At the same time as United States’ recent recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has reinvigorated the question of a cultural boycott, Magasin III Museum and Foundation for Contemporary Art in Stockholm is poised to open a new branch in Jaffa outside Tel Aviv. Magasin III Jaffa will be opened for the public tomorrow, Saturday, with an exhibition by New York based artist Haim Steinbach (b. 1944). Known for his colourful shelf installations with everyday and mass produced objects, Steinbach was born in Israel, yet this will be his first solo exhibition in the country.
Magasin III was founded by David Neuman and businessman Robert Weil, and since 1987 has been housed in one of the old warehouses in Stockholm’s free port. Its ambition was to internationalize the art scene in Stockholm, focusing mainly on introducing artists prominent in the United States during the 80s and 90s. In 2014, plans for several satellite institutions were made public, including the branch in Israel which at that point was envisioned as a much larger institution located in Tel Aviv. Three years later, in the summer of 2017, Magasin III suspended its public operations in Stockholm. Instead, the institution will spend the next two years planning its future form and international expansion.
As Magasin III prepares to open its first international branch in a 180 square meter space in the old port city of Jaffa, it does so in a country that for decades has broken international law and a number of UN resolutions through its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Chairman David Neuman stresses that the situation in Israel appears increasingly severe from the perspective of advocates for democracy and freedom of speech, yet contends that cultural institutions such as Magasin III have an important role to play in promoting a more positive development in the country.
In an interview with Kunstkritikk in 2014 you talked about Magasin III’s plans for a new art space in Tel Aviv, to be part of a 11,000 square meter building designed by architect David Adjaye. Is this plan still current, or is the new plan for Magasin III Jaffa and its 180 square meters on the ground floor of a residential building?
The project you mention, which is a collaboration with the dance company Batsheva and the city of Tel Aviv, is still being initiated. I met with Adjaye last week, and we are very engaged in that space and the project as a whole. But as always when it comes to large scale projects, we are involved in discussions about financing and city planning, which in this case includes a substantial redirection of the tram lines. And we want to do something now, not in five or ten years. That is why we, through the Family Robert Weil Foundation, are supporting several social and cultural projects intended to facilitate meetings between religious groups, education about the Holocaust and the conflict between Israel and Palestine, as well as training within the informal child care that has arisen among refugee groups and asylum seekers in Israel. Additionally, we would like a place of our own: Magasin III Jaffa.
What will distinguish Magasin III Jaffa?
The space itself is almost the antithesis of the white cube. After nearly 40 years of exhibition making I have turned the room 180 degrees so that it engages the outside as much as what is inside. The exhibition will be curated partly so that one can pass by outside and still get a sense of having seen the exhibition. Visitors would then have to move around the block in order to see the exhibition from the opposite side. With the help of lighting this accessibility will be functional 24 hours.
We will produce 1–3 exhibitions every year, engaging with both the local and international art scene, somewhat in continuity with the programming in Stockholm over many years. The first artist presenting works is Haim Steinbach, who in an almost Duchamp-like way relates to text and objects and who has never before had a solo exhibition in Israel.
Israel’s Likud-led right wing government has recently made political points against African migrants, attempted to banish the organization Breaking the Silence, which narrates Israeli military actions in the occupied territories, and has recurrently referred to the peace movement B’tselem as “traitors.” In January 2018, it created a blacklist of organizations supporting a cultural boycott of Israel, such as the American movement Jewish Voice for Peace, whose employees in this way are prohibited from travelling to Israel. How can an institution operate in a cultural climate where critical voices are legislated into silence?
You ask the question and nearly answer it for me. The state of urgency is even greater today than a few years ago. I believe in the power of art and culture, and I think that the presence of Magasin III in Jaffa/Tel Aviv not only can improve discourse on contemporary art, but also be influential through different kinds of engagements such as the social projects we are supporting, which clearly demonstrate our position in relation to this society. It is disturbing to say the least, for anyone defending democracy and freedom of speech, that Israel for so long has been governed by its current political leadership in different coalitions. For this reason I view cultural initiatives such as Magasin III as having a more important role to play than ever before.
As you will understand, I do not support the notion of isolation. Historical experiences from South Africa and elsewhere have made a lot of people conclude that isolation isn’t a good idea. It’s not an alternative that I consider. But if you’re asking: Is it more worrying that new legislation seeks to get rid of the group of about 50-80,000 African asylum-seekers currently staying in south Tel Aviv–- then yes, it is horrendous. When it comes to cases of fact such as this I am deeply troubled. And the same can be said of a large part of the Israeli public, as the recurrent mass demonstrations against present policies shows.
Can we then expect an artistic programme critically reflecting these issues at Magasin III Jaffa?
No. Or rather, yes and no. The best thing about art is that it isn’t obligated toward any specific viewer, that it is autonomous. Therefore the artists won’t be required to position their practice in relation to this particular society. But I will support art practices that comment on this conflict, as well as the question of the government’s attempt to limit public deliberation, which you mentioned. Of course, both the Arab-Israeli and the Israeli-Arab artist communities represent the entire spectrum of social and artistic critique, and I will welcome this. It is one of the reasons that we will be located in Jaffa, with its historical roots and its majority Muslim and Christian-Arab population.
In Stockholm, Magasin III will be closed for two years to review its operation and “thoroughly review how to best continue supporting art and artists.” This hasn’t stopped people from speculating about a shutdown or at least a severe downsizing. What are the chances that a continuous exhibition programme will reopen?
The chances are very high. When looking at Magasin III’s future role we think it is most interesting to create institutions different from others. State institutions have clearly articulated responsibilities with regard to accessibility, audiences and distribution – we don’t. Are there other models for working with exhibitions and collections? Yes, there are many around the world. Schaulager in Basel relates to the public in an interesting way, Boros Collection in Berlin has an interesting way of taking bookings and having group viewings with a different pedagogical foundation. We have been in contact for a long time with Dia:Beacon in upstate New York, which demonstrates how a collecting institution can function quite differently. But in order to develop this together with museum director Tessa Praun, we need to suspend our regular operation. Part of the reason is to give this process time. Another reason is the work in Israel with Magasin III Jaffa, which too is about experimenting with different expressions, institutionally and in terms of content.