Sculptor Dani Karavan describes the Memorial to the Negev Brigade near Be’er Sheva, “a sculpture made of natural materials and memories,” as his most important project.
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“If I had not done the memorial, maybe I never would have found my language,” he says in a film made for the exhibition marking the memorial’s 50th anniversary. “It also opened doors for me in the world. It is a creation where I must go every time and express my gratitude.”
The curator, Adi Engelman, also thinks that the memorial is owed a debt of thanks — because of the way it marked the continuation of Karavan’s career, because it opened the way for the land art movement in Israel and because it became an icon that symbolizes Be’er Sheva and, in a certain sense, gives it an identity.
After Engelman worked on several of Karavan’s projects, including a tour of the Knesset that dealt with a wall sculpture that adorns the Knesset’s main hall, Karavan asked her to assist him in writing his autobiography. To that end, they had long conversations about his career — conversations during which the Memorial to the Negev Brigade came up again and again.
When Engelman contacted Dalia Manor, the director of the Negev Museum of Art in Be’er Sheva, offering to curate an exhibition that would focus entirely on the memorial, she was surprised to learn that Manor had already thought of that idea years earlier, though nothing had been done about it.
This time, everyone supported a collaboration between Engelman and Manor. Even the municipality’s officials, realizing for the first time the artistic importance of Be’er Sheva’s monuments, agreed to fund a celebration marking the memorial’s 50th anniversary.
Concert, lectures, meeting with sculptor
The exhibition opens at the Negev Museum of Art on Thursday, October 30, and that weekend a series of events will be held at the memorial itself, including a concert, lectures and a meeting with Karavan.
Noa Karavan, the artist’s eldest daughter, joined Engelman as co-curator of a broader project of events marking the memorial’s 50th anniversary. Those events will include several conferences and a book.
Two former members of the Palmach’s Negev Brigade, Mickey Cohen and the late Micha Perry, conceived the idea for the memorial. They established the association of former Negev Brigade fighters and wished to commemorate the members of the brigade who had fought against the Egyptian army during the War of Independence.
Karavan, who was creating scenery for the theater and dance, and who was personally acquainted with the actress Hanna Maron, was invited by Maron’s husband, the architect Yaakov Rechter, who designed the structure, to create concrete reliefs for the inner courtyard and then to design the courtyard in its entirety.
After the meeting, Perry contacted Karavan and asked him to design the memorial. Karavan, who had never engaged in land art before, did not know that the land art movement was coming into being at the time. “They spoke about memory, but one of the things my father said clearly was that he wanted it to be a place of life,” Noa Karavan says. “He didn’t want memory to be the only thing that typified the place.”
Engelman says that for her, the motivation to deal with the memorial in the exhibition had nothing to do with its significance as a heritage site that commemorates a historical event.
“I saw the memorial as an exemplary work of art, as good public art,” she says. “I’m interested in the place where art is effective, where what is beautiful and aesthetic connects with the public. I’m not as interested in the intimate and evocative expressions of a passing moment. And this monument is a creation on a large scale that dozens and even hundreds of people visit every day.”
`A place of identity’
“People really come and make use of it, and their doing so is the greatest gift to the artist,” Noa Karavan says. “People in Be’er Sheva see that it has become part of the people’s lives, and at the same time it has become a place of identity. The memorial is becoming part of the city’s identity.”
Engelman says the exhibit attempts to connect the place’s utility with its importance as a work of public art and the history of art of this kind, which are part of the land art movement.
The public’s love for the memorial is illustrated in one of the films to be shown at the exhibition, in which various people who visit it regularly are interviewed.
Six models of the memorial, recast according to photographs of the models that were used for its planning in the 1960s, will also be on display, together with sketched plans from the time, the memorial’s final model and new sketches that Karavan prepared for the exhibition that describe his new impressions of the memorial 50 years after its construction began.
“The memorial is a prism not only of Israeli art but also of the narrative that we nurture here,” Engelman says. “It is proof that reality is stronger than any narrative, and it is important to look at reality and not stick to stories.
“It is a battle-heritage site, but most of the people who use it aren’t aware of that fact at all. They come to enjoy themselves during their leisure time. In reality, the Jewish, Zionist, security-related story has no superiority there. The understanding is that reality is apolitical in a certain sense. We chose to stick to the site’s artistic and social value. One could read the limbs of the memorial as relating to a battlefield, but it’s also possible not to.”
A serious problem with public art works is their preservation. Noa Karavan, who witnessed the problem as she worked alongside her father, is trying to promote an international group that will work to raise awareness of the issue.
“The non-profit organization that I established, Artists for Public Art, will have its own lobby to fight for the art works instead of each artist fighting for his own, and will try to involve other groups,” she says.
“Some say that modern public art works do not last because they were made with inferior materials. That’s BS. In France, there are 44,000 people whose whole task is to paint and maintain the historical monuments. If those people were to stay at home for a single day, all those monuments, including the Eiffel Tower and the Place de la Concorde, would fall to pieces. But the art works that were created starting in the 1960s are falling into a black hole. No one is taking responsibility for them.”
Engelman says that this problem has also affected the Memorial to the Negev Brigade, which suffered from terrible neglect that disturbed no one but its creator.
“How can you expect the artist to mind his own affairs and create a work, and even afterward to come with a rag and clean the memorial? she asks. “Efforts are being made to preserve and fence off the area around the memorial. It’s important to preserve the environment of land art; that’s another aspect that needs to be considered.”