The group show “The Crystal Palace & The Temple of Doom” at the Petah Tikva Museum of Art evokes two models of modernist exhibition spaces. The first, a concrete space, was designed by Joseph Paxton for the first world’s fair, held in London in 1851. A kind of glass menagerie with a steel skeleton, it was intended to be light, transparent, “for everyone” and containing “everything.” The second, “The Temple of Doom,” is the name that the curator of the Petah Tikva exhibition, Hila Cohen-Schneiderman, has given the concept of the “white cube,” coined by the art critic Brian O’Doherty in 1976, to describe “ideologies of the gallery space.” Though anti-crystal palace and unlike a fair, it is nevertheless elitist and maintains a bubble-like atmosphere of sanctity, no less than the palace of culture. The whiteness, the artificiality and the disconnect from the flow of life in the modernist art space, together with its ostensible functionality and neutrality, have all the charisma of a clinic.
This exhibition consists of 11 specially-created projects. Elisheva Levy’s paper structure is very similar to the one she showed in her last exhibition, “Villa.” This time there is also a paper tiger, so maybe this is a villa in the jungle (former Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s description of Israel). Next to potted plants, an Advil bottle and sports shoes, all of them paper-fold versions of themselves, versions of art posters are hanging, some by David Hockney. The sum total is a house that’s sufficient unto itself, one to which there is no entrance and which presents itself toward the exterior, but is also completely open, like a bulletin board that announces its contents, exposed to the viewer’s eye like scaffolding, now become a mini-museum.
At the other end of the show, in an internal, corridor-like space, is an installation by Michal BarOr. It’s based on an old photo taken by an unknown photographer documenting the “Exhibition of Spoils of War from the Enemy,” held in the Petah Tikva museum in its 1957 version. The rifles are hanging or leaning against the walls. In an almost identical large-scale photograph, which covers the walls of the space, BarOr has blurred every trace of weapons and left the image of an exhibition space, totally empty but for a telltale sign, “Spoils of War.” The space is twice empty: in the photograph from the past and in the present. The wall opposite consists of a large mirror, and between the two is the body of the viewer (the absolute spoils of art). The erasure of the munitions taken as spoils of war constitutes a folly-ridden restoration of the antecedent situation, a rewriting of history.
In other works in the exhibition, the casting of a shadow is an appended theme. Yael Efrati’s work “Kilowatt Hour” consists of a banister that winds like a graph or a seismograph, creating a dual impression, once from the iron bars themselves and a second time in the shadow’s echo on the wall. The floor sculpture by Tchelet Ram evokes a sundial, which needs a shadow to work. And Yariv Spivak’s “Temple,” a dramatic black-and-white sculpture of a large black hill with an illuminated white temple perched on top, casts a shadow-picture on the wall.
A glut of pretensions
But the shadows are appendices, marginal effects. The main problem with the exhibition is that it lacks a defined theme. Apart from the stirring title and the two over-general historical models, it’s not completely clear what the show is actually about. Does it deal with urbanism in the spirit of Walter Benjamin, as the museum’s chief curator, Drorit Gur Arie writes? Or perhaps it addresses archaeology and the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa? Maybe it’s about different examples of bodies in a gallery space? Design manipulations of materials? The relations between antiquity and contemporaneity? Messianic redemption fantasies regarding a third temple? All these themes and many others are alluded to in passing, but do not develop into a coherent statement.
Above all, the exhibition is a trip by the curator, Cohen-Schneiderman, who drowns it in a sea of concepts, some of them familiar, others borrowed and a few invented by her. The exhibition chokes amid the glut of pretentions and associations – the themes it is supposedly intended to explore and critique. Her text begins literally from Genesis. The world is created by word and not by act. Immediately thereafter Herzl arrives, with his vision of an old-new place, and things go on from there. She also places a tremendous emphasis on the group meetings of preparation, which began back in 2012. The meetings are imbued with the fateful significance of creating a discourse. As in other cases, the behind-the-scenes story of how the exhibition came into being and the developing ideas about it are not particularly interesting.
Not every splendid dynamic leaves an indelible imprint. Not every work carries a moving story of its development. And it’s not always possible to implore the audience to take the experience of the process into account as though it happened to them. Moreover, not every group dynamic is a microcosm of political life.
Some of the curatorial statements provoke a wish to argue. But beyond a debate over certain statements, the problem lies not with nuances or with exaggerations, but at the very heart: the exhibition lacks a focus, every element in it is uniformly aggrandized and subjected to theorizing, with no ability to separate the wheat from the chaff. Still, it’s important to say that the effort by Cohen-Schneiderman is sincere and stirs a sense of fondness. The art on display simply does not respond to the curator’s many needs, and this, instead of prompting her to go into lower gear, has led her to become entangled in overstimulation, to pile on more and more, to cover the main dish with lots of lettuce and hope for the best. The end result is that the works are buried under an avalanche of expectations. They are all right, no more than that.