Toy exhibit explores childhood at Beit Meirov Gallery in Holon

‘The essence of a toy is that it builds existing strengths,” says Israeli artist Tal Tenne Czaczkes, before offering me some cookies baked by her mother. “We often scold children for putting too much food on their plates, and we say “Oh, your eyes are too big, you’re greedy” – but isn’t it natural for a child to want to try everything? After all, for a child, everything is new!”

Czaczkes explores the landscapes of childhood and imagination by offering workshops about creativity as well as creating art inspired by, and composed of, toys.

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“When I opened my studio and started to pick up and collect discarded toys, someone asked me, ‘Who cares?’” she says. “Well, guess what? Today I give lectures to the Public Security Ministry and to hi-tech firms. Who said that when you become an adult you stop playing? Why is it that we are happy to go to a Buddhist retreat to learn how to be here now, and we’re too embarrassed to learn from our own children who are really living the present right here and right now?”

Czaczkes met journalist Gil Riva when they were both working for Yediot Aharonot 20 years ago. She was a graphic artist, and he was writing a gossip column. In time, Riva became one of the biggest names in Israeli media, the first to interview former prime minister Ehud Olmert in March when Olmert was released from prison.

“Our relationship restarted half a year ago,” says Czaczkes, “because Gil felt a little adrift – once you realize all of your professional dreams, what is left to do, right? He told me, I don’t want to get old. And in my studio, with the thousands of toys I got from people who were housecleaning or got from the garbage dump, we began to play together, because being lost doesn’t have to be a tragedy. It might be for an adult, but for a child? For a child it can be a lot of fun!”

The result is a new exhibition at Beit Meirov Gallery Holon, a historical building with a rich connection to Zionist history.
“In this house Ben-Gurion banged his fist on the table and told the head of the Mossad, Isser Harel, ‘I want [Nazi war criminal Adolf] Eichmann!’” says gallery manager Moti Rozenberg. “[Former mayor of Jerusalem] Teddy Kollek would come here with suitcases full of cash to pay for the French project in Dimona. I haven’t seen these things with my own eyes, but [the late] Aryeh Eliav told me he saw these things with his own eyes when he visited here.”

Now the house is filled to the brim with reassembled Barbie dolls, balloons and plastic guns.

“Most of the works here are by Gil,” Czaczkes says, “and this is one of our major differences. My studio is open and the toys are out; anyone can come and play and touch my stuff. His studio is in the cellar, and he keeps things in boxes or under glass. He always had an artistic side, but this is the first time he allows himself to bring it out.”

The exhibition is packed with color and pop allure while at the same time verging on the eerie or even melancholy. What happens to toys when they are discarded? What does it mean that, in a house once devoted to Zionist ideals, Chinese-made cheap toys are now framed and hung up to be looked at?

“There is a rich artistic history of dealing with modernity and pop art,” says Czaczkes, naming people like Claes Oldenburg with his huge sculpture of a dropped ice-cream cone (2001) or Jeff Koons, who made a sculpture of Michael Jackson and his pet chimpanzee, Bubbles (1998), “but it’s a mistake to think that toys are only about wish fulfillment. To me, they are about human connections and creativity.”

Even the hyper-realistic sex dolls now being marketed have an AI chip that ensures that if you speak meanly to the doll, the doll will be mean to you and say nasty things in return, which means, she says, that even a sex doll is not a toy meant to simply answer needs but also to present the person playing with it with some sort of a humanlike connection and creativity.

“Gil would tell you that we are also used by other people as toys. What are elderly people in nursing homes if not broken and discarded toys?” Czaczkes says.

“For me, however, it’s the used toy that has this kind of energy I like to work with. I mean, who bought this toy? Who played with it? What did the toy do for them? I had a celebration on the beach a while ago and handed toys out to people who showed up, and you know what? Adult or child, to get a toy, even a used toy that was picked from the junk bin a day ago, it makes you happy.”

“Toyizm,” by Tal Tenne Czaczkes and Gil Riva, will be shown at the Beit Meirov Gallery from June 30 to August 25, 31 Herzfeld Street, Holon. Tuesday-Thursday, 5 p.m.-8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Admission is free.