Dreams of Gaza at the Israel Museum

Views of the Strip, reconstructing an innocence that never existed, and a disappointing 'package deal.' The second and final installment reviewing the museum’s 50th anniversary exhibit.

Photos courtesy of the artists and Chelouche Gallery

The photographs of Roi Kuper would seem to be the most solid of the “6 Artists – Six Projects” exhibition by contemporary Israeli artists at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, marking the institution’s jubilee. All six projects (three of which were reviewed last week) revel in the aberrant and the grotesque. Most of them deal with the tense relationship between the economy and nationalism, between regime and private sentiment. Constraints and limitations, integral to the works’ content, are overt, and so too are creative inventions and bypasses intended to overcome them. This is especially the case in Kuper’s exhibition.

Under the title “Gaza Dream,” Kuper set out last spring to photograph the Gaza Strip from the four points of the compass. “The resulting landscapes show fields, the sky, and occasionally a barely perceptible line of houses,” the curator, Noam Gal, observes on the museum’s website (in English). Indeed, the photographs have the simplicity of a child’s painting, showing the line of the earth and the line of the sky, and in between, life. In the multiplicity of squares, built-up areas, barely visible, shimmer as a narrow strip, a mirage, a mysterious Rothko-like blur. “A city perched beyond the horizon,” in Kuper’s words.

Kuper set up his tripod a few kilometers from the fence, at places allowed by the Israeli army. What we see, through his eyes, is our maximum geographic – and mental – proximity to Gaza. Every frame visually reconstructs the degree of authorization, meaning the degree of security restrictions. It’s counted in meters and converted into a landscape image. In fact, Kuper’s project lacks the western perspective: the army wouldn’t allow him to photograph Gaza from the sea. So the circle is incomplete, broken.

Nostalgic and lyrical

Uri Gershuni, too, turns his gaze on the unobservable, but in a different sense, as he continues his journey in the wake of the English scientist William Henry Fox Talbot. His previous exhibition, in a Tel Aviv gallery (Haaretz, February 20, 2015), followed his visit to Talbot’s home in England and was a reconstruction of Talbot’s first photographs. This time it’s a virtual visit, undertaken through Google Street View. Gershuni turns the village scenes shot from the computer screen into cyanotypes – photographs printed via a technique that tints them blue.

In the previous set of photographs, time appeared to stop. Here, though, there are cars, tourists, street signs, all bearing a contemporary character.

The title of the exhibition, “Apollo and the Chimney-Sweeper,” derives from something Talbot wrote about the instrument he invented, the camera, as he contemplated a cityscape he had photographed in Paris in the early 1840s: “A whole forest of chimneys borders the horizon: for, the instrument [the camera] chronicles whatever it sees, and certainly would delineate a chimney-pot or a chimney-sweeper with the same impartiality as it would the Apollo of Belvedere” – referring to a Roman sculpture of the god of the sun.

Talbot grasped photography’s cold nature, its inbuilt non-judgmental and amoral character, its disinterested democratic potential. Gershuni’s photographs possess a nostalgic, lyrical dimension. They are blurred poetically, atmospherically, as though bent on recapturing an innocence that never existed.

Income game

The disappointing exhibit in the “6 Artists” project is Tamir Lichtenberg’s “Package Deal.” As he has done before, Lichtenberg exteriorizes the deal that’s usually made behind the scenes and turns it into the work of art itself. After opening and managing a kind of art store in one Tel Aviv gallery, and then selling the contents of his late grandmother’s home in another gallery, he invited 12 art collectors to pay him the average monthly salary in Israel, in return for which they would get a “pig in a poke” (as Lichtenberg put it) – a box containing everything the artist collected and created that month. The items included junk found in the street, video clips, sketches and notes, photographs, parts of furniture, Word files and discarded accessories. It’s an “income game,” in the words of the curator, Aya Miron.

The packages are displayed in a jumble within a chaotic labyrinth. “Lichtenberg resurrects these disregarded objects, drawing attention to the layers of meaning they have accumulated,” Miron writes. “Seeking to cast doubt, raise questions, and change reality, he trawls the Internet and his physical surroundings for signs from the past as well as contemporary messages.” This time, though, the magic doesn’t work. The junk doesn’t morph into a heap of principle, and the areas in the exhibition space don’t take on varying degrees of quality, climate, frame of mind.

Above all, the work appears to be an homage to Kurt Schwitters’ “Merzbau” – which takes its name from a torn fragment from an ad for a big German bank, the Commerzbank – a compilation of scraps of paper, wood, train tickets, nails, newspapers, cigarettes, string, stamps and other objects, which he piled up in his home in Hanover as invasive elements for 14 years (1923-1937). He then repeated this in Norway. And again in England. It’s interesting to draw a comparison between the work process, philosophy and way of life that are embodied in Schwitters’ work and Lichtenberg’s proposal to the collectors, not least in regard to the ways in which an artist buys himself “freedom.” In this case, though, the artist seems to have relied overmuch on magic that would be created of itself, as well as on the Duchamp heritage, according to which any junk the artist picks up is thereby elevated.

There is something of a gimmick quality about the project – because, if the joke’s on the greedy collectors who are willing to pay sight unseen, why did Lichtenberg take the trouble to prepare attractive packages for them? And if the packages aren’t attractive, if Lichtenberg sold them junk, why does he present them as delightful archival objects?

An additional problem with Lichtenberg’s exhibition is that it is suffused with the artist’s spirit, but contains nothing about the other participants. They are only mentioned by name laconically at the entrance to the space. But it’s the purchasers who arouse one’s curiosity. Why did they agree to take part? Do they feel an obligation to ensure the livelihood of artists by dint of their status as collectors? What do they think about the implicit idea that collectors should pay artists steady wages, turn them into salaried employees and provide them with job stability (instead of buying objects from them)?

Is this a work relationship? Are the collectors pleased with the packages they received? Would they admit it to the artist and to us if they were not satisfied? Are they envious of other packages? Do they think the project enhances their reputation as risk-takers and sporting types?

Lichtenberg brought his collectors into the Israel Museum through the front door, but left them to languish as quiescent wallets. As the exhibition deals directly with the question of financing art and artists, the question arises whether the result is worth the budget. It’s not a question of yielding to the creative spirit, but of a yield on an investment.