Videos Tell Contemporary Stories in New Tel Aviv Exhibit

This excellent, up-to-the-minute exhibition of video works - the finest Tel Aviv has seen in a long time - is marred by the curator’s childish, populist approach.

“I remember Tel Aviv,” she says in Hebrew. “You’ve never been to Tel Aviv,” he replies in Arabic. “I remember the summer. The humidity. The salty smell on everything.” “Forget the summer. Forget the sea.” “I remember bars, restaurants, beautiful people.” “Forget them all.” “I remember people on Rothschild [Boulevard], demonstrating. Nation against nation. People fighting. Liberty, justice, equality. I remember the politics.” “The politics doesn’t exist anymore.”

“I don’t understand what you’re saying,” she says. “I am trying to save you. Remembering won’t help us get there,” he says. This dialogue, a clear paraphrase of the opening of Alain Resnais’ “Hiroshima Mon Amour” (1959), about an affair between a French actress and a Japanese architect, is at the center of “Guava” (2013), by Thalia Hoffman, a German-born artist who lives in Tel Aviv. The work can be seen at the Tel Aviv Museum’s Helena Rubinstein Pavilion for Contemporary Art, as part of an exhibition titled “Story Time: Or was it?” The show consists of seven video works, their stories “shifting between complete fabrication and partial truth, pushing the boundaries between a tale that was and one that never was, between legend, myth and memory,” as the curator, Ruth Direktor, writes on the museum’s English-language website.

The works, most of them from 2013, deal, each in its own way, with the deconstruction of the concept of time, whether historical, political or archival, and its effect on the art of the story. “Often enough, the production effort put into a film is inversely proportional to the amount of truth it contains,” the curator notes.

In Hoffman’s case, the time is that of mythic allegory. Her work is a futuristic political allegory, set in the year 2048, on “the refugee trail between Tel Aviv and Beirut.” There’s a clear intimation of an atomic-scale disaster that will occur in the future, and the analogy of falling in love with a member of the enemy nation is plain as well. The man and the woman (the actors Doraid Liddawi and Maya Maron) are photographed in one 11-minute shot in the hills near the village of Kafr Manda, in Lower Galilee, walking and talking. The subject of their conversation is fluid, possibly about themselves, possibly about the nation-state. The struggle over the question of who has the right to forget, who has the right to remember, the right to tell, the right to be silent, is semi-covert. They switch back and forth between Hebrew and Arabic, evoking a balance of forces in regard to memory and forgetting. They are simultaneously particular people and representative allegorical figures – she is Zionism, he is Palestine – and they are unable to produce a common language, a shared history, a reasonable, tolerable and forgivable forgetting.

Yael Bartana’s work “Inferno” (2013), being shown for the first time in Israel, is also a futuristic epic that draws entirely on visual representations of anachronism to depict the destruction of the Third Temple, somewhere in Brazil. It has been shown at the Sydney Biennale and at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, and is currently also on view in the Sao Paulo Biennale.

The film by Bartana, an Israeli artist who works and lives in Berlin and Tel Aviv, begins with an overview of a contemporary, densely crowded city of high-rises and bypasses, with a replica of Solomon’s Temple in its center. It is screened in ritual-like slow motion and portrays a messianic rite. Masses of pilgrims, black and white, bear baskets of first offerings and stalks of grain, accompanied by farm animals adorned with floral wreaths. The pilgrims’ clothes hark back to the early Jewish pioneers in Palestine (embroidered white skirts and blouses, short khaki pants).

Their eyes are lifted upward, to helicopters that carry the seven-branched candelabrum and the Ark of the Covenant to the Temple. At the height of the ceremony, for no apparent reason – we get only visual hints (Zionism as messianic injustice, nationalist hubris) – everything comes crashing down. Pillars collapse, windows are shattered, flames leap up, the masses try to flee in terror, screaming is heard. The people lie dying or dead amid the ruins, like a blood-smeared fashion production, wallowing in showboat kitsch. Only one wall is left of the building. The prayers are renewed, the souvenir business is booming.

“Grosse Fatigue” (2013), a 13-minute work by the French-born New York-based artist Camille Henrot, which was screened at the previous Venice Biennale, is an ultra-installation or mega-epic that sets out to tell the biggest story of all: the creation of the universe. But it’s even more than that. The biblical narrative that recounts chronicles (this one begat that one) is intertwined with the Big Bang, scientific theories are intercut with mythic narratives (Buddhist, Egyptian, Jewish, Muslim), with the emergence of realms, ideas and morality. “In the beginning there was no earth, no water – nothing. There was a single hill called Nunne Chaha. In the beginning everything was dead. In the beginning there was nothing; nothing at all. No light, no life, no movement, no breath. In the beginning there was an immense unit of energy. In the beginning there was nothing but shadow and only darkness and water and the great god Bumba. In the beginning were quantum fluctuations.” All this and all the rest of the story is told in rhythmic spoken word style, a form of delivery that was used by some New York musicians in the 1970s.
Windows pop up on the split screen, merging and flying apart, forging additional contexts and layers. The aggressive abundance that flashes by at a frenetic pace is an attempt to create a short history of the creation of the world from every aspect. The result is stunning by any criterion.

As in previous works, Simon Fujiwara, an English-born artist who lives in Berlin, constructs an investigation based on a fictitious biography. His work “Studio Pieta (King Kong Komplex)” traces a lost photograph of his mother, which he thinks he remembers from childhood. His mother, we are told, worked as a cabaret dancer in a seashore casino in Beirut in the 1960s and was photographed in a bathing suit in the arms of a Lebanese boyfriend. Fujiwara tries to reconstruct the scene that is engraved in his memory, interviewing actors and extras for the parts. Aspiring to reconstruct a document that never was, he asks questions and answers them in the style of someone giving testimony or conducting a media interview. Everything is a preparation for something, though the preparation is the act itself and also a kind of post-factum report on it. Like Sophie Calle, Fujiwara draws on “cold” techniques of interviewing, debriefing and reporting in order to expand personal into principle, subvert stable certainties, make constitutive absence part of the present, dredge up the psychological torture caused by political distress.

“False Testimony (Version 3),” a 2013 work by Hungarian-born, Berlin-based Hajnal Nemeth, is an opera shot in a present-day library whose plot revolves around a historical blood libel that transpired in Hungary in 1882-83. Jewish men were accused of murdering a Christian village girl in order to bake matzos from her blood. The defense lawyer, Karoly Eotvos, later wrote a book about the case.

Nemeth brilliantly reworks the 1981 Hungarian film “Verzio,” directed by Miklos Erdely, which deals with the preparations for the false testimony that Moric Scharf, a Jewish boy, was forced to give at the trial. Nemeth’s work makes use of dialogue from “Verzio,” which is sung as an act of committing the lie to memory in an interrogation aimed at breaking the witness until he invents evidence. An authoritative manager, with bureaucratic mannerisms and the body language of an interrogator fed up with the fragility of his subjects, instructs the boy what to say. A court stenographer with a laptop repeatedly returns them to a point at which the testimony bogged down, and around them is a choir of apprentice singers, whose voices echo the official version of the agreed lie.

Gossip-driven approach

Most of the films are excellent – it has been a long time since the center of Tel Aviv saw an exhibition of works so contemporary in character, and in real time. But this is marred by the populist, utterly intolerable approach the curator has chosen. Besides the childish title of the show, Direktor insists on addressing the viewer in the first person plural. “We welcome you to this realm of storytelling,” she writes in the wall text at the entrance to the exhibition, adding, like a kindergarten teacher, “Take your time and make yourself comfortable. The films assembled here wish to tell you something.” The Hebrew version adds, “It’s hot outside. Here’s a chance to spend two air-conditioned hours in the realms of convoluted, deconstructed and reassembled stories.”

In regard to all the works, Direktor emphasizes the aspect of enchantment and enthrallment in a seductive narrative: “In this journey of stories weaved together in the dark of the exhibition space, every stop on the way is bound to leave you charmed and perplexed, often skeptic[al] too: Was it indeed?” That is: Did it really happen? And to make sure the viewer is not left rattled and groping in the dark, a comforting, albeit embarrassing answer is immediately provided: “Artists who undertake to tell a story never opt for a simple retelling.”

The only prism through which she urges us to decipher the works is of an eager clarification as to whether each is based on a true story. The obsession with whether “it happened or not,” through which the curator understands the storytelling act and its role in the world, is basically gossip-driven. “The abundance of images and information that flits by our eyes leaves us enthralled by the magic of the story, and there is no way to know which parts of it are truth, which legend and which myth,” Direktor writes about Camille Henrot (in the Hebrew version). Or, “it is hard to tell truth from fiction – or what little kernel of it that lies therein,” in regard to Yael Bartana’s film. “A special atmosphere that ranges from truth to imagination and fiction,” Direktor says about the work of the Finnish artist Eija-Liisa Ahtila, “The Annunciation” (yes, the annunciation).

In fact, the interesting element in the exhibition occurs under the curator’s nose, in the form of seven subversions of the foundations of formal representation as embodied in the documentary program, the interview, the clip, cinema and theatrical dramatization. All these forms are already wounded, stripped of innocence, their formerly hegemonic narratives unraveled into disconnected threads of plot or appendages of hyper-representation. In any event, they are hollow schemas of themselves, tainte d by the stain of propaganda, ironic and fraught with suspicion. Now they are telling the story of the spectacle itself, the story of a filmed manipulation.

A basic subversion of realism and narrative underlies the exhibition. Differences emerge between words and things. The suspicion-laden modes the artists adopt in addressing issues of memory, history, politics and language cast doubt as the hero of the crisis of representation. Nothing less than the crumbling of the concept of humanity in the age of post-humanism is played out. The curator subsumes all this under a “did it really happen” rubric. She, for one, doesn’t know.

“Story Time: Or was it?” at Tel Aviv Museum’s Helena Rubinstein Pavilion for Contemporary Art, until November 1. Opening hours: Fri 10.00-14.00; Sat, Mon, Wed 10.00-18.00; Tues, Thur 10.00-21.00