What There Is / Sharon Kantor

The ongoing work of Heela Harel

In the past few years, Harel has been posting symmetrical assemblages of packaged vegetables on her Facebook page. These assemblages, that with  the spartanism of south Tel Aviv playfully dialogue with portraits by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, are not only an ode to the aesthetic of the dumpster; they are a call and invitation for other people to assemble at a particular dumpster into which vegetables deemed insufficiently attractive for display on the shelf, but which are still edible, are tossed on a daily basis; nourishing refugees of the “society of the spectacle” at the very moment they stop being merchandise, and revert to being food once again, or to simply being what they are. Harel’s invitation is seemingly extended to other members of her pack, other individuals currently darting around the urban savannah in search of food. Come, there’s more than enough.

There it is! the joyful exclamation of discovery, attests precisely to what it says: There it is. In other words, it is already there, right here.

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In 1975, feminist editor and essayist Elizabeth Fisher presented “The Carrier Bag Theory of Evolution”,[1] according to which, contrary to accepted thinking, the first tool, the one that engendered the quantum leap in human evolution, was not a carved hand axe, but a bag; not a pike or a spear, but a receptacle or net for gathering. In other words – and this is indisputable – before we had the tools to obtain (kill, take, rob, dissect) something we did not have, we had tools that enabled us to gather from what there is: to take more of it than we needed to eat then and there (in other words, an amount indicating recognition of time, an assumption regarding the existence of the future, and optimism), an amount sufficient for distribution to other members of the tribe (an amount reflecting the space, belonging, acknowledgement of the other, compassion). This understanding, this inclusion, should be the milestone in our thinking about human evolution.

In her seminal essay “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction”, science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin, continues Fisher and proposes a repudiation of the historical story of the spear and the hunt, of the familiar story that has a hero and a struggle, of the phallic thinking about what is a story.[2] With the exception of populations in the Arctic regions, most prehistoric people gathered nuts, roots, fruit, and seeds. It was rather undemanding work. Prehistoric humans worked no more than about fifteen hours a week. It was not the boredom and restlessness that gripped some individuals in the tribe during the rest of the time, nor the need for meat, Le Guin contends, that made them venture out and hunt mammoths. They brought back from their hunting journeys something more valuable than a hunk of meat: they brought a story. A story whose main ethos was subjugation. The story of gathering is a difficult one to tell: collecting one seed and then another, the pleasantness of the sun on one’s skin, the laughter of a companion echoing down the valley. The story of the hunt, however, is very easy to tell, for it contains action and, most importantly – it has a hero. Le Guin relates that in her preparatory notes for Three Guineas, Virginia Woolf attempted to reinvent English in order to tell a different story. One of the entries in the glossary she created is heroism, which is defined as “botulism”, and hero is defined as “bottle”. Le Guin goes a step further, and proposes the bottle as hero rather than the hero as bottle.

Heela Harel is not identified with bottles, but she does work with a lot of jars (Ursula, a bottle is phallic, a jar is preferable!), in which she pickles vegetables, ferments them, preserves them, and distributes them at various events. The exhibition “Plan(e)t”, currently showing at The Genia Schreiber University Art Gallery, features an abundance of receptacles containing plants that were gathered in the environs of Tel Aviv University. Use of the receptacles in this context also contains a critical dimension by presenting the privatization of nature, and its division into items that can be put into a bourgeois and domesticating space.

Vegetables 04, ongoing project from 2018, photo: Heela Harel

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Ecology is being celebrated everywhere: in the newspapers, on talk shows, at schools. It is a celebration of death that grows and flourishes concurrently with the dying of nature. In recent years, two seemingly opposing hubs denote the firm establishment of the environmental trend: the Venice Biennale and the Oscar Academy Awards ceremony, both of which have been copiously infused with ecology and sustainability. However, Heela Harel does not install huge trees in galleries, and she does not weep on a podium. Her work, in which she has persisted for many years, always marks the boundaries of the possible. It is home-oriented in two respects – on the one hand, it does not alienate or belittle the viewer, who can feel at home around the works, and on the other, it emphasizes the habitat, the natural environment. It is difficult to separate Harel’s artistic activities from her community and political actions – establishing and working in the  Community Garden in south Tel Aviv, the struggle with the Municipality of Tel Aviv over the establishment of a local public park – and maybe it isn’t necessary. Perhaps this very fusion is a practice and an ideology in and of itself.

Born in 1973, Harel grew up in a religious home in Jerusalem. During her childhood, she shared her living spaces with five siblings. This is probably where the seed of the understandings that would later manifest in her body of work began to germinate: how big a small space can be, how significant a tiny difference can be, how present the permeation and seeping between our life and the lives of others can be.

Her field of action is urban. She is an advocate of nature in all its manifestations, including the human. And perhaps she is unable or unwilling to separate them. Perhaps she would not be enthused by Woodsorrel in the morning if she were not enthralled by the glittery nightlife. Most of Harel’s activities spring from and flow to her place of residence, south Tel Aviv’s Florentin neighborhood. Thus, in an economic and conserving system, she converges into the notion of habitat, natural living environment, with its multihued wealth, and its importance for the life of each individual: animal, plant, inanimate object.

Harel conducts tours in Tel Aviv Central Bus Station, and urban foraging tours in south Tel Aviv. Urban foraging differs from foraging in “nature”. Foraging in woodlands or fields assumes an abundance spread out before us. Urban foraging is the foraging of gaps, of margins, grid foraging. It is not only foraging for plants, but for human leftovers, other people’s dross. You need love for this kind of foraging. Harel gathers from benches, sidewalks, dumpsters. She gathers edible grasses, clothes, food, work materials, junk. Anything she finds, anything there is. Harel maintains a relationship with her close environment, by means of eye contact and touch, mutual nourishment, spiritual and physical alike. Engaging with the world’s leftovers is the gathering of unfulfilled human passions, or of what’s left after humans have sated their hunger, which they assumed would be greater than it actually was.

Urban Foraging, winter 2019, photo: Lior Mamon

Collecting does not become hoarding. Harel releases her collectings, and thus they do not grow musty. They change location, form, and purpose, and at times complete one another: a cup handle can serve as the missing leg of china dog. Like Pippi Longstocking, Harel is a “thing-searcher”. Greed and generosity dwell side by side. Her greed is satisfied by the very act of foraging and finding, and whatever she finds can be passed on.

Two of her ongoing projects extol the joy of what is, and the covetousness-generosity combination: “Nomi Berg’s Surprise Bag” – bags containing a collection of objects that are unknown to the purchasers. “Selecting the objects that go into the bags confronts me with my own choices – what objects I collect and why? What makes an object desirable, and what in its connection with other objects creates a story, or even a sentence”, Harel relates. “Gifts from the Street” is an ongoing collaborative project with Zipa Kempinsky. In this instance, it is Kempinsky who gathers objects from the neighborhood streets, and Harel’s role is to transform the jumble of objects into a coherent collection. Visitors can take from the exhibition any object they desire and, thus, they themselves become sub-foragers. Both projects place emphasis on the uncertainty inherent in working with gathered objects: both in the surprise of their discovery, and in the ability of the objects themselves to be woven – or the artist’s ability to weave them – into a story or artwork. Gathering is in fact an ongoing act of curating that responds to the call issued by Georges Perec to “explore the ordinary”.[3]

Nomi Berg’s Surprise Bag, detail from 6th edition, 2.2016, photo: Ben Palhov. Sent by Ella Spector from Cuba.

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Two conflicting concepts are being bandied about in the discourse: “society of abundance” and “abundance consciousness”. The first refers to the overconsumption in Western society, and the second is a New Age term indicating spiritual ability to “invite” or gain material prosperity. Hila Harel’s abundance is neither. It is abundance that is present, abundance in the present, abundance without influence. And yet, it is still abundance. Harel’s ecology is not monastic or abstentious, it celebrates what there is for its very existence. There is no brandishing of ecological imperatives such as “Thou shalt not covet”. On the contrary, covet. There is abundance, and nothing is detracted. Quite astonishingly, she is almost fetishist. It is eco-fetishism, a celebration of excess.

We need to think about sustainability not in terms of what will be left after we go, of what we can sustain over time, but as an observation of what there is, of what exists, of the now, and an understanding that it is sufficient for us, which is more than enough. More than enough. Or, as Harel relates about her childhood: “In my own eyes I was rich”. Abundance was not conceived to mark wealth in its individual meaning, but rather in its collective meaning. Wealth that belongs to society and anyone who ventures to take from the dustbin. The gathered is the chosen. The discarded is special. This is not about a passion for vintage, but about attention, the gatherer’s attention to the gathered, and also that of the gathered to the gatherer. A shirt sitting next to its fellow shirts on the shelf in the store is merchandise. The same shirt discarded on a bench has gained its own history. Passion and nausea,  hope and disappointment have passed through it, it is now ready to continue telling its story to anyone who falls in love with it despite its flaws. Those who master this skill are context-artists. Mastering this skill is a valuable tool in the age of excess. The ability to create a coherent look from a collection of unrelated items, even unappealing in themselves, coupled with the ability to weave theories from completely different domains into a new paradigm that will save the world.

At the same time, there is also subjugation and humility here, and in patriarchal terms – of the “hero” from whom Woolf and Le Guin seek to part company – even indolence. It is what there is that determines the rules and the narrative. The artist works with it in a playing field whose rules it dictates: the weeds growing during this season – they will be used to make the meal. The clothes we happened upon – in the street or the secondhand store – they are the clothes that will be worn. The shelves used in the previous exhibition – are the shelves the artist used in the current exhibition. Yes, it needs to be admitted, sustainability is the relinquishment of control and, at times, relinquishment of initiative.

Concealed in this relinquishment is mysticism and romance. Not fatalism, not belief that the story is written in advance, but an assumption that any position in the puzzle will contain a meaningful connection, every story is worthy of being told, hidden in every pile of trash there is a treasure.

The world, or whatever will survive of it, will belong to the compassionate. To the benevolent. To the jars, the bottles, the foraging baskets, to those who wait patiently, who compromise, who are prepared to bind their stories to the stories unfolding around them.

Trick horse/One prize pony, from: Award Winning Exhibition, Ha-Hanut Gallery, photo: Aya Wind

Translated by: Margalit Rodgers

[1] Elizabeth Fisher, Woman’s Creation: Sexual Evolution and the Shaping of Society, 1975 (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co.)

[2] Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction”, 1986

[3] Hameorer, Journal of Literature and Art, Issue 1, Fall 1979. From French: Helena Shillony