Copenhagen-based artist Tal R brings his visions of Detroit to MOCAD.


Franz Kafka’s unfinished first novel (published posthumously in 1927), is set in a dream world that is not quite America — not surprising, since the author never visited the country.

Tal R. Photo by Naaman Rosen
Tal R.
Photo by Naaman Rosen

Inspired by Kafka’s work, Tel Aviv-born artist Tal Shlomo Rosenzweig — known as Tal R — has created his own fantasy of Detroit from his studio in Copenhagen.

The result is “: this is not Detroit,” a solo exhibition of seven large-scale paintings rendered in a rich and moody palate of blues that depict the artist’s vision of specific Detroit neighborhoods, including Black Bottom, Poletown and Palmer Park. The exhibit can be seen at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCAD) Detroit through July 29.

The installation view at MOCAD.
The installation view at MOCAD.

Tal R studied art at the Royal Danish Academy. A former professor at the prestigious Kunstakademie Dusseldorf, he is one of the most renowned artists in Scandinavia. During a visit there, MOCAD Executive Director Elysia Borowy-Reeder met with him and and invited him to Michigan.

“On my first day in Detroit, I had lunch at an Arabic café,” Tal R says. “I felt dizzy and thought — where am I? From that dizziness, I developed the idea of “: this is not Detroit.”

Using primitive shapes and symbols — waves, ships and city buildings — drawn with short, energetic brushstrokes, Tal R creates a detached vision of Detroit, inviting viewers to consider the city as not just a place but an idea.


In addition to the paintings, Tal R has written a one-of-a-kind 52-page Detroit newspaper that is distributed to the public at the exhibition. That, as well as the paintings, were completed in Detroit, at MOCAD — the paintings have come full circle.

Here, Tal R has a conversation with the JN.

JEWISH NEWS: How long did you live in Israel? Does that inform your art in any way?

TAL R: I was born in Israel during the Six-Day War in 1967. My parents moved to Copenhagen a few months after I was born but every summer was spent in Israel. I think the fact that my parents called me Tal, which is not a name in Denmark, made people in Denmark always say, “So Tal, what is your real name?” Also, the fact that I was not Israeli and not real Danish made me somehow a person living between countries. I am sure this shaped my way as a human and, therefore, undoubtedly my art.

Core City
Core City

JN: Do you still have family in Israel? How were you raised religiously?

TR: I have a big family in Israel, stretching from kibbutzniks to haredim. I went to Jewish school. When I was 7 years old, I asked the rabbi in school, “How can I believe in God when I can’t see him?” He answered, “Have you been in America?” I said “No.” He said, “Then how can you know America exists?”

In my childhood home, my mother lit candles every Shabbat. We sang songs that we didn’t understand the meaning of. Even today, 51 years old, I love all these songs that I don’t understand.

JN: Tell me about your art philosophy, what it means to you and what you hope it will mean to viewers.

TR: Art is the only job in society that talks freely about what it is like to be a human. Art is allowed to disappoint. Art gives more questions than answers. Art destroys you. Art builds you up.

A papier-mache wall displays the original newspaper pages; copies are distributed to visitors.
A papier-mache wall displays the original newspaper pages; copies are distributed to visitors.

JN: What kind of resources did you rely on to try to visualize what Detroit is like?

TR: I visualized images that exist most places on Earth, such as trains, clowns, fat cats, graphic systems, bridges and horses. I combined these images with neighborhood names. The viewer is placed between the image and the name.

JN: When you visited Detroit, what were your impressions?

TR: I spent a lot of time in Detroit driving around neighborhood and industrial areas. What happened to Detroit happens to most cities every 200 years: They melt down. This makes the city look poetic — everything suddenly seems broken. But, more important, everything seems possible again.

Palmer Park
Palmer Park

JN: Do you have a favorite painting in the series?

TR: My favorite painting is the big fat cat hanging upside-down. It is only the second cat I’ve ever painted. The first cat I painted was in a psychiatric hospital.


Tal R’s “: this is not Detroit” runs through July 29 at MOCAD.
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