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Tel Aviv Artist's House - Anthology of a City

Anthology of a City

Solo Exhibition by Varda Carmeli

Zaritsky Artists House, Tel Aviv

Berlin[1] is not only a European metropolis but is also in itself a world power – a world city of modern architecture and of contemporary art. It is the leading cultural center of Europe attracting many thousands of visitors every year. Berlin became the old-new capital of a united Germany ever since the Wall fell in 1989 (in 1988 Western Berlin was chosen the European Capital of Culture). Within several years the city has demolished many of its historical landmarks and erected in their stead new buildings (e.g. the Jewish Museum), which have become symbols of modern architecture.

During the years of renewal Berlin endured numerous visual obstructions in the form of tall cranes and other lifting equipment, as well as blocked walkways and excavations for the foundations of new buildings – strata from past periods were revealed only to be immediately and permanently buried under new structures: "…the unprecedented wave of construction that has transformed Berlin – so it often seems – into a vast field of bustling building sites […]a disconcerting thought lately crops up, that perhaps this construction spree, the act of covering increasing expanses of the German metropolis with concrete, serves something other than the objective need for urban reorganization: burying the past under a modern-postmodern cloak of effusive architectural magnificence."[2]

Varda Carmeli has been connected to Berlin since her childhood. Her mother's family immigrated to Eretz Israel from Berlin in 1933, before the events that led to World War II. "In my grandfather's home the name Berlin was uttered with reverence, in a special, rather considered, tone" she informs us. She first visited the city in 1996 and ever since, like many other Israelis, frequently revisits it from an inexplicable feeling of yearning and attraction. With time, Carmeli's attitude toward the city has become more complex and has given rise to insights and emotions ranging from reality to memory and from personal to public – personal memory and its struggles in the face of collective memory. "I see memory" she says, "Berlin for me is a kind of unsolved riddle: a violent clash between recollections from the past and the dizzying current eclecticism of the city, order versus disorder, the cultural abundance as opposed to flashes and comprehension that Berlin is also a symbol of human atrocity and a venue of painful national memory" (her great-grandfather lies buried in the city's Weissensee Cemetery, the largest Jewish graveyard in Western Europe).

For many of the Israeli and Jewish tourists, Carmeli included, visiting Berlin is accompanied by a strong sensation of mysticism. The experience of walking in the streets of the city and tarrying in its gardens and coffee houses arouses in the artist moments of déjà vu. The sights appear familiar one moment only to become alien in the next. The language and the tones also sound concurrently familiar and unfamiliar.

No one's voice, again.

Aching depth of the eyeball:

the lid

does not stand in its way, the lash

does not count what goes in.

The tear, half,

the sharper lens, movable,

brings the images home to you.[3]

In a conversation with Carmeli during our cooperative work on the exhibition I sensed that she had become a spectator in the Berlin theatre of the absurd. Carmeli's private theatre of the absurd emanated from her personal walk along the city's deluding line that moves and flows between memory and reality. The affinity for the absurd is reflected in the photograph of the empty chairs – the work that opens and closes the exhibition. This photograph is reminiscent of the play The Chairs by Eugene Ionesco (1952).

The theatre of the absurd was created in France after World War II. Many of the famous playwrights and philosophers of the twentieth century number among its members: Eugene Ionesco, Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett (Waiting for Godot) and Jean Genet, etc. It originates in the philosophy of existentialism that initially developed after World War I (Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre). In the plays of the absurd there are no clear plots or progressive unfolding of the narrative, time leads nowhere, the characters lack any psychological depth and the place is anywhere. All these factors serve the idea that life is meaningless and that the absurd itself is the existential situation of man, or as in the words of Kohelet: "…vanity of vanities, all is vanity" (Ecclesiastes, 1, 2). In the play The Chairs the stage gradually fills up with chairs intended for a very large audience that has been invited to listen to a speech on the meaning of life. Throughout the play the chairs remain vacant – the absent presence.

Carmeli's exhibition is a story about a train journey that, through the eyes of the Israeli visitor to Germany, has become no easy task. The clicking of the wheels on the rails, the views of the forests and the small towns flitting past the window – in each of them another place and time reverberates. Sights and sounds coming from the same place but from a different time disturb the daily normality and the banality of the city. This is the unsolved theatre of the absurd that Carmeli's exhibition presents before our eyes.

Carmeli's works comprise content and composition, binding them together with the stamp of the experience of a stay in Berlin. Awareness and unawareness dwell side by side in the exhibition. It is the personal journey of an artist who very courageously obliges the viewer to see what a visit to the city entails. It is to walk on the thin line between personal and collective memory.

Yehudit Matzkel, Curator

Translation: Amos Riesel

[1] There is no consensus of opinion with regard to the meaning of the name Berlin. Some hold the view that it comes from the Slavic word for swamp whereas others maintain that it refers to the German term for a small bear.

[2] From Prof. Moshe Zuckermann's Subterranean Story text that accompanied the exhibition Archeology of a City, by the artist Orit Siman-Tov, within the framework of the series Impressive in the Haifa Art Museum.

[3] From Paul Celan's poem An Eye, Open, translated from the German into English by Michael Hamburger (Poetry Magazine, Dec. 1971, Poetry Foundation, Chicago, USA) and into Hebrew by Manfred Winkler (Shoshanat Haayin, Tel Aviv: Sifriat Poalim Publishers, 1983, p. 58). Celan, one of Europe's important poets after World War II, was born in 1920 in the city of Czernowitz, Romania (present-day Chernivtsi, Ukraine) and committed suicide in 1970 by jumping into the Seine in Paris. His poems dealt with the atrocities of World War II from an overall humanitarian aspect. Philosophers and writers such as Jacques Derrida and painters and sculptors such as Anselm Kiefer and Belu Simion Fainaru have treated his image and his oeuvre.