Tel Aviv Museum Brings Street Art Into the Gallery

An unprecedented new show at the Tel Aviv Museum gives an inside look at graffiti, a form illegal by definition.

For four weeks, graffiti artist Klone went to the Tel Aviv Museum every day, in order to work on the largest wall painting he has ever done. An annoying beep came from the crane he was using, warning anyone around him that Klone was being lifted six meters above the floor, to reach the upper areas of his painting. Up there, in a corner way above the normal line of vision, he signed his name.

klone - Daniel Bar-On - August 26 2011
Daniel Bar-On

A few meters away sat Foma, braiding delicate sculptures from wire and black wool to use in her huge, melancholic self-portrait. Wearing large headphones, she was cut off from her surroundings. From morning to night she continued to plait and paint, dismantle and rebuild. Her materials were arranged alongside her in neat groupings.

Apart from the constant beep of the crane, total silence reigned in the gallery - a silence of concentration, a silence that totally contrasted with the usual image of the working environment of street artists; it is easy to fall into the trap of conjuring up romantic images of cigarette butts being stubbed out among beer cans surrounding such artists as they work to the sounds of punk rock.

The exhibition "Inside Job," featuring the works of Foma, Klone and six other street artists, opens to the public today at the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion of the Tel Aviv Museum. While most of the artists' real names are not revealed, their pseudonyms - the others are Know Hope, Broken Fingaz, Zero Cents, AME72, Adi Sened and Yochai Matos - and especially the images they create, are familiar to nearly every Tel Aviv pedestrian, art lover or not.

It has been nearly two years since Tal Lanir, 32, began working on this project: the first-ever exhibition in an Israel museum of street art. This is the first exhibition that Lanir, former curator and director of Tel Aviv's Gallery 39, has curated at the museum, where she served for nearly five years as deputy curator under the late Prof. Mordechai Omer. The idea came up, she recalls, in a moment of kidding around: "I said to a friend of mine, during a cigarette break outside the museum, 'Imagine how funny it would be to exhibit graffiti in the museum.'"

She started researching the idea on her own and when she had concrete plans, she brought them up for discussion; a little over a year ago Omer approved the exhibition. Lanir decided to call it "Inside Job," because of the innovative decision to invite street artists to create works for a group exhibition to be launched within a proper museum space.

klone - Daniel Bar-On - August 26 2011
Daniel Bar-On

The fact that various institutional and commercial elements in Israel have embraced the genre of transient street art parallels the blossoming of the genre in general in recent years: Notable initiatives have included shows organized by collector Serge Tiroche and by curator and artist Sari Golan Sarig; exhibitions at the Kishon and Florentine 45 galleries; and recently also the Castro Street Project held at the Jaffa port.

The street-art phenomenon first began to take root locally some three decades after it spread in Western countries: Among the iconic exhibitions Lanir mentions in the book that accompanies the show, which she edited, are those of Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat at the end of the 1970s, and the "New York New Wave" exhibition at the PS 1 Museum in the '80s. This month saw the closing at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art of a retrospective of the history of street art - the museum's most popular and successful exhibition ever .

'Full-time job'

Apart from Sened and Matos - the only Israeli-born artists in the exhibition - the other participants in the show, which is free to the public, do not sign their real names on their artwork; after all, this form of art is illegal by definition. The transience of their creations, which risk being eradicated every day on city streets, has also been taken into account here: It will also be the fate of some of the works on display. And it turns out that most of the participants have criminal records, after being detained or fined for offenses such as destruction of public property. "A stupid crime," scoffs Klone. "It's not like robbing a bank. You paint in the street because that's what you are, it's your field of activity."

Apparently, the municipal establishment in Tel Aviv also does not see street art as tantamount to, say, bank robbery. In fact, it seems to be confused: The city - whose inspectors often destroy graffiti on the streets and report on it to the police - funds about 40 percent of the Tel Aviv Museum's budget. According to the city, "The Tel Aviv Museum is an independent institution. The municipality does not intervene in the artistic contents of the various art institutions it supports." And, it adds in a statement: "All artistic activity in the public space that has not been prearranged and is displayed in a way that constitutes a violation of regulations and laws is dealt with by the enforcement agencies. Painting graffiti on either public or private buildings is a criminal offense and the agency in charge of enforcement in this matter is the Israel Police, acting along with the city's enforcement agencies."

lanir - Daniel Tchetchik - August 26 2011
Daniel Tchetchik

Says one of the participants in the new show, AME72: "The subversive nature of graffiti has been lost over time, or dissipated." The artist, whose alias is derived from his real name and his birth year, immigrated here from Britain six years ago. He recalls that in his youth his mother got angry at him for stealing her hair spray to use on his work. He adds that today he sells his art, identifiable by the telltale image of a little Lego man, at various galleries abroad, and is also commissioned to do wall art. This is not the first museum exhibition in which he has shown.

AME72 insists that his art "is a full-time job," and says he is not especially worried about supporting his family. He takes a cutting-edge smartphone out of his pocket and opens an app called iTag Graffiti. "This is my new invention," he explains. By touching the screen, it is possible to "spray" virtual graffiti. At the Tel Aviv Museum, his contribution is a large corner wall painting in which the dominant color is deep red.

Know Hope, 25, a tall, handsome man of American-Japanese-Israeli origin, is also a successful studio artist: He says the price of his works ranges from $500 for a small drawing to $27,000 for a series of paintings. In recent years he has received many invitations to show work in Europe, Africa and the United States, and his entire artistic enterprise has grown considerably. For example, before the current exhibition, he worked with a young team of assistants at his studio in south Tel Aviv on a large and ambitious installation made of tree-stump sculptures.

"As long as an artist is true to himself, there is no reason that the living he makes from selling his artwork should not be considered legitimate," Know Hope explains. "I work in the studio the same way I work on the street - concentrating on the particular thing I want to create."

Know Hope's pseudonym comes from a combination of words he has used in graffiti around the city. "It's not a name I chose for myself," he says, "but I saw that more and more people were starting to use it to describe my works - saying 'This is Know Hope's' - and that is how it came to be."

Gloomy images

For his part, Klone, who was born in Kharkiv, Ukraine, connects the impetus he felt to start spray-painting on walls at the age of 14 to feelings of alienation and non-belonging, after immigrating to Israel two years earlier. He compares the act to marking territory.

"My mother was sure it was a passing phase that would go away when I got older," he relates. "When she saw I was continuing with this on the weekends when I came home from the army, she thought it was some craving for release that would pass. Later I started studying illustration at Minshar [art school in Tel Aviv]. I quit after two years and she understood that this is apparently what I would do, and that's that."

Two years ago Klone decided to rent a studio - a two-story and somewhat gloomy space, also in south Tel Aviv. On its floor a few weeks ago was a series of eight works he painted on the pages of old Passover Haggadot, which are now in the museum exhibition. "In a country that has built itself up with its own hands," he says, "it's strange that the art situation is so stuck here. It sometimes seems to me that 15 years ago they were doing much more interesting things here."

An entire wall in the studio is dedicated to works he has received in exchange for his own; on a table there is a small painting by Raffi Lavie, which he received as a gift. Klone's own art is restrained. Melancholy creatures and figures in shades of gray, black, white and brown dominate. He also draws images that look like boats made of folded paper. He says he began doing this after the recent natural disasters in Japan.

Dealing with the huge space allocated to him at the Tel Aviv Museum, about 14 by seven meters, was difficult in the beginning. "I wanted 'big' - as a challenge," he explains, adding however that only in a few cases has he dealt with such a large, smooth surface, devoid of any other stimuli. "It was very stressful," he says, "but after a few days I realized it was like working on a blank piece of paper in a sketchbook. You just need to start with something. And then came the stress you feel when you suddenly get the fact that this is an exhibition in a museum, and that the opening is in less than a month, and the wall is still white."

Klone did not show Lanir any sketches before he began. "It doesn't interest me to do something I am familiar with or know in advance, to do a 'Klone,'" he explains.

Lanir confesses that the past several months have been extremely tough for her: "More than anything else, I learned that a curator needs to realize when and how to let go."

This is the reason the book accompanying the show is not a catalog. Entitled "Street Art in Israel," it surveys various kinds of street art - from local graffiti such as "the people of Israel lives" scrawled on walls, through Rami Meiri's wall paintings, to spray-painted stencils with political messages in Jerusalem.

It seems that not only the character of the works, but also the personalities of the artists affected the curator's work. On one occasion, at the museum, an argument flared between Lanir and one of them. The fact that the participants do not belong to the mainstream, and may not want to conform to accepted codes of behavior in a museum, often made communication with them difficult, she says.

Curator Golan Sarig, who in the past collaborated with a number of the artists in the show, explains that what is intriguing about them is "not necessarily the work they do in the street. Maybe it is more interesting to think about the kind of audience they speak to, and then the sharp distinction between street artists and gallery artists isn't as evident. These are artists who, more than anything else, relate to the surroundings and the space - they create works that are dependent on a particular site."

Golan Sarig mentions the book "Tel Aviv Graffiti Underground," published about two months ago by graphic designer Hagai Marom, which also deals with street art. She notes that one of its major flaws stems from its close-up photos: Without the built-up urban context, she argues, it is hard to understand the works and they become a "decoration" that lacks relevance. As for the new show at the museum, she observes: "Once they decided to do an exhibition like this in Israel, today, when it really isn't new and has been done a lot abroad, it's important to understand what is special about these specific artists. It is likely, for example, that there is less humor here than in the graffiti in Western countries, and more difficulty and suffering. That's how it is when you are working in south Tel Aviv, in a place full of urine, garbage and hypodermic needles."

Indeed, in the works by Zero Cent, this reality is reflected in a palpable way: They show sexual and violent figures imbued with a ghost-like aura. In the museum exhibition, the artist is showing two paintings of naked, faded figures and an installation made of beer bottles and old furniture.

Energetic, smiling and approachable in a captivating way, Zero Cent also immigrated to Israel: He came from the United States, after trying to get accepted to art school but failing because of his bad grades. His works look like a natural and disturbing continuation of Francis Bacon's, although he says he was not familiar with the British artist until recently, when he saw a retrospective of his on a visit to New York, and was very moved. "I cried like crazy there," he relates.

How is the local world of art relating to the exhibition? Along with objections by conservative elements to showing artists with no experience or status, it appears that "Inside Job" is in fact being well received. Relatively "light-weight" shows are unusual at the Tel Aviv Museum, where the didactic nature of shows that developed during Omer's time was subjected to sharp criticism over the years. Additionally, a spontaneous exhibition is in the offing for the street near the entrance to the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion, as part of local artists' protest against the museum .

"People are always going to say, 'They shouldn't be in the museum, this belongs to the street and this isn't high art,'" says Know Hope. "But apart from that criticism, which is coming from the art world I'm pretty much alienated from, it seems to me the show will be a success."

Surpassing Warhol

The exhibition "Art in the Streets" at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA ) was the most comprehensive retrospective show of street art ever. Opening in April and running through August 8, the exhibition chalked up the largest number of visitors in the museum's history - more than 200,000 people - and broke the record set by the Andy Warhol show there in 2002. The exhibition was slated to move to the Brooklyn Museum in New York next month but the plan was canceled.

Some Californian commentators say the exhibition has led to a revival of interest in graffiti painting in Los Angeles. "Walk a block away and the same sort of scrawling could get you thrown in jail," wrote Adam Nagourney in The New York Times. The police, he added, are "in the awkward position of trying to arrest people for doing something that is being celebrated by the city's cultural establishment."

Furthermore, MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch, who curated the show, has actually been accused by the police of contributing to the renewed spread of graffiti: He offered to send museum workers to expunge graffiti painted in the neighborhood while the exhibition was on. Deitch's intention was to show street art from a historical and critical perspective. He selected large, monumental creations - mostly three-dimensional installations - among them works by Banksy, Shepard Fairey and Swoon, displayed in a space of some 4,000 square meters.

Though Los Angeles hipsters ridiculed the MOCA exhibition and some even boycotted it, art critics described it as the most ambitious show ever undertaken in this field. (D.R.)