The Crafts and Design Biennale in Tel Aviv Will Bowl You Over

You don’t need to love ceramics, textiles or jewelry to enjoy ‘First Person, Second Nature’ at the Eretz Israel Museum

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An art work by Shir Handelsman at the Eretz Israel Museum.
An art work by Shir Handelsman at the Eretz Israel Museum.Credit: Shir Handelsman
Gilad Meltzer
Gilad Meltzer

Visual culture is the outcome of material and theoretical solutions to needs and urges, or the realization – in a corporeal form – of thought, question, emotion, dream and nightmare. These products are a combination of experience, technology, materials and recipient, meaning the user. The separation of powers that has existed in museums for over 100 years has positioned the plastic arts as an extreme case, as isolated, impractical. As something that serves only aesthetic pleasure, at most something to voice criticism about – and of course to enhance one’s wealth.

This is how the pyramid of visual culture is built, too. Departments within museums that make distinctions between artwork according to materials, and museums and their separate flagship departments of art. This is the same for biennales, fairs and galleries too: craft and design, separate from art. Even if this separation is accompanied by learned explanations, clever interpretations and technical reasons such as conservation, maintenance and exhibition considerations, it oozes snobbism – and in many cases artificiality.

Palestinian artist Murjan Abo Deba sweeps away the sea’s waves with a squeegee, in a gender/social-class reminder that most day-to-day energy and work is Sisyphean, banal and repetitive

Dr. Debby Hershman, deputy director and chief curator of Tel Aviv’s Eretz Israel Museum, decided that starting this year it would stop hosting annual or biannual exhibitions according to materials, and instead to present a large biennale showcasing contemporary craft and design. Based on the first event launched according to this new policy, this was a wonderful decision. Instead of a niche exhibition for those addicted to such things, the current Tel Aviv Crafts and Design Biennale, 2020 – entitled “First Person, Second Nature” – allows a broader look at the connections between materials, forms, techniques and ideas.

A video work by Murjan Abo Debeh, from the exhibitionCredit: Murjan Abo Debeh

Moreover, not only the works of known experts, but also of craftspeople and designers were chosen for the biennale, on through the end of February 2021. Out of some 250 exhibitors – all Israeli – a few dozen are clearly artists who have most likely distanced themselves from the craft-design label. The broad definition of the exhibition allows them, justifiably, to feel comfortable under the same umbrella with jewelers and textile artists.

“Whereas craft, a practice based on empirical knowledge, gives rise to unique artifacts, design is closely connected to industry and mass production,” according to the biennale website. “Both, however, revolve around material knowledge, are closely linked to science and technology, and are attuned to their environment and to the social, political and economic processes taking place in it. Operating in shared contexts, these two fields nourish and respond to one another.”

Thus, a lighting fixture fashioned out of cardboard by designer Sima Levin is exhibited alongside an architectural-sculptural fan by artist Einat Amir, who’s created a collage from paper – prints, etchings and reproductions based on photographs from all over the world. Instead of functionality serving as a barrier, the materialism serves as a bridge here. If for Levin the light fixture also includes techniques such as embroidery and painting, in Amir’s “Folded Landscapes,” the layers dismantle and reassemble the transition from a two-dimensional image to a three-dimensional object.

For photographer Hagar Cygler, a picture documenting a private moment stuck onto the spines of old books found in the street and placed on a shelf near a ceramic statue of a pair of horses, of the type you find in the flea market, together create a familiar and strange household arrangement of materials that have been processed, cast, thrown away, recycled and organized by the artist into what is a melancholy installation.

Cut and sew

The heart of this interdisciplinary biannale is labor, handicraft and materials. It beats alongside and above the hundreds of works on show – from jewelry, furniture and clothing to building materials – in a number of video works. Palestinian artist Murjan Abo Deba sweeps away the sea’s waves with a squeegee, in a gender/social-class reminder that most day-to-day energy and work is Sisyphean, banal and repetitive. Endless hours of work do not leave an impression on the world, and are not presented as a necklace of gem stones or a gown. There are no biennales for folding laundry, washing dishes and cleaning up the house.

“Skyline” of cork towers sculpted by Avner Sher at the Tel Aviv Crafts and Design Bienalle 2000 at the Eretz Israel Museum. Credit: Hadar Saifan

When I watched the video art that Vered Nissim planted in the door of a car, entitled “The Artist’s Daughter,” a young man next to me said that the father in the clip looks like he is spreading hummus. Why should he know that the man is a metalworker? What do we have to do with labor, craftsmanship and the materials they involve? They have been driven out of our lives and if – as opposed to Nissim – we have not grown up surrounded by manual labor, then like most of us, the world comes to us cut, sewn, glued, packaged and ready for use.

“First Person, Second Nature” is spread out over most of the museum’s galleries. Some are devoted completely to the works of the biennale, and in a few spaces they have been “embedded” between the permanent exhibits. For example, in the “Recitative” video works of Shir Handelsman that are hung on top of display cases full of antiquities and ceramic works, an opera singer sings a Bach cantata on the platform of a crane. His voice merges with the sounds and screeches of the “chorus” of cherry pickers surrounding him, moving up and down, combining the artistic, high and delicate, with the technological: practical and rigid.

An installation by Shlomit Bauman.Credit: Hadar Saifan

Another type of tension is created here between traditional techniques and materials, and state-of-the-art technology. In her “Local?”, Shlomit Bauman heaps up a pile of future archaeological jugs, megaphones and television sets – all made of clay.

From the waste, redundancy and cheap availability of the modern assembly lines, multidisciplinary artist Tal Amitai-Lavi has created a striking landscape, its large surface composed completely of rubber vacuum rings that she purchased via AliExpress, that are full of color and placed on a classic modernist grid which becomes a pointillist work of art. Or she uses a pixelated screen, a weaving done according to a pattern or a paint-by-number children’s painting. The techniques and the materials change, but the procedure of combining things and using contrasting pigments that together create a picture – never changes.

It would have been easy to drown in the sea of imagery and objects in this show, and in certain places there is certainly a feeling of “too much,” which is familiar from other biennales and art events. But at the same time, a few choices helped to make the project a success here.

As a whole the exhibition is very well designed (by Chanan de Lange) and curated, and it features quite a number of brilliant moments, such as the placement of the “Soft Towers” by Shira Gepstein Moshkovich, which are made out of organic green foam – the type that we recognize from floral arrangements – alongside display cases with Philistine ritual objects. And there’s the “Skyline” of cork towers sculpted by Avner Sher, and whose placement on a mound between the gallery buildings that comprise the Eretz Israel Museum allows their integration into the urban landscape of contemporary Tel Aviv.

‘First Person, Second Nature’ at the Eretz Israel Museum.Credit: Hadar Saifan

The political does not cry out from every wall or exhibit, and when it is present, it is justified. For example, in “Tzuk Anan, Amud Eitan” (a play on the Hebrew names of two major Israel Defense Forces operations in the Gaza Strip in recent years), Dafna Sartiel puts together a “classic” glass mosaic from images that periodically appear on our television screens. The natural pixilation of the ancient technique “dissolves” familiar sights into a simplified image in the blue-azure-white that characterizes the golden age of Flemish ceramic-tile making.

In spite of their depressing title, “Warning Call,” the wooden totems in the shapes of animal sculpted by Asher Elharar are more successful and more amusing than just another annoying and unidimensional tweak about mankind’s damage to nature.

How do you negotiate such an undertaking? Here too a great deal of thought and resources have been invested. The biennale is accompanied by a blog with information about every work and talks with the artists, so it is possible to arrive there prepared, to some degree – and to fill in the rest of the information after your visit. The texts are written in such a way that they don’t demand a master’s degree in the history of ideas. It is clear that the visitor-user experience guided the staff in preparing this show, not just the quality of the works.

You don’t need to love ceramics or textiles. And even people who are less excited by jewelry will find enough enjoyable works on the spectrum between crafts and art, between classic and contemporary. The museum has already created expectations for me for its next biennale.

The Tel Aviv Crafts and Design Biennale, 2020: “First Person, Second Nature.” Curators: Henrietta Eliezer-Brunner and Yuval Saar. Eretz Israel Museum, 2 Haim Levanon St., Tel Aviv. Opening hours: Mon. and Wed.: 10 A.M. to 4 P.M., Tues. and Thurs.: 10 A.M. to 8 P.M., Sat.: 10 A.M. to 6 P.M.