Reaching for utopia: CJM exhibits study kibbutz movement, struggle to make the world a better place

If the state of the world is getting you down, head over to the Contemporary Jewish Museum for a glimpse of utopia.

The new exhibit “Work in Progress: Considering Utopia” explores the concept of utopia from Jewish and contemporary perspectives. It features installations by two New York–based Israeli artists — sculptor Ohad Meromi, and photographer and video artist Oded Hirsch — and a mural by local artist Elisheva Biernoff.

In conjunction with “Utopia” is the smaller exhibit “To Build & Be Built: Kibbutz History,” which explores the key role ideologically driven kibbutzim, or collective agricultural communities, have played in the establishment and growth of the State of Israel over the past century — and how they’ve adjusted to modern times.

“To Build & Be Built” brings museum visitors face to face with the real-world problems Israeli kibbutzim have faced throughout their history — beginning with the early settlements in 1909 by European Jewish pioneers, through the 1948 War of Independence, and into the late 20th century when the collectives faced immense economic and social pressures. The exhibition’s three sections, “Early Settlements,” “Communal Culture” and “Kibbutz Today,” give an overview of the kibbutz’s trajectory over the last 100 years.

“Orange Sorting,” 1934

“It’s been really interesting to see how the kibbutz was a social experiment, the kind that was marginal in other societies but so central in and symbolic of Israel,” reflected curator Claire Frost as she oversaw the exhibition’s installation last week in the Sala Webb Education Center.

The exhibition includes a variety of poster-size images of photographs on loan from the Central Zionist Archives, Yeshiva University Museum and the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life at U.C. Berkeley. Visitors can view videos and slideshows highlighting kibbutz folk song and dance groups on monitors mounted on a reader rail beneath the 40-foot-long display case.

“To Build & Be Built” points out how many kibbutzim have reinvented themselves to survive in today’s world. While socialism is no longer at the forefront, innovation most certainly still is. For instance, Kibbutz Ketura is the home of Arava Power Company, a leading provider of solar power in the Jewish state.

The Israeli kibbutzim have also been an inspiration for several Bay Area Jewish ventures — as explained in a flip book mounted on the reader rail. The “Kibbutz Yarok” retreat at Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, the Berkeley urban farm and education center Urban Adamah, East Bay-based Jewish environmental nonprofit Wilderness Torah, and even the early 20th-century Jewish chicken ranchers who settled in Petaluma all have taken cues from the kibbutz.

The kibbutz exhibit “provides Jewish context for ‘Work in Progress,’” said CJM executive director Lori Starr. “We want to engage our audience with the subject of utopia, and the questions are more important than the answers.” Programming planned around the two exhibitions — including music, films and workshops — will allow visitors to ask and think about those questions.

“Work in Progress,” in fact, encourages visitor engagement.

“In the Kibbutz,” a poster issued by the Jewish National Fund in Jerusalem

For example: “1967,” a multipiece work by Meromi that was specially commissioned for “Work in Progress,” invites people up to a stage, even providing costumes.

“1967” is “one installation made up of separate pieces,” Meromi explained recently as he showed a reporter several sculptures that lead toward the installation’s centerpiece — a wooden stage inspired by the dining hall/community gathering space the artist recalls from visits to his grandparents at Kibbutz Mizra, which they helped found. The Brooklyn-based artist was born on the kibbutz, but grew up in the suburbs of Tel Aviv.

Colorful, geometrically shaped sculptural elements of the stage’s construction reference 20th-century Russian Constructivism and connect to the socialist origins of the kibbutz. Along the edge of the stage are concrete tiles with scenes imprinted using geometric shapes mirroring shapes seen elsewhere on stage. There is one tile for each year since 1967, the year Meromi was born and Israel conquered much of the land that is still in dispute today.

Meromi suggests there are several main ideas he is trying to express with “1967.” The story he tells through the tiles is about grounding utopia in reality. “My idea of utopia cannot ignore reality,” he explained. “We need to look at where we are living.”

Museum visitors will be invited at various times up to the stage to participate in guided “activations” that encourage creative exploration of the utopia-related themes embedded in Meromi’s work. The installation also includes costumes for visitors to don. They were designed by Meromi’s sister, Ayala Meromi Keinan, a Tel Aviv–based fashion designer whose brand is Gusta. It’s the first name of their grandmother, who was in charge of the kibbutz’s clothing warehouse.

“I used real Home Depot–type materials: wood, concrete, aluminum and fabric,” Meromi said, all reminiscent of the simple materials used by the pioneers to build the kibbutzim. “There’s a socialist approach in the materials and how I used them. There’s no distinction between factory and stage.”

Also, given the basic materials he used, “I’m thinking about the world as a place that is still in the making,” he said. “It’s about being together in the making. You can work together to horrible directions, too, but what is essential is working together and being straightforward and honest with one another in the process.”

Kibbutz Yagur, 1950–1959 photo/kibbutz yagur archives

Like Meromi, Oded Hirsch “also tries to convey the idea of struggling with utopia,” said Jeanne Gerrity, the exhibition’s curator. Hirsch created two stylized videos and several still photographs that show people laboring together on tasks, with unclear results.

In the first video, “Tochka,” Hirsch presents a group of identically dressed kibbutzniks working with silent deliberation to build an inefficient bridge. “Tochka” means “point” (as in a point on a map) in Russian, and was the original name of Kibbutz Afikim in the Jordan Valley. Hirsch, born in 1976, grew up on the kibbutz and now lives in Queens.

His other video, “50 Blue,” refers to the colored label and number embroidered into clothing for identification purposes in the kibbutz’s communal laundry. In the video, the artist’s brother pushes his father in a wheelchair across the landscape, and then with the help of others hoists him up to a watchtower at the Sea of Galilee.

The still photographs are taken from Hirsch’s video “The Tractor.” The tractor was a utopian symbol of industrialization in Communist Russia, and in the video, a group of kibbutzniks bury a tractor in a grave, only to dig it up again.

“Utopia is not a real place, it’s unattainable,” noted Gerrity. “So, what we see here is the idea of working together to achieve utopia, or working toward the best possibility.”

Visitors examine Ohad Meromi’s “1967” photo/gordon gallery-johnna arnold

Elisheva Biernoff’s “The Tools Are in Your Hands” mural allows people to play around with ideas of what utopia might look like. Visitors can work alone or together, placing a variety of specially designed magnets depicting animals, architectural structures and agricultural elements on to the wall-size mural of a bucolic scene she painted.

Biernoff, 33, is from Albuquerque, N.M., and has lived in San Francisco since 2007. The interactive aspect of this work is something new for her. Landscapes, however, are not. “My work often deals with memory and preservation. It often has to do with the preservation and protection of place, both real and imaginary,” she said.

“Approaching Utopia,” another mural by Biernoff, shows utopia as an allegorical figure surrounded by the banners and flags of various historical and activist movements, such as the United Farm Workers logo, peace symbol and rainbow flag. The image is incomplete, symbolizing that more work is yet to be done.

Biernoff said she is particularly drawn to the subjective nature of utopia. “Utopia doesn’t exist. It’s a thought experiment, so there can be different versions of it,” she said. “Imagining utopia might help us imagine solutions to real-world problems.”

Noted CJM director Starr: “The fact that two of the three art installations actively engage the audience as a community is not incidental. Perhaps when they leave the museum, visitors will say to themselves, ‘Maybe there is something I can do today to make the world better, to bring us all closer to utopia.’ ”

“To Build & Be Built,” through July 1, 2014;

“Work in Progress: Considering Utopia,” through Jan. 20, 2014. At the Contemporary Jewish Museum, 726 Mission St., S.F.

on the cover

photo/kibbutz yagur archives

Kibbutz Yagur, 1950–1959, in “To Build & Be Built” exhibit

Renee Ghert-Zand
Renee Ghert-Zand

Renee Ghert-Zand is a Jerusalem-based freelance journalist. She made aliyah from Palo Alto with her family in June 2014.