Parallels and Paradoxes in Israeli Artist's One-woman Group Show

'Everything is the same and everything is different,' says Deganit Berest of her new exhibition at Tel Aviv Museum of Art.

Deganit Berest’s new one-woman show enables viewers to examine some of the formative works by this prominent Israeli artist, as well as the fluidity of her work in terms of the media in which she works and the cultural, social and political axes that characterized the reality of her generation.

The exhibition, entitled “The Conspiracy of Nature: Works, 1973-2013,” opened about two weeks ago at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. The title, which is typical of the artist’s work, which tends to combine images from nature and from the world of research and science − is taken from a book by philosopher, mathematician and physicist Itamar Pitowsky. The exhibition begins with a recent video work that follows quite a chronological axis on the first level of the exhibition space, and on the lower level opens it to what might be called thematic gateways.

The first meeting with the excited Berest takes place two days before the opening, as the final touches are being given to the hanging of the show. Her excitement has to do with the fact that this is the most comprehensive show she has had thus far. It is something of a retrospective and is accompanied by a thick catalogue ‏(designed by Magen Halutz‏) in which there is a series of articles by, among others, the curator of the exhibition Ellen Ginton, artist David Ginton, Efrat Biberman and Esther Dotan, illuminating various aspects of her work.

The exhibition is being held in the context of the prize awarded by the museum and the Rappaport family to an established painter and to a young painter, which entitles the recipients to a monetary grant and an exhibition accompanied by a catalogue.

It’s easy to understand why the artist and the curator insisted on including a large number of works in the exhibition. “During the course of the work on the catalogue, which preceded the selection of the works, I realized that what is characteristic of me is that everything is the same and everything is different,” explains Berest. “There isn’t uniformity in terms of medium or color − a bit like a one-man group show.”

‘The real artist ...’

The exhibition opens with five works from the series “The real artist helps the world with real mystical discoveries.” These works provide a kind of step back in time to the 1970s in Israel. “Those were the first years of television here,” she explained. “I photographed a room with a television in it and only when I developed the film did I notice the presence of the Hebrew translation on the films from abroad. In the act of translation, ironic and amusing sentences came across that seemed to be separate from the film being screened and to be speaking directly to our culture.”

The next works on the walk through the exhibition, which delineates the unique architecture of the Joseph and Rebecca Meyerhoff Pavilion, move along two axes: the local one and the one where foreign and new culture is felt. Thus, it is possible to find in the same space works centered on a map of the Land of Israel and the concern with borders alongside works with an intuitive but not yet formulated feminist aura of that period. The exhibition charts the development of the contents in which her work is interested as well as the changes in the media she uses. In this part it is possible to see some of her most beautiful and important works, among them “The Circle by Virginia” ‏(1975-1976‏), which refers to Virginia Woolf and appears in two versions ‏(two-dimensional and three-dimensional‏), and the work “Orlando,” relating to Woolf’s novel of that name.

Berest: “In retrospect it’s possible to attribute feminist awareness and parody to these works, but I don’t remember having this clearly formulated at that time. Only today do I understand the changes in sex that ‘Orlando’ suggested. I only know that the book enchanted me but the whole business of today’s sexuality wasn’t defined then.” Other works evince characteristics of that period in Israeli art, such as modesty and meagerness of appearances and wit in speech, language and ideas. “In these works I see an act of starting over,” Berest says, “a start that includes a myth in which the artist experiences a moment of rebirth and discovers his voice.” She says one of the main influence in that period was Robert Rauschenberg.

A prominent presence in the middle part of this level is the map of Israel that appears in various versions − reversed, marked up, cut up, enlarged to changing scales and depicted as an object from perspective exercises. “One of the first lessons we learned at Bezalel was in engraving,” recalled Berest, “and as everyone knows, the work is on a metal plate and they told us to draw something on it. It’s always been difficult for me to draw when I’m told to do so. I didn’t have anything to draw and apparently there is a repository of images imprinted in us instinctively. So I drew the map of Israel that is imprinted in me as in others from childhood and after I passed the drawing through the press, the map came out backwards. This really shook me up − I felt as though I had been thrown into the water. I realized how deeply the image is imprinted in us, how the map is an inbuilt part of our identity and how it is connected to anxieties and fears about our existence.”

Berest was born in 1949 in Petah Tikva and grew up in Ramat Hasharon, where she met artist Rafi Lavie, who taught at the high school she attended and eventually became an influential figure, a close friend and a colleague at the Beit Berl Art Teachers Training College. A year after completing her studies at Bezalel, Berest won a scholarship in the United States from the America-Israel Cultural Foundation and went to study at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. This period is represented in the exhibition by the series “The Discussion,” done during her stay there and it reflects elements of that period.

Further along in the exhibition the gradual transition to painting is evident, via graphic and patterned works like the series “Portraits and Landscapes” from 1984 to the artist’s most famous series of large paintings, “Loch Ness Investigations” from 1986-1987, in which the relationship to natural phenomena began and images from science began to take shape. She explained her return to the painting evident in these large works as a natural movement and part of the period. “This influenced all the Israeli artists, a generation that in fact had moved away from painting a decade or more previously − artists like Tamar Getter and Michal Na’aman. There are artists for whom this transition was something of a crisis, a matter of principle, like Nurit David’s transition in painting. It is a weighty transition and a move with a lot of courage.”

The second part of he exhibition begins at the end of the first level with “Loch Ness” and “Swimmer” from 1989 − in which there is a vague figure of someone rowing a surfboat on a backdrop of prints in different shapes − and continues into the bottom level, which spreads before the viewer’s eyes from the balcony that connects the two.

On this level there is the impressive installation of “The Bathers” that was shown in the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion in 1990 in the exhibition “The Female Presence: Israeli Women Artists in the 1970s and 1980s” ‏(also curated by Ellen Ginton‏). The work consists of 24 watercolor drawings on sheets of paper of identical size hanging together in a single large square, into which Berest cut strange and varied images like the figure in the surfboat, a cat, a Subaru logo, masked men from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and more.

‘What makes me tick’

From the visit to the exhibition it seems possible to learn quite a lot about the place where you live. How do you see the relationship between the reality and art?

“That’s not a hard question. In the 1970s things were clear relative to the local reality, like the maps, and in later works this is less clear. In general my work reacts to things I come across that sometimes take me to other places. In principle, and this is important to me, there is always something in the work that is connected to the everyday. However much this might seem absurd, with all the symbolism of the person on the surfboat and the mythology that has developed around him − it’s just a person rowing a surfboat in the sea at Tel Aviv. A lot of times the processes I do make the viewer forget that the things come from something concrete − that is what makes me tick.”

And in the work with the maps?

“The maps are taken in part from a school atlas I learned from. I saw a loose-leaf folder and I saw that the maps and the borders in an atlas are something very fluid. The changing scale and resolution make this ostensibly objective thing into something very diffuse − that is what attracted me.”

In 2004, Berest recalled, she had a large exhibition at the Haifa Museum of Art, with the second intifada in the background and a number of personal traumas. “That was a terrible period. Two of my close friends died within a few months of each other, photographer Shosh Kormush and Meir Franco, who was murdered in Sinai. Something happened nearly every day and I remember I’d get up in the morning, sit with the newspaper and my coffee and cry.” Images of bodies coming apart and Zaka volunteers appeared in that exhibition in the “Icarus” series and other works.

Another wall is based on a collection of images the artist collects in her studio, images that inspire her. The wall displays among other things a portrait of the terrorist who carried out the 1996 attack on Dizengoff Center in Tel Aviv, along with his full name and the caption “Art student from Khan Yunis.” The photograph, which stirred up a storm at the time and even had a symposium devoted to it, was almost taken down but was left hanging accompanied by a warning.

“There was a certain absurdity in this portrait, the sympathetic face and the caption,” says Berest. “What art academy is there in Khan Yunis? One of the things that attracted me was the subversive ethos people attribute to art, and this is the way it is concretized. Which puts us in our place, I would say.”

Uri Gershoni