When reviewing or engaging with Israeli art, one must always take into account a factor that doesn’t come into play in most of the other global art scenes: The local creative field and the artists operating in it are not beholden to millennia of artistic traditions. The art produced in the Jewish state, with the exception of the creative output that predated the founding of Israel, is as young as the country itself.
While this consideration usually serves as an advantage for Israeli artists, who don’t necessarily have to craft their creations in the shadow of world-renowned artistic heavyweights or decades-long movements, it also stirs a conundrum. If art reflects an artist’s attempt to communicate his or her perception of the world around them, how should Israeli artists portray the reality of life in Israel? After all, this is a country whose borders are still disputed 72 years after its inception, and the political and social circumstances here are in a constant state of flux, disagreement and development.
Perhaps for this reason, and out of concern that they would be sidelined or stereotypically defined as Israeli artists, many young creators tend to shy away from tackling in their art the issues that scream at them in bold red letters from the headlines of daily newspapers. When they do decide to offer statements on the Arab-Israeli conflict or the government, many artists know that they will have to take flak or get accused of misrepresenting certain communities.
A new exhibition on view at the Hamidrasha Gallery, 19 Hayarkon Street in Tel Aviv illustrates – perhaps not intentionally – what happens to artists who are trapped in this limbo. Veteran artists Roee Rosen and Ruti Sela have created a project that has all the potential to kick viewers in the gut. It raises problems such as the plight of Palestinians in Gaza, the tensions between Jewish Israelis and Arab Israelis and the fear that academics and artists would be censored, stifled and unable to freely discuss and create political work. However, the final visual result leaves visitors (or at least this writer) more confused than incensed. When the choice is between walking on eggshells or saying nothing at all, the only likely outcome is an artwork of the kind Rosen and Sela put together: visually compelling, entertaining, acerbically amusing at times, definitely clever but eventually anti-climactic.
It might do well to start with praising the venue displaying Rosen and Sela’s Marseille Jamilla. Hamidrasha Gallery, under the creative direction and curatorial leadership of Avi Lubin, has metamorphosed over the past couple of years into one of the most fascinating art institutions in all of Tel Aviv, if not Israel at large. The gallery, which operates under the auspices of an art school of the same name, has unfailingly showcased numerous exhibitions that highlighted the work of young artists or those who operate on the fringes of Israeli society. This socially-aware agenda makes the gallery an ideal platform for the presentation of projects such as Marseille Jamilla, a sardonic video installation in three parts that other art institutions in the country may have refused to exhibit.
THE FIRST and second installments of Marseille Jamilla are cringe-inducing art and funny, sporting the kind of grotesque texts, obscene characters and exaggerated scenes that could only be masterminded by the likes of Rosen. A multidisciplinary artist, writer and filmmaker, Rosen’s body of work consists of a whole host of characters or alter egos whose lives, tedious affairs and moral failings he chronicles in outrageously detailed installations, video works and accompanying texts.
Just to provide readers with a clue as to the scope of the alternative universe Rosen has created, one might recall, for example, the very first invented figure he birthed: Justine Frank. The nonexistent Frank was, according to Rosen, a Jewish-Belgian surrealist painter who lived in the beginning of the 20th century and who penned the invented pornographic book Sweet Sweat. For this project, Rosen put forth a novel combining Frank’s oeuvre with her biography as well as a theoretical essay, a retrospective of her work and a film titled Two Women and a Man (2005).
His current endeavor, co-created with Sela, includes a tourism ad for the French city of Marseille. Set to the tune of an upbeat jingle in Arabic composed by Israeli indie musician Uzi Ramirez, the commercial video features a couple enjoying a stroll in the seaside town. The pair are Rosen and Sela themselves. Rosen, clasping Sela’s hand, is dressed in a sleek but drab gray suit of the kind preferred by car salesmen; Sela donned the attire of a traditional Palestinian woman. Walking hand in hand, they are seen stopping by the waterfront and sharing a dish of the local bouillabaisse soup. What’s the twist? The video wasn’t really filmed in Marseille, but was rather shot in Jaffa, whose iconic alleyways and beach can be detected by the local visitors to the exhibition.
The fake ad, in which the soft voice of an Arab singer extols the beautiful Marseille, purposely draws a comparison between the Arab-majority southern enclave of Tel Aviv and the French city situated along the Mediterranean and known for its mixed population full of immigrants. The ludicrous collation between the two cities continues in the second part of the project, in which the mayor of Marseille, who curiously speaks in a Spanish accent, invites visitors to come to his “sensuous city.” The mayor is Sela, who wears an oversized, cheap suit jacket and a ridiculous, pasted-on mustache. In the speech Rosen has written for Sela, she proclaims that “the whole world is afraid of immigrants,” arguing that this shouldn’t deter tourists from enjoying the diversity of Marseille. Her pompous and aggressive tone, coupled with wild gesticulating, is an overt but still sly criticism aimed at leaders the world over who have attempted to portray their countries as accepting of others, only to close their gates to migrants in need.
By using humor as their weapon, Rosen and Sela are forcing gallery-goers to ponder the policies of various modern-day leaders. Recent examples that come to mind are US President Donald Trump and his ongoing battle against immigration from Mexico. But in making this video, Rosen and Sela were also clearly taking a dig at the Israeli leadership that has clamped down in recent years against illegal immigration of African asylum seekers.
THE LAST and most poignant part of the project is a video in which the art refers to itself. Sela filmed Rosen in a classroom full of college students, to whom he teaches video art. It turns out that the whole project was produced in collaboration with the students. A long and tense discussion ensues between Rosen, Sela and the students about the merit of the work itself and the right to present it on an international stage as was planned. During the conversation, Rosen says that he felt uncomfortable filming and having a good time in Jaffa when not far away, Palestinian protesters were being shot, wounded and killed by IDF snipers. Several of his Arab students, who participated in the making of the video, respond that they are not fluent enough in Hebrew to describe how they feel about being surrounded by their Israeli instructor and peers while their people are suffering elsewhere. The exchange could have quickly escalated, but remained somewhat meek.
It is remarkable that Rosen and his students recorded their dialogue and made it available for the public to witness, but nonetheless problematic. Their conversation and its publication raise numerous questions: Is it fair for an esteemed, famous Israeli artist to make his students part of his artwork, even if they consented? Is there true equality between Jewish Israelis and Arab Israelis at local academic institutions (the students themselves agreed to disagree on this matter in their discussion)? Can the students and Rosen themselves be taken at their word, or were the statements they made addressed to the camera and uttered with the awareness that they will later be seen? Does art have the power to change the reality on the ground, or does it remain in the intellectual and cultural realm of lofty lecture hall talks, galleries and art reviews?
At one point in the video, Rosen can be heard saying that he might regret the publication of the work. The biggest question that looms over his latest project is whether this concern stems from genuine fear that he might cause harm to his students and himself, or whether it derives from the anxiety that many Israeli artists share over persecution when they make art that criticizes the mechanisms controlling the country they live in.
Marseille Jamilla is on view at the Hamidrasha Gallery, 19 Hayarkon St. until September 17.