An awe-inspiring nature walk awaits at the Bass Museum of Art on Miami Beach — a strange, wonderful trail that is decidedly UNNATURAL, the name of the group show that just opened. After wending your way through darkened rooms and alcoves filled with images of manipulated nature, you’ll run smack dab into a life-size sperm whale trapped in its too-tight tank.
It isn’t real, of course, but a digital illusion by Meirav Heiman and Yossi Ben Shoshan, “transported from Israel to Miami in an aquarium that is far too small to accommodate its size … a freak show featuring the world’s largest mammal,” as the exhibition’s catalogue describes this piece.
Sperm Whale encapsulates this exquisite show, a series of entirely artificial images that still seems so real, and brings up uncomfortable feelings about our relationship with nature.
The Alice-in-Wonderland-like ambiance begins at the museum’s ground-floor entry, where a huge array of colorful flowers bursts into bloom. Another Israeli, Einat Arif-Galanti, has created this video animation, a garden of impossibility called Plastic Life. Under the real rules of nature, the plants in this bouquet would never all flower at the same time.
The ramp to the second floor brings American Jennifer Steinkamp’s Daisy Chain (Twist), an undulating flowered tapestry in video. It’s followed by the breathtaking DeadSee from the Tel Aviv-based artist Sigalit Landau, a film that consists of 500 watermelons and a naked woman floating and spiraling in the Dead Sea.
This even before you enter the main hall. So much more is to come.
This exhibit provokes deep and at times troubling thoughts, but is visually very accessible — you can ignore the thematic thread if you want and simply enjoy the beauty of it all. That’s due to the deft hand and eye of curator Tami Katz-Freiman, an Israeli who now makes Miami Beach home. What’s a double-plus about this show is that it originates here.
Although nature has been a “muse” for artists universally throughout history, Katz-Freiman saw the special connection of the unnatural to both Miami and Israel. South Florida was created from drained swamps, and in many people’s minds embodies the artificial (from plastic surgery to air-conditioned pink houses); while 20th century Israel was carved out of a desert land where the fight over territory is part of the nation’s psyche.
“Landscape imagery and representations of nature in contemporary Israeli art are rarely ideologically innocent,” Katz-Freiman writes, “and are certainly not Romantic. They are scorched by the fire of conflict and marked by the fervor of internal controversy.”
Fire, and sometimes fear, do indeed make appearances in the video-heavy show, which also includes sculpture and photography. The fascinating work of Gal Weinstein, whose images of the beginnings of a forest fire in the Jezreel Valley, are in part crafted from steel wool on wood.The disturbing videos of Gilad Ratman depict humans literally wallowing in nature, in mud pits with breathing tubes that allow them to remain submerged in guck.
An entire room is cordoned off for Los Angeles-based Hilja Keading’s The Bonkers Devotional, a truly unsettling visual on two large screens. Projections of lovely yellow leaves waving in the wind are shown on several walls outside the room, but turn the corner, and you’ll see a blond woman sharing a small room with a huge black bear. The animal never becomes aggressive, but the woman-vs.-beast tension can be overwhelming.
A particularly attractive video from Israeli Dana Levy also gets its own section. The Fountain is a quiet, almost colorless track of a tree being uprooted and pulled out from a misty lake. The metaphorical meaning is not hard to read, especially when it is immediately clear that the tree and the lake are not part of any Israeli landscape we recognize; it is an old, Romantic Europe.
Some artists with Florida connections are also well represented here. Former Miami resident Wendy Wischer has a lovely installation called Puddled. Projected on several resin splotches sitting on the floor are slow-moving, hypnotic images of clouds and birds. Instead of the classic notion of lying on the ground and watching the clouds roll by across a bright blue sky, this time we are looking down to the floor, in a very dark room, to see the reflection of this process in artificial puddles.
Broward-based Samantha Salzinger makes up environments in her manipulated landscape photographs. They look incredibly real, but they are not. Here is a tornado touching down in South Dakota — not. There is a lush, tropical-forest floor oozing with dew — completely fabricated. Who has conquered what here?
Blane De St. Croix has the biggest sculpture in the show, a hanging replica of a muddy but also burned Everglades. Water and fire are natural elements that continually shape our River of Grass, but here the miniature model is formed from synthetic materials as well some actual earth.
Another mesmerizing sculpture comes from Israeli Guy Zagursky: in a little, simple wooden box, you can see the universe, expanding infinitely. Of course, it’s an entirely fake universe. Fellow countryman Boaz Aharonovitch also depicts a version of the cosmos, in a wild, exploding form, collaged from photo-shopped satellite images.
And hovering in the back, almost always present no matter where you stand in the Bass space, is the sperm whale, swimming around in his close quarters, a magnificent and tragic symbol of our attempts to manage nature. (After being hunted almost to extinction, this whale is now a protected species).
These are just some of the works in this show. There is so much here, around every corner, that it is hard to take in on one visit. Something that may have missed your eye the first time will jump out on the second go-8round.
Combined with the superb Rashid Johnson solo show that just opened at MAM, Miami can be confident that this season is kicking off with serious, quality institutional exhibits that would be winners in any cultural hub.