Israeli Artist's Video Installation About Palestinian City Fails to Chip Away at Arab Stereotype

But the major failing of Gaston Zvi Ickowicz’s 'The City of Rawabi' is in its erotic aspect.

Gaston Zvi Ickowicz’s video installation 'The City of Rawabi.'
Yuval Hay

The main item in the “Nesting” exhibition by Israeli visual artist Gaston Zvi Ickowicz is a five-channel HD video installation, “The City of Rawabi” (2016). It’s currently on view at Tel Aviv’s Center for Contemporary Art. Each projection shows a single stonemason hand-chiseling stones for the façade of a building, fashioning corners or creating a pitted surface texture.

The stones will cover the structures of the rising city of Rawabi, north of Ramallah, which has been under construction since 2009. Rawabi has been called “the Palestinian Modi’in,” referring to the new Israeli city between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

The focus of the work is the ostensible disparity between the city’s contemporary design and the manual labor and “traditional” aesthetic of the buildings’ exteriors. As we observe one worker in each frame but in five simultaneous projections, the laborers are both individuals and a group. At any given moment, some of the chiseling sites are manned and others are empty, and distant sounds of stones being chipped are heard. Even when the eye doesn’t see the work being done outside the frame, someone is striking a stone.

Ickowicz’s work is a homage to Gustav Courbet’s 1849 masterpiece, “The Stone Breakers.” That painting belongs to the tradition of 19th-century social realism, but is equally part of the renewed contemporary interest in labor relations, the sound of work and the choreography of the working body in relation to the workspace. One example is the video “Sounds from Beneath” (2011-2012), by Mikhail Karikis and Uriel Orlow, in which a group of unemployed miners perform an a-cappella imitation of the noises made by the machines they worked with in the mines.

Perhaps Ickowicz belongs to this stream of artists who conduct mini-researches in critical anthropology. Or maybe he’s part of the local tradition of stereotypically representing Arabs as laborers. In any event, once the viewer ceases to be caught up in the stonemasons’ rhythm, the work’s weaknesses become apparent. One is the discussion of the design “lie” in a style that masquerades as traditional, historical, antique.

But that postmodern consideration of “truth” and “impersonation” is tired and weak — after all, building is done in this way everywhere, not just in Rawabi. Is there a shortage of mock Tudor British structures? Or of suburban interiors pretending to be the Palace of Versailles? In this case, the implication is that the Palestinians are inventing an authentic past for themselves, and that the means of constructing that past are fictitious.

The information that the video was shot in Rawabi also turns out to be unimportant, particularly when compared to the visual and sound presence. Although the exhibition “explores construction processes and nesting, and raises questions as to their affinity with the establishment of nationality, tradition and cultural identity,” as curator Sergio Edelsztein writes on the gallery’s English-language website, those facets remain very general background, a feeble verbal explanation.

A detail from Ickowicz’s video installation 'The City of Rawabi.'
Yuval Hay

‘Occupation bypass’

Additionally, Edelsztein describes Rawabi as “the first modern Palestinian city in the West Bank.” That may be technically correct, on the assumption that Hebron, Ramallah, Bethlehem and Nablus are considered ancient cities. But the implication is that, before Rawabi, the Palestinians lived in villages, casbahs and shacks; after all, no one considers Modi’in to be the first modern Israeli city, even though it was built according to a prior master plan. Furthermore, there is not a word about how the “nation-making” attributed to Rawabi’s establishment in Area A (some 18 percent of the West Bank, and ostensibly under full Palestinian civilian and security control) is a controversial project, a Qatar-funded corporate initiative that is meant to create separation for upper-middle-class Palestinians — a kind of “occupation bypass” for the rich. The gaze directed toward Rawabi in the exhibition is at a city rising from the dunes with the efforts of pioneers.

The mutual intercommunication between the sounds of the stones being struck recalls the historical, romantic, enchanting rhythm that’s related to the tradition of songs sung by slaves, prisoners, forced laborers, farm workers and seamen. It’s a tradition divided not only by the different types of work involved but also categorized by musical styles — from contemporary blues to folk, gospel to heavy metal, all mostly performed a cappella. The body itself, sometimes together with the work tools, generates the coordination and rhythm with the aid of stomping, dragging, clapping, tapping, etc. But it doesn’t quite work. The sync between the five projections doesn’t produce salient musicality/choreography/sculpting. It remains in the realm of almost saying something, of being on the brink of language, abutting it but without creating poetic beauty. In practice, the chiseling sounds blend into bland randomness.

The work’s major failing lies in its erotic aspect. “The City of Rawabi” doesn’t declare itself as a project of voyeurism, even though that’s its dominant element. Eroticism and mastery are intertwined. The viewer is a comfortable, haughty observer of anonymous workers (the fact that their names are mentioned in the catalog doesn’t really rescue them from their anonymity), their labors shot as though through a security camera, without the human interaction of looks.

The stonemason doesn’t return your gaze, being fated to behave “naturally” — like an exemplar in a reserve whose details, techniques and tools are scanned by our gaze. Indeed, this is the origin of the pleasure: the one-sidedness of the survey, its collection-building effect. The workers, their legs spread-eagled, are viewed as though in an aquarium. The style of the photography and the peeking approach turn their work into a striptease show. Because nothing demonstrates awareness of this, the whole affair suffers from dishonesty.

Showing on the upper floor is Ickowicz’s 2013 video “Sukkah,” in which a white sheet of cloth is seen flapping in the wind. Next to it is “The Planting” (2013-1016), nine photographs of saplings being planted in mass events organized by the Jewish National Fund (Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael), viewed from above. Then there’s a series of photographs titled “Embroidery Patterns” (2016), scanned from a book published by Ann Roth in 1973 (English edition), which contains instructions for creating tapestries of holy places in Jerusalem.

In the catalog, art expert Gilad Reich notes that the ostensibly naive image turns out to be fraught with political and ideological implications, and it’s the act of photography that brings these hidden layers to the fore. However, this is already flagrantly self-evident, shamelessly obvious, and also marginal compared to the deadly acts of appropriation and dispossession that take place every day. The expectation that we will be moved by the revelation that images of Muslim buildings were appropriated for the Zionist ethos in the 1970s, or that the JNF plants trees in order to blur and erase what previously existed (“By Jews and for them,” Reich writes), is groundless.

These are test cases as anachronistic as they are anemic, and Ickowicz fails to create a pungent visual statement from them. Inadvertently, or perhaps deliberately, he has created a balanced and judicious array of cultivation projects: planting and afforestation here, a city rising there. And here’s the resemblance between the wandering peoples and their shacks: a poetic sukkah like a white flag, as a show of equality between refugees of all stripes. Any second now, someone will say “Look, it’s over!” and something wonderful will happen: Left-wing nonprofits will bring the neighbors in their masses, and there will be room for one and all. The whole event seems to be a PR exercise for the newcomer who’s interested in the “It’s complicated” issue.

“Nesting” is at the Center for Contemporary Art, 2 Tsadok Hacohen Street, Tel Aviv, until October 15; Mon-Thur 14.00-19.00, Fri, Sat 10.00-14.00.