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Urban Nature

Curator: Sigal Barkai

5.11.2009 - 20.1.2010

"The landscape is not only a green environment but also built landscapes and spaces and also streets and roads. … A landscape is an 'environment.' … To me, even if it sounds heretical, there's also a beauty in a man-made flyover, and there's also pride in a landscape where streets and roads are planted in a correct way," said the great landscape architect, Lipa Yahalom, who designed Independence Park overlooking the Museum Complex, embracing Petach Tikva's Yad Labanim House, and the Collection Gallery within it.1 Yahalom's words clearly define the space in which the exhibition "Urban Nature" takes place, the space in-between "artificial," manmade design of the environment and a "natural" wild setting, the result of random growth and the spontaneous development of nature.

The paintings from the collection featured in the exhibition—among them fine watercolors by forgotten painters such as Raphael Mohar and Amiram Tamari, as well as realistic oil paintings by Zvi Shorr, the city's local painter—were partly executed in the early 1930s. They convey a harmony with nature, a flux of soft, curving lines, a belief in a future of reciprocity between the tree, the red loess hill or the gravel path, and the human figure roaming the landscape, resting on a bench, gazing toward the horizon. In the paintings of the past, the relationship between city and nature is swathed in open spaces, light, and silence. Since they were created in a period when the momentum of construction and progress had not yet covered the natural expanses, these paintings draw deep perspectives into the horizon, making for tranquility, comfort, relinquishment of control, modesty vis-à-vis the forces of nature, and a romantic nostalgia.

The contemporary visitor, however, feels an inevitable urge to rebel against naïve declarations concerning harmony. Hence, the dimension of historical time introduced in the show through the comparison with the contemporary photographs, calls to mind states of pressure and oppressiveness, a sense of compression, wonder at why the natural stone fence has been covered with concrete (Assaf Evron), why the park has been strangled by consumerist waste (Ohad Matalon), why the cracked, sweaty asphalt pavement has closed in on the tree trunks (Dafna Gazit), and why the ostensibly green, lush vegetation turns out to be an artificial, imported deception (Yehudit Matzkel). The encounters between nature and city have become harsh, discordant, and sad; the open spaces have dwindled and closed, the romantic dreams have ended with nature's defeat. The photographers in the exhibition all mourn this encounter, lamenting the loss of innocence, yearning and longing for a little silence and breathing space.

Yahalom, too, indicated the problematics inherent in the functions of the urban park. He criticized the demarcation of urban nature in concrete planters which create "Procrustean beds" of sorts for trees and flowers. He warned against the cynical use of plants to cover up man's violent actions in the natural environment, and dreamt of a "big-time erasure" of some of the energetic, momentous actions toward construction of the land, and of the landscape's reinstatement to its simple, ancient origins. "Will green cover all crimes? Sometimes crime dwells precisely where it is green," Yahalom pointed out the danger.2

The insensitivity characterizing the design of the urban environment elicits violent responses among the park's users toward the natural-urban space. Ohad Matalon's photograph implies vandalism and mutilation caused by the park's nighttime dwellers. The vegetation struggles with color drippings on the concrete, the paint's longitudinal lines echo the plant stalks, and it is no longer clear what is beautiful and what is ugly, what verges on violence and what may be deemed an authentic expression. Perhaps graffiti on a park bench is a work of art, whereas squalid weeds on the margins of the park are an expression of a dark force striving to crack the fabric of urban life? The romantic assumption that "natural" is beautiful does not always stand the test of urban life.

Recent years have seen a growing environmental consciousness in the world at large, and gradually in Israel as well; a desire to preserve the resources of the world, to practice sustainability, maximizing and recycling the already existent, instead of squeezing ever more resources from the planet. This green tendency, albeit too little and too late, elicits hope for renewal of the simple affinity between man and his surroundings. Petach Tikva's Independence Park—various depictions of which are presented in the show, whether as paintings, archival photographs or architectural sketches—is alive and kicking; it is a place roamed for many years by mothers, nursemaids and infants, elders, children playing ball, dog owners and their dogs—all these sustain a dynamic cycle of life between the garden and the city.

Yad Labanim House and the park, perpetuated time and again by the city's painters and photographers, form an architectural symbol for the profound bond of the city's populace to the place. Zvi Shorr's paintings document the "House" from different angles; the movement of the trees around it creates flashes of light, implying the motion caused by the wind; the water in the Park's pool reflects the sun at different hours of the day. The archival photographs attest that in the past, the perspectives extended from the park all the way to the horizon. The contemporary viewer is well aware that the entire area is now delimited by dense apartment buildings; he is well aware that Amiram Tamari's paintings, Kfar Ganim A and Kfar Ganim B (Garden Village A and B) (932), depicting mainly large-scale eucalyptus trees and very small houses, are representations of a landscape long gone. Today's Kfar Ganim is a thriving neighborhood in Petach Tikva, home to thousands of people in high-rises.

The exhibition sets out to indicate localism in its good old sense, as an identity anchor. At the same time, it strives to warn against the exploitation and aggression toward the immediate environment, when the park becomes a hiding place for dark, nocturnal activity, a place into which social nuisances, such as vandalism, drunkenness, violence, dirt and neglect, are channeled. The different temporal strata are manifested in the paintings and photographs from the naïve past, as well as in photographs of the present, indicating danger and an awareness of environmental preservation, and in the plans of architectural expansion, expressing future fantasies that have not yet been realized.

Sigal Barkai


Notes

1. "Excerpts from Talks with Lipa Yahalom," cat. Point of View: Four Approaches to Landscape Architecture in Israel, trans. Richard Flantz (The Genia Schreiber University Art Gallery, Tel Aviv University, 1996), p. 41.

2. From Yahalom's address at a conference of the Council for a Beautiful Israel, 17 Feb. 1987, in Garden and Landscape (The Israeli Organization of Gardening and Landscaping, May 1987), pp. 273-274 [Hebrew].


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