Reuven Zahavi’s exhibition “China” is named after traditionally decorated Chinese porcelain in common domestic use. Zahavi presents the Issawiyeh Tableware — a collection of disposable plastic plates which he uses as platters for his drawings. (The collection’s Hebrew name, Servis Issawiyeh comes from the Hebrewfication “servis,” meaning a dinnerware serving set.) The drawings offer a view of Issawiyeh, the large village at the foot of the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus, as seen from the windows of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design.
Sketches depicting the Palestinian village — whose inhabitants live in dire conditions despite its inclusion in Jerusalem’s expanded municipal borders of 1967 – replace the Chinese or European landscapes associated with “china.” At times it even seems that the familiar pastoral images meld with those of the crushed village. “The village,” says Zahavi, “where smoke rises daily and booming sounds are routine, stays transparent to the Mt. Scopus community.” This transparency is conveyed by the illustrative drawings that decorate the plastic plates – flora and fauna, lakes and bridges, gardens and hunting scenes or other “Chinese” and imaginary scenarios. All of these express Zahavi’s distant stance and the posture (or imposture) he assumes towards the village and its people.
Zahavi observes the village from the grand windows of the Bezalel academy with its distinguished artistic history, thus connecting his work to a tradition depicting the Jewish landscape in Israel. But his choice to sketch the village through a foreign aesthetic tradition defamiliarizes the Palestinian village. This defamiliarization invites both artist and viewer to direct their gaze at the transparent village, to take note of the art academy’s location and position, and to contemplate the artist’s relation to both.
The choice to sketch the drawings on disposable plastic raises riveting questions regarding the status of painting and of the artist. This choice boosts the plastic’s value and simultaneously raises doubt as to the artwork’s merit. “The white plastic plate,” Zahavi says, “stubbornly refuses any paint medium. It is a cheap imitation. It is recycled in a series of ‘reflexive exercises’ whose purpose is to concretize the problematic stand of the spectator, the object and the artist via a reality of transparent oppression.”
The collection presented in the exhibition presents the artist’s stand as seemingly ironic or perhaps self-reflexive. Is the choice to immortalize the village on a plastic plate meant for disposal an expression of contempt – even if unconscious – towards the transparent village? Does it reflect the brute quality of contemporary culture? Is it an allusion to the brutal Israeli policy towards Issawiyeh villagers who are currently under curfew? Or does the choice suggest doubt regarding simulation and posturing of materials, and perhaps artistic endeavor in general, not only via itself but in its relation to reality?
The exhibition of the collection in Mamuta Center’s Underground Academy at the Hansen House as part of Jerusalem Design Week positions Zahavi’s work not only in relation to the tradition of Israeli landscape painting, but in relation to the language of design, craft and mass production. Zahavi raises questions regarding the status of the functional, disposable object in relation to reality, to the immortality of art, and even to that of the nation. “China” – a beautiful collection of highly charged sketches on a set of cheap plastic plates – comments on the very act of drawing, and contends with the erasure involved in gazing at the village of Issawiyeh from the gorgeous windows of the university at Mt. Scopus.
Reuven Zahavi lives in Jerusalem, teaches at the Bezalel Academy for Arts and Design and at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He works with drawing and painting alongside digital media and is engaged in theoretical studies of craft, design and contemporary art-making.