|The End of Days
and New Beginnings
Any attempt to identify the main directions and influences in Israeli art over the past decade requires a perspective that is simultaneously detached and immediate: an immediate, close look perceives things in real time, near the moment of their creation, while taking the long view makes it possible to consider them from a distance and identify, amid a multitude of works and trends, those that distinguish the art of this decade from what came before.1
On the world scene, the years that saw the turn of a millennium will be remembered, above all, for the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the war in Iraq. In Israel, too, the decade that began in 1998 witnessed momentous events: the failure of the Camp David talks, the outbreak of the Second Intifada, Qassam rocket fire on Sderot, disengagement from Gaza, and the Second Lebanon War. Yet very little of the groundbreaking art created in Israel responded directly to these events, either because artists felt powerless to change a harsh reality, or because they chose to adopt a universalist stance in an attempt to rise above the purely local.2 Many works in Real Time express dread of global catastrophe, alongside a yearning for escape to distant borders, real or imagined – to fantastic, mythological worlds; to wild, primordial, or sublime landscapes. And at the same time, the choice is often made in the conscious knowledge that real escape is impossible. Those works that deal with local contexts do so either as if from above, framing the political present in mythical time, or by revealing hidden currents beneath the impassive, self-satisfied surface of Israeli society.
Now that theoreticians and philosophers have declared the “end of ideology” and even the “end of art,”3 artists the world over are grappling with the question of how to confront a complex and multi-layered reality. Many leading artists appear to be engaged not so much by theoretical issues as by art’s connection to idiosyncratic worlds that are often fantastic and even neo-Romantic. They have reinstated a belief in the possibility of spiritual exaltation by visual means, without worrying that this may lead to merely “retinal art.”4 Figurative and narrative art and aesthetic values, once attacked by artists and critics alike, have returned to center stage.5 Nourished by a wide range of influences, artists such as Mariko Mori, Bill Viola, Antony Gormley, Olafur Eliasson, Ron Mueck, and Matthew Barney take their work towards a total, spectacular visual experience, through the use of grand scale, technical sophistication, theatricality, emotion, and religious pathos. In the work of Bill Viola, for example, the result approaches the overwhelming effect intended by such Baroque masters as Caravaggio and Velázquez.6
This worldwide trend has found its way into the work of Israel’s young artists, who keep abreast of what is happening in art centers and are more involved in the international scene than ever before. They take part in international exhibitions, and many of them pursue further studies abroad, exhibit in major cities around the world, and are represented by galleries in these cities. Newly established Israeli galleries are well aware of the latest developments and have adopted new methods, maintaining direct links with art centers abroad and promoting the work of the artists they represent at international exhibitions and fairs, while the older, established galleries have followed suit.7
The renewed preoccupation with producing a powerful visual experience has had an effect on the attitudes of many Israeli artists towards aesthetic qualities in works of art and the visual impression they make.8 The “Want of Matter” trend that was so strongly felt in Israel in the 1970s and 1980s, when artworks in crude materials were created with deliberate negligence, became less dominant beginning in the early 1990s. In the work of Nir Hod, Hila Lulu Lin, Gil Shachar, and others, “want of matter” was replaced by a high level of meticulous finish in photography, painting, sculpture, and video art.9 Young artists who became active in the mid-1990s have continued these trends, and have moved on to works on a large scale that create an overpowering experience.
A Beautiful Catastrophe
The beginning of the third millennium was preceded by hope, and by fear. The late 1990s saw Christian fundamentalist expectations of the Second Coming and the Judgment Day, as well as panic about an anticipated technological apocalypse: the millennium, or Y2K, bug. Worldwide processes of environmental change, political strife, and the spread of diseases such as AIDS heightened the sense of dread. Most dramatic and memorable of all, and most symbolic of the threat to the West’s inviolability, was the moment that can be regarded as the true dawning of the third millennium: the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. These cataclysmic processes and events did not fail to leave their mark on art worldwide, Israeli art included.
In September 2000, the exhibition Apocalypse, Beauty and Horror in Contemporary Art opened at the Royal Academy in London, focusing the spotlight on the anxiety and sense of impending doom that characterized the end of the twentieth century.10 Among the participating artists were Mariko Mori, Maurizio Cattelan, Mike Kelly, and Jake and Dinos Chapman. All shared a preoccupation with turn-of-the-millennium disaster and fear, but this was not the only thing they had in common. Many of them proposed flamboyant, theatrical portrayals or highly polished works of seductive beauty. Dramatic visual qualities, albeit tempered with irony and amusement, characterized Maurizio Cattelan’s notorious sculpture The Ninth Hour (1999), which shows Pope John Paul II being flattened by a meteor. The works by Mariko Mori offered sensual beauty and a futuristic, enchanted dream world. This combination of doom-laden anxiety, escapism, aesthetic awareness, and visual power was characteristic of other works in the exhibition.
With the collapse of the Twin Towers, a spectacular catastrophe penetrated the inner core of the most sheltered civilization in existence, and, via the television screen, homes throughout the world. Beyond the death and destruction, the reasons for the attack and the consequences it unleashed, there was also the visual dimension: the fearsome “beauty” that riveted viewers to their TV screens and produced some of the most powerful images of the dawn of the millennium. It is hard to think of a more potent event. This may be what the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen meant when he said that the disaster was the greatest work of art ever (a statement which upset so many people that he was forced to apologize). In Welcome to the Desert of the Real, culture critic Slavoj iek compared one of the emblematic images from the disaster to “the spectacular shots in catastrophe movies, a special effect which outdid all others.”11
In contrast with the unique enormity of September 11, Israel appears to have been locked for the past decade in a vicious but routine cycle of attack and reprisal. As Vered Vinitzky-Seroussi points out in her essay, 12 this frustrating routine of cyclical time dulls sensibilities and obscures the uniqueness of each event, grave though it may be. But for many young artists, the pattern of disaster is translated into another kind of time: a mythical and prophetic chronology marked by epic moments at which time appears to stop in its natural course. Dread of a global disaster and fears of approaching doom have been expressed in Israeli art in the past,13 but it is only in the last decade that overwhelming apocalyptic spectacles – in keeping with the prevalence of spectacular, all embracing installations at art centers around the world – appear to have entered the Israeli creative arena.
Calamity and a sense of impending doom formed the principal motif in Sigalit Landau’s unforgettable exhibition The Country, which opened in Tel Aviv in the fall of 2002 and was hailed as one of the most powerful installations in the annals of Israeli art. Critic Philip Leider referred to the exhibition – a nightmarish vision of the end of the world as observed from a Tel Aviv rooftop – as “Israel’s Guernica.”14 The Israeli, political dimension of this work was expressed in its title and its components: the pieces of papier-mâché fruit scattered about and carried by the tortured figures were constructed from pages torn from the newspaper Haaretz. (The word ha-aretz means the country, but is used in Hebrew to refer to one country in particular: Israel.) These pages carried constant reports of bad news and violent incidents – notably those of the Second Intifada (these “fruits” began to accumulate on September 28, 2000, the day the Intifada broke out, and continued to pile up over a period of twenty-two months). The total installation immediately drew spectators into a nightmare world, a sick distortion of the idyllic images of the early Zionist period – Nahum Gutman’s citrus groves and Reuven Rubin’s pioneers laden with luscious fruit, symbols of future promise that were the complete antithesis of the toxic blood-soaked fruit in The Country.15 Nevertheless, despite these associations and the immediate political context, Landau’s work seemed to be more concerned with universal issues of destruction and human survival, as its deliberately foreign title – always “The Country” written in English, instead of the Hebrew equivalent – suggests. In this powerful installation the survivors attempt, literally, to pick up the pieces of human existence.16
The three sculptures in Real Time were first presented in The Dining Hall, Sigalit Landau’s recent exhibition in Berlin. (pp. 116-17) 17 There, as in The Country, she dealt with apocalyptic visions and employed the image of poisoned fruit. In The Dining Hall, visitors progressed from a family meal with warmth and cohesiveness to a gluttonousfeast leading to death and devastation. The works seen in Real Time look as though they are made of raw meat; on one of them, a sinewy human figure seems to be sculpting, carving pieces of flesh out of the structure on which it stands. This sculpture recalls Brancusi’s Endless Column, 1938, and its groundbreaking three-dimensional exploration of the sublime; another, in the form of a flower, is reminiscent of an atomic mushroom. The possibility of transcendence and the beauty of the flower become intermingled with bloody flesh and the threat of destruction.
War, destruction, and apocalypse are also central themes in the paintings of Eliezer Sonnenschein during this decade. His large-scale, intricately detailed Landscape and Jerusalem, 2007, recalls depictions of the Day of Judgment or the Triumph of Death by such medieval and early Renaissance artists as Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Sonnenschein’s works are also reminiscent of the intricate, morbid contemporary works of the Chapman brothers, which are saturated with violence and sexuality. He combines the grotesque, the surrealistic, and the sexual in a celebration of death and eros; his art is crammed with symbols and motifs from Christianity and mythology, and also from today’s world – comic-book characters and advertising images – to produce the nightmarish yet sardonic visions of a prophet come to warn the world of impending disaster. The result propels this painting into another realm beyond the here and now.
Uri Nir’s 2004 installation Lost Herbs also presented a splendid scene of destruction, in which nature fights a rearguard action against man-made structures.18 Unlike Landau’s The Country or Sonnenschein’s work, however, it contained no human presence. In an installation reminiscent of an urban landscape, something like an abandoned factory, synthetic materials mingled with organic substances such as sea shells to create structures submerged in the depths of the ocean, evoking the lost city of Atlantis. The technological world has destroyed itself, and in its place nature, rather than humankind, has reassumed control.
Many of Gal Weinstein’s works deal with the tension between scientific attempts to study natural phenomena and the inherent chaos of nature, which occasionally makes a broadside attack on human existence. In Cross-Section, 2006, Weinstein used layers of processed wood to create an enlarged model of a geological representation of an earthquake.19 Above these strata, which were covered with artificial turf, stood a small golfer poised to swing at a ball. In this way the work, despite its humorous edge, conducted a dialogue with the Romantic tradition’s juxtaposition of the natural world and Man, who may be able to accumulate knowledge about nature but cannot tame its unpredictable forces.
Weinstein, like Landau, mediates between local reality and a much wider context. Environmental disaster and the remnants of a world destroyed by volcanic eruption are the theme of Weinstein’s 2007–8 Slope in Real Time, which quotes from Close to the Ground, a work from 1999 in which he covered the entire floor of The Kibbutz Art Gallery in Tel Aviv with a red roof tiled in European style, a metaphor for Israeli bourgeois aspirations that deny the reality of the Mediterranean environment.20 The focus on the roof in isolation, with no walls to support it, made its presence more pronounced and turned it into an object, the symbol of an unrealized utopia. In 2007 Weinstein returned to the roof image, this time placing roofs inside what appears to be a heap of soot that has hardened and buried the buildings underneath it. We are reminded of the fate of Pompeii, its glory covered in ashes by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius – although with his usual detached humor, Weinstein chose to evoke a tourist site rather than a real ancient city. The synthetic materials he used in the installation remind us that we are looking at a contemporary “take” on ancient grandeur, similar to the tourist illusions of Las Vegas. The red-shingled roof, Weinstein’s symbol for an Israeli fantasy of a Swiss chalet, finds itself buried beneath the ruins of the dream.
Artists who deal more directly with Israeli life, such as Barry Frydlender, Adi Nes, and Yael Bartana draw on everyday reality, but they create a wider contextual environment, in which the daily passage of time is suspended: time expands and is transmuted, becoming mythical. Frydlender photographs from the distant vantage point of an observer. He does not attempt to capture the critical moment, the one frame in which a drama takes place. Quite unlike snapshots, his reworked digital photographs conflate scenes, figures, and times so as to turn the finished work into a series of continuous presents that seem to enfold both past and future.21
In Yael Bartana’s Trembling Time, 2001, time stands still. This work documents in slow motion the moment when the siren sounds to mark the beginning of Israel’s national Memorial Day for fallen soldiers. All along the busy Ayalon Highway that crosses Tel Aviv, cars pull up and people emerge and stand at attention beside them. As though they had been trapped in a time capsule for one minute, the figures return to their cars when the siren falls silent, and continue on their way. This shift in the flow of time, in response to death and memory, was captured from a bridge above the road, from a distance that eliminates individual identity and situates the artist beyond time.
A broad perspective allows what is immediate and political to become metaphor and take on a much wider significance. The photographs of Adi Nes, who staged scenes of soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces as though they were going about their daily life at the base – sleeping, eating, and resting – move beyond the Israeli political situation to connect with the religious and the mythological. On one level, his works deal with the male body in military and homoerotic contexts, challenging stereotypes of Israeli masculinity. On another, echoes of Christian artistic tradition and Greek mythology combine with the obviously contrived scenes to elevate the everyday routine of typical Israeli soldiers to a new symbolic plane. The characters and the scenes assume moral, universal overtones, part of a discussion on death, desire, and destruction. In Untitled, 1999, the portrayal of soldiers eating a meal quotes directly from Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, and as soon as this identification is made, the viewer transcends the everyday world for the spheres of the sublime. The scene depicted is the moment when Jesus reveals that he is about to be betrayed by one of his own disciples. The disciples’ astonishment and the uproar that breaks out around the calm figure of Jesus are the overture to the crucifixion of Christ, the redeemer whose death saves the world. By transferring this scene to Israeli military surroundings, the artist makes a trenchant political statement on sacrifice and betrayal, while simultaneously translating daily routine into timeless divinity: the earthly meal will culminate in an ascent to heaven.
Realms of Flight – Esc
Places of refuge and alternative worlds, real or imagined, have attracted artists through the ages. Socially and politically committed art has long coexisted – not always peacefully – with art that seeks out the realms of imagination, fantasy, and dream. In a world beset by regional strife, menaced by international terrorism, and troubled by the destructive influence of globalization, these two forms of art seem to be becoming ever more polarized. Many artists all over the world deal with conflict, war, poverty, and the unjust suffering of nations and populations that international indifference allows to flourish unchecked. At the other extreme are those artists who are primarily concerned with ways of escaping a brutal reality. It seems to be the case – though, naturally, there are always exceptions to this rule – that the farther an artist lives from the eye of the storm, the more he is drawn to depict it in his work22; the closer he is, the harder he tries to escape it. And, indeed, much of contemporary Israeli art seems to be drawn towards the quirky and idiosyncratic, to dream worlds or primal wildness. This search for alternate paths need not be interpreted as an expression of general apathy; rather, it may be seen as a political statement and a critique of the insensitivity that seems to prevail in Israeli society.
The transition from explicitly local, political,
and social subjects to alternative, sometimes fantastic and romantic,
worlds also reflects the improved fortunes of aesthetic values since the
early 1990s, a trend that has culminated in the larger-than-life installations
of the new millennium. Enigmatic portrayals of nature, multi-layered symbolism,
precision, and a meticulous finish all characterized the installation Guardians of the Threshold which Yehudit Sasportas exhibited
at the 2007 Venice Biennale (pp. 56-57).23 In this work modernist architectural
elements were juxtaposed with detailed depictions of forests, caves, and
marshland, creating a space rife with tension between memory and reality,
the rational and the fantastic. Sasportas’s preoccupation with mysterious
landscapes, woodland, and caves – themes with deep roots in the
Romantic tradition and the hallowed relationship between Man and Nature
– aligns her with artists who regard nature as a means to spiritual
exaltation. The Japanese aspects of the work – its graphic power
and detailed rendition of vegetation – take it even further away
from the Israeli landscape and context, into personal realms of the spirit.24 A mysterious landscape revealed through a thicket of trees was projected
onto one wall, tentatively inviting viewers into a shadowy, wondrous other
world, both menacing and seductive.
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|To The Israel Museum Exhibition Online | The Israel Museum, Jerusalem | Copyright © The Israel Museum, Jerusalem 1995-|