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1/1 - Michal Rovner, Mathematics, 2007, framed LCD screen, paper, computer and digital files, 31” x 19”.

1/1 - Michal Rovner, Mathematics, 2007, framed LCD screen, paper, computer and digital files, 31” x 19”.

Israel's many faces on display at MOCA

A mother cradles her baby in one arm and an AK-47 in another in Rina Castelnuovo’s searing photograph “Gush Katif.” A pair of photographs by Barry Fryd-lender captures a lively café scene in downtown Tel Aviv and the café’s aftermath following a suicide bombing. Natan Dvir looks at the variety and depth of religious faith in Israel in a trio of photographs, including a Christian baptism, a Muslim gathering, and a haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Purim celebration. These are but three of nine Israeli artists whose work comprises a new exhibit, “Hugging and Wrestling: Contemporary Israeli Photography and Video.” It’s at MOCA Cleveland Sept. 12-Jan. 10. Conceived by MOCA’s artistic director Jill Snyder and curated by senior curator Margo Ann Crutchfield, the exhibit examines the historical, political, socio-economic and religious landscape of Israel through each artist’s perspective. One of MOCA’s goals and key to its mission is to show what is happening in contemporary art around the world, in addition to the strong regional representation. In recent years, Israeli artists have come to the fore, particularly Tel Aviv artists who have captured the attention of the international art scene, says Crutchfield. “Aesthetically, these works are gorgeous,” she adds. “They are rigorous in the message, while remaining visually engaging. Some of the video works are emotionally moving.” The exhibit’s title – “Hugging and Wrestling…” – is as intriguing as the art. These are artists who embrace their country and at the same time wrestle with its problems, explains the curator. For Crutchfield, nothing epitomizes the title better than Castelnuovo’s compelling and disturbing photograph of a bride and an Israeli army tank sharing the same plane in “Alumim, Gaza Border.” Upon first entering the gallery, the viewer is greeted with Rona Yefman’s video installation “Pippi Longstocking, the Strongest Girl in the World, at Abu Dis.” In it, Yefman, who graduated from art school this past June, impersonates the famed storybook character of the girl who could do anything as attempting to tear apart Abu Dis, the barrier that separates Israel from the territories. For the artist, this work is about hope and about overcoming the divisions of the past and the possibility of a better future. Dana Levy, another young video artist, depicts people talking about their hopes and fears in “The Dreamers.” Children describe playing without hearing because bombs are dropping in the background. A Jordanian expresses his desire to go home, just for a day, to see where he lived 40 years ago. Michal Rovner, one of the most important and well-known artists in Israel, is also featured. Rovner represented Israel at the prestigious Venice Biennale and was one of the few non-American artists to have a one-person exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Her work is the most abstract in the show. In “Mathematics,” Rovner videos real people in motion, then, with the help of a computer, reduces them in size, whereby, as tiny figures, they resemble the letters of an ancient text. Another well-established artist is Ori Gersht, whose trio of photographs are from his “Ghost-Olive” series. The olive tree, the most sacred of the seven natural plants in the Middle East, remains a symbol of sustenance and survival. Here, the artist has overexposed the film in the midday sun, fading the images of these ancient and stately trees to suggest their ghostlike fragility. Gersht’s video installation “The Forest” features a peaceful image of a lush, untrampled glen, which is intermittently shattered by the sound of a tree crashing to the ground. This is the forest where Gersht’s family was exterminated in the Ukraine during the Holocaust. For Crutchfield, the video captures the contrast between beauty and horror, remembering and forgetting. Not all of the art is serious. Fryd-lender shoots a rock concert on a beach in “Bombamela” and a bustling downtown scene in secular Tel Aviv, wittily titled “Friday.” Still, politics is never far from the surface. One of the most overtly political works is Frydlender’s “Waiting, 38 years (end of Occupation? Series #1)” in which a group of Palestinians are seen watching the evacuation of a settlement. “Here we have an Israeli artist looking at the situation from a Palestinian point of view,” explains Crutchfield. Frydlender is one of the few Israeli artists to have had a solo exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The omnipresence of war and how it relates to Israeli life is the subject of Yael Bartana’s video installation “Trembling Time.” Every year on Yom Hazikaron, or Day of Remembrance for the victims of war and fallen soldiers, sirens heard throughout the country call for all citizens to observe two minutes of silence. From Bartana’s camera poised above a Tel Aviv highway at night, we watch as the ghostly stream of traffic grinds slowly to a halt. Shadowy figures emerge from their cars to observe the ritual in eerie silence, a rare moment of unity when the entire population comes together. Adi Nes portrays homeless people as latter-day biblical heroes in “Untitled (David and Jonathan)” and “Abraham and Isaac.” These scenarios conflate past and present, while addressing the social inequities of poverty and homelessness in contemporary Tel Aviv. As a non-Jew, Crutchfield has found the experience of curating the exhibit to be a process of discovery. “I’ve been privileged to learn more about the history of the region, its people; it’s been a fascinating process.” What would Crutchfield like the viewer to take away from the exhibit? “That the cost of war and conflict has a very real impact on everyday people. And that the human cost of war is immeasurable. That art can be a vehicle of not only beauty, but also a means to convey complex ideas about social and political situations.” One of the exhibit’s strengths is its balanced approach to the myriad points of view expressed by each of the artists. At the same time, some of the art is confrontational, challenging the viewer to question his or her own preconceptions. “Hugging and Wrestling” is dedicated to the memory of Rosalie and Mort Cohen, lifelong supporters of MOCA Cleveland and the visual arts. The exhibit is made possible by the Jewish Community Federation with major support from Forest City Enterprises and the Cleveland Jewish News. Additional support is from Artis-Contemporary Israeli Art Fund and the Consul General of Israel to the Mid-Atlantic Region of the United States.

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