The first time Israeli art historian Tami Katz-Freiman came to Miami, she was captivated by the city's unique relationship with nature: trapped between the beauty of the Everglades and the Atlantic, yet huge, urban, and overdeveloped.
"I was astonished by the feeling of living in a 'façade,' a construction of paradise," Katz-Freiman recalls. "The gap between the natural and the artificial has been completely blurred."
The ethical dilemmas that arise from humanity's need to dominate its environment form the subtext of a new exhibit curated by Katz-Freiman at the Bass Museum of Art.
"Unnatural," a sweeping group show featuring nearly 30 international artists, explores how our sense of the wilderness as a real, pristine place is fading into memory. Because of overpopulation, dwindling resources, and poor stewardship — plus fast technological advances to fix our mistakes — Katz-Freiman was inspired by the idea that a day could come when the artificial replaced nature.
Katz-Freiman, who served as chief curator of Israel's Haifa Museum of Art from 2005 to 2010 before relocating to South Florida in 2010, spent two years researching and planning "Unnatural." The artists she chose come from varied backgrounds and are represented by a wide range of media, including video, photography, sculpture, and installation; the bulk of the roster hails from Israel.
The curator says the exhibit was inspired by her first impressions of the Magic City. "Miami served as a metaphor for a place in which nature has been processed to extraordinary degrees of synthetic cultivation," she says.
The artists' combined vision overwhelms the senses. At the entrance to the museum's sprawling second-floor galleries, several large-scale video installations conflate in a visual and aural assault that engulf viewers with contrasting, manipulated visions of the earth.
California's Hilja Keading gives operatic expression to our fear of encountering wild beasts via her stunning, four-channel HD video and sound installation called The Bonkers Devotional. The barefoot, blond artist, clad in a summer dress, appears in a bedroom with an 800-pound black bear wielding paws the size of a catcher's mitt. A two-channel video projects inside a room covered with camouflage netting, giving the space the feel of a hunter's blind.
Onscreen, the artist runs her fingers through the beast's prickly fur while the animal dozes; at one point, she lovingly interlaces her fingers with its claws. Outside the room, projected on its exterior walls, a copse of golden aspen trees is buffeted by autumn winds that seem to howl through the gallery as the bear and woman interact silently in their den. The impression of an impending mauling is overwhelming in a scene that's both eerily poignant and palpably tense.
Across from Keading's opus, Israeli artist Gilad Ratman ratchets up the creep factor with his two-channel HD video and sound installation, The 588 Project. His work brings to mind an industrial waste spill or Troma Entertainment's cult classic The Toxic Avenger.
Ratman's piece, projected on two corner walls, was inspired by a short video he stumbled upon online titled "Boogeyman," which introduced the artist to a community that calls itself "Deep Sinking." Boasting thousands of members, the strange group engages in a twisted from of porn that involves submerging themselves in mud or watching others wallow in it.
Ratman traveled to a mud farm in Arkansas to shoot his film, which shows models covered in the burbling pool of mud while breathing through plastic tubes. The crowns of their noggins occasionally split the surface, and the swamp figures are outlined in the chocolaty muck, bringing to mind the early stages of life emerging from the primordial soup, while also hinting at our yearnings to commune with nature.
Yet another powerful video work situated nearby is Sigalit Landau's DeadSee, which from a distance appears to show a small woman floating in a giant dirty martini.
In fact, the video depicts the nude Israeli artist floating on a spiral raft created from 500 watermelons connected by a cord, all bobbing on the buoyant, salt-rich waters of the Dead Sea. The artist clutches a cluster of fruit that has been split to expose red flesh. The coil of melons unspools outward, slowly and hypnotically, until the artist drifts from the picture's frame.
But perhaps no other work in "Unnatural" best reflects the critical and ethical issues over man's obsession with conquering and appropriating nature than the Moby Dick-size virtual behemoth on display at the rear of the exhibit.
Meirav Heiman and Yossi Ben Shoshan's piece, Sperm Whale, depicts a digitally created cachalot trapped behind plate glass.
"Imprisoned in an aquarium too small to accommodate its size, it symbolizes the enduring power of a vast and threatening nature," Katz-Freiman says, "even when it is fully subjected by man."