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Artist plays with Viking myths and politics in seesaw Tel Aviv installation

Tomer Dekel’s ‘Valhalla’ exhibit at Artport Tel Aviv toys with ancient symbols, warfare and childhood imagination

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Tomer Dekel's 'Valhalla' exhibit of Viking-esque playground equipment at Artport through November 26, 2022 (Courtesy Artport)
Tomer Dekel's 'Valhalla' exhibit of Viking-esque playground equipment at Artport through November 26, 2022 (Courtesy Artport)

Four seesaws soar toward the high white ceiling of Tel Aviv’s Artport gallery space, transformed by the viewer’s imagination into Viking ships sailing a roiling sea or great steeds on a deadly mission.

They’re the creations of Tomer Dekel, one of six artists who spent the last 12 months in residence at Artport, a contemporary art center in south Tel Aviv. Dekel’s installation is part of Nonfinito 2022, the year-end exhibition of the Artport residency program, open through November 26.

Dekel, along with fellow artists Maayan Elyakim, Keren Gueller, Ana Wild, Nardeen Srouji and Lali Fruheling, spent 2021-2022 ensconced in one of the studios at Artport, a home to emerging artists that supports them at pivotal stages of their professional development.

The center was founded 11 years ago by Jason Arison, chairman of the Ted Arison Family Foundation, and has brought together artists and curators from Israel and abroad for exhibits, conferences, lectures, workshops and an annual art book fair, as well as the artists’ residencies.

Dekel, a Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design graduate, works mainly with Israeli landscape materials and processes them into installations, creating scenes that stir the imagination, connecting to mythology, emotions, politics, the environment and other contexts.

He often works with found objects that are identifiably Israeli and past their prime, their tasks completed in the world but not considered vintage just yet.

Artist Tomer Dekel with his installation, ‘Valhalla,’ at Artport Tel Aviv (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

The retired seesaws were moldering in a Tel Aviv junkyard, a familiar part of Dekel’s 1980s Israeli childhood.

“I fell in love with them,” said Dekel, “and waited for the right moment to work with them.”

That opportunity arrived with his residency at Artport, where he altered the shape of the wooden beams, set with plastic handles and seats, turning them into “Valhalla,” the hall of Norse mythology, where slain warriors drink liquor that flows from the udders of a goat, and their sport is to fight one another every day.

There’s certainly a mythological feel to the beams, as Dekel channeled the imagination of a small child in the playground, riding his found seesaws into the sunset, playing the great warrior on a steed. He turned one set of yellow pedals into a pair of giant wings and fashioned the curved back of another seesaw into a horse’s head.

It isn’t just small children who turn playground equipment into imaginary mythological figures, said Dekel. Teens also visit playgrounds, where they can break some rules in their search of an adult identity. Adults then return to the playground with their own children, sometimes playacting themselves while walking their dogs at night.

“It’s an evolution,” he said.

In “Valhalla,” Dekel considers the Vikings’ reputation for power and violence, compares them to the terrorists of present day, questions whether Israelis or Palestinians are the Vikings of the present, and wonders whether Palestinians may sometimes have the right to commit certain terrorist acts.

“We think of the Vikings as bad, but we really don’t know what they were like,” said Dekel.

“We think that if we don’t control something all the time, it will be barbaric and threatening,” later citing far-right nationalist lawmaker Itamar Ben Gvir, whose success in the November 1 elections sparked centrist and left-wing alarm, as part of his train of thought.

A pair of red handlebars refashioned into a Viking symbol of peace for Tomer Dekel’s ‘Valhalla’ at Artport Tel Aviv (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

In a symbol of hope, Dekel turned one set of red seesaw handlebars into a Viking peace symbol, and set it on the floor as an anchor.

“You can’t just end a war,” said Dekel. “You can’t just put up a wall and say ‘Goodbye, there’s peace now.’ You have to go through a deeper understanding of the other’s identity.”

In “Valhalla,” Dekel created a story in which viewers can meet what can be considered evil or irrational and find the ability to work with it.

It’s a hopeful challenge.

Nonfinito, September 9 through November 26, Artport Tel Aviv.

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