Tuesday, August 17th, 2010

The New Jerusalem: Israel Museum reopens

For the occasion of the Israel Museum’s reopening this summer after the $100 million renovation of its 20-acre hilltop campus overlooking Jerusalem, three contemporary artists—Zvi Goldstein, Susan Hiller, and Yinka Shonibare—were invited to plumb the museum’s encyclopedic  collections and create their own installations as they saw fit. These three highly idiosyncratic shows, grouped under the title “Artists’ Choices,” are on view through January 2011.

Anish Kapoor, Untitled, 2010.  Polished stainless steel, 15 foot.  The Israel Museum, Jerusalem.
Anish Kapoor, Untitled, 2010. Polished stainless steel, 15 foot. The Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

The impetus for the renovation project was to provide better circulation through the many modernist buildings dotting the campus—which had grown from 50,000 to 500,000 square feet of built space since the museum opened in 1965—and offer visitors a more logical route through its three major collection wings devoted to the archeology of the region, Jewish culture, and fine arts. In a way, the three artists turned that linear coherence upside down by pulling works from different time periods, geographies, and media and using them to support narratives formed from their own associations. This is underscored by having no labels in the galleries next to the art, leading viewers to approach the objects unfiltered and look at each room more as a whole (maps with captions are provided outside the exhibition, which are informative but encumbering). Yet the shows ultimately reinforce the interconnectedness of world cultures—one of the fundamental messages of the Israel Museum which houses everything from the Dead Sea Scrolls to art of the present, in a city where the crossroads of history and cultures play such an immediate role in contemporary life. This message is embodied in the new monumental stainless steel sculpture by Anish Kapoor commissioned as part of the campus renewal for the highest point of the museum’s outdoor promenade. Shaped like an hourglass, the sculpture inverts the reflection of the Jerusalem skyline, which starts at the tapered center of the piece and levitates to the top as the viewer approaches. It’s a lovely metaphor for the sands of time not running out but continually filling to the brim.

Susan Hiller, a U.S.-born, London-based multidisciplinary artist, hewed closest to standard curatorial practice by drawing 34 works from one timeframe—modern and contemporary—but created a more dense and visceral installation than typically encountered at a museum. Depending on the day viewers come, they’re greeted by either a brilliant burst of 2000 red gerberas pressed behind three large panels of glass or else the flowers in some form of rot and stench in the piece “Preserve Beauty” (1991) by Anya Gallacio. It’s tapestry-like visual effect and themes of life and death, memory and loss, are echoed in Christian Boltanski’s “Reserve (Storeroom) (1989), a long wall hung ceiling-to-floor with limp used clothing. Two floor pieces carpeting large areas—Erez Israeli’s “Field of Flowers” (2005), a bed of artificial red blooms, and Dina Shenhav’s “City” (1997), a charred gray topographical model of architectural ruins—ripple associatively with the others around the ideas of beauty and decay.

Yinka Shonibare, Fire, 2010. Collection of the artist. Image: courtesy the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London, Photo: Stephen White
Yinka Shonibare, Fire, 2010. Collection of the artist. Image: courtesy the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London, Photo: Stephen White

Yinka Shonibare, who grew up in Nigeria and is now based in London, selected of more than 200 objects from across time and installed them in dynamic, geometric configurations on four square platforms organized around the elements of earth, wind, fire, and water. Each is punctuated with one of Shonibare’s trademark figures in Victorian-era clothes made from African fabrics that personify the four elements and were made especially for the show. On the “earth” platform, with Shonibare’s dandy that has a globe for a head and looks to be charging out into the world in animated stride, the artist has juxtaposed a contemporary Andres Serrano photograph of a black Christ with an assortment of prehistoric tools, an Egyptian funerary mask, a South African fertility doll, and a color image of an 18th-century synagogue from Suriname among others, pressing viewers to consider elemental relationships and the cross-pollination between cultures.

While Shonibare’s platforms suggest the idea of a “cabinet of curiosities” using a very modernist-looking installation approach, Zvi Goldstein’s floor-to-ceiling installation of more than 400 objects on antiquated shelving overtly referenced those 16th- and 17th-century wonder cabinets of odd and precious items collected by noblemen that preceded the concept of a modern museum. A Romanian artist based in Jerusalem who combines objects with text, Goldstein here crowded commonplace objects he found in the museum’s offices and recesses—including old typewriters, eyeglass cases, a Hoover vacuum cleaner, a urinal not by Duchamp—together with photos by Harold Edgerton, Andre Kertesz, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, designs by Charles and Ray Eames and Le Corbusier, and Japanese screens in a visually dramatic, non-hierarchical presentation. He was inspired by a hallucination he had of being haunted by objects, which he alludes to in 62 poems he wrote about the experience that hang on the walls amidst the shelves of objects. Some poems and items on the shelves are so high up they are impossible to really see or read, akin to the way memories can be tantalizingly out of reach while others remain vivid. Of the three shows, Goldstein’s most successfully transcends the individual objects and becomes an artwork in its own right.

Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilis III inspecting newly installed artefacts at the Israel Museum.  Courtesy of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem