An Israeli Artist Brings Out the Dead

This exhibition, a smart double homage to a 19th-century symbolist painter, presents a museum collection as spirits of the dead that are brought to life by the show.

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A part of 'Terminal,' a video installation by Eden Auerbach Ofrat.
A part of 'Terminal,' a video installation by Eden Auerbach Ofrat.Credit: Elad Sarig

As is often the case with the Petah Tikva Museum of Art, the side exhibition, consisting of a homage devoted to the museum’s collection, is at least as interesting as the main exhibition, if not more so, and acts as an essential footnote to it. In this case it’s “Terminal,” a video installation by Eden Auerbach Ofrat, which is a sophisticated dual homage to the Swiss symbolist painter Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901), and more specifically to his work, “Isle of the Dead.”

The painting, of which Böcklin painted five almost identical versions between 1880 and 1886, portrays a glowing white figure being rowed in a boat that is carrying a coffin toward a semi-circular island of steep rocky cliffs dominated by towering dark cypresses. It’s death as a hallucination, not part of life but its mythic substitute. The painting encapsulates the artist’s sublime conception of death as simultaneously dynamic and static, mystical and symbolic, but also possessing geographical concreteness, with the body being deposited on the island as at a gravesite. This is death attired in eternal melancholy, a magical event fraught with the inscrutable quality of a ghostly spectacle.

Ofrat’s work is divided into two video installations screened in different spaces, each of stunning visual power, both drawing inspiration from Greek mythology and from painting. In the structure’s central space is an alluring, sense-stirring scene that is viewed through a round window in the locked door leading down to the museum’s collection. It’s a surrealistic dream image seen through a porthole in a cruising ship, a smidgeon of land visible. We see a narrow, rocky strip of land on which is perched Cerberus, the three-headed dog of Hades, god of the netherworld, guardian of the god’s kingdom. Loud barking is heard.

The second part of the installation, in the museum’s collection gallery, is the opposite of the blockage-and-peeping situation occasioned by the locked door. Here we are in a total projection space, part of it, enthralled by it. The floor is covered with sand, and on the wall and the floor a video of the sea is screened, its waves reaching the edge of the sand and creating an illusion of three dimensions. A blue rowboat floats on the water, rowed toward the horizon by a mysterious black-clad figure. Every so often a large black bird passes across the screen, severing the realistic illusion of the image.

The boat is carrying a jumbled pile of artworks, and another assortment of objects lies on the sand in the center of the space: immigrants’ bundles, paintings leaning on sculptures, a heap of items with no sense of belonging. It’s a kind of odd warehouse of junk that becomes a monument of itself. Perhaps because the artists and the works are not named and titled, it would be more apt to say that it’s a mass grave belonging to the landscape and to nature but also displaced from it. Works from the collection of the Petah Tikva Museum of Art are turned into the occupants of an isle of the dead, forgotten and commemorated in equal measure.

We view the screenings from the vantage point of the works. In the first video, we, too, are on the death boat that is nearing the entrance to the netherworld, drawing ever closer to the monstrous dog. In the second video, we are on the sand together with the works that are awaiting transportation, together with them in the terminal and watching the packed boat as it recedes into the distance toward the horizon. Their turn – our turn – will come, too.

Cycle of life

A part of 'Terminal,' a video installation by Eden Auerbach Ofrat.Credit: Elad Sarig

Like another young Israeli artist, Dana Levy, Ofrat also interacts with the collection through a famous historical painting. With Levy it was Giovanni Paolo Panini’s 1757 set “Ancient Rome” and “Modern Rome,” while Ofrat evokes “Isle of the Dead” by producing a mysterious scene, a veiled, Romantic interpretation of the concept of parting from life.

In contrast to the subtle irony that infused Levy’s “Impermanent Display,” a 2014 video installation, Ofrat’s work is free of both humor and a critical conceptualization of this specific collection, which is provincial and meager. From her point of view, this is “art,” just as these representations are “life” and “death” and “mythology”; her work is suffused with the seriousness of the cycle of life. Preserving the allegorical spirit of the referenced work, she overlays it with the concept of the museum’s collection as something that exists in the transition between life and death, fraught with mythology and with archetypical representations.

“What is a museum collection if not an underworld of art pieces kept, untouched, under the earth, like corpses, waiting for the eye of a curator-god to choose and bring them back to life, if only for a few months, before they are returned to the nether regions once again?” the curator of the museum and the exhibition, Drorit Gur Arieh, writes in the accompanying text. In continuing to develop the mythological narrative that Ofrat herself continues, Gur Arieh, too, likens the museum to a tomb. Thus the work is not only material, not only an object, but possesses spirit, and the collection in the storerooms is in a state of limbo, a threshold region between life and death, “between the underground space (storage room) and the upper one (exhibition gallery).” But for the artist and the curator this is a one-way track: In the exhibition of the collection, the works return to life. In this way the video installations can be regarded as an act of resuscitation, a journey of return from oblivion to culture, from dark to light, and from the storerooms of memory to “new contextual and interpretative life,” as the curator writes. Thus is the image of the Romantic dream about death – conceived as beautiful, immaculate and noble, and the opposite – created and completed, both visually and conceptually. The exhibition’s powerful dimension lies in the sensual experience the viewer undergoes, as he is asked in one space to look through a closed door and in the other to be included in the stretch of light that falls on him as he stands on the seashore, his feet shuffling in the sand.

“Terminal” is on view at the Petah Tikva Museum of Art, 30 Arlosoroff St., Petah Tikva, Fri., Sat., Mon., Wed. 10-2; Tues. and Thurs. 4-8. Until March 26

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