Jerusalem's Bezalel Academy of Arts Sheds Its Old Skin

In Bezalel’s graduate exhibition, there is a thrust toward sincerity, effort and a dialogue with the viewers.

Alongside articles, poems and images, the catalog/magazine that accompanies the graduate exhibition of the fine art and photography departments in the Jerusalem-based Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design has a terrific item by one of the students, Yael Sloma. Focusing on “the statistics of student art,” she quantifies data for us about the 40 graduate students, which “attest to what we already suspected,” in her words.

Her survey reveals that the majority of the students are installation artists who are sexually straight (“all the bisexuals are women and all the homosexuals are men”). They tend to be Ashkenazim from the center of the country who moved to Jerusalem to attend Bezalel after full army service. In addition to their Israeli nationality, they also possess foreign citizenship. Forty percent term themselves secular Jews, only one categorizes himself as a Buddhist. Twenty-nine percent have taken or are taking psychiatric drugs. Based on their declared voting patterns, Meretz leader MK Zahava Gal-On would be prime minister, heading a stable coalition with Labor, Hadash and Balad (though 12 percent of the students say they are apolitical).

Almost 15 percent of the graduating students still live with their parents; 45 percent share rented apartments. Their average monthly expense for food and lodgings is 2,793 shekels ($815), and a third of them are overdrawn at the bank. The author finds a “direct correlation between the amount of money in the bank and the skin color of the student who owns the account,” explaining, “The lighter the student’s skin color, the more money he has in his checking account.” There is also an inverse proportion, she finds, between the number of weekly shifts a student works and the amount of money available in his account: the fewer shifts worked, the more money available. Armed with these details, the visitor feels almost intimately familiar with the fledgling artists.

Overall, it’s good to see that Bezalel is shedding the superciliousness that characterized it, along with the false cynicism and the noncommittal double reverse contortions. We see now a thrust toward sincerity, effort and a dialogue, albeit relatively modest, with the viewer.

Both in the department of fine art and, more intensely, in the photography department, many projects address 
relations with parents, or reconstruct the biography of a family member. Perhaps this is a student version of archival art – the use of the most basic and readily accessible archive, whose emotional punch is self-evident – in an attempt to inflate a small domestic metaphor into a larger cultural statement.

One such work is Reut Wilhelm’s video installation, “Raspberry Juice with Mom,” in which the artist’s mother teaches her French by means of 
nursery rhymes in order to reenact mother-daughter quality time that didn’t exist in the real world. In “Let’s Do it Again,” Brit Shalit, the daughter of the veteran actor Nahum Shalit, who had a stroke in 2012, shows scenes from films in which her father starred while he watches his young self in them and does voice-overs of the dialogue, evoking from his perforated memory the words and the intonations, trying to manage the lip-synch, sometimes successfully, other times less so.

Few of the works in this genre are truly successful, generally not going beyond didactic, sentimental homage. One that does work is an enigmatic, remote-feeling project by Halil Balabin. He has created a two-room installation that is accessed through a narrow corridor-like space. The rooms are bathed in green neon light, creating a dreamlike atmosphere. The work is about an uncle of the artist, who was imprisoned for 35 years for murdering a diamond merchant in a deal that went awry – the body was dismembered and hidden. A photograph of the uncle, screened on the wall, showcases him holding a carpet he made in prison. The accusatory voice of the mother is heard from within the wall. “He was a twisted person since he was young, it’s good he was kept apart from society,” she says, displaying no compassion, not deviating from the unbending demonization narrative about the uncle who grows old in his isolation.

Writing about the project, Balabin notes that he built the room as a “subconscious region, empty and threatening,” its only link to the outside world a small, measured aperture. Indeed, a small barred opening accords the space a cellar-like, stressful prison atmosphere. In the other room, a close-up of a partially blind albino woman is seen, her head emerging from a green screen, her eyes shimmering. The underlying idea is to raise an ethical question concerning the documentation of a person who cannot see his own image. As in the French artist Sophie Calle’s project “The Blind,” which sought to depict sightless people’s objects and concepts of beauty, here too the documented figures remain mysterious, unapproachable, exotic, like a projection of normative fears, leaving the viewer with a tangled, unresolved emotional frisson.

In collaboration with Merav Kamel, Balabin also presents a work called “Stuffed,” consisting of colorful, soft cloth dolls that look like a cross between Mike Kelley, miniaturized Claes Oldenburg, Megan Whitmarsh and Yoav Efrati. Manet’s “The Fifer” or an improvised Molotov cocktail are recreated as toys. Also on view are a gray man holding an amputated finger, a Ku Klux Klan leader and a man with a gun. The overall result is to create an amusing fictional mise en scene of horror.

An installation by Tomer Dekel also radiates intelligence and self-confidence. Positioned opposite each other on one side of a long rectangular space are old air conditioners that bluster and roar, while on the other side big sand-coated balloons function as a weight. Behind them, oleander branches are stuck into a sewer opening, representing Israeli shabbiness – domesticated, scorned plants – above which are windows covered with army camouflage netting. Taken as a whole, it is a picture of a sad show, a party at which no one shows up, a space of choreography that is self-generated according to the direction and velocity of the wind.

For the first time in years, the level of the works in the photography department is the equal of that in the fine art section. But the photography people should execute something of a conceptual updating. Too few of the students really exploit the range of possibilities of contemporary printing, projection, documentation, replication, distribution and presentation.

One of the projects that does cope with the medium in its contemporary form is by Asaf Alkalay, who has created an homage to modes of photography and its related artifacts and gestures. One photograph, of a boulder, was created by means of a spatial camera he built, which captures three different angles simultaneously.

Ilya Singalovski’s black-and-white photographs of buildings at night are impressive. He focuses on tenement buildings – boxes of concrete and glass, he calls them. Through his lens they become glowing creatures or UFOs. Singalovski is interested in the disparity between modernist ambition, which underlies the “residential machines” of the iconic architect Le Corbusier, and the prosaic, everyday actualization of the structures, in the encounter between aesthetics and functionality, and in the transformation of the “cold reinforced concrete structure into a kind of living organism.”