Between Exile and Homesickness

The 'Machines for Living' show in Jerusalem offers impressive artwork, but the curator does not distinguish between what no longer exists and represents loss, and what was always a fantasy or utopia.

Galia Yahav
Galia Yahav

'Machines for Living,' a term coined by architect Le Corbusier, emphasizes the need for functionalism above aesthetic decoration in the design of homes and cities," writes Dr. Roy Brand, the curator of an exhibition by that name, now on at Jerusalem's Jaffa 23 venue. "The term echoes the aspiration of Late Romanticism, Bauhaus and Modernism to shape life as a total work of art. Under its inspiration the present exhibition follows the creation of utopian or hermetic living environments, which aspire to create a closed and autonomic existence that provides for itself."

Already at the entrance to the wonderful Jaffa 23 space - which is located on the third floor of the Central Oost Office, is part of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, and seems to flatter any work - there is a delightful renewed encounter with the work of Dina Kornveits, which stood out previously during her final show at Bezalel. "Grandmother's Asleep" (2010 ) is a dark wood bookcase with interior walls of mirrors, whose glass shelves contain delicate, ornate and fragile glass objects, clearly belonging to a European-bourgeois culture. The relaxed, decorative feeling is violated, however, by noise: A low, vibrating bass sound invades the space, and the objects shake almost to the point of shattering. They seem to remain intact thanks to a miracle - the result of finely calculated precision regarding the relations between objects and sound. Kornveits thereby creates a cinematic-theatrical effect, a convincing backdrop for the unraveling of order, for potential danger. The "outside" seems to threaten a certain cultural-aesthetic behavior. Apart from the exciting pictorial quality of the work, it contains a dimension of animation in its frightened trembling, turning into a neurotic body whose limbs have lost control and move involuntarily, subject to distortion.

"Roadlines" (2010 ) by Marian Ritzmann.Credit: Marian Ritzmann.

In the center of the gallery stands the work of Shachar Freddy Kislev, "The Girl and Death" (2009 ), which was displayed at the previous biennale in Herzliya. The large robot arms are combing the hair of a faceless figure of a woman. The roles of the organic and the mechanical, the active and the passive, have been reversed here. The girl is death (which is comprised of human hair - a dead simulation of life ) while the machine in effect caresses, consoles and nurtures; its clumsiness and awkwardness actually lend it a human quality.

At one end of the space stands the 2006 video work of Inigo Manglano-Ovalle ("Always After (the Glass House )". This is a close-up documentation of a window-smashing ceremony in the Crown Hall building of the Illinois Institute of Technology, which was designed by Mies Van Der Rohe. The lens focuses on the clearing away of the glass fragments, the sweeping away of small diamond-like particles, which creates visual dissonance between the rare and luxurious on the one hand, and the trash-like and mundane on the other. It also sparks a vague association with the activity of the local Zaka emergency response organization (i.e., in connection with the gathering up of fragments ) after a disaster.

At the other end is the impressive work of Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin ("Photographic Installation," 2012 ) - huge wallpaper-like photographs of a casbah simulation at the Israel Defense Forces' Tze'elim army base (a complex soldiers have dubbed "Chicago" ), for the purpose of training for urban warfare. The fictitious place, reconstructed as wallpaper in the gallery space, like illusionary walls that can ostensibly be penetrated, not only creates a link between travel and war: It also eliminates the difference between training and battle. This exposes the scenery-like nature of the army space, which is supposed to capture reality, to fill the silence of the imaginary-real casbah with the chaos that is in itself ultra-realistic.

Especially exciting is the series of modest works that lacks an ostentatious or seductive objective presence, called "Roadlines" (2010 ) by Marian Ritzmann. Here the artist carries out what seems to be stationary drawing activity during the course of trips in all types of vehicles. In other words, she places her hand on the page loosely and passively, and only the motions of travel, the upheavals and braking, create a drawing. This creates a seismograph, a kind of seance of various vehicles, from a bus to a racing car, which is also the product of the passage of varying periods of time (from several minutes to several hours ), of physical pressure and of road conditions.

Judging by the works on display, the subject of the exhibition adds up to a preoccupation with a certain relationship between the body and the machine, with various types of autarchic economies and alternative living autonomies. Certain projects deal with a clear presence, with the potential to control the space - such as Andrea Zittel's caravan ("Escape Vehicle," 2012, 1996 ), part of a series of escape vehicles that she designed and constructed for various uses and objectives.

Other works actually exemplify the impossibility of presence or of living conditions, or of material illusions, such as "Speed Queen" by Elisheva Levi, who has constructed an installation from paper: a washing machine with a chair for waiting, a pack of cigarettes and coins - which all look like the real thing, but are empty and hollow, can be torn and wrinkled, and are fragile and unusable. An imitation of a world that exemplifies great weakness.

Most of the works in "Machines for Living" don't necessarily deal with concepts of home and the collective from a viewpoint of what is lacking or lost, as Brand writes in relation to the exhibit. When he indeed combines these elements, he does not distinguish between what no longer exists and represents loss, and what was always a fantasy or a utopia - Eldorado or Atlantis - and thus represents a basic, formative absence. "We can be at home," he writes, "only when we feel like strangers in it to some extent, or after we have already lost it."

Under the paradoxical title "Exiles at Home," he writes that "the establishment of the State of Israel only provided a home to the sense of homelessness," as though trying to restore the feelings of home and the collective in a place that he calls problematic. Brand does not differentiate between an ideology of foreignness, a diaspora-like status in the world - and the grief over the loss of the home that was and is no longer. The first approach is likely to engender politics of being a guest and welcoming guests, while the second always risks vain thoughts about a return and a miraculous healing, based on a fantasy about a community of consensus, usually of the kind that was innocent before being spoiled by the foreigners.

The exhibition ranges from romantic melancholy, which mourns the loss of something that really did exist - a lost, stolen paradise that can be restored, for which a substitute can be found in art - to toughness originating in an understanding of exile and wandering as a thoughtful, visual starting point which rejects the concept of territory. These contradictory issues find one another: The first approach yearns for autonomy, independence, the right of self-declaration - for art as well. It is another kind of war over the home. The second on principle insists on a temporary autonomic existence.

Perhaps because of this jumping between two viewpoints (are we fundamentalist landowners or refugees with a modernist vision? Victims or a robbed Cossack? Is art a process of rehabilitation or a strategy of undermining the foundations of the home? ), the emotional tone of the show is very polite, understated, even didactic. It seems like a summary of meditations on the subject, as opposed to a complaint or an effort to take a strong stand, to find a syntax that sheds new light on a subject, or to undergo clarification to arrive at one unique, surprising point, out of all this Modernist abundance.

The main weakness of the exhibition, which is on through June 22, is this gap between the directions of the text and the horizons actually delineated by the works themselves. Instead of a powerful charge, there is a somewhat homey, pleasant, non-upsetting feeling.



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