“Real Time: Art in Israel 1998–2008”

With the state of Israel celebrating its sixtieth anniversary, six museums across the country mounted exhibitions that tried to capture the artistic essence of each decade since the nation’s founding. Considering Jerusalem’s historical and sociopolitical symbolism, it is probably no accident that the Israel Museum hosted the contemporary chapter of this dispersed survey, “Real Time: Art in Israel 1998–2008.” Seeming to represent an overwhelming consensus, the critical operations of the forty selected artists, most born in the years between the Six-Day War (1967) and the Yom Kippur War (1973), communicate a pervading sense of battle fatigue vis-à-vis the dominant tropes of national identity. Shunning models that link Israeli identity to either religious or secular Zionism, this generation critically interrogates both genealogies through an aesthetic encounter with various international movements. This is evident in Zoya Cherkassky’s Aachen Passover Haggadah, 2001–2003, which deploys Russian Constructivist forms to depict the Exodus from Egypt into the Promised Land (yoking revolution and religion as false utopias), and Tal Shochat’s Reds and Blacks, 2004, which renders a fruit-laden apple tree in photographic hyperrealism (harnessing the clinical precision of the Becher school to a local typology—the devout Diaspora Jew converted into a proletariat pioneer). This lone tree signifies one of the founding myths of Labor Zionism, which called for the creation of the New Jew through strenuous physical labor. Championed by the country’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, who spoke of making the desert bloom, many agricultural settlements (kibbutzim) were established in northern Israel and became dotted with apple orchards. The desire to belong to the European aesthetic lineage of the twentieth century and participate in the construction of a contemporary global idiom is symptomatic of a greater wish, namely to shed the essentialist identification with Israel as either biblical or cultural homeland.

This compulsion connects artists like Michal Helfman, Jan Tichy, Gaston Zvi Ickowicz, Karen Russo, Miri Segal, and Nira Pereg to the broad problem of negotiating the local and global under new terms. Their two-part answer, it seems, is to go beyond national frontiers, either to combine local ciphers with a global style du jour or to abandon regional codes altogether. The first trend is exemplified in Helfman’s Mitzpe Ramon, 2003, a casually executed ink-on-paper illustration of the Negev desert crater. The second is evident in Pereg’s Canicule, 2003–2004, a slow-motion video of people warding off the Parisian heat wave in improvised street showers. Works allied to both attitudes conspicuously converge, however, in their lurking sentiment of either political impotence or indifference.

This renunciation is strikingly echoed by the curatorial choices that structure the exhibition’s narrative. Except for the presence of Sharif Waked, a Palestinian artist based in Haifa, there is no acknowledgment of the complex and contested history of the last decade, which has also seen the emergence of Arab-Israeli and Palestinian artists such as Ahlam Shibli, Ibrahim Nubani, Emily Jacir, Rashid Masharawi, and Khalil Rabah who dwell within or contest Israel’s borders. Given its prevalence in the political arena, it may also come as a surprise that there are no traces of the Jewish nationalism that stands in stark opposition to the Palestinian claim for self-determination and favors maintaining the borders of a Greater Israel. That neither stance is entirely tolerable within the current narrative suggests a disparity between a public sphere marked by political agonism and the contemporary field of visual representation.

Nuit Banai