PRINT Summer 2005



LOOKING BACK, it’s hard not to notice how often British artist Catherine Yass has set up her camera to face walls, capturing surfaces spotted by stains in a meat market (“Stall,” 1996), scratched with graffiti in a prison (“Cell,” 1998), obscured by steam in a Baden-Baden spa (“Baths,” 1998), or decorated by tiles in the Prague underground (“Metro,” 2001). These works were part of a larger investigation of empty architectural spaces and were shown as transparencies mounted on light boxes, each image a composite of two photographs taken moments apart. Yass’s interest in disrupting photographic time later inspired her films such as Descent, 2002, which was shot from a crane being lowered down the side of a building in London’s Canary Wharf. Yass inverted each frame of the film so viewers felt they were being dangled upside down. As the camera dropped, it captured another skyscraper directly opposite in the early stages of construction, the slow downward motion of the film transforming this new monument of globalized banking into a ruin.

Perhaps it was inevitable that this concern with architecture and power would lead Yass to film the wall being built on the West Bank. But in taking on this structure she set herself a more difficult task than ever. How to represent a barrier whose meanings are so different for the people living on either side? How to image a construction whose significance could change at a moment’s notice? What would it mean to tackle so obviously controversial a subject, one that has already been the subject of numerous other artworks? (A documentary about the wall had actually been projected onto it during the Ramallah film festival of 2004.) Most important, as a nonresident making a work in Israel/Palestine, was it possible for Yass to confront the political situation with any authenticity?

Mark Godfrey


In 2003 the British Council invited me to Israel for a research trip. There was no pressure to make work, but as soon as I saw the wall I realized I could not ignore it, even though I was taking on something enormous and complex. My background is Jewish, and I had traveled to Israel a few times before. I feel oddly connected to what happens there, as if I am somehow responsible. The wall made an immediate impact on me, in terms of both its political significance and my personal response. It made me think of internal walls, the emotional barriers that arise between individuals. I think of it as a physical manifestation of people’s inability to see around corners and negotiate their way past blockages. I felt I could only speak from my own position, so I tried to develop a personal language and perspective in the way I made the film and how I addressed the reality of the wall. I didn’t set out to make a documentary.

I decided to film from the Israeli side and to think about what Israel is doing to itself, as much as what it is doing to other people. But while researching for the film, I realized that it is not easy to know which side you are on. In areas where the wall is built in sections and not joined up, you can easily go back and forth and you often can’t tell whether you are in Israel or Palestine. This makes it seem like the wall is as much about staking out territory as it is about defense. The houses and landscape are alike on both sides. Arab people live all around it, and in many places the wall cuts through communities, sometimes even splitting up families. There is also disagreement about which territory the wall is located in. Often it crosses over the Green Line, the internationally recognized border determined in 1949. I couldn’t get insurance for my crew or equipment in these areas, which indicates the confusion within Israel about where the boundaries of the country actually lie.

The work consists of five sections, each three to ten minutes long, all filmed from a camera mounted onto a car moving at walking pace—the pace at which most people encounter the wall. The sections correspond to actual sections of the wall, since it does not yet exist as a single uninterrupted line. Some sections are filmed with the camera moving along the wall, some with the camera going toward it in deep perspective. Each section is filmed in one take, the first frame showing the beginning of a particular section of the wall and the last frame showing its end. The time it takes to travel along each section is a kind of measure of the length of the barrier. By seeing all the sections, you begin to grasp the distance it spans.

At the beginning and end of all but one section of the film, you get a glimpse of the landscape and towns beyond the wall. The wall almost fills the frame, so you only see the other side as a sliver over the top or along one side. By limiting the viewer’s field of vision the image re-creates what the wall itself does: It cuts off the view. It blinds you to what is happening on the other side, preventing any dialogue or negotiation. There are no people in the film, only occasional Israeli Army jeeps with tinted windows. The presence of people would locate the film in a particular time, letting you imagine that it’s only relevant to the people there. Instead, you are left on your own with the wall. Your viewpoint moves with the camera, so there is no reassuring sense of difference between you and the lens. It’s like you are trapped in someone else’s vision and can’t escape the relentless structure of the wall. Its blankness is like a dead end, blocking any communication or progress. The film is silent, because silence, like the absence of people, isolates you as the wall does in real life.

The film is projected directly onto a wall, not a screen. In the same way that the wall in the film almost fills the frame, the projection fills the wall, the viewer’s whole field of vision. The wall in the film becomes like a screen the viewer can project onto. During the film you begin to think of other walls, both physical and internal. One thing the wall reminds me of is some of the sculpture and Land art of the 1970s. It’s ironic that these structures were built quite idealistically, and now their aesthetic has come back but is connected to other ideologies. It’s disturbing how seductive the modernist aesthetic of the wall can be. It reminded me of seeing the pyramids in Mexico and finding out that these amazing structures were used for human sacrifice.

I filmed on Super 16 film to convey how the wall stretches across the landscape and to pick up the textures in the concrete. It’s shown on a DVD loop, which just goes on and on. Film gathers dust and a history as it is projected, but DVD has an interminable quality and coldness—like the wall. This wall is present now. There is no nostalgia about it.