The Ethical Challenge in the Object Quality of the Problem

In the summer of 2008 Penelope Curtis, advised by Israeli architect and cultural theorist Eyal Weizman, curated an exhibition at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds entitled The Object Quality of the Problem. This exhibition won the Visual Arts Award 2008 at the London Jewish Cultural Awards. The citation by the proposing judge, Jeremy Lewison, reads:

Above all the exhibition eloquently and quietly laid bear the dilemmas faced by diaspora Jews in the face of the Palestinian-Israeli problem: how do we judge our fellow Jews who commit acts that in British society we would deplore; how long can we go on making allowances for the Holocaust in condoning belligerent behaviour? In indirectly raising such issues this exhibition makes a valuable contribution to Jewish culture in the United Kingdom.

I suppose I disagree. [hidepost]It was not an exhibition to assuage the divided loyalities or anguished political consciences of diaspora Jews. Rather it invited visitors to explore through art a historically created territorial conflict and the process of living ‘on the ground’ in a world stratified by failed policies on both sides. The Object Quality of the Problem thus represents an important event for the art world. It is also an opportunity to consider creative ways forward out of the suffering of the Israeli/Palestinian peoples whose destinies and traumas have become glued together.
This exhibition showed two photographic installations and four film installations. Sculpture?  Lens based media, more likely. Art? Some visitors saw only video documentary rather than art. Yet the proposition was that neither the medium nor the manner were the point. These photographic/filmic/video images could, and did, disclose a spatial and a relational quality in the problem, a certain conceptual dimension relating to the living in and reflecting upon places in conflict.
The problem referred to in the title is Israel/Palestine, but according to this exhibition it may be the slash itself that is the problem. The slash refers to the arbitrary border created by dividing one co-inhabited space into two contrived political territories; old-fashioned borders on the ground, even marked by fences or concrete walls, cannot begin to comprehend entwined histories. The problem is not the border itself but what it is trying to resolve: contested claims to a single territorial arena. It begs the question: can defensible, secure boundaries possibly maintain two territorially incoherent national entities?
The border, here, is experienced as a wound, dividing into two what some dream of being only one. This border, any border will always be a scar, reminding the two parties of their separation while at the same time suturing them to each other, reminding everyone of a severance from a shared past. The exhibition never takes an explicitly political position, although the two state-solution is discussed by some authors. More it is an exploration of the underlying, even unconscious, imaginative ideas about wholeness and mutilation.
No art can take the place of a political solution to a conflict, but genuine artistic exploration may affect the imaginative space in which new and more lasting political solutions can emerge. Encounters through art may unblock negative repetitions of the past which are invested with contradictory fantasies of wholeness or separateness. Jewish dreams of restored religious nationhood preserved imaginatively from the time prior to the Roman occupation and destruction vie with different Jewish dreams of modern socialist nation-building, in deeply antagonistic ways within the  contemporary Israeli imagination.
At the opening of the exhibition I was introduced to Lidwien van de Ven, a Dutch artist exhibiting a series of large black-and-white photographs. These  were all taken from the point on Mount Nebo where Moses is believed to have stood to survey the Promised Land across the Jordan into which he would never cross. Today it is a panorama point from which tourists may identify biblical landmarks. Radiating like spokes of a wheel, lines shoot off towards Jericho, Ramalah, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Qumran. The dramatic panorama reveals no human presence, except a single unidentifiable driver on the ribbon of a modern tarmac road. Standing beside his car and looking around, he is a tiny human presence in an historic and ancient landscape. The first photograph bears the caption: The Promised Land, written in English, and beneath this title is written, in Arabic, Palestine.  The latter is the name of a would-be national entity, promised politically by the UN in 1947, rejected as an incomplete promise in 1947 by a coalition of Arab nations.
The myth of Canaan as the Promised Land was not a myth of colonising a terra nullius. Far from being empty, Canaan was surveyed and found to be full of giants and other warlike peoples who had to be militarily subdued. The myth of entry into the Promised Land was created retrospectively by a much later, military monarchy. This settled, agricultural, urban-based monarchy chose to justify its claims to the land – in an era of ongoing invasion and conquest – by creating its own mythical pre-history of pre-urban nomadism. At one point in the film Route 181, by Sivan and Khelifi, a resident of southern Israel declares simply: ‘There was a war; we won. Let’s get on with it. That’s history.’  Such realism owes much to colonial history that lent right to might, a history that also pertains to the Hispanisation of  Latin  America, and the Europeanisation of North America, Australia and New Zealand, whose indigenous peoples now claim rights and reparation without anyone conceiving of wholesale decolonisation by the white folks of the US or Australia.
Lidwien van de Ven’s photographic series challenged me to a considerable rethink of the relations of vistas, with their masterful point of survey, to the military conquest and its radical rewriting of histories. Promising land seems to be linked both mythically and contemporaneously with becoming a nation. Having a state entails territorial control which means either defining a border or calling for a bi-national state promised variously over history and throughout the twentieth century to both parties. The artist told me: ‘Within two minutes of any conversation, I can tell which side the person is on.’ Sides of the border, aligned with the cause of the one or the other. That familiar logic again. She had me immediately. There was no neutral space offered by the artworks or for most of us who came to the show. Yet the exhibition itself was a created space for imaginative travelling and being moved across borders and along imaginary lines of real division.
The works in the exhibition are all about lines and the lives changed by and lived across those lines. Emily Jacir shows a two-part video piece, Crossing Surda (2002), filmed by a secret camera carried in her bag on her two-hour walk to work at Birzeit University through the crossing at Surda. The safe fixity usually enjoyed by a camera surveying or tracking is destabilised here by real-time mobile filming, inducing a seasick sensation with the motion of the artist.  A small TV screen on the floor at an angle to the main screen replays the footage in slow motion, allowing a different kind of reflection on crossing the checkpoint: the surfaces of the road, the noises, the obstacles, the unrecognisability of this crashed, denatured urban no-person’s land filled with blocks, parked cars and marching pedestrians. This is not the Manhattan high-powered stream of human activity nor Kolkatta’s noisy stream of chaotic traffic. The emptiness, unfilled by the energies of people or traffic, transforms the motion of this woman’s walk into a vivid, excruciating experience without a single word being uttered.
Francis Alÿs also performs a walk, tracing Moshe Dayan’s pencilled ceasefire line in 1948 on a map of Jerusalem. Walking with a punctured paint can that leaks a stream of lime green paint, he traces the line drawn in coloured pencil on the map, the thickness of 1 cm that results in an area of about 60-80 metres wide that is now completely invisible. In Sometimes doing something poetical can be political and sometimes doing something political can be poetical (2005), Alÿs lays his green trail among bemused inhabitants of various parts of Jerusalem while on a small monitor with touch-screen facility the viewer can select any of eleven conversations to lay over this performance. Each conversation bears witness to the abstract barriers dividing those who live on either side of this mythical line. The work maintains a safe distance, locating itself in the realm of performance–based research in a way that Jacir’s neo-concrete (in all senses of the word) cannot.
The major work in the exhibition is Route 181, a four-and-a-half-hour film by Palestinian filmmaker Michel Khelifi, based in Brussels, and Israeli filmmaker Eyal Sivan, formerly based in Paris and now in London. This is a road movie in three parts which follows the UN’s decree 181 — the proposed green line from north to south — interviewing whomever is met along the route. At four and a half hours, it is not going to be experienced in its entirety by most viewers. The three parts are devoted to the south, the centre and the north, sketching a cultural as well as a socio-political geography whose inflamed junction is the central section where the green line runs through intensely settled and painfully contested conurbations. The film starts in Eilat with two hard-headed Israeli construction bosses now using Chinese labour instead of Palestinian workers. It ends at the Lebanese border, in an interview with Tunisian Jews wishing they had never come to Israel. In the south, there is a long discussion with an Arab woman hanging on in isolation to her home. In the north there are fewer examples of lived-in dwellings but plenty of abandoned houses and derelict clusters of emptied villages. There is one cheery story of a happy Arab-Israeli olive farmer who dared to move the line when the troops came to mark the border so as to make it bulge around his olive groves and keep them intact.
Interim footage of the car on the road gives the viewer repeated glimpses of the wall and the fence representing in concrete form the proposed line of the new policy of separation. With its bi-national directors, the film was able to meet each community in its own language, allowing for a transparency, an intimacy even, which revealed, among other aspects, the extent of the nationalists on both sides.The film created a scandal in France when first transmitted in ARTE in 2003. Attempts to ban it were fuelled by critical attacks sufficient to lead Sivan to sue Alain Finkelkraut for libel, with Claude Lanzmann himself appearing as the witness for the latter because of what he felt was an outrageous ‘mimicking’ of his film, Shoah. Most of the commentaries about this case suggest that, once again, Jewish communities came uncritically to the defence of Israel. What the film’s critics missed (and hence dismissed as mere poetic meddling into politics) is the unique and specific nature of a work of art when it confronts an issue of such seriousness.
At the moment I am working with Max Silverman on an AHRC-funded research project entitled Concentrationary Memories: The Politics of Representation in which we consider the politics of aesthetic strategies generated after, and as a resistance to, the political terror system that French political deportee and concentration camp survivor David Rousset dubbed the ‘concentrationary universe’ in this book of that title, published in 1947. Not identical with the Final Solution’s dedicated factories of death, the ‘concentrationary universe’ opened a new and terrifying epoch in human history in which, according to Hannah Arendt’s definition of this new totalitarianism, everything is possible.  In examining the cinematic engagements with the concentration camp in the first decades after 1945, when the specificity of the Nazi genocide of Jewish and Roma Europeans was not yet distilled into its named contour ‘The Holocaust’ or ‘The Shoah’, our project has drawn upon a review by director Jacques Rivette, written in 1962, of Gillo Pontecorvo’s fiction film Kapo (1959). Rivette demanded three things: that artists/filmmakers think deeply before addressing a subject of such seriousness as death; that artists/filmmakers approach big subjects with fear and thus incorporate some critical self-interrogation into their very practice; and that they realise that the attitude they instill into their own filmmaking at the level of the shot will incline the viewer’s attitude to the subject overall.
Before having read any of the criticism of the libel case about Route 181, I had spontaneously felt the invocation and rewriting in Route 181 of Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah: the monumental nine-and-a-half-hour film of a journey across Europe, to the US and to Israel to find the few remaining witnesses to the attempted genocide of European Jewry. This invocation of another iconic cinematic event — Lanzmann defines it as a work of art — layered the Israeli road trip in Route 181, negatively, with the memory of the Shoah. The link is clearly not there to link Israel historically with the Holocaust, but to suggest that Israel was now behaving like the perpetrator, in a new kind of destruction.
Watching Route 181 I was left with a feeling of despair if not horror about Israelis and Israel. I could not help it. Writing now, I am trying to understand how this effect had been produced by the film and to explain to myself what was the unspoken ‘attitude’ generated in the viewer by the film’s active seeking out of the shadow of the Shoah and of Shoah.
The place where open-ended ethnographic research moves into manipulation is the point in which the filmmakers repeatedly propose two texts to their Israeli interviewees. One is the story of King Solomon’s famous judgement over the baby claimed by two mothers. The false mother acceded to his proposal to cut the child in two, thus killing it. Only the true mother preferred her child’s life over her need to claim her rights to it. This story is used to suggest that it is only the Israelis with their racist, colonising greed who block a reunified, multi-ethnic and multi-religous state like those of former Arab-dominated regimes. What is the imaginative and metaphorical schema of this story? How does the introduction of a maternal metaphor shape our understanding of the parties locked into this excruciating conflict? Is it just? Relevant? Apposite?
The other text that seemed to shape the interviewer-filmmakers was by Hannah Arendt in the form of her notoriously misunderstood analysis of the Eichmann trial, subtitled the ‘Banality of Evil’.(Sivan’s earlier film is about this trial.) By this phrase Arendt did not mean that the evil perpetrated by the Nazis was banal, and hence less heinous. Instead she was proposing two different arguments. One is that the crime of the Nazis was so excessive that the existing judicial system, based on the hitherto known range of motivations for human evil, did not have a punishment to hand out that was congruent with the extremity of the crime.  Another danger loomed, however, in endowing Nazism with a demonic power against whose mythicisation Arendt ardently wished to struggle. The second argument was not that Eichmann was a bureaucrat who was simply following orders. The true horror of this man lay in his complete thoughtlessness, his incapacity for thought indexed by the locked world of meaningless clichés in which he lived his linguistically and morally restricted life.  Evil was thence banal, not demonic, and banal because it was sustained by no motivation, however racist, no vision, however distorted. This was what made it so truly terrifying.
At one point, the filmmakers ask a young IDF soldier manning a checkpoint if he has read Hannah Arendt. If so, they ask, has he recognized that by obeying orders unquestioningly he is behaving towards Palestinians in the Occupied Territories like Eichmann in the planned and sustained annihilation of the Jews? This easy equation is dangerously ‘banal’ and embodies a worrying thoughtlessness at the level of politics and historical understanding of the context of the statement.
My unease with this aspect of the film is not simply a matter of censoring any criticism of the State of Israel as critics such as Anna Dezeuze would have it, or as Maureen Murphy suggests in her review of responses to Route 181 for Jerusalemites. It is not a matter of failing to see that there are hardened racists in Israeli society as there are among Jews the world over. What I want to bring out is the question of our deep responsibility to the words and images we use in order to illuminate a situation so politically blocked and so geo-physically entrenched. Did this situation really arise out of old-fashioned colonisation or did the Israeli colonisation only become a strategy after 1967? Is there a danger in projecting that failed post-1967 policy and its difficult legacies back on to 1948 and even before on to a world circa 1900 characterised by major migration and population movements worldwide? Is the present situation of occupation and dominating separation the same as a genocide? No. Is there a diminution of rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for those trapped in and blocked by walling off the West Bank?Undoubtedly.  Are the settlements untenable? Yes. Are Israelis aware of what life is like in the territories? Almost certainly not. Living in denial is a typical feature of negotiating life in blocked realities. Reprehensible?Yes. But is it obscene in the way the film invites us to experience it?
What is specific about works of art is that they assume a responsibility towards both what they  represent and the influence upon the reader/viewer’s response. All artists are entitled to their views, perspectives and politics. Indeed, part of the vitality of art is its intervention into culture, its shaking up of the givens and its disturbing of our safe, unthinking places. But in relation to matters of life and death, great caution and an ethical respect for the power of art is necessary.
So I examine this exhibition from the point of view of the art historian and art critic: what was the effect on the viewer of seeing these works?  Which works opened me? Which merely told me something already known?  Which misled me, even for good and necessary reasons? Unexpectedly I found Emily Jacir’s physically explicit, wordless, commentary-free record of a two-hour walk to and from work the most effective work in shattering any residual complacency. Francis Alÿs’s work was elegant and ultimately useful for the weft of words and woof of positions generated around his otherwise meaningless personal insertion into an indifferent space. Daniel Bauer’s photomontages made sense only having read Eyal Weizmann’s fascinating text on the spatial politics of the two intertwined worlds, but the meanings were not sustained without this analysis.
Route 181: Fragments of a Journey in Israel-Palestine was denounced in France for incitement to kill Jews by suggesting that Israel had no right to exist and hence its citizens no justification for being there. Was this a possible effect of the film? If so, does the case for dignity, safety and self-determination for the Palestinians depend on such a representation of Israel and the Israelis as bad mothers and Eichmann-like performers of genocidal orders? I do not doubt for a moment any of the encounters in the film. Nor would I dispute the need for such works in all their challenging disclosure of horrifying truths. But I cannot reconcile myself to the effects of its montage, its shooting and the echoes of other films about other histories that it mobilised for its own unspoken interpretation of the present crisis.
If the exhibition aimed to bring out the Object Quality of the Problem, for me it certainly highlighted the value of engaging with this major historical-political agony in terms of the reframings that aesthetic practices, particularly those requiring our time to travel with these artists, can provide. Through intelligent montage or bare-faced recording they can disclose obscured relations and smothered meanings. But at the same time, this encounter indicated that if the artworks are not read carefully for their attitudes, their effects, the ethical dimension of formal, semiotic and affective choices, it is all too easy to slip into a dangerously imprecise soup of misused words and unspoken innuendo. Whatever is happening in the shared space of Israel-Palestine, it should be approached, as Rivette suggested to his own contemporaries, with fear and trembling and with deep self-interrogation. The claimed object quality of the problem is insufficient if it merely raises the issue of space through images of invasion, conquest, emptiness and fantasies of past wholeness. Art has the power to affect us as well as to solicit deep thought and deeper feelings of connection and compassion. It is for me the ethical quality of the aesthetic problem that remains, especially with a topic like this. The recurring and acknowledged euphemisms heavy with older tropes about ‘aggressive reactions from highly vocal and powerful spokesmen of the Jewish community’ against the critics of Israel are symptoms of a new kind of thoughtlessness. If Israel/Palestine is to have a future, it has to acknowledge both historical realities and the realities history has delivered to both peoples to live.

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Griselda Pollock is an art historian and cultural analyst at the University of Leeds where she directs the transdisciplinary Centre for Cultural Analysis, Theory and History.

The Object Quality of the Object won the London Jewish Cultural Centre 2008 Award for Visual Art.

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