Untitled, Tel Aviv 2012

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June 1, 2012
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Barbara E. Mann

The new wing of the Tel Aviv Museum opened last November to quite a bit of noise. The building — which had been contemplated, planned, and constructed over the last decade or so — has since been both duly celebrated and condemned (the reaction of Haaretz’s architecture critic was not atypical: She called it “a beautiful waste of space.”) On the one hand, the museum feels like a grown-up museum in a city that has become a major international cultural destination. On the other hand, the building resembles, in some respects, other recently built modern art museums. This brings us to a question: What is the relation between an art museum and local architectural norms? Does this relationship have a different meaning in Israel, where the built environment is often contested, and where there exists a long-standing critical discussion about architecture and its local roots, or lack thereof? Would such a blatantly postmodern and almost neutral box of a building have been less of an issue if the surrounding architectural fabric was less contested? More self-assured?

The timing of the opening of the museum’s new wing also affected how it was received. The building opened in the wake of last summer’s social protests, and many could not help but sense the disparity between the version of Tel Aviv offered in the name of the new wing — postmodern in spirit, high-flying, “glocal” (in the phrasing of the new exhibit) — and the version of the city that had actually occupied the headlines for most of the summer — economically strapped, progressive, and vociferously demanding a return to the benefits of Israel’s historic social net. In fact, some artists protested on the plaza in front of the museum — an outgrowth, as it were, of the demonstrations nearby protesting the price of cottage cheese. Though art is not cottage cheese, culture has become increasingly commodified in Israel, and the common thread between these different voices of protest was clear.

Critics of the new wing seemed to prefer the modernist, social-democratic dimensions of the museum’s original building (and also of Israel’s founding utopian vision), and they have found the new wing’s interior somewhat disorienting. It’s as if people expect a museum to provide a transparently didactic experience. Today, museums often resemble fragments, and they do so for a reason: Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum Berlin may make you nauseated, but in that case, the building is the message.

Personally, I found the new wing’s gritty, unfinished interior surfaces and the “Lightfall” (a void-like space that shoots through the building’s three levels) pleasing to walk through; I did not find the spaces especially difficult to navigate. And the architectural move from modernism to postmodernism feels more or less right for Tel Aviv’s urban fabric.

The major exhibit housed in the new building is called “The Museum Presents Itself: Israeli Art from the Museum Collection.” The exhibit relates the history of Israeli art, with a largely familiar chronological rendering, from its inception with the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem in 1906. The exhibit is divided into three broad sections: “Collective Identities, 1906-1960,” “Private Identities, 1960-1990,” and “Glocalism, 1990-2011.” The first section features well-known items from the early years, including work by Bezalel founder Boris Schatz, and iconic pieces by figures from the Tel Aviv School, such as Reuben Rubin and Tsiona Tagger. The second grouping is framed as a kind of reaction against the earlier literalism of form and overt references to collective or communal identities. And the final section treats the evolution of Israeli art within a global setting — drawing on both local allegories and the language of transnational mediascapes.

A major portion of the new building’s bottom floor is taken up by an exhibit by German artist Anselm Kiefer. The largest piece, “Shevirat Ha-kelim: Breaking of the Vessels” consists of an enormous column of falling shards of glass over a large pile of books. The piece evokes historical events such as Kristallnacht (the Night of the Broken Glass), as well kabbalistic concepts connected to tikkun olam, “repairing the world,” a gesture of atonement that seems both particular — addressing German-Jewish relations and the Shoah — and cosmic — the broader dilemma of art’s role in a postmodern world. The piece’s gigantic dimensions, as well as the visceral violence palpable in its symbolic language, demand quiet, focused attention. The piece also raises questions: What does it mean for a postwar German artist to appropriate, as it were, Jewish theological concepts for the purpose of forwarding his own aesthetic and social agendas? And how is the installation’s significance shaped by its physical location — a major museum in a city that was conceived as nominally Jewish and relatively homogeneous, but that has, in fact, evolved into a stratified and cosmopolitan center, one that strives to put on a normal face in spite of the often extreme and anything-but-normal surrounding political environment?

Within the space of the museum, if Kiefer occupies the basement — the subconscious, ongoing, prehistory of the Jewish State — then the piece, in my mind, that emblematizes what is happening on the surface is a four-minute untitled video from 2009 by Rafaat Hatab (b. Jaffa, 1981).1 The camera focuses on a pair of hands tending an olive tree and then gradually pulls back to reveal the tree’s location in the center of Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square (a short walk from the museum). A soundtrack of Arabic music — with Lebanese singer Ahmad Kaabour — is heard in the background, expressing the need for Palestinian solidarity and longing for a lost paradise before the Nakba. It is a breathtaking work of art — revealing how a slender yet grounded piece of Palestinian memory persists amid the cacophony of central Tel Aviv, facing both the municipality (the seat of power that enabled the construction of the museum’s new wing) and the dense web of memory embedded in the square itself, the site of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in 1995 and its aftermath.

The cross-cultural treatment of “memory” — noted in these exhibits — is not deeply explored within the museum. For now, it seems, the museum is content to offer a relatively normative rendering of its own historical origins — both architecturally and aesthetically — and to leave it to visitors to weave other kinds of connections.

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Barbara E. Mann is an associate professor of Jewish literature and the Simon H. Fabian Chair in Hebrew Literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Her publications include A Place in History: Modernism, Tel Aviv and the Creation of Jewish Urban Space (2006) and Space and Place in Jewish Studies (2012). See photos of the exhibit on shma.com.

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