These are some of the questions raised by three contemporary artists who were asked by the Israel Museum in Jerusalem to select pieces from its vast collections to create their own special exhibitions. To celebrate the reopening this summer of the museum’s main galleries following a $100 million renewal, the artists were given free rein on about half a million pieces ranging from prehistoric tools to conceptual art.
“There were no restrictions and that is so unusual,” said Susan Hiller, who along with Yinka Shonibare and Zvi Goldstein curated the “Artists’ Choices” projects. “The museum was giving us a great opportunity but also a puzzle, because how do you approach this open invitation?”
The artists, backed by the museum, decided to challenge the standard approach of displaying such an encyclopedic collection in neat chronological order or according to provenance.
They worked separately over one to two years, selecting works from the museum’s collections in archeology, fine arts and Judaica to create three very different shows wrapped into one. They also drew from their own art held at the museum or created works especially for the exhibition, which runs through January.
“Artists’ Choices” was meant to illustrate how works from different periods and cultures can be linked, despite their diverse chronological and geographical background, with surprising results.
“Our message is that all things connect in material culture,” said the museum’s director, James S. Snyder. “When you see the works in juxtaposition a light goes on and you see a new meaning.”
The Israel Museum is the country’s largest cultural institution and is renowned for its collection of modern masters and archaeological treasures like the Dead Sea Scrolls. With 10 percent of its gallery space now devoted to contemporary art, the museum decided to highlight its increasing interest in the field.
The three artists were chosen because of their established relationships with the museum and because they all share a sensitivity for revealing hidden meanings and associations between artworks, Mr. Snyder said.
The project recalls similar initiatives around the world like the “Artist’s Choice” series of exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, a show curated by Jeff Koons at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York earlier this year or the invitations the Louvre in Paris extends to intellectuals to work as guest curators.
But it still takes “a brave museum” to give artists carte blanche on a show, particularly one headlining a renovation, said Massimiliano Gioni, artistic director of the Nicola Trussardi Foundation in Milan and head of special exhibitions at the New Museum.
Mr. Gioni, who was not involved in the Jerusalem event, said that such projects can make a museum “more hospitable, less of a place where you are told a truth that you have to learn and more of an experience.”
For the largest of the three exhibitions at the Israel Museum, Mr. Goldstein, a Romanian-born Israeli, created a floor-to-ceiling installation using about 400 objects, including not just masterpieces but also everyday tools used in the renovation. The display, titled “Haunted by Objects,” explores the relationship between art and its context, and how changing the latter can alter a piece’s meaning.
“A museum collection is based on facts and historical data,” the artist said. “I subjectivized the works, privatized their meaning through the associations they have for me.”
By juxtaposing African spears and Aboriginal shields from Australia with electric drills and saws, Mr. Goldstein comments on how a shift in space and time can transform everyday tools into art; and by placing Duchamp’s “Waistcoat for Benjamin Peret” near Asian robes he wonders if Western art can be perceived as art outside of its context.
“What fascinates me about our world is that by moving things around we change them,” Mr. Goldstein said. “By changing the context we redefine the object.”
While Mr. Goldstein’s crowded selection recalls a cabinet of curiosities from the 16th or 17th century, Ms. Hiller took a more classic approach, choosing just 34 pieces, mainly from the museum’s contemporary and modern holdings.
The display is titled “A Work in Progress” because according to Ms.
Hiller, weaving a new thread of meanings around a work of art is the
museumgoer’s job, not the artist’s.
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