Pulling Women From the Sea of History Onto the Ship of Art

Eight linked exhibitions – all by female artists and all about women - are on show at a museum in central Israel.

Dancer Moran Zilberberg, in Hilla Ben Ari’s exhibition, 'Movement Between Broken Lines: A Tribute to Heda Oren.'
Assaf Saban

1.

On a rainy day, my sister and I walk toward the unyielding building that houses the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art, to see Heda Oren again, in photographs. Oren (1935-2008), the founding choreographer of the Dance Studio in the Jordan Valley, was from Kibbutz Ashdot Yaakov, my father’s birthplace. We knew Heda as girls, and accordingly, at home and between ourselves, we dubbed every modern, complex, slightly mysterious dance a “Heda dance.” Now we’re going to see her in an exhibition by Hilla Ben Ari. Today is the opening.

2.

Entering, crossing the threshold, shaking out our coats and our hair, moving past the big wooden doors, we see at first glance, and afterward certainly, that the Herzliya Museum has been opened up to its chief curator, Aya Lurie, like an ark from which light exudes. “In Her Footsteps” is a moving curatorial project of eight exhibitions by female artists that revolve around women – historical figures, artists and also anonymous women who were pulled from the sea of history onto the ship of the exhibitions by the participating artists.

Heda Oren, in a screen-shot from film by Shushu Natan.
Kibbutz Ashdot Yaakov Ihud archive

Though diverse and differing in modes of expression and range, all the exhibitions thrust toward one clear thing: the melancholy and the power of women (both the subjects and the artists themselves) when they become someone in the world. In that sense, the exhibitions give access to, lead right into the heart of violence: perpetrated against them and their own. And the building itself, which was a memorial to fallen soldiers designed by the celebrated architect Yaakov Rechter in concrete and light, and subsequently extended into a museum, is at last cracked open, breached and broached.

In the large hall, with its hovering ceiling of rippling concrete waves, Michal Heiman’s exhibition “AP: Artist Proof, Asylum (The Dress 1885-2017),” is rich in objects and meticulously organized. A tour de force of historical and visual research based on a photograph she found of a young woman in a blue dress in an insane asylum, Heiman tailored an identical dress and photographed a long line of men and woman – activists, artists, intellectuals – wearing it. There’s a photograph of Knesset Member Merav Michaeli. I look at her bare feet: flat and wide, touching the ground across the largest possible area, Martha Graham-like in their stance. And I remember. See anew. Soles like Heda’s. I remember her treading the paths of the kibbutz, her hair pulled back, she herself stable, broad and feeling the soil.

A photo by Michal Heiman of MK Merav Michaeli, wearing a dress made by the artist, based on a historical photograph.
Michal Heiman

3.

At the exhibition by Hilla Ben Ari, “Movement Between Broken Lines: A Tribute to Heda Oren,” we stand and listen. We breath in and out and look around. The dancers reenact positions, body poses, lying on the floor, erectness, bends, that characterized Oren’s style of modern dance. But this is not all of this particular exhibition. On the floor below, in a narrow passage that leads to the big hall, kibbutz-born Ben Ari has placed glass-covered tables that hold archival material: letters written by Oren, a diary she kept, newspaper clippings and a video that was shot on Kibbutz Ashdot Yaakov Ihud. As a small child Oren was sent away from her home in Netanya to the kibbutz, to grow up in a children’s house. It was believed then that children can be raised by the collective, not necessarily by their parents. That this was a good place for lonely children. It was there that Oren formed a friendship with our father. As a young adult, and a young mother to her only child, a daughter, Oren went to postwar Europe to study dance at a time when no one living on the kibbutzim did that. Returning home, she worked in the newly formed Kibbutz Dance Company and afterward established a regional dance studio in the Jordan Valley.

In the video, my sister and I identified well-known dancers in their youth – like Rami Be’er, today the artistic director of the Kibbutz Dance Company – and others. We spoke about how much our father liked Oren and how she always asked, when he came to visit one of us – who was sent to live on the kibbutz – about his other daughter’s career at the Batsheva Dance Company. And he, who talked little, answered her; even laughed, with his brown eyes.

Back to the main exhibition space and the projection screens, slightly crowded together – I look at the motionless dancer in red forming a kind of pitcher with her palms. It is as if an internal reproductive organ was taken out of her body and placed outside it, to capture wind. The sound track is excellent. Like heartbeats, or rhythmic knockings on the floor.

4.

My sister enters the space of Ronit Porat’s exhibition, “Mr. Ulbrich and Miss Neumann.” It’s an expansion, development and fine-tuning to precision of a previous exhibition by this kibbutz-born artist, “The Hunter of Time.” It tells the story of the German clock-maker who took pictures of young girls he lured into his studio in pornographic poses and was murdered in 1931 by one of the girls and her boyfriend. Porat has created a Kaiser-Panorama, a closed rotating device around which people sat at a number of stations and watched the stereoscopic images projected inside. It’s an exhibition of cruelty. Brutal. Was the girl guilty? We go on to the gently put-together room Moran Shoub dedicated to Tzila Binder, who was the well-known and childless “other woman” in the life of the iconic poet Natan Alterman — using Binder’s illustrations from children’s books.

Aya Lurie’s general curatorial thrust becomes clearer: counterpoint. In theme, in modes of expression and in range. On the one hand, a delicate older woman; on the other hand, voyeurism and a murderous girl. Here’s a nave exhibition by Shoub; here’s Porat’s exhibition, which addresses trauma head-on. We decide that we will come back, to see each exhibition separately. One. By one.

Now we want to stay with Heda Oren’s face. With the memory of her Heda dances, in our house, her acquaintanceship with our father on kibbutz. With the memory of the sound of his laughter.