The coronavirus pandemic has redefined the concept of space. As social distancing and lockdown restrictions have become the norm in 2020, the general population has reimagined the traditional notion of personal space, refraining from hugs, celebrating large events like weddings and birthdays online, and maintaining the Ministry of Health’s guidelines to stay two meters apart.
Just before Israel’s second lockdown in September, the Haifa Museum of Art in northern Israel decided to explore the idea of space and how its definition was completely altered by the current pandemic.
Through the work of 50 local artists in nine exhibitions, the museum says it is the first to dedicate its entire artistic space to the COVID-19 crisis.
“I think there was an urgent need to respond to what’s happening,” Anat Martkovich, a curator at the museum, tells NoCamels.
Martkovich is one of five curators that worked on the cluster of exhibits throughout the museum, entitled Spaces in Turmoil. The other curators include Svetlana Reingold, Limor Alpern Zered, Yifat Ashkenazi, and Sagit Zaluf Namir.
Prior to the opening of the new exhibitions, the curators had the current theme of space in mind but had no idea they would focus on COVID-19. Then, Israel had its first lockdown.
“COVID-19 happened and our take on space changed drastically,” says Martkovich, “It became an exhibition that wants to deal with more emotional, cultural themes and feelings that have arisen during the crisis. And we’re doing it through the prism of space, through the thinking of space, and how it was drastically altered during this time of crisis,” she explains.
“We were suddenly stuck at home. So what space can you be in? What space can you occupy? Public space, private space, clean space, infected space, body space with droplets of infection, the idea of safe space, psychological space. All of these different aspects,” she adds.
“This exhibition cluster seeks to explore the familiar spaces that, in a time of crisis, can become strange and deceptive,” the museum said. “The cluster’s exhibitions address the various existential spaces in which cracks have appeared following the profound crisis now afflicting the entire world.”
The exhibits present a wide range of works from different periods in Israeli art with contemporary art shown alongside mixed-media installations, still photographs, and memes. Some works were created during the pandemic while others were earlier pieces that also fit the exhibition’s premise.
Some of the works challenge the concept of family and home while others target the idea of cyberspace or finding humor in difficult times. One artist explores the boundaries between man and animal while another explores feminism during the crisis. The exhibits also explore the growing influence of the virtual world on the human psyche to the point of disconnection from physical space.
One of the exhibitions featured among the cluster is a series of photographs by photojournalist Yuval Chen that examines the idea of human vs animal during the pandemic as it looks at bats in Israel’s urban landscape during the lockdown with fewer people on the streets.
At one time, bats were thought to be the source of the transmission of the novel coronavirus to man, but scientists have since said this may not be the case.
“You can look at the bat and for a small moment, the bat was a symbol of the pandemic. We all thought at the beginning that it originated from the bat,” Martkovich says, “Bats have a really strong place in the human imagination, as something otherworldly, as something of the night, or something which is dark. Fruit bats are actually quite harmless and good for us.”
Sign up for our free weekly newsletterSubscribe
The photographs by Chen are located near the entrance of the museum in a dark hallway where the artwork is illuminated by spotlights. The photos show empty streets devoid of humans with bats flying.
“It’s very important for him that you see the urban landscape but you don’t see people there,” Martkovich adds.
An exhibit curated by Martkovich called Lines of Light Ranged in the Nonspace of the Mind, based on William Gibson’s science-fiction novel Neuromancer explores the idea of physical space versus virtual space and the separation of body and mind.
“[William Gibson] basically invented the term cyberspace. [The book] is the first kind of cultural reference to what it is. I was interested in this access between being physically stuck at home and being virtually able to be anywhere,” she tells NoCamels, “In this sort of existence, we are stuck in this mediation between the screen and the rest of the world. It’s the idea of being in your chair, in front of your computer screen but being everywhere at the same time — doing your yoga, and then talking to your grandma, and then seeing an exhibition in New York. This is what’s happening now.”
Another highlight from the cluster is the exhibition called Feminine Difference, which sets out to spotlight the female body, a sort of “micro-territory” that has become a space for a wide range of experiences including intimacy, subversiveness, and repression, according to the exhibit. With the surge in reports of violence against women during the coronavirus crisis in Israel, the issue has become prominent and pressing.
Another exhibit, the Israeli Uncanny, curated by Svetlana Reingold, explores the anxieties of daily life as a threatening landscape. This exhibition seeks to address the threat that fills the familiar home space, as it is depicted in various paintings and installations by both veteran Israeli artists like Micha Ullman and Avital Bar-Shai and younger artists from different generations. The exhibit is based on the book “The Uncanny” by Sigmund Freud that coins the term as a psychological experience of something strangely familiar, rather than simply mysterious.
Bar-Shai’s husband Belu Simion-Fainaru is a well-known mixed-media artist originally from Romania. His installation, Black Milk, is said to be reminiscent of Leonardo Da Vinci’s masterpiece “The Last Supper,” with a twist. Fainaru sets up a table and chairs that belonged to his parents in Romania. The table is lined with white porcelain dishes filled with thick black liquid which looks like oil.
“People who have seen the exhibit have had to walk in with masks. I tell them,’Just take it down for a minute so you can smell.’ You can smell the oil you can really feel it,” says Martkovich.
The exhibit deals with home and the death of a home, she adds.
While Simion-Fainairu depicts the idea of home, Israeli artist Meirav Heiman’s explores the boundaries of personal space with her photographs that hone in on the new sense of family life while distancing or under lockdown amidst the coronavirus pandemic. In one photo, a family is seen bouncing off a trampoline mid-dinner, with their food and dishes flying around the room. In a dramatic photo from her Sisters of Mercy series, a couple is seen eating dinner in their bathtub.
“In her work, she had all these families stuck together, climbing on top of each other, doing acrobatic things, under the kitchen table, over the kitchen table, jumping. Literally, climbing on top of each other and it became so relevant. Became this is what families were doing stuck at home. This is the new reality,” Martkovich says.
Spaces in Turmoil opened to the public on September 5th, just days before Israel went into its second lockdown when all museums closed and were limited to virtual offerings.
While some museums have begun to open through to a coronavirus pilot program announced by the Health Ministry, the Haifa Museum of Art has not at the time of publication. The museum’s exhibits through tours and pictures can be found on its official website.