Smadar Dreyfus

Along the Israeli-Syrian cease-fire line in the Golan Heights lies the “Shouting Hill.” One side of the hill is controlled by Israel, the other by Syria. Every year during the annual Syrian Mother’s Day celebration, Druze students who live in the Israeli zone yet study in Damascus gather on the Syrian side of the hill, while their mothers wait on the Israeli-controlled side. Using a PA system, sons and daughters exchange greetings with their mothers, who reply by shouting through megaphones. The reason for this arduous communication is that youngsters from the local Druze community are offered a free university education by the Syrian government, but aren’t allowed to return to Israel during the entire period of their study in Damascus. Israel-born, London-based artist Smadar Dreyfus could have reflected on this absurd situation with an “objective eye,” steering clear of aestheticism or sentimentality, but instead succeeded in creating a heart-rending drama with her audiovisual installation Mother’s Day, 2006–2008.

Dreyfus avoided the extremes of indifference and schmaltz by employing the same formal device she used in her previous installation, Lifeguards, 2005: separating sound from image, thereby disorienting the visitor. To enter the black box (one could also call it a small theater) built in the industrial space of Extra City was an experience in itself. A long, narrow corridor prevented any light from entering the hall. One felt unsettled and awkward in the total darkness. Was anyone else inside this box? For that matter, was there anything at all in this dark void? Then a shot of a hill faded in. In full screen, without movement other than some idyllic morning clouds, it looked like paradise. One heard a vague sound of blowing wind.

After about a minute, both image and sound disappeared—not with a fade but with a hard cut, like a visual guillotine. In the surrounding, almost tangible darkness, a voice shouted Arabic words, which were translated and projected in English: “I am Tharaa El Mustafa / I congratulate you mother / Many happy returns / I hope to see you.” The soundscape was constructed in such a way that the voices seemed to be echoing out of the vanished hill. Then came an answer: “Good morning Tharaa / Good morning everybody.” The feeling of being a participant rather than an outsider or a voyeur was intensified through an architectural intervention: a viewing platform for the audience, with a balustrade separating them from the screen—as if one were standing together with the shouting mothers. After a few minutes another view of the hill was projected, and the voices stopped again. Only the swiftly moving clouds suggested the passage of time. Finally, a return to darkness—and a moment of great intensity, as one of the girls began singing, her voice whirling out of the dark. Without becoming moralistic or condemning one nation or the other, Dreyfus achieved the most appropriate possible reaction to the overdose of absurdity and pathos embodied in the Shouting Hill: a meditative monument to the people whose voices cross the border in place of themselves.

Jos Van den Bergh