What role does an artist’s cultural and political background play in our expectations when we look at a work of art? One of the world’s best sandboxes to explore this question is probably in Israel. In the words of Israeli photographer, Sharon Ya’ari: “I don’t want to do what people expect from a certain location. I prefer art where politics is metaphorical – not narrative, direct, or verbal.”
Take the work of internationally-renowned Israeli artist Guy Ben-Ner who represented Israel in the 2005 Venice Biennale. His eighteen minute long video, Stealing Beauty, 2007, [of which a trailer is shown above] is a brilliant metaphor of the American sitcom, but with darker political undertones. Set in IKEA stores in New York, Berlin, and Tel Aviv, and shot without permission, Stealing Beauty portrays the nuclear family in a stolen, ready-made, easily assembled/disassembled environment. In fact one could just paraphrase Magritte’s famous words – Ceci n’est pas une pipe – and say, Ceci n’est pas une famille. Yes they are a family [starring Ben-Nur, his wife, and two children], but they represent more than just a family in the same way Magritte’s pipe represents more than just a pipe. They are the embodiment of the displaced person who is trying to fit into a world that is often as temporary as the IKEA sets. They are the immigrant vying for a spot in a world that is ephemeral [Ben-Nur and his wife embrace IKEA’S slogan to make oneself at home, only to be chased off the “set” as evidenced by their five different beds]. They are the immigrant trying to fit in with a society that is different from them [represented by the imaginary neighbors, the Watsons]. On a more personal note, Ben-Ner and his wife represent the really cool parent I wish I was.
Playing up the displacement theme is the entire concept of shooting without permission. The truth is, we do a lot without permission and who’s to say whether it’s right or wrong. I guess, really, it depends on who you ask. For Ben-Ner, there is no right or wrong. The absurdity of both sides of the ownership [the haves/the have nots] argument is explored with humor, compassion, and insight by using the family as a political metaphor. Take the dialogue between himself and his daughter [in the eighteen minute video]:
Daughter: Is Mum your private property?
Dad: No, Mum is Mum.
Daughter: So anyone can take her away from you? Even Mr. Watson?
Dad: Let them try.
Daughter: So she is your private property.
Political expression through metaphor is certainly true in the photographs of Sharon Ya’ari.
Winner of the 2006 Israeli Prize for outstanding visual art, Ya’ari’s photographs capture the anxiety underlying the Middle East, an anxiety echoed in the global post 9/11 conscious. The medium – photography – ensures that what you see is but a fleeting moment. And yet there is something about that fleeting moment that lingers uncomfortably in your unconscious, like the hazy memories of a bad dream. Rashi Street, 2008, records/explores the destruction of a residential building in the centre of Tel Aviv. A cloud of white dust moves towards us, bringing to mind the 9/11 footage of onrushing dust threatening to smother those running for their lives. In Ya’ari’s photograph, however, there are no people running – only parked cars. The visible absence of people imposes a death-like stillness on the image which lends to the dust-cloud an almost celestial quality. An allusion to the glorious ever-after promised to martyrs? Who knows?
What I do know is this. Who we are politically and culturally influences how we express and interpret what we see. It doesn’t mean that we have to bang people over the head with our viewpoint, but it does mean that we are cheating ourselves if we pretend that we are not affected by our surroundings.