Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Artists, Architects and Plumbers - Part 4

Tel Aviv
18 March 2009

Ein Hod
21 March 2009

A tap on my shoulder interrupted my reverie. I had been gazing at the small details in the centers of a series of large-sized photographs. Each photograph appeared to have been shot from inside a rectangular tunnel or storm sewer, looking out at a still sea under a bright but hazy sky. In each picture, a seemingly random group of bathers were standing or walking in the shallow water. And, of course, each picture had the always informative title Untitled. To get a better view of what was going on in the center of each photograph, I put on my reading glasses and got my nose very close to each picture. Do this to a Renoir and a museum guard will chastise you. I turned around expecting to be asked not to drool on the art but instead met Elon Ganor, the photographer, who wanted to congratulate me.

Elon was pleased that I, out of the hundreds, if not thousands, of people who had walked by his work, was the only one to stop and focus on the details. He was so nice (and I was so flattered) that I didn't have the heart to tell him I had mainly been staring at a group of good looking young women in string bikinis. In a rare moment of discretion, I chose not to accuse the artist of some sort of high-brow voyeurism. I would have liked to have made a profound observation about his use of light, the randomness of life passing by or, that old reliable, the meaning of art, as inspired by his photographs, but nothing of the kind was floating around in my head.

So, instead, I took the opportunity to ask Elon how he got the shots. He told me that he had constructed a rectangular box out of cardboard. Holding the box in one hand and his camera in the other, Elon shot through the box at a still sea. The people in the center are random bathers. Emboldened I pushed on and asked what he meant to convey. Elon told me that he doesn't like to talk about his art. "Wait, you started this," I said in an accusatory tone of voice. "But I was paying you a compliment," he complained.

A significant feature of contemporary art is the absence of emotion, the triumph of mechanical mass production over human craftsmanship, and the end of defining art as somehow separate from daily life. The great paradox of contemporary art is that it purports to break down all the old barriers between the viewer and the art but often leaves the viewer more distant from the art. We, the viewers, need to either know the context of the art's creation (what you see is merely the end point of a process and it's the process that matters) or we have to create meaning for ourselves (if meaning is what you're after). In other words, the art is the interaction between the viewer and the object. Think about that while you're wondering whether the Richard Serra rising over your head will fall and crush you like a bug.

Tel Aviv is a mecca for Israeli artists and a flourishing part of the international art scene. The city features a major art museum, dozens of galleries, artists, art students and a myriad of cafes in which they hang out, contemplate their art, and try to get laid. I encountered Elon and several other artists at the opening night of Fresh Paint, a Contemporary Art Fair. Omanut Achshaveet, which the Fair's PR people translated as contemporary art, translates literally as Now Art. Someone who actually knows about this stuff told me that Omanut Achshaveet is art produced in the most recent 2 or 3 years by younger, up and coming artists. True to its name, Fresh Paint filled several buildings of a restored railroad station with recent works by mostly younger Israeli artists. With major corporate sponsorship, numerous galleries showing off their Now Art artists, and the large crowd of people who came to see and be seen, Fresh Paint, in its second year, is well on its way to becoming a regular feature of the Tel Aviv art scene.

This year's Fair featured tattoo artists creating wall murals, live music from alternative bands and a fund raising postcard sale. For 45 shekels you could buy a postcard painted by one of the participating artists. The artists painted whatever they wanted but did not sign the cards. Buyers were not told who had done the work until after they paid their 45 shekels ($10.70 at the then-current exchange rate). Some of the artists are well-established and their cards are worth far more than what was paid. Other cards were by artists for whom this sale may be the high point of their careers. Still others were by artists whose work could become valuable years from now. (You know the story, the one person shows that get rave reviews, followed by the feature story in the weekend magazine, followed by the motorcycle crash, followed by the post-death run up in market value.) It was the Fair's version of a midway game - test your eye for art.

My own review of the Fair is that, while it was fun, there wasn't all that much "new" about most of the paintings, sculptures, installations, photographs and videos. While no work appeared to break new ground, many works were compelling, many were political, others very clever, even funny (though I didn't get the puns, another reason to learn Hebrew). I was pleased that, after some years in the minimalist desert, art continues to head back to looking like something and sending messages that I may be able to grasp. Like the painting of soldiers standing in a circle around a drain, war, or perhaps peace, is circling the drain. But the upside down bathtubs with doll-like figures coming out of the drains needed an explanation that these were part of a series describing different aspects of a wedding (don't ask).

My favorite works at the Fair turned out to be the photography. (The Fair's panel of expert judges preferred an installation of miniature white chairs lined up as if waiting for Ken and Barby to get married -- what do art professors, curators and gallery owners know?) In addition to Elon's work, I particularly liked photographs by Aviv Naveh and Ron Amir. Aviv's photograph of a single-file line of soldiers walking through the desert past a Bedouin tent with migrating birds in formation overhead makes a statement about the imposition of the modern, often violent world, on traditional, more pastoral life. Aviv also had great landscapes of the Sinai and Central Park. You have to love a kid who thinks the two greatest cities are Tel Aviv and New York.

Ron was showing a series of photographs taken in and around Arab villages situated near Caesarea. Caesarea has become a very upscale residential town with multimillion dollar villas and the country's only golf course. The Arab villages are everything Caesarea is not - unpaved roads, stripped cars in tall grasses, buildings you wouldn't really want to live in and villagers who have that aura of poverty about them. This is the underside of life in Israel – the classic subject matter for photographers. Think Jacob Riis in the NYC slums or Margaret Bourke-White at a bread line. Moved, angered and wondering what can be done, I went off to check out the tattoo artists.

A few days later we were on the road to Ein Hod, Israel's artists' village tucked into the Carmel Mountains just north of Zichron Yaakov, founded in 1953 by a group of artists led by Marcel Danco, a Romanian-born Dada artist who was prominent in the Zurich branch of the movement. There's a museum at Ein Hod with his and other Dada works that runs education programs, many for children, about Dada. Ein Hod is the opposite end of the art world from Fresh Paint. Its 66 resident artists and a revolving group of about 32 guest artists are in the upper half of the age spectrum. I've heard Ein Hod be accused of becoming "too commercial." This may just be the price of success. The village's painters, sculptors, craftspeople, musicians and film makers include 10 Israel prize winners. Living as a community, these artists have shared their lives and artistic spirits, resulting in art that has spread out not only over Israel but around the world. The village itself is worth the trip. Spilling down from a hilltop, Ein Hod preserved the classic architectural features of the Arab buildings while adding homes, galleries and studios that combine classic Arab and modern architecture (think Frank Lloyd Wright working in Jerusalem stone).

Our host and tour guide led us through the village to some specific galleries he likes to shop in. There were antiques (in Israel, '50s kitsch passes for objects from the olden days), paintings and ceramic sculpture (in a house with Arabic archways looking out over the valley between Ein Hod and the next mountain to the south). The village is decorated with outdoor sculpture by the residents, including a couple of bus stops that were echoes of Paris Metro entrances.

In the center of Ein Hod, next to its main galleries, Dada museum and concert hall, is Dona Rosa, a fabulous Argentine grill restaurant whose owners claim to have replicated their Mother's kitchen in Argentina. I don't know if this is architecturally true and I don't care because this place proves once again, to my delight, that Argentines know what to do with large hunks of dead animal and a very hot grill. The veal ribs were immense and melt-in-your-mouth delicious. Same for the steaks. I make no apology to the vegetarians in the audience. This is how G-d meant for people to eat. And so, stuffed again, we waddled, downhill, back to the car, and returned to the big city.

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