Israeli artist Nevet Yitzhak explores metaphorical repair in MOCA Cleveland’s “Off the Ruling Class”

By Carlo Wolff

Portrait of an artist: Nevet Yitzhak

Portrait of an artist: Nevet Yitzhak

Violence, it seems, can drive Tel Aviv video artist Nevet Yitzhak to heal.

For her first solo museum presentation in the United States, running through Jan. 10 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland in University Circle’s Uptown district, Yitzhak focused on the annual maintenance of “The Thinker,” the damaged Auguste Rodin sculpture standing cultural guard at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Her work, suggests MOCA Cleveland associate curator Rose Bouthillier, is a metaphorical way to make the statue whole again.

Yitzhak’s installation on the Rodin, which the Weather Underground bombed in 1970, documents the conservation of “The Thinker,” which then-GMA director Sherman Lee reinstalled with its grievously wounded lower half.

Like other Yitzhak installations, the two-channel “Thinker” work is a way to bear witness to history and to comment on the violence that so often dogs art. It seems particularly timely in light of the recent ISIS destruction of ancient artifacts and structures in the Middle East.

A 2014 installation, “Detail no. 1 from the Innocence Museum of Displaced Monuments: Luxor Obelisk,” also deals with violence and cultural misappropriation. It shows a giraffe heading toward the obelisk, which the French bought from Egypt in the 1830s; the legendary plinth now stands in the Place de la Concorde in Paris.

Instead of reaching the obelisk, however, the giraffe places its head under a guillotine, even as Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” plays. The installation, which unfolds like a baroque adagio, is a stunning blend of the gorgeous and the grotesque.

Another installation is the ironically titled “Salute.” Dating from 2003, the black-and-white, single-channel work by Yitzhak and Lior Fridman is a video manipulation that simulates an airplane crashing into the Tower of David in Jerusalem. Conflating archival footage from Israeli wars and the Sept. 11 destruction of New York’s Twin Towers, it has the immediacy of a newsreel and the feeling of a nightmare.

Yitzhak is not afraid to set up startling juxtapositions.

Bouthillier met Yitzhak in October in Israel on a trip arranged by Artis, a New York- and Tel Aviv-based nonprofit that brings curators to Israel to help promote Israeli art.

Nevet Yitzhak, The dance of the behind, 2014, 2-channel audio video installation, 00:06:45, looped. Installation view, Petach Tikva Museum of Art, 2014. Photo: Meidad Suchowolski. Courtesy of the artist.

Nevet Yitzhak, The dance of the behind, 2014, 2-channel audio video installation, 00:06:45, looped. Installation view, Petach Tikva Museum of Art, 2014. Photo: Meidad Suchowolski. Courtesy of the artist.

Artis and the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, a sponsor of the Yitzhak exhibition, financed the Rodin installation. It will be the first MOCA Cleveland commission to travel: It was scheduled to show at EXPO Chicago, on the Navy Pier, Sept. 18-20.

Their meeting in Israel resulted in an invitation to Yitzhak to visit Cleveland in May.

“I brought her to a lot of local collections and cultural places, and she was really interested in esoteric and obscure museums as well,” Bouthillier says. Among the places they visited were the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage, The Temple-Tifereth Israel, and Zoar, a town about an hour-and-a-half south of Cleveland with an interesting museum.

Yitzhak also spent quite a bit of time at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Initially entranced by the Fayum mummy portraits painted on sarcophagi from Roman Egypt, Yitzhak eventually fixed on “The Thinker,” giving her plenty of material to work with, Bouthillier suggested.

The Rodin – and what happened to it 45 years ago – tie “into this really compelling moment in American history, all these conflicts around the Vietnam War,” Bouthillier says, and “it was interesting to look at the destruction of this object sort of in light of all the news right now of artifacts being destroyed in the Middle East.” To Yitzhak, “the destruction of an object means that object has power and that object has influence,” Bouthillier says. “Otherwise, why bother?”

As of Sept. 3, the installation was a work in progress. It will feature two projections; one is like a 3-D animation of “The Thinker,” imagining him as a living, breathing person; the other, according to Bouthillier, “is a sort of compilation of all of Nevet’s research about the object,” the ephemera, letters, files, images throughout time “compiled into almost like a diary.”

The latter has a romantic overtone, informed by the tenderness of care, caressing and attention, imagining what Rodin would have wanted, “talking about ‘The Thinker’ almost as a personification of him, and because it is a person, it’s a very iconic figure,” Bouthillier says.

“Once I become interested in a subject,” Yitzhak told Bouthillier in a Skype interview earlier this summer, “I begin to study and gather as much information as possible: images, video, records, text. This research takes a lot of energy. The work begins to develop from the footage, shaped by the ideas that emerge. On the more technical side, my role is more of an editor than a director. I’m also a soloist – I prefer to work alone on my computer as opposed to producing with a large group of people!” CV

*Lead image: Nevet Yitzhak, Innocence Museum of Displaced Monuments: Luxor Obelisk, 2014, 2-channel audio video Installation; 00:03:20. Installation view, Artport, Tel Aviv. Courtesy of the artist.