Things You Can't Learn From a Blackboard

Performance artist Daniel Yahel is teaching 4th-graders how to hold their ground and learn sensitivity to life.

Tamar Rotem
Tamar Rotem
Tamar Rotem
Tamar Rotem

The group of students at Jerusalem's Zalman Aran school turn wide-eyed and in unison toward Daniel Yahel. It is Friday morning, the weekend is within reach, and the students need a lot of patience, great curiosity or both to focus on the complex ideas the lecturer is trying to convey.

As is often the case when it comes to children and art, it seems these youngsters, mostly fourth graders, respond well to unusual ideas, and that includes performance art - one of the more amorphous arts, as well as one of the most challenging (at least, when at its best ). But when performance artist Yahel tells the kids about Andy Warhol's 1963 film, "Sleep," which shows his friend John Giorno sleeping at night, their broad-mindedness appears to be tested. One boy mutters, "What a fool," unwittingly reflecting the audience's reaction when the film was first screened. Many demanded a refund when they realized they were watching images of a sleeping man.

Performance art in the classroom is accompanied by a steady flow of dialogue and demonstration of works related to this medium. Each child takes a turn standing before the group holding a piece of paper with a random declaration written on it. "I'm moving," Dvash Houri wrote on hers, which she clutches intently with two hands. The children try to grasp the meaning of this statement. Like her, they are serious and focused.

Yahel asks her, "Would you agree to stand in front of the class with your eyes closed?" "I'm afraid of someone pushing me," she answers after some hesitation. "There are people who would take advantage of you closing your eyes." "What message are you sending when you close your eyes in front of a crowd?" Yahel does not give up. He wonders out loud how far they are willing to go. But the children are occupied with the issue of their own security, fearful - probably with reason - that other kids will pick on them.

But gradually, it seems the children are starting to realize there is a connection between what they are doing here, with the limited means available to them in the classroom, and performance-art shows. "If you want to be good performance artists you have to hold your ground," Yahel tells the kids. "You just stand up and let the world look at you and basically say, 'Keep quiet, let me concentrate.'"

Holding your ground is one of the important elements of performance art, Yahel explains later on, after the lesson ends and we sit in the schoolyard, lowering our voices so as not to disturb another lesson taking place on the other side of the wall. "It's basically saying what you have to say, without fear. That's why this art is subversive. It's a critical tool and what's nice about it is that in order to express your ideas you don't even have to know how to act. You really don't need to know theater."

At the end of the lesson, a few minutes before recess, the kids prepare for a spontaneous show. They leave the classroom and head to the school's entrance foyer. They stand in a diagonal line and each child puts a round colored sticker on his or her forehead. Yahel instructs them to stand still. He promises to intervene if someone tries to bother or touch them. A few minutes after the bell rings the young performance artists are the focus of all the kids heading outside to the yard. It is hard to describe just how unusual it is to see children being still, and how heated the reactions to it are. A few children join the line and also stand still. Others chuckle in confusion. One boy approaches a performance artist and tries to make her laugh. After a few minutes, when Yahel gives the signal, the children move and the gathering disperses.

Mom or Messi

Yahel, 31, and a father of two toddlers, has made the medium of performance art accessible, exploiting its great appeal to kids. This year he is working with several groups of students from different schools. Apart from the group in Jerusalem, there are two in Bat Yam and one each in Ramle and Rehovot. "Performance art is suitable for schools," he says. "You can include kids with no drama skills. It's possible that they won't get picked for the role of the ballerina in the end of year party, but in performance art they can stand out."

Another event Yahel ran was a performance-art quiz for children, held this week at the MoBY complex, Museums of Bat Yam. The intentionally pompous contest - apparent from its name, "the world's first performance quiz" - was basically theater of the absurd that mocked reality shows. Students from the city's Yad Mordechai and Rishonim schools and their families were invited. The "judges" were MoBY's director - artist Joshua Simon, his deputy - performance artist Meir Tati, and Noam Edry - also a performance artist. The kids were asked questions about performance art works they had studied during the year. The works were shown on a large screen and that way the parents could also participate and help out.

"It wasn't really a quiz," says Yahel, "but another opportunity to muse over and reconsider the work and its connection to life and to the children." For example, one work featured Taiwanese artist Tehching Hsieh's "One Year Performance." For a year, the artist was tied to his wife by a rope and they spent the entire time like this in the same room. In the quiz, the children were asked how they stayed in touch with their mother. Among the possible answers were "with a long rope," "via the computer," there is an invisible connection between us."

In the "question from abroad" section, the children were asked via Skype by performance artist Tamar Ettun, who works abroad, which artist from any discipline they would like to work with on a performance-art piece. The children offered various answers, ranging from their mom to soccer player Lionel Messi.

At the end of the quiz, three prizes were awarded - a cell phone, a camera and a book about performance art by artist Hadas Ofrat. In the silly spirit of the event, the judges decided to break the camera and phone into pieces and divide them up among the children. The book was also torn up and the pieces given out to the kids. "The message sent was social-oriented," Yahel explains. "It was done so that no one would leave disappointed. In effect, everyone won."

'Life is art'

According to Yahel, performance art is a holistic and even philosophical approach to life. At its heart is the statement that "the whole world is a performance - our conversation, computer games, and even the tree in the yard. Life is art ... It's the art of movement - active art that has a real civil goal, to motivate action."

Yahel, who was a professional basketball player before he got into this art form, adds that performing art can be used to learn "to identify things, to be sensitive to the world, to life. It provides them an experience through the body, which will remember the sensation. In the most advanced schools of education they talk about the importance of the experience. The experience is etched in one's perception, it's the memory. These are things you can't learn from a blackboard."

Last year, Yahel prepared a performance event with his some of his students called "Sleep Exhibition." Inspired by Warhol's work and that of other artists who went to sleep in public spaces, the children slept in the classroom and invited other kids in the school for guided tours to watch them sleeping. "The participants realized it's not so easy to sleep in class. You need to teach your body to relax. To undergo a transformation," says Yahel.

There were mixed responses from the audience. One first-grader said, "It's like [reality TV show] 'Big Brother.'" For Yahel, that was a sign that the message was received.

Children from Zalman Aran school in Jerusalem participating in a performance art project. Heated reactions.Credit: Michal Fattal



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