Life in Tel Aviv is a beach

Some things don’t do well in translation. The name of the photography exhibition currently running at the Eretz Israel Museum in Ramat Aviv in Hebrew translates simply enough as On the Coast of Tel Aviv. But there’s a nifty subtitle in there which incorporates some clever world play. Sefat Hayam translates literally as “the edge of the sea,” or “the beach” or “the coast.” However, the other meaning of “saffa” that does not survive the changeover, is “language.” That implies that the coastline of Tel Aviv is an idiom unto itself, which is part of the thinking behind the exhibition.

The chronological pretext for the showing is the 110th anniversary of the founding of Tel Aviv, and indeed, there is plenty in the way of archival material in the layout. There is a highly evocative shot of the port of Jaffa dating from 1865, taken by British photographer Peter Bergheim. And there is a 1921 image by Shimon Korbman, which shows a young couple against a backdrop of an untamed seafront, sans promenade, bicycle lane and all the rest of the tourist-consumer paraphernalia. The monochrome print is cutely framed by a heart shape and designed as a Rosh Hashanah greeting card for the Jewish New Year of 5682. The couple appears to have been caught unawares – a totally unacceptable deed in today’s PC-sensitive and, more considerate, world – and the work simply oozes yesteryear spirit. But, while there are several items from the pretty distant past, including some definitively “olde worlde” nineteenth century shots, curator Guy Raz says the overall standpoint is of a far more here and now nature. “You could call the exhibition something like ‘Then and Today,’ but it is really more contemporary, taking in works by photographers of this generation and how they look upon the sea now.”

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The temporal leapfrogging comes across clearly in some deft curatorial twinning, such as Ephraim Erde’s black and white documentation of legendary Tel Aviv lifeguards Emil and Yoske in 1935, which hangs alongside a full color four-figure arrangement of today’s beach rescue personnel, from Yanai Yechiel’s 2013 Lifeguards series. There are more then-and-now proffering in Paritz Cohen’s 1969 shot of the 13-meter high Pilots’ War Memorial in Independence Park, and Gadi Dagon’s picture of the quirky Beyond the Limit sculpture, taken at Jerusalem Beach 20 years later. The panoramic photo of a crowded Gordon Pool, taken in 1957 by feted photographer Rudi Weissenstein, is also neatly counterbalanced by Meirav Maroody’s stirring sweep of the demolition of The Dolphinarium from 2010.

RAZ ALSO gets to have a little pictorial say of his own, with a brace of lifeguard shelter depictions from 2002. “It’s not the custom for a curator to include his own work in an exhibition, but they show an historical aspect of Tel Aviv.”

The chronological throwback element is central to the whole project, with the thematic marker anchored by an intriguing video creation by Yael Bartana. “The video, near the entrance, really sets the tone of the exhibition,” Raz explains. “It is called The Declaration. You have a young man – you don’t know if he is a Jew or an Arab – who sets off from Jaffa in a boat for Andromeda.” The latter refers to a rock, which rises a mite above the waves in the sea just off the shore of Jaffa Port, the name of which comes from a Greek myth of derring-do by a certain Perseus, son of Zeus, who rescues the beauty who had been strapped to the rock as a peace offering to a bunch of peeved mermaids.

There is some political content to Bartana’s video. “The man places an olive tree on the rock,” Raz continues. “The Andromeda rock has an Israeli flag, which symbolizes sovereignty. The olive tree is equated with roots but also symbolizes peace.” There’s more to the work than immediately meets the eye. “The olive tree is on a rock, not in the earth,” Raz notes. “That talks about peace being a utopian idea. The man in the video is also wearing a singlet, sort of like a figure from the pioneering era.”

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