With three major photography exhibits currently on view in Jerusalem and in Tel Aviv, an upcoming one-man show slated for Israeli marvel Barry Frydlender at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art this month and a major survey of Israeli photographers currently at New York’s Jewish Museum, Israeli video and photo artists are on display as never before. Indeed, lens-based art has become the hot new medium for many homegrown Israeli artists, allowing them to reach unprecedented creative — and commercial — heights on the international scene.
Two years ago, a large-scale photographic reconstruction of The Last Supper by artist Adi Nes, presenting Israeli soldiers in the roles of Jesus and his disciples, fetched more than $260,000 at a Sotheby’s New York auction. In 2002, video artist Michal Rovner was the first non-American artist to be featured in a distinguished show at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Late last year, photographer Ori Gersht held a solo show in London at the Victoria and Albert Museum; and now, the much-anticipated Frydlender exhibit at MoMA.
“It seems that most Israeli artists who gain success outside of Israel today are photographers or video artists,” said Sigal Mordechai, co-managing director of Sotheby’s Tel Aviv. “Although most of them deal with local Israeli issues, it appears to have opened a universal dialogue among international collectors.”
This success raises intriguing questions about the medium itself, and about the choice of many Israeli artists to see it as an effective means of exploring a host of frustratingly intractable social and political ills.
Problems in Israel tend to feel like a runaway train, and the news nearly always seems to get worse. After a searing disengagement from Gaza, Israelis were stunned by a Hamas victory and then a by brutal war fought in Lebanon last summer. As the demoralizing occupation continues, the country has also been gradually rejecting its socialist ideals, leading to a growing underclass of poor and homeless, a trend that haunts the conscience of the nation.
Photography, an intrinsically documentary medium, represents a means not merely of capturing this harsh reality but, perhaps, of an unconscious hope of manipulating it, of stopping time and seizing some measure of control over this seemingly desperate state of affairs.
More subliminal and contradictory impulses might also be at play. Considering the vital importance of the photographic image in the ongoing propaganda struggle between Israelis and Palestinians — a struggle in which Israel is most often on the losing end — it’s interesting to note the subtle subversion of the photograph as “document” that is implicit in the work of some of the Israeli artists.
The iconic image that best encapsulates the Israeli-Palestinian information war is that of Muhammad al-Durrah, the little boy shown cowering next to his father moments before he was killed in 2000. The facts of the story are still in dispute, particularly whether it was Israeli or Palestinian bullets that hit the boy, but there is little doubt that the image was a major propaganda boon for the Palestinians, and that it helped to fan tensions throughout the Arab world and to fuel the second intifada.
At the heart of this story lies a paradoxical problem: Although Israel sees itself as a David up against a Goliath of Arab countries, this perception is not something easily reduced to one image; it requires something more like a helicopter ride. It is far easier for the Palestinians to represent themselves as stone-throwing Davids vs. the Goliath of the Israeli military machine; the pictures are endless, and endlessly reproducible.
In the work of Frydlender, first featured at the Andrea Meislin Gallery in New York three years ago, there is a distinct and conscious breach of the narrative integrity of the photographic image. Frydlender produces large-scale digital composite pictures that seamlessly combine sequential moments in time.
By its very nature, then, the work undermines the assumption of the photograph as a recording of a single historical moment, and crosses the line into the interpretive or literary; it becomes what Meislin and others refer to as “historical fiction.” Meislin’s gallery, which she opened in 2004, is dedicated primarily to representing Israeli photographers; it was Meislin who introduced Frydlender’s work to the United States.
Artist Adi Nes, who has extensive experience in cinema, very deliberately stages his large- scale works, hiring actors and using makeup and film lights to explore themes of identity, masculinity and, most recently, poverty and homelessness in Israel. His visual references are high art, mainly Caravaggio and Rembrandt. Again, the very staginess of his work unconsciously subverts the notion of a photograph as a snapshot of reality. As with Frydlender, what we have is an iconoclastic approach to the journalistic aspects of the medium itself.
Then there is the fraught iconography of land, historically sacrosanct and idealized in Israel by painters as well as photographers. According to critical theorist W.J.T. Mitchell in his book “Landscape and Power” (University of Chicago Press, 1994), landscape photography has a long tradition as an ideological tool used for consolidating power, and not merely as an artistic genre.
Like the Soviets and Germans in the first half of the 20th century, and like Americans conquering the West, the early Zionists utilized this powerful propaganda device, and directed it both at Jews living inside the Yishuv and at those abroad. Deliberately breaking with this past, many of the current generation of Israeli photographic artists are using photography as a forceful medium of social criticism, choosing to represent a landscape marred by militarism or unbridled capitalism. According to Meislin, “landscape is in their work much more so than any other country producing art today.”
The anti-romantic trend is fully evident at The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, in a show called Engagement: Israeli Photography Now, which features the work of 11 Israeli photographers and video artists, and where landscape is the predominant theme. But it is not the Arcadian countryside to which most of the artists were taken on their state-mandated school trips. Rather, this is a scarred, dystopian view.
Shai Kremer, one of the featured photographers, speaks of incorporating violence into the terrain itself, and is writing a book titled “Infected Landscape.” For him, Israeli scenery is defined by the military detritus scattered throughout the country, and by the occupation, which has disfigured Israel both morally and literally. It is this “disease” that he struggles to capture and integrate in his images.
A recent series by artist Roi Kuper chronicles the dying citrus industry. Nothing embodies the socialist/Zionist dream more forcefully than the orange grove — that symbol of desert dust magically transformed into bounty through sheer grit and cooperative effort.
But Kuper first gives us rotting fruit trees, then hollow bark, and finally a desolate landscape as it is prepared for the next lucrative real estate deal. It is a powerful indictment of Israeli society as it slowly abandons its socialist tradition for more selfish pursuits.
The method of these anti-romantic landscape photographers may represent an inversion of that of their Zionist ancestors. But their sense of mission is no less passionate, and one feels their grief as well as their outrage as they view their blighted legacy.
Regardless, Israel’s lens-based artists are in a time of heady possibilities, one that has put them in a philosophical bind. The capitalism decried in their work is the very force now responsible for their success. Their challenge now just may be the artist’s age-old one: Can a powerful social and political critique be balanced with fame, and the audience it brings?
Toby Appleton is a freelance filmmaker and writer in New York and Jerusalem.