But Is It Art? The Oracle in Tel Aviv Decides

Who decides what art is, and by what criteria? In video sessions at a Tel Aviv gallery a young Icelandic artist evaluates works brought in by local artists and wannabes. It was amusing.

Galia Yahav
Galia Yahav
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Galia Yahav
Galia Yahav

The Oracle is a fun exhibition. And like all fun, it's somewhat infantile. Whether it is fundamentally cynical or naïve, something that is not entirely clear even after an extended visit and thorough attention to the dialogs that feed the exhibition, it is basically enjoyable.

This is an Internet installation by the Icelandic artist Sindri Leifsson (who for these purposes is called "The Oracle of Art"), in which the gallery's artists and visitors are invited to bring various objects for his examination.

During scheduled "times of revelation," they approach a podium placed in front of a television screen, from which his image looks out. He examines each object (a webcam is clipped to the top of the monitor), decides whether or not it is art and briefly explains his decision. Whatever his ruling, each object is hung in the gallery - art on one wall and not-art on another; it's very hard to tell the difference.

In between, videos of the oracle’s previous interactions with visitors are screened.

As opposed to his virtual presence in Tel Aviv, earlier this year Leifsson created an installation called "The Bravest Man in the Universe." In it, a remix of the titular Bobby Womack song plays while Leifsson sits in the middle of a gallery, wearing sunglasses, as red disco lights flash on his face, demonstrating only full presence.

There he was silent and present, here he is virtual and speaks. Educated, fluent, very contemporary in his perceptions and preferences and not at all mean, Leifsson receives the audience and tries to explain the components of the language of art, the relationship between them and objects, the fundamental logic of the plastic arts, which include "talking objects" and the process of accepting them, and asking/answering "Where are the evasive boundaries of art," in the words of curator Efrat Gal.

Is the Oracle a cynical nihilist who exposes the audience's passion for exhibiting, the compass-less confusion between prosaic objects and objets d'art, or is he himself a young artist full of faith in its unwritten laws, serving as the believing spokesman, a propagandist for the boundaries of the discourse and a young sentry at the gate? Whatever the case, there is an entertaining and playful dimension in taking this huge business called "the discussion," the entire sociology of acceptance, with its overt and covert judgment mechanisms, and remaking it using an entertaining TV formula.

A participant in the exhibition.
Visitors at the Oracle exhibition in Tel Aviv.
A visitor at the Oracle exhibition in Tel Aviv.
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A participant in the exhibition.Credit: Adi Levy
1 of 12 |
Visitors at the Oracle exhibition in Tel Aviv.Credit: Adi Levy
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A visitor at the Oracle exhibition in Tel Aviv.Credit: Adi Levy
But is it art? The Oracle in Tel Aviv decides

It all began with a class visit, including both Gal and Leifsson, to a large, exhausting conceptual exhibition. The students trudged past the artworks, exhausted, their senses deadened by the seriousness and by the burden of history.

Leifsson began to explain the works in order to get things moving, and turned out to have a talent – fluent, short and clear sentences based on various types of logic and ideologies turned into a parody about how to discuss art. The talking itself in connection with the class museum visit became a comic tribute to Joseph Beuys’ "How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare."

And the same is true in the Alfred Gallery – it's both the real thing and an imitation of a ritual. An accelerated vulgar presentation of the process of curating, the selection, the way in which taste works, which accounts for the reasons for acceptance and rejection, and their actual implementation. The exhibition is a kind of flaky conceptual exercise of the kind that takes place in thousands of studio conversations between friends and colleagues and has become an outsized theatrical ritual.

The works, ostensibly rescued from the torments of doubt and thoroughly sorted, art to the right, non-art to the left, hang on two facing walls. There is no wall text to say which is the art wall and which the non-art wall. The differences between the walls are minuscule, and reach their peak in the work of a man named Uzi: a small portrait on a napkin that appears twice, once on each walls. On the art wall it appears the way Uzi intended. On the non-art wall it appears as it was imprinted on the second layer of the napkin, so that it is a random copy, without artistic intentions.

The business card of the artist Shlomit Liver achieved art status, as did a red lava lamp. The clumsy homage to Piero Manzoni’s “Artist’s Shit” (“Merda d’Artista”) – a photo of the famous tin can decorated with lumps of brown oil paint - turned out to be art, as did a collage composed of two photographs – an amateur photograph of a penis squeezed between breasts whose head has turned into a skull with holes for eyes. Scribbles and stains, a photo of a cat sitting on a stuffed tiger with a spotted hat on its head, and a collection of pottery fragments bearing the address of the website of the artist who brought them.

The most interesting object is a Bible from a Rehovot high school. The name Inbal is written in pen on the edges of the pages, a gold star and an advertising sticker for a refrigerated pudding - “with great pleasure” - have been stuck on the front cover, and on the spine, under the gold-stamped title "Torah Prophets Writings," is another sticker: "Samantha Fox Is Something."

On the non-art side are a Coca-Cola bottle that failed to turn into a Hebrew tribute to Andy Warhol, cans of some product that did not achieve the status of a Jasper Johns reference, an old camera placed on a bench that was not accepted as a readymade and remained a nostalgic object, a decorated porcelain plate, bones, a half-peeled pomegranate, a witch doll; documentation of Tsibi Geva's barred works at Jaffa’s Hagar Art Gallery in 2002, which did not exceed the level of documentation; the word LIVE in plastic, that did not turn out to be a version of Robert Indiana's "LOVE," and an almost abstract photograph of a corner of a table and part of a cupboard that was defined as "Nothing."

It must be said – all the works are remarkably ugly, lumpy, awkward, lacking charisma, amateurish. Most are small, pathetic and shabby. Perhaps something about the thought of the definitive selection caused people to be humble, to make do with little, to look for the zero point where nothing becomes something, to deteriorate into childish thinking exercises in an attempt to beat the matrix, or perhaps the desire to exhibit drove the experimenters crazy.

The exhibition looks a little like the raw set that remains after the eighth-finals round in "Work of Art – the Next Great Artist," the Bravo cable network’s trashy reality starring art critic Jerry Saltz, but here they don't promise the winner a solo exhibition in the Brooklyn Museum and $100,000. Just the opposite: His works are hung next to those of the "losers," and his name is not mentioned.

In any case, he and his work remain statistics in the Oracle show. Along the way the secondary question arises – is this a solo exhibition, as announced, or a group exhibition, as it actually seems to be? Is this an exhibition in which the sophisticated mock the naïve, or young artists of equal status clarify among themselves, in an entertaining manner, the conditions of their work in the contemporary art world?

The bizarre part of the exhibition is of course the failure to question the authority of the Oracle. In other words, the aspect of submissive participation, even if out of defiance, is surprising. Aside from basic branding – defining Leifsson as an oracle, arranging the space with the minimal ritual act of turning to a figure who stares out from the screen, as in the dialogues with Big Brother, and defining the dialogue as a "summons" or a "revelation" – there is no apparent reason to accept the authority of a young Icelandic artist as an arbiter of taste, a judge, a publisher or a selector.

The ritual of bringing the items before him, says curator Efrat Gal, standing there to be judged and in the presence of a listening audience yet, and receiving recognition, all these make for a strong emotional response. There hasn't been any crying yet, but there definitely have been arguments, and a flood of bitter memories that are a flashback to studying art in Israel, with the ritual of criticizing the students' work that is still used today, as soul-scarring as any hazing ritual.

In comparison to the local art world, which suffers from unfathomable over-seriousness and over-reaching as exhausting, compulsive justification, there is a silly, idiotic aspect to this exhibition - in the positive sense of these words.

“The Oracle,” closes August 30. Remaining “times of revelation”: August 22, 7 P.M.-9 P.M., August 24, noon to 3 P.M. Registration required, by email to alfredartoracle@gmail.com or on the gallery’s Facebook page.
Alfred Gallery, 19 Ben-Atar St., Tel Aviv.

Sindri Leifsson.Credit: Adi Levy

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