PRINT September 2004


If any subject seems intractable, polarized, and at this point almost beyond reasonable commentary, it is the battle in the Middle East between Israelis and Palestinians. The two factions have been embroiled in a dispute over land, religion, claims to historical truth, and the moral righteousness of violent acts ever since Judea, the ancient home of the Jews, was conquered by the Romans and renamed Palestine. Predating modern history and territorially grounded in a sliver of land, the conflict lately embodies what New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, in his study on globalization, terms the “olive tree”: a metaphorical shorthand for the local, traditional, and culturally specific that, according to Friedman’s schema, is now clashing with the homogenizing and modernizing tendencies of globalism. Given the current state of international affairs, this age-old struggle has never been more urgent or of greater geopolitical significance—a putatively regional discord that leads not all that circuitously to al Qaeda, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

In the work of Tel Aviv–based artist Doron Solomons, the terms of this conflict are played out in deceptively simple, stark videos. Father, 2002, which was included in last year’s Venice Biennale, intersperses newsreel footage with staged scenes and home videos to form a fragmented, truncated narrative. The apparent theme is the importance of truth transmitted from father (Solomons) to child (his young, bright-eyed daughter). Yet what should be a simple moral lesson becomes, in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, a poignantly acute dilemma in that its metasubject is death—a reality so present that the father cannot shield his daughter from its inevitable surfacing.

The video opens with grainy images of the aftermath of a suicide bombing. Children scream, paramedics tend to bloodied victims, and the daily order of life is reduced to turmoil. In a voice-over, Solomons remarks, “You once asked me, ‘Daddy, if I die, will you make magic?’” The scene introduces the elements that will become the structure of the piece, whose alternating scenes include Solomons performing magic tricks, his daughter playing, and documentary footage of suicide bombings and of a Palestinian father mourning the loss of his child. Here Solomons’s games serve a metaphorical purpose: representing the ultimate futility of any effort to avoid the constant death and violence that loom over the inhabitants of Israel and the Palestinian territories.

The slapstick nature of Solomons’s magic is in direct contrast to the weightiness of the context. In one “trick,” the word DEATH emerges from his mouth and circles around his head until Solomons snatches and swallows it. In another, set to a musical beat, the artist’s nose, seen in profile, grows to Pinocchio-like dimensions; and in yet another, he flexes his arm, which sprouts a cartoonishly inflated bicep. These episodes, while comical, are presented in a chillingly deadpan manner, as the artist performs them with the methodical detachment of an assembly-line worker. As such, comedy serves as a tool not of distraction but of engagement, requiring the viewer to negotiate the gap between the expressionless nature of the artist’s performance and the disturbing circumstances to which it refers. Moreover, the vignettes are interrupted by horrific news footage of a would-be suicide bomber whose explosives have failed to ignite, lying in the street still alive. Against the genteel music of classical strings, a robot pointing a gun directly at the bomber’s torso slowly drags his body across the pavement, as a crowd looks on from behind a police barricade. The freakish scene repeats at the end of the video; the bomber is probed by a large robot, its clawlike arm tugging at the Palestinian’s supine body, this time to the tune of “Suicide Is Painless” (the theme song of the television program MAS*H).

By recasting and weaving together the banal and the extraordinary, Solomons’s video conveys how dehumanization has been largely normalized. Suicide killings are an accepted, even honored option for disenfranchised Palestinians, and an industry of bomb-detonating robots, specifically designed to be used with humans, has been developed. This skewed sense of normalcy is even more evident in Inventory, 2001. In this video, Solomons conducts a simple accounting of his worldly “possessions”—appliances, underwear, porn magazines, his wife and children—which flash in quick succession on the screen. We are struck not only by the relative paucity of his material possessions, in contrast to the typical American household’s, but also by the inventory’s inclusion, among cooking pots and audio cassettes, of four gas masks—items as common to an Israeli household as a DVD player is to an American one.

While the subject of Father is highly loaded, what renders it so compelling is the degree to which it implicitly suggests a shared rather than polarized experience, in that the “father” in question includes both Israeli and Palestinian fathers who vainly seek to protect their children from the violent world they both inhabit. In one section, fuzzy images come slowly into focus, revealing scenes of young Arab women engaged in choreographed military exercises. The sound track’s haunting score is broken by the voice of the other father—that of a would-be female suicide bomber—declaring, “I always loved to watch you dance. Fresh and flexible movements.” This warm recollection stands in disconcerting contrast to the spectacle of the girls’ militaristic training. Later on, the point is made more bluntly: “These two girls are about to die,” the title reads. On a split screen, two young Palestinian women are seen seated at tables, with commemorative posters of martyrdom (or murder) hanging in the background, already “recording” the horrible event about to transpire. Together, these scenes, as well as another in which a Palestinian man sobs over the corpse of a dead baby, suggest that suffering is not the prerogative of one side.

Solomons, an editor at Israel’s Channel 2 news, has access to a range of journalistic footage, which he uses effectively as raw material—perhaps most thoroughly in Lullaby, 1998. Images and sounds gleaned from scenes of violence around the world—a torpedo fired from a Chinese ship, soldiers beating a Palestinian, children in Kosovo fleeing gunfire—flash intermittently on a grid of nine screens, presenting a visual-cum-auditory collage of destruction that connects seemingly disparate events and places. The use of news footage serves, however, as both formal strategy and thematic subtext. Father, with its central character of the father/magician, equates the making of magic (the stuff of fantasy) with the making of news (the stuff, putatively, of reality), a slippage that connects Solomons’s work to that of New York–based artist Walid Raad, in which the immutability of historical truth (in Raad’s case, concerning the Lebanese civil war) is continually undermined through a seamless collapsing of “factual” and “fictional” documentation. Despite clear distinctions, what connects their work is the utilization of a stark and brutal reality (suicide bombings in Israel and car bombings in Lebanon, respectively) to question the terms under which reality is understood. Neither mitigates the horror, but through manipulation, each renders it more disturbingly acute.

In the era of twenty-four-hour-a-day news, Solomons’s quiet interventions demonstrate the degree to which only particular points of view are ever aired and how a glut of information has produced, paradoxically, a less reflective and less knowledgeable culture. Indeed, the raw and visually low-tech character of Solomons’s videos harks back to the medium’s early roots in the mid-’60s, when artists (such as the collective Ant Farm) embraced the newly available Sony Porta-Pak camera to produce “guerrilla” television as an alternative to mainstream broadcasts—a legacy of video that has been overwhelmed by today’s predominantly spectacular installation works.

The videos’ rawness notwithstanding, Solomons’s juxtaposition of sound and image is highly sophisticated and yields an appropriately conflicting rather than harmonious experience. Lullaby is the most overt in this regard, its title both invoking its status as a “musical” piece and serving as an ironic contrast to the brutality of its imagery. Like Christian Marclay’s monumental Video Quartet, 2002, Lullaby essentially manipulates found footage (from the news rather than the cinema) to create a pulsing “musical” score: a piece of severe minimalist music in the vein of Steve Reich or Philip Glass. Here, however, explosions, not drums, pianos, or electronic gadgets, generate the rhythmic structure—a telling message, perhaps, that the sound track of today’s global reality is a resounding chorus of violence and struggle, sprouting from olive trees.

Janet Kraynak is an art historian and critic based in New York.