Change and Displacement: Michal Helfman at K.
Michal Helfman: I’m so broke I can’t pay attention at K.
June 14 to July 2, 2015
334 Broome Street (between Chystie and Bowery)
New York, 212 334 5200
An illuminated metal sign that spells the word “CHANGE” hangs in the K. storefront. K., the alter ego of the P! exhibition space, has taken over the gallery from March through July of 2015. K., which stands for the first letter of the gallerist’s last name (Krishnamurthy), as well as the value of a thousand (in dollars), presents a series of shows that focus on critical questions in economics, art, and the production of value.
The fifth exhibition in this series, titled “I’m so broke I can’t pay attention,” was Michal Helfman’s debut solo show in NYC. Helfman, an Israeli multidisciplinary artist based in Tel Aviv, is known for creating works that involve dance as well as stage design, symbolically using the stage as a way to reveal what occurs behind it, in the backstage.
Here, the front space acts as a money exchange. The clerk (Mr. Krishnamurthy or other representatives of the gallery), greets visitors from behind a glass window. The visitor is obliged to interact with the designated clerk, who explains the exchange rates: only Iraqi, Syrian, Afghan, and Lebanese currencies are available for exchange in the rate of one to one. Any individual paper bill is exchanged for another paper bill, regardless of currency rates.
A beaded curtain — made of metal piping, Mediterranean shells, ceramic prayer beads, Hebron glass beads, plastic skulls, and walnut shells — connects the front space and the back of the gallery. In the rear, an entire wall is covered with a Jordanian woven black-and-white mat, while nearby hangs an acrylic-and-oil-pastel drawing on paper, titled One Dollar (2013). The drawing depicts an image of the pyramid that decorates the American one-dollar bill. This iconic symbol, adapted from ancient Egypt, traces the transition of empires. Egypt, one of the first nation-states is now a third-world country suffused with conflict and uprisings, while the U.S., a relatively new nation, is currently a powerful country that has great impact on the destiny of Egypt and other Middle East countries.
In the center of the room, two stools and a small table are a setting for a backgammon game, which includes dice that were created in Syria using a 3D printer. In conversation with an Israeli humanitarian who smuggles aid to Syria, the artist was able to secretly import these objects into Israel. Apparently, it is common that the back of exchange bureaus around the world is used as a smuggling point. Backgammon, a popular game played in almost every household in Israel and in surrounding Arab countries, was developed from one of the oldest games discovered in the city of Ur (in modern day Iraq). Similar games were common and identified in Egyptian pyramid drawings and from archeological relics of the area. On these Syrian dice the artist engraved the rephrased sentence “we will not forgive we will not forget” which is connected to the Jewish Holocaust and currently very much identified as the slogan for the hacktivist entities Anonymous. This game of luck and tactics correlates to the fortune of so many people, including refugees in the Middle East today. Supporting this notion is % (2013), an eight-minute choreographed video in which five dancers perform a recurring routine and represent the fact that one out of five people in the world today is displaced.
Finally, an abstract metal sculpture titled Attention (2015) is a human-size Minimalist depiction of a man with a rifle. The weapon points towards the glass window that connects between the front and the back of the gallery, and it is “charged” by a rubber band. Underneath one of the sculpture’s legs is a fold of stacked $100 bills, tempting the viewer to lean down and grab the cash. However, once the money is removed the sculpture loses its balance and the gunman shoots. This temptation is of course a trap as well as an allusion to the money at stake in politics and in the relationships between the U.S. and the Middle East. There is a constant flow of events that influence the future of war and peace in the region, many of which may occur off of our radar, and most of which involve the confluence of money and power.
The show’s title contains a cautionary alert: “I’m so broke I can’t pay attention,” brings these objects together to emphasize our personal responsibility. The title points at the economic crisis in the area due to ongoing conflicts — hence a struggle to survive. According to Abraham Maslow’s psychological pyramid theory, most fundamental levels of needs are at the base and include physical requirements for human survival (as food, water and shelter), while self-actualization is at the top of the pyramid and is achieved only after all other needs are fulfilled. As residents of today’s “empire” we have the capacity to pay attention and to make significant changes in the world. What is then our moral responsibility towards the various conflicts in the Middle East? What is our role, and what do we choose to give our attention to?