Making a Scene – Raising the Ink Flag
Essay by Kate Strain
In March 1949, a small band of Israeli soldiers known as the Negev Brigade took possession of the Southern-most tip of Israel, without firing a single shot. This act completed the occupation of the Negev Desert. To symbolise their victory, they hoisted a makeshift flag, improvised hastily by the Brigade Commander’s secretary (using a white bed sheet and a bottle of blue ink). Since then, the ink flag being raised has become an iconic symbol of the foundation of the state of Israel – just one of the countless significant events in the constant re-telling of Israeli history.
Making a Scene – Raising the Ink Flag is a presentation of works that play out in public space – looking specifically at how we occupy a position, or inhabit a role, through the staging of scenes. Most of the works presented imply some kind of intervention as an attempt to re-imagine the reality of our present situation: whether through re-enactment, pre-enactment or constructed scenario. The exhibition incorporates scavenged and salvaged materials from the street, inverting what is taking place within the works on view and creating a space in which to consider the artist’s intervention in public space as a form of immanent critique.
Yael Bartana’s "Siren’s Song" opens to a panoramic oceanic view, with a mute siren taking centre stage. Loudspeakers are commonplace in Israel’s public space, and serve as a reminder of the permanently tense situation. The scene cuts to the footpath, where a group of young people convene along a Tel Aviv promenade. Holding brass instruments they issue shrill fragments of military music. In the background the Israeli flags are flying. The music gradually gathers itself into the once popular Israeli song "Tomorrow", the Hebrew lyrics of which articulate the dream of a future "when the Israeli army can throw off their uniforms…" This broken lament is drowned out by the indifference of passing traffic, leaving open a space for reflection on national identity, its preservation and its presence.
Dana Levy’s "Disengagement 2005" was made during Israel’s disengagement from Gaza in August of that year, and relates to man’s basic need to place roots. A makeshift tree-house appears and disappears, emphasising the transient nature of man’s tenure. The work resonates on both sides of a complex and violent situation in Israel’s West Bank, where contested territory has been the subject of dispute since the founding of the state of Israel.
"House By The Wall" presents the image of an abandoned Palestinian house, located within view of the separation wall. The work is created from a series of photographs taken therein. With a slow, delayed pace and palpable silence the film invites a focus on details which describe potential histories of the site, and suggest narratives beyond what is visually present.
In his project "Sunset Demo", Tom Pnini creates a direct intervention in the landscape, exploring his fascination with the theatre world by incorporating sculptures that contain the same characteristics as a theatre set, and filming the results. In bringing these fabricated props into the frame of reality, Pnini draws forth questions of representation, artifice and constructed narrative: implicating the viewer as a collaborator in a scene of suspended disbelief.
"Sabbath 2008" is a work by Nira Pereg that offers insight into the performed activities of Ultra Orthodox Jewish community members, from the perspective of an image-maker. The film documents the closing down of certain neighbourhoods in and around Jerusalem on the eve of the Sabbath. Public access is blocked by temporary barricades, which stay in place for 24 hours. The barriers, positioned by residents, have the approval and support of the Jerusalem municipality and the police. Once erected, no cars may pass. The city is thus topologically transformed into two zones, creating a clear-cut and symbolic boundary delineating what is considered sacred and what is not, through the constant physical re-shaping of public space.
Guy Ben-Ner’s 2003 video work "Elia" is a human-nature documentary that offers an alternative narrative to familial scenarios. In homemade ostrich costumes, the family undergo the challenges facing them – with their roles crossing over and back between real-life and performance. Narrated by a reassuring voice-over, we watch the young ostrich chick go through emotions associated with displacement, the inherited pecking-order and a desire to belong.
As a collective proposition, Public Movement explores the potential for critique through physical enactment and staged events in public space. "Promotional Video" functions as a vehicle through which to circulate awareness of the group’s activities. Founded in 2006 Public Movement explore the political and aesthetic possibilities residing in a group of people acting together. They are a select team of artists, who bear the prospect of becoming a mass movement. Their promotional video offers a disarming commentary on ideas around indoctrination and brand identification, and it remains unclear whether their filmed actions are staged, or real, or both.
Yossi & Itamar’s works "Missiles in Ramat Gan and Memorial Day" take the form of video investigations that look at the construction of social consciousness through satire. Accosting passers by on the streets of Israel, Yossi & Itamar stage pre-enactments of future tragedies, by enlisting the help of unassuming collaborators. These strange pilot-versions of potential scenarios are unnerving and uncomfortable for the way they implicate and ridicule the people they coerce. This sharpens the bite of Yossi & Itamar’s work, as satirical critique of the regime under which they live.
In "3 3053 St. Jaffa", Mor Arkadir & Rona Perry diligently assemble and erect an Israeli watch-tower on a Jaffa rooftop. This flawed structure is composed of something altogether less robust than timber. An architectural folly, it stands symbolic of a process of gentrification overtaking Jaffa, and recalls the wider military operation of occupying space by creating ‘facts on the ground’. So immersed in the physical construction are the protagonists, that they are unconcerned with, and unquestioning of, the inevitable futility of their labour.
This motif of blind indifference resurfaces again in a work entitled "Ship Schwestern". Here the two protagonists embark on a kind of inverse immigration – from Haifa to Odessa. Summoning a fictional history through time and space, they set off on a luxury cruiser, replete with five-star entertainment and activities. The girls go through the motions, and passively partake in these distractions. The last scene of the work depicts the new arrivals ascending the Potemkin Stairs, clad in the Old World costumes characteristic of life in the Diaspora, a life at odds with their own contemporary reality.
Revisiting history again in "Leib, Berlin" (a work which references the 1881 text "Auto-emancipation" by Leib Pinskerin), the actors play out the image of the Wandering Jew, as unknowable figures, alien and uprooted. Oblivious-seeming to their own position, the protagonists invite the viewer to join them as they sojourn through this constructed narrative.
The Battle Over Be’er Sheva is a video-work inspired by the 1917 battle where the British army fought to take possession of Be’er Sheva from the hands of the Turks. This undertaking of mythic proportions rolls past unacknowledged by our two indifferent protagonists, who occupy themselves with daydreams to a backdrop of mobilized forces. The re-enactments of historic events in the filmic works of Perry and Arkadir, allow them to create a stage on which to perform and investigate – from a personal point of view – the presence of the past in public space.
Art has the potential to galvanise a space for reflection, and for the re-imagination of what might be possible. By bringing elements of public space into the gallery as supporting structures for the works being presented, these staged and make-shift constructions are used to re-think the space of the exhibition and visually enact the scenography of the gallery as an extension of public space. The act of ‘staging’ in public space matters, because what is taking place is an active historicisation of the present. This is made manifest through exploring the potential of the exhibited works to enact or perform critique - both through the narratives they present, and in the constructed space of their combined assembly.