The Art of Life: Art & Culture Tour of Israel, Days 6 & 7

By Alyssa Kapnik

We begin our Monday with a trip to the Negev Museum of Art in Be’er Sheva.  Another former Arab city, Be’er Sheva is heavily populated with Bedouins and Palestinians, and for the first time on the tour, I see women clothed in full burqas.  It’s hot outside.  I can’t imagine walking around fully covered like they are.  It’s not just that it’s hot and they’re covered – absolutely covered – in black fabric.  It’s that they look transformed under all that cover.  They have no figure, no separate identity as such.  This is likely part of the design of the burqa, but for days now, long days, speaking to painters and sculptors, videographers and even the installation artists, we’ve been talking and hearing about figures, individuals.

Sometimes in a work of art, the absence of a figure or an individual makes a greater impact than the presence of one.

The Negev Museum of Art is in a building that was constructed in 1906 for the Turkish Governor during the Ottoman reign of Israel.  The facade of the building is beautiful and classic – arches and Jerusalem stone.  But the inside of the building was remodeled in 2004, and the changes leave the museum in the unusual and beautiful space between historic and modern, ancient and new.

Artist Sigalit Landau meets us in front the museum to talk to us about each piece in her one-woman show.  The entire art museum has been filled with her art, and we listen, following her from room to room, captivated, for hours.  We begin with “The Sculpture Shelter,” a five-meter tall bronze cast of the entrance and staircase into a public Tel Aviv bomb shelter.  Landau has the sculpture set up on a giant cement platform on the front lawn of the museum, and it stands like a stairway to nowhere.  The way she’s constructed it, open at both the bottom and top of the staircase, and because it sits above ground, we are all at once witnessing the shelter as outsiders, and in a sense, seeing out into the world from inside the bomb shelter.  From the bottom of the bronze staircase, we look out to the bright blue sky.

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Landau’s been seriously affected by living in a war zone her whole life, and not only does her work reflect it, but she speaks about it openly as she walks us through the exhibit.  She doesn’t believe women should be required to serve in the army, especially as it is now, where Israeli women soldiers have to fight to protect men who won’t serve in the army.  “I am a feminist,” she says, by way of reassurance.  It seems a bit silly that she would have to tell us this explicitly, considering the subject of much of her work.  Video art and bronze sculptures of the Three Graces, women suffering and bare, stretched and suspended in time.  And then there’s the reconstruction installation on the top floor of the museum: a 1950s Israeli kitchen, where the stove burners have been replaced with speakers playing four different voices of four different women in Landau’s life.  It’s impossible not to believe that the artist is a true feminist.  Her work is an orchestral celebration of women.

But these two concepts appear to contradict one another.  How can a modern feminist believe that women should be exempt from military service and men not?  Why shouldn’t women have an equal obligation to fight?  It seems less an intellectual argument for Landau than an emotional one.  In a country where war is a matter of fact, a matter of everyday life, this is not an uncommon discussion.  Landau served in the Israeli army decades ago, but the pain of fighting, of carrying a machine gun, of the added fear, responsibilities and stress, still deeply move the artist, and I am inclined to agree with her.  Not because I think women require extra dispensation, and not that I necessarily believe that women are always more sensitive than men, but because I can’t imagine living with a requirement to fight.  I can’t imagine carrying a gun, the added fear, responsibilities and stress.

We discussed this as a group as we drove away from the Negev Museum of Art and Sigalit Landau, and came to no sort of conclusion.  Just the muddy confusion of varying opinions and moral obscurity.

Landau’s work isn’t only focused on women, but all of her work seems political in one way or another.   Even the apparently innocuous bicycle covered in two months worth of salt from the Dead Sea is a precursor to a future project she wants to do with building a Dead Sea salt-covered bridge from Israel to Jordan.  Where does she want to build the bridge?  She doesn’t know, but laughs telling us, “Somewhere good.”  Somewhere where it will make an impact.  She doesn’t waste her time, or that of her staff – she’s got ten salaries to pay.

The reality of the war is often overwhelming.  So many of the artists speak about it through their work, and then we pass checkpoints, officer training camps, groups of young soldiers waiting for the bus, individuals in civilian clothing with M16s casually slung over their shoulders.  After Be’er Sheva, we were scheduled to visit Sderot, the city closest – less than a mile away – to the Gaza Strip, and often the target of the Qassam rockets.  But Monday morning, dozens of rockets were fired at Sderot, and so, with heavy hearts, we turned back to Tel Aviv.

Instead we visited the Diaspora Museum, and went back to the hotel for a bit of rest before dinner and a workshop in Gaga, an Israeli modern dance technique.

Tel Aviv is truly a beautiful city, and difficult to pin down.  Public art is nearly ubiquitous, some apparently planned and some not, covering fences, buildings, walls. An entire block, and the cars parked in the street, all covered in a continuous mural.  Sculptures and fountains, flags and installations.

It seems to us, in our second week of exploring Israel artist by artist that the country has been enveloped by paint.  By copper plates and printing presses, by sculpting clay and dance routines.  It seems to us that art is politics and economics, art is land and justice.  And it’s a beautiful thing to see our world through such a scope.

Alyssa Kapnik also writes her own blog, takes photographs, and works for public radio in San Francisco!  What a life!

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