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Soda Bottle Sandals And Post-Library Shelving

Solos: New Design From Israel

January 27-April 23, 2006

The Cooper-Hewitt National

Design Museum

2 East 91st Street, New York



A poor child’s feet parade crude sandals, straps affixed to soda bottles with the caps still intact. Sheshbesh (backgammon) players become images of men in black hats praying at the Western Wall. Street scenes of the old city of Jerusalem, glowing with dramatic light worthy of Caravaggio, merge with photographs of streets in the old city of Safed, with all of its deep blue painted doors and walls. Hasidim at the tomb and mikvah of the 16th century Kabbalist, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (the Ari), juxtapose with a street sign for Rehov Ha-malakh (the Street of the Angel) and images of Masada. One image even appears to represent a hasid playing ping-pong. And perhaps the most inventive fadeout shows an image of the Lubavitcher Rebbe turning into a series of Byzantine portraits and then an image of a poster for the Breslover Hasidim that declares “Nachman M’uman!”

Ezri Tarazi’s photomontage (executed with Moshe Ronen, Yaron Meiri, Sharon Gil and Maya Vinitsky) entitled, “Is-Reality: People, Places, Things” is exhibited on six screens, arranged with two rows and three columns. The leftmost column is entitled “people,” the middle “places,” the rightmost “things”. At any given time there are six images simultaneously showing, which lends the work the feeling of a Ringling Brothers’ circus, in which the viewer tries in vain to catch all the action. But the moving slideshow is most interesting for its transcendence of boundaries.

The title evokes the childhood riddle game in which one party uses a series of questions (the number is subject to house rules) to identify something or someone about which the other party is thinking. The guesser inquires first if the object of thought is a person, place or thing (or animal, mineral or vegetable in another variety of the guessing game). But either-or scenarios are often the domain of youth. The riddle game does not account for objects that reside in more complicated realms: both, all, some or neither. In Tarazi’s photomontage, some images surface in both the place and the thing column. Though it seems that Tarazi has cast all of his images neatly into categories and boxes, in fact the purpose of the piece seems to be more about blurring the distinction between people, places and things.

This is a particularly interesting thesis to explore vis-à-vis Israel, a land that is so personified in the Bible, as in “the land disgorged its inhabitants” (Lev. 18:25) or “a land that devours its inhabitants” (Num. 13:32). The whole notion of an Israeli design, though, is a mysterious one. In the catalog introduction, curator Ezri Tarazi of the Bezalel academy of art and design writes of a visit to New York where he saw an elderly couple braving the rain with umbrellas and raincoats. Tarazi “sensed these people were Israelis; when we passed each other – as I expected, yet still to my astonishment – they were speaking Hebrew.” Tarazi saw a curatorial opportunity. “The moment I experienced on that rainy street in New York made me reconsider the question of whether there is a singular style to contemporary design from Israel.”

So what does Tarazi’s Israeli design that is so recognizable (even from across the street) entail? A series of “functional” objects that don’t work.

Take Yuval Tal’s “Handle with Care” (2003), a series of drinking mugs. The mugs, though unlike the regular sort that you’d buy in a store, have had their handles broken off. Tal, somewhat mercifully, has reattached the handles, but they are either attached backwards or with new materials wholly unsuited to play the role of handles. Tal’s mugs then have vestigial remnants of handles, but the mugs don’t work.

Chanan de Lange’s “Post Library Bookshelf System” (2000) is also a nonfunctioning piece. An assemblage made from perforated steel posts, the bookcase is hardly a bookcase. It looks like a random assortment of metal beams crisscrossing and zigzagging through the gallery space. The only comment of de Lange’s hanging ominously beside the bookcase is the claim, “The books are more comfortable when they slant a bit.”

Several other pieces in the show highlight this anti-functionality. Raviv Lifshitz’s “Hubeza Seat” (2003) is a seat made of steel rods and a vinyl balloon. The balloon is blue with flower patterning on it, and by the looks of it – even in the unlikely event that it could support a seated person – it would prove a most uncomfortable seat. Tal Gur’s “Sturdy Straws Chair” (2002) is a green seat made of polypropylene drinking straws, heated until the straws joined together to form a chair. Needless to say, the sturdy chair looks anything but sturdy.

And finally, Yaacov Kaufman’s “Aluminum Containers” (2005) is an installation of dozens of aluminum cooking pots and pans, many of which are bent out of shape or cut apart beyond repair. This work recalls Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum’s series that questions the safety of the home. One piece of Hatoum’s (“Incommunicado,” 1993) shows a baby crib with stretched wires where the cushion should be. “Home” (1999) shows a kitchen with electrified utensils that prove more dangerous than useful. Hatoum, whose work is in the collection of the Israel Museum, also did work about peace in the Middle East. “Map” (1999) contains glass marbles arranged on a floor to form the world continents. As viewers walk around the room, the marbles shift. The implication is gloomy; people might be disrupting a harmonious map rather than improving it. “Plotting Table” (1998) was a similar conception. Hatoum used green UV lights to illuminate a wooden plank – with holes drilled in the arrangement of a world map – from beneath.

The “Solos” work recalls Hatoum’s conceptual art in surface, but Hatoum’s work has a way of convincing viewers that there is a lot at stake in the pieces. Even though the newly published catalog of the collection of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem (Abrams Inc., 2005) hails Kaufman as “one of the most important designers and educators in Israel today,” the aluminum work – as well as much of the rest of the “Solos” work – ends up presenting fruitful postmodern meditations on function. But the objects are simply objects of the mind; the chairs, pots, and shelves do not work. The “Solos” body of work consists of design objects that are useless, and yet they demand to be accepted as art. This temperament is in no way endemic to Israel; it is a mode of curating and art making that is all the rage in contemporary museums of every sort. But the show is interesting simply for Tarazi’s photomontage alone, which uses the moving slideshow form to show the many faces of Israel form Bedouins to Palestinians to Jews, and from backgammon to bottle cap sandals.

Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He is a painter and writer, residing in Washington, DC.

About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

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