Reaching For Utopia

This cover story was first published in JWeekly.

Oded Meromi's "1967" at the Contemporary Jewish Museum

Oded Meromi’s “1967” at the Contemporary Jewish Museum (photo credit: Johnna Arnold)

If the state of the world is getting you down, head over to the Contemporary Jewish Museum for a glimpse of utopia.

The new exhibit “Work in Progress: Considering Utopia” explores the concept of utopia from Jewish and contemporary perspectives. It features installations by two New York–based Israeli artists — sculptor Ohad Meromi, and photographer and video artist Oded Hirsch — and a mural by local artist Elisheva Biernoff.

In conjunction with “Utopia” is the smaller exhibit “To Build & Be Built: Kibbutz History,” which explores the key role ideologically driven kibbutzim, or collective agricultural communities, have played in the establishment and growth of the State of Israel over the past century — and how they’ve adjusted to modern times.

“To Build & Be Built” brings museum visitors face to face with the real-world problems Israeli kibbutzim have faced throughout their history — beginning with the early settlements in 1909 by European Jewish pioneers, through the 1948 War of Independence, and into the late 20th century when the collectives faced immense economic and social pressures. The exhibition’s three sections, “Early Settlements,” “Communal Culture” and “Kibbutz Today,” give an overview of the kibbutz’s trajectory over the last 100 years…

Elisheva Biernoff’s “The Tools Are in Your Hands” (photo credit: Johnna Arnold)

Elisheva Biernoff’s “The Tools Are in Your Hands” (photo credit: Johnna Arnold)

…The kibbutz exhibit “provides Jewish context for ‘Work in Progress,’” said CJM executive director Lori Starr. “We want to engage our audience with the subject of utopia, and the questions are more important than the answers.” Programming planned around the two exhibitions — including music, films and workshops — will allow visitors to ask and think about those questions.

“Work in Progress,” in fact, encourages visitor engagement.

For example: “1967,” a multipiece work by Meromi that was specially commissioned for “Work in Progress,” invites people up to a stage, even providing costumes.

“1967” is “one installation made up of separate pieces,” Meromi explained recently as he showed a reporter several sculptures that lead toward the installation’s centerpiece — a wooden stage inspired by the dining hall/community gathering space the artist recalls from visits to his grandparents at Kibbutz Mizra, which they helped found. The Brooklyn-based artist was born on the kibbutz, but grew up in the suburbs of Tel Aviv.

Colorful, geometrically shaped sculptural elements of the stage’s construction reference 20th-century Russian Constructivism and connect to the socialist origins of the kibbutz. Along the edge of the stage are concrete tiles with scenes imprinted using geometric shapes mirroring shapes seen elsewhere on stage. There is one tile for each year since 1967, the year Meromi was born and Israel conquered much of the land that is still in dispute today.

Meromi suggests there are several main ideas he is trying to express with “1967.” The story he tells through the tiles is about grounding utopia in reality. “My idea of utopia cannot ignore reality,” he explained. “We need to look at where we are living.”

Museum visitors will be invited at various times up to the stage to participate in guided “activations” that encourage creative exploration of the utopia-related themes embedded in Meromi’s work. The installation also includes costumes for visitors to don. They were designed by Meromi’s sister, Ayala Meromi Keinan, a Tel Aviv–based fashion designer whose brand is Gusta. It’s the first name of their grandmother, who was in charge of the kibbutz’s clothing warehouse.

“I used real Home Depot–type materials: wood, concrete, aluminum and fabric,” Meromi said, all reminiscent of the simple materials used by the pioneers to build the kibbutzim. “There’s a socialist approach in the materials and how I used them. There’s no distinction between factory and stage.”

Also, given the basic materials he used, “I’m thinking about the world as a place that is still in the making,” he said. “It’s about being together in the making. You can work together to horrible directions, too, but what is essential is working together and being straightforward and honest with one another in the process.”

Click here to read the full article.

© 2013 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.

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