Sharon Ya’ari, Officers’ Pool 1969, 2016, ink-jet print, 6' 6 3/4“ × 10' 1 5/8”.

Sharon Ya’ari, Officers’ Pool 1969, 2016, ink-jet print, 6' 6 3/4“ × 10' 1 5/8”.

Sharon Ya’ari

Sharon Ya’ari, Officers’ Pool 1969, 2016, ink-jet print, 6' 6 3/4“ × 10' 1 5/8”.

In the exhibition “Officers’ Pool,” Sharon Ya’ari continued his long-standing consideration of photography’s double capacity to function as both a documentary mechanism and an intervention in reality. Building on this paradoxical multivalence, the show investigated the complex relationship between image production and nation building by juxtaposing two distinct bodies of work featuring landscapes of Israel from different historical periods and geographical locations.

In the main space, the artist exhibited a series of photographs that originated as slides taken by anonymous amateur photographers, some of them soldiers, in the late 1960s and that were subsequently integrated into the Israeli army’s education department. (There is no further information about this chain of events or how Ya’ari eventually accessed them.) The subjects include the Sea of Galilee, a Golan iris, an arbutus tree, wild almonds blossoming, and a location known as the Officers’ Pool. It is important to know that this swimming pool was once part of a larger system of fortifications in the Golan Heights (providing shady relief to Syrian soldiers) and that the associated flora and fauna are indigenous to the north of Israel. As certain titles make clear, the slides were made circa 1968–69, shortly after the Six-Day War (1967) when Israel seized East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights. In this context, the two female soldiers by the pool may very well be on an army expedition under the rubric of “yediat ha’aretz” (knowledge of the land). According to Zionist credo, local identity would materialize from learning about “the land” as much through one’s feet as in the classroom; thus, territory was to be physically lived in, conceptually assimilated, and militarily occupied at the same time.

While many artists in Israel are engaging with this constitutive Zionist narrative and its dystopian outcomes, Ya’ari is particularly interested in photography’s function in supporting it. His images reveal their historical complicity by an “estrangement” from their own materiality. With the slides’ discoloration, the landscapes are tinged in a spectrum of hues ranging from pink to red that transform the verdant symbols of an Israeli spring into washed-out relics. Thus, in Sea of Galilee (water walk) 1969, 2015, the depicted lake, completely diluted of its iconic greens and blues, resembles a futuristic, post-nuclear landscape, while in Officers’ Pool 1969, 2016, the surface of the water appears pierced by chemical stains. These interventions, performed from “within” by the celluloid’s own substance, not only unsettle the uniformity of the images but also their ideological codes. The takeaway is that the heroic moment illustrated––one of burgeoning vegetation and a recent territorial expansion—is already vexed and contains its own alterity.

We are confronted with this compromised reality in the second series, in which Ya’ari documented his trip to Saharonim, a detention center housing up to eight thousand African asylum seekers in the Negev Desert. At times, the artist’s car window serves as a frame within a frame, through which we follow a moving cross section of local sights: A cluster of palm trees, electric poles, and groups of soldiers are all transmuted into geometric forms and equalized as so many functional parts of this arid landscape. The journey culminates at the detention center, where all three motifs (palms, poles, soldiers) come together to become a “natural” infrastructure asserting Israeli power. Is this, one wonders, what David Ben-Gurion meant when he famously called upon the “new Jew” to “make the desert bloom”? An image of a smiling African man, Route 211 (detention center), 2015, drives this point home: The sole frontal shot of an individual, it is also the only one revealing a trace of humanity.

Nuit Banai