'All of Israel Is the Front, and We Are All Victims'

The exhibition "Life Saver: Typology of Commemoration in Israel" focuses on architecture of commemoration and memory.

Esther Zandberg
Esther Zandberg
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Esther Zandberg
Esther Zandberg

The exhibition "Life Saver: Typology of Commemoration in Israel," which represents Israel this year at the 10th International Architecture Biennale in Venice, focuses on architecture of commemoration and memory, which is conceivably the most charged and sensitive subject in the field. This is particularly true in Israel, which regrettably enjoys great expertise on the subject.

Israel is the record holder for such sites, as commemoration is a primary component of the national ethos. The number of commemoration sites and memorials in Israel is considered the highest per-capita in the world. Now, new subjects for commemoration - the victims of the second Lebanon war - have been added to the circle.

The exhibition, which opens on September 10 and closes November 19, was curated by architect Tula Amir, and will be exhibited in the Israeli pavilion of the Biennale at the Castello Giardini in Venice. The timing, before the echoes of the war even had a chance to die down, could not have been more symbolic or macabre. On the face of it, the timing is coincidental. But the subject was already chosen a year ago, and the concept was agreed upon and crystallized well before the war began. This said, commemoration and memory are never coincidental in Israel; they are actual and relevant at any given time.

The exhibition itself makes no reference to the current war, another link in the vicious cycle of bereavement-commemoration-memory. Isn't it a given that this war should be referred to in an exhibition that deals with commemoration and memory? "The war is still fresh," says Amir. "It isn't possible to understand or assess this latest rupture, not socially. And of course not in terms of the architecture of commemoration. This is the first war in which I am the same age as the parents, a fact that adds a new layer to the pain and confusion and fear."

Manipulation of consciousness

The exhibition presents 15 commemoration and memorial structures that have been built throughout Israel in the 57 years between 1949 and 2006. Most of them have become architectural and cultural icons, compulsory stops for many Israelis and tourists alike. They have become a constituent element of the Israeli architectural 'export,' and are representative of the uniqueness of the commemoration phenomenon in Israel. As Amir puts it, this architecture is primarily based on the idea of "the double view": looking back at death, and looking ahead to the future; somewhere in the middle is the commemoration structure, which seeks to "exalt death and justify the cost."

The double view, explains Amir, is the common denominator linking most commemoration structures in Israel - despite different architectural styles and changes that have taken place in memorial patterns over the years. This double view is represented in the memorial structures through a series of architectural contrasts: dark and light, open and closed, above and below, near and far. Nearly all of the commemoration structures, she notes, exploit more than one of these contrasts, providing the spectator with a sort of corrective experience.

At times, the double view in memorial sites is created by positioning the inanimate architectural-sculptural object in front of a landscape, or against a background of vegetation, "which symbolizes life, growth and continuation," notes Amir. Numerous commemoration structures incorporate or guide the visitor to a viewing spot from which he or she is exposed to an especially panoramic scene that draws the gaze into the distance, "to the cause, or to the future." In this manner, architecture is enlisted to build "a foundation for legitimization of society's needs, justification for the difficulties of present-day existence and for the price to be paid in the future."

Justification of Israel's wars, stresses Amir, "provides legitimization of the blood that has been spilled and is liable to be spilled in the future, of the continued unreserved cooperation between the military and security establishment and the citizens of the country, and of the undisputed consensus according to which struggle is the instrument of survival of our existence in Israel." These discordant words were written before the current war.

The architectural representations of commemoration in Israel are unique in that they not only document an event or period in time, but mediate between past and present, and "give validity, in terms of place and architectural planning, to the existing myths and the dictates of society."

Amir thinks of commemoration structures as "edge structures" - an extreme example of architectural symbolism and manipulation, in which the profession is called upon to shape consciousness to specific needs. At times, architecture even exploits the viewers' lack of defense, leading him or her, through its unique devices to the seemingly essential conclusion that was outlined in advance.

Mini models of commemoration

The structures in the exhibition represent diverse forms of commemoration, from the uniquely Israeli Yad Lebanim (local memorials to fallen soldiers) buildings to Holocaust museums. Others include the Palmach House museum in Tel Aviv, designed by the architect Zvi Hecker, the Yad Vashem compound in Jerusalem, which includes the new museum designed by Moshe Safdie, the Negev Brigade memorial in Be'er Sheva, designed by the artist Danny Caravan, the Holocaust and ghetto fighters' museum at Kibbutz Lohamei Hagetaot, designed by Shmuel Bikeles and the Ammunition Hill memorial in East Jerusalem, planned by Binyamin Idelson and Gershon Zippor, among others.

The idea of contrasts is represented by a series of black and white reduced-scale models of the commemoration structures. The models are made of light plastic materials in contrast with the stone and concrete the structures themselves are generally constructed from.

Also displayed in the pavilion, which is to be designed for the purposes of the exhibition as a commemoration site of sorts, is the video work "El Maleh Rahamim" by the artist Erez Israeli, which combines a universal component resembling the Pieta sculpture with the Jewish prayer for the eternal bliss of the deceased's soul. Thirty memorial torches will be installed in the pavilion garden, similar to those placed on the rooftops of public buildings in Israel on memorial days.

The exhibition will also offer a catalog of articles that analyze the complexity of the commemoration phenomenon in Israel. In an article about the Palmach House museum, Jewish-British architect Timothy Brittain-Catlin writes it is "in a sense the the first significant post-Zionist building, the one that has nothing stubborn or optimistic to say about the military enterprise." An article by Dan Daor conveys the same message about memorial structures, according to which there are no heroes - all there is is the eternity of Israel, all of the country is on the front, and all of us are victims.

The name of the exhibition, "Life Saver," is borrowed from the poem "Time, Poem No. 6" from Yehuda Amichai's series of poems about time. Amichai's poetry is an endless source of commemoration and memorial passages for every occasion. "The poem suggests that the round floral wreath is a life saver extended to the soldiers buried beneath it," explains Amir.

The Foreign and Education Ministries are jointly responsible for the Israeli pavilion at the Biennale. They have allocated $90,000 to the exhibition budget. The remaining funding was raised from private and public contributions and sponsorships. Amir was selected as the curator from among several candidates. In the final stage, the other contenders withdrew their candidacy, and Amir's proposal was selected.

The Israeli pavilion is one of dozens of pavilions at the Biennale that will be presenting national exhibitions, parallel with the festival's main exhibition, which is focusing this year on 'super cities,' under the title "Megacity." Richard Burdett is curating the exhibition. Burdett is an expert on the politics of urban planning at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

The Biennale, still considered the main institutional event in the international architecture world, is accompanied by a series of events and tributes. Foremost among them are the "Golden Lion" awards, which will be bestowed on the outstanding national pavilion, the outstanding city, and outstanding urban projects. This year, the prestigious architectural prize for lifetime achievement went to the veteran British architect Richard Rogers, one of the designers of the Pompidou Centre in Paris. The prizes will be awarded on the opening day of the exhibition.

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