Early Experiments in Film and Video: 1970-1980

By Ilana Tenenbaum
Table of Contents

The 1970s, marked by the Yom Kippur War in Israel and by radical changes that had taken place in both local and international art scenes throughout the 1960s, was a formative decade in Israeli art. In a clear departure from the art that had been created in Israel during its first decades, artwork in the 1970s became increasingly conceptual and political. Not only manifest in the subject matter of art, this departure indicated a general shift in outlook that challenged conventions in all areas of life and reflected dramatic transformations in Israeli society.

The euphoria that swept through Israel after the Six-Day War in 1967 set the tone for the early years of the 1970s. Israeli society emerged from the 1960s as a cohesive and optimistic community with a newfound sense of existential and financial security. Having dominated most of Israel’s political and civic institutions since the 1930s, the Labor movement, whose political and cultural hegemony seemed unshakable, had largely shaped the young nation. According to its Zionist ethos, Israel was to be a productive, modern, secular, socialist melting pot in which the individual devotes him- or herself to the development of the country. This meta-narrative, which served the country well in the nation-building stage, remained uncontested until the 1970s.

But with the 1970s came fragmentation and a massive power shift that marked a change in focus from the collective to the individual. The War of Attrition, which followed the Six-Day War, led to a political reshuffling in Israel. Left-wing protests against the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, territories captured in the Six-Day War,began as early as 1970. On the opposite side of the political spectrum, the Israeli nationalist religious right undertook the settlement of the territories. The decade also marked a turning point in relations between the state and its Arabs citizens, who, in the wake of the Land Day events in 1976, began to identify themselves as a national collective.

In the context of this political conflict, and echoing the social revolutions of the 1960s in Europe and the United States, the 1970s in Israel saw a slew of social protests and civil-rights movements such as the Israeli Black Panthers, which protested the discrimination of Mizrahi Jews of North African and Middle Eastern origins, feminist organizations, and the first lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights association. While real legislative gains in these struggles would come later, the introduction of new voices and agendas into public discourse was socially and politically significant.

The defining event of the decade, however, was the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Not only did the heavy toll of the war undermine Israel’s confidence in its military might and its leaders, but it generated a profound sense of loss and anger amongst Israelis whose sense of security had been deeply shaken. The social unrest that followed the war culminated in what, at the beginning of the decade, had seemed inconceivable: In 1977, after thirty years in power, the Labor Party conceded defeat to the right-wing Likud Party.

This dramatic change — commonly referred to as the “upheaval&quot” — shifted power to the social and geographic periphery and to under-represented populations (namely, Mizrahi Jews), paving the way for the ascendancy of the conservative, national and traditional Jewish values that would shape the neo-liberal, free-market capitalist State of Israel in the 1980s.

The loss and trauma that shook Israeli society in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War were visually manifested in recurrent motifs of disassembly and fragmentation in Israeli art. Often described as “transgressive” Israeli art in the 1970s expanded to include moving images, actions, performances, and installations — forms that were used to challenge social and artistic conventions as well as the distinctions between life and art and between private and public, often in overtly provocative ways.

Israel’s exposure to mass media lagged far behind that of Europe and the U.S. While the West had, by the 1970s, experienced three-quarters of a century of cinema and a quarter-century of television, Israel was still a young culture in the making. Founded in 1968, the Israeli Broadcasting Authority remained Israel’s single broadcasting network until the 1990s. Hebrew-language television, which gave Israeli reality an audio-visual form for the first time, became an integral part of Israel’s cultural and social life in the 1970s. As a result, the visual image, which daily began to infiltrate the homes of Israelis via news and current-affairs programs, became a central element in shaping the consciousness of the Israeli subject.

While film art emerged in the West in the late 1950s and video art in the mid- 1960s, these arts weren’t taken up in Israel until the 1970s, and the attention paid to television and mass media by Israeli artists was relatively limited. Nevertheless, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, mass media began to appear as the subject of Israeli painting, photography, and collage. The preoccupation with television and mass media can be traced, in part, to the influence of Marshall McLuhan’s book, The Medium Is the Message, published in 1967, and, accordingly, many of the works presented here sought to explore the very nature of moving images, using film and video to criticize the medium of television itself.

In a series of socially based works and happenings, Dov Or Ner addressed the assimilation of television into Israeli life and its influence on individual and collective consciousness. In Pharavizia  (1980), the artist challenged conventional viewing relations (i.e., private and domestic) and reframed the traditional gallery space, collapsing the distance between art and life. The film follows the journey of Or Ner and a cow from their home in Kibbutz Hatzor to the Kibbutz Gallery in Tel Aviv. Or Ner and the cow spent two weeks in the gallery, where viewers were able to observe the artist as he fed and milked the cow. A television set placed next to Or Ner and the cow continuously broadcast regular programming. The event was documented in still photographs that were then incorporated into the film. At the time, the kibbutz was a meaningful symbol of the ideal of Zionist socialism. Pharavizia’s  intersection of kibbutz culture — collective and agricultural — and the television — a symbol of individualism and capitalism — illustrates their incompatibility and suggests open- ended questions about their respective futures.

The subversion of conventional viewing relations also stands at the core of Michael Druks‘s Play-Box London (1975). In his landmark works of Israeli conceptual art in the 1970s, Druks addressed the suffusion of domestic, intimate space by the mass media, and its impact on social patterns and the construction of the self. Play-Box London focuses on the hypnotic power of television and its one-sidedness as a means of communication. The video documents the artist as he removes his clothes and places them on a television, then attempts to obscure or interact with the images on the screen by means of various strategies: sitting on the television, placing a potted plant in front of it, obscuring the faces of the on-screen figures with various parts of his body, and so on. Not only interfering with the view of the screen, however, Druks’s prosaic actions playfully interact with the on-screen figures, who seem to “react”; to his actions.

In Videoconstructions  (1978-80), Buky Schwartz addressed the discrepancy between reality and its representation on the screen. Using a stationary camera, Schwartz shot footage of himself constructing and disassembling a variety of geometric structures. His movement within the geometric structure of the frame highlights the work’s use of a two-dimensional medium to present an illusion of three-dimensional space in order to confound and complicate the perception of both. In this ambiguous zone, Schwartz explores, and literally embodies, the tension between reality and what purports to be its straightforward representation but is, rather, a construction.

Henry Shelesnyak, a U.S.-born artist who began as a photographer and later took up painting and film, also reflected on the nature of television. Using close-ups and camera movement to abstract filmed imagery, Shelesnyak composed a kind of visual poetry. In Circus  (1979), Shelesnyak juxtaposed television footage of bodies in motion — figure skating, skiing, playing football, etc. — along with images of planes taking off and footage filmed from fast-moving vehicles. These images were intercut with calm, domestic scenes, such as a view of a placid bay and the artist’s family drinking tea in their garden. The result is a video in which movement itself becomes the subject — a kind of visual score, reiterated in different arrangements, at different tempos, with swift transitions between them. This visual cacophony amplifies the discontinuous experience of television viewing, which, for Shelesnyak, who grew up in the U.S. and later studied in London, shifted not only between films, television programs, and commercials, but from one channel to another.

Processes of abstraction and interruption were typical of the avant-garde cinema of the time, and these techniques appealed to artists working with cinematic formats. In their explorations of cinematic techniques and modes of representation, film artists foregrounded the medium’s material qualities and examined cinematic means of expression. The film works created by Raffi Lavie, Yair Garbuz, Benni Efrat, and Avraham Eilat feature diverse formal strategies, including abstraction, fragmentation, and the treatment of celluloid itself.

In Geranium (1974), Raffi Lavie, theretofore known primarily as a painter, explored the abstract qualities of film. For this work, Lavie shot overexposed film footage of Tel Aviv on an overcast day. He then distressed the film by treating it with bleach, effectively abstracting the view of the city and drawing attention to the material qualities of the film itself. The soundtrack — always a key element in his work — begins with a composition by Paganini and includes a conversation in which John Cage recounts several stories. We also hear Lavie himself, in a recorded radio program, discussing public sculpture in Tel Aviv. At times, the film produces surprising pairings — as, for example, when two black-clad ultra-Orthodox Jews appear on the screen just as Cage is talking about two monks.

In Lists (1974), the painter Yair Garbuz ruptured cinematic narrative by assembling brief shots — sketches for paintings, doodles, grids, checkerboards, fences, balconies, display windows, etc. — one after another, producing a kind of visual pulse. The iteration of multiple and varied surfaces in the film serves to underscore the flatness of the screen itself. In the midst of this visual torrent, Garbuz incorporated images of handwritten lists of words associated with filmmaking and editing, such as “focus,” “shot” etc. The film’s soundtrack, featuring romantic melodies, stands in contrast to the hectic stream of images.

The excessive and eclectic nature of Lists is characteristic of Garbuz’s oeuvre. Here, the viewer’s natural desire to create a narrative is challenged by its constant disintegration, and the rapid editing, which demands intense concentration, draws attention to the acts of filming and viewing, which are further emphasized by the “lists” of words. The visual “onslaught” manifested in the film’s frantic pace and the sheer quantity and diversity of images, suggests the new power of images in a nascent visual culture.

Another practice that served to foreground the medium itself was the selection and individual treatment of particular film frames. For Run , created in London in 1971, Avraham Eilat meticulously and painstakingly edited together a few very short shots of himself running towards the camera. Having filmed this action several times, he then selected short segments from each sequence. Using his first step from the first take, his second step from the second take, and so on, he superimposed each black- and-white segment over its corresponding negative. In the printing process, he also incorporated another film, whose frames were tinted different colors. The finished film thus not only changes color throughout, but expands the action of running over time, giving us a six-minute sequence of an action that originally took a mere fifteen seconds. This temporal elongation creates an impression of the figure being fixed in place, despite its efforts to move forward. At the same time, the combination of motion with the painterly quality of the images generates tension between the desire for narrative resolution (the act of running) and the experience of pure aesthetic pleasure.

Benni Efrat’s Relay (1974) also explores relationships between time, movement, space, and the properties of cinema. Originally, the film was projected onto two screens placed side by side. On the left-hand screen, Efrat, appearing to have just turned on the camera, looks directly into the lens. The right-hand screen is dark. He then turns and runs towards an open field, disappearing into the horizon. When, about a kilometer away, he becomes almost invisible in the distance, he suddenly appears in close-up on the right-hand screen. He then turns and runs back towards the first camera. As his figure dwindles into the distance on the right-hand screen, it grows larger on the left. When he reaches the first camera, he turns it off and the left- hand screen goes dark. He then returns to the second camera and turns it off, and the right-hand screen goes dark as well. In this piece, Efrat foregrounds the presence of the camera, which, in conventional cinema, is rendered invisible — an invisibility that allows cinematic representation to masquerade as reality per se. Furthermore, the relationship he establishes between the two cameras highlights for the viewer the illusory depth of the projected image and thus points to its immersive quality.

The various practices and strategies employed by these artists, which explore the mechanisms and modes of cinematic representation, generated a conceptual discussion about the formal properties of film itself. Each of these works foregrounded the act of making a film — that is, the presence of the artist — and the material of film itself. This foregrounding was, of course, a manifestation of the modernist impulse to demystify the artistic object, but it also expressed the post- traumatic, restless spirit of Israel in the 1970s.

The body — as medium, image, and subject matter — played a central role in the transformation of Israeli art throughout the 1970s, and the presence and performance of the body in art reflected a social shift from the dominance of the collective to an increasing focus on the individual.

Actions and performance art in Israel emerged primarily out of the Bezalel Academy of Art and various artist groups in Jerusalem. At Bezalel’s Fine Arts department, the theoretical and practical interest in performance art, happenings, and actions was influenced by radical political thought that advocated the integration of art and life. Not surprisingly, the performance works created at the time convey the constant tension between personal themes and socio-political reality. In many ways, the changes in the means of expression and subject matter in Israeli art reflect the influence of international, particularly American, avant-garde art, and its relation to Western counterculture in the 1960s. But the specific complexity of art-making in Israel was distinguished not only by its local subject matter but by its tumultuous, volatile context. Actions were meant to be provocative and challenging; they were intended to arouse discomfort, uneasiness, or repulsion, or to stimulate voyeuristic impulses, and while they hinted at the possibility of healing or catharsis, they often reflected a traumatic and painful reality. They sought to transform the relationship between viewer and artist, and to reformulate and redirect the collective, revolutionary Israeli ethos.

As in the international art world, the emergence of performance art in Israel was closely linked with the nascence of video art. In addition to featuring performances specifically created for the camera, many early moving-image works that focused on the body were often produced as documentation of public actions and performances. As access to video technology was limited at this time, such works needed to be carefully planned. These early works, using very direct means of expression and characterized by a formal and minimalist language, addressed sensitive and taboo subjects such as sexuality, illness, death, war, and the Holocaust, revolutionizing Israeli art in the process.

In the 1970s, Gideon Gechtman, one of Israel’s most prominent artists, used autobiography to explore the intersection of body modification and conceptual art, especially in relation to illness and pain. For Exposure (1975), Gechtman videotaped himself as he shaved off all of his body hair, including his eyebrows and eyelashes. Playing back the tape, he then shot, at thirty-second intervals, still photographs off the screen. Unfortunately, the original videotape was lost, so he recreated it with the still photographs he had shot. Created shortly after Gechtman underwent open-heart surgery, the video extends the original act — the shaving of the chest in preparation for surgery — to the artist’s entire body. This act, which exposes the surface of the body and strips away personal identity, transforms Gechtman’s sickness into an expanded metaphor.

Several months after its completion, the video was displayed in an exhibition at Yodfat Gallery in Tel Aviv. In addition to the video, the exhibition displayed specimens of bodily substances — for example, jars filled with urine and hair — as well as medical documents and photographs of Gechtman in hospital. A mound of human hair is, of course, an obvious reference to the Holocaust, and Gechtman’s ritualistic amplification of the signifiers of illness, anxiety, and death links his personal suffering to the broader historical context. The fact that Gechtman felt able to so directly address the vulnerable body and death, and to allude to the Holocaust in this work, can be seen as an effect of the generally gloomy atmosphere that prevailed in Israel after the Yom Kippur War. Certainly, Gechtman’s ill health served as an embodied representation of Israel’s traumatized and crushed spirit.

The body figured somewhat differently in works by women. Tamar Getter explored the relation between body, territory, and the formal properties of symbols in many of her works, which often featured rejected, ridiculed, anomalous figures. In Golem (1974-75), a woman (Michal Naaman) marks an X in the center of a wall and then draws a circle around it. Hammering a nail into the center of the X and affixing a rope to it, she then writes the word "Golem" just below it. (In the Jewish legend of the Golem of Prague, a rabbi brings a lump of clay to life in order to protect the Jewish people.) Covering her head with a white cloth, she wraps the rope around her neck until its loose end is the same length as her arm. Standing next to the drawing, she appears to be tethered to the circle by the rope around her neck. The film is an early example of Getter’s interest in the mystic dimension of creation, which became a central theme in her later work. Here, however, the figure evokes an association with someone condemned to death. Of course, the image of this confined and tightly tethered figure can also be read as signifying the social repression of the female body.

In Michal Naaman ‘s Peeling (1974), the artist peels a sticky white layer of glue — a substance that unmistakably resembles body fluid — off her fingers. Though Naaman is better-known as a painter than as a video artist, many of the themes that have continued to preoccupy her — and that are manifest in many of her paintings — are evident here: the peeling or shedding of skin, and bodily fluids and tissues. There is a sense of abjectness here, and even, perhaps, a suggestion of mutilation and pain, which can be understood both in terms of the emergence of a feminist art and politics at the time, as well as in the context of Jewish history and the changes that were taking place in Israeli society.

In Place (1975), sculptor Micha Ullman investigates the material with which he is most associated: sand. The video features Ullman shaping and reshaping a pile of sand. Sweeping, pushing, and throwing it, he created brief, ephemeral landscapes that continually collapsed, again and again becoming merely a pile of sand. The ephemerality and precariousness of Ullman’s sand constructions produce an oscillation between creation and destruction, fulfillment and emptiness — a constant flux. And Ullman’s decision to use an amount of sand equal in mass to his own lent a somewhat morbid dimension to the work, as if he were sweeping away and recomposing his own corpse.

The tension between creation and destruction is also taken up in Joshua Neustein‘s Progression Succession (1972). This simple but elegant film features two pairs of hands. The first writes and the second erases what has been written. Neustein attempts to create an alphabetically ordered list of art-related concepts such as art, beauty, color, etc., but as his text is constantly being erased, he is unable to complete it. This perpetual alternation between writing and its erasure suggests a fissure between intention and language.

Performance and the use of the body as a device are also featured in Moshe Gershuni’ s Crawling (1970). Here, Gershuni, dressed in an Israeli army uniform, crawls down a sand dune. Conceived to exploit the shape of the television screen, this image was then doubled and inverted, creating an X whose diagonals bisect the screen. In a work that functions as a critique of Israeli militarism, this doubling and inversion, and their arrangement in the shape of an X, combine to present a figure that seems to retreat as it advances, that, struggle as it might, annihilates its own efforts.

The medium of video, whose etymology is rooted in the Latin word meaning “I see,” served as a new mode of seeing and of expression for Israeli artists who were, like all Israelis, profoundly affected by the changes that were taking place in Israel in the 1970s. But it also served to catalyze those changes, and in the process, it changed the landscape of the Israeli art world. The new technology of video reflected the zeitgeist of the period, and allowed its expression in new ways. The first decade of Israeli film and video art explored the fundamental qualities of moving-image art, thereby introducing a new visual order and offering viewers a new perspective on their society and culture. Israeli artists began to examine, both theoretically and personally, individual subjectivity in the context of contemporary politics. As a result, they produced raw, innovative, and often poignant works — works that featured material and technical experimentation, the presence of the body, and performance. The concepts, themes, and formal characteristics explored in these early works have continued to evolve. The “new medium” of video achieved cultural legitimacy and prominence in subsequent decades, and its technological and interpretive capacities continue to influence and shape contemporary Israeli culture and society.