Never Looked Better

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An ideological last-days-of-pompeii atmosphere has prompted even official institutions such as Beth Hatefutsoth Museum to comission an exhibition that examines the contemporary instability, even dissolution, of Israel’s formative myths. The concept behind its exhibition Never Looked Better was an invitation to participating artists to re-read the Sonnenfeld archive of classic Zionist photographs as if visiting from Mars. Approaching this epochal collection, as it were, tabula rasa, was a chance to examine the symbolic and emotional legacy of the Zionist aesthetic. Beth Hatefutsoth’s readiness for an essentially ‘post’ discourse is challenging both subscribers and critics of the Zionist ethos, calling for a profound discussion across the board.

It is clear to everyone that the title, Never Looked Better, is ironic. It postulates that the discursive glue unifying the curators, artists and visitors is the shared acknowledgement that such a glue no longer exists.  While scornful of the period in which we really thought we looked our best, the exhibition looks back with a tangible, conflicted nostalgia. The title indeed seems to say that we never looked better than we did in the Sonnenfelds’ photographs. Why did we look so good? Because we believed in the rightness of our cause. Because we had a narrative. We looked good because we were good.

The Missing Negatives of the Sonnenfeld Collection (2008) by Yael Bartana At first sight, the viewer cannot tell whether her photographs are new or old; they resemble carefully selected photographs of the period. A peek at the credits reveals that not only are these contemporary re-enactments, but that some of these beautifully typical pioneers are, in fact, Arab-Israeli/Palestinians.

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The projects featured in the exhibition present different facets of that twilight standing between the past and the present. Michael Blum’s calendar represents the least ‘martian’ pole of the exhibition. With poetic restraint, Blum’s overview acknowledges the suffering inflicted during the establishment of the State of Israel, but stops short of denying the legitimacy of at least some of the Zionist motivations. The tragic quality of the clash between Arabs and Jews is presented without denial or blurring, but also without defiance or an unequivocal political agenda. Blum captures the silent astonishment of Arabs watching Zionist symbols fluttering with European majesty alien to the desert landscape.

Three Knessets (2008) by Ilya Rabinovich

On the other side of the alien scale is Ilya Rabinovich. Rabinovich does not have to imagine he has come from Mars, because he has always photographed as if he were Mr. Spock. The undisputed master of ‘hyper-objectivity,’ he exposes the literal and symbolic cracks in official state and public architecture with a radically ruthless gaze. The effect he obtains is genius in its simplicity. He takes the same ceremonial, all-encompassing, general, functional bureaucratic angles of official-state documentation, but, unlike a recruited photographer, he does not intervene in the space before the lens in any way. He does not fix anything, does not beautify anything, leaving no dissonance out of the frame. In this way he offers the most decisive evidence for the waning of the narrative which these very institutions once presented. The institutions in Rabinovich’s work are always unpopulated and spectral, and the relationships in the frame are always spun between the ‘net’ structure and a series of later interventions, invasions, and environmental damages.

The Missing Negatives of the Sonnenfeld Collection (2008) by Yael Bartana At first sight, the viewer cannot tell whether her photographs are new or old; they resemble carefully selected photographs of the period. A peek at the credits reveals that not only are these contemporary re-enactments, but that some of these beautifully typical pioneers are, in fact, Arab-Israeli/Palestinians.

Yael Bartana restaged and re-photographed images of workers, farmers, and soldiers from the Yishuv (pre-state) period. Bartana, more than any other artist in this show, proves the death of narrative with an act of reconstruction faithful and meticulous enough to baffle. At first sight, the viewer cannot tell whether her photographs are new or old; they resemble carefully selected photographs of the period. A peek at the credits reveals that not only are these contemporary re-enactments, but that some of these beautifully typical pioneers are, in fact, Arab-Israeli/Palestinians. Bartana, like Blum, evades the trap of automatic defiance. Instead, she captures the narrative itself for her own benefit, encrypting herself within it like a hacker who conceals a virus in a message. When the true content is revealed, it is already too late. Their criticism, or personal stamp, is effective precisely because it is served with a Zionist aesthetic; not with parodic scorn, but rather with reverence and indulgence on detail. The early Zionists often had their pictures taken in local Arab garb, in a Western act of exotic, naïve, pre-colonialist romanticism, before the severity of the conflict eradicated the aesthetic space which made it possible. Today Bartana can present Arabs dressed as Zionists with a type of neo-naïveté indicating that we dwell in a transitionary period that makes it possible. A paradigmatic junction, perhaps: one path leads to Eden, the other to perdition.

The bridges built in this exhibition between past and present and the dialogue between the dream and its shattering, lead to an inevitable position of over-identification. The reclamation of past forms prompts a welcome re-entry for contemporary artists into the world of myth and its powerful aesthetic. History has shown repeatedly the power of myth to shape the hearts and minds of a people. The absence of myth creates a vacuum which the twentieth-century saw filled with tyrants. Now is a crucial time: the election of Avigdor Lieberman and the extreme right in the recent Israeli elections does not indicate a return to ideology and to Zionism; rather it attests to the panic of a sectarian society in which no group is willing to share in the collective burden.The exaggerated linkage drawn by Lieberman between loyalty and citizenship shows, like the title of this exhibition, that the basic values are no longer self-evident, that there is no glue, no myth. The difference between the ‘no loyalty no citizenship’ slogan and We Never Looked Better is the difference between a short-sighted fear and a perspective that makes for an attempt to understand what has changed.

The importance of this exhibition is that it proposes a third way where people who have taken part in the constitution of the Zionist myth may meet with a disillusioned generation who have come to realise that it is impossible to debate without a shared foundation. The shared foundation is the condition — as well as the hope — for change and vitality, as opposed to cynicism, passivity, or a-priori surrender to power-mongering.

Taken from a larger essay from the catalogue of Never Looked Better.

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