A Journey Through an Israeli Artist's 'Mystical Truths'

The catalog for an exhibition of Deganit Berest's works uncovers the 'slumber of reason' that pervades the Israeli artsist's chaos.

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Dear reader, I highly recommend that you visit the exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art “The Conspiracy of Nature: Works, 1973-2013.” You'll see a carefully considered and gorgeous selection of art reflecting 40 years of Deganit Berest’s creativity. I also recommend that you buy the catalog to the exhibition and come back and see the works again.

Why? Well, there's the pleasure of recognizing many of her works that are part of Israel's artistic canon. And there's the excitement of encountering her lesser-known works and pieces of art that have not been shown for years. But you'll also enjoy a rich, multilayered exhibition with a myriad of interconnections. The exhibition, curated meticulously by Ellen Ginton, contains diverse elements that are interwoven in ways that demand mediation.

But the catalog does much more. It's an elegant book designed by Magen Halutz, and the design is clearly intended to conform to Berest’s artistic spirit. It's not meant to express the designer’s particular style. I think the idea was to promote a polyphony of interpretations that introduces Berest’s work and lets the reader explore the worlds that have influenced the artist. Four notables write articles for the catalog, mapping the main intersections in Berest’s works.

The centrality of female figures

The starting point for Ginton’s article “The Gender of the Soul” is a look at a key encounter she had with Berest, a group exhibition that she curated in 1990: “The Female Presence: Israeli Women Artists in the 1970s and 1980s.” In the catalog for that exhibition, Berest wrote “When I am with myself and facing my work, this is what I feel: My soul has no gender.”

Ginton focuses on the centrality of female figures (and a considerable number of males) in Berest’s work: women from the history of art and Greek mythology, women friends, artists who are also colleagues. Even if the soul has no gender, as several philosophers claim, gender plays a major role in Berest’s work – first, in her methods for examining the presence or absence of women in cultural history, their determination to make themselves present, and their words and statements. Second, there's the theme of women as objects of overt or covert desire.

In the catalog’s most ambitious article, whose title “Many Days Cannot Quench Love” paraphrases Song of Songs 8:7 (“Many waters cannot quench love”), David Ginton outlines the “various ways reason and the slumber of reason are present in Berest’s work.” He is one of the authors of this catalog even though – not because – he is married to the curator; he is after all one of the most highly esteemed and original interpreters of Israeli art.

His article traces the conflict between, on the one hand, Berest’s attraction to systematization, rationality and science, and on the other her passion for the “mystical truths” of artistic expression. Formulas and information do battle amid the disorder, irrationality, chaos, uncertainty and infinity that rear their heads throughout her career.

A Polish poem

Without dispelling the enigmatic quality of Berest’s works and without dimming the halo of mystery that surrounds them, David Ginton proposes keys that might open doors to her world. That world constantly shifts between the “desire to know and the loss of consciousness, between knowledge and unawareness, between science and mysticism.”

While his article provides both an interpretation and a panoramic view of Berest’s career, “The Place of the Conglomeration of Coordinates” by Esther Dotan focuses on a single series of works, “A Poem by Tadeusz Rozewicz” (2012). Berest created a cycle of 31 photographs, each captioned by a word from the poem by this Polish poet – in Hebrew the work has 31 words. Dotan reads the prints as “a cycle that is both a cinematic work and an installation. It is constructed from parts of a whole that together activate space-time in the space of the exhibition.”

To dismantle the space-time strata, Dotan proposes a stubborn, strict reading of what Berest terms “visual rhyming” – the continual encounters between image and text. This is a journey that's worth taking while looking at the reproductions in the catalog. Even if you don't accept every detail in Dotan's interpretation, you can still sense the logic and structure of the journey. Sadly, this kind of deep, diligent and daring interpretation is a rare commodity in the study of Israeli art.

In this rich catalog there are two more texts. In the first, “308 Burning Sails,” Efrat Biberman traces an interpretive-linguistic thread connecting one of Berest’s earlier works – “Homage to Bruce Nauman, the True Artist” (1975) – to her recent series of giant paintings, “Hello, Grade 1” (2012). In the other text, poet-scholar Mordechai Geldman explains why he chose Berest’s works for the jackets of three of his books. He convinced me.

Catalog for "The Conspiracy of Nature: Works, 1973-2013." ­Works by Deganit Berest; curator: Ellen Ginton; published by the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, 282 pages, NIS 120.

Deganit Berest in her studio.Credit: David Bachar
Deganit Berest , Sunset with Three Trees, 1991.Credit: Deganit Berest
Deganit Berest, Citroen Park 2004.Credit: Deganit Berest
The cover of Deganit Berest's "The Conspiracy of Nature" exhibition catalog.Credit: courtesy
Deganit Berest , Glass of Stars, 1990Credit: Deganit Berest

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