Desert Cliché

Israel Now

November 20, 1997 - February 4, 1998

Desert Cliché: Israel Now

In the dawn of the post–cold war era, questions of nationalism are being debated with great urgency as the world changes at a rate faster than ever thought possible. This is particularly true in the Middle East. In Israel, national identity is inextricably linked with the idealist goals of Zionism. Desert Cliché presents the work of eighteen artists who deconstruct myths and stereotypes about Israel—the desert metaphor, the sabra trope of prickly-outside-sweet-inside for native Israelis, holy places, traditional memorial ceremonies, military might, courageous women soldiers, and heroic macho men. The artists shown here explore these charged themes from a post-Zionist perspective. Using humor, cynicism, and irony, they expose the social and psychological conditions of a life fraught with dangers and contradictions.

Desert Cliché does not celebrate the untarnished optimism of the early days since Israel’s founding fifty years ago. As the nation matures, artists in all disciplines are questioning reigning social ethos and mores. Like their counterparts around the world, contemporary Israeli artists work in a variety of media and employ postmodern strategies, undermining the meaning of once-sacred images and recasting them as trivial and cliché.

In his book Mythologies (1957), the French philosopher Roland Barthes asserted that a society produces images as magical instruments to enforce social order. The conquering and blooming of the desert—the miracle of reclamation—is the most common and most romantic cliché about Israel. As the predominant metaphor for fantasies about Israel, desert mythology inspired the title for the exhibition. Through their explorations of this and other clichés, the artists offer fresh and individual interpretations of what it means to be an Israeli.


Sacred Spaces, Fluid Borders

Throughout the history of Israeli art, references to the land have been strongly tied to religious destiny and to the Zionist priority to create a secure place for Jews to live. A related preoccupation with borders stems from seemingly interminable territorial struggles; since its Declaration of Independence in May 1948, Israel has been engaged in seven different wars and its national boundaries have continually fluctuated.

Many artists working in Israel now challenge the idea of sacred places and find irony in the concept of land as an icon. In their works, they often juxtapose images of ancient holy places with modern secular sites. Among famous locales they portray are Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, the Mount of Olives, Tel Hai, Nes Ziona, the Valley of the Cross, Gethsemane, Ammunition Hill, Rishon Le’Zion, Gaza, and Temple Mount.

One border that has not changed is the Mediterranean, historically much less vulnerable than inland locales. Consequently, the seaside has rarely been represented in Israeli art. In Desert Cliché, the sea is used as a metaphor for secular life.


Military Heroism

Ever since the War of Independence in 1948, ongoing conflict has been a major force in Israeli life and has influenced art as well. Military strength has always been essential to protect the land and each decade has witnessed at least one major war. Not surprisingly, the presence of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) pervades daily life in Israel. All citizens, including women, are required to serve and the equipment and routines of military life are ubiquitous.

As the army developed its great prowess, the IDF became an important factor in shaping the “new Jew.” Refuting previous definitions of the Jew as victim, the Israeli soldier cultivated the aura of a fierce, macho warrior. Tales of military heroism have functioned as a unifying force in Israeli society, overriding generational barriers and religious differences.

Over the years, however, public opinion about the mythic status of the military has undergone a radical transformation. The contrast between the euphoria after the Six Day War (1967) and the trauma of the Yom Kippur War (1973) spurred conflicted feelings among many Israelis. These feelings intensified after the Lebanon War (1982) and grew even stronger following the Palestinian uprising known as the Intifada (1987). In addition, economic prosperity and political maturity have bolstered Israel’s sense of self-assurance. This newfound confidence has enabled Israel to gain perspective on its own myths— including that of the military. Contemporary depictions of military life have somewhat diminished the glory of the IDF, mirroring the shifting attitudes of Israeli society.


States of Emergency

The threat of apocalypse is omnipresent in Israeli society. Since this threat is built into daily life, the notion of “togetherness” has become an essential part of Israeli culture. Pending disasters frequently call upon Israelis to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in collective solidarity. First the “in-gathering of the exiles,” then the “melting pot,” and more recently the “unity of Israel” are all popular expressions of this powerful ethos. At different periods these terms corresponded to the need to have unity from a broad pool of immigrants. As Israel matures, it is gradually embracing a spirit of individualism — a spirit which runs counter to the essential ideology of collectivism in early Zionist thought. Today, Israel experiences extreme moments of togetherness and disunity, as witnessed respectively during the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 and the profound polarization in the 1996 election.

In her photographs, Tiranit Barzilay captures the conflict between the collective and the individual: everyone together yet each separate. Using bomb shelters and empty rooms as stage sets awaiting human interaction, she conveys the ongoing “state of emergency” in which Israelis live. Dganit Berest’s images of masked terrorists portray the essential source of anxiety, and the rationale for collective solidarity. She manipulates the media’s icon of the evasive, faceless “enemy”, rendering it the most resonant visual cliché for terrorism.

Desert Cliché is curated by Amy Cappellazzo and Tami Katz-Freiman and organized by The Bass Museum of Art, Miami Beach, Florida, in collaboration with the Israeli Forum of Art Museums. Support is provided by the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Consulates General of Israel in New York and Miami; El Al, Israel Airlines Ltd.; The Friends of the Bass Museum, Inc.; State of Florida Division of Cultural Affairs; and the City of Miami Beach Visitors and Conventions Bureau. Additional funding is provided by the Abby Weed Grey Trust.


 

The Quest for Identity: The Arab and the Israeli

The search for the essence of Israeli identity has been at the core of many modern novels, plays, films, and works of visual art. Integral to the construction of “Israeliness” has been defining the self against the Other; many historical, sociological, and cultural studies have addressed the symbiosis between Israeli and Arab. Although this discourse has taken on a more cynical and ironic tone over the past ten years, artists remain fascinated with exploring their multi-faceted identities.

In keeping with their desire to become an authentic part of the Middle East and their quest to develop the image of the “new Jew,” Zionist pioneers appropriated certain characteristics perceived as Arab: physical strength, earthiness, and a natural affinity with the land. Yet, except for a brief period in the 1920s, the Arab has rarely been portrayed in Israeli art. During the 1980s, a period of radical social changes, images of Arabs reappeared, particularly in works with a political thrust.

Another potent symbol of Israeli identity is the sabra, the spiny cactus found everywhere
in the Middle East. In the early days of Zionism the sabra stood for the ancient, arid landscape. Its thorns represented the obstacles, the suffering and pain, endured upon returning to the barren homeland; its fruit—prickly and rough on the outside, sweet and succulent on the inside—served as a trope for native-born Israelis. Over the years, the image of the sabra has undergone innumerable transformations. Both Palestinians and Israelis have claimed ownership of the metaphor, each extracting from it different meanings. While Israelis adopted the notion of a coarse exterior concealing honeyed fruit, Palestinians pointed to the sabra’s stubborn roots as a symbol of their strength in the face of adversity. By the 1990s, the sabra metaphor had become one of a number of worn-out clichés.


Desert Cliché is curated by Amy Cappellazzo and Tami Katz-Freiman and organized by The Bass Museum of Art, Miami Beach, Florida, in collaboration with the Israeli Forum of Art Museums. Support is provided by the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Consulates General of Israel in New York and Miami; El Al, Israel Airlines Ltd.; The Friends of the Bass Museum, Inc.; State of Florida Division of Cultural Affairs; and the City of Miami Beach Visitors and Conventions Bureau. Additional funding is provided by the Abby Weed Grey Trust.

Starts Thursday, Nov 20, 1997
Ends Wednesday, Feb 04, 1998

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Exhibition Types: Israeli Art Middle Eastern Art