Internationalism and Insularity in Tel-Aviv

Jan Tichy, Installtion no. 6 (tubes), 2009


This year, city of Tel Aviv-Yafo celebrates the 100th anniversary of its founding and Art TLV, the city’s new art biennial, is one of the central attractions. Scheduled between the Athens and Istanbul biennials, the mission of the Israeli biennial clearly to establish Tel Aviv in a Mediterranean cultural triangle, and invite international visitors to sneak in a stop while they’re conveniently in the region. The biennial’s main event, “Circus Universalis Ltd.,” is named for the fictional big-top from Spotted Leopard, a play by Israeli naturalist writer and translator Yaakov Shabtai (1934-1981). The play tells the story of a European immigrant who attempts to open the first Hebrew circus in Palestine, but whose leopard cannot “lose its spots” so easily. It’s a metaphor for the founding of a thoroughly Western-looking Tel Aviv, and a Biennial that as informed by the international circuit as Israel’s political insularity.

Headed by Edna Moshenson, former Senior Curator at Tel Aviv Museum of Art, and Maayan Sheleff, curator at the Center for Contemporary Art, Tel Aviv, “Circus Universalis Ltd.” features works by over 40 Israeli and international artists including Sigalit Landau, Micha Ullman Olivo Barbieri, and Francis Alys. Considering the show’s inquiry into the manifold contradictions of the city—the event’s primary location is a 19th-Century Templar compound turned prime real estate—”Circus Universalis Ltd.” is at its core a critical but loving tribute to the 100-year-old city.

The official program is complemented by numerous “Side Shows” exploring the city’s multiple identities. Palestinian writer-activist Lailah El-Haddad and Israeli designer-activist Mushon Zer-Aviv collaborated on “You Are Not Here,” a virtual tour of Gaza through the streets of Tel Aviv. (In 2006, Zer-Aviv was a part of a group that organized a similar meta-tour of Baghdad through Brooklyn). Participants are provided a double-sided map of the two cities; by dialing the number of a location in Tel Aviv, they listen to a cell phone audio guide with information about the corresponding site in Gaza, a city that remains invisible for most Israelis except in war and on television. The audio technology makes a sharp comparison and contrast to the typical museum guide.

Elsewhere, “A Place of Memory,” curated by Arab-Israeli artist and gallery director Said Abu Shakra, explores the collective and personal memories of the Palestinian experience in Umm al-Fahm, a thriving Arab city in the north of Israel. Shakra’s video documents his mother’s retellings of her life in the Arab village before and after war and expulsion. Engravings by the curator’s brother and fellow artist Walid Abu Shakra depict the primal landscape of Umm al-Fahm before its urban development. (IMAGE) Today, the city is the planned site for Israel’s first Arab museum of modern art, but it is also, for the artist, a site with localized concerns. (LEFT: WALID ABU-SHAKRA, A PLACE FOR MEMOERY: THE WAY TO EIN-JARRAR, 1980)

In a trial run of “Ex-Territory,” Michael Kessus Gedalyovich, chief editor of online art magazine Maarav, artist Ruti Sela,and independent curator Maayan Amir invited  figures from the Israeli and American art worlds to a nautical screening of video art by Israeli and Arab artists. The evening’s program began only once the boat had reached international waters, and proved controversial when Amir declined to provide the names of exhibiting Palestinian and Arab artists on account of the cultural boycott placed on Israeli institutions and organizations. The sea-sick guests, many of whom were unaware of the boycott, expressed disparate reactions: while L.A. MOCA’s Paul Schimmel insisted that an artist’s nationality be secondary for his curatorial choices, Galit Eilat, curator of the Israeli Center for Digital Art, complained that the political obstacles prevented her from working with Arab artists.

The biennial is timed to the opening of art season in Israel. One long awaited show is “Cosmic Rifts,” an exhibition of works by the Berlin-based Israeli artist Yehudit Sasportas at Sommer Contemporary. While Sasportas represented Israel at the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007, she hasn’t had a solo show in Israel in five years. “GHARDY Local Voices” involves six video screens in a vast, blackened room, all of them showing dark, slow moving images of black and white forests. For “Magnetic Hearts,” Sasportas traces the movement of plant life gathered from swamplands outside of Berlin. Using tiny magnets attached to the plants, the drawings record a kinetic, bodily knowledge of actions and experiences, and develop the classic still life theme with the help of electro-magnetic vectors.

 Yehudit Sasportas, GHARDY Local voices, 2009, Images from film installation

Looking both to capture and justify international interest in Israeli art, the new English-language art journal Programma celebrated its launch in a fashionably run-down building on Tel Aviv’s otherwise slick Rotschild Boulevard. The journal’s debut issue contemplates rising international interest in Israeli art, featuring interviews with Tate Modern’s Stuart Comer on the upcoming show “Video Israel” (February 2010) and RoseLee Goldberg on works by Guy Ben-Ner, Anat Pick, Keren Cytter and Omer Fast commissioned for Performa 09. On the magazine’s cover, the editorial team candidly wonders: “Is Israeli art that good or do we just happen to be on time?”

ART TLV is on view September 10–24.