Announcements

Pleased to be participating in the exhibition HOME(less) at HUC-JIR Museum NY. Running through the end of June 2018. Would love to hear from you if you get to see the exhibit. For details see post

Monday, November 25, 2013

"What Is Art?"

In response to the post on the Venice Biennale here, painter Ruth Keusch asks the fair question:

"The questions remain... 'What is Art?' We won't be around in 100 years to see what is art and what has remained. I guess we try everything... but is everything Art and how do we define it? We know that money and protection will get a big show... does that count for something? It gets more and more confusing. The camera is being replaced by the i phone- where do we go next?"
Guest blogger Ahuva Passow-Whitman responds:


"When my daughter was in third grade I was invited to talk to her class about art. I started by writing on the blackboard 2 x 2 = 5.
The class screamed out to me that it was wrong. I answered that yes, it was wrong if we were teaching arithmetic. But since I was asked to talk about art- there is no wrong answer. And we proceeded from there.
The question was put to me, as a response to my guest blog on the Venice Biennale, how we can know what art is. I can only begin by saying that we know what it is NOT: It is not science (although in dealing with problems of perspective it can be quite mathematical). Art, and all the arts, have changed over the centuries.
Abstract art would have been unthinkable to the ancient Greeks; jazz would have seemed like screeching sounds to Mozart. Photography and video are now respected members of the artistic repertoire, and cinema is the seventh art. Martha Graham's ballets would seem chaotic to a 19th choreographer. e.e.cummings wouldn't make sense to John Donne.
So we see that what was once perhaps unthinkable or unimaginable is now very much a part of what we naturally accept in the artistic canon. Time is often a crucial factor: Bach was forgotten and only "resurrected" by Mendelssohn. Raphael was out of favor in the 18th century, yet Michelangelo was immediately recognized, at age 24, as 'il divino,' the divine.
Our problem is more complicated when we are bombarded with masses of art, at a museum, or at an event like the Venice Biennale, where there are so many styles and so many diverse forms of expression. We would like to make some sense out of what often seems chaotic. The problem is how to do it. Are there really rules to guide us?
A while ago, a quiz was sent to me on the internet. The point was to see if the observer could differentiate between scribbles made by a 4 year old and abstract painting done by artists. The results showed that a trained and educated eye could almost always see the differences. Even what may seem at first glance nothing more than random scribbling, when done by an experienced artist, does have some innate structure or composition to it.
So, perhaps, what we long to see in art, in any art form, is some sense of composition, order, unity. What we often feel we are lacking are the guidelines by which to judge what was judged created now, right around us.
How do we decide 'what is art?' Sadly, given the free-for-all that can pass as artistic license or liberty, we do not always have the means to make those judgments clearly and we have to rely on instincts or immediate reactions to what we see.
In 1997, I went to the Venice Biennale and had my 6 year old daughter with me (the same daughter from the later third grade class on art). We entered one of the pavilions in the Giardini which had its walls completely covered with cockroaches. And her immediate, stunned question to me was 'is this art?' And my immediate, one word answer was 'no.'
Was it because it was cockroaches, a clearly unpleasant creature to most of us, or because of the lack of structure and/or order in the way they were put on the walls, or perhaps a bit of both? It felt as if the artist wanted to produce an effect of 'anything goes,' and epater le bourgeois- angering the respectable middle class, as it were.

In fact, anything can and does go nowadays, and it is truly getting harder and harder to make sense out of it all. Elephant dung, artist's urine, dead animals- all these can now be found in art exhibitions, sometimes accepted by the galleries or museums, sometimes not.
Creative artists in any field have achieved super celebrity status; so have actors and musicians of all types of music. To the lovers of operatic spectacle, the stage extravaganzas of Lady Gaga seem lewd and ludicrous. All these aspects are a part of the larger phenomenon of art(s) criticism and judgment.
I have not meant to offer any easy or clear answers. All I can say again is that there are a number of elements that can help facilitate trying to answer that question.
The first is an exposure to the arts, from earliest childhood. The more you read, see, listen to and experience, the broader the knowledge becomes. The second is an education in the arts, helping us understand what we are reading, seeing, hearing.
But the last two are the very same elements that refer us back to the example I gave to the third graders: art is NOT science, and therefore the element of time enters in thereby helping us see things differently at different times in our own lives and often only much later down the line.

That never changes in mathematics: 2 x 2 is always 4, no matter when the problem is posed. But, perhaps, like judging fine food or fine wine, judging art comes down to a 'sense of taste and smell,' involving a mysterious, 'je ne sais quoi' quality which cannot always be defined but somehow, when it is there, you know it is good.
Really good."
              - Ahuva Passow-Whitman

Really an age-old question and a kind of Pandora's Box. We know we are in an ever-changing world.  Is the answer the test of time as Passow-Whitman suggested at the end of her blogpost? Is it, like the US Supreme Court's test of pornography the subjective "I know it when I see it?" Or are there shared and agreed conventions and tastes still today that once were the mark of the Academy? Does the commercial world hold the answer with the financial test - if it sells and makes oodles of money does that make it good, does that make it art?

Thanks Ruth Keusch for opening the discussion.

 ~ /// ~

Because I can't resist the Thanksgiving season, I will close with this video clip from the movie "Avalon," directed by former Baltimorean Barry Levinson who captured the immigrant Thanksgiving experience in what I think of as a classic scene. "You cut the turkey without me!?" This is surely art.


Happy Thanksgiving, Happy Chanukah.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Art Island: Venice Biennale 2013


Exterior, Israel Pavilion, Photo by Ahuva Passow-Whitman
Now hopping from a fledgling biennale in Jerusalem discussed here to the mother-ship of all biennales, this post focuses on art in the wider world.

Since opportunity struck in the manner of an astute colleague visiting the famous Venice art extravaganza, it is with great pleasure that I have invited guest blogger, curator Ahuva Passow-Whitman, to share her impressions of the Venice Biennale 2013.

One of the recurring issues I have noted throughout Israeli art history and which continues to echo today, is the dissonance between those who wish to emphasize the particularity of national identity as opposed to those seeking to flatten such differences and emphasize the commonalities with all peoples everywhere.

This tension also is reflected in the Venice exhibitions and is just one of the observations Passow-Whitman notes from her dive into the dense art waters of the famous lagoon. An expert in both Israeli Art and art history, she gives us her highlights of the Biennale and context for the Israeli presentation, as follows:

"WATER, WATER-AND ART- EVERYWHERE: Impressions of the 55th Venice Biennale"  by Ahuva Passow-Whitman

The Venice Biennale, established in 1895 as a venue for contemporary art, began its life in a beautiful park on the outskirts of Venice known as the Giardini, which are now organized into 30 national pavilions and one very large central pavilion which houses the main themed exhibition. Later, the Arsenale, once a warehouse to the Venetian fleet, joined as an additional large exhibition space.

Today, the Biennale has grown so much that it has literally invaded the city in every available space. One can hardly walk anywhere within Venice without coming across yet another "collateral" show, as these are known. The buildings used range from deconsecrated churches to empty medieval palaces through educational institutions. Peeking in these spaces can be as much or more of a draw than the art exhibited, so says a Venetian friend, since many are otherwise closed to the public. Another advantage is that they are free, whereas the Giardini and Arsenale charge hefty entrance fees.

I have been fortunate to attend every Biennale since 1997 and able to follow many of the trends in modern art, in what is clearly, the "greatest (in the sense of biggest), non-commercial art show on earth." Of course, there are both advantages and disadvantages to this mega production being in Venice.  The magic of Venice and its vast art treasures invite inevitable comparisons.

Out of national solidarity and curiosity my first stop is always the Israeli Pavilion. Established in 1952, designed by Zeev Rechter, it is a very odd- shaped building and is divided into three equally odd- shaped floors. In the past there have been some excellent shows (Michal Rovner, Yehudit Sasportas, Sigalit Landau), some interesting ones (Guy Ben-Ner) and some strange choices (Rafi Lavie).

Heads on Stands from "Workshop" 2013 by Gilad Ratman, mixed media.  Photo by Ahuva Passow-Whitman
Heads on Stands from "Workshop" 2013 by Gilad Ratman, mixed media. Photo by Ahuva Passow-Whitman
This year Gilad Ratman (born 1975) represented Israel in Venice. Like so many other artists today, video was his main choice of medium and he created a piece which is called The Workshop which spreads out over the pavilion. It is meant to show the progress of a group of his friends from caves in northern Israel, through the earth, as it were, arriving through a hole, ostensibly dug in the floor of the pavilion itself. This group created clay heads in which microphones were placed, making unintelligible sounds and are exhibited on wooden stands dispersed in the space. Their creation is also documented in a video. The main video screen seen at the entrance shows the artist playing on a synthesizer (which itself is placed next to the screen), beating out very loud trance music.

There is basically no explanation to all of this; you have to try and figure out the progress of the group and the meanings of all these sounds. I found it rather amateurish and, frankly, unsettling. This is not the first time that video works cause that sensation; it seemed more like MTV clips put together than a coherent, complete work of art. I feel that there are far better artists on the Israeli scene who could have been chosen to represent the immense creativity we enjoy here.

Compared to the Great Britain pavilion, the Israeli entry came up even shorter. English Magic, an immense and varied work by Turner Prize winner, Jeremy Deller, also used videos and music as parts of its many elements. But what a difference! The main video, starting with a slow motion flight of a rare Harrier, sets the mood for a hypnotizing aura. In contrast to Ratman’s work, the music pulls you in, rather than pushes you away.
Stonehenge video from "English Magic" 2013 by Jeremy Deller, mixed media. Photo by Ahuva Passow-Whitman
Stonehenge video from "English Magic" 2013 by Jeremy Deller, mixed media. Photo by Ahuva Passow-Whitman

One of the most charming scenes shows a huge inflatable trampoline showing a mock up of Stonehenge, also made of giant inflated balloons. As a group of children happily jump on the central area, Stonehenge collapses before your eyes. While entertaining in itself, another layer of meaning could be a darker message warning about the future of Britain.

Tea sign from "English Magic" 2013 by Jeremy Deller, mixed media. Photo by Ahuva Passow-Whitman
Tea sign from "English Magic" 2013 by Jeremy Deller, mixed media. Photo by Ahuva Passow-Whitman
Additionally, the pavilion shows various aspects of English life and culture in many unexpected ways, including one of the rooms simply called "Tea," in which every visitor could partake of a (free) cuppa, sit down, rest and relax and contemplate the moment in the midst of an intense artistic visit. In our globalized era, it is actually quite refreshing to see a pavilion that celebrates its national character rather than succumbing to the trend to homogenizing distinctions in favor of the universal.
"Bang" 2010- 013 by Ai Wei-Wei, 886 antique stools (detail) photo by Ahuva Passow-Whitman
"Bang" 2010-2013 by Ai Weiwei, 886 antique stools (detail) photo by Ahuva Passow-Whitman

Global mixing is very much the order of the day in the Biennale: the German offering is showing, amongst other artists, the famous Chinese dissident, Ai Weiwei. Two years ago, Israeli Yael Bartana exhibited in the Polish pavilion. Also, this year, France and Germany decided to exchange their pavilions, so you see the German contribution in the French pavilion and vice-versa. This is becoming more and more popular and underscores progressive thought that there are no national boundaries or style. Very often one feels that if there weren't a title or name on the pavilion, you would have no idea which country was being represented. Also, with so much video art exhibited, in the event of an electrical outage, one suspects there would be many fewer works to see.

The main pavilion, known as the "Encyclopedic Palace" serves, as always, as the exhibition space for many different artists chosen by Massimiliano Gioni, the Biennale's curator.  Named after a work created in 1955 by a self-taught Italian-American artist, Marino Auriti, the piece was a model of an imaginary museum that was meant to house all the world's knowledge. As Gioni said, his work examines “the point at which this desire becomes an obsession." Obviously, any exhibition with such a goal will encounter trouble making sense of it and giving it direction. In fact, one has the feeling of being lost and trying to decipher what it all means. Very few rooms leave you with the impression of having seen something meaningful and worthwhile.

One of those rooms which stood out shows powerful black paintings by Thierry de Cordier, with small sculptures made of steel blocks by Richard Serra sharing the space. The central pavilion is a rather dizzying experience.

The last national pavilion I viewed in the Giardini was from Belgium showing work by Belinde de Bruyckere, showing a single display in a totally black environment. Called Cripplewood, the work consisted of an enormous tree lying on its side, with parts of it bandaged as if to try and heal it, surrounded by benches provided for contemplation. Photography was prohibited to avoid breaking the aura of the sad darkness that enveloped the spectator. Very powerful and moving, it was enhanced by a short text by South African writer, J.M.Coetzee.

Some of the spaces themselves were fascinating venues, such as a deconsecrated Baroque church in the center of Venice which housed an exhibition called Glasstress. Venice and its neighboring islands have long been associated with the craft and manufacture of glass, usually in a decorative context. This exhibit was mounted by an association of contemporary artists who explore glass as a fine art medium.
Glass work with church interior, from "Glasstress" 2013, various artists collaboration, mixed media, photo by Ahuva Passow-Whitman
Glass work with church interior, from "Glasstress" 2013, various artists collaboration, mixed media, photo by Ahuva Passow-Whitman

Their effort shown was essentially molten glass poured over machine engines. The juxtaposition between the surroundings and the exhibition was striking, with an additional sensory reaction achieved upon entering the exhibition, where one was enveloped by Vivaldi's music being played as an effective promo for a concert scheduled a few hours later in the same space. All combined to leave the visitor with a complex multi-sensory response.

Of all the smaller pavilions I saw, the Irish one was the most shattering on two levels: the exhibition itself, and the surroundings. The show, called The Enclave was a series of six video screens of films not shown simultaneously, nor set out in a way that they could all be seen at the same time. A cooperative effort of the Irish director, Richard Mosse, and American cinematographer Trevor Tweeten, who document the on-going civil war in the Congo by using an infra red camera, which turned everything green to red – so that trees and uniforms were tinged red. The images gave the viewer the impression of blood being spilt everywhere. With war-like noises as the audio, the often violent images were very hard to watch. The quality and displacement of the double-sided screens were reminiscent of the works of Bill Viola, whose videos are in their own league.

Screens of videos from "The Enclave" 2013 by Richard Mosse, video, photo by Ahuva Passow-Whitman
Screens of videos from "The Enclave" 2013 by Richard Mosse, video, photo by Ahuva Passow-Whitman

That pavilion was very small, completely dark, and housed in an old Venetian building that stands at the very end of a tiny alleyway. When exiting after watching the 39 minute exposition of war, one almost falls into the Grand Canal, with its calm waters, gently floating gondolas and breathtaking architecture, resulting in a shock to senses and sensibility.

"Perspectives" 2013 by John Pawson, Swarovski crystal.  Photo by Ahuva Passow-Whitman
"Perspectives" 2013 by John Pawson, Swarovski crystal. Photo by Ahuva Passow-Whitman
Every now and then the Biennale gets it right, as it did in a work by British designer, John Pawson, who showed a very small work set in a very large space. His piece, (another collateral exhibit, this one supported by the Swarovski Foundation), named Perspectives, is a half dome, set on its rounded side, and made of a large piece of Swarovski crystal. A smaller round piece of crystal is placed in the center, reminiscent of a candy bowl or ash tray. Despite its small-scale, the piece does not get lost in the breathtaking cavernous church of San Giorgio Maggiore, designed by Andrea Palladio.When looking down at this “crystal ball” sliced in half, the church is literally turned upside down in its reflections, leaving the spectator feeling an imbalance between past and present.

Overall, seeing the greats of Venetian art and its unique architecture leaves one asking the question: in another 500 years, it is most likely that Titian and Tintoretto will still be remembered and admired. Who, from the Biennale, will share that honor?

Only time will be the judge.

Having said that, it is still very much worthwhile visiting the Biennale to see our world through the eyes of artists today, for good and for ill.

Ahuva Passow-Whitman,  served as Senior Curator at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem for 28 years, where she was responsible for maintaining and enlarging the Permanent Collection, installing art works throughout the campus grounds and mounting varied special exhibitions.

The Venice Biennale 2013 ends November 24.


This post was originally published on Times of Israel here or:

http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/art-island-the-venice-biennale-2013/

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The GA and The Road Not Taken

"Judean Hills" c. 3013 by Heddy Abramowitz

Earlier today I was having a business breakfast, Israeli style: cafè hafuch and an open lap-top to peruse artwork in a coffee shop. When I mentioned that I was on my way to the GA to my art colleague, she said "what for?"

Indeed, I asked myself the same question. The GA is the grand slam of Jewish organizational life, with the heavy hitters of the Israeli establishment from politicos to soldiers, from journalists to educators, and from CEOs to students, every stripe of mover and shaker meeting eye to eye with the top echelons of the organized Jewish world of North America. This event is a rarity, occurring only once in a five year cycle in Jerusalem. With existential questions such as a nuclear Iran at the forefront of the agenda, and with cries for plurality in religious worship not far behind, what could  a blogger on culture and the arts come away with?

A quick glance through the schedule showed that there was little to come for. Zionism? yes. Start-ups? yes. Medical care? Haves and have-nots? Great Jewish Thoughts? Yes, yes, yes. Lots more than that, yes, but little in the realm of support or overt interest in the more nebulous needs like the visual arts and the spirit of the soul.

Lacking a target panel, I randomly chose one -- a plenary session, aptly em-cee'd by "Times of Israel" editor, David Horowitz, where he lightly interviewed various personalities and success stories in the format of a late-night TV show. These included Ziv Shilon, whose personal story of overcoming combat wounds, involving the loss of an arm and reduced function of his remaining arm, his insistence on returning to active service, followed by his recent decision to attend law school at the Inter-Disciplinary Center in Herziliya, had everyone in the largest Binyanei ha Ooma auditorium on their feet in honor of this inspiring young man. Though others were very impressive, such as Daniel Birnbaum, the CEO of Soda Stream; Eleyezer Shkedy, the CEO of El Al;  MK Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid, and MK Shelly Yacimovich, the head of the Labor party and Oppostion Leader, no one else touched the attendees in quite the same way.

So, there I was in the audience and my mind wandered. Thirty-four years ago I graduated law school, took my bar exam, boarded an El Al plane and joined my boy friend, now husband, in Israel, going to ulpan to learn Hebrew in the WUJS program in Arad. I would not say I had stars in my eyes, more like dust from the arid desert that surrounded Arad. I had so much to learn, so many gaps in my education to fill. Those were the first steps.

And I stayed. I am reminded of this piece of my childhood:
"...I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference." ("The Road Not Taken"- Robert Frost)
It was in this very same building that I, as a WUJS alumna, attended a gathering for Israeli and American students in 1980. I don't even remember what the conference was about. What I do remember is hearing the resentment in the voice of one of the Israeli students who challenged the audience with an impatient question about the burden that Israeli youth were expected to carry in the business of nation-building, a responsibility he felt belonged to all Jews, this a mere seven years following the Yom Kippur War. It had never occurred to me and it struck a nerve.

I was already a changed person, feeling my life, however simple, would have an added significance led here in Israel. Israelis, who were all anxious to go to the States and get a coveted Green Card to work there, were incredulous that two educated American kids would choose to come to Israel.When I would call my relatives to wish them holiday greetings, they would respond with "At od po?" (Are you still here?). No one expected us to stick it out.
El Al Airlines storefront c. 2013 by Heddy Abramowitz

Had I climbed back up the steps (yes, we actually had to climb steps to board the plane back then) on a returning El Al flight, instead of being a player in the great Zionist enterprise, I would have been a spectator.

Had I done the assumed, the obvious, the expected thing, I would have been in the GA audience as a delegate from abroad. I was likely to get a job as a young lawyer in a medium to large firm, sweat bullets till I made partner, maybe get to Israel as a participant in a Young Leadership Mission for UJA. I would have led a life along the typical trajectory. It would have been 34 years of organizational work, dinners, and tributes to the ones doing the lion's share of the work of Zionism, like Ziv.

Had I done the expected thing, the trade-offs would have been obvious. Material success would be on a different standard than we live on, but as the years go by, it seems that we are a bit less needy and life here improves.

The things we cannot measure, the things we cannot track or enumerate, the things that are intangible- are the up side. My children, now all young adults, all were born in Jerusalem, they speak flawless, fluent Hebrew  (not like their mother), and a reasonable English, too. They live and breathe Judaism in the most natural way. They know who they are, they know why they are here and they don't need reminding. Their attitudes to being Jewish are so far off the recent Pew survey, that it is an understatement to say that it is "a different world." The sad picture of young Jewish life that comes through entertainment films like "Jewtopia" which, though having some acerbically spot-on observations, mostly make me quietly cringe.

I exited the convention center with a group of delegates. We were indistinguishable. We all carried our bright green environmentally-friendly GA gift bags with printed material. We all were dressed nicely, though I had made a special effort to only wear locally purchased items in a spurt of economic patriotism. We all spoke English fluently. I share some of the same credentials on my CV. We all care passionately about Israel.

And then they headed straight for the shuttle buses to their hotels, and back to their lives abroad. And I was home in ten minutes.

And that has made all the difference. Sigh.

This post was previously published on the Times of Israel here or:

http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/the-ga-and-the-road-not-taken/