Staring Back at the Sun: How Video Art in Israel Evolved and Why it Matters

By Chen Tamir
Table of Contents

For all intents and purposes, Israel can be considered an island. Although it borders the lands of its neighbors, very little cultural or economic exchange takes place between them, as some neighbors do not recognize and thus forego diplomatic relations with the State of Israel. Israel’s unique language and currency, as well as its central place in world politics and the media, have made for a singular “ecosystem” in which video has played an important role. Not only has video played a pivotal role in the unfolding of the country’s political reality, it has also been the single greatest catalyst for the development of contemporary Israeli art. Video’s dual “lives” as an agent of mass communication as well as an artistic medium are especially intertwined in Israel, where artists have utilized video as a creative way to respond to its use in the mass media and to the reality it mediates. As Israel’s internal politics and conflict became more visible on television, in film, and on the streets in the late 1990s and early 2000s, video art in Israel came into its own. Beginning in the late 1990s and flourishing today, this “renaissance” can be traced back to works that were made in the 1970s — works rarely presented outside Israel. The following essay examines this trajectory and focuses on the intertwining of art and culture with larger social, political, and economic forces.

Contemporary video art has constituted a major Israeli export in the cultural field for more than a decade. However, little material contextualizing its unique development has been available, and even less has been available in English. Staring Back at the Sun: Video Art from Israel, 1970-2012 aims to correct this situation and to literally “write the book” on the subject. The project examines the emergence of video and its rise to prominence in Israel; a kind of condensed case study, it considers and assesses the evolution and legacy of video art as a whole. The ubiquity and magnitude of images of conflict in Israel’s mass media, especially conflict related to the occupation of Palestine, is but one element that has shaped this history. Another was the liberalization of the economy and the impact of a politics oriented to the free market (with effects similar to those in countries across Eastern Europe and parts of South America, which rapidly shifted from regulated social democracies or socialist economies to libertarian ones).

While Staring Back at the Sun provides a broad overview of video from its early development, it cannot possibly encompass all of the noteworthy works made during this period. In addition, in order to offer a wider view, only one work by each artist has been included in the program, and it has therefore been possible only to hint at the range of artistic production and development of each artist. Technical and logistical constraints must be noted as well; the ability to accommodate only single-channel work meant that installation-based works had to be excluded, and the time available for each program was limited. Nevertheless, the result is a collection of the majority of Israel’s most iconic video works from the past forty-five years — works that serve as hallmarks of their time.

As this program was being curated, important questions arose — questions pertaining to the identity of the artists and the visibility of under-represented groups in Israel. In the early 2000s, a few Arab artists came to prominence in Israel, some of whom, such as Sharif Waked and Raida Adon, use video as their primary medium. Arabs constitute Israel’s largest and most underprivileged minority, and few have managed to break into the established art scene. Like any project that seeks to represent Israel, however critically, Staring Back at the Sun had to negotiate the sensitive terrain of cultural representation in a predominantly Jewish country that also includes multiple ethnicities. Beyond issues of cultural representation in a multicultural landscape, we had to consider the ongoing cultural boycott (part of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement, meant to pressure Israel to end the Occupation) that interprets the participation of Arab artists in such platforms as normalizing Palestinian-Israeli relationships, though the question remains unclear when dealing with Arab-Israeli citizens of Israel proper who are from neither Gaza nor the Occupied Territories. Despite its under-representation in this program, the work of established Arab artists such as Waked, Adon, and younger artists such as Anisa Ashkar and Raafat Hattab, is vitally important to the fabric of contemporary culture in Israel and to the development of video art in particular.

The unique contribution of Staring Back at the Sun is its historical contextualization of video art in Israel and its inclusion of works from the 1970s and 1980s, which have rarely been shown either in Israel or abroad. To appreciate these works, one must realize that Israel was a very young country when its artists began to use video, and it was, in the 1970s, undergoing seismic political changes. The devastation of the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and the political “revolution” in 1977, in which the ruling Labor Party was displaced by a Likud majority, shifted power, at least symbolically, from Israel’s European and relatively more privileged Jews, theretofore politically dominant, to the “Mizrahi” Jews, most of whom had immigrated to Israel after the country had been established. This political shift opened the way for a political splintering — in terms of both a proliferation of smaller political parties and a cultural “awakening” to the inequality faced by Israel’s various ethnic and social groups. As it matured, Israel, which had been founded on radically utopian, socialist, multicultural ideals, had to confront the new hardships of a struggling economy and internal racism.

As Ilana Tenenbaum points out, many artists in the 1970s used film in experimental ways, exploring the material and formal properties of the medium, and sometimes using it to extend their respective practices as painters, sculptors, etc. Some artists used video to explore the emerging fields of conceptual and performance art. In general, however, these experiments were not easily received in cultural institutions or the art scene as a whole, especially in the late 1970s and the 1980s. Ascendant in the art world at that time were painting, collage, and a style of art that came to be known as “The Want of Matter,” named after the eponymously titled exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in 1986 — a style defined by its use of “poor,” everyday materials (somewhat akin to ArtePovera in Italy).

The first two programs, curated by Ilana Tenenbaum, are based on her pioneering work at the Haifa Museum from 1995 to 2013. During her tenure there, Tenenbaum laid the groundwork for assembling and constructing a history of video art in Israel in relation to early and parallel developments abroad. Showcasing experimental works from the 1970s and 1980s, the resulting exhibition, Videostoria , shown in three parts between 2003 and 2006, presented early video works that had long been ignored and neglected. Contextualizing these works as part of a mature and sophisticated trajectory, she situated them within the canons of both Israeli and international art.

In 1985, Israel liberalized its economy, removing tariffs on travel, imports, and exports. This relaxation of restrictions was also brought to bear in the media. Having had only a single black-and-white, state-run television channel since 1966, Israel acquired multiple international cable channels, ranging from CNN to MTV and beyond, in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This radical change not only brought to Israel a consumer culture until then known mostly through movies, but visual culture — indeed, Israeli culture as a whole — changed dramatically as a result. One might think that the sudden influx of consumer products such as VCRs and compact discs would have led to a blossoming of video art by the early 1990s, but it took about a decade for the art world to catch up. There are several reasons for this. Israel’s infrastructure for art and culture, located almost entirely in the schools as the country had virtually no art market and little public funding, was not designed for change. The small but established art world was dedicated to painting and collage and tended to produce material and text-based artwork. Neither were the museums interested in video, as “black-box” video installations had not yet become a standard mode of display. Moreover, access to video production and editing technology seemed far out of the reach of many artists. Furthermore, sharp distinctions between the various departments were entrenched in the schools, especially at the Bezalel School of Art, where visual art, film and photography, and design were separate departments. Video was simply not on most artists’ or curators’ radar at the time.

However, a few intrepid institutions recognized the potential of the medium, and their programming profoundly affected the art scene in Israel. In 2000, the newly founded Center for Contemporary Art (CCA) established its video archive as a natural outgrowth of its programming, which focused on experimental film and video. VideoZone, the CCA’s originally itinerant biennial for video art, ran from 2002 to 2010 under the leadership of the CCA’s founding director and curator Sergio Edelsztein. Edelsztein’s contribution to Staring Back at the Sun traces the renaissance of video art that the CCA helped to foster at the outset of the millennium. Begun before the CCA had a building, the biennial required collaboration with other venues, which included the Cinemathèque, the Herzliya Museum of Art, and, later, the Israeli Center for Digital Art. Showcasing local work alongside that of renowned international artists such as Adrian Paci, Akram Zaatari, Artur Zmijewski, Hito Steyrel, and Pipilotti Rist, among others, VideoZone offered exhibitions, screenings, public discussions, and a catalogue. Historical works about the history of the medium were also presented, and international curators were invited to organize screenings and to attend the biennial, thus extending the reach of Israeli video art beyond its national borders.

In 2001, shortly after the CCA was founded, Galit Eilat established the Israeli Center for Digital Art, an organization dedicated to digital artwork, with a particular focus on video art. Under the auspices of the City of Holon, a suburb of Tel Aviv that wished to invest in digital culture as a way of attracting more residents and enriching its inhabitants’ quality of life, the center (also known at the time as the Digital Art Lab) was free to program politically challenging group exhibitions, most of which included video installations. Mixing local and international artists, Eilat sought to create a dialogue between the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Eager to examine Israel’s place within the Middle East as well as new ways to approach the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, she looked to Eastern European post-colonial societies that, likewise subject to massive changes following World War II, might serve as instructive examples of how to negotiate ethnically based civil war.

The center regularly featured works by artists from the Balkans and the Middle East alongside those by Israeli artists. Eilat regarded video as a tool with which to reshape the Western orientation of Israel’s cultural meta-narrative and shift dialogue in a more local and regional direction. Notable among the center’s many exhibitions was the landmark Hilchot Schenim trilogy (2003-2005), which aimed to establish a regional cultural network and to facilitate a discussion about the influence of new technologies on society and art. And in 2006, the center initiated an ambitious collaboration with the Palestinian Association for Contemporary Art, several European and German funding bodies, and Israeli, Palestinian, and international artists and researchers. As a joint research project, a collective micro-residency and production platform, and a series of site-specific interventions and conferences, Liminal Spaces (2006-07) began by looking at Road 60, the highway that connects Jerusalem and Ramallah. The participating artists and researchers took part in a series of research trips that resulted in significant cross-border exchange as well as several important artworks.

The growing institutional support for video in Israel was a direct consequence of Israel’s embrace of the forces of globalization in the 1990s. Video offered a way out of the isolation of the “island” that is Israel, a way to breach territorial borders and political confines. Around the world, “black-box” gallery presentation had become standard; every gallery and museum owned a projector and DVD player, and compact discs, unlike paintings and sculptures, could be shipped abroad easily and inexpensively. Video production was likewise relatively easy and affordable. But beyond matters of convenience and expense, video, as a medium, was particularly well-suited to the kind of work that interested international art audiences, which, thanks to the nightly news, were familiar with Israel’s troubled political and military situation, and for whom the history of Israel seemed somewhat romantic and exotic. Many artists found video — the medium par excellence with which to respond to a media-rich society — to be an excellent instrument for processing their social reality. A considerable number of Israeli artists working in the early years of the millennium had grown up in front of the screen, coming of age in an era marked by the Gulf War and Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination. Coinciding with a sudden influx of video imagery from around the world and from their own backyard, these events catalyzed a number of young Israeli artists to take up the video camera as a way to respond to the complex realities of their world. It should come as no surprise that these artists are masters at constructing video imagery and deconstructing visual narrative, for they belong to a country that can trace almost its entire history through photography and video. Indeed, few countries possess visual or audio recordings of their respective declarations of independence, and few can claim a founding meta-narrative as neat as that laid out in the story of Zionism.

And what now? Yael Bartana and Avi Feldman note a kind of political stagnation in Israel, which is certainly evident in the works they present here. But what is the future of the medium itself? Nowadays, video is largely viewed digitally, online, all across the world. Informing visual culture in fundamental ways, the Internet has become the single greatest channel for the mass media worldwide. Much contemporary video art features computer-generated imagery and employs the visual markers of a digitally and globally interconnected world. For Israelis, the Internet is currently doing what cable television did in the 1990s — allowing them to overcome Israel’s inherent isolation and exposing them to what is happening in the world beyond. But more than offering them the opportunity to consume international news and events, video is an important tool for the dissemination of ideas and the stimulation of dialogue. It remains to be seen whether video art as we know it has reached its saturation point in Israel, or whether it will continue to evolve, through the influence of ever-changing technology and the Internet, in innovative ways.