“‘Sand-ness’ is an exhibition about situations of human imprisonment. The physical and the mental prison,” writes Liav Mizrahi, the curator of the exhibition, which is currently showing at the Contemporary by Golconda gallery in Tel Aviv. “The name of the exhibition is taken from the name of the detention facility Holot [“sands” in Hebrew], which was opened in December 2013. The facility was designed as a solution for the ‘problem’ of refugees, infiltrators and asylum seekers in Israel. Since its establishment, the facility has provoked opposition and a public debate about living conditions in it. The daily restrictions, the facility’s legality, the state’s refusal to define its inmates. In September 2014, the Supreme Court ruled that the facility was illegal and demanded that the state close Holot within three months.” That decision has since been overturned and the facility continues to operate, the refugees continue to be locked up.
Three large, powerful works dominate the gallery’s longitudinal axis, together creating a kind of interdisciplinary installation of sculpture, video and painting that captures the heart.
The commanding presence of the exhibition is a marvelous 2010 video by Assaf Shoshan. The work shows Ta’aban, a refugee from South Sudan, running in the Eilat mountains. But he is running in place. The potent image – that of futile running – is a visual representation of the grim situation of those who seek life in Israel and are trapped in limbo, forced on them by the authorities.
The video is seemingly encircled by Avital Cnaani’s 2004 work, “Border.” Made of five interlocking mobile police barriers, painted black and evoking a modernist geometric sculpture, this work is set in front of the video in the form of a semicircle. The network of barriers has the effect of blocking access for Ta’aban, constituting a physical obstacle in his path.
On the wall behind these two works is a large oil painting by Gilad Efrat, called “Ansaar IX” (2008). The title refers to the detention camp at Ketziot, in the Halutza dunes of the Negev, the largest incarceration facility in Israel, which bears the same name as the former Israeli-run prison in southern Lebanon. The Negev site, which is earmarked for security prisoners and persons held under “administrative detention” (arrest without trial), also houses a military court. Since 2007, asylum seekers have been held in the facility’s Saharonim wing. Opened in 1988, in the wake of the first intifada, this prison is the black hole of the regime, the place where the law in Israel stops with a screech of the brakes and becomes “administrative,” an instrument of the “we’ll make them wish they’d never been born” technique.
The painting depicts a gray concrete structure floating on a sky-blue background as a full/hollow fantasy, a sealed structure that is replete with breaches, frameworks and labyrinths, completely empty, a watchtower at its far end. Like Cnaani’s work, Efrat’s painting also intersects with modernism, on the boundary line of the geometric abstract. The recurring pattern of fences creates a figurative structure that exudes a harmonious beauty, a well-ordered total environment, highly concentrated and uniform. The painting’s flat immobility complements the frenetic human run in the video and the demonstrations and barricades evoked by Cnaani’s work – as though it were the synthesis between the hero and the forces that want to prevent him from running for his life. It also draws a line between the Palestinians and the refugees, both of whom endure Israel’s policy of incarceration without trial.
The excellent video by Karin Mendelovici, “I Love” (2001) in large measure joins the three central pieces. The black-and-white work is a close-up of the artist’s face as she enumerates everything she loves in seven consecutive minutes, as though suffering from Tourette syndrome (“I love my apartment I love my cat I love my mother I love my father I love my brother I love my boyfriend I love my dog I love visiting my parents’ home I love being in my room I love my down blanket I love my street I love my city I love my country I love the sun I love the shade I love my bathing suit I love my floppies”).
It’s an indiscriminate enumeration of colors, foods, feelings, emotions and people, making no distinction between wheat and chaff. Though seemingly an elaboration of preferences and specific choices, the list is so long and all-encompassing that it fails to create a distinctive character; it’s simultaneously a stock-taking of the world and the loss of the world. In the context of the exhibition, the work accumulates a macabre quality, being occupied with a gushing “personality” and seemingly private preferences, as a paean to the feeling subject, to the loving capricious self. Viewed at length, it is like the mumbling of a prisoner who has been placed in solitary confinement, perhaps for mental reasons, who is convincing herself of the existence of the outside world she longs for.
Erga Yaari’s video “Great Shape” (2012; 2:45 minutes) also refers to the refugees in Israel as barely-a-subject. As in Shoshan’s work, her protagonists, too, are stuck in place, even though they are in motion. Yaari filmed a gym with a mobile phone, white citizens working out while a black refugee cleans the mattresses and equipment. The cleaner’s image is reflected, multiplied or bifurcated in the many mirrors within the space. Everyone is busily engaged in repetitive rhythmic activity; they are exercising at leisure while he is at work, but the result is a grotesque hybridization of the two separated classes. In contrast to the heroism of Shoshan’s video, Yaari wields a paparazzi camera, which captures a ludicrous moment of everyday life that exposes pervasive racism.
The other works in the exhibition act as additions to the devastating impact of the three central pieces. Works by Yehiel Shemi (sketches for sculptures from 1981) and Itzhak Danziger (“Jackals,” 1967) amplify the theme of incarceration, fencing in, closed space, a square within a square, a blocking separation. The inclusion of these older artists lends the exhibition a perspective that depicts the “conquest of the wilderness” as its occupation.
Alongside these pieces, a series of photographs by Shay Kocieru puts a face on the abstract enforcement of the law. Kocieru’s photographs are of women doing their conscript service as prison guards. These are formulaic frontal portraits of young women against the background of a prison, representing the law in their face and body, the junior keepers of order of the regime, clad in its uniform.
Exhibitions curated by Liav Mizrahi often rely on a word’s double meaning. Last time it was “camp,” in which he drew a connection between the style and the physical entity. This time the verbal duality (in Hebrew) is between the name of the facility in the Negev and sick women. Mizrahi writes: “While the exhibition deals with the physical state of the imprisoned person, the breaking of his spirit, the restrictions on his body – its other aspect is a semantic meditation on the word ‘Holot,’ which syntactically in Hebrew denotes a group of sick women. I have chosen to group together pieces by women whose work conducts a dialogue with the unstable edge imprisoned in the artist’s soul. Pieces that stretch the psychic and emotional boundary and its translation into a work of art. These works discuss an infinitely spiraling state of anxiety and existential tension similar to that of a prisoner.”
However, this intention is not fully actualized. In some cases, the underlying vulgarity of Mizrahi’s curatorial endeavors is amusing and creates unexpected associations. This time, even though it is relatively moderate, it sheds no new light on the subject. In any event, this is the second exhibition in which he has concentrated on spaces of incarceration, closure and torture, and he has clearly enhanced his ability to engage with the theme. “Sand-ness” is not very political, and it is even less activist; what it does convey is intense pain. Its tone evokes the sharing of that pain. And therein resides its allure.