On ViewHelena Rubinstein Pavilion - Tel Aviv Museum Of Art
June 12– November 16, 2019
Tel Aviv, Israel
In 1902 Theodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, wrote an iconic novel titled Altneuland, also known as The Old New Land and Tel Aviv. This futuristic utopian story is about a young Viennese-Jewish intellectual who travels to Jaffa to find a land that has drastically transformed over the years: it is peaceful and well industrialized. Today, at the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Tamar Hirschfeld presents her own updated version of Israel that is characterized by chaos, paradox, and struggle. In a large scale site-specific video installation curated by Anat Danon Sivan and titled Neuland, Hirschfeld has created a temporary archeological site, bringing the past, present, and a bit of the future together.
In the main gallery, as a homage to her late archeologist father, the artist gathered and stacked an abundance of locally familiar, everyday objects. She selected items and manipulated them in a way that reflects the experience of a struggling Tel Avivian artist, among these objects are old fans and bicycles dipped in pink paint, postcards, books, a retired TV set, a pink painted CD rack, sofas, a “mangal” (Israeli BBQ), pink painted radiators, rocks, cement building bricks, and an Israeli cable TV satellite dish. Hirschfeld also included items that reflect the political lineage of the region, including cacti (sabr) that symbolize a deep connection to the homeland for both Palestinians and Israelis, a cart decorated with a small flag of Israel that is loaded with oval sesame bagels of a type baked and sold in the Muslim district of the Old City of Jerusalem, Christian paintings and memorabilia from the Holy City.
Within this messy accumulation of objects, near a large palm tree taken from the streets of Tel Aviv and a working ATM, Hirschfled has created a cave-like structure from chicken wire and covered it with A4 prints of rocks from the Judean Desert. Inside, the floor is covered with straw mats like those found at resorts in the Sinai Desert, and chairs are set up for visitors to sit on while they view The Cheese Butt (2017), a 25-minute VR experience. The video, which takes place in Sinai, concerns three Bedouins around a bonfire preparing tea and telling “chizbats”—scary stories usually told at a campfire. One of them tells a story about a Bedouin who found a lamp in the desert that contained a genie. The genie grants the Bedouin three wishes: first he asks for water, then to see the future. For this the genie hands him a pair of VR goggles, and with them the Bedouin sees two things: first, Israeli money, and then a group of people in a room who also wear VR goggles. Spooked by this prediction, he renounces his third wish and runs away.
The future, as Hirschfeld presents it here, will be fueled by greed and a lack of direct human communication. Her video, like the site-specific installation around it, is overflowing with loose connections and absurd moments—although to appreciate this you must be familiar with the Sinai desert and its uniquely tranquil atmosphere. There is typically no technological component in a Sinai getaway—certainly there are no VR experiences to be had. The appeal is in the simplicity of the place and the quality of Bedouin hospitality, which remains warm despite ongoing violence in the region between the Egyptian military and ISIS. In her video, Hirschfeld dismisses the warfare, stating “this is not important,” and thereby reminding us how turmoil and suffering are so often disregarded by those not directly involved.
In the lower gallery of the Rubenstein Pavilion, Hirschfeld has installed a video titled Sheldon, the Humanist Skeleton (2016–2019). This grotesque love story is dedicated to her deceased father, and it serves as the heart of the exhibition. The film begins with Hirschfeld and her two sisters venturing to the Dead Sea, where their father excavated. There the three women dig up the past: a male skeleton named Sheldon who becomes the hero of the story. Sheldon comes to life, animated by two male puppeteers, and Hirschfeld escorts him through several scenes that use food to address conditions of inequity in an increasingly globalized world.
First, the artist shows Sheldon the culinary richness of a contemporary western supermarket while a group of refugees wearing crying Emoji masks wait for a small portion of food to be distributed by the Red Cross. Then, Sheldon and Hirschfeld pass various people from around the world, each one next to the designated section of their national cuisine—here we see how globalization threatens to reduce cultural depth to an easy repertoire of stereotypes. Finally, Sheldon and the artist make love, and, at the end of the video, Hirschfeld finds her lover on his deathbed. She passionately tries to resuscitate him by stuffing and covering his empty figure with fresh meat as he blesses her with fertility and a long life. Her attempts fail, and Sheldon expires. Hirschfeld then says Kaddish (a Jewish prayer traditionally recited by men in memory of the dead) on the skeleton’s soul.
In this new old land, Hirschfeld brings together notions of capitalism, religion, East and West, sex, mourning, and struggle of all kinds. If Herzl was a Zionist prophet, then Hirschfeld is the “tell it like it is” ambassador for contemporary Israelis, as well as for humankind in general. Her wit is contagious, and as the leading lady of a large production whose characters are mostly men, she brings feminism to the forefront without needing to name it.