The last Israel Museum exhibition I wrote about before the big lockdown in March was “Bodyscapes.” Not long after that, the flagship of the Israeli museum world found itself deserted.
The institution on a Jerusalem hilltop had just finished installing several new exhibitions, but now the bus parking lot that was normally filled to capacity was empty. Curators and staff wouldn’t dare predict the future.
We all know what happened. The Israel Museum closed down for nearly five months, during which hundreds of workers were placed on leave. Now the place has finally reopened, but much has changed. There are no tour groups and the opening hours have been trimmed. Aya Miron, who curated the “Shutters and Stairs” exhibition currently on display, has since left the museum, and she’s not the only one.
As the subtitle – “Elements of Modern Architecture in Contemporary Art” – promises, the exhibition is just the thing you expect from the Israel Museum. It’s a scholarly effort that probes a subject in depth, spreading a broad canvas of media, styles and materials. And via its works and catalog, it offers a carefully reasoned interpretation.
At the same time, with the exception of five pieces, all the works are from the museum collection, so it’s a bit of a stretch to say “in Contemporary Art”– it’s really something much more limited.
This may help explain the many things that seem to be missing, both from Israel and abroad. Also, it’s not clear in the text on the wall or in the catalog what’s meant by “Modern Architecture,” so it’s not clear what’s meant by the “Elements” of this architecture. The exhibition doesn’t really deal with architecture in art. There isn’t a single work where you can identify a structure or building.
When it comes to architecture, the starting line for the term “modern” is the second decade of the 20th century, and the second half of the ‘70s is generally seen as the moment of the transition to postmodernism. As these were years when the Zionist project was at its height, it’s no wonder that all these new communities, neighborhoods and expansions of towns and cities are a hidden treasure, on an international level, of modernist architecture and construction. And this is more than what’s mistakenly referred to as “Bauhaus.”
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Anyone who has ever done a construction or renovation project is familiar with the word “elements” from that period, those weeks or months when you nearly went crazy having to choose things like building materials, plumbing fixtures, handles, doors, tiles, colors, shelves, outlets, hooks, lighting fixtures and flooring. Plus you had to make a raft of visits to shops and work sites, exchange goods, change your mind and probably get into your fair share of arguments. Most of the works in the exhibition focus on a single element, not on architecture.
Geometric units and clean lines
Many elements in the exhibition are precisely those that violated the order and formal reduction of modernism, but their inner syntax imitates and heightens the reliance on geometric units, symmetry, sequencing and clean lines, while countering the traditions of decorative, expressive and local design.
For example, Assaf Evron’s mural at the entrance stairway to the hall is made up of painted square wooden tiles that together create the shapes of palm trees. Many bas reliefs and neo-mosaics have covered the modernist buildings around the country, essentially sabotaging their sterile look.
On a carpet provided by Brazilian artist Renata Lucas sits a large rectangle of concrete, one of the materials most associated with modernism. This typical carpet protrudes – handmade, colorful and decorative. It’s a reminder of what the new practice sought to conceal, not just in the West but also in South America, Asia and Africa.
In Israel, the formative murmurings rapidly came to adorn the smooth outer coverings. Few buildings in Tel Aviv have been left untouched by “solutions” – of various elements or just sloppy add-ons. The star here is Tsibi Geva’s wall of shutters – the type of shutter featured, one of the world’s ugliest, is an Israeli invention. His father was a classic modernist architect, and this isn’t the first time the son has indulged in materials and shapes that deviate from the founders’ stern protocol.
Saher Miari’s terrific installation is called “Lives and Works.” From one end of an iron tube sticking out of the museum wall – itself a very modernist structure – comes a conversation in Arabic between the artist, who was once a construction worker, and his former colleagues, about his transition from the craft of construction to the world of art. It calls to mind Gideon Gechtman’s iconic 1975 installation “Arab Labor” that showed Arab workers’ sleeping quarters at building sites below an obituary notice for “Hebrew Labor.”
Two other principles are at work in the elegant exhibition. Many of the works create or address optical illusions related to angles, materials, size and technique. In a drawing by Jonathan Zofy, graphite helps simulate shattered but impenetrable black glass. Shibetz Cohen uses frottage, a rubbing technique, to reproduce the slits left on concrete surfaces that were typical of the Brutalist architecture and construction popular in Israel until the 1980s.
Moshe Ninio’s photograph “Glass III” focuses on two of the basic elements of the classic modernist style and taste – glass and white walls. Ninio breaks down and reassembles a photo taken from inside the glass chamber that Adolf Eichmann sat in during his trial in Jerusalem. Through the protective glass, he stares at the blank white wall, the fundamental condition for a modernist exhibition. The metal frames of the defendant’s chamber correspond with the abstract figurative tradition and the peak minimalist moment, the artistic parallel to the clean lines and forms of modernist architecture.
The most interesting illusion is provided by Noa Yafe’s “The Stairwell,” a sculptural installation hanging on the wall that creates an illusion of depth – it’s opposite the real stairwell you tread to reach the exhibition. The principle here, and perhaps the extra tension that exists, is between the abstract and the figurative – which may be the central struggle of modernist architecture from the mid-19th century through the mid-1970s.
Even though modernist architecture clearly trended toward the abstract, especially in the geometric aspect, the works in the exhibition don’t all fit into one of these two categories; instead they complicate the dichotomy, as the great art historian Meyer Schapiro argued in his essay “Nature of Abstract Art.” The mirror-reflection tile paintings of Joshua Borkosky only assume the appearance of a geometric abstract, while Yonatan Vinitsky’s “Yoo-Hoo,” a slender minimalist drawing of a door and doorpost, is very sparing in its figurative aspect.
There’s no doubting the material realism of the two handles that are installed arm’s length apart by Slovak artist Roman Ondak, but what about the sculpture created by Toony Navok out of phone and electric cables? This is what the tangle in the electric cabinet really looks like. So is it realism or abstraction?
A poetic reply is provided by Matan Golan’s “Hanadiv 8a.” Using projections on the walls of the exhibition space, Golan recreates the movements of light through the slits in the shutters at his home, whose address is the work’s title. The shadows are geometric shapes that are simultaneously abstract and concrete. They appear as elements both abstract and realistic, purified of any distractions.
“Shutters and Stairs: Elements of Modern Architecture in Contemporary Art”; Curator: Aya Miron. Israel Museum, 11 Ruppin Boulevard, Jerusalem. Tuesday 10 A.M. to 9 P.M.; Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday 10 A.M. to 5 P.M.