Geography Gone Flexible

Michael Druks, ?Travels in Druksland,? Ein Harod Museum of Art

The large Michael Druks retrospective ?Travels in Druksland? is one of the most challenging exhibitions that have been shown here in recent years. Druks is familiar to those versed in Israeli contemporary art in large part due to ?Druksland,? a self-portrait painted in the form of a topographical map (1974-5?).

Druks has lived in London since the 1970s but has continued to show in Israel on an almost annual basis. Nevertheless, throughout this period there has never been a large and comprehensive show of his work.

The impression one gets from the visit to ?Travels in Druksland? is of a group exhibition. The paintings from the last decade are difficult to associate with the ?conceptual Druks,? the artist who works with video and photography and who makes extensive use of text and wordplay.

The paintings seem to combine the sensibilities of British artist Francis Bacon ?(who died in 1992?) and Russians Wassily Kandinsky and Alexei Jawlensky, pioneers of abstraction who worked in the first half of the 20th century. In these paintings, violent impulses and repressed human tendencies meet the desire for purification and the sublime, combining an art that both looks outward and also represents an internal journey.

The exhibition does not only track Druks? artistic development, but also offers an opportunity to view works that became milestones in the history of Israeli art. In the installation ?Venus,? for example, the figure of Venus is sculpted out of Styrofoam and placed in a wooden box, in the form of a package. A fantasy about beauty in Israeli reality comes to the surface in the statement ?You, me and the next war? by Hanoch Levin.

In ?Pictures for the East,? shown at the Kassel Documenta in 1977, Druks photographed himself with a camera wrapped around his arm like teffilin.

The exhibition also leaves one with the feeling of an opportunity missed. This derives from the understanding that had Druks been supported by a strong and internationally available Israeli art world, like that which exists today, when he produced conceptual work about television culture in the 1970s, it is very likely that Druks would have joined the ranks of that period?s other top artists ?(like Richard Artschweger, Chris Burden, Nam June Paik and more?).

The works that deal with television and the large body of work that focuses on maps comprise two of the most fascinating parts in the exhibition. Two of them are linked − the former indirectly and the latter directly − to a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, ?On Exactitude in Science? ?(1946?). The story deals with the human need to represent reality and, beyond that, representation as a creative act that builds a sense of place and consciousness. Druks addressed these questions especially during the years 1971-76.

Druks was a pioneer in Israeli art for his dealings with television. Other artists who worked during that period and with whom Druks was in contact, like Raffi Lavie and Henri Shlesnyak, made short films but worked on the boundary between art and film. Druks addressed the television, which was then a relatively new addition to Israeli homes. Druks filmed himself with his television in an unsettling intimacy.

In ?Hidings,? from 1971-72, Druks photographed himself making a variety of gestures against the background of a television screen broadcasting speeches and interviews with the leading politicians of those years, including defense minister Moshe Dayan, prime minister Golda Meir and U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger. Druks covered their faces with an outstretched hand and in one of the pictures he holds a fist to Moshe Dayan?s face.

The work indicates Druks? political stance − he was a member of communist circles in Tel Aviv in the late 1960s. He was also friends with playwright and poet Hanoch Levin, whose writings he illustrated. Beyond the historical context, in this work Druks examines the boundaries between a screened figure who invades the intimacy of a personal space and a viewer who tries to respond to his presence and resist his invasion.

In the work ?Hidings, Forgeries,? from 1974, the television screen is photographed covered by various objects − clothes, a plant, books, or the naked lower body of the artist. This work already evokes a sense of urgency or desperation in the face of television as a force that shapes consciousness.

Video, which in the 1970s was a technological innovation that many considered a potential windfall for large television networks because it offered the possibility for low-cost production and comfortable distribution through cassettes, occupied Druks intensively, but for a relatively short time. During that time, he made ?Play Box,? a video work from 1973 in which he documented himself climbing a television that screened an interview with a woman and finally sitting on her image.

Druks dealt with the possibility of representing different aspects of reality, responding to an image, creating an act that involves some kind of connection, even if it doesn?t constitute an interaction as such. His dealings with maps gives way to a charming fantasy, which comes into focus upon learning that Druks? father was a map librarian at the

Tel Aviv Municipality. In the self-portrait ?Druksland? which he made after the Yom Kippur War, when questions of borders extended beyond the debate about territories occupied during the Six-Day War, and which in the political realm involved complex territorial settlements, he addressed these aspects through the caption ?Occupied Territories,? which appeared across his forehead. But the work deals mainly with the personal. The map indicates places where the artist lived, schools in which he studied and lists names of family members, friends and cultural institutions. The work was made shortly after Druks moved to London and may be part of his attempt to map, situate and understand.

Another excellent work is ?English Landscape? from 1973. This is a collage of maps that creates an overall image of a lake surrounded by mountains.

In a fascinating series Druks combines maps with cuttings from an instructional sewing manual that was popular in the Seventies, and in the series ?Flexible Geography? he folded maps and created topographical models from them whose names are unrelated to the places they map.

One should reserve a relatively significant amount of time for the exhibition, or visit it more than once. Druks is not one of those artists whose works take viewers? breath away immediately. He is an artist who is intellectual, critical, ironic, sometimes funny and sometimes bitter. At his best he is full of fantasy, which extends beyond the immediate, historical topics he examines.