Portrait of the Artist as an Outsider

Gilad Melzer
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
“Cow-TV,” Kibbutz Gallery, Tel Aviv, 1980.Credit: Photos from the artist’s archive
Gilad Melzer

“Dov Or Ner: Actions in the Nearby Planet, 1970-2070,” written and edited by Tali Tamir, Hakibbutz Hameuhad Publishing House (Hebrew, with English abstract), 328 pages, 99 shekels

We’ll start with the senses. This book is gorgeous, with its red-and-white binding, a finger-itching black-and-white photograph on the cover, strong typography, marvelous graphics and pagination by Naama Tobias, and above all a design concept by Michal Sahar, which encourages proper attention to the works of Dov Or Ner. This is a book that’s sheer fun to hold, browse through, read and gaze at. As a bonus, it also has an excellent text, in which the curator and researcher Tali Tamir does justice to a distinctive artist. An artist who never fit into any of the major scenes of the local art world – the museums, the collectors or the taste-setting galleries – which is probably just as well.

Tamir cites several reasons for the fact that Or Ner remains an outsider. Born in 1927, he grew up in Paris. He lost both parents in the Holocaust, but he survived and immigrated to Israel in 1953 as part of a settlement group organized by the left-wing Hashomer Hatzair youth movement. Since then he has remained in the kibbutz periphery, far from any power centers – and the money and influence of the art world. Or Ner can be said to be in forefront of conceptual art in Israel – along with Joshua Neustein, Pinchas Cohen Gan, Moshe Gershuni, Avital Geva, Efrat Natan and a few others. He also took part in some of the most important artistic activities and exhibitions of the early 1970s in the country.

Nevertheless, Tamir writes, Or Ner, who is “essentially an autodidact and at least a decade older than the whole group, embarked on a path outside the canonical channels, sending his works into the world bare and without protection either from the establishment or from the media.”

In other words, beyond the fact that he wasn’t “one of the guys” – neither one of the native-born Tel Avivians of the “paucity of material” movement, nor a member of the Jerusalem-Bezalel art academy world – he was also adept at getting on people’s nerves. Above all, he insisted on being demonstratively, trenchantly and uncompromisingly political, whereas Israeli art (for the most part) clung to formalism and modernist purism.

Or Ner, whom Tamir dubs a “planet apart in the firmament of Israeli art,” has never had a solo show in a museum in this country, so the book is actually a catalog for an (as-yet) unmounted retrospective. Her illuminating introduction cites the artist’s sources of inspiration and influence, including Marcel Duchamp, auto-destructive artists such as Gustav Metzger, the Austrian actionists and the Fluxus movement, as well as Egyptian sculpture, and a conceptual art workshop co-led by artist Rudi Lehman, who was also the teacher of the well-known sculptor and artist Igael Tumarkin.

The book is mostly devoted to concise descriptions of actions, installations, events and objects of various kinds created by Or Ner, and it is divided into sections according to conceptual categories. Each action-object is accompanied by a documentary photograph, and there is also a separate section at the end consisting of facsimiles of sketches, diary entries, instructions for projects, drawings and lists of principles, affording access into the recesses of Or Ner’s mind.

A serious irony pervades Or Ner’s projects. He poses big, overarching questions, but ones that are both impossible and superfluous. For example, in the chapter “Estimations: Time, Distance,” he presents projects that use photography and performance art to document the “water distance – the sea between Haifa and Marseille,” or the aerial distance between Rome and New York. The result is random and arbitrary, irregular in spacial terms. There is the wing of an airplane here, surging waves there – a vast scale in human terms that begins with a single line of earth that Or Ner pasted on the wall of his home on Kibbutz Hatzor, near Ashdod, and which followed the short route from his house to the kibbutz dining room and ended up somewhere between the Mediterranean Sea and the New World.

“The occupation with questions of distance – wasn’t because I wanted to measure [them],” Or Ner is quoted as saying. “I was interested in the possibility of doing extremely big things. I wanted to make monumental sculptures; I wanted to circumvent the planet with the line, without boundaries.”

This objective, in fact, is no different from the most ancient artistic-religious ambitions, from the pyramids in China and in Central America, from the temples of the Incas to the circles of stones in Great Britain and Germany. Everyone wanted lines direct to the sun, to the gods. Only without irony.

Bovine art

In some areas of activity – such as ecological art, actions involving digging and burial, or a preoccupation with eating and food – Or Ner is one of the pioneers. In others, such as mail art, he renewed or “imported” traditions that had no foothold in Israel. Similarly, his actions and projects related to the kibbutz were unlike the classical treatments of that subject.

In a 1974 project, “How to Live with Television,” he closeted himself for a few days in the Kibbutz Kfar Menahem art gallery with a television set, and sketched what he saw on the screen on a long roll of paper. Six years later, in “Cow-TV,” the artist and a television “hosted” a cow that was brought to the Kibbutz Gallery in Tel Aviv.

Thus, a few years before the collapse of the kibbutz movement and the tsunami of privatization that washed over its remnants, Or Ner presented the image of the new world in which television and the entertainment value of agriculture (petting corners, family harvests) would supplant the shared culture of the communal dining room and assembly hall, along with the ethos of redeeming the soil as a practical value.

As Tamir notes, “Or Ner’s main endeavor, identified with him as a personal icon, is the foundation of ‘The Museum of Museums’ in 1975. This is a one-artist institution, which travels with him and with his body to the ends of the earth, performs different kinds of actions and challenges the institution of the museum as a hegemonic, rigid, institutionalized fortress.” For nearly three decades, “The Museum of Museums” not only breached the bounds of the formal exhibition space – it did so with saliently political content, dealing largely with Israeli militarism and the possibility of peace.

In the 1983 Tel Hai Events for Contemporary Art, and a year later at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, Or Ner used bent olive branches to sculpt, on a 1:1 scale, an Israeli Kfir warplane and an American Pershing ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead, which was in the news at that time after being deployed for the first time on European soil. Thus, even as Israeli planes were passing overhead to take part in Operation Peace for Galilee (the 1982 Lebanon war), the prospect of true peace on the ground was subordinated to the pageant of political lies.

Thus, in Jerusalem, across the road from the Knesset, a huge 15-meter-high missile was installed, a terrifying phallus of destruction, whose possiblepresence in the Israeli reality is a strictly taboo subject to this day. As though it were nothing but the nightmare of an outsider artist who, as many say, would be better off messing with cow dung.