Israeli Artists Attempt Leftist Provocation, End Up Pandering to Zionist Ethos

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Zik Group’s 'Minaret of Defense' at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.
Zik Group’s 'Minaret of Defense' at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Credit: Zik Group
Galia Yahav
Galia Yahav
Galia Yahav
Galia Yahav

A 25-meter-high (82 feet) wood construction titled “Minaret of Defense” was unveiled at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art on Independence Day in May. The structure was built and assembled by the Zik Group for the new wing’s Lightfall area. It integrates elements from the 138-meter-high Marganit Tower in the Kirya – the defense establishment headquarters located just across from the museum. The architecture and aesthetics combine elements of the prestate tower-and-stockade form of settlement, the minaret of a mosque and a water well.

The base of the structure is on the wing’s ground floor, where visitors can walk around a rectangular wooden wall, closed on all sides, open only toward the roof. The wooden beams are covered with wallpaper in a pattern of greenish timber, like self-imitating material, and the names of tower-and-stockade settlements are inscribed above.

Within the sealed space is a courtyard that holds a peculiar structure: a black circle within a square – alluding to the mouth of a well – which is visible only when looking down from above. Stretching from the base to the museum’s windowed roof is a tower of scaffolding with an encircling porch and conic, sculptural loudspeaker-like element attached. A gilded antenna rises from the top of the structure.

Zik Group’s 'Minaret of Defense' at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. An installation with lofty ideas.Credit: Zik Group

According to the museum’s website, the group’s works “range between giant installations, burning performances, dance and movement, sculpture and paintings, music and sound.” And members of the group told website Xnet that “the whole Zionist story is contained in the structure. You have tower-and-stockade, the ‘Pit’ [operations center bunker] in the Kirya, the muezzin of the mosque, and the cistern in the center of the village.” Well, not exactly.

The Zik Group invested in real gold (purchased on eBay), invested in veterans of an elite unit, invested in pits and invested in tactical accessories. But who was left out? The muezzin, calling people to prayer. “Originally, we wanted to integrate sounds of a muezzin, but the budget was limited and we were also concerned that people wouldn’t understand the concept,” Zik members explained in the interview.

The accompanying exhibition notes state that the tower is reminiscent of the history of Tel Aviv, recalling its past as a city built in part on the ruins of Arab villages. But that idea exists only in those words.

Left in the dark

The group is convinced that it has created a left-wing provocation. The whole project is meant to sting. But it’s not altogether clear who’s supposed to be stung or who the irony is aimed at. “Minaret of Defense” – whose Hebrew title is “Misgad Habitahon” (“Mosque of Security”) and is a play on “Misrad Habitahon” (“Defense Ministry”) – needs to be understood in the context of Israeli art that has been prevalent since the 1970s. This art has achieved canonic status among the cognoscenti and is generally perceived as left-wing work that appeals to the progressive viewer over the head of the masses. Zik Group conforms to this formula of the fusion of contradictions.

In 1972, artist Avital Geva created “The Books in Landscape Experiment,” in which he scattered used books (all in Hebrew) in the area separating Kibbutz Metzer from the Arab village of Messer. The idea was that passersby could peruse the books and take any they wanted, as an act of cultural exchange. Alongside it, sculptor Micha Ullman created “Messer/Metzer,” an “land exchange” in which he dug two pits – one in the Arab village, the other in the kibbutz – and filled them with soil from each other’s land. It was a gesture of the “brotherhood of peoples” and a “covenant of the land,” according to the curator, Varda Steinlauf. One can only imagine how the Palestinians whose land was stolen feel about such an act of symbolic distributive justice.

In his 1975 installation “Hebrew Work,” the sculptor-painter Gideon Gechtman spent a week living and working as a day laborer in Jerusalem’s Israel Museum, sleeping on a mattress and heating food on a kerosene burner, above him a photograph of an anonymous Arab construction worker who lived and worked in similar conditions. This was perceived as a political work that exposed the hypocrisy of the Jewish work ethos, because in practice the Palestinians were doing the building for the Jews.

We can also note the painter Raffi Lavie’s impenetrable linguistic formulation “Arab – Violet Mustache,” a kind of Israeli version of Magritte’s “The Treachery of Images (Ceci n’est pas une pipe).” And Michal Rovner’s “Histories” exhibition at the Louvre in 2011, which featured “Makom II and Makom IV” – two structures made of hundreds of stones that the artist collected from the remnants of Arab buildings in the Golan Heights, Hebron, Bethlehem, Jerusalem and elsewhere, whose total weight was 75 tons. The structures were assembled and disassembled by Israeli and Palestinian builders.

All these works, and others like them, are perceived as being inherently dialectical, based on the wink of an eye and a tongue in the cheek, as though it’s obvious that their subtext is opposition to the occupation, to exploitation, to inequality. But that context was shed along the way or became frozen in time, remaining silent until it was lost – and the works emerge embedded in the Zionist ethos.

The interpretative dialogue taking place around them is steeped in colonialist rhetoric. It supports the ideology that everything Arab is part of the mute landscape, a backdrop, a setting, so each work in its own way reprises an act of unilateral taking, done for the purpose of renewed building – of a language, a space, an ethos of creativity. Arabness as mythical reference.

Though it incorporates different and ostensibly equal elements of Zionist, Muslim and contemporary-security architecture, “Minaret of Defense” is based on dichotomies and creates a simplistic distinction between mosque and security. That’s the equation. In the face of “security” or “defense” (which is presented as a phallic symbol of quality intelligence; not as a checkpoint, jolting interrogation, administrative detention, collective punishment, separation barrier, targeted assassination, flannelette blindfold and plastic handcuffs), what’s posited with disingenuous rhetoric is the silenced muezzin.

It’s hard not to compare the Zik scaffolding to Mahmood Kaiss’ spectacular, intertwining, kaleidoscopic, sophisticated “Arabesque,” which was made only from construction boards and was displayed at the museum last year. Where that expanded the heart in a masterful work of subtlety and patience, the Zik Group has created an opaque, clumsy guard post.

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