An Exhibition That Speaks Volumes

A sense of Yad Vashem-like reverence hovers over this exhibition, whose theme is books. Indeed, the installations are impressive, but the bombast accords the show a fetishistic dimension.

From Avital Geva's work 'Books, Deep River, God' at the Petah Tikva Museum of Art.
Elad Sarig

There are two dramatic centers in the exhibition “Bi-bli-o-logia,” currently on view at the Petah Tikva Museum of Art. One is exterior to the museum, the other in its interior space. The first is Avital Geva’s work, “Books, Deep River, God,” a follow-up to his “Books in Deep River,” which he created in 2014 for the National Library in Jerusalem. Geva has built a large pond in the museum’s courtyard, part of it within the museum grounds, part in the adjacent public park. Water lilies and used books lie in an area of water that reflects and doubles the surrounding landscape. More books are piled in stacks outside the water, creating a charming rock-garden effect. The whole evokes Geva’s 1972 “behavioral experiment” – “The Books in Landscape Experiment,” a filmed documentation which is screened in the museum. Next to the ponds is a lending library, where viewers are invited to browse, borrow or donate books. The museum’s exterior thus becomes colored in Romantic-Surrealistic shades, like a kind of grandiose sculptural dramatization of paintings by Monet or Meir Pichhadze, in which the books become elements other than themselves, belonging to nature and simultaneously representing traumatic abandonment.

The second dramatic center is the ambitious Shtiebelekh project by Maya Zack together with the Stuben 21 group (Peter Daniel and Nicole Horn). The visualization installation – based on the concept of the shtiebel, or “little house,” a place of communal Jewish prayer – consists of computerized images derived from Roman Vishniac’s well-known images of traditional rooms of study and prayer in 1930s Eastern Europe, intertwined with a replicated study corner from present-day Jerusalem. The result is a bizarre, stylized hall, both alluring and off-putting, in which, again, books can be taken from shelves for browsing.

On display between these two melodramatic installations are sculptures and additional installations alongside screened documentary material and ethnic objects, all of them dealing with books and libraries from the material aspect and with modes of arranging books – in contradistinction to the linguistic and scholastic content of books.

Among the other exhibits is a book by Ka-Tzetnik (the pen name of the Holocaust survivor Yehiel De-Nur, who was born Yehiel Feiner) cut into pieces. It is presented by the artist Yosef-Joseph-Yaakov Dadoune, alongside a copy of a “Yalkut Shimoni” volume (a 1787 edition of a collection of ancient Jewish homiletic or allegorical teachings) that has been coated with anti-hemorrhoid cream. After the Holocaust, Ka-Tzetnik demanded that the remaining copies of a 1931 book of poetry he published in Yiddish be destroyed, “as part of his conceptual mission to erase his pre-war life,” as the curators, Drorit Gur Arie and Raphael Sigal, write.

In addition to the concrete cuts of paper, a range of photographed documentation is also on view. For example, there is a work by the environmental artist Christo, “Wrapped Modern Art Book” (1978). In another case, fragments from the Cairo Genizah were collected from a website whose creators are out to document the entire corpus of 300,000 or so ancient Jewish manuscripts. About 100 of them were printed on transparencies for the Petah Tikva exhibition, and are on view on a light table that also offers a magnifying glass. A presentation of photographs of cultural assets confiscated by the Nazis is screened under the title “Archival Memory.” The items were arranged by Capt. Isaac Bencowitz (1896-1972), the second director of the Offenbach Archival Depot, so named for a warehouse in Offenbach am Main, outside Frankfurt, where the Allies collected books and manuscripts looted by the Nazis, ahead of their repatriation. The impressive black-and-white photographs show rooms in Kiev, Amsterdam, Vilna and elsewhere, crammed with bundles of books piled in unwieldy stacks, the opposite of archival logic or the order of a library. The exhibition thus combines several levels: the objects themselves, art that refers to them, historical photographs that are archival items in themselves and various documentations of books.

Magic charm

All the museum’s halls are dimly lit, with warm spotlight illumination only on the exhibits themselves. This casts intense shadows, doubles the size and power of the exhibits and leaves the rest in darkness for dramatic effect. In this way each exhibit becomes a find, its value lying (partly) in its rarity, like a magic charm. Yet the sweeping, enthusiastic effort to foist spirituality and melancholy in the museum space accords the exhibition a fetishistic dimension. A Yad Vashem-like atmosphere of reverence pervades everything, even though not all the items on display throb with history. A thrust toward sentimentality dominates the exhibition: there’s a subjugation to sentiment, to gushing, fetishizing and to the non-secular and non-practical. Some of the accompanying texts are vague to the point of being mysterious; they are not of a uniform level. Some only add to the inherent confusion that arises from the rambunctious anti-methodology and from the associative range of the exhibits.

According to the curators, the exhibition is driven by a “simple idea,” namely that a book is more than a functional object (in contrast to an umbrella, a box, a chair). Books, they write, “enrich our world, affect our perceptions, stimulate our sensations, and trigger our emotions.” But their ambition is apparently far greater. The exhibition, as its full title – “Bi-bli-o-logia: The Book as Body” – suggests, tries to draw a comparison between books and the human body, to connect different fields of knowledge and practice, and to present, side by side, methods such as information science, archive science, collection, conservation and digitization. There’s a dimension of visual bombast and emotional blackmail in the exhibition, which is foisted on an argument that is feeble to nonexistent: something like “books are books!” In fact, the exhibition has everything except reading. That’s because, even if someone pulls down a book and reads it in a museum, he morphs into a performance of reading, subject to the delighted gaze of the viewers, deprived of the intimacy that reading requires.

As one wanders through the museum’s spaces, it’s hard not to conjure up clichés such as “People of the Book” or “Jewish bookshelf,” as these hover incessantly over the pathos-laden exhibition. The general view of the installations is very impressive, with meticulous design and aesthetics. However, it’s obvious that the exhibition is trying to bite off more than it can chew, that it’s reaching for some sort of culture experience, or aims to offer a reflection about books – more precisely, about Jewish culture and education. It’s exuberant over the fact that books are a world unto themselves and over its effort to trace their incarnation and to convey a message that saving them is a sacred mission.

The hidden narrative is one of perdition and salvation, destruction, and surviving remains, as many of the projects and exhibits on view are bound up with rare copies or with a book culture that was vitiated or took place in secret. If there is any hint here about the museum’s stance regarding the present government’s attitude toward books (in civics classes, for example, or in expanded literature studies), it is too subtle for its own good.

“Bi-bli-o-logia: The Book as Body,” Petah Tikva Museum of Art, 30 Arlosoroff St., Tel: (03) 928-6300. Open Fri., Sat., Mon., Wed. 10-2; Tues. and Thurs. 4-8. Until March 26