Tel Aviv

Art TLV, “Open Plan Living”

Helena Rubenstein Pavilion

A great deal was at stake in the launch of Art TLV, a multifocal event aimed at raising awareness of Israel’s up-and-coming contemporary art scene and inserting Tel Aviv into the global biennial circuit. In 2009, this coastal city will join with Athens and Istanbul to form a “Mediterranean Triangle” of biennial destinations. With this in mind, the main exhibition for Art TLV, “Open Plan Living,” curated by the London-based Andrew Renton, was an attempt to define the city’s specificity in its regional context. As an inaugural gesture, Renton did well to draw upon the city’s Bauhaus legacy while inviting local artists and curators to organize smaller group shows of their peers in urban sites outside the official purview.

With the highest concentration of International Style buildings in the world, Tel Aviv emerged as a vital experiment in the modernist redefinition of the relation between art and life, thanks to the European émigrés who fled to Palestine in the 1930s. “Open Plan Living” was accordingly self-consciously situated as a fluid, temporary sketch of a structure that might productively house the future incarnations of Art TLV—a fitting, almost expatiating strategy for a nation dealing with the dissonance between its lofty ideological roots and their present manifestation.

The quality of the smaller local exhibitions varied greatly, but they offered an important—at times woefully unfiltered, at times exhilarating—glimpse into the current Israeli scene. In fact, the earnest rawness of performances by the duo Bney Hama (Ohad Fishof and Ishay Adar), Ori Lichtik, and Uri Katzenstein (curated by Fishof), or the brazen irreverence of Ayal Goldberg, Gilad Ratman, and Ruti Sela (curated by Doron Rabina), stood in stark contrast to the pristine formalism and homogeneous tenor of Renton’s main event—an amalgam of thirty-one artists from different cultural contexts, including nine born in Israel, all of whom fluently speak the language of modernism and flawlessly performed its permutations. Standouts included Mark Titchner’s White Light, Founding and Fleetness, 2008, a homage to László Moholy-Nagy’s Light-Space Modulator, 1922–30, here updated with rotating sugar cubes; Armando Andrade Tudela’s steel and rattan sculptures (both Untitled, 2008) that pair modernism’s fetishization of industrial materials with a handcrafted non-Western product; and Gabriel Kuri’s Vacio Olivia, 2007, a spare bricolage of weatherproof roofing roll and Wafaa-brand olive cans, whose abstract form evoked everyday life under postcolonial relations of power. (Wafaa, Arabic for loyalty, is the name of an illegal political party in Algeria.)

The problem of modernism’s aesthetic and cultural transformations, devaluations, and reevaluations is a mainstay of contemporary art practice. No longer cut- ting-edge and maybe even vaguely passé, it succeeds as a curatorial strategy in this case thanks to Tel Aviv’s identity as a modernist project in the Middle East. “Open Plan Living” was a nod to the unsettled—even vulnerable—texture of this historical situation. As a self-aware product (and attempted exorcism) of the city’s founding ideologies before the eyes of the (art) world, perhaps it was even a necessary prologue for future installments of Art TLV. While it may have laid out a set of familiar questions, it acted as a kind of provisional establishing shot, suggesting that Tel Aviv’s particular history and shifting sociopolitical conditions may yet offer new paths of inquiry.

Nuit Banai