Uncanny Tel Aviv art gets UK premiere

Three young curators are behind an exhibition devoted to artists from Israel’s largest city

By Julia Weiner, April 15, 2010
Quirky: Michal Helfan’s  2009 sculpture kuku

Quirky: Michal Helfan’s 2009 sculpture kuku

Israeli art is in vogue in London. In February Tate Modern dedicated a weekend to recent video art from Israel and today sees the opening of JaffaCakes TLV, the first-ever exhibition in the UK devoted to the work of artists from Tel Aviv. The show, which has aroused considerable excitement in London's art world, is the brainchild of young independent curators Yasmine Datnow, Maïa Morgensztern and Lara Wolfe.

The three friends came up with the idea six months ago. "I think it was something we had been thinking of for a long time but we actually sat down around the table and discussed it formally then. We had noticed the absence of any Tel Aviv art in London," says Wolfe.

"As this is the very first showing in the UK of Tel Aviv artists, it comes with some responsibility," Morgensztern adds. "We decided that it had to be a full-time venture and we had to be fully committed to it and nothing else."

So why did they choose to focus on Tel Aviv rather than another area or Israel as a whole?

At first, they hoped to cover the whole of Israel but soon found that it was too big an undertaking.

A piece by street artist Know Hope, the “Israeli Banksy”. He has created a new work for the London show

A piece by street artist Know Hope, the “Israeli Banksy”. He has created a new work for the London show

"We then realised that there is a massive interest in Tel Aviv as a holiday destination here at the moment. The art press has also given the city some coverage but no-one has really explored it in depth. We felt that this was the perfect time to bring it to an audience here," says Datnow.

"Tel Aviv is the cultural centre of Israel and we wanted to reflect that," adds Wolfe. "The vibrancy, the excitement, a new fresh age coming out of such a old city. We wanted to show that juxtaposition."

Despite having just six months to organise the exhibition, the curators looked at works by hundreds of artists. "We went from one group show to another and ended up seeing between 200 and 300 artists. Then slowly, we filtered the list down," Datnow explains. There are just seven artists included in the final show, many of them very young and some who do not yet have gallery representation in Israel. "We wanted to show the work of a new generation, people who deserved the exposure but had not had access to it yet outside Israel," she says.

An important influence on the exhibition is the work of renowned Israel writer and filmmaker Etgar Keret. The curators feel that his short stories reflect the idea of the uncanny that the art they have selected also touches on. As Morgensztern explains: "It is that sense that in Tel Aviv things are not always as they seem, that there are always unexpected things and new discoveries. Keret's stories verbalise what the artists are trying to say visually." Keret supports the project and ha+s provided a previously unpublished short story for the catalogue.

This quirkiness can also be found in the curators' choice of name for the show. "We needed a title that was catchy and would hook people in. Using the name of a biscuit keeps with our theme of turning the familiar into something unexpected," explains Wolfe.

This sentiment is echoed by the one of the artists who is exhibiting. Know Hope is best known for his works on the street and is sometimes referred to as the Israeli Banksy. He is making a site-specific work for the exhibition. American-born, he came to live in Israel with his family and has settled in Tel Aviv. "It is the only place in Israel I could live," he says. "It is a weird combination, a curious entity. It does seem to be sheltered somewhat from the political situation in Israel. There is something special about the pace of the city and its mixture of cultures."

Finding a space to exhibit was one of the major challenges faced by the curators. "We walked around in London noting down empty shops and randomly calling estate agents," says Morgensztern.

Eventually gallery owner Kenny Schacter loaned them his 4,000 sq ft space in Hoxton Square, at the heart of London's art scene.

Given recent events at the Wigmore Hall, when a concert by the Jerusalem Quartet was disrupted by anti-Israel protesters, have the curators experienced similar problems in their quest to promote Israeli artists? They admit they were prepared for resistance but in fact found "everybody incredibly supportive". "With the art world we have had no problems whatsoever. They recognise the quality of the work," says Morgensztern.

Indeed, one of the aims of the exhibition is to show that Israeli artists are working in an international context. "Recent shows dedicated to contemporary art from China, India and the Middle East have exoticised the works, whereas we are not trying to show that the work is different or other but that it fits in with the international art scene," says Datnow.

This view is shared by London-based Israeli artist Nogah Engler. "I have never shown in an exhibition completely dedicated to Israeli or indeed Tel Aviv art before," she says. "So much of what you hear about Israel in this country is negative. It is all about the politics and religion and is very right wing. This exhibition shows that there is another side to Israel to consider which is secular and liberal, and it is important that British audiences are aware of this. The artists whose work is on show do not make works of art about the conflict. Although they may touch upon politics, the artists explore universal images. They deal with life, with existence, the need to make to art and to create."

The exhibition has raised so much interest that the curators hope to make it one of a series. "We are starting with Tel Aviv but we hope to expand and cover other areas," says Wolfe.

JaffaCakes TLV continues at 33-34 Hoxton Square London N1, until May 15. www.jaffacakestlv.com

Last updated: 11:41am, April 15 2010