Tel Aviv Exhibition Explores Whether It's Necessary for Art to Try to Be 'Deep'

'Melting Walls,' the final part of the 'Babel' trilogy curated by Sarit Shapira, reflects the concept of 'depthiness' in art, a fusion of depth and emptiness

Yuval Hen

It’s instructive to view the exhibition “Melting Walls” at the Genia Schreiber University Art Gallery at Tel Aviv University – the third and final installment of the exhibitions curated by Sarit Shapira from the collection of businessman Igal Ahouvi – while contemplating the concept of the “new depthiness.” This is a fusion of “depth” and “emptiness,” coined by the culture theoretician Timotheus Vermeulen in the January 2015 issue of the online journal e-flux. According to Vermeulen, the contemporary artist and contemporary art imagine depth without experiencing it. After having previously used the metaphor of surfing, he now writes, “Whereas the diver moves towards a shipwreck or a coral reef in the depths of the ocean, and the surfer moves with the flow of the waves, the snorkeler swims toward a school of fish whilst drifting with the surface currents. Importantly, the snorkeler imagines depth without experiencing it.” He can only dive for a limited time, “only for as long as his lungs allow.” In other words, Vermeulen explains, depth does exist, but in theory, not in practice, for the snorkeler cannot reach it.

In the spirit of the snorkeler, the “Babel myth,” which the curator, Sarit Shapira, has posited as the title for her trilogy of exhibitions, is more a yearning for vast structures of culture and for their traumatic collapse than it is a visual realization of these ideas. Of the three exhibitions, this is the most beautiful and also the saddest, in part because of its hesitant zigzags in search of something and its delineation of cultural potentialities. The visitor’s attention is immediately caught by Gabriel Kuri’s marvelous wall sculpture, “Waiting Box” (2012), a paper-towel dispenser made of stainless steel, of the kind found in public bathrooms, on an enlarged scale. The paper-like material that slides out of the aperture, with the awkwardness of a looming cloud, inner lips or a body bag is industrial insulation material, like felt. The linkage of the two, cold with hot, creates a quiet drama.

The rectangular device and the paper that is sliding out of it conjure up an operating table in an underground medical industry, an involuntary excretion that forms a pool under a structure, art’s constantly violated promise to give us something, even a piece of paper to wipe ourselves with. Behind this wall a thrilling theatrical spectacle reveals itself, highly effective, comprising just two works. On the floor is a sculpture by Andro Wekua (“Should Be Titled,” 2010-2011) of a wax figure, possibly an adolescent boy, in a white tank top. The figure is lying on a mat, upper body raised, supported by the hands, eyes shut, face a white mask, executing the cobra pose in yoga. A large mirror, by Jeppe Hein (“Mirror Wall,” 2010), with a vibrator system behind it reflects the yoga sculpture. Every so often the whole mirror jiggles, becoming a carnival-like distorting reflector. “The earth begins to give way under countless mirror images, doubles and clones, and the rest of modernity’s narcissistic worlds,” Shapira writes in the catalog.

Indeed, the shaking is narcissistic in character: the mirror vibrates not only like a wall that’s threatening to fall but also like a reflection in water. A space is created in which the viewer sees himself vibrating, but he sees the prone sculpture twice: once as material and stable, once as a quaking reflection.

The most moving section of the exhibition is in the inner space. Photographs from Miki Kratsman’s “Displaced” series (2010), showing empty huts and pitiful scaffolding that are not a home, are juxtaposed to Diane Arbus’ “Puerto Rican Woman with a Beauty Mark, New York” (1965), in which the woman’s look of horror enthralls the viewer, as though it were the reflection of the observer’s face. Her eyebrows are painted on, her lips curl sneeringly, there is something so exaggerated about her that you start to conjecture that she is not a woman from birth, her shocked and disgusted look is fraught with a dual “exotic” quality.

Next to these is a drawing, “Anne Frank,” by Eitan Buganim (2010), which is surprising in that the subject is not smiling and looks like an old woman-girl, the shadow under her nose suggestive of a small mustache; and a pencil drawing by Picasso from 1951, “Portrait of Mireille,” a richly detailed evocation in a nave-schematic style. Little Mireille looks like the reverse twin of Anne Frank, a dolled-up little mistress perched on a chair and posing, as was customary in the tradition of commissioned studio paintings.

Adajcent, in a small room with black walls, is Philippe Parreno’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (white fireworks in daytime launching a sigil in the sky)” from 2008, created with phosphorescent ink silkscreened on black velvet. Under the effect of a flickering light, the work appears twice before our eyes, like two different creations, negative and positive, one like a hazy daguerreotype, the other a landscape of exploding fireworks in sentimental black and white. After all the phallic elements – erect, falling, standing on its hind feet and again growing soft and slumping – in “Babel” as conceived by Shapira, Parreno’s work can be taken as a symbolic representation of the female orgasm; or better yet, multi-orgasm.

Andy Kit / Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Pilar Korias

Two other works in this group are, first, a 1989 aquarelle by Marlene Dumas, of a black girl in a white bikini, illuminated by high contrast, like in the comics or under a spotlight; and second, Alex Prager’s 2005 work “Untitled Action #1 (Finny),” a photograph of a boy in red shorts and white socks holding a violin in both hands, his feet hovering in the air above a rail line, a kind of kinky digital version of Chagall-like surrealism.

This whole section of drawings and photographs, in black-and-white and graphite, hones a point that had been missing in the trilogy until now, namely the suppressed subjects of the Babylonian civilization, those who paid the price, history’s weak peoples. The women, the Arabs, the non-Europeans, the children, the prostitutes, the blacks, the downtrodden, the victims. This is the moment at which the exhibition succeeds in transcending the look of the shiny packages of products and the elegant branding, and in generating an experience of gentleness.

This is the gentleness toward which Vermeulen is striving, drawing on Fredric Jameson’s discussion of “the new depthlessness” in his canonical essay, “Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism” (1992). Jameson noted that postmodernism was abandoning the notions of “below the surface” in favor of the art of “what you see is what there is” in the consumerist culture. Now comes Vermeulen in his wake to announce that contemporary artists are not reviving the depth approach of early modernism, but are trying to recapture its haunting spirit.

Shapira is very far from theories of capitalism as a cultural fomenter. Her language is highly mythic and symbolic, and each work is served up as fateful yet simultaneously not critical, puny as an ant, in an organization bigger than it. This dual element, which is emphasized in curatorial decisions of a magical thrust, resembles the possibility-of-depth criterion that Vermeulen is getting at.

In addition to the civilizational seesaw – rehabilitated/collapsing – the curator this time makes an effort to capture moments of sensitivity that respond to a permanent and ongoing situation of crisis; an attempt to forge human sensitivity in a post-human age.