By Alyssa Kapnik
The trip is nearing its end, and it’s just as densely packed and rich now as it was in the beginning. We’ve been together as a group for so many hours, packed and unpacked our bags so many times, that it’s begun to feel like we’ll live as nomads forever.
We begin on Tuesday with a trip to the Center for Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv, a three story building in a quiet neighborhood. Curator Sergio Edelsztein greets us in the lobby, and gives a brief overview of the collection – photographs and video art on all three floors. Video art has been big in Israel for decades, although it took a dip in popularity in the 80s, and watching a swath of videos from Israeli artists is like looking at history through a kaleidoscope. Beautiful and varied, with moments of clarity, truth and facts, and great color.
Israeli artist Dana Levy‘s “The Wake” loops in one small, dark room, and we watch, totally captivated. When we first walked into the room, the film was halfway through, and all we saw were butterflies flitting on the screen. But the film soon ended – it’s five minutes and three seconds long – and we watched it again, all the way through. And then again. The film is beautiful and deeply sad, unexpectedly sad for a film about butterflies with no explicit context or narration.
From the start, we see the delicate focus of the lens, the details and colors in each shot. Levy’s films often involve science and nature, and “The Wake” was shot in the Invertebrate Zoology department of the Carnegie Natural History Museum in Pittsburgh. The only words in the entire work are the title, which show only briefly at the beginning, and then echo throughout the length of it. The film takes place in what feels like a hallway – it’s narrow and dimly lit. Each wall is covered with cases of stunningly beautiful butterflies, pinned down, behind glass, in perfect lines. Cases and cases, rows and rows of butterflies. And slowly, the shots introduce living butterflies as well. 100 living butterflies are released into the room. Levy keeps us close to individuals. One, two, three, perched, waiting, absolutely still. The living butterflies seem hesitant at first, and then, one by one, like children testing their legs, the insects move their wings – stiffly at first, and then fluidly, and lift off the glass and into the room.
It’s almost painful to watch the living butterflies flitting past the dead, and the words “The Wake” continue to haunt the story. They compound the chilling music, the low, hazy lights and the narrow and confining space of the room. The living butterflies are free, alive, flying, but they are still trapped in a narrow space. Butterflies are a symbol for life, rebirth and transformation, and not surprisingly, like much of the art we’ve seen throughout Israel, Levy’s films are unapologetically political. “The Wake” is a likely a reflection of Israel, but I’m not sure whose wake we’re attending. That of the Israeli soldiers who’ve passed? Or are the butterflies the Palestinians? We watch four or five more short films before we leave the museum, and each one only adds to the growing list of questions we’ve been accumulating here in Israel. Where should (and do) we stand, as Jews, as grateful and graciously received visitors, as tourists, as beneficiaries of a Jewish State, in relation to the Palestinians?
The question is complex and difficult, and we never feel fully satisfied when the subject arises and then inevitably falls to the back of the agenda again.
After an hour or two of shopping and wandering around the outdoor Carmel Market, eating Turkish salads and witnessing the tourism industry at its most basic, we come together again to meet with author Eshkol Nevo.
Nevo is named for his grandfather, Levi Eshkol, the third Prime Minister of Israel, and the author is every bit as confident and sophisticated as you might expect the grandson of a great leader to be. Nevo speaks generously and humbly about his experience as a successful Israeli writer, and reads short passages from his book, Homesick, to both tell stories about his own life, and to give a broad sense of what it means to be Israeli. The book takes place in the 1990s, but the themes radiate through contemporary Jewish life in Israel, and it turns out that the book is so relevant today that high schools throughout the entire country require students to take an exam about it.
Nevo is sensitive and deeply connected to the fictional characters in his book, which he thinks is absolutely necessary to writing a great novel. He’s so connected to the six characters in Homesick that he said he once had a terrible feeling that there were important people missing during a birthday celebration for one of his daughters, and it turned out that the people who were missing were the characters from his book. They’d become a part of him, and separate from him. Distinctly human and deeply embedded in his life.
Nevo, like most of the artists we’ve met with thus far, is a fascinating representation of modern Israel. He is attached to the State – could never move away, he said. But he’s also painfully aware of the inherent difficult issues involved with being a Jew in Israel today. In his novel he also deals with the question of what it means to be a Palestinian, as homesickness is part of the Palestinian narrative in Israel as well.
What exactly does “home” mean? A piece of land designated to our forefathers? Given by God? The place where we grew up? A place we’re still seeking and haven’t yet found? How can we be homesick for a home we don’t know? And when we think of home, is it where our parents live and lived, or where we go every night after work? Is home a matter of choice, or circumstance?
Nevo doesn’t answer these questions in our hour together, but as soon as he begins talking, we begin questioning, and as soon as he leaves, we’re left wondering. There’s no closure, only many more open doors. Many more reasons to feel homesick for a home that may not exist.
It’s the middle of the afternoon, and we’re rushing now, on our way to view yet another form of artistic expression: the theater. We’ve got matinee tickets for the Hebrew version of Cabaret, which the Israelis pronounce, “cab-a-rette.” We barely wait at all before the lobby lights blink and we’re ushered to our seats in the middle of the biggest theater in Israel, the Cameri. The play, based in Berlin in 1931, is a force of nature, dipping into questions of sexuality, new love, and the cruelty of man as the Nazis rise to power and the Germans begin to turn on the Jews. It’s especially poignant to watch such a play in the middle of a Jewish city, at the heart of a Jewish state. I’ve not spent much time in my life in public places surrounded by Jews, and it’s a powerful experience. After the play, we meet with some of the creative minds behind the theater, including Eli Bijaoui, the young man who translated Cabaret into Hebrew. His thought was to tell the story of Cabaret, but to add a bit of a twist considering the current state of Jews, and the current status of Israel and the Palestinians. It’s not the Jews who are being persecuted in Israel right now. It’s not the Jews who have been marginalized, or moved out of their homes. Bijaoui’s translation begs the viewer to consider their role in the current situation, and question how the Palestinians are being treated here and now.
Bijaoui’s words hung in the air as we left the theater and went into the warm Tel Aviv night, to move on to our next activity: a reception at the Suzanne Dellal Centre for Dance and Theatre, where we met world-famous dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov and viewed his new collection of photographs.
How quickly we adjust to new artists, new venues, new experiences!
Wednesday morning, our last together in Israel, we visit Shenkar College for Engineering and Design, think broadly about the current state of art in Israel, and make small predictions for the future. This is the second accredited art college in Israel, and it’s growing steadily in reputation and importance.
We move from a brand new institution to a well-established one. We climb to the top floor of an old warehouse building in Tel Aviv, the studio of Zvi Lachman, esteemed sculptor, print-maker and pastel painter. He brings out giant pastels, impressionist paintings involving his wife, his mother, and other unnamed women, along with a Van Gogh-inspired self-portrait. He tells us about his techniques, his history, and what he wants from his works. He’s always got multiple projects going at the same time, and is often making changes to his paintings, even after he’s added fixative and even after he’s shown them to visitors. A painting can transform almost entirely from its inception until he finally sets it behind glass. Lachman is a treat to be around – he’s gentle and unassuming, but confident and sure. He knows his place in Israeli art. We listen quietly, and imagine ourselves bringing his works into our homes, even if only through memories.
We’ve visited these last ten days with a large number and wide variety of impressive artists, all of whom play with and manipulate concepts and language, thought and narrative, materials and emotions. It’s disappointing to realize that after we leave, we’ll go back to the simplicity of our lives, away from this great and growing community of Israeli artists. We are in a distinctly beautiful and unique world when traveling together here in the Promised Land. We have tour guides to give context, and artists to lift us up out of the ordinary. To raise our consciousness beyond history and politics and into the realm of color and imagination. We’re deeply happy here, knowing what we now know.
Our last dinner is in the beautiful, large home of Israeli art collector Serge Tiroche. We walk through the main floor of the house, taking in all of the art hanging on the walls, and then to large balcony overlooking the Port of Jaffa. It’s difficult to believe that we’ll be leaving this all behind, going back to our lives on the other side of the planet. We understand now the deep importance of supporting a steady stream of Israeli artists, and we want to bring everyone we know back to Israel to see for themselves. The Israeli art scene is an immense and growing sea of talent and creativity, and we’re grateful to have submerged ourselves, if only for ten days. We board the plane in Israel feeling that we’ve been a part of something important, here and now, and a we go to the US with a sense of comfort knowing that we’ll be back someday soon.
Alyssa Kapnik also writes her own blog, takes photographs, and works for public radio in San Francisco! What a life!