Complex Geographies in Contemporary Israeli Art at Towson University by Anna Fine Foer
Many Americans associate Israeli art with kitschy, nostalgic scenes of the Holy Land and the shtetls (market towns) of Eastern Europe, what I refer to as “dining room art,” but thankfully this exhibit focuses on cutting edge contemporary art.
In the case of such a large survey exhibition, there was a steep learning curve for the curators, considering that they had no prior familiarity with contemporary and conceptual art made in Israel. This exhibition took four years to organize and included multiple trips to Israel to visit galleries and artists in their studios. It is notable and possibly controversial that Towson University and Rutgers took on this project at a time when some students and faculty at US universities have expressed vocal opposition to any cooperation with Israeli academics.
Many of my comments in this review are informed by the slide lecture presented by Ruth Direktor, Curator of Contemporary Art at the Tel-Aviv Museum, as part of the exhibition’s opening reception. My reaction to the show is also influenced by my personal relationship to the topic.
I lived in Haifa and Ramat Gan in the early to mid-1980’s and was profoundly influenced by the landscape. I made collages using maps of Israel to represent the arid and mountainous desert landscape. I felt pressure when I had conversations with contemporary curators to make work that was about “the conflict” and this was the subject matter I saw when I visited contemporary galleries: imagery was often raw and direct, with no subtlety or ambiguity. In contrast, the work in this exhibition presents a much more sophisticated approach.
In order to make sense of all the different influences coming from distinct or overlapping segments of Israeli society, the exhibition is divided into themes. My experience and review follows these same topics.
The Past in the Present
“In Israel, views of history and geography, the people and the land itself are inextricably linked.” – M Rosenberg, from the exhibition catalogue
Pavel Wolberg Moses, Tel Aviv Central Station, 2012
A large scale, black and white photo shows us a white bearded man dressed in a white robe, standing on a low roof, holding two stone tablets in his hands. He is addressing a large crowd of Sudanese workers assembled below. While this photograph alludes to discrimination against African guest workers, it can at the same time refer to the rescue of the majority of Ethiopian Jews, mostly from Sudanese refugee camps, from 1984 to 1991.
Dorit Feldman, Hopes that Them Sailing in Other Directions 2010, print
Juxtaposed images of the Hula Valley, a bridge, and a map of the Old City in Jerusalem bridge the gap of time and ideas. This digital collage is about reconstruction, regeneration and the Zionist dream of reclaiming the land. The Hula Valley is a swamp that was drained by pioneers in the early 1950s for agricultural production and to prevent the spread of malaria. Forty years later, the land was allowed to revert back to its natural state as a wetland and is now a favorite resting spot for migrating cranes in the winter.
Feldman’s work is open to interpretation; you may find other connections to the bridge, the water, and a map of the Old City. The map looks like it could be a cross-section of a tree, symbolizing the passage of time by its rings.
Toby Cohen, Sunrise at Masada, 2008, color photograph
A stunning photo of a large expanse of the desert surrounding Masada (a remote mountain-top fortress where a group of religious zealots held out against a Roman army camped below, circa 73 CE) is full of energy and absolute joy. The men, dressed for morning prayer, physically manifest their love of God and religious devotion. One can wonder if the people held captive two thousand years ago would have done the same dance upon greeting the sunrise.
Maya Machawsy Parnas, The Dead Sea for the Time Being, 2015, slip cast porcelain
Small, lightly colored discs are arranged on a low-lying plinth. They resemble salt deposits on the shores of the Dead Sea. According to the artist, they represent Israel’s varied topography and the shrinking sea. The title reminds me of a biblical prophecy that one day, the Dead Sea will be alive with aquatic flora and fauna.
Orna Lutski, Thou Shalt Not Kill, 2012, laser cut book jackets
I was not sure at first how this work related to the rest of the exhibition. A series of primary red book jackets graphically proclaim Thou Shalt Not Kill in Hebrew and English. This work references the Holocaust, and was included because that horrific period is so closely bound up in the history and psyche of Israelis of Eastern European descent. We can also interpret these words as a commandment directed toward all sides of the warring factions in the region.
People in the Land
“Their cultures differ widely and their perceptions of their role in Israel differ as well.” – S. Isaacs, from the exhibition catalogue
In Israel people are always asked about their ethnic identity. Even if you are of Eastern European Jewish ancestry, that is not sufficient information. Are you Hungarian? Polish? Ukranian? Jews are also from Yemen, Morocco, Ethiopia, Iraq, Syria, and India, just to mention a few of the cultural influences. In addition to Jews, there are Bedouins, Druze, Christian Arabs, Muslim Arabs, and African and Asian guest workers.
Dor Guest, Two Palestinian Riders, Ben Shemen Forest, 2011, transparency on light box
This large back-lit photo captures your attention as soon as you enter the gallery. The forest is symbolic of the Zionist initiative to plant trees, and they all grow in straight lines, which makes it so recognizable. When Israelis first encounter an American natural growth forest, it seems like a jungle. The blurry figure represents the Palestinians and their place on the land being erased. Representing his people in this way (Guez is Palestinian Christian and Tunisian Jewish, so he is a minority four times over) recalls Soskin’s non-representation of the “other” in a photo, only this time the point of view is from the disenfranchised.
Asad Azi, Rest of the Warrior, 1998, oil and pencil on paper
Azi is a Druze artist whose family immigrated from Syria in 1948. He portrays his father, who was shot and killed by his Syrian counterpart while on border patrol on Israel’s northern border with Syria. Superimposed on a pencil drawing of his father is a recent architectural grid and an historical view of Old Jaffa. Azi represents a bridge through his heritage of Eastern and Western cultures and visually connects them.
Work in this section deals with the main areas in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the West Bank and Gaza.
Oded Balilty, Marginal Notes, 2010, photo
The fogginess of the separation wall is purposeful. Balilty’s choice of this atmosphere exemplifies the fuzziness of interpretations; how the viewer sees it depends on the side of the fence from which they are looking.
I am especially intrigued by this photo because the wall stands out in the landscape in a way that one cannot expect. There is even a view from the windows of Bezalel (the art school in Jerusalem) inspiring many artists to depict the Separation Barrier physically and conceptually into their work. For me, the wall is a desperate measure; it says “we give up.”
Gaston Zvi Ickowicz, Untitled (from the Settlement Series), 2005, lamda print
Demolition in the landscape and a single, weakened palm tree in the forefront document the withdrawal by Jewish settlers from Gush Katif in Gaza. Structures built by and for the Palestinians in Gaza were destroyed. The photo looks as if the destruction was caused by natural disaster, but not in this case. In this instance the Israeli government ordered the destruction of all the buildings, except the synagogues, which were left for the Palestinians to destroy.
Natan Dvir Last Supper, 2005, digital print
Dvir gives us another view of the Israeli army’s forced evacuation of Israeli settlers from Gaza. In this scene, a large family is seated around the dining table, praying after their meal while Israeli soldiers look on, huddled at the entryway. The soldiers patiently await the end of the prayers to escort them out. One cannot tell if the soldiers are willing participants in the army’s orders to evacuate those who won’t go willingly.
Tamir Zadok Gaza Canal, 2010, video
This installation includes a promotional video for tourism to the Isle of Gaza, separated from the mainland by an imaginary canal, and the obligatory tourist merchandise. Zadok’s comic parody of the absurdity of the occupation and the resulting missiles fired down on Israel turns the situation on its head by the creation of a fantasy island type adventure.
Interventions: From Destruction to Healing
The artists represented here have chosen to depict war, violence and in some cases, healing. This is their way of dealing with living constantly with the threat of war, rocket fire and bus bombings. I would call this section Israeli Decay Porn.
Shai Kremer Former Ammunition Storage Area, 2001, digital print
Kremer photographs abandoned Israeli army bases to show us the environmental and social impact of the military on the land and on the Israeli psyche. This seemingly innocuous landscape is really a reminder of the trauma of those who serve, those who wait at home for their loved ones to return, and those who are the victims, which is really everyone in the region.
Ariane Littman, Healing, 2015, an installation with metal table, pan, paper, gauze, wax, plaster, thread, hemostats, and scissors
In this installation, Littman transforms many kinds of maps into objects that allow her to change borders. “In reality,” she states, “borders can’t change by cutting and reworking them on paper.” Her work addresses the healing aspect of this section of the exhibition by the inclusion of gauze bandages, presumably there to mend a wounded landscape.
Tal Amitai Lavi The House on Hahalal Street, Haifa, 2009-10, threads on plexiglass
Lavi uses black thread adhered to plexiglass to translate a photo from the Second Lebanese War in 2006. She is fascinated with photographic images (found online) that portray remnants of decayed homes, either through natural disasters or armed conflicts. There is a contrast between the delicacy of her materials and the rawness of the image they carefully craft. Her use of materials to represent “decay porn” are very different from those used by Naomi Safran-Hon, at Goucher college in a sister exhibit, to tell a similar story.
With all the different ethnic identities, often multi-faceted, identification in Israeli society is also based on religious adherence, political affiliation, sexual orientation, economic opportunities and how long you have been in the country. The work in this grouping reflects that complexity.Oded Balilty, A Royal Wedding, 2013
Balilty is an Pulitzer Prize award winning photo-journalist. His photo gives us a glimpse into the world of the Chasidim. In this case it is the Vitznitz sect in B’nai Brak and the Rebbe’s grandson is the groom. This particular image shows us part of the celebration when the bride and her attendants are allowed to cross the curtain separating men from women to watch the men dance to entertain the couple and for the bride and groom to dance, attached to each other with a long sash.
Interestingly, this is the only image in the exhibition that shows us an aspect of Israeli society that many Americans, and often American Jews who have not been to Israel, associate with Israel.
Michael Halak, Syrian-African Cracked Olives, 2014-15, oil on canvas
This seemingly politically neutral tableau of spilled olives, painted in an old master style, is, in fact, not innocent. We can’t be sure if the red drops came from the olives or if it is spilled blood. Halak is a Christian Palestinian and an Arab Israeli. His sense of identity as a minority within a minority inserts itself into his paintings as a statement about one’s allegiances and actions. Does the title refer the Syrian-African Rift Valley or to the people from the region who experience discrimination in Israel?
Uri Gershuni, Untitled (George), 2013, digital photo
If all these mixed identities, different kinds of ethnicity, religious adherence, nationality and political divisions have not left you confused, you can add sexuality to the mix. Israel, and especially Tel-Aviv, has a vibrant and thriving gay culture.
I have only mentioned some of the work in this complex and multi-faceted exhibition. Some of the artists represented have shown their work in the US in many other venues and may be familiar. Some of the artists are not as well known. I urge you to see the exhibition and, I hope, come away with new insights and perspective regarding a small country that has a big story to tell.
Afarsimon (Persimmon)by Tal Shochat 2011, digital photo
Visions of Place: Complex Geographies in Contemporary Israeli Art
Co-Curators: Dr. J. Susan Isaacs, Professor of Art History, Towson University and Dr. Martin Rosenberg, Professor of Art History, Rutgers–Camden
Towson University, Center for the Arts Exhibition Dates: February 5 — April 3, 2016
Gallery Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 11:00 am to 8pm, Sundays 11 am to 4 pm. Closed spring break: March 13-20.