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In its opening wall text, the exhibition This Place claims to grapple with “the complexity of Israel and the West Bank, as place and metaphor,” and includes a dozen internationally acclaimed photographers in an effort to accomplish this feat. Nevertheless, in my view, a sense of apprehension regarding the loose mobilization of “place and metaphor” pervades. Certainly, multiple voices seem appropriate for engaging the discursive potential of this immensely fractured and intensely debated region. Yet the exhibition does not bring the viewer any closer to understanding the realities of this highly charged terrain or the people who reside there. This Place foregrounds a determined belief in photography as a mode of access, only to ultimately disavow it by virtue of the exhibition’s framework and the dissonant pictures presented.
Beginning in 2005, the “project initiator” of this internationally touring exhibition, French photographer Frédéric Brenner, coordinated residencies for twelve photographers in Israel and the West Bank. The invitees not only represented different geographical and cultural backgrounds but also fields of practice (including art photographers and photojournalists). Crucial to the project, each photographer was an “outsider” to Israeli and Palestinian society, and each committed to spending approximately six months in Israel and the West Bank, meeting with locals, exploring the region, and thinking deeply about how to photographically represent the experience. Brenner hoped that this would allow for “fresh eyes” to move audiences, as he states in the exhibition catalogue, “beyond thinking of the region as a place that is too complex for photographic examination” (5–6).
Charlotte Cotton, identified as the curator in the exhibition catalogue, deftly chronicles the various contributions to the project between 2005 and 2012. Oddly, however, in the installation at the Norton Museum of Art, Cotton’s name was notably absent. Brenner’s, on the other hand, was prominent. In this way, Cotton seems positioned far more as Brenner’s emissary than as the curator of This Place. Such questions of authorship are never quite resolved. Cotton’s introductory catalogue essay narrates how Brenner took inspiration from the Mission Héliographique in France (1851) and the Farm Security Administration in the United States (1937–1944). Both enterprises seized on a humanist view of the force of photography, and not surprisingly both were government commissions with nationalist impetuses. The allusion to these models immediately raises questions regarding what it means to approach the state of Israel and the status of Palestine at the present moment through such a lens, and how the very premise of “this place” remains fraught with issues of possession and dispossession, citizenship and belonging.
Cotton acknowledges repeatedly that the project’s response to “territorial parameters” are “admittedly compromised and inadequate, just as political responses have been” (5–6). The participating photographers, for instance, were able to cross the Green Line as they saw fit, yet the Gaza Strip was decidedly excluded from the photographic considerations of This Place. Gaza’s absence is not discussed at any length in either the exhibition or the catalogue, and this omission haunts the project’s investigative integrity.
Brenner’s large-scale work and Rosalind Fox Solomon’s black-and-white portraits (aggressively entitled THEM) introduce the exhibition. Brenner’s Palace Hotel (2009), installed amid his series of staged family portraits, An Archeology of Fear and Desire (2009–12), serves as a kind of epigraph to the broader show. Seen starkly from the inside out are the ruins of a coliseum structure wrought with scaffolding. It is at once a document of destruction and statement about transition, an incomplete project to be sure.
Some of the other photographers also omitted people. Signs of human intervention exist, but occlude any explicit presence. Solemnity characterizes Stephen Shore’s series, From Galilee to the Negev (2009–11), for example, which depicts the sacred sites of Nabi Musa and St. Sabas Monastery with a disquieting blankness. Fazal Sheikh’s Desert Bloom series (2010–11) stands out in this regard, as a grid of aerial landscape photographs of the Negev desert that engage with the legacy of the Nakba (or catastrophe) by referencing David Ben-Gurion’s call to “make the desert bloom.” These sites are marked by militarization and mining, traces of the disruption of Bedouin villages. The images read as hieroglyphs of a lost planet, nearly extraterrestrial in their aridity. Jungjin Lee’s photographs for Unnamed Road (2010–11) are similarly preoccupied with the ravaged desert expanse. The large-scale inkjet prints solicit the viewer’s touch with their dark, saturated pigments on mulberry paper. In one, a stockpile of razor-barbed wire unsettlingly incites a fear of being cut, the mass of sharp edges taking on a monstrous, anthropomorphic quality.
Josef Koudelka’s poignant black-and-white panoramas relay an overwhelming sense of physical impediment in their depiction of “the Wall that mutilates the Holy Land,” as he describes it in the catalogue (80). This series, entitled Wall (2008–12), portrays sections of the seven hundred-kilometer structure that lacerates the West Bank, demarcating the “sovereignty” of Israel. Koudelka’s work culminated in an accordion-fold book installed on a long, glassed-in plinth, which slices across the exhibition space. This sculptural display functions as a symbol of the restricted freedom of movement the wall enforces. Koudelka was allowed to cross the wall numerous times, and in the exhibition catalogue he speaks of his desire to give a balanced perspective (81). For this particular viewer, the very notion of a balanced assessment is impossible, given both the historic and contemporary circumstances. The wall is not simply a mode of division, but is more menacingly a method of exclusion and selective passage, denying sovereignty to Palestinians as it ensures Israel’s security.
In noting the photograph’s uncanny sense of “in-betweeness” and its insistent state of “becoming,” recent scholarship on photography by Raymond Bellour, Kaja Silverman, and others presents a helpful approach to this exhibition and its focus on the uncertainty of “place” in Israel and Palestine. Moving through This Place, I was reminded of Ariella Azoulay’s incisive conception of the “civil contract of photography,” which characterizes the space of photography as inexorably political, where “no sovereign power exists” (The Civil Contract of Photography, New York: Zone Books, 2008, 25) (click here for review). Azoulay discusses at length the way the political sphere is reconstructed through the civil contract, in which, “photographed persons are participant citizens, just the same as I am” (17). An appeal for such an encounter was palpable but not fulfilled by This Place. The photographic project that came closest to enacting a communal sense of obligation was by Wendy Ewald.
Ewald distributed digital cameras to members of fourteen communities throughout Israel and the West Bank in a gesture Cotton interprets as evidence of the artist’s “belief in photography as an empowering act of self-determination” (8). Collaborating with students, teachers, and families across five institutions, including military academies and elementary schools, Ewald assembled a book entitled This Is Where I Live (2008–12), which includes reflections written by the participants. The decision concerning what to photograph was based on what each individual felt was meaningful. A selection, chosen by Ewald, was then printed in small-scale and installed on eye-level shelving in the exhibition. Viewers see intimate moments such as weddings and group prayers, but also sandwiches and selfies. Some directly capture abuses by settlers and the army, while others function more metaphorically by showing objects from everyday life. Their unassuming casualness compels and implicates the viewer. The shared agency of the project offers a remarkable sense of vulnerability.
Jeff Wall’s contribution to This Place provides a distinct counterpoint to Ewald’s cultivation of multiplicity and immediacy. The consummate auteur photographer, Wall’s Daybreak (2011) is an exceptionally controlled, large-scale staged photograph. Inspired by a scene he recalled from an initial visit to Israel, Wall returned to reconstruct a tableau weighted like a parable. Bedouin olive pickers lie fast asleep under the open sky, beneath dusty blankets, on a road that passes around an orchard near a prison. The ominous outline of the penitentiary strikingly lit against the warm glow of dawn on the horizon further dramatizes the paradoxes of freedom.
What is one to make of Wall’s work next to Ewald’s book of images, or of Nick Waplington’s austere survey of Jewish settler families in the West Bank? As a medium, photography possesses a privileged relationship to reality. Unfortunately, despite moments in which “reality” is tested by the works assembled for This Place, the particularities of such privilege are insufficiently interrogated. Further, the exhibition resists historical specificity. Its penchant for poetic allusions comes across not as a productive ambiguity, but rather as a means of evading the systemic violence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The project’s stated aim of seeing Israel as a “metaphor” in order to go beyond myths and stereotypes ultimately obscures the critical capacity for concretely grappling with the stakes of “this place.” Why begin from the point of metaphor when it implicitly leads the engagement away from firm ground? Turning to metaphor to move “beyond” displaces the viewer from locating crucial ethical considerations. Instead, this celebration of the potential of photography averts politics and remains settled within a state of aestheticization.
Assistant Professor, Department of Art and Art History, University of Miami
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