Video still shows a pier extending into Lake Michigan in Chicago. A person and their dog walks along the pier. Drone footage of Gaza is projecting along the bottom of the pier, in a thin panoramic strip.
Still from Tirtza Even’s Gaza Strip, 2022, video installation and print. Credit: Courtesy Hyde Park Art Center

“Regarding the Missing Objects,” a group exhibition on view at the Hyde Park Art Center, takes absence as its theme. There is the absence of one of the artists whose work is included in the show, Dana Carter, who died before the exhibition opened. Then there are the missing objects of the show’s title, a subtle reference to a not-so-subtle act of institutional censorship which resulted in this show, an earlier iteration of which was meant to take place at the Spertus Institute in 2019.

That show, tentatively titled “Inquiry 02: Material Investigations into the Spertus Collection,” would have been the culmination of the Spertus’s second Chicago Jewish artist fellowship, of which the eight artists here were a part of. The fellows spent several months developing a project in relation to items from the Spertus’s eclectic 15,000-piece collection, which were meant to be displayed along the final works. Four months before the opening, leadership at the institution refused to show a piece proposed by artist Tirtza Even, who subsequently withdrew. Once the rest of the artists were informed of what had happened, they too withdrew, in solidarity, and the curator and director of the fellowship program, Ruslana Lichtzier, resigned. 

Institutional censorship, of course, is nothing new. Private institutions in particular, like the Spertus, are free to make any decisions they want; they don’t answer to the public. What is different about this instance is that the artists and curator kept working together. Now, more than three years after that first show’s cancellation, “Regarding the Missing Objects” presents newly articulated works, sans the original items from the collection. Each artist interpreted the idea of absence differently. Ben Segal wrote wall text, installed throughout the galleries, that explores ideas of isolation and censorship. Elana Adler’s ghostly hanging sculpture, I see through your barriers, evokes the Eruv, an enclosed area “permitting various activities on the Sabbath.” 

Maggie Taft, an art historian, makes visible the absence of the Spertus Institute, the missing objects from the collection, and the canceled exhibition. In the final room of the gallery sit chairs and a table, where a partial archive of the activities of the Spertus fellows is chronicled: emails, notes, research materials, all open to public perusal. 

“It felt like rather than sort of allowing the institution to tell the story or to erase the story of that fellowship, this could be an opportunity to build a counter archive, to insist upon the existence of this program and what emerged out of that program,” Taft says.

The opening of the Hyde Park Art Center show, in November 2022, is the first time that the participants are speaking publicly about their experience, with the hope that the exhibition and its public programming will inspire a productive dialogue on censorship and institutional denial. “It’s usually an individual who experiences censorship,” Lichtzier says. “So we have so much privilege to bring this conversation and open the door to talk about it. . . . That is why I think it was really important for us to think about how we civically engaged in a conversation, that it’s about us [cultural workers] being under threat.”

Elana Adler, I see through your barriers, 2021
Courtesy Hyde Park Art Center

“Inquiry 02: Material Investigations into the Spertus Collection” wasn’t the Spertus’s first brush with censorship. Back in 2008, the exhibition “Imaginary Coordinates,” which presented modern and historical maps of the Holy Land alongside contemporary artworks, was shut down a week after opening

“Imaginary Coordinates” was curated by Rhoda Rosen, who was the Spertus Museum’s director at the time—a position that no longer exists. It was only the second exhibition to be staged in Spertus’s gleaming new building, at 610 South Michigan. For Rosen, the glass-and-steel building, located near other cultural institutions, signified an openness to the greater public. “My charge, as I understood it, was to speak to all people and the way in which we are connected to one another,” Rosen says.

News reports from the time note pushback from the board and complaints from the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, a major donor to the Spertus. Michael Kotzin, then the executive vice-president of the Jewish Federation, called the exhibition “unwelcome and inappropriate,” and noted some works were “anti-Israel.” Rosen recalls receiving negative messages from people who hadn’t even seen the show, along with many messages of support.

“It showed something very positive, that people don’t often think about, maybe it showed the point of the museum actually, which is that the Jewish community isn’t a single community,” Rosen says. “It is a rich and varied community with all sorts of perspectives that many times, [because of the community’s powerful centralized power], have to be curtailed. But we all claim a space in it—whether we have to create alternative structures, or whether the institutional world will allow us in.” 

As the Reader’s Deanna Isaacs wrote at the time, “Imaginary Coordinates” was reorganized and reopened, for guided tours only, until it was officially shut down for good. The next year, longtime Spertus CEO Howard Sulkin left his position; he died in 2018. Rosen left the institution after the change in leadership, when it felt like the ability to think independently had narrowed. “The next [Spertus president] was definitely shrinking the vision to be more in line with the [Jewish] Federation,” she says. “It didn’t align with my own values.”

The impact of this sort of institutional denial is twofold. “Its function is to take people really concerned and interested in the question of Israel/Palestine and not allow them to work, not to give them the space to work,” Rosen says. But it also forecloses the opportunity for art to heal, to bring people together. “The beauty of bringing Palestinians and Jews together through art was vacated.”

The canceled exhibition garnered quite a bit of attention at the time. Lichtzier was aware of the incident before she joined the organization, though she hoped that things may have changed in the intervening years. Lichtzier originally ran the fellowship program with Ionit Behar, who was then curator of collections and exhibitions at Spertus. But in September 2018, a few months into the second fellowship, Behar had her own experience with censorship. 

Days before the opening of a show by Ukrainian-born Chicago artist Todros Geller, Spertus’s leadership objected to the inclusion of two nude works. The censorship led Behar to resign. In an email to the fellowship artists, she said the Spertus president offered “no explanation” or opportunity for dialogue regarding the decision, noting that their email was “disrespectful and insulting.” (Emails referenced in this story are open to the public via the archive on view at the Hyde Park Art Center.)

After Behar’s departure, the fellowship continued, with the exhibition slated to open in September of 2019, following a few postponements. From the start of the program, artist Tirtza Even, an experimental documentary filmmaker and professor at the School of the Art Institute, expressed interest in making work about Gaza. 

“I actually already then expressed some concern about the political kind of misalignment of the institution versus where my politics are,” Even says. “And I said that for the final show I will probably create a piece that will deal with the situation in Palestine and they were very open to that.”

The fellows were encouraged to explore the Spertus’s vast collection in order to find materials to inspire their own projects. Even chose a photograph by artist Jazon Lazarus, Untitled (Palestinian wall, east Jerusalem), from 2008. For the photo, Lazarus used a now-defunct web service, where you could pay a fee and someone would spray-paint a message of your choice on the Palestinian side of the Separation Wall in East Jerusalem. (The fees were used to renovate a youth center in Bir Zeit.) Lazarus’s message read, “Trying to imagine a clear view between Palestine and Israel.”

“I decided to react to that and actually go deeper and question this whole concept of viewership, which I feel like is a little more complicated than what is suggested by his language,” Even says. 

In April, an email thread about Even’s project began, between Lichtzier, Spertus dean Keren Fraiman, and Spertus president and CEO Dean Bell. Leadership was hoping to schedule a meeting with the artist to discuss her project, which Fraiman wrote had “significant challenges/questions.”

By the end of May, Spertus had declined to show Even’s proposed work, and she subsequently withdrew from the exhibition. At that point, the project was not even finished. In a later email, Bell called Even’s work “unnecessarily inflammatory,” “one-sided,” and “non-contextualized.”

According to Even and Lichtzier, there was scant opportunity for conversation about the work, or how it might be presented in a way that added additional context. Bell’s characterization of the work struck Even as particularly off-base, as context and an opportunity for dialogue was exactly what she’d hoped her work would offer. 

“I wanted to bring context but from the other perspective, not the one that is consistently endorsed by the institution,” she says. “I thought that it was crucial for me, as a Jew, to be the one who brings this critique. I think it’s more valuable in a way, that it comes from inside, so people start asking the right questions and maybe undo some of that indifference that I think is at the heart of a lot of the violence that’s allowed to happen.”

When Lichtzier told the rest of the fellowship artists about Even’s withdrawal, they quickly came together to form a group response. In an email to Bell and Fraiman, the artists wrote: “. . . we must stand together as a cohort in objecting to the censorship of our colleague’s work. We thus insist that the Spertus permit Tirtza Even to show her work as proposed. Otherwise, we will all recuse ourselves from the planned exhibition.”

The institution did not waver in their position, so the artists withdrew, Lichtzier resigned, and all mention of the show was promptly removed from the Spertus website. In fact, Spertus decided to formally end the fellowship program at the same time. 

Rosen sees Spertus’s decision as a direct result of the controversy around “Imaginary Coordinates.” “It’s not just that they’re related, right? You can’t look at Ruslana’s show without seeing the deep wounds that had been caused by my exhibition,” she says.

A statement provided by Spertus about the exhibition reads, in part, “The exhibition was never completed over concerns regarding a piece in the collection whose approach we believed was at odds with our institutional mission, values, and goals . . . We were clear then and maintain now that this decision in no way was an issue of censorship, but a sensitivity to institutional values and the commitment to providing opportunities for nuanced and complex discussion of important and sensitive issues.”

Despite this institutional denial, the fellowship group continued working together, meeting regularly throughout the pandemic to consider what a new exhibition might look like. Both Taft and Even credit Lichtzier for her work in this. “We owe the exhibition to her certainly,” Taft says. Even agrees, noting how important her vision was to the show. “She held us together,” Even says. 

The experience they all went through together forged a deep connection between them, and their dedication to showing work together was strengthened following the death of artist Dana Carter in July 2019.

In 2019, the Hyde Park Art Center agreed to host the exhibition, with no restrictions. “They were entirely open to the whole situation,” Even says, crediting HPAC director of exhibitions and residency programs Allison Peters Quinn. “It’s risky, since we are critiquing another institution in the city. Allison is just a very open-minded, courageous woman.”

Detail of William J. O’Brien’s Lost Family Pt. 2 – 2, 2022
Courtesy Hyde Park Art Center

“Regarding the Missing Objects” is tucked away in HPAC’s second-floor Kanter Family Foundation Gallery, installed behind a black velvet curtain. The first work you see upon entering is Even’s video projection, Gaza Strip. The work is subtle, almost calming to behold. It shows a static shot of a Chicago pier extending into Lake Michigan. The day is overcast and looks cold and windy, with little evidence of life, save for a flock of seagulls. 

Your eye is drawn to the most dynamic part of the scene, a panoramic strip projected onto the wall of the pier. At first it’s hard to make out—the images are only a few inches in height. What you see are aerial shots, taken by drone, of the Gaza Strip, following Israel’s 2014 attack on the area.

An in-depth wall panel explains that the footage was taken by Palestinian residents, and made available through the Gazan company Media Town. The clarity of the images, similar to what Americans are used to seeing through Google Street View, doesn’t seem notable. But the panel, written by Even and Lichtzier, points out that until recently satellite images of Israel and Palestine were not publicly available at such high resolutions. A 1997 U.S. regulation, the Kyl-Bingaman Amendment, “limited the quality and availability of high-resolution satellite imagery” of the area, at the behest of Israel, ostensibly for national security purposes. In practice, the low resolution made it hard for Palestinians to prove human rights violations or settlement expansion. (Partly due to the growing availability of high-resolution satellite imagery from non-U.S. companies, the amendment was altered in 2020.)

While Even’s panoramic video is clear, showing vast destruction in Gaza, the image is not sensationalized. “I wanted to really make us see the fact that we don’t see and how we live oblivious of what goes on behind the wall,” she says. By juxtaposing the drone footage with Lake Michigan, she is bringing the war home, implicating herself and the viewer in the violence. “I chose to live here because I couldn’t support what goes on in Israel, but even by leaving, in some way, I’m endorsing certain kinds of passive nonparticipation. So it’s complicated.”

Gaza Strip’s wall text also makes America’s role in the conflict explicit, calling out General Dynamics, a weapons contractor to Israel, which is partly owned by Chicago’s Crown family. The Crowns are major philanthropists in the arts and in education, including to the Spertus.

Dana Carter’s book, Extract from Captain Stormfield Visit to Heaven, is on view in the final room of the exhibition.
Courtesy Hyde Park Art Center

Throughout the galleries, and in an artist book on display, artist Dana Carver’s fabric drawings also evoke landscapes and satellite images. The saltwater drawings began by accident, when the artist’s studio had a leak during the winter, and street salt left stains on dark theatrical fabric. The resulting works are spectral abstractions, with lines of grayish salt moving fluidly across the fabric.

Jaclyn Mednicov’s work tackles both absence and presence. In Traces of Unclaimed Objects, the artist made photographic transfers onto acrylic polymer, which are hung from the ceiling. The images were taken by the artist while doing research about unclaimed post-World War II textiles, primarily shawls, in the Spertus collection. Referring to the pieces as “skins,” the patterned works signify complex layers of Jewish history. Her second piece, Memories of Objects, consists of nine cyanotype panels, featuring collaged photographs of personally meaningful objects that the fellowship participants brought to a workshop earlier in their program. The items in the collages are hard to make out: there seems to be a hairbrush, family photographs, jewelry. During the workshop, the participants had a conversation about what institutions collect, what they value, and what objects individuals find important to keep, to remember. 

Jaclyn Mednicov’s Memories of Objects features collaged photographs of personally meaningful objects that the fellowship participants brought to a workshop earlier in their program.
Courtest Hyde Park Art Center

“It’s a grid [of separate units] but it’s completely united,” Lichtzier explains. “You cannot take one piece off . . . It’s important, for me at least, that like every artist that saw that work for the first time, they started tearing up because they really saw it as a group image.”

For Even, the community that formed out of this experience was an unexpected reward. “It’s really rich and broad and expansive and it went way beyond what I ever expected entering this fellowship,” she says. “I really didn’t know that that home would happen. Kind of oddly, it did serve exactly the goal that it set out to serve, but what brought us together was the walls that the Spertus chose to enforce.”

“Regarding the Missing Objects”
Through 2/27: Mon-Thu 10 AM-7 PM, Fri 10 AM-4:30 PM, Sat 10 AM-4 PM, Sun 10 AM-1:30 PM, Hyde Park Art Center, 5020 S. Cornell, hydeparkart.org, free

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