Published on ocula.com, 24 May 2017
A tiny country, barely bigger than New Jersey, and not yet 70 years old, Israel’s contribution to the international contemporary art scene is mainly overshadowed by its ongoing, seemingly never-ending conflict. And falafels. But returning recently after a 15-year absence I found myself taking in more art than I had anticipated, although I had barely scratched the surface of the country’s art scene.
While Israel is certainly not short on history and culture – with a rich mix of European, Middle Eastern and Israeli influences – the contemporary art scene mainly revolves around Tel Aviv, a city littered with Bauhaus buildings – built by Jewish architects who fled Nazi persecution in the ‘30s. There is, of course, a Bauhaus Centre, a museum dedicated to all things Bauhaus housed in, well, a Bauhaus building. Situated on Dizengoff Street, it is smack bang in the middle of the ‘White City’, a UNESCO World Heritage site of white Bauhaus buildings. Walking through this area will yield a memory card full of architectural spoils and also lead you a number of art institutions and galleries, spread throughout the city.
On the chic Rothschild Boulevard in the White City, littered with bars, cafes, and design shops, is Sommer Contemporary Art, representing renowned international and local artists Wilhelm Sasnal, Ugo Rondnone, and Wolfgang Tillmans, Tal R and Yael Bartana. The space incorporates a smaller project room, S2, in which young curators are given the opportunity to curate small-scale exhibitions of emerging artists. A stone’s throw away is the minimalist concrete cube of Alon Segev Gallery, which focuses mainly on Israeli artists like Arik Levy, Gideon Rubin, Eitan Ben Moshe, Gil Shachar, as well as a couple of established international artists like LA -based sculptor, Joel Morrison.
Around the corner from the hip Bauhaus Norman Hotel (Tel Aviv’s answer to the Soho house but with less pretension and way better service and food), housed in a beautiful 1920s neo classical white building designed by Joseph Berlin, is Chelouche Gallery. The gallery promotes a programme that encourages dialogue between Israeli and International artists and curators, with a stable of artists including Michelangelo Pistoletto, Miki Kratsman, Nir Alon, William Kentridge. Up the road from Chelouche is Noga Gallery, where you can find the 18th century Dutch still life inspired photographic works of celebrated Israeli artist Ori Gersht.
A little further east, we stumbled upon what looked like Tel Aviv’s skidrow (pegged to become the next up and coming neighbourhood), to find Braverman Gallery. The gallery specialises in video art and installations, with a largely Israeli stable of artists like Nira Pereg whose three-channel video, ‘ISHMAEL’ (2014-15), investigates the ‘border control’ of the cave of the patriarchs in Hebron. The site of the tomb of Abraham, and thus a site sacred to Jews and Muslims, it is also a site of historical and ongoing tension, sensitivity and conflict. Today it is divided into a mosque and synagogue, separated by a green metal door and controlled by soldiers from the Israeli Defence Force. Politics is never far from the minds of Israelis. It touches everything in the country, including art.
Hezi Cohen represents Berlin-based artist and musician Carsten Nicolai and Israeli art-star Sigalit Landau whose multimedia installations explore the complexities of living in a divided conflict ridden country. Her Dead Sea salt crystal encrusted gowns are beautiful! Further south, in an inconspicuous five-floor factory in Jaffa is Dvir Gallery, a regular presence on the global art fair circuit. The gallery has been representing Israeli and international artist and bringing them to a global audience for 30 years, and last year opened its second space opened in Brussels. On the day we visited the gallery was presenting a group show including Romanian artist Mircea Cantor, Adel Abdessemed, Ariel Schlesinger, Miroslaw Balka, Douglas Gordan, Lawrence Weiner and Shilpa Gupta. The gallery also represents the Jerusalem-born Berlin-based Omer Fast, whose videos, exploring the construction of narratives and blurring the boundaries between documentary and dramatization, have been capturing the attention of institutions and audiences world-wide.
Spare half an afternoon for the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Renovated in 2011 and designed by Preston Scott Cohen, the slick angular building is located across the road from an imposing Brutalist looking Israeli Defence Force base– a fitting location for a JG Ballard film– and guarded by an army of stray cats, a common site throughout the city. Inside the museum is 200,000sq feet of light-filled galleries housing everything from impressive collections of modern masterpieces including Archipenko, Picasso, Chagall, Van Gogh, Rothko – donated by collectors including Peggy Guggenheim – Israeli contemporary art, and international contemporary art. There is a lot to see. There was an Afro Futurist art exhibition when we dropped by, featuring emerging and established African contemporary artists; a smaller exhibition of disaster relief architectural projects; and an exhibition celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Rappaport Prize for Young/ Established Israeli artists. The museum was also hijacked by an unidentified performance group clad in bright leotards storming through exhibition rooms, and annoying the narcoleptic Russian babushka sentries nodding off under the Picassos.
The Centre for Contemporary Art, in the heart of Tel Aviv, is a non-profit which grew out of one small room in 1998, and focuses on the moving image and experimental art (previous exhibitions have included Chinese artist Cao Fei, and Icelandic Ragnar Kjartannson). The institution is definitely ahead of the game, credited with being the first in Israel to show the works of many international artists, including Marina Abramovic and Christian Jankowski, and is also responsible for kicking off the careers of now established Israeli artists like Yael Bartana, Guy Ben Ner and Michal Helfman. The centre also has its own video archive, comprised of over 3000 video works from 1960 to the present, and regularly presents lectures, screenings and performances in its auditorium.
If you’re up for a day trip, situated an hour north of Tel Aviv, and just outside Haifa, is the village of Ein Hod, an artist’s colony at the foot of Mount Carmel founded by Dadaist Marcel Janco in 1953. Today about 150 artists and their families live in the village, including at one time the septuagenarian mother of an ex who’s fond of stripping naked and painting herself with clay. Ein Hod feels like the kind of nouveau hippy utopia one can find in Ojai, full of craft and cafes, workshops and galleries, gardens littered with sculptures, tchotchke markets, and inexplicably a piece of the Berlin Wall. It’s quirky – the village mosque was converted into a restaurant-bar modeled after Cafe Voltaire in Zurich – full of history, picturesque and wonderfully situated on a hillside overlooking olive groves. A relaxing break from the hustle and bustle of Tel Aviv.