Wall of Silence

Anna Dezeuze on art and the climate of censorship that bedevils relations between the US, Israel and the Palestinians

Former US president and Nobel Peace prize-winner Jimmy Carter is one of the latest – and perhaps one of the unlikeliest – high-profile victims of the American Anti-Defamation League’s attack on public figures who voice criticism of Israeli policies. Along with the lobby known as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and the Global Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, voted by Congress in 2004, the ADL has largely contributed to the climate of covert censorship and self-censorship that, for the last five years, has been plaguing American public debates over the relations between Israel and the US, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in general. Last year alone, an academic article in The London Review of Books that discussed the powerful role of AIPAC in American politics sparked raging torrents of controversy, while a pamphlet by Alvin H Rosenfeld on the ‘anti-semitism’ of contemporary Jewish thinkers published by the American Jewish Committee (AJC) condemned even a moderate historian such as Tony Judt for suggesting a bi-national solution to the current conflict. (A lecture by Judt in New York in October 2006 was cancelled under pressure from both the AJC and the ADL.) The omnipresent pro-Israeli censorship hinges overall on the problematic notion of ‘effect’ according to which, as the President of Harvard University succinctly explained back in 2002, criticisms of Israeli policies were ‘anti-semitic in their effect if not their intent’. In this context, culture – a sphere in which ‘effects’ are usually more difficult to pin down – could ideally present itself as one of the few spaces where such sensitive topics could be addressed freely. Such was my naive supposition at least when, on a trip to New York last March, I prepared to visit two exhibitions that seemed ready to venture into this fraught terrain. At David Zwirner, Francis Alÿs was showing his Sometimes doing something poetic can become political and sometimes doing something political can become poetic, also known as The Green Line, a work that he made in Jerusalem in 2005 and that explores the historical division of the city after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. At the same time, the Jewish Museum was presenting ‘Dateline Israel: New Photography and Video Art’, a group exhibition purporting to present (according to the press release) ‘a complicated view of Israel and its people’ through lens-based artworks created since the second intifada in 2000.

My willingness to praise the Jewish Museum for its courageous foray into Israel’s recent history was unfortunately short-lived. In fact, the only reason ‘Dateline Israel’ can be called controversial is that it so resolutely tries to eschew any polemic. While the Museum of Modern Art’s ‘Without Boundary: 17 Ways of Looking’ last year eluded any global political issues by privileging the exclusively aesthetic elements of ‘contemporary Islamic art’ (see Feature by Pryle Behrman AM298), the depoliticisation at work in ‘Dateline Israel’ is far more subtle. The exhibition claims to address contemporary politics directly, and is indeed replete with references to contemporary Israeli society (from soldiers and checkpoints to refugees and the controversial separation wall erected across the West Bank). Moreover, none of the works promotes a triumphant image of Israel: rather, the overall mood is one of melancholy. As a wall text informs us, the 23 artists in the exhibition ‘view Israel since the year 2000 as a society that has outgrown the utopian model of its settlement or statehood’. This coming-of-age narrative alerts us to the biased nature of this very melancholy: not only has Israel’s utopia very much been the Palestinians’ dystopia, but many intellectuals and activists in Israel itself have discussed the problematic nature of the historical ‘model’ mobilised in the creation of Israel as a state. Melancholy captures neither the frustration of these Israeli critics nor the stance of ‘undefeated despair’ that characterises, according to John Berger, most Palestinians today.1

This post-utopian sense of melancholy in ‘Dateline Israel’ is played out through different temporalities. In a photograph by Wim Wenders, for example, the trash accumulated at the foot of the Mount of Olives hints at the uneasy cohabitation of ancient religious beliefs and everyday economics, while Leora Laor’s scenes from the ultra-orthodox neighbourhood of Mea She’arim, or Orit Raff’s still lifes of bread ovens and hanging aprons, conjure the ghosts of a more recent past through allusions to European ghettos and the Holocaust respectively. These recurring associations between contemporary Israel, the Holy Land and the traumatic past of European Jews, invoke a timeless history of suffering. Even the Israeli settlers portrayed by Rina Castelnuovo or the Palestinian Muslim and Christian refugees photographed by Miki Kratsman seem arrested in time, apparently robbed of all agency by forces beyond their control. The eerie stillness at the heart of Yael Bartana’s Trembling Time, 2001, shows that even moving images are not exempt from this suspension of time: the projected video shows cars on a busy road all coming to halt at the same time, and their drivers stepping out to observe two minutes’ silence in remembrance of fallen soldiers and victims of war. Elsewhere, the interminable flux of Palestinian workers at a checkpoint in Boaz Arad and Kratsman’s untitled video reduce individual identities to a mass of anonymous faces, while the dissonant notes of a virulent anti-Israel speech are drowned out in a multi-screen, multi-perspective installation by Amit Goren, which shows a cacophony of footage filmed in Israel, France, Mongolia, Egypt and the US.

In their emphasis on the shared humanity of Israeli and Palestinian individuals, works such as Michael Heiman’s ‘Blood Test’ series (collaged photographs of bloody body parts taken from newspapers), or Gillian Laub’s portraits of Israelis and Palestinians, accompanied by their confessions of hopes and fears, certainly try to counter sensationalist narratives of good and evil. Unfortunately, the overall effect of the exhibition’s universalising tenor is to iron out any suggestion of power relations between those different groups. The only visible sign of irony disrupting the exhibition’s sense of resignation is Yaron Leshem’s Village, 2004, an apparently innocuous light-box photograph of an Arab village which is revealed to be a three-dimensional simulation built by the Israeli Defence Force to train soldiers (including the artist himself).

Alÿs’s Green Line film installation at David Zwirner cleverly avoided one of the pitfalls of ‘Dateline Israel’ by making sure above all that the artist’s action would resist the possibility of being framed within a single ideological narrative. (Indeed, one can imagine that some works at the Jewish Museum could appear more subversive in another context.) Alÿs’s film shows the artist, holding a leaking can of green paint, walking along the ‘Green Line’, a border that was established, after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, to split the municipality of Jerusalem into two sectors. In order to incorporate a range of critical voices within the work, and to make the very operation of interpretation transparent, Alÿs overlaid the same footage with separate commentaries by different Israeli, Palestinian or British intellectuals or activists to whom he showed the film after it was made. As we watch the film again and again, we listen each time to a new voice, with its own personal perspective on the Green Line, the history of Jerusalem and contemporary Israeli politics. Alÿs’s emphasis on movement and the temporary nature of his performance also allowed him to eschew the numbing stasis and inevitability conveyed by the lens-based works at the Jewish Museum. The warm grain of the interviewees’ voices and their spontaneous, meandering thoughts reflect the chance encounters with passers-by in the film, as well as the loops, twists and spills of the liquid line on the ground. The painted line itself will be walked on and washed away, thus simultaneously evoking the symbolic separation and resisting the solidity of fixed boundaries.

The most solid and visible of these boundaries in Israel today is of course the separation wall built by the Israelis, which figures prominently in the exhibition at the Jewish Museum. ‘When you find yourself standing in front of the wall in Jerusalem, no matter which side, you feel an overwhelming sensation of being defeated, of total absurdity,’ recalled Alÿs.2 While Alÿs chose to perform a meaningless act that would reflect the absurdity of the situation, Catherine Yass dealt with the same frustration by falling back on artistic tropes of beauty and ambiguity: as she explained in the catalogue, her film Wall included in ‘Dateline Israel’ focuses on the fact that the ‘modernist-looking concrete blocks, which could resemble a Richard Serra sculpture, ... can start to look quite beautiful’, which is ‘really frightening’.

The ease with which Alÿs’s line is traced and erased was, however, criticised by one of the interviewees for not registering ‘the complexities of this conflict’ and even implicitly accepting a ‘highly manipulative border’ imposed by ‘Israeli colonization’. Where time emerges as the focus of ‘Dateline Israel’, the politics of space lie at the heart of Alÿs’s work, as well as some of the strongest works addressing the plight of Palestinians today. If, as Berger recently reminded us, many Palestinians today ‘can go no further than twenty kilometres in any direction’, the casualness with which Alÿs crosses different neighbourhoods and walks undisturbed through Israeli checkpoints can result only from a privileged position. That position was acknowledged by American-Palestinian artist Emily Jacir when, between 2001 and 2003, she purposefully used her American passport to fulfil the wishes of some of her fellow Palestinians who could not travel to certain locations in Palestine. Whether it involved watering a tree or visiting one man’s mother’s grave, the action was documented by Jacir through photographs and texts in her remarkable Where We Come From. (More recently, however, new Israeli travel restrictions prevented Jacir from speaking at a conference at the University of Manchester.) For its part, the Italian group Multiplicity recorded in real time the same journey as taken by an Israeli and by a Palestinian – while the former takes an hour, the latter involves a gruelling five hours.

I was somewhat surprised to come across a discussion of those same three works (by Alÿs, Jacir and Multiplicity) in curator Susan Tumarkin Goodman’s essay in the exhibition catalogue for ‘Dateline Israel’. Alÿs’s piece, another author informs us, was ‘not available’ for the exhibition, but no explanation is given for the absence of Jacir or Multiplicity (as well as other artists mentioned by Goodman) from the final line-up. Rather than supplementing the show, the catalogue in many ways stages an alternative – and undoubtedly more stimulating – exhibition, perhaps with another audience in mind. To add to this rather incongruous situation, two passages in the catalogue hint at even more complicated issues lurking behind the scenes. In a footnote, Goodman explains that Ahlam Shibli, ‘as well as some other Arab-Israeli artists, declined to participate’ in ‘Dateline Israel’, ‘presumably because her involvement would be construed as an endorsement of official policies toward the occupation’. In a disingenuous understatement elsewhere in the catalogue, Andy Grundberg surmises that ‘one might guess that disputes about national boundaries were a factor in the decision of some artists of Palestinian origin to turn down an invitation to participate’. Which artists declined this invitation? Did they refuse on the grounds of the Jewish Museum’s affiliation with Israeli ‘official policies’, or did they disagree with the ideological remit of the exhibition itself? What was the position of foreign artists such as Multiplicity? Since the Jewish Museum declined to ‘divulge this kind of information’ to me, these questions will have to remain unanswered. Moreover, the invocation, by the museum’s director of communications, of a ‘limited gallery space’ as the explanation for why many artists mentioned in the catalogue are absent from the actual exhibition provides little assistance in understanding why it seems to be precisely the potentially polemical works that have been excluded and, most bafflingly, how an exhibition about contemporary Israel ended up including only one Palestinian artist out of 23.

One of the complaints of defenders of Israel is that critics, as the AJC pamphlet put it, ‘condemn Israeli actions’ but ‘forgo any realistic historical and political frameworks that might account for such actions’. A critic voicing the concerns of Palestinians without alluding to the difficulties encountered by Jews and Israelis is all too often accused of being ‘one-sided’ (an exhibition of drawings by Palestinian children curated a year ago by an Israeli-Jewish student at Brandeis University was closed down on these very grounds). The reverse, however, is not the case – the appeal to realism seems to work in one direction only. Moreover, this ‘realistic framework’, whether premised on the past victimisation of Jews in Europe, or on the ‘David and Goliath’ narratives of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, is by now largely outdated. Just as a claim to realism often aims at legitimising and rationalising Israeli policies, the Jewish Museum’s appeal to the history of lens-based art as a medium exploring the very nature of reality serves – perhaps unwittingly – to silence criticism. An emphasis on the timeless and the universal, through the camera’s equalising of the suffering on both sides, can potentially be used to deflect more concrete analyses, while picturesque forms of artistic photography in the genres of still life, portraiture and landscape can easily lend themselves to the ideological appropriation of the past required to maintain a conveniently outmoded framework of reference. Perhaps the most effective lens-based works, then, involve more conceptual approaches such as Alÿs’s, Jacir’s or Multiplicity’s, which seek to redress at least partially the real ‘one-sidedness’ of these debates. One of Alÿs’s interviewees, Rima Hamami, explains that ‘anybody who comes and wants to look is already doing a great service to’ Palestinians. Throughout his oeuvre, Alÿs has cultivated the figure of the self-effacing artist, developing tactics through which to intervene in the everyday environment as discreetly as possible. In the context of the Green Line, this self-effacement can be read politically. Alÿs’s ‘empathic act’, according to Hamami, becomes one of solidarity, because the ‘sneakiness’ of his intervention evokes for her the ways in which Palestinian men walking around Jerusalem are made to feel ‘undercover’, or even ‘criminal’. Though Alÿs rejects the position of the activist, a kinship between his symbolic gesture and political demonstrations is suggested by Yael Dayan when she mentions how she participates in organised events in which people hold hands along the Green Line in Jerusalem. More concrete crossovers between art and activism are embodied in the actions of the collective Artists without Walls (a group of Israeli and Palestinian artists) at Abu Dis, which included real-time video projections of one side of the separation wall onto its other side, thus opening a temporary window in the concrete barrier.

Alÿs’s walk in Jerusalem hinges primarily on the importance of the Green Line itself. The interviews make clear that the Green Line operates both as a powerful symbol that has been internalised within people’s minds and hearts, and as the reference point for some of the most urgent discussions about the future of Jerusalem and Israel in general. Hence the effectiveness of the work largely depends on the importance each viewer attaches to symbols themselves. On the one hand, Alÿs’s work leaves itself open to criticism by the pro-Israeli defenders of realism as much as by the activists who want to inform the world in more concrete ways of the harsh realities endured by Palestinians. On the other hand, Alÿs’s stance opens up a fleeting space of hope and utopia at the heart of an absurd situation. ‘We cannot judge our activities in terms of success and failure,’ an Israeli activist tells Alÿs; what counts is simply the act of protest, no matter the outcome. While the tangled web of alliances between Israel and America, and between powerful Christian and Jewish groups in American politics, shows no signs of loosening, the most urgent issue is to recognise and understand its very existence. Not through anti-semitic fantasies of Zionist conspiracies, but through informed, open and free debates. If it had included more Palestinian voices such as Jacir’s, more critical works such as Alÿs’s or Multiplicity’s, or more original interventions such as those of the Artists without Walls, ‘Dateline Israel’ could perhaps have signalled the beginning of such discussions. And still many more political artworks, and many more political exhibitions will be required to generate this new critical space. The ‘effects’ of art need not, however, become predictable; the absurdity of some situations can sometimes be better revealed through tactics of confusion, including indeterminacy as well as irony. To my knowledge, the only artwork to have attracted the ADL’s attention so far is an outrageously funny conceptual piece by Jacir. For her well-known Sexy Semite, 2000-02, the artist asked friends to submit to the Village Voice a number of cheeky, self-mocking personal ads from Palestinian men and women supposedly looking for Jewish mates – an ingenious way for Palestinians to use the Israeli ‘law of return’ (allowing Jews to acquire Israeli citizenship) in order to legally return, through marriage, to their own land. At the time, the ADL suspected the ads of being part of a wider, and potentially sinister, plot. ‘There seems to be something orchestrated here,’ noted the ADL’s associate director in a 2002 New York Post article, ‘but orchestrated for what purpose?’

1. John Berger, ‘Undefeated Despair’, Critical Inquiry, vol 32, Summer 2006, pp602-9.

2. Quoted in Martin Herbert, ‘The Distance Between’, Modern Painters, March 2007, p89.

Francis Alÿs was at David Zwirner, New York 15 February to 17 March 2007. Dateline Israel: New Photography and Video Art was at The Jewish Museum, New York 10 March to 5 August 2007.

Anna Dezeuze is a research fellow in art history and visual studies at the University of Manchester.

First published in Art Monthly 307: June 2007.

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