The Rise of the Medium: 1997-2005 By Sergio Edelsztein
The mid-1990s in Israel saw the emergence of video art as a distinctive and coherent artistic movement. This development took place as part of a paradigm shift in Israeli art and culture that was heavily influenced by the political upheaval that shook the Middle East in general and Israel in particular, and whose resonance within Israeli culture and art was paralleled and influenced by developments in the media.
The string of events that began with the Oslo Peace Accords in 1993 and ended with the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, along with the accompanying visual documentation of these events in the media, gave the Israeli public new images and visual concepts that played an important role in Israeli art. These images and concepts, however, arose not out of political events themselves, but rather out of their representation in televised media. Cable television became available in Israel in 1989, with foreign news channels broadcasting in Israel during the first Gulf War in 1991. Until then, only one television channel, controlled by the state and enjoying a monopoly in Israel, had broadcast the news. The sudden competition with international and Arab news channels, which offered the Israeli public more complex reporting than had previously been available, was further enhanced by the launch of Channel 2, the first commercial Israeli television channel and the first to broadcast advertisements. This new “televised reality,” which included news and advertisements, inspired young artists to unveil the manipulation implicit in television.
The story of Israeli video art in the late 1990s and early 2000s, like every good story, revolves around a quasi-mythical event that encapsulates the whole story, its protagonists, and their unique personalities: In 1997, the Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts in Tel Aviv bought an editing suite and asked Boaz Arad, who was teaching there at the time, to learn how to operate it so that he could teach the students how to do so. Arad invited two of his former students, Guy Ben-Ner and Doron Solomons, to help him. Solomons was then working as a news editor at Channel 2 and had already made a couple of experimental videos. Access to the school’s editing room ultimately led Arad, Ben-Ner, and Solomons to work artistically almost exclusively in video, and their work as both teachers and artists influenced younger generations in significant ways.
Solomons started his apprenticeship as an editor in the news department of Israel’s first commercial television station towards the end of his studies at Hamidrasha School of Art in 1994. His first video works can, in fact, be regarded as part of this apprenticeship, as exercises in editing. His first three works are composed of simple “sentences”: Ani Ohev Otakh (I Love You, 1995), Ani Hoshev Mashma Ani Kayam (I Think Therefore I Am, 1996); and Tov Lamut Be’ad Artzenu (It Is Good to Die for Our Country, 1997). For each piece, Solomons took the shortest possible “syllable” of footage, extracting the sound from the image it accompanied and editing it to form an emotionally charged sentence that, in combination with the original image, seemed dislocated and even contradictory. Solomons’ first accomplished piece was My Collected Silences (1996), which was inspired by Heinrich Böll’s Murke’s Collected Silences, a story about a radio producer who collects bits of audiotape containing pauses and silences from radio interviews. As an editor, Solomons had access to the raw material that came into the newsroom, and like Murke, he collected silent video clips from news interviews. The people that we, as viewers, are used to hearing and seeing on television screens are depicted as silent, waiting, overcome by the events of which they speak, or bored and impatient.
As the second Palestinian uprising, or Intifada, broke out in September 2000, Solomons, who was then working as a news editor, was exposed to more and more raw footage of carnage and violence, and he became increasingly concerned about his role in mediating this material to the public. In addition, as a father, he felt anxious and impotent about his daughter’s safety. This is the twofold subject matter of Father (2002), a work in which the artist expressed the existential fears, shared by parents on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, about the physical and psychological dangers to which their children were being exposed. Father consists of a mosaic of scenes of diverse formats, some ready-made, others performed. “Reality” is portrayed here through images from the news, and excerpts from vehicle safety ads serve as a metaphor for a father’s protective instinct. Interspersed throughout this material is a series of performative vignettes in which the artist-father, in a futile attempt to save his daughter from becoming either a victim or a victimizer, assumes the character of a magician who tries to enact a variety of pedagogical-magical tricks, including the imposition of rules, the use of force, concealment, and lying, but he does so in vain, revealing himself to be no more than a pathetic and powerless trickster.
Solomons paved the way for other young artists to focus on the mass media and its influence on daily life. These artists had come of age in front of the screen and grew up reading the language of television almost intuitively: the nature of the television frame, editing techniques, the dichotomous interviewer-interviewee approach, and the use of a candid camera. They were very familiar with television’s various formats, from exposés and police reconstructions to the revealing, almost intimate, representation of politicians and other celebrities. For example, Ruti Sela and Maayan Amir based their practice on their ability to extract political statements from people approached at random. In their video trilogy Beyond Guilt (2003-2005), they set up risqué and intimate situations, interviewing young Israelis in a nightclub restroom or inviting men from dating websites to spontaneously meet them in a hotel room. The conversations that arose in these situations reveal the effects of growing up in an aggressive society in which military service radically shapes the character and behavior of each generation, even to the extent that it manifests in their closest relationships and their sex lives.
Other young artists began to work with materials related to the political atmosphere created by the Occupation and the Second Intifada. Video art lent itself naturally to this movement, which included artists such as Effi and Amir, Isaac Laysh and Irit Garty, Elyasaf Kowner, and Dana Levy, and more recently, Amir Yatziv, and Yossi Atia and Itamar Rose. Many of these artists use techniques and formats such as the “candid camera” and the mockumentary to address the media as subject matter and as visual culture. In fact, the love-hate relationship between video art and television articulated by some of these artists is as old as the art form itself. Early American video artists such as Doug Hall and William Wegman, for example, deconstructed, criticized, and stripped bare the media’s hidden political agenda. Years later, the 9/11 attacks in New York provided a mesmerizing illustration of how easily news coverage can serve as effective propaganda with the power to rally unconditional support — in this case, from nearly the entire Western world for a war against Afghanistan and Iraq. What became clear in the coverage of these events, and what has been clear in the Israeli media since its beginnings in the 1960s, is that the ultimate goal of the mainstream media is not the manipulation of values, but rather, the manipulation of feelings.
One of the most radical Israeli artists to work in this vein is Yael Bartana. Featuring a visual language that endows her works with a seductiveness and dream-like artificiality, Bartana’s works, at the same time, always present a familiar mediated reality. Even when using documentary footage, she creates fictional narratives. Her early works address the Israeli meta-narrative through its myths, symbols, and rituals, while in her later works, she plays with the universality and interchangeability of these elements. Kings of the Hill (2003) is a transitional work that connects her early, emblematic works to her more critical and narrative ones. Like her earlier works, Kings of the Hill creates a surreal scenario in which a number of four-wheel-drive cars climb up and down little mounds of sand at the suburban seaside. For the first time, Bartana deals here with the characterization of figures and a reversal of roles. In Kings of the Hill (2003), the conquering “kings” are, in fact, lower-middle-class plumbers and contractors whose ownership of these vehicles is merely for the purpose of a tax benefit. While the scenario is surreal, Bartana succeeds in creating a narrative through editing. In fact, the passage of time produces a vague sense of linearity in this work, which ends in a glorious sunset as the Jeeps continue to race up and down the hills into the night.
Like Bartana and Solomons, Boaz Arad began his career as a video artist by deconstructing basic concepts and taboos in Israeli society. However, rather than appropriating televised material or documenting acts of resistance, he manipulated and altered found footage. Arad’s first works were based on historical newsreels featuring Adolph Hitler. The artist took personal revenge for the Holocaust in 100 Beats (1999), in which he manipulated footage of the dictator removing a handkerchief from his pocket, repeating it in such a way that it mimicked the act of masturbation. In Safam 1 and Safam 2 (1999-2000) and Marcel Marcel (2000), Arad animated Hitler’s famous moustache, and in Hebrew Lesson (2000), in an homage to Solomons’ early “sentences,” he edited Hitler’s speech so that he seemed to be speaking Hebrew and saying: “Shalom, Jerusalem, I apologize.” These works were among the first artworks in Israel that dared to touch on the sensitive issue of the Holocaust. Arad’s preoccupation with the Holocaust culminated in An Immense Inner Peace (2001), in which the artist wore a Hitler mask and talked, as Hitler, about his work as a painter.
Arad’s subsequent work took on other taboos in Israeli society, especially those pertaining to the cultural oppression of Sephardic Jews (from North Africa and Arab countries) by Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jews. In Gefilte Fish (2005), the artist’s mother teaches the viewer how to prepare gefilte fish, the quintessential Ashkenazi dish, and inadvertently reveals her prejudice in the process. Arad filmed his mother’s hands in close-up as she cooked, and then intercut this footage with shots of himself in which he appears to be speaking his mother’s words, as if lip-synching. The effect is reminiscent of the character of Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s Psycho, who talks to himself in his mother’s voice. Gefilte Fish recounts a family tradition in order to explore the deep historical roots of national stereotypes and how prejudice is “inherited.”
Other important video artists came to maturity in the early 2000s, some of whom tangentially touch on social or political reality in their work. For example, in Hope Machines (2006-07), Uri Katzenstein depicted a post-apocalyptic world in which individuals are stranded on tiny artificial “islands” in a vast ocean, and, in his works, Gilad Ratman examines the very real social limits of marginalized subjects by creating dystopian realities in fantastical environments. Obscure and surreal, his videos juxtapose several stories that develop in parallel; unconnected and drawn from different realms, these stories create disjointed and fragmented narratives. The viewer is thus goaded to make connections and metaphorical meaning out of seemingly unrelated sequences. Ratman’s image world is composed mainly of primordial, natural settings in which his characters, usually restrained or immobilized, are helplessly exposed to extreme situations.
The figures that populate Ratman’s earlier works are often hybrids of humans and animals. Che Che the Gorgeous (2005) intercuts three parallel narratives: one features cocoon-like creatures with human heads that struggle to break free of their chrysalises on a dry, desert landscape; another depicts a group of people in a flat-cum-sound studio recording what seem to be the grunts and groans of these creatures; and in the third, a young man performs a cover version of the pop song, “Forever Young.” In juxtaposing disparate narratives, Ratman purposely “attacks” the spectator’s intuitive drive to “make sense” of the work by seeking a unified narrative, and instead insists on a lack of causality that, in his view, is inherent in contemporary life.
We cannot end this brief survey of Israeli video art without turning for a moment to the third protagonist in our story of origins: Guy Ben-Ner. Whereas Solomons worked with news footage and Arad with archival footage and historical newsreels, Ben-Ner appropriated just about everything. He used Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe for the scripts of Berkeley’s Island (1999) and Treehouse Kit (2005), and Herman Melville’s famous novel for his own take on the tale of the great whale in Moby Dick (2000). He created Household (2001) from Robert Bresson’s film Un condamné à mort s’est echappé, and in Wild Boy (2004), he used François Truffaut’s film Wild Child in order to address his own struggle as a father. In addition to quoting directly from literature or film, Ben-Ner often finds his formal framework and thematic thread in a particular film genre, and then develops his own take on it, as he did, for example, in Elia (2003), a National Geographic–style “nature documentary,” in Treehouse Kit, a “do-it-yourself instructional video,” and in Stealing Beauty (2007), a TV sitcom.
The basic premise of Ben-Ner’s early work — inspired by Buster Keaton’s life — was the integration of the stage with family life. Keaton’s pared-down approach to production, and that of early cinema in general, suited Ben-Ner, who found himself simultaneously the director, cameraman, lead actor, and stuntman. Ben-Ner’s interest in early film originally stemmed from his curiosity about slapstick comedy, which, in turn, had originated from his interest in body art and the work of artists such as Bruce Nauman, Vito Acconci, and Dennis Oppenheim — all of whom he visually “quotes” freely. While early cinema gave Ben-Ner a language, art history and body art gave him an unlimited bank of images from which to appropriate and with which to give shape and character to his players or to complement an idea or image.
In Moby Dick, all of these interests and strategies crystallized into a unique language. For this silent video, Ben Ner re-enacted the famous saga in his kitchen; he and his family played all of the characters and used basic home appliances as props. Ben-Ner’s anarchistic collage of scenes and images, appropriated from classic films and other sources, vividly demonstrates his unique cinematic language and narrative construction. Ben-Ner’s work is emblematic of Israeli video art in the mid-1990s and 2000s. At that time, artists were able to access the visual resources around them — television and cinema — as ready-made content with which they were able to deconstruct their personal reality. Individuality is central to most of the works discussed here, even when they address collective issues. It is clear that artists in Israel, whether performatively or not, have used video art as a means of exploring their own identity in the context of Israel’s changing political environment, as well as their personal and collective history and trauma.