Whose Territory?



»The Promise, The Land«: Jewish-Israeli artists examine the complexity and contradictory nature of projections onto the state, and the idea of the »Promised Land« of Israel



Hedwig Saxenhuber




On the façade of the O.K. Center for Contemporary Art (Offenes Kulturhaus) in Linz, a picture by the Tel Aviv photographer Adi Nes is emblazoned on a banner above the entrance to the exhibition »The Promise, The Land«. It tends towards the grotesque: a flagpole without a flag, and several soldiers holding it so that another can climb nimbly up into the void. The choice of subject, a grotesque remake of a famous picture by Joe Rosenthal, in itself takes a direction that excludes unambiguities and perhaps evokes a certain helplessness, along with a smile. This helplessness could serve as a point of orientation when considering the complex socio-political situation of the exhibition »Jewish-Israeli Artists in Relation to Politics and Society«.

A glance at the forecourt reveals containers whose sides are decorated with patterns like those used in military camouflage, but not in the usual camouflage colours. They form part of the installation »borderlinedisorder« – a complex and sophisticated work by Eyal Weizmann for last year’s Architecture Biennale in Venice. It focused on the problems inherent in Israel’s hegemonic settlement policies. Weizmann’s cartography, which received great international attention, represents a visualisation of geopolitical borders and lines of division within the Israeli-Palestinian territory, which is undergoing a dynamic process of fragmentation and constant transformation. [1] The installation was created together with the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, B’tselem. The project was adapted especially for Linz. On the high cement wall in the open staircase there is a cartography of the West Bank (»Mapped Traces of West Bank Settlements«), drawn in white chalk, by the architect and curator Zvi Efrat, who teaches in Tel Aviv. Spread out in front of this – on the old, stuffy school desks from the girls’ school of the former Ursuline convent (the O.K.’s institutional predecessor) – are the territorial photographs by Daniel Bauer. They are put together methodically, frame for frame, from various angles, and document the situation of Israeli architecture. This complex view of settlement policies is complemented by a computer animation produced by a team surrounding the renowned architect Yehoshua Gutman. This time-lapse animation shows in greater detail the change in territorial definitions since the start of pre-Christian migration, and then since the foundation of the state of Israel. Between the morphological shapes of the territories, there are »flashes« of the architecture of the modern era. Back then, the newly founded state was like a laboratory in which the concepts of historical Zionism in association with socialist ideals and, linked to this, the invention of new architectural typologies were amalgamated. These brief »windows« on utopian elements of Israeli modernity close again in the artists’ works that follow.

The ongoing Web project »Exposed Identities/Digital Terror« (http://web.macam98.ac.il/~horit_a/horit.htm) by the Tel Aviv-based media artist Horit Herman Peled provides an insight into the current tragedies caused by the conflicts arising through the settlement policies. Every two years since 1998, Peled has been making inventories about the horrendous changes in the Gaza checkpoint. This constantly shifting line, which is an indicator of the ruptures, the inclusions and exclusions produced by the conflict, is also depicted in the photographic works of Guy Raz. In the series of »Lifeguard Towers«, the artist imagines a uniform horizon that seems filled by the sea as a connecting line. He photographed the rescue towers on the coast of Gaza, and two years later those on the coast of Tel Aviv – both lie on the Mediterranean. When they are placed opposite to one another, the illusion of a single skyline is produced. According to Guy Raz, visitors are meant to have the feeling that this is actually a prison: the prison for the Jews and the prison for the Palestinians blend to form one prison, and the lifeguard towers become watch towers – a prison in a place where there could be the paradise that is the Mediterranean coast.

The border, both in the geopolitical and metaphorical sense, is, even more than the land, the constitutive element of this exhibition. The strategy of role play employed by London-based Oreet Ashery with her alter ego, Marcus Fischer, is concerned with borders and the removal of taboos. As an orthodox – possibly homosexual – Jew, Ashery makes use of the cliché of the mollycoddled, effeminate man as a reaction to the historical construction of the stalwart, masculine Zionist. In this role-modelling he/she shows him/herself as an orthodox Jew with female breasts, then as an orthodox Jew, a »real man«, with an erect penis. This provocation aims at the taboos on the public display of sexuality, homosexuality and transvestitism that characterise orthodox Jewish doctrine. At the same time, it points up one of the major lines of division in Israeli society today – the fundamental lack of mutual understanding between orthodox and secular Jews.

The »retrospective« of the artistic figure »Justine Frank«, who was »reconstructed« by Roee Rosen, is an exhibition within the exhibition. With astonishing subtlety, Rosen succeeds in depicting and displaying Frank’s fictive artistic work and life in words and images.

Despite the Ashkenazic Jews’ claim to cultural hegemony, works by several »other« artists can be seen in the exhibition, such as the »pig-snout« pictures by the artist Maria Pomiansky, who emigrated from Russia. These are portraits of her Russian friends that symbolise their lack of integration into Israeli society and self-chosen outsider status. An installation by the young Mizrahi artist Yigal Nizri, who lives in New York, is also on display – a pictorial narration in which the symbolic biblical fruits (wheat, barley, olives, figs, dates, pomegranates and grapes) are spatially visualised. For Nizri, the universal values of modernity upon which Israel was set up are particularly precarious today, as aesthetic representations expressive of other ethnic groups are immediately branded as backward.

Contrary to the Zionist ideals of a national melting pot, there is within Israeli society a manifest racism towards Mizrahim (Oriental Jews) [2], who, according to demographic estimates, now make up half the Jewish population. In a work from 1997, the New York-based Israeli artist Meir Gal illustrates this conflict by means of official historiography. In »Nine Out of Four Hundred: The West and the Rest«, the artist demonstrates succinctly, but all the more potently, how few pages the history textbooks used in schools devote to the history of the Mizrahim, a summary treatment that is almost tantamount to an obliteration.

In »Arms Pit«, Meir Gal shows his naked torso in classicistic pose. Gal has the outline of the state of Israel tattooed into his arm pits, a highly sensitive part of the body – a symbolic, patriotic action that represents the intimate, neurotic and indissoluble relationship connecting Israelis, whether in Israel or emigrated, with Ha’aretz, their country. Increasing criticism of the ideological cornerstones of the state of Israel, inner disunity and erosion of the values that held the society together are becoming ever more prevalent today.

The exhibition »The Promise, The Land« also shows that the middle generation of critical artists is still much more ambivalent in its attitude to the ideals of Israel, while many of the younger artists make no secret of their rejection. Particularly in the area of media, the most recent generation deals with the »huge burden of history« in a disrespectful manner, as the video T.M.B. by Ayelet Ben Porat clearly shows. Found footage material, archive footage of the war of independence – cheering settlers and refugees leaving to go into exile – are shown in a sort of video clip. Loud techno music booms away in the foreground. The time-lapse pictures, insistent repetitions, clearly show a reaction to the ideological values that were once appropriate, but now are proving to be cynical and inhuman in everyday practice and have therefore become increasingly hollow. Ruti Sela also parodies official authority in her video »Una Proyeccion Solamente«, made in Spain, by stylising herself and her friends, with flair and audacity, as anarchistic figures.

In response to the sensualistic abbreviations and manipulative rhetoric of the mass media, and the cynical attempts at instrumentalisation by politicians, younger artists have developed a vocabulary they can use to move away from the founding myths and distance themselves from their own history and the prevailing politics.

Limiting »The Promise, the Land« to Israeli artists proved to be a fruitful move. The complex counter-projections to the hegemonic discourse of the »Promised Land« with which they – local and migrant artists – developed their works in this exhibition drew a sophisticated picture of a conflict that in these parts is often the subject of unsophisticated discussion, and made visible the internal Israeli discourse about these highly complex border shifts, contradictory acquisitions of land and geographical and mental territorialisations.




Translation: Timothy Jones


1 Also see the text by Helmut Heissenbüttel, »The Politics of Burnt Earth« in: springerin 1/2003, Picture Politics, pp. 34-38
2 Mizrahim are Jews of Asian, African and Arabian descent. Arab Jews are also called Sephardim, while the Ashkenazim, the country’s elite, are descendants of European Jews.