It's Not Polite

Ruti Sela prepared a video installation for an exhibition of the winners of the Minister of Culture Prize, in which she satirized Limor Livnat.

Last Thursday morning, the artist Ruti Sela got a phone call from Idit Amichai, director of the department of plastic art and museums at the Ministry of Education and Culture. Amichai asked Sela not to show her video installation, "Livnot," at an exhibition of winners of the Minister of Education and Culture's Prize for Young Artists, which was scheduled to open that evening at the Haifa Museum of Art.

In the video, Sela plays Minister Limor Livnat. She is seated on the bed of a boy about ten years old who is playing with Lego. Every few seconds, the minister asks him, in a commanding tone, "Who am I?" and the child answers, "Limor Livnat." The minister asks him what he wants to be when he grows up, and the child answers, "Sammy the fireman" and later on, "A police inspector." "I like to inspect, too," the minister replies, and repeats the question "Who am I?" to which the child answers, "Limor Livnat." Then the minister proposes that they build the separation fence together, from Lego blocks.

To some extent, the installation reminds one of the satirical sketches about Limor Livnat in "A Wonderful Country," the popular TV series, and Eli Yatzpan's comedy routines. It is not as extreme as they are, but in its own way is amusing. It too emphasizes the more authoritative and power-oriented side of Livnat, and it too implies criticism of the separation fence, whose construction embitters the lives of the Palestinians living on the other side of it.

Yet it seems pointless to judge the work by parameters of art criticism. Rather, it ought to be seen as a political critique meant to be voiced from the stage from which the prize was being awarded. As opposed to Moshe Gershuni, who last year refused to accept the Israel Prize from the education minister, who represents the rightist government, Sela shook the minister's hand, and on the second floor of the museum, criticized her.

"I made the film especially for the ceremony, after I was informed that I'd won the prize," she says. "I though this would be a stage from which I should say what I think about the government and about the situation. I was sure that after the representatives of the museum and the Education Ministry watched the film, they would not screen it."

Indeed, last Wednesday, on the day before the opening (at which point the videotape had been at the museum for two months), chief curator Daniella Talmor, who is also curating the exhibition, watched the tape. She was surprised by the content and called Amichai, of the Education and Culture Ministry. The following day, Amichai called the artist. Sela reports that Amichai asked her not to screen the video. "She asked me not to screen the work so as not to upset the minister," says Sela. "They also considered censoring Tamar Raban, who was supposed to exhibit a political installation. They told her, as well, that there was a problem with the installation, that it was liable to make people angry, that it was too political. In the end, both of us exhibited our works."

Raban notes that Amichai asked to see the installation before the ceremony, and that she sent her a tape. "She said that they had to be careful, and she expressed her concerns about the work, because it is a political installation," says Raban. "The installation did take place in the end, but only at the end of the ceremony, after a break of several minutes, and only after the minister had been led out of the auditorium."

Amichai says that she did not ask Sela not to exhibit her work. "I did not see the work. I asked her if there was anything in the work that might be humiliating. I told her that I did not want there to be anything antagonistic in the exhibition, because it seemed inappropriate to me. It would be as if I invited you to dinner and show you a photo of yourself in which you look ugly."

Amichai does not see the phone call as an attempt at censorship. "In this kind of exhibition, it seems very impolite to exhibit the work. When Dina Shenhav exhibited at last year's exhibition of prize winners portraits of SS officers crafted from beads, I valiantly defended her, but in this instance, when you are getting a prize, you don't laugh at the person giving it to you."

Anyone who knows Amichai knows that she simply wanted to prevent the minister from once again getting tangled up in an imbroglio that could be interpreted as intervention bordering on censorship - as occurred in the case of Moshe Gershuni and Igael Tumarkin - and was primarily trying to prevent any further damage to the already minuscule budget allocated to plastic arts and the number of prizes awarded each year to artists.

After the conversation with Sela, Amichai prepared Livnat as they drove to Haifa from Jerusalem. "I told her about the installation," says Amichai. "I told her that she should be happy about serving as the inspiration for works of art."

Unlike previous occasions, Livnat was indifferent. She stood on stage, congratulated the winners, and asked, "Which of you is Ruti Sela, who does the impersonation of me?" When Sela raised her hand, Livnat asked her: "Is it a real dimple that you have in the film, or a fake dimple?" Sela confirmed that it was real.

"That was her way to make it seem insignificant," says Sela. "She laughed when she saw the film. I asked her if she enjoyed it, and she responded with a half-smile."

The tension that attended this anecdote persisted throughout the evening - the unavoidable tension between the art world, which is predominantly identified with the left, and a politician who represents the right. Michal Heiman spoke on behalf of the artists. In a reserved, fluent and critical speech - the spirit of which expressed all that the ministry people had tried to censor, in various forms, that evening - Heiman spoke about the rights of the citizen in the country, and about the injustice done to him. At the end of the speech, Livnat stood up to respond. She noted that the initial difference of opinion had to do with the fact that Heiman described Israel as "a state of all its citizens," while she considers it "a Jewish and democratic state." The two then shook hands. There were those who saw it as a formative moment, in which the first rustlings of dialogue could be felt.