A Wounded Lioness

In the short 1986 film "Jew French Arab," artist Yair Garbuz is filmed in his studio holding a small gas camping stove and declaring that everyone can make a campfire for himself and sing songs of the "homeland." The main soundtrack of this video work is "To My Land" by the poetess Rahel (Bluwstein, 1890-1931) - one of those songs that combine pathos and love, and embody the Gordian knot linking the individual and the collective.

This work is simultaneously ironic, funny and sad. It was made in a technique that was not common at the time and does a splendid job of illuminating the 1980s, when Israel was no longer a small county with a formative myth and social solidarity, but rather was beginning to take shape as a capitalist, liberal society with a multiplicity of narratives, but was also alienated. These changes, and the way they were manifested in the field of art and also influenced by it, are at the center of the exhibition "Check-Post: Art in Israel in the 1980s," curated by Ilana Tenenbaum at the Haifa Museum of Art, and on until December 28.

The show is impressive in terms of research and history, but this does not detract from it being, above all, an exhibition of art. It is evident that Tenenbaum was well aware of the limitations of discussing an entire decade in the framework of an exhibition, but she still did not choose the easy way out, of presenting "a picture of the situation." In "Check-Post" there isn't the sense of randomness that is frequently felt in large exhibitions, but rather a sense of curatorial decision and expression of an opinion - even if such a decision can often be controversial.

Tenenbaum has divided the exhibition into topics connected to the historical narrative of the decade that started right after the turnaround in Israeli politics with the rise of the right in 1977, continued through the peace agreement with Egypt, the withdrawal from Sinai and the first Lebanon war, and ended a short while after the outbreak of the first intifada. In parallel, the exhibition and its catalog map the phenomenon of the merging of independent galleries and the museums' response to this. Although Tenenbaum does not make a point of this, the mapping indicates that the 1980s consciously nurtured the young artist as having a desirable and desired status regardless of the question of quality.

In this context, Tenenbaum did not fall into the trap of portraying a view that totally confirms the present (unlike the exhibitions on the 1990s in Herzliya, and on the past decade, 1998-2008, at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem - the two shows that opened a series of exhibitions on the 60th anniversary of the state). That is, in "Check-Post," there is not an emphasis on artists who have central importance today, or, especially, on those who are represented by the leading galleries.

The 1980s were the years when post-modernism became a common concept. In the field of art this was manifested in the total legitimization of quotation as a creative practice, in the understanding of culture as context-dependent, and also in different media for artistic expression. In the catalog Tenenbaum also relates to the exhibition "The Want of Matter: A Quality in Israeli Art" that was curated by Sarah Breitberg-Semel at the Tel Aviv Museum in 1986, and which marked what for years was considered to be the correct style in Israel's mainstream art. The works of Jacob Mishori, one of which appears on the staircase leading to the first floor in the exhibition under review, are connected to the questions of identity and gender that were treated in those years. German neo-expressionist painting and Italian transavantgarde art (with which Mishori apparently was not familiar) also had a dramatic influence on Israeli art at that time. This is particularly evident in the works of Asim Abu-Shakra, Asad Azi, Gabriel Klasmer and Tsibi Geva.

Geva is represented in the exhibition by a series of powerful works, first and foremost the wounded lioness. Use of the lioness, a motif taken from an ancient Assyrian relief, enables a reference to the common history of the region and to colonialism (the stealing of antiquities by the colonial powers), serves as an analogy for a wounded Israel in the Lebanon war, and also refers to the history of Israeli art, especially the work of Yitzhak Danziger.

All the issues that are raised by this work are still fascinating today, but the power of it, like that of many of the other works on show, also lies in what is not part of the historical context. That is to say, the exhibition is not an illustration of any historical or didactic perception: The selection of Geva's works in the exhibition is beautiful from the painterly perspective; in it there is a precise balance between text and image, and a poeticism that is not mere cleverness.

Focus on photos

Curator Tenenbaum has devoted a special place in the show to photography, perhaps the medium that is most identified with that period in Israeli art, alongside the new expressionism. In the '80s photography became a part of major art exhibitions like "Here and Now" at the Israel Museum, and figured prominently in the works of multidisciplinary artists, among whom perhaps the most notable is Deganit Berest. Photography galleries were established, among them the Camera Obscura gallery (which made a considerable contribution to involvement with the medium when it opened at the beginning of the 1980s); in 1986 the first Photography Biennale for Israeli photography was held at the Ein Harod Museum of Art. Tenenbaum has devoted attention to Adam Baruch as the curator of part of the biennale and also as a newspaper editor.

In the selection of photographic works displayed at the exhibition, works by Anat Saragusti, who took pictures for Ha'olam Hazeh stand out; "Welcome to Gaza," from 1987, is an image that has been etched into our memory. The sooty sign on the destroyed street leads our associations, most horrifyingly, to the gate to Auschwitz.

Michal Heiman, who during the 1980s was a photographer for the mass-circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth along with her work as an artist, is represented by a series of particularly moving works, among them portraits of actress Zaharira Harifai and filmmaker Amos Guttman, which depict a persona, not an object.

In the 1980s the attitude toward the Holocaust underwent a fundamental change connected to the crumbling of the Israeli narrative of the native-born "sabra" as the diametric opposite of the Diaspora past. Art was a part of this change in works that related to the personal and the non-heroic. The works of Yocheved Weinfeld and Haim Maor deal with the experiences of the "second generation" - a subject that continues to engage local artists, and with increased power.

Political questions dealing both with the Israeli-Arab conflict and with the structural nature of the art world itself have inundated and engaged this realm throughout the state's existence, but it appears that in the 1980s the ability to express opinions contrary to the consensus reached maturity in the wake of the first "war of choice" in Lebanon and, of course, the intifada. Outstanding among the works that deal with the conflict is Amos Gitai's film "Home" - of which the quality and not only the messages that touch upon the linkage between pain and politics - well explain his popularity shortly afterward in Europe; the same holds true for Asim Abu-Shakra and especially Arnon Ben-David. Alongside his very well-known work "Jewish Art" from 1988, in which there is a toy Uzi, there is an untitled work in which the Hebrew letter shin is poised next to the inscription "Shin Bet [security service]," - and one of the names for God (Shaddai) is rolled over into the name of an essential, but controversial security organization.

The exhibition also deals with installations, and here the absence of works by Danny Zackheim and the Installation Stage - Shelter 207 group is felt, though they are mentioned in the catalog alongside the Zik Group, which is represented by video documentation of its work. The gallery scene - from Tat-Rama on Sheinkin Street in Tel Aviv, to Ahad Ha'am 90 and Rap - is surveyed in the catalog and gives one the sense that perhaps it would have been worth devoting an exhibition to this subject alone.

In this rich exhibition it is also worth paying attention to, among other things, the contributions of Neta Ziv, who is represented by two computer works on transparencies, and to early and interesting works by Uri Katzentstein, Yudith Levin and Diti Almog.