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Two new exhibitions explore the influence and history of the kibbutz on art and Jewish life
Ohad Meromi. The Working Day, 2012. Wood, acrylic paint, aluminum, p.v.c., concrete and paper. Dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist and Gordon Gallery, Tel Aviv.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA.- Tanned, confident, and physically fit—the kibbutznik became the symbol of contemporary Israeli culture in the early part of the twentieth century. Israel’s kibbutzim, collective farms rooted in socialist and agrarian communal ideals, helped create the infrastructure and culture of the State of Israel, produced a disproportionate number of political and military leaders from the 1920s through the 1960s, and came to define the pioneer generation of Israelis.

Two new exhibitions at The Contemporary Jewish Museum explore the influence and history of the kibbutz on art and Jewish life. To Build & Be Built: Kibbutz History traces the growth and development of these unique communities through photographic images, ephemera, sound, moving images, and interpretive text. Work in Progress: Considering Utopia presents new work by three contemporary Jewish artists—Oded Hirsch, Ohad Meromi, and Elisheva Biernoff—that offer new meditations on the idea of utopia.

“The utopian ideal has exerted a strong pull on humankind’s imagination for centuries and there have been countless attempts to create intentional communities that promote cooperation, harmony, and happiness,” says Lori Starr, The CJM Executive Director. “The kibbutz movement is a powerful recent example and one that offers a fascinating opportunity to explore how we think about ideal societies, both in the context of Judaism and on a universal level. We’re thrilled to be working with three important Jewish artists to ignite discussion about the ongoing human ‘work in progress’ to create a perfect place.”

To Build & Be Built: Kibbutz History
October 3, 2013 through July 1, 2014

To Build & Be Built: Kibbutz History sets the stage for visitors’ understanding of the kibbutz—one of the most interesting social experiments of the twentieth century and a concept rooted in Jewish teaching. Through approximately thirty photographic images and selected ephemera drawn from important archives and museum collections, as well as sound, moving images, and interpretive text, this intimate exhibition presents a concise overview of the history of the kibbutz movement in Israel, from the early settlements of 1909 to the present day. It also looks at the transformation of the kibbutz as Israel has become increasingly urban and modernized, and the movement’s influence on American and Bay Area Jewish life.

The birth of the kibbutz was a combination of ideology and practical need. The earliest waves of European Jewish pioneers responded to the harsh climate and primitive living conditions of their new home by banding together to create working groups that pooled earnings. With strong Zionist and socialist beliefs, the mostly young pioneers championed the idea that in a Jewish homeland, they would be free of the social and economic restrictions they faced in Europe and so shaped the structure of the kibbutz around communal life and property and a deep connection to the land. Among the movement’s radical social innovations was a policy of raising children not with their parents, but together in their own dormitories.

In 1948, during the Israeli War of Independence, the role of kibbutzim in defining and defending territory became especially clear. With the creation of the State of Israel, the kibbutz inspired Jewish youth movements and summer camps around the world to encourage teens to travel to Israel and work the land.

With the 1948 establishment of the State of Israel, the influence of the kibbutz in Israeli life began to diminish. Government policies and their alignment with the capitalist West contributed to this decline, as well as disenchantment with collective child rearing and the new comforts of modern technology.

Starting in the 1980s, many kibbutzim were privatized due to various economic pressures, and kibbutzniks began to rethink their purpose. Today, a significant number of kibbutzim have evolved to become models of urban farming and eco-learning, with summer camps for youth and hotel accommodations for guests. Cities in Israel have seen the creation of “Urban Kibbutzim” that focus on serving the communities in which they are based. The kibbutz’s do-it-yourself ethics and care of the land endure and continue to inspire community planners, youth groups, environmental activists, and artists in Israel and the United States.

Work in Progress: Considering Utopia
October 3, 2013 through January 20, 2014

Community and cooperation are significant concepts to the three artists featured in Work in Progress: Considering Utopia, a contemporary art exhibition that encourages visitors to think about what utopia can mean today.

Oded Hirsch and Ohad Meromi, whose work is being shown in a West Coast art museum for the first time, are both New York-based Israeli artists with personal connections to kibbutzim and a common interest in channeling the collective energy and participatory nature of the kibbutz model in their work, while also reflecting on declining idealism. San Francisco-based artist Elisheva Biernoff’s interest lies in the importance of human action in the ongoing quest for utopia. This is reflected in the commissioned work she has created specifically for this exhibition that invites visitor participation.

Oded Hirsch (born 1976, Kibbutz Afikim, Israel) has received significant critical acclaim for his contemplative video vignettes filmed on the kibbutz in the Jordan Valley where the artist grew up. In these works, process is more important than outcome, and collective action prevails over tangible results. Verdant land and expansive water provide the backdrop for the communal actions of kibbutzniks, as they work together to build a bridge in Tochka (2011) or hoist the artist’s wheelchair-bound father up to a watchtower in the Sea of Galilee in 50 Blue (2009). In addition to these two videos, the exhibition also features five of Hirsch’s vibrant photographs, including three works from the new series The Tractor (2013), inspired by the 1930 Soviet film Earth, which addressed collective landownership in the Ukraine.

Ohad Meromi (born 1967, Kibbutz Mizra, Israel) utilizes a broad spectrum of media to create dynamic, interactive environments and explore social relationships. Architectural elements, set design components, sculptural figures, and other components form a tableau that creates a feeling of communal energy and encourages participation and open-ended discussion. Meromi contributes an ambitious, new installation titled 1967 (the year of the artist’s birth) that offers a nuanced interpretation of utopia through the prisms of past and future. The installation is centered around a theatrical stage inspired by the chadar ochel (dining hall) of the kibbutz, a gathering place for community. Visitors are encouraged to walk on, through, and around the installation. A broad range of influences—from Russian constructivism to recent Israeli history—inform the experience. Further participation will occur throughout the run of the exhibition, when visitors will be invited to take part in activations.

Local artist Elisheva Biernoff (born 1980) has been commissioned to create a work specifically for the exhibition. The Tools Are in Your Hands is a magnetic wall painting of an Edenic pastoral scene. Visitors choose from hundreds of magnets to build their own utopian vistas on the wall. Another new Biernoff work, Approaching Utopia, will be visible through the window facing Yerba Buena Lane, offering a glimpse into the exhibition to an audience outside the Museum’s walls. In this mural, an allegorical figure of utopia is surrounded by flags representing both historical and contemporary activist movements—the Earth Day flag, the Woman’s Suffrage flag, and more.

Elisheva Biernoff was born in 1980 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and currently lives and works in San Francisco. She received her BA from Yale University in 2002 and her MFA from California College of the Arts in 2009. Her work has been included in exhibitions at the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco; CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art, San Francisco; San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery; and Headlands Center for the Arts, Sausalito, CA. She was a 2012 finalist for the SFMOMA SECA Award.

Oded Hirsch was born in 1976 on Kibbutz Afikim, Israel, and currently lives and works in Queens, New York. He graduated from the Neri Bloomfield School of Design in Haifa, Israel, in 2006, and received his MFA from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn in 2008. His work has been included in exhibitions at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, North Adams; the Soap Factory, Minneapolis; the Queens Museum of Art, New York; Jewish Museum, Munich; and the 2012 Liverpool Biennial, United Kingdom. He is the recent recipient of a Jerome Foundation Film Grant, Six Points Fellowship, and New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship.

Ohad Meromi was born in 1967 on Kibbutz Mizra, Israel, and currently lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. He received his BFA from Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem in 1992, and his MFA from Columbia University in New York in 2003. He has had solo exhibitions at Art in General, New York; PS1 Contemporary Art Center, New York; The Tel Aviv Museum of Art; The Jewish Museum, New York; and the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. His work has been included in exhibitions at the Sculpture Center, New York; Magasin 3, Stockholm; the Carrara International Sculpture Biennial, Italy; the Lyon Biennial, France; and the Public Art Fund, New York. Meromi received the Foundation for Contemporary Art’s Grants to Artists award in 2008.

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