In a compelling show at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, three artists present work that addresses conceptions of and attempts towards utopia. In very different visual languages, Elisheva Biernoff, Oded Hirsch, and Ohad Meromi stage interactive tableaux, captivating videos, and participatory sculptures, putting collective effort at the forefront of the exhibition. The idea of utopia is in constant flux, Work in Progress posits, and it is only through combined visions and repeated attempts at understanding that any true progress can be made.
The exhibition cleverly responds to both 'progress' (advancement toward a better state) and 'in progress' (in the course of being carried out). Several of the pieces are literally in progress, whether they are documentation of an ongoing film project or an interactive magnetic board open to visitor additions and rearrangements. Most importantly, the artists' work doesn't feel forced into what could be a heavy-handed or onerous theme. Biernoff, Hirsch, and Meromi all bring the viewer into their highly personal subject matter through the appealing aesthetics of their work and their ability to make small, individualized experiences take on broader implications.
Greeting viewers as they enter the exhibition are Meromi's totem-like sculptures, elements of the installation 1967. A combination of natural and man-made materials in a variety of bright, playful colors makes the pieces irresistibly tactile. On just one I identified foam, a rubber mat, metal strips, and plastic tubes contrasted with unfinished and painted wood, all arranged in a pleasing conglomeration of balanced shapes. Any urge to touch these towers is alleviated by the large interactive stage that dominates the center of the exhibition.
Hanging beside the platform are a number of black fabric and wire costumes, meant to be worn by museum-goers and specially-trained museum staff. A takeaway poster shows sixteen posing figures on one side and a list of forty numbered phrases on the other. The list corresponds to a group of forty concrete panels ringing the stage that abstractly depict isolated daily narratives. Simple instructions encourage visitors to act out "armed youth," "rejoice," and "souvenir." It's easy to quickly relate the scenarios to life in a complicated and volatile land.
While the piece explicitly references border politics and periods of intense conflict, the dress-up/act-out staging is so playful and encouraging, Meromi succeeds at transforming the hard work of considering forty years of life in Israel into a thought-provoking game. Similarly, Oded Hirsch's video and photo work marries levity with solemnity, drawing viewers into his absurdist wordless narratives with choreographed action and superb timing.
In Hirsch's Tochka, a group of blue-uniformed kibbutzniks work together with various tools, materials, and strange Rube Goldbergian devices to build a makeshift structure. (I won't say what, the process of discovery is part of the video's fun.) The workers, all members of Hirsch's kibbutz, labor silently and steadily, seemingly content despite all the heavy lifting. Tochka is simple but effective, documenting a fictionalized version of kibbutz life in which systems work intuitively and cooperatively.
On the opposite wall, 50 Blue depicts Hirsch's brother pushing their wheelchair-bound father across a series of incredibly difficult terrains: through verdant countryside, rocky hillside, muddy roads, and grassy fields. Their journey ends at a body of water where a group of people wearing yellow raincoats hoists the father (and his wheelchair) into an empty watchtower. The end result is mysterious, its significance unknown, but the process of getting there is tense, dramatic, and completely enjoyable.
Last but not least, Elisheva Biernoff's works engage the public in two very different ways. Inside the gallery, a scene of a bucolic countryside is actually a magnetic wall titled The Tools Are in Your Hands. Viewers are invited to "Create your own model of utopia in the landscape" with artist-designed magnets. One hour into the exhibition's opening, the wall was completely covered in various patterns of fish, oranges, and stones.
On the opposite side of the magnet tableau is Biernoff's Approaching Utopia, an unfinished paint-by-numbers rendering of a winged "Utopia" surrounded by the flags of various activist movements. The large-scale wall painting is accessible from within the gallery, but is most affecting from outside the museum, where passersby will witness an "in progress" representation of various progressive agendas.
The premise of Work in Progress: Approaching Utopia, as framed through the lens of Jewish history and thought, creates a structure for contemporary work that is both aesthetically challenging and intellectually meaningful. Utopia is, by its linguistic construction, impossible (Greek: ou 'not' + topos 'place'). But while the artists in Work in Progress may not be able to create utopia, the exhibition makes an irrefutable argument for the importance of art as a tool of social change. The artists' models, socially engaged artwork, and narrative experiments approach utopia, question it, and allow viewers to process the larger issues behind collective attempts at creating paradise.
Work in Progress: Considering Utopia is on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum through January 20, 2014. For more information visit thecjm.org.