Armageddon at the Israel Museum

'Unstable Places,' is an impressive and timely exhibition of contemporary works that are not afraid of controversy.

Israel Museum

“Unstable Places: New in Contemporary Art,” at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem (until November 8), is an exhibition that was granted a prophetic aspect and acquired a dimension of relevance far beyond what its organizers could have imagined when it opened in early June. Despite the anemic title, and notwithstanding the minor ambition of presenting works from the museum’s collection alongside new acquisitions, this impressive exhibition, curated by Rita Kersting, is the only one in Israel at the moment that is relevant to the catastrophe of the present.

That success is due to the large number of excellent works by, among others, Omer Fast, Thomas Demand, Ed Ruscha, Luc Tuymans and Francis Alys. They neither evade the political nor discuss and rehash it in a superficial, affected manner. Taken together, the works create a rich syntax of “physical, political, psychological and existential” instability, in the words of the curator, besides displaying an exciting artistic range. The syntax includes juxtaposing ready-mades, process duration works, video art and animation, post-conceptual sculpture and realistic painting, typological photography and more, in a way that, far from shying away from the controversial and the thought-provoking, reinforces and intensifies those responses.

Bruce Conner’s classic 1976 work “Crossroads” (35-mm black-and-white film, transferred to high-definition video, 36 minutes) is screened in a separate, darkened space. The film is culled from slow-motion documentary shots of an underwater nuclear test carried out on July 25, 1946, at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific, in the presence of 4,000 spectators. Five hundred cameras (stills and film) were installed in unmanned planes and boats and on land around the controlled detonation site. The result is a mega-documentation, from far and near, from below and from above, from every possible angle and direction.

“Untitled (Last Light)” by Felix Gonzalez- Torres. Photo by Elie Posner / Israel Museum

The force of the blast as it hurtles upward from a far-off sea landscape in black-and-white is stunning. Prodigious force inhabits the surging cloud, which heaves itself into a vast mushroom. The water cascades upward like “Niagara Falls in reverse,” in the words of William Wees. Though slowed down and artificial, the result strikes the viewer as an astonishing natural phenomenon, monster-like perhaps, simultaneously maritime and heavenly. It’s only afterward, when the sound of the blast arrives, that the understanding descends that we’ve been watching in unnatural silence. For the sound of the explosion arrives only at the stage of the collapse of the mushroom and the huge fallout. It’s then, too, that the soundtrack – by Patrick Gleeson and Terry Riley – begins, accompanying the abundance of angles of the sight, the upward rushes and the downward falls.

The separation of sight (23 shots at different speeds and distances) from sound (random noise, explosion, music) transforms the direct documentation into a work that exists solely in the filmic realm, possessing a disconnected effect of cinematic grandeur. Observation of the cloud – the burning bush – of the “unrepresentable,” assumes a horrific dimension of anti-revelation in Conner’s work. According to William C. Wees (www.incite-online.net/wees2.html), “Crossroads” is a salient representative of “the nuclear sublime,” a term that describes what happens when religious awe, wondrousness and a sense of nullity encounter nuclear terror, with its connotations of colossal loss, nothing less than the end of mankind. Augmenting this is the sheer number of cameras and their technological innovativeness, as this was supposed to be “the most thoroughly photographed moment in history.”

Chains of love

Hanging at the entrance to the space in which Conner’s film is screened is a chain of lights, like the light-strings that are used to decorate social events. This is “Untitled (Last Light)” by Felix Gonzalez-Torres. The strand of lights hangs on the wall, its top part sloping downward. And that’s no trivial thing.

Gonzalez-Torres (1957-96), one of the most exciting and influential conceptual artists of the 1990s, was known for his non-monumental objects, works made of specific everyday items that could be installed differently each time. He created open-formula art “without a manual,” making it incumbent on the curator to decide about the object and its meaning, to engage it with talent and imagination.

The strand of lights was created in memory of Ross Laycock, his partner, who died from AIDS two years earlier; it is part of a series of works of mourning that he made in different types of media and operative modes. A number of light-strings exist, of different lengths and bearing different numbers of light bulbs, and with separate titles, giving rise to an infinite potential for variation. Each new installation of the work preserves and renews its tradition, revivifies it as a personal adaptation, invents a new version in memory of Ross and in memory of their love.

In practice, over and above the symbolic act of obligatory participation, the work is more interesting to view in Google Images than in reality, as its many different implementations show the richness of form and the creative impulse it has 
summoned forth despite its modesty and simplicity. The abundance of interpretations heightens the symbolic quality of light as a carrier of revelation, and also as a symbol of fading and dying out over time.

Bureaucratic poetry

Dayanita Singh’s series of black-and-white photographs, titled “File Rooms” (2011) emphasize the poetic beauty of the bureaucratic universe. Singh has photographed municipal archives in an Indian town, in an office where sacks containing files of information and personal details pile up. Life in its grand sense – filled with juicy important details, memories of joys and sufferings, knowledge and hope – in practice contracts to 
packages and sacks, like bundles belonging to nomads who have lost their way and now have become a branch of lost and found items claimed by no one.

The series is also a lament for the loss of the world of print, non-computerized methods of filing, with the attendant loss of human memory. The photographs bring to mind monuments to Kafkaesque labyrinths, sites of cold chaos, but also evoke a longing for disorder, for the almost flesh-like corporeality of the accumulation of knowledge.

Also on view in the exhibition are Nira Pereg’s depressing-amusing video works from 2012, “Sarah Sarah” and “Abraham Abraham,” screened opposite one another in a narrow space, like synchronized identical twins that were separated at birth. The two works show the exact same site, the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron, which is a place for Jewish prayer, and the Abraham Mosque. The videos were shot once when the Jews were evacuating their prayer area – clearing out objects, accessories, decorations, markers, books – and again when the Muslims were evacuating the compound, rolling up carpets in their turn and removing their accessories. All of it is done under the watchful eye of soldiers. (According to the artist’s website, “20 days a year, in accordance with special holidays and under close Israeli military control, the cave passes hands for 24 hours only, enabling each side to have full use of all the chambers of the cave.”)

The bizarre rotation game proceeds in a purely businesslike manner, bereft of ceremony. We see only the before and after, the preparation for and the dismantlement after, in an entirely non-sacral manner entirely devoid of spirituality. In the conventional way of thinking, the curator notes, the fact that the site is held by the two religions is the cause of its instability, but in practice the instability holds out a latent utopian potential: existing with the other and not without him. Indeed, after lengthy viewing of this dragging of stuff in and out, an act that strips sanctity of its spiritual assets and leaves it as a collection of easily movable material assets, one begins to get accustomed to this version of coexistence as not a bad option at all.