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Representations of a singular space: Roy Ma'ayan curated a uniquely diverse symposium and exhibition.

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THE CERAMICS SYMPOSIUM AT THE UMM EL-FAHEM Art Gallery and the exhibition following it were the result of the gallery's location: Situated in an Arab city in Israel, with a roof from which one can observe the city and the nearby Arab villages as well as the separation barrier that passes through the city like a snake's hiss. The choice of artists, the daily schedule, the lectures and events--all reflects on the gallery's unique political and poetic location. The most important question one must ask regarding this event is this: Why a roof in Umm el-Fahem? How is the content of the meeting, even the meeting itself, different because of this specific location? After all, artists from different countries and of different religious backgrounds can also meet in Kfar Saba or Haifa, can't they?

It becomes clear that the meeting between artists of different backgrounds lies at the heart of the symposium. It is important, however, to abstain from corny and over-stretched expressions about the connection between the ceramic work and our disputed land. Using unique ceramics techniques from other countries seems out of context. What would a Japanese painting on a vase or a European ceramic fire method have to do with an Arab town? As said, these techniques can be learned in any city, at any time.

In the course of the year preceding the symposium, the artists were chosen, the events were decided and technical solutions regarding organisation and equipment were found. One question prevailed during these preparations: What would be the symposium's theme? Should it deal with local traditions? This seemed natural, considering the fact that, for centuries, dozens of ceramics workshops had existed in Umm el-Fahem and its surroundings, only to disappear in recent decades due to an influx of cheap industrialised tools from Eastern Europe and Jewish-owned factories that were active in Israel mainly between the 1960s and 1980s.

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It emerged that not giving the symposium a theme was the correct course of action. It was assumed that an adequate choice of artists, coupled with encouraging creative conditions and an atmosphere where one listened and talked, would suggest a topic. The presence, for a week, of 20 artists on the gallery's roof and the works created by these artists while they worked in proximity to one another should not be taken for granted, as most of the artists had a hard time with my request for a time commitment. But it was this commitment that enabled the creation of a different alternative space which, on the one hand, resembled the participants' everyday environment and, on the other, the urban/social/ political environment surrounding the gallery.

Did I try to create a utopian environment, even for a limited time? Sir Thomas More, the English philosopher, coined the term 'utopia' at the beginning of the 16th century when he wrote about an island of the same name on which a society lived in an ideal republic. The term 'utopia' is ambiguous, for it refers to both a good place and to no place at all. Nearly half a millennium has passed since the publication of More's book. Since then, many others have attempted to create a utopian society or group. If we were to judge these attempts by the parameters of the world of societal ideas or (if we think in local terms) by the electoral triumph of groups campaigning for equality and tolerance, then it emerges that utopian ideas are bound to fail. Perhaps it would be better, then, to judge the idea not by expecting lasting grand-scale victories but, rather, by examining smaller successes and by the memories imprinted in the minds and souls of those who took part in it.

In May 2010, the selected artists met at the gallery. Most did not know each other and some were unfamiliar with the others' work. In the course of the days and nights that followed, connections were cemented and activities planned in the gallery, on its roof and in its surrounding: the city. This unique environment was fertile ground for the materialising of ideas. An environment free of any interruptions or distractions was critical, as visitors and breaks (particularly problematic considering the limited time) would have disrupted the artists' concentration and, worse, the daring mind-set reached by them and the staff. And yet, small echoes from the outside were desirable and, sometimes even initiated, in the forms of smells and tastes of the local cuisine, the sound of local music and so forth. The gallery roof turned into an island of peace and quiet, a state of mind voluntarily chosen by the participants. For a moment, everything seemed sane, tolerant, possible. The space and time removed the artists from the general environment and the immediate surroundings, both geographically and politically.

Michel Foucault, in his The Order of Things (Les mets et les choses, 1966) coined the term 'heterotopia'. This idea, which in translation simply suggests a space different from its surrounding, was defined by Foucault as the way in which defined spaces encircle a subject and thereby deplete the individual's strength and even eliminate his identity. These spaces are, mainly, places where individuals are present not voluntarily but, rather, as a result of a society's dictates and culture (old age homes, mental institutions, schools and, as a more extreme example, prisons). On the other hand, there are also spaces such as the theatre (spaces people choose to visit in order to experience something different from their everyday space).

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The symposium created the space and time in which the individuals or groups were able to distance themselves from their society or surroundings and to create a new reality in this time capsule. The rooms of the gallery and the activities in the city, next to and with its citizens, constituted heterotopia. Was this heterotopia also an ideal/utopian space?

During the symposium, the artist Hagar Mitelpunkt gathered several artists and staff members for activities in the surroundings and in the city's streets. Mitelpunkt, a ground artist and activist, has for several years worked in different spaces in Israel (deserted lots next to busy shopping centres, agricultural spaces that are no longer used for agriculture, 'villa"' neighbourhoods in the periphery and those erected in urbanised lands) locales in which she probes perceptions about spaces and her own role as a female artist attempting to create in those spaces. During the symposium, a group of participants collaborated with Mitlpunkt in an act that took place in front and around parked cars. They splashed clay into patterns and created ornaments inspired by Arab floral ornaments. This activity aimed to test the reaction of the vehicles' owners, who had to deal with issues such as whether they ought to destroy an artistic creation (iconoclasm) even though the dilemma was imposed on them.

Activities like Mitelpunkt's, particularly when the participants are artists, are rare in these parts. They can occur in a space and time where the participants, even if by choice, are free from any distractions. The gallery then created a different space (heterotopia), an idyllic (utopia) space where the participants were able to create as they pleased, without interruption and while being provided with all necessities. Can such a space, utopian and heterotopian, occur more than once? For between these time capsules, the individuals work in a reality filled with interruptions and distractions. Is it possible to preserve this heterotopian-utopian perception after this singular experience? Is it possible to apply this perception to art objects that can be exhibited a year later?

Utopia is not just ideal space but also a unified space where differences are blurred. The artists' separation from the immediate surroundings (geography, culture, family, religion) brought them closer to each other on the topics of conversation, artistic creation in general and their own creations in particular. Artists from different backgrounds dealt with related topics and, sometimes, with the same topic. Most dealt with one of three topics: The topography of Umm el-Fahem, the aesthetics of the place, their personal memories in this context, or with an internal issue in the symposium.

The gallery's workshops overlook the city and its surroundings. The point of view provided by the location of the gallery and, specifically, the balcony, forced the observing artists to direct their gazes towards the patterns of construction, the lines and the materials. A number of artists chose to relate to the topography of Umm el-Fahem. One participant, Anat Barel, wrote: "From the gallery to the urban landscape of Umm el-Fahem. I took a picture. I only took a picture from the gallery. A look from the outside. A look from a visitor. Each photo, an attempt to bring into focus a building or a composition that attracted my attention." Barel's is a modest and intimate point of view, one that does not intervene. In her series, "A visitor in Umm el-Fahem", she attempts to take single elements (for the large part lines from the composition of the city's buildings) and combine them with raw and simple building materials that can be found everywhere. Her building materials (cement, sand, plaster) correspond with the ceramic building materials, a connection that sharpens the relevant dialogue between ceramic creation and the view of a city constantly being built.

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Shira Silverston and Hilda Merom also explored the urban outlines surrounding the gallery. Merom etched the contours of buildings seen from the gallery. She filled those contours with clay of one colour and the background coated in another colour, dark and scorched, perhaps reminiscent of the distant past of the city, the old village of Umm el-Fahem where coal was mined for heating. Silverstone does the opposite: She etched the urban contour by using rough local clay, exposing the lower layer--porcelain; a pure, primary, prestigious material. The repeated Sisyphus-like etching on porcelain units, attached to plastic handcuffs, is like a duplication and reproduction of the view on to the domestic space. Silverston put this ceramic 'table cloth' on a ready-made table, one that is regarded in the Israeli ethos as the table of the Jewish Agency, of the Kibbutz. A detailed map of urban citations in an Arab town, arrested in handcuffs --these she grafted upon the Jewish-Israeli table. It is an ironic installation, highlighted even further by the title of her piece, Chez Nous (translated from the Hebrew and meaning 'at our place').

While the three above-mentioned artists dealt with the surroundings and contours of buildings, the sculptor Hasan Khater examined the stains between the lines. Khater reduced those landscape patterns visible from the gallery's balcony to cubes of different sizes, colours and materials. While the Jewish villages around town are characterised by their pointed roofs (something foreign to the surroundings and local climate conditions), the flat-roofed Arab buildings are closer to the ground, to sitting on the land. In this aspect, Khater's work resembles the architect Alfred Mansfeld's plans for the Israel Museum. Mansfeld, like Khater, wanted to create a modular structure resembling an Arab village, a structure that can be expanded according to changing needs.

Moshsun Qasimli, an Azeri artist, focused on a specific building. He observed the muezzin tower, attached to the local mosques and isolated it, creating a building that he perfected and added details. The original tower, located amidst the city's buildings, looks like a spectacle: it is illuminated in strong green light, the muezzin's call to prayer can be heard from it and the building stands out in the skyline. Separating it from its adjacent building and replicating it to the gallery's space enabled the artist to distance the spectacle from the religious realm and instead, examine its universal aesthetic values.

The urban environment surrounding the space in which the symposium was held is characterised by overcrowded building to such an extent that it is impossible to see open public spaces. Hagar Cygler, an artist who has for several years dealt with positioning of family photograph contours, went to the urban space of Umm el-Fahem determined to place imagery of tight groups of people. Cygler wanted to place the contoured images that characterise her work in public spaces that do not 'invade' any individual space. These public areas are not part of the crowded urban life of the city. The work, thus, was installed in the only spaces fit to the definition of 'public'--city roads.

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The Arab city is characterised on the one hand by great density and on the other by constant building. A tour in the city and the villages next to it highlights the simple construction materials, mainly cement tile flooring. Terrazo, tiles made from white concrete and gravel, paved most of Israel's apartments in the second half of the last century. These randomly dotted tiles create a modern aesthetic that is rough and simple. The resulting aesthetic, apparent in many of the exhibition's works, explains the title: Balata. The tile (balata), a recurring and simple unit, has parallels to ceramic objects. The ceramic creation is characterised by series. In most cases, even a single object is the result of a long process of repeated attempts.

The modern aesthetic of Terrazo tiles, juxtaposed with the ancient aesthetics of curvy, floral Arab ornaments, was the theme chosen by many of the symposium's participants. In the etchings by Miri Cahani-Brand we see the Terrazo tiles. They are seen here in the domestic space. Cahani-Brand arranged them in an angle that created the illusion of perspective, aiming for a vanishing point that is blocked by a closed door. Another artist, Orly Nezer, also related to the tradition of Palestinian ceramic tile. She created tiles by painting images that look, when viewed from afar, like geometric, amorphous images. These images repeat in a group of tiles placed one next to other. A closer look reveals an ironic meaning. For instance, the setting of a few tiles together looks like discharge from a woman's rear end. Nezer, with this mocking gesture, is criticising and ridiculing the infatuation with ornaments, the yearning for all things Oriental.

The artist Khader Oshah, who usually produces two-dimensional art (mainly paintings), decided (influenced by the symposium) to deal with clay. True to his two-dimensional approach, he chose to paint ceramic tiles. The tile, in his hands, is a combination of sorts between the clay (characterised by its three-dimensional form) and the painting, a two-dimensional form. In Oshah's art, the clay is used both as a background (tile) and as the body of the painting. The choice to frame the tiles prevented them from being seen as ceramic objects and returns them to the tradition of painting.

A space paved with tiles contradicts the theory that art must be shown in white space, clean and without distraction. Two art works use the dotted Terrazo tiles, a distraction offered by the gallery. Muhamad Abu-Arkia laid down Muslim prayer rugs, on top of which he placed ritual pouring objects made out of colourful plastic. The alignment of plastic objects corresponds to the narrow arrangement of the tiles; its gleaming colours contrast with the surrounding. Hence, the 'dirt' of the tile is turned into white noise. Zohdy Qadri placed a large ceramic pot on the ground, opposite a shiny metal plate on which the viewer is reflected when he approaches it. The pot and the surrounding ground are reflected in the metal panel, something that raises them on the wall and elevates them in the hierarchy of the world of arts. The ceramic object, largely regarded as a craft, becomes a photograph/framed painting. With the large pot, Qadri relates to the Arab tradition of preparing food in general and his family in particular. The ceramic material is wedged before it becomes an object, just like dough is kneaded for food.

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Being in a different space for a few intimate days and nights led some artists from the group to reflect (albeit, as viewers from the outside) on the event itself and on the participants. The Azeri artist Naila Sultanova presented a self-reflection observation on the symposium and its activity. In her meticulous illustrations on plates, her face appears while looking at local imagery, such as the image of the pomegranate.

Images from the world of agriculture are also a major theme in the works of Warda Khater. Unlike Sultanova, however, the image is not glorified. The apples are not colourful and they look like a memorial to themselves. The use of wire strengthens the feeling of distance from nature. In her work, the reference to the artist's origins in an agricultural family becomes apparent.

By placing the apple in a way that does not imitate nature but, rather, gives it a mainly material value, Khater creates a dialogue between the concrete experience (the symposium) and the materials of her life.

Nermin Kura, an American artist and cultural studies researcher, referred in her work to photographed moments in the symposium, isolated and positioned like living islands within clay. For her, the symposium embodied a holy space (her series is indeed built as a triptych, a Christian artistic style of the Middle Ages) and she tried to create for the event a continuous existence that would last a long time.

Amnon Amos created a set of bowls relating to a fellow participant. Amos, who in his works examines larger-than-life female figures, met, for the first time, the Azeri artist Naila Sultanova. Sultanova, an extravagant personality and a diva of sorts, enchanted Amos to such an extent that he decided to immortalise her in his work. The large bowls, filled with physical references to Sultanova (eyes, shoes, shawl), also make intelligent use of local Muslim characteristics: ornate letters, melted glass 'against evil eye' and flower chains. The Jewish artist's choice to use local Muslim ornaments, to one individual from the closed space, reveals them in an 'exotic' light and elevates the place and time in which the work took place.

Utopia, characterised by an ideal situation to which one can only aspire, is 'no place'. The symposium was successful in part because of its temporary nature that enabled a utopian-like existence. This utopia, however, not only generated concrete artistic creations and living memories of a one-time cooperation. It also enabled the creation of a unique heterotopia in the gallery space. The works that were born in this space do not represent a temporary and narrow view. Rather, they constitute a tapestry of relevant images, not just of a specific time and place but of all times and all places.

Roy Ma'ayan is the curator of Balata, the ceramics symposium and exhibition. All photos by Hagar Cygler.
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Author:Ma'ayan, Roy
Publication:Ceramics Technical
Geographic Code:7ISRA
Date:Nov 1, 2011
Words:3102
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