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Israeli Identities: An interview with Rafi Gamzou

DKR – How would you describe the rapport between Israeli art and Middle Eastern politics?

RG – It is very intense, not only during periods of tension, but at any moment of our short history. You find a direct response to political/ military situations in the exhibition Desert Cliché, which recently toured three major American cities. The artists of Desert Cliché respond to the stereotypes, sacred cows, and tautologies of Israeli culture. Other Israeli artists would never relate directly to the political situation in their work, and this too is a position. There is political content in the work of Tsibi Geva, for example, whose installation is currently being exhibited at the Anina Nosei Gallery (September 21 – October 13) and his work deals with the encounter between the Israeli and Palestinian cultural identities. But if you take an artist like Miri Segal, who is currently exhibiting at P.S.1, she is simply a very talented video artist. I don’t find anything having to do with politics or the Israeli experience in her work. She is a universal artist in terms of themes and ideas. Tsibi Geva is a universal artist as well but his work includes a subtle expression of the Israeli experience.

Nir Hod, I Swear!, 1995, photograph courtesy of Danny Miller.

DKR – Could you elaborate on the role of irony in the art of Desert Cliché?

RG – I think that irony and humor are crucial parts of the Jewish and Israeli experience. If you examine Jewish humor there is a lot of self-mockery. This is often true of Israeli humor as well. Deflating Israeli myths is a recent manifestation of irony, but for some time irony and humor have become a basic means of survival. Especially with the tension we live under in Israel. Humor, and black humor is part of it, is necessary. Our country in its short history has fought so many wars and struggles. Now young people are allowing themselves to “revise” some of the myths and paradigms of Israel’s founders, and I would say that that is natural and healthy in a Democratic, open society that examines itself.

DKR – Avital Geva’s Greenhouse and Ariane Littman-Cohen’s Holy Land for Sale address practical issues of agriculture and land development. How would you characterize the importance of landscape for contemporary Israeli artists?

RG – I think that landscape is a major issue in Israeli art. Over the generations this theme has taken many different shapes and forms. The pioneering generation of artists had to express the renewal of Jewish identity in the new/ old or old/ new homeland. They related to the landscape in a very direct and at times naive way. They drew inspiration from the local Arabs and later from the various aliyot, or migrations of diaspora Jews from abroad. Artists from central and eastern European backgrounds were fascinated with the Yemanite Jews, for example, and their exotic traditions. You will find images of villagers and pioneers working the land in the work of Arieh Lubin, Reuven Rubin, Moshe Castel, Marcel Janco, and many others. The broader issues of land, earth, and ecology, were introduced into the arts later. You mentioned Avital Geva’s Greenhouse which represented Israel at the Venice Biennale in 1993. The piece is now on Avital Geva’s kibbutz. There young people work together with scientists to find solutions to environmental issues. Greenhouse is a hyper conceptual piece that deals with land and environmental issues. Some people question whether Greenhouse is a work of art. Geva himself, who was a leading artist of Israeli conceptualism of the 1970’s, got to the point where he didn’t want to define himself as an artist anymore. He says that education and environmentalism are the most important issues. The Ariane Littman-Cohen piece Land for Sale is very interesting. She will exhibit a piece in Philadelphia next year that relates to a forest, planted by her grandfather, that has now become a military training ground. It juxtaposes our idealism and naivete with a more practical and sometimes more cynical approach.

DKR – How do you view the dialogue between American and Israeli art?

RG – The Israelis and Americans have an important and at times subtle dialogue. The common values of pluralism, freedom of expression, democracy, and respect for life (which is not taken for granted throughout the world) are basic foundations of both of our societies. Like other countries Israel has been affected by American influences within our popular culture – Hollywood movies, television, MTV, and fast food. McDonald’s are everywhere and recently the first Starbuck’s opened in Tel Aviv. In art, the dialogue between Israel and America art is a recent development. In the 1950’s, 1960’s, and even 1970’s, there was far more interaction between Israeli and European art. Paris was considered the mecca where Israeli artists would go to study. In the 1970’s some Israeli artists began moving to Soho and settled in New York. Artists like Benni Efrat, Ziggy Ben Haim, and Pinhas Cohen-Gan, Joshua Neustein, and Michael Gitlin settled here. I believe this trend reflects a kind of center/ periphery relationship. Israeli artists watch what is happening in New York galleries, but while they might use the prevalent language of art of a given place and time, content and inspiration will often be drawn from the local Israeli experience. This is one of the reasons why curators in recent years have found a great deal of interest in Israeli art. Contemporary curators have now “discovered” the fascinating place of Israeli art within the global art world. I am always reminded of what my late father, who was an art critic and director of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, wrote in the Summer of 1951 when the State of Israel was just three years old:

“The demand for an original style in our painting and sculpture has become an effective reality… This wish, for a way of our own, has in no way diminished our desire to maintain contact with a larger world and participate fully in general human ideas and ideals.”

He wrote this fifty years ago and already this dialectic rapport between localism and universalism was apparent to him. Even under the British Mandate in the 1930’s and 1940’s you find a desire to express renewed identity through the arts coupled with the need to be in dialogue with the larger world. It started then and continues now.

Raphaello Mas, The Voyage of the Screw at the Tomb of Vincent Van Gogh, 1997.

DKR – Works by Dana and Boaz Zonshine and David Reeb reflect a conflicted sense of religious identity. Could you discuss the relationship between Judaism and contemporary Israeli art?

RG – First it is important to emphasize that Israeli art is not exclusively produced by Jews. We have non-Jewish Arab and Druze artists. Here in New York we have an Israeli Druze artist by the name of Ovadia Al Kara who divides his time between America and Israel. In the Desert Cliché exhibition you will find work by Asim Abu-Shakra, a very talented Israeli Arab artist. He painted sabras, the cacti that grow abundantly in Israel, that have come to symbolize the “Israeli.” Abu-Shakra, as an Arab Israeli Palestinian, uses sabras to make the statement that they also belong to his people and his village. The majority of Israeli artists, however, are indeed Jews. Most do not want to be defined as “Jewish” artists. Jewish art is often associated with the kitsch and folkloristic. For the most part they wish to be considered artists of the world who are from Israel. They want to be part of mainstream contemporary art. The work of Dana and Boaz Zonshine and David Reeb reflect the tension between secular Israelis and orthodox Jewry. For example, one of the Zonshine video works brings together the holiest site of the Western Wall in Jerusalem with the secular beachfront of Tel Aviv. Another interesting Israeli artist is Nir Hod, who exhibited in Desert Cliché and the After Rabin exhibition at the Jewish Museum (curated by Susan Goodman). Much of Hod’s work dealt with issues of gender identity, and it is interesting to note that since this secular, Israeli artist’s “New York” period, he has begun to use of Biblical motifs in his work.

RG – This is a very complicated, touchy theme. At the very beginning, immediately after the Holocaust and the establishment of Israel, there were many memorials created. For example, the famous commemoration of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising by artists like Nathan Rappaport at Yad Vashem. These are heroic, realistic monuments that were commissioned by the “establishment.” Later the Holocaust became a taboo subject because survivors often didn’t wish to speak of it and the second generation children did not dare to ask questions. There was also a deep Israeli desire to create a new heroic Jew, who is a fighter, and who will take charge of his own destiny. Before the 1970’s artistic representations of the holocaust were often considered sentimental and outside the realm of good Israeli art. In the late 1970’s Yigael Tumarkin, one of the leading contemporary artists, was commissioned by the municipality of Tel Aviv to create a Holocaust memorial in what is today Rabin Square. It is a highly geometric sculpture made from corten steel. This work of Tumarkin stirred controversy because it is not realistic and people didn’t understand it. It was the first time that a mainstream contemporary artist was commissioned to address the holocaust. I think that since the 1980’s, significant contemporary artists like Moshe Gershuni, Aharon Gluska, Natan Nuchi and others have been working with holocaust themes. In the 1990’s an even younger generation of artists has begun to use holocaust imagery to examine the phenomena of evil, cruelty, and abuse of power. Royi Rosen, for example, made an installation entitled Live and Die like Eva Braun, telling the story of Eva Braun and Adolph Hitler in the bunker. Ran Katzir created a provocative series of coloring books at the Israel Museum, with images of Hitler caressing the head of Bambi and a child kissing an SS boot.

DKR – Could you comment on Raphaello Mas’ Voyage of the Screw?

RG – He is a self-taught artist, influenced by art brut, who used to be a kindergarten teacher at a school in Jerusalem. Only after Mas was institutionalized in a mental hospital did he begin to channel his creative energy into the visual arts. He created a six foot screw and has made other objects that involve the motif of the screw and the wheel. He is still not sure if he is an artist, although his works have been purchased by important collectors like Arturo Schwarz and included in major museum exhibitions. He has embarked on this journey with the screw, facing logistic challenges, and will be traveling to places like Dachau, Paris, and New York. All of them have universal significance but they are also meaningful to his own family history. The last stage of his own via Dolorosa is the Ganges, where he will let the screw float away. Then he will either return to his old farmhouse in Tuscany or to Jerusalem but now he is totally focused on completing the journey.

Rafi Gamzou, formerly Israel’s Cultural Ambassador to the United States and currently Director of the Department of the Arts at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem. Desert Cliché, co-curated by Tami Katz-Freiman (Israel) and Amy Cappellazzo, (U.S.A.), originated at the Arad Museum and toured Israel and the United States.

© Daniel Rothbart, 2001.

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