Tel Aviv Museum of Art
In Architecture | Articles6 January 2012
New Wing + Globalism
he November first inauguration of the new wing of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art was as festive as the building is controversial. The 195,000 square-foot space is the first major new public art space built in Tel Aviv in over forty years and has been the focus of the local art community’s attention over the past few years. In 2007 a public outcry broke out after the revelation that a twenty-million-dollar donation to the building by Sami Ofer was predicated on the entire museum being renamed the Sami and Aviva Ofer Museum. Ofer withdrew his donation and the Tel Aviv Museum remains a public museum. Funds were raised from different donors including ten million dollars from Herta and Paul Amir whose name the building bears.
The new wing is adjacent to the original modern building dating from 1971 that was designed by Israeli architects Dan Eitan and Yitzhak Yashar in the spirit of Tel Aviv’s White City (International Style) tradition. The contrast between these buildings is striking. Preston Scott Cohen of Harvard University created a building that resonates with contemporary influences from Frank Gehry to Daniel Libeskind, and which, despite its beauty, decidedly precludes dialogue with the older wing. The impressive concrete-and-glass structure hosts five levels – two above ground and three below ground, doubling the exhibition space. It is built around a dramatic, 87-foot high atrium, known as the Lightfall, providing light and some manifestations of what can be described as Baroque movements in modern materials. Although the spectacular façades are irregular, the galleries are rectangular, classical-modern white cubes. This leads to huge landings and a maze-like feeling in some of the spaces between the galleries, which is one of the points of popular criticism of the building.
The mall-like feeling of some of the space, insinuating consumer culture as common ground for both art and consumer temples, can be conceptually connected with the fact that demonstrations took place parallel to both the gala ceremony in the presence of Israeli President Shimon Peres and the huge public opening (7,000 people is no less than huge for a city with a population of 400,000). The demonstrations were against what parts of the art community view as the museum turning into a playground for the rich who gain power and respectability while increasing the value of their private art collections at public expense. Although these allegations are not new, they attained strong support in the wake of the Israeli version of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
The raison d’être for the new wing, stated time and time again by senior museum officials, is to exhibit the permanent collection of Israeli art while outlining what is largely considered to be a hundred-year-old history. The concept of a permanent exhibition with an historical narrative in a country whose reading of its own past is no less tumultuous than its present is dubious.
The inaugural exhibitions encompass both international and Israeli art. The major exhibition is Anselm Kiefer’s SHEVIRAT HA-KELIM (Breaking of the Vessels), in which he peruses his longstanding interest in Jewish tradition and Kabbalah as well as the loaded Jewish–German relationship. The fact that a non-Israeli artist, albeit internationally celebrated, was given the floor, is frowned upon by many. The exhibition itself is Kiefer at his best with an overwhelming combination of Romanticism, Baroque, Pop and Modernism.
The Museum Exhibits Itself, a selection from the Tel Aviv Museum of Art’s permanent collection of Israeli art, is exhibited in three galleries and will be renewed annually. The display, consisting of some two hundred and fifty artworks, is divided into three chapters: Collective Identities, 1906-1960, Private Identities, 1960-1990, and Glocalism, 1990-2011. Glocalism outlines the contemporary Israeli mainstream and is, for the younger artists exhibited, a kind of initiation into the heart of the Israeli canon. The collection highlights issues of emigration and consumerism, but there are surprisingly few direct political references and even fewer gender issues.
Ambulance / Cheri Chéri the Blue Eyed Fantasy / Asla of 1999 is a piece by Sigalit Landau (born 1969), one of the most prominent mid-career artists working in Israel, and is situated at the entrance to the Israeli collection. It is a statement about the predominance of Modernism in Israeli thought, as her piece is in direct dialogue with Marcel Duchamp’s famous Fountain from 1917 and, just as much, its vernacular with a dyed-wool rug and sense of danger and anticipation.
The 2008 work Mineral Fountain by Michal Helfman (born 1973) is an amalgamation of a huge plastic bottle of mineral water and a traditional Israeli drinking fountain such as those that used to be found in Israeli schools and public places in the 1950s and 60s. These were fashioned on traditional Middle Eastern public water fountains. Helfman deals with our alienation from place and nature, and the deeply imbued notion of water with purity and water with holiness in this case coming from a plastic bottle, carrying little promise for salvation. The 2009 dual-channel HD film Evaders by Ori Gersht (born 1967) portrays the journey of a singular person traversing the legendary Lister Route, a passage through the Pyrenees taken by the German-Jewish writer and philosopher Walter Benjamin during his escape from Nazi-occupied France in 1940.
While the works on view are far from a comprehensive exhibition of Israeli art, they do offer a good introduction and highlight prevalent currents, portraying the contemporary scene with its international veneer, sometimes puzzling observation of the past, and challenging world of the present.
Writing Credits: Smadar Sheffi is a writer, art critic and art historian, and currently a doctoral candidate at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She publishes regularly in HAARETZ newspaper and has a weekly art program on public radio. Since 2008, Smeffi has won scholarships and awards from The Lafer Center for Women and Gender Studies, The Center for Austrian Studies, and The European Forum at Hebrew University. She has curated exhibitions, mainly of Israeli contemporary art, and lectured and taken part in numerous panels and symposia on art and culture in Israel and Europe.
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