a contemporary descendant of two works on display at the entrance to the exhibition hall, an act that fatally arouses expectations.

In “Still Life with Musical Instruments,” by the 17th-century painter Bartolomeo Bettera – a salient representative of the “Vanitas” tradition, where everything is presented for a reason – a number of instruments lie on each other, covered with dust, overturned and neglected. Someone has run a finger over two of them, leaving clear markings in the dust.

Juxtaposed against this is Man Ray’s famous 1920 photograph, “Dust Breeding,” in which Marcel Duchamp’s “The Large Glass” is seen covered in dust. In preparatory notes for his artwork, Duchamp wrote, “Allow dust to fall on this part, a dust of three or four months.” Man Ray created the look of a desert landscape on the horizontally laid glass, in an act now recognized as a breakthrough in modernism, generating an anti-representational approach in art.

Positioning herself between these two pillars, curator Tami Manor-Friedman seeks to examine contemporary Israeli art, referencing the “abjection” concepts of the philosopher Julia Kristeva, in ecological, anthropological and other terms, or what the Israeli curator calls “a hybrid material – a fickle state of matter.” She writes in the catalog that in dust “an ambivalence of revelation and concealment” is encapsulated.

We have dust here in Israel, too. “Astronaut Ilan Ramon aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia and the ground team of Israeli scientists observed the subject of their research: how dust storms develop over the Mediterranean region,” Manor-Friedman writes. “From outer space, the view of this part of the planet, which is frequently swathed in sandy turbulence, is perhaps the ‘view from an airplane’ that Man Ray saw in Duchamp’s ‘The Large Glass.’” Maybe. Will the regional dust storms assume the dimension of a disaster metaphor? Will they coalesce into a comprehensive image of political horror made of gunpowder? Of course not.

Rubi Bakal uses dust as a staining color on sticky surfaces, creating pictures of his childhood vistas in the town of Or Yehuda (Melnik’s toy store and the Little Iraq spice shop). Sharon Ya’ari photographs Tel Aviv’s Rashi Street (in 2008), obscured by clouds of construction dust and resembling a danger zone. In his images of the street, the dust is a veiling, darkening element, which freights a simple situation with philosophical fog and fills it with gloom – “an indicator of constant change between disintegration and reassembly,” the curator writes.

The works by Irit Hemmo, the preeminent Israeli artist of dust, consist of dust-blown cardboard cutouts pasted onto Formica boards, reconstructing images of public art from Israel’s early years. Her 2012 work, “Shulamit Hotel, Haifa (after Mordechai Gumpel),“ references the mural Gumpel created for the hotel, which was set to be destroyed but received a last-minute reprieve.

Yuval Yairi filmed the extensive renovation of the Israel Museum, including the polishing of the floor around Itzhak Danziger’s iconic “Nimrod” sculpture hours before the museum’s grand reopening in 2010. In a video segment, “Nimrod Roundabout” (2010), taken from a larger documentary, a worker is seen polishing the floor around the sculpture as a succession of broken ghostly images. “His repetitive circular movement around the gleaming icon ... assumes the aspect of a ritual dance around a sacred figure,” Manor-Friedman writes. Photographs of ongoing work taken during the museum’s renovation by Assaf Evron evoke modernist art techniques.

The exhibition plods along between clichés about place, from the city rising out of the dunes to sandstorms that sculpt dunes in the landscape. It ostensibly charts a contemporary critical narrative, in which the dust images create a picture of a “desired but eroded land [perceived] as temporary territory whose borders are uncertain,” in the words of the curator. It’s meant to be a reverse mirror of the sun-washed homeland portrayed by the pioneer landscape painters, in which the pathos ingrained in their ethos is juxtaposed to time’s erosions, but is also rescued from oblivion through the image of the dusty shade.

But this is an insubstantial critique and, moreover, one which in practice, in the actual exhibition, involves an agreed, well-worn narrative – let’s call it “a people in its land.” It’s the biblical desert dust, historically and culturally associated with the soil, and not only with it but also to an antecedent dust, upon which it is contingent: the dust of the crematoria. The human dust that arose from the ruins and built a state from the dirt is now coughing in clouds of construction, settlements and army tracking strips, and believes in gunpowder.

The exhibition is curated didactically and lacks passion. We learn that dust is a carrier of memory and loss. Whether in domestic interiors or in representations of hazy landscapes, dust generates duration, a sense of time. It is a type of alternative clock, an agent of decline and mutability. As happens in thematic shows of this type, the dust takes on substance and emerges as a concept, a medium, an artistic means that acts as a catchall. The works are neither strong nor especially interesting, ranging from attempts to document a process or antimatter as evidence of blindness, to sculptural actions that try to inject form into the formless, to reassemble what is disintegrating.

But maybe the works only weaken one another because they have been turned into an illustrative, exercise-like and certainly anemic collection, revolving around a material that is also a means or an artistic medium. Don’t even think about stardust or drug culture.

“Collecting Dust in Contemporary Israeli Art” is at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, until April 5. Opening hours: Sun-Mon and Wed-Thur 10.00-17.00, Tue 9.00-16.00, Fri 10.00-14.00 and Sat 10.00-17.00.

Rashi Street, Tel Aviv (2008), photograph by Sharon Yaari.Credit: Sharon Yaari.