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Monday, January 2, 2012

Israel Museum opens its doors to the curious minds of international artists

What a pity all the artists involved in the Israel Museum’s new exhibition, ‘Curious Minds: New Approaches in Design,’ live abroad.

Watching the entranced faces of visitors as they peer at the work by Julius Popp entitled “bit.fall,” suffices: The name of the Israel Museum’s new exhibition, “Curious Minds: New Approaches in Design,” is certainly fitting.

Bit.fall is a stainless-steel machine whose magnetic valves and electronic components produce screens of drops of water that create words as they drip. This is indeed a waterfall of words, which gives one the feeling one has when seeing words and images on a computer screen – except these are actual drops of water and their flow is carefully synchronized: Each dripping word appears for just a fleeting instant.

This work, located at the end of the exhibition hall, stirs a predictable response: Visitors who have already seen the rest of the show stop before it. Slowly, these people, children and adults alike, approach the “wordfall,” trying to figure out how in the world the mechanism works. They look up at the little faucets from which drops trickle out, and then down, to the pool into which the water drains; they listen to the murmur of the waterfall, all the time trying to figure out how this magical effect is conjured. How can it be that drops of water which fall from somewhere above create words?

People gather around the work, gaze at the panel which illuminates it, examining the mechanical apparatus that pumps the water out of a pool and directs it upward; still, they have no clue as to how the whole thing works. At this stage, they take out their cameras. A second later, the guard comes over, ordering them to put their cameras away (perhaps this is the right time to ask why there still are museums which ban the use of cameras at exhibitions ).

The more persistent visitors try to read the explanatory text at the side of the exhibit, but it is so small and dark that even people with good eyes have trouble doing so. The sign explains that the words created out of the water drops are selected by an algorithmic program that picks out key words from news websites or search engines. As Berman-born Popp sees it, information from the virtual world also has a sort of physical dimension to it: The screens of falling water symbolize the flow of information to which we are constantly exposed in the digital era. That’s a rather simplistic explanation, but it does not detract from the pleasure one experiences when seeing his creation.

The decision to display “bit.fall” at the end of the hall was excellent. It’s easy to fall in love with it, and it encourages patrons to leave the Nathan Cummings building with a smile – even if they didn’t completely grasp what they saw. Even though a large portion of the exhibition is comprised of mesmerizing works, the spectacle which they produce is not likely to be grasped the same way, with the same level of comprehension, by each visitor.

Dance of the starlings

“Curious Minds: New Approaches in Design,” which opened two weeks ago, is the largest design exhibition staged by the Israel Museum since its renovation, which ended in mid-2010. It indeed offers new approaches, and is one of the most fascinating exhibitions of its kind to be launched in Israel in recent memory. One of the reasons for this is the tremendous work by architect Mark Bobrowicz, who created pleasant passageways between the spaces here, allowing visitors to view works while streaming easily through the Cummings building.

Another reason, of course, is those who are participating in this show: 30 international designers are involved, including some of the most interesting, dynamic artists in their field today, most of them relatively young. These include, for instance, the Troika group from England, Stefan Sagmeister from the United States, the Design Drift studio from Holland, and Israeli designers who work in London: Shay Alkalay and Yael Mer from Raw Edges, and Alon Meron. In most cases, the choice of works is superb, but it is unfortunate that no room was made for works by designers who work here, in this country.

In any event, exhibition curator Alex Ward, head of the museum’s design and architecture department, believes that those taking part in the show map out new territory with their work, stimulate the imagination, and stir thought and discussion about the role of design in tomorrow’s world.

Under the rubric of “critical design,” the exhibition features works that deal with questions relating to society, politics and the environment; indeed, the collaboration between designers and researchers from various scientific spheres raises such issues. The exhibition’s subtitle, “New Approaches in Design,” hints at its essence: This is a strange combination of a modern room of wonders and a laboratory in which designers and engineers toil. In fact, the show can be seen as an introductory lesson in contemporary design. It encompasses most of the trends and phenomena that have characterized the world of design in recent years: a return to work produced by the human hand, and the combination of handicraft and digital technology; the tension between high tech and low tech; works in which the story “behind the scenes” is sometimes more interesting than the final product itself; and last but not least, the theme of nature and it relationship with technology.

Take, for instance, two light sculptures displayed by the Design Drift studio at the exhibition’s entrance. The first, “Fragile Future 3,” tries to provide a glimpse of a future in which the natural world coexists with the man-made world of technology. The work is made of dandelion seeds, LED lamps and phosphor bronze.

Specifically, its electronic rings are created by phosphor bronze strips cut by laser beams; the dandelion seeds, which were pasted one by one, by hand, onto the LED lamps, are illuminated by electricity. The result is a fascinating study in contrasts of lightness and heaviness, natural and artificial materials, fragile and solid items, high tech and low tech.

The second work displayed by Design Drift is “Flylight,” made out of glass, copper threads and electronic objects. Inspired by the flights of starlings, this interactive work is comprised of 160 illuminated glass tubes connected to electronic sensors; the sensors are connected to a computer program which simulates the behavior of flocks of birds. The result is a hypnotic light display.

David Bowen also collected data from nature and translated it into the movement of objects in his work “Tele-Present Water,” a mobile comprised of wooden units connected to an electronic grid that transmits data. In this work, information from a remote data station in the Shumagin Islands, Alaska, is transmitted to a mechanical grid, which simulates the effects caused by the movement of water in that distant location. The information comes in real time from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration buoy station in Alaska, so this creation in effect updates viewers about the movement of waves partway across the globe.

In the three works just mentioned, impressive aesthetic effects virtually supersede the display’s rationale; the viewer who fails to read the captions and explanations may nevertheless come away with a powerful impression.

Educational quality

However, other, ground-breaking works in this show have a different, educational quality, integrating design and science. For example, the work, “L’Artisan electronique,” by the Unfold studio, relates to older techniques used in the creation of useful objects, while also deploying digital technology. Here the designers create a virtual pottery wheel, and combine traditional ceramic-making techniques with digital media: A 3D scanner and digital software are used to generate forms. Specifically, this work, which was displayed at a design fair in Milan in 2010, transforms tactile processes: Instead of molding clay, a scanner reads people’s hand movements and translates them onto a computer screen; when the creator is pleased with the product, he can save the model on the computer program for future use – or print the results. Instead of regular printing processes, this printing yields clay products.

Troika’s work “Plant Fiction” features five fictitious plant species engineered in response to environmental and social challenges. Working with scientists, the designers developed five scenarios in which each species can be used. They chose a particular locale in London for each one of them, based on its utility. One plant type, for example, emits special pigments; another provides ecological fuel; the third can extract expensive metals from objects tossed in the trash; a creeper can identify viruses that circulate in the air; and mushrooms absorb noise and can be used as insulation. Exhibited at the Expo in Shanghai in 2010, and also at Hyperlinks, the Art Institute of Chicago, this is an excellent example of how the cross-fertilization of design and science can yield extraordinary results.