“Eternal Sukkah,” a work by Diego Rotman and Lea Mauas, independent artists of the Sala-Manca Group, is on view at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem in a new exhibition called “we the people.” The work consists of a Bedouin shanty that was purchased from the Al-Korshan family of the Jahalin tribe, which lives in an area to the east of Jerusalem that has in effect been annexed to the city. The structure was originally dismantled, transported and reassembled in the upscale Talbieh neighborhood of the city in September 2014. The work was subsequently purchased by the contemporary art acquisitions committee of the museum and rebuilt there.
In an article titled “Construction waste that became a home that became a sukkah that became a work of art,” posted on the website Haokets – which describes itself as a “critical platform” on culture and media issues (and has an English version) – Rotman told the story of the work from his point of view, ostensibly trying to make it sound like a tale of subversive artistic heroism.
As he recounted it, ahead of the 2014 Sukkot festival, the members of Sala-Manca Group were at Talbieh’s Hansen House art center to create a kosher, public sukkah – the booth in which Jews traditionally celebrate during the week-long Sukkot harvest holiday. Together with artists Yeshaiau Rabinowitz and Itamar Mendes-Flohr, Rotman and Mauas decided to emphasize “the connection between the sukkah and a transient dwelling of refugees in today’s Israel-Palestine.”
The artists purchased the shanty from members of the Jahalin Bedouin tribe, which was expelled from the Negev in 1949 to the Abu Dis and Azzariyeh areas outside Jerusalem. Since 1967, the tribe has suffered repeated demolition of its dwellings by the Israeli Civil Administration in the West Bank. At present, they live in Area E1, a tract of 12 square kilometers between Jerusalem and, to the east, the urban settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim. (Israeli plans for construction in this strategically significant area have been frozen due to international pressure.)
The artists examined a few options and chose the tribe’s largest structure, “both because of its size and because of its aesthetic qualities,” Rotman notes in the article. The Korshan family received 6,000 shekels (about $1,500) in payment. “We hoped to plant one piece of reality in a different reality, after architectural conversion and cultural adaptation,” the artist writes.
From tin to palm fronds
What is “cultural adaptation”? The group replaced the original tin roof with the obligatory holiday palm fronds, hung up typical paper decorations inside and awarded the reinvented structure a name: “Eternal Sukkah.” According to Rotman, the structure thus underwent “materialization and transformation.” He adds in the article, “The Bedouin dwelling altered its status from a home destined for demolition to a kosher, legitimate Israeli sukkah; from a dwelling to an ethnographic object; from an ethnographic object to an art object. Amid a carnival of identities, the Jewish audience got a dramatization of the Bedouin exile and simultaneously experienced the depth and intensity of the [Sukkot] holiday.”
The dismantled dwelling was transported to Jerusalem in the guise of construction waste, and as such “crossed the checkpoints on the way to the Holy City without interference, on a route that, ironically, the Korshan family is not allowed to use.” (There is no escaping the question: Where exactly is the irony in that?) But the story continues. The artists suggested that curators at the Israel Museum purchase the shack.
“The price we set for the sukkah was 10 times what we paid the Korshan family for it,” Rotman says, adding, “We decided that half the amount would be given to the family for ‘design rights.’”
Why does this piece of artwork engender an unpleasant feeling of exploitation? After all, great documentarians in the past have gone to the poor and the invisible, the oppressed and the dispossessed, and have extracted bitter social and political truths; their artistic contribution took the form of tough humanism that exposes conditions and circumstances of life that other people work hard to keep from the public’s view. What differentiates such artists from those in Sala-Manca, who want to dramatize the exile of the Bedouin?
One difference is that in historical documentation, the event in question is viewed in retrospect. It is possible for us to imagine that the artists may even have helped to reduce suffering by providing information about it and its victims. This is the feeling that arises, for example, at the sight of photographs of starving children in Biafra or of racial segregation in the United States. We understand that such documentation possesses political value that can be gauged only after the fact, over time. The Sala-Manca effort, however, is not retrospective: It is a monument to what is going to happen.
But the feeling that this is a tasteless work also arises from the fact that the artists have not provided documentation here, but rather used bizarre means to turn a living, active site into an exhibition of material culture in the hope that it will somehow morph into art. It’s hard to ignore their instrumental approach toward the dwelling and its inhabitants, or to accept the artists’ look-how-clever-I-am pose (since they were able to induce the museum’s acquisitions committee to purchase something that can be considered to be junk, and are proud of having transported the structure to Jerusalem under the guise of waste). It’s also hard to ignore all the gushing over the conjectured provocation, the spirit of childish contrariness.
Slices of reality
In contrast to documentarians and radical artists who strive to introduce harsh slices of reality into the museum space, in the case of “Eternal Sukkah,” the political context is not sustained. After all, besides the geographical displacement and the changing of hands – and also the modularization of memory (it’s a sukkah to which the intended guests are barred from coming) – the dwelling in effect underwent Jewish conversion.
Furthermore, there is a stylistic incongruence between Rotman’s rhetoric in his Haokets article, and the declaration of the exhibition’s curator, Rita Kersting, in the catalog, that this is a “radical and highly innovative act of art.” At the same time, she resorts to vague phraseology such as “the habitation of the Jahalin tribe in the Judean Desert, adjacent to the Dead Sea.” Or, “the charged significance of the temporary nature of the tent and its association with exile in regard not only to Jewish history but also in the context of modern Israel.”
The motivation of Rotman and Mauas is understandable: As NGO-funded artists using techniques that derive from a radical tradition, who seek to preserve the independence of artistic creation – they wanted to “stuff” the occupation down the throat of the Israeli establishment, to do something more than an anemic gesture or hesitant rumination. They sought to undertake an acerbic, mocking artistic act. But apparently they did not have an agreement with the museum about how to present the item, for the structure was totally appropriated, turned into a hollow shell – in effect, annexed.
The finished museum product is a hybrid of original elements (now marked and numbered like an Ikea do-it-yourself kit), implanted elements (sukkah decorations, palm fronds and a television that screens a video of the work process), and elements that “impersonate” original items and were apparently added by the artists.
“The sukkah is a pseudo-Romantic artifact,” Rotman writes, “a trans-ethnic body, a post-Zionist home, an oxymoron for national architecture.”
And there is the money, the covert as well as overt point of this creative work: money’s power to displace structures and alter meanings. The purchase of this dwelling gave rise to a forced relationship – which does not usually exist in the real world – between the Bedouin and the artists and the museum. The entire project relied heavily on payment and on distribution of profits as the elements that would “rescue” the creative act from its underpinnings of dispossession. In practice, however, this is a coldhearted version of the “evacuation-compensation” process. An indulgence.
Consider the neoliberal logic here: The shanty is a rare object, in danger of extinction, so purchasing it at cost or according to the expense involved in producing something of equivalent value, is an excellent deal. Indeed, within a year the price of this object leaped tenfold.
Does a creative act raise the value of shacks as such? No, but it apparently raises the value of the artists’ work. A precedent was set for them, not for the Korshan family, who probably will not go on selling their homes, in the absence of any demand. This time the typically Israeli process of real-estate development and improvement (buy cheap, renovate cosmetically, sell dear) received an artistic imprimatur. The artists provide a sort of dietary supplement to the enlightened occupation, their act perpetuates the state’s violence through the mechanism of acquiring something that is desired while ignoring the fact that the terms of “agreement” and the “free choice” involved are grounded in wielding authority over someone else.
In “Eternal Sukkah,” the shanty is perceived a priori as being postmodern: From the outset, it is not experienced as something that actually exists in the world but as a signifier amenable to concatenation. From the start it was not perceived as a home. (Were children born in it, in the absence of an available obstetrics ward? Did the parents mark the changing height of the children on a wall? Did people like to listen to the sound of the rain falling on the tin roof, or did they use padding to dull the noise? Did they eat and sleep together or in different corners? How many people lived in the shanty? Did they get along well?)
The functionality of this structure disappeared along with the ethos of identity, memory, distinctiveness and belonging. Thus the occupants’ names are not mentioned; their property was converted into something of equivalent value as though nothing is lost in translation.
The Korshan family is not the target audience of art, they are the means, now symbolic, of presenting the real issue: the right of the radical artist to introduce non-art into the museum. The artists take pride in having given the family half the sum of the purchase, because they could just as easily not have done so. Generous.
What is the self-evident axis of this project? The living conditions of the Bedouin in Area E1. Neither the artists nor the Israel Museum devote even a single line to expressing shock at the living conditions of a family (which is how large?) doomed to live in a shanty. There is not even a hint that a home, in its true sense, is not supposed to be a transient sukkah but is supposed to be connected to the power grid and have running water. By contrast, this specific dwelling did not originally have a floor of polished concrete, not to mention high-quality lighting.
Now, as we sit cross-legged, oriental-style, on mats inside this remade, ready-made structure, in the air-conditioned, protected museum – we can discuss, with moist eyes, the dangers of creating a territorially contiguous swath of Israeli settlements in E1 that effectively means annexation.
In short order, the Bedouin family became a blur in the background. No information is provided about its new home. Were they able to collect materials quickly and build an alternative dwelling? Have they been shown (even in photographs) their home now that it’s been converted into a museum object, or asked about their thoughts and feelings on the matter? Was an attempt made to obtain an entry permit for them to attend the exhibition’s opening? Are they satisfied with the deal they got, or were their so-called design rights violated? Did they agree to have their name bandied about like this?
“Eternal Sukkah,” on display with the rest of the exhibition through March, constitutes burnished art of symbolic opposition to the occupation. As such, it’s a respectable “scion” in the history of art in Israel, beginning with “land swap” art (exemplified by Micha Ullman’s 1972 work, “Messer/Metzer,” which involved an exchange of earth between a kibbutz and an Arab village) and other political gestures of the 1970s. It’s art that signifies unease vis-a-vis discrimination and oppression, and not just from a position of privilege; it also makes self-interested and selective use of that privileged status.
Many museums in the Western world are engaged in looking for a contemporary route to decolonize their ethnographic exhibits (be they African, Asian or Native American), and for a present-day formulation of their context that does not evade a sordid history. But the Israel Museum is engaged in the most Israeli act of all, perhaps even the act that defines Israeliness: taking away the home of an Arab. Now go and explain, as Walter Benjamin put it, that “there has never been a document of culture which is not simultaneously one of barbarism.”