israel RepoRt

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israel RepoRt
israel Report
WHERE HISTORY BECOMES ART
The personal is political for many Israeli artists
becoming ever more active on the international scene.
BY LILLY WEI
Israel, a nation the size of
New Jersey, has changed dramatically since its inception in
1948. The population—now
close to 7.5 million, almost 10
times the founding total—is
roughly 70 percent Jewish, 20
percent Arab and 10 percent
other. The economy remains
vibrant despite the recent
worldwide downturn, and Israeli
military might is both admired
and hated. This is an atypical
country, Ron Pundak, the director general of the Peres Center
for Peace and one of the negotiators of the 1993 Oslo Accord,
said to me in conversation, reiterating the opinion of many. The
state was founded on a moral
imperative and a double-edged
calamity, with the Holocaust on
one side and the eviction of the
Palestinians on the other. Indeed,
what Israel celebrates as its
birthday is called al-nakba, the catastrophe, by the Palestinians.
Today’s young Israelis are less
rooted in the past than their predecessors. Nevertheless, Gilad Ratman, an
emerging video artist with an MFA from
Columbia University in New York, where
he currently resides, feels that history
is “injected into us at birth.” Although
he recently had a solo show exploring
the grotesque at the New Media Center
of the Haifa Museum, he is not wedded to Israel—nor are his peers, many
of whom are settling in London, Berlin,
Amsterdam and other international art
centers. Reexamining the development
of their country and the region, these
artists often adopt a critical, independent point of view as they move toward
a post-national frame of mind. They are
able to engage in discourse beyond the
reflexively patriotic and partisan, and to
see Israeli politics, religion and ethnic
issues coolly, in shades of gray, while
remaining sincerely saddened by the
violence, the deaths.
Looking at the work of some of these
artists during my visits over a year ago
and last fall, and talking to them individually in Israel and abroad, I sense that
they have inherited a tremendous subject simply by being born in an uneasy,
unstable land with its collision-course
histories, crisscrossed by deep fault
lines of distrust and outrage, anxiety
and fear. Despite all this, of course, ordinary life goes on there much as it does
anywhere else—although pervaded by
an exceptional intensity and tenacity. In
fact, some boosters, holding that Israel
is less isolated than it once was, would
like to make Tel Aviv a kind of Miami on
the Mediterranean, ignoring the flashes
of violence only a few miles away.
More temperately, Mordechai Omer,
the longtime director and curator of
View of Art TLV 09, the Tel Aviv Biennial
of Contemporary Art, showing
Shelly Federman’s outdoor installation
Aberstien—Floating Wall, 2009.
Photo Omer Messinger.
the Tel Aviv Museum and an eloquent
advocate for modern and contemporary art in Israel, describes the
confidence of Israeli artists as being at
an all-time high. Doron Sebbag, whose
world-class holdings make him the
most prominent of a growing number
of younger collectors of contemporary
art in Israel, cites the positive effect of
increasing government and private sector support, and notes a huge change
on the commercial scene. In the 1980s
the country had only a handful of contemporary galleries; today it boasts at
least 40 or 50, many with international
reputations—such as Dvir Gallery and
Sommer Contemporary Art, both in
Tel Aviv. And while $30-40,000 was
once considered a substantial amount
to pay for a work of Israeli art, prices
January’10 art in america 51
These artists have
inherited a tremendous
subject simply by
being born in an
uneasy, unstable land
crisscrossed by
distrust and outrage,
anxiety and fear.
now can reach hundreds of thousands,
even half a million, U.S. dollars. Citing
artists such as Yael Bartana, Mika
Rottenberg, Guy Ben-Ner and Omer
Fast, as well as others like Yigal Ozeri
who are a generation older, Sebbag
contends that “Israeli art is finally
becoming original.”
Over 20 years ago, Zvi Goldstein,
a Romanian-born conceptualist and
sculptor who has lived in Israel since
1958, stressed to me in an interview for
Art in America [July 1989] that, worldwide, the energy from the periphery
is as great as that at the center. More
than ever, that observation holds true
in Israel, even though what might be
considered the periphery has shifted
as globalization continues its advance,
creating new centers as it goes. Tel
Aviv, the country’s most vibrantly cosmopolitan and politically liberal city,
celebrated the centennial of its founding last fall (a year after the nation’s
60th birthday) by presenting, among
other festivities, an impressive array of
exhibitions and performances by Israeli
and international artists, the former in
many instances outshining their guests,
especially in photography, video and
video installations.
The centerpiece of these activities
was Art TLV 09 [Sept. 10-24, 2009].
The second installment of a new addition to the international biennial circuit,
it was part of a regional trifecta: Athens,
Istanbul, Tel Aviv. Organizers chose as
its symbolically freighted main site the
19th-century Templar compound at the
nexus of Neve Tzedek, Tel Aviv’s first
Jewish neighborhood; the old Arab
city of Jaffa; and the formerly industrial Florentin area, now transformed
into a modern residential zone. The
biennial—encompassing some 50
artists in its core show and another
40 or so in related exhibitions—took
Tel Aviv itself as its theme, prompt52 art in america January’10
Israel report
ing reflections on urbanization and its
ramifications, both literal and metaphoric, and raising questions about
history, politics and identity—especially
the Palestinian issue, never far from
anyone’s mind in this region. Israeli
artist Shelly Federman, for example,
scattered Styrofoam wedges on the
ground, where they evoked lounge
chairs and surfboards but also recalled
slabs of the West Bank’s partition wall.
Palestinian writer Laila El-Haddad
and Israeli designer Mushon Zer-Aviv
Above, view of projection
on a ship’s sail for “Ex-Territory.”
The first event in this itinerant
five-year project was held
during Art TLV 09.
Opposite top, two stills from
Fahed Halabi and Ala Farhat’s
Working Day, 2009, video,
16 minutes; in “Men in the
Sun” at the Herzliya Museum
of Contemporary Art.
Opposite bottom, Gilad Ratman:
The Way We Did Che Che,
2005, video, 24 minutes; at the
Haifa Museum of Art. Courtesy
Braverman Gallery, Tel Aviv.
collaborated on You Are Not Here, a
conceptual “tour” connecting Tel Aviv
to Gaza City. Given a double-sided
map of the two towns, the “metatourist” could hold it up to the sun so
that the plans were superimposed. To
visit a Gaza location, say the Unknown
Soldier Park, one would walk to the
corresponding location on the Tel
Aviv map, in this instance the Helena
Rubenstein Pavilion, and there find a
telephone number stickered on a pole.
Calling the number, one got an audio
founder of modern Zionism), offered an
elegant installation of videos, sculptures
and photographs by German artist
Gregor Schneider from his ongoing
“Haus u r” project, a suite of art- and
memento-laden rooms in his house
in Rheydt, Germany. But the highlight
at the museum was “Men in the Sun,”
an occasionally humorous but more
often sobering exhibition of works by
13 Palestinian artists who live in Israel.
One standout was Working Day, by
Fahed Halabi and Ala Farhat, a video
tour of the Gaza site—an account, conceived by El-Haddad, that was factual
yet extremely personal and partisan.
The aim of the project was to inform
and engage the residents of Tel Aviv
about “a reality they are responsible
for,” according to Zer-Aviv, the Gaza
known to most Israelis only through
the media—or, to some, as the site of
much too real combat encounters.
The Herzliya Museum of contemporary Art, in nearby Herzliya (an upscale
city named after Theodor Herzl, the
about a crew of Palestinians restoring
the facade of a sun-drenched synagogue. Suddenly, a worker recites, in
deadpan fashion, his recent experience
in Gaza—which included seeing his
friend’s head blown away as the two
ran from Israeli military fire. The exhibition’s title repeats that of a controversial
1963 novel by Palestinian writer and
activist Ghassan Kanafani, who was
killed in a car bomb explosion in Beirut
in 1972, allegedly at the hands of
Israel’s covert intelligence agency, the
January’10 art in america 53
Mossad. The book, treated as a touchstone in the show’s catalogue, follows
the journey of three Palestinian refugees of different ages who leave their
refugee camps to seek work in Kuwait.
Without travel permits, they hide in the
empty water tank of the truck that is
transporting them as they approach a
guard station at the Iraq-Kuwait border. The soldiers take their time and
the stowaways die in the killing heat.
The story ends with the anguished cry
of the truck driver: “Why didn’t you
knock on the sides of the tank? Why
didn’t you bang the sides of the tank?
Why? Why? Why?”
Another politically based enterprise
is “Ex-Territory,” a two-year initiative
that was launched in September in
international waters off Tel Aviv with
screenings of videos by Arab and Israeli
artists projected onto the sails of a
catamaran, to be watched from another
boat that ferries viewers out to the site.
The Ex-Territory group, composed of
four Israeli members, plans to provide
a politically neutral floating platform for
unrestricted cultural exchange while
sailing throughout the Mediterranean,
with future events scheduled for the
coastal regions of Turkey and Egypt,
pending funding. Maayan Amir, one of
the founders, explained, “Arab artists
will not exhibit art in Israel because
of the political situation. We are trying to find a solution to this problem
by meeting in extra-territorial waters,
and offering a nonhistorical space for
dialogue.” That seems only a partial
solution, however, given that the participating Arab artists could not be named
for fear of reprisals against them. Still,
partial solutions are better than none.
The artists I have chosen to
examine more closely, most of them
multidisciplinary, with an emphasis
on photography and video, range
Right, Barry Frydlender:
Waiting (“End of
Occupation?” Series
No. 1), 2005, color
photograph.
Below, Frydlender:
Pool, Malibu, 2008,
color photograph.
Photos this spread
courtesy Andrea Meislin
Gallery, New York.
from first-generation native Israelis in
their mid-50s to younger colleagues
in their late 30s. Each has his or her
own approach to Israeliness, including attempts to more or less ignore
it—except that none of them truly
can. Ultimately, to be an Israeli artist
is different from being an artist from
any country without such a burdened
history, fraught present and uncertain future. Barry Frydlender and
Michal Rovner, two artists of the first
generation to achieve international recognition, are discussed below. The next
wave—represented by Adi Nes, Eliezer
Sonnenschein, Sigalit Landau, Yael
Bartana and Keren Cytter—will be the
subject of a future installment.
Barry Frydlender (b. 1954), one of
Israel’s most celebrated photographers, with recent solo shows at the
Museum of Modern Art in New York and
the Jewish Museum in Paris, lives and
works in his native Tel Aviv. His studio
in an industrial building is a cluttered
54 art in america January’10
Israel report
work space, not a white-box showroom.
On the walls, or soon unrolled for me
to view, were numerous photographs
characterized by disconcerting and
deceptive precision, preternatural light,
stunning clarity and great formal beauty.
The compositions, usually horizontal
panoramas, present such views as the
local neighborhood seen from the studio window, Tel Aviv beaches, the Gaza
Strip and an active convenience store
open to the street. These informationrich images are meticulously pieced
together on a computer from multiple
digital photos—sometimes dozens,
sometimes hundreds—accumulated
consonant with the partially fictive nature
of the composite scene. Signs in Hebrew
read “don’t betray us” and “why?” The
titular song is said to have been sung by
the ancient Israelites when they reached
the Red Sea, with the Pharaoh’s forces
in determined pursuit. As the story goes,
God heard his people, parted the waters
and saved them. Ironically, the army
that confronts the Israelis in Frydlender’s
photo is their own, and the waters do
not part. The scene is both biblical
and up-to-date. In keeping with current
political complexity, it’s not clear if
salvation or stalemate is at hand.
While not as widely traveled as some
Barry FryDlender’s
composite photographs,
in which figures may
appear in several
locations within the
same frame, evoke
complex interweavings
of past and present.
over varying intervals of time. The works
appear seamless at first, but eventually
many anomalies become evident: a figure appearing in several locations within
the same frame or various figures placed
incongruously near one another, their
shadows indicating separate shots from
different times of day. Frydlender likens
the viewing process to turning pages
in a book, each section of the image a
page, the entire photograph a volume
to be patiently read. Other viewers
might make a distant formal link with
Asian scroll paintings.
Several photos depict the forced
evacuation of a seaside Israeli settlement in Gaza in 2005. One improbably
festive-looking example features people
strolling about, entertainers, a few musicians, trailerlike barracks, and a broad
sweep of sea and sky. In another, Shirat
Ha’yam (Song of the Sea), 2005, a semicircle of Israeli soldiers spreads across
the foreground of the work’s 10-foot
expanse—the curve, suggesting a stage,
of his compatriots, Frydlender has
spent a fair amount of time away from
Israel, including several months in the
Los Angeles area in 2007. There he
made a series conveying his vision of
Southern California, presented with
customary detachment. One image,
Pool, Malibu (2008), includes a house
with a pool screened by tall trees.
Looking down on the green watery
rectangle, one can see it as a samplesize memory of the Mediterranean. An
earlier aerial photo called Estates (2005)
depicts a swimming pool in Israel, an
extreme luxury in that desert land. Yet
the aquatic indulgence, surrounded by
empty lounge chairs, is eerily situated
beside an old Jewish cemetery.
Frydlender’s composite, time-bending
artistic process is a kind of corollary to
life in Israel, where past centuries and the
present are complexly interwoven. He
explained that he works “with and against
the tradition of ‘done in the course of my
life’ photography—with what is around
The works of photographer, video artist and sculptor Michal Rovner (b. 1957, Tel
Aviv), who represented Israel at the Venice
Biennale in 2003 (alone, after a Palestinian
artist whom she asked to share the pavilion with her declined out of concern over
alienating his brethren),2 are often described
as timeless, elemental and universal, their
stark, lyrical beauty earning her an avid
international following. Rovner’s best-known
videos are haunting, postapocalyptic evocations of desert, sky, fire and air crossed by
bands of tiny, stripped-down, silhouetted
figures that waver, come together and splinter in what might be oscillations between
community and alienation, ritual dancing
and war maneuvers. Projected onto walls,
tabletlike stones and petri dishes, the
works suggest ancient script in motion or,
at times, reconfiguring strands of DNA.
Despite the videos’ semi-abstraction,
associations with the Sisyphean history
of Israel and the Middle East are unavoidable, anchoring Rovner’s poetics to
ongoing attempts at reconciliation.
me and the people I meet, be it in Santa
Monica or Tel Aviv. I practice photography
as someone else practices tai chi or Islam,
so it is not important where I work, although
place does have an enormous effect.”1
January’10 art in america 55
Israel report
In Living Landscape,
Michal Rovner
reconstructs the
backstory to the
founding of Israel,
using archival
images that recall
an eradicated world.
Makom I (2006) and Makom II (200708) are simple cubelike shelters (the title
means “place” or “home” in Hebrew)
built from old stones taken from structures in Jerusalem, Galilee, Haifa, Nablus
and Hebron [see A.i.A., June/July ’08].
In an overtly political gesture endorsing co-existence, the works have been
repeatedly assembled and disassembled
by a crew of Israeli and Palestinian workAbove, Michal Rovner: Living Landscape
(detail), 2004-05, video installation,
approx. 11 minutes.
Left, Rovner: Untitled, 2009, video projection
on stone, 26 3⁄4 by 48 3⁄8 inches.
Photos this page courtesy PaceWildenstein
Gallery. Works this page © Rovner/Artists
Rights Society, New York.
ers who, laboring together, travel with the
pieces whenever they are installed.
Rovner’s permanent, site-specific
video installation, Living Landscape
(2004-05), projected on a triangular wall
more than 36 feet high at Yad Vashem,
the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’
Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem, is
a departure for her. Compiling a record
of the daily life of Eastern European
Jews, Rovner painstakingly reconstructed the backstory to the establishment of
the state of Israel from archival film footage and photographs, producing a vision
of an eradicated world. Daily events in
the shtetls—children dancing or bent
over books in school, women doing
housework, men walking in the streets
56 art in america January’10
people] a place where they could live.”
Although her main studio has been
in New York since 1988, Rovner has
never quite abandoned Israel, keeping
both a studio and a house in separate
neighborhoods outside Jerusalem,
where she goes often to develop ideas
and gather materials. In a 2003 interview, she told BBC radio host John Tusa
that she had to leave Israel to become
an artist, and that the center of her life
shifted to New York because the city
or gathering for prayer, an orchestra
fosters ambitions, dreams and indirehearsing—are seen mostly through
viduality. But then she began to think
windows, Rovner’s video camera scanof Israel with longing and realized that
ning the scenes with great tenderness,
she did not have to choose between the
lingering here and there on chosen faces
two places, that she could inhabit both
or vignettes. One of the most touching
and create a thread between two very
disparate realities. As the second installpassages is of two smiling young girls
ment of this report will show, Rovner’s
shown on a short loop, hands waving
in poignant, never-ending farewell. The
realization has come much more easily
video took three years to make, Rovner
to the next generation of artists, those
told me, and for her “it
born in the 1960s and
was the work of a lifetime,
1970s, as they take
1 E-mail correspondence
a great and daunting
up residence—itself a
with the author, Nov. 7, 2009.
responsibility.” She did not
concept that is increas2 E-mail to the author,
Nov. 17, 2009.
want to “dwell on death,
ingly fluid—in and out
but on life, celebrating a
of Israel, depending
LILLY WEI is a New York-based
spirit that might still prevail.
writer and independent curator. upon their situation
I wanted to give [these
and their desires.

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