An Art Form Coming into its Own: 1980-1997

By Ilana Tenenbaum
Table of Contents

The 1980s witnessed great change, both local and global. As the Communist bloc crumbled and the reach of mass culture expanded, it became clear that capitalism would become the prevailing economic system worldwide. As a result, the ubiquity of the image and of the product in cultures throughout the world became a fait accompli.

In Israel, the 1980s saw the disintegration of the nation’s apparent unity; social and political strife replaced what had seemed for so long a fundamental social and political harmony. But the Lebanon War, begun in 1982, brought the formerly unshakable notion of “necessary war” — a notion that until then had characterized Israel’s military conflicts — into question, generating considerable debate and disunity. Israel’s previous wars had largely had the support of the general public, but the Lebanon War — an especially long war that many considered unjustified and that resulted in a messy aftermath — was Israel’s first widely televised war. Its widespread visibility, like that of the Vietnam War in the U.S. in the 1960s and ʼ 70s, undoubtedly played a part in its unpopularity.

This social and political turbulence must be considered within the trajectory of Israeli history. In 1977, Israel’s leftist Labor party, which had formed the government since Israel’s founding in 1948, lost to the leading right-wing party, the Likud. Though this political shift was referred to as a “revolution” in Israel, it was more a “changing of the guard” that paved the way for other voices to be heard — voices other than those of the dominant Ashkenazi (European) majority, especially those of the Mizrahi (who came from North Africa and the Middle East) who inhabit much of the country’s periphery — that is, the regions that lie outside the major cities of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Haifa. These social and cultural changes fractured the country’s sense of itself as unified by a kind of heterogeneous, collective “Israeliness” and gave rise to the fragmentation of identity politics. The belief that any one system — Zionism, for example — embodies “truth” or expresses a meta-narrative that speaks equally to all came to be challenged.

This social and political fragmentation was accompanied by massive economic instability. In 1983, the Tel Aviv stock market crashed. Record levels of inflation followed, spiraling upward until the market was liberalized in 1985. Despite the introduction of liberalization measures, however, inflation had reached 374 percent by the end of 1984. And the first Palestinian uprising, or Intifada , broke out in 1987, the violence spreading from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank.

Following the liberalization of the economy in the mid-1980s, media and communications in Israel were significantly developed and expanded. In 1986, Israel’s first commercial television station, Channel 2, began broadcasting on a trial basis, with limited airtime, and in 1993, it became fully established, broadcasting music videos, advertisements, and other commercial programming twenty-four hours a day. Alongside Channel 2, pirated cable brought international television shows, movies, and commercials to Israel. The sudden widespread availability of commercial television intensified the presence of the screen and broadened the spectrum of audio-visual material beyond that of the single, publicly funded television station, which, until then, had been the only source of television programming available.

Given the turbulence of the times, the 1980s saw surprisingly little video production in Israel. But the few video artists active at this time were experimenting in ways that radically departed from the pioneering conceptual work of the 1970s. The practice of many artists in the ʼ 70s and ʼ 80s, which privileged common, everyday materials, readymade assemblage and collage, culminated in the exhibition The Want of Matter in 1986. This style, which might aptly be described in terms of a “want of matter,” can be understood as a local version of Arte Povera, and it continued to reign supreme in Israel throughout the ʼ 80s. Parallel to this movement was a return to painting, narrative, myth, and theatrical expression. Many artists returned to painting, though not, as one might think, for commercial reasons. The market in Israel was too small to be able to support a commercially viable art community, and most artists made their living by teaching, though several artist-run centers also sprang up at that time. It seems that artists were simply in need of figurative tools of expression in order to address the personal, political, and social themes confronting them. The decade saw a profusion of colorful paintings, many of which featured local motifs such as arabesques, which presented vibrant figurative images.

In the 1980s, artists came to favor the creation of composite or hybrid images by means of diverse visual styles. Expressive painting that crossbred imagery from cinema, television advertisements, and consumer culture with references to local culture became common in Israel, and artists who worked with the projected image were rare, despite the burgeoning of audio-visual culture generally. The predominance of painting, as well as the lack of institutional support for audio-visual work, all contributed to an art-scape with few moving images. Institutional support for the exhibition of video works was virtually non-existent, even in the exhibition The Boundaries of Language at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in 1998. The few videos presented there, which included many of the artists whose work is discussed in part I, were shown one after another on a small monitor in a corner of the gallery. At the time, video art lacked legitimacy — few regarded videos as “proper” works of art — and the originality of these works went largely unrecognized.

Like the works themselves, the few artists who chose to work in video in this period were not supported by art institutions. Experimenting with the technology available at the time , their works, presented here, were not conceptual or structural in the way that earlier experimental film and video had been. Using existing media, these artists processed or recombined previously recorded materials, employing the techniques of post-production.

In many of the works created in the 1980s, television is a dominant theme. For example, Miri Nishri treated the TV monitor as the sculptural framework for her work. In Blue Blue (1980), she intercut a series of scenes and images: rolling vertical and horizontal bars typical of video malfunctions, hands that attempt to push the frame downwards, and clenched fists that seem to press against the edges of the screen, as if struggling to break through the frame. Echoing the early work of Joan Jonas, especially Vertical Roll (1972), the rolling bars appear as typical “glitches” of that period’s broadcasts. Both the bars and the fists also echo the omnipresent violence in much televised programming. In a self-referential gesture, the camera moves in different directions, as if inspecting the physicality of the screen itself. Other sequences depict strange activities that recall eerie movie scenes and evoke a menacing atmosphere: a man makes a mousetrap, slices a sausage, and strokes himself. The soundtrack features excerpts from various musical pieces and from recordings of Raffi Lavie’s classroom discussions of painting and video art at the Midrasha School of Art, as well as a variety of sound effects. Referencing television, cinema, and performance art of the 1970s and early 1980s, Nishri’s images quote from and consciously reflect upon each medium’s materials and potential while pointing to the addictive power of the mass media.

Irit Batsry’s The Roman Wars: 1983 (1983) combines footage from television broadcasts such as news and weather forecasts, Tel Aviv street scenes, the local rock-music scene, the Penguin nightclub, a sing-along, as well as segments of a Hollywood film on the Roman wars. Interspersed throughout these scenes are shots of Batsry, draped in a shawl similar to the Roman commander’s cape, who can be seen editing all of this material, which is visible on three monitors in the Bezalel School of Art’s video studio. She rapidly intercuts the footage as a DJ would, combining disparate materials into a live set. Her movements and gestures mimic those of the Roman commander; swinging and waving her outstretched and draped arm to and fro, she appears to “conduct” or direct the editing, and the images shift and intensify accordingly. In some shots, Batsry’s reflection can be seen in the monitors, further layering the dense montage, and the sound of fingers tapping on the sound mixer’s keys enhance the drama. Mimicking the epic dimensions of the Hollywood film, Batsry’s simple performance serves to critique the glory of war, in particular the Lebanon War, which erupted not long before this piece was made. Addressing the sense of imminent disintegration in Israel at the time, the work’s reference to the fall of the Roman Empire can, of course, be read as a warning.

Also experimenting with performance and video, Motti Mizrachi used the naked body — his own and others’ — in provocative and ritualistic ways in order to reflect on illness and healing — a preoccupation intensified by the artist’s lifelong struggle with the effects of childhood polio. In Healing (1980), Mizrachi intercut a series of “ritualistic” actions and gestures: the placement of colored balls at the nape of a reclining woman’s neck; the prodding of a woman’s body with metal poles; cupping therapy (heated glass cups placed upside down on a bare back in order to mobilize blood flow); the languid drawing of a red marker down the inside of an arm; a man’s head resting on sand, cheek pressed against it as he gently blows on it. Evocative of ancient healing rituals, these symbolic and emotionally charged gestures, along with the dense layering of sound and image and the interruption and reassembly of a series of sequences, engage both masculine and feminine bodies in therapeutic ways.

Editing and post-production are foregrounded in Nana and Boaz Zonshine’s Untitled (1996), in which footage of Tel Aviv’s beach is superimposed onto a shot of the ground at the Western Wall. People praying at the wall appear to line the beach so that the water seems to lap at their feet. The erasure of the geographical distance between the Tel Aviv coast and the heart of Jerusalem, effected through the editing process, serves to metaphorically condense the ideological distance between religion and nature, as well as between religion and secularism. At the same time, the work can be read as foreboding an ominous future in which the country is engulfed by water or in which Judaism is driven into the sea.

In Omni Presence (1995/1997), Ran Slavin depicted the human as an alienated figure in an alienating space. Like Nana and Boaz Zonshine, Slavin used the technique of superimposition to create a sense of menace. For this work, he digitally superimposed multiple images of himself over images of the ceiling of an airport. In this sterile environment, the human and natural is stripped of its vitality and becomes, instead, a mechanical mark in a sinister space of glaring neon light. Filling the perspectival depth of the terminal ceiling are multiple images of Slavin himself; the figures are identical, but each spins on its own axis in a different direction, at different speeds and for different durations. The soundtrack intersperses sounds of nature — birdsong and raindrops — with the sound of neon lights being switched on and off. Slavin’s work exposes the enchantment of Western consumer societies with the aseptic, surreal aesthetic of corporate capitalism in which our humanity and individuality are in peril of being subsumed into a digital nightmare.

Of course, not everyone chose to work with post-production techniques. For The Babel Party: A Fictitious Political Party (1984), Dan Zakhem collaborated with his sister, Esther Zakhem, to create a narrative video. In a fictitious election campaign, both Dan and Esther appear as candidates. In a month-long series of performances in June and July 1984, the “Babel Party” was active in Tel Aviv during the 11th Knesset election campaign. The Zahkems’ campaign was replete with a variety of propagandistic elements: logos, television commercials, street posters, a public “speech,” and a promenade along the street in an open car before a cheering crowd. Filmed on Tel Aviv’s Shenkin Street, at that time a hub of experimental artistic activity, the work highlights the power of advertising and propaganda to create and inflate the importance of political discourse, even when the message is meaningless. The “Babel” Party, whose name means “Babylon” in Hebrew, harks back to the biblical myth of the Tower of Babel, and thus stands as a critique of Israel’s “meaningless” political parties and the fragmentation of Israeli politics at the time. Speaking directly to the arrogance displayed by too many Israeli leaders, the work also suggests that social, political and economic collapse could result from Israel’s fractured condition.

While social and political fragmentation and alienation featured in much of the video work of the time, a few feminist artists used the medium to explore more personal, intimate experiences. In No More Tears (1994), Hila Lulu Lin Farah Kufr Birim (known as Hila Lulu Lin at the time) sensuously expressed the experience of female embodiment in a deliciously erotic way. Here, the artist slowly rolls an egg yolk along her arm and into her mouth; then, gently easing it out of her mouth, she rolls it onto her other arm and back again. A provocative challenge to the limited notion of women as mothers and nurturers, this sensuous back-and-forth demonstrated an embodied continuity between inside and outside, linking the passions and pleasures of food with those of sex.

The works in this program demonstrate the sophisticated though limited range of video art produced in Israel during the 1980s and early 1990s. Clearly departing from the experimental phase in the 1970s during which artists probed the formal properties and structure of video, many of the artists featured here began to experiment with post-production techniques. The production of video art in the 1980s and early 1990s took place within a changing field of art-making that focused mainly on drawing, painting, and collage. Although mainstream audio-visual culture spread dramatically throughout Israel during this time, the art world, which lacked the infrastructure for video production and exhibition, needed time to catch up. In the 1980s, video was a minor medium in the Israeli art world, used by only a handful of artists who were largely interested in repetition, anti-narrative, and anti-theatricality. These artists, however few and despite having limited access to video equipment and facilities, were pioneers in the post-production manipulation of the medium — a medium that would, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, fully embrace its digital capabilities and come to be recognized and appreciated as a central art form.