ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 142

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Artistic freedom on display at historic high school’s Passover biennale

The first Autonomous Art Biennale opens at Gymnasia Herzliya in Tel Aviv, offering ‘Experiments in Learning’

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Sandra Weil (far left), Rola Khoury (center) and Roy Brand, co-curators of the first Autonomous Art Biennale, March 31-April 13, 2023 at Tel Aviv's Gymnasia Herzliya high school (Courtesy Eyal Izhar)
Sandra Weil (far left), Rola Khoury (center) and Roy Brand, co-curators of the first Autonomous Art Biennale, March 31-April 13, 2023 at Tel Aviv's Gymnasia Herzliya high school (Courtesy Eyal Izhar)

It was a clever idea to host the first Autonomous Art Biennale, a sprawling art exhibition, at the Gymnasia Herzliya high school in Tel Aviv, given its educational aims.

Titled “Experiments in Learning,” the two-week-long art exhibition, March 31-April 13, with works by 33 artists, is displayed throughout the hallways, classrooms, gym, schoolyards and even the teachers’ room of the historic Tel Aviv institution, with free entry for all.

Ester Schneider’s “Lamp Partition,” a fringed feathered and fabric installation, runs between the blue metal lockers of two corridors, while Ohad Meromi’s outdoor gazebo, created in the colors of the Palestinian and Israeli flags, sits in a corner of a schoolyard.

Cheli Yuzbitz has an unnamed installation of square-cut pieces of stone, echoing the age-old speckled tiles that make up the school flooring, while Fatma Abu Rumi’s hairpieces, twisted into crowns and hairbands to spotlight stereotypes of Arab women, hang outside the teachers’ lounge.

Visiting New York artist Mark Tribe has wall-sized prints depicting a series of green landscape images produced with the help of artificial intelligence, showing the allure of digital imagery.

In the same downstairs space, Shira Sagol’s “Hello First Grade,” a circular floor installation of 100 paper flowers, is made from 25,000 notes and scribbles written by her children during the years of the pandemic.

Ester Schneider’s “Lamp Partition,” a fringed, feathered and fabric installation for the first Autonomous Art Biennale, March 31-April 13, 2023 at Tel Aviv’s Gymnasia Herzliya high school (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

And those were just a handful of the artworks visible in the day prior to the official March 31 opening.

It took a year and a half to pull it all together, said co-curator Roy Brand, who worked closely with his co-curators Sandra Weil and Rula Khoury as well as principal Ze’ev Degani and sculptor Tsibi Geva on the event.

Brand, a senior lecturer at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, and his fellow curators, wanted to bring the idea of a biennale — an art event that takes place once every two years — to their corner of Israel’s art world.

“Art is alive and kicking and reacts to what’s happening and raises questions and concerns and sometimes it’s a little ahead of its time,” he said. “People like me can go to the Venice Biennale but we wanted to have something like it here, to be part of kids’ learning experiences here in Israel.”

A biennale, unlike a museum, doesn’t collect art, and it also doesn’t sell artworks like other art events. It offers art for art’s sake, pushing artists to create and viewers to come, see and appreciate.

Cheli Yuzbitz setting up her unnamed installation of square-cut pieces of stone for first Autonomous Art Biennale, March 31-April 13, 2023 at Tel Aviv’s Gymnasia Herzliya high school (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

“Art is a toolbox for knowing how to play, build things; sometimes it fails and sometimes something interesting comes out,” said Brand.

The “autonomous” in the biennale’s name comes from the spirit of the curators, he said, in which they were each autonomous throughout the process and didn’t veto one another’s choices.

The Swedish-born Weil, said Brand, is a curator very focused on craft and traditional works of art from non-Western societies, particularly as a board member of Kuchinate, an art and design-based non-profit that provides economic and social empowerment to African refugee women living in south Tel Aviv.

Rula Khoury is a Haifa-born Arab art curator, historian and critic who brings other narratives to bear, including some that force viewers to learn to live with otherness, said Brand.

Mark Tribe’s hangings for the first Autonomous Art Biennale, March 31-April 13, 2023 at Tel Aviv’s Gymnasia Herzliya high school (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

“‘Autonomous’ offered a wide-ranging theme,” said Brand, “in terms of voices and representation and not only international but inter-local, too.”

Brand, a longtime friend of Degani and Geva, said the three came up with the biennale idea while sitting together in Degani’s office one day. The Gymnasia runs a well-known art program at the school, with many students studying various art subjects including cinema or architecture as their high school major.

Degani’s dedication to arts education inspired Brand, as did Degani’s offer of the school as a setting.

Shira Sagol’s ‘Hello First Grade,’ a circular floor installation of 100 paper flowers for the first Autonomous Art Biennale, March 31-April 13, 2023 at Tel Aviv’s Gymnasia Herzliya high school (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

The school, originally known as HaGymnasia HaIvrit, was the country’s first Hebrew high school, founded in 1905 in Jaffa. It was renamed Gymnasia Herzliya when its next building was constructed on Herzl Street in Tel Aviv’s Ahuzat Habayit, the first Jewish neighborhood of the nascent city outside of Jaffa.

The high school was moved again in 1962 to its current location on Jabotinsky Street in the city’s northern end, when the original, architectural masterpiece, designed to mimic elements of Solomon’s Temple, was razed to build Shalom Tower, then the city’s tallest building.

The sprawling campus offers plenty of spaces to exhibit the Autonomous Art Biennale artworks, and to host the rich programming schedule, filled with open classes, workshops, screenings and lectures, all free with pre-registration.

Visitors are also welcome to take part in impromptu soccer and basketball games and ping pong matches on the grounds of the school, and to picnic as well.

Check the Autonomous Art Biennale website (in Hebrew, English and Russian) for hours, activities and workshops led by Gymnasia teachers and students, Beit Berl’s Hamidrasha Faculty of Arts lecturers and faculty from Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design.

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