Work in Progress: Considering Utopia

Review

Work in Progress: Considering Utopia

By Mary Anne Kluth January 7, 2014

The three artists in Work in Progress: Considering Utopia at the Contemporary Jewish Museum offer varying perspectives on attaining a social and pastoral golden age. The works are united by a shared interest in collective activity. Elisheva Biernoff’s and Ohad Meromi’s installations in painting and sculpture invite audience participation, and Oded Hirsch presents videos and photos at once documenting and fictionalizing communal labor on a kibbutz.

Biernoff’s The Tools Are In Your Hands (2013) is an enormous landscape mural painted over metal that allows viewers to apply cut-out magnets depicting plants, animals, and simple geometric forms, which can be found sorted into nearby bins.  Her flat, graphical paint application in blues, greens, and neutral tones suggest calm skies, and fertile land, inviting viewers to finish an image of a valley of well-tended farms in harmony with nature. 

Oded Hirsch. Halfman, 2009; Chromogenic print; 40 in. x 50 in. Courtesy of Thierry Goldberg Gallery.

On the afternoon of Sunday, November 10th, however, the audience had instead produced a hurly-burly of magnetic rabbits, chickens, tree leaves, tomatoes, lemons, and abstract shapes, sometimes coalescing into mandala-like circular arrangements, sometimes canvassing wide swaths of Biernoff’s landscape in Dadaist clouds. The temporary effect, looking like a kindergarten exercise and not a picture of sustainable agriculture, deftly demonstrates one challenge facing collective action. The ideal outcome seems obvious, given the parts Biernoff provides, yet the anonymous group effort diverges wildly from any logical cohesion, throwing the specific goals of the project into doubt.

Meromi’s 1967 (2013), consists of a stage and attached dais, with a rack of wearable black costume elements, a set of concrete plaques, a stack of free prints, and many wood, concrete, and plastic sculptures, arranged both on the stage and in the surrounding space. Drawing from Constructivist design and the concept of a chadar ochel, or the multi-use dining and community space on a traditional kibbutz, Meromi’s installation, with it’s hoops, pegs, racks, and steps, conjures a sense of both experimental theater and institutional recreation, like an intensely beautiful gym class. Both Meromi and Biernoff work on a massive large scale and invoke aesthetics of education, perhaps reflecting on the necessity of communicating Utopian ideas systematically. Also like Biernoff’s mural, Meromi’s stage, an invitation for the audience to create improvised performances, is an open-ended proposition. His poster offers diagrammatic possibilities for the costumes and lists words that refer to obliquely to conflict, but the words and images are emphatically not a script or a set of instructions.

Ohad Meromi, 1967, 2013; mixed media; dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist and Gordon Gallery, Tel Aviv.  

Both artists link Utopian progress and education, but explore the role of play and experimentation, even chaos, in negotiating ideals amongst individuals. They both have offered framework for others’ actions, and left the results open, in a spirit of trust and optimism.

Hirsch’s gorgeously composed videos, 50 Blue (2009) and Wheel Pushers (2010), are similarly open-ended and generous. Featuring allegorical narratives of pastoral cooperation between members of the artist’s own commune, they omit definitive goals and outcomes in favor of interesting work processes and careful study of human labor. The costumes that serve to unite his groups of workers both mimic the utilitarian garments associated with kibbutz life and help to create a singular character for a group of individuals. The accompanying still photos recall pastoral master works by painters Pissarro or Rivera. Viewers are left to draw their own conclusions regarding the purpose and values of the activities Hirsch presents.

Elisheva Biernoff, The Tools Are in Your Hands, 2013; proposal drawing. Courtesy of the Artist and Eli Ridgway.

The exhibition as a whole positions art as a space to think through, test, and potentially develop goal-oriented models of human interaction. Biernoff, Meromi, and Hirsch present complex works that affirm a desire for peaceful collective labor and a sustainable group relationship to the land and one’s neighbors, while still acknowledging that realizing social dreams relies on negotiating participation and the various goals of others’.

Work in Progress: Considering Utopia is on view at Contemporary Jewish Museum, in San Francisco, through January 20, 2014.

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