Time Out New York, April 10-17, 2003




Get real

Two contemporary Israeli artists subvert the documentary tradition

By David Deitcher



Thanks to the ubiquity of digital manipulation and the success of postmodernist critiques, nobody seems to take photography’s ability to inspire belief seriously anymore. During the 1980s, Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince were among the many emerging postmodernists who developed deconstructionist strategies to undermine photography’s ostensible veracity that have since become de rigeur in vanguard art. At stake was the way that photography’s power to convince makes prevailing (and frequently unjust) social and political conditions seem natural and thus immutable. But now something else may be at stake: photography’s capacity to bear witness to actual events. These thoughts come to mind after seeing the work of two Israeli-born artists at neighboring Chelsea galleries.

Omer Fast’s show at Postmasters includes two video installations. A Tank Translated (2002) is a quartet of video monitors, each showing an interview with one of the four young crew members of an Israeli army tank, shot in medium close-up and conducted in Hebrew. The combination of overlapping voices and low volume makes it hard even for Hebrew speakers to understand what’s being said. Speed readers can catch the interviewee’s words on English subtitles at the bottom of each screen – or some of their words, anyway. Fast “disrupts” the flow of language by causing some words suddenly to vanish and others just as suddenly to be replaced with words the speaker never spoke, in order to emphasize the artificial nature of the interview – its status as a kind of cinematic genre. The logic behind this tactic, which renders the content of what was said largely incomprehensible, is consistent with the critique of documentary film that paralleled postmodern art’s assault on photographic “truth.”

Fast continues his reflexive ways in the gallery’s second room, where two wall-mounted monitors show evocative footage of a desolate Eastern European city and interviews in which Polish men and women expound on their understanding of the racial characteristics that led them to be “selected.” Given the context, one initially assumes that they mean being selected for concentration camp. But the work’s title – Spielberg’s List (2003) – along with the youthfulness of some interview subjects and occasional references to their destinies as either Jews of Germans, eventually lead one to realize that these Poles were chosen not for internment in a nearby historic death camp but for roles as “extras” in the Auschwitz segment of Schindler’s List. From Fast’s installation we learn that Spielberg staged his mass deportation of the Jews to his faux death camp in the wrong direction because anachronistic-looking postwar urban development lay in the historically accurate direction, and that tourists on Schindler’s List bus tours now visit the abandoned site of Spielberg’s “concentration camp.” Whoever said that irony is dead must be staying away from Chelsea.

If this work is objectionable – and I think that it is – it’s not because it trivializes the Holocaust. It’s because it smugly suggests an equivalence between the theater of war and the theatricality of a Hollywood movie in a way that (presumably) unintentionally, yet still heedlessly, participates in the nullification of historical memory.

This vaudeville of historical memory assumes a different form in Adi Nes’s seductive color photographs of hot Israeli youths now showing at Jack Shainman. A group of dreamy guys in olive drab doze tenderly in each other’s arms in one of the show’s many paeans to homosocial eroticism. One hardly needs to be told that Nes’s photographs are elaborately staged mise-en-scènes. Tintoretto’s Death of Adonis informs his image of women mourning over a dead youth whose body lies in a dusty street, while a photograph of muscular soldiers up to their chests in water refers to an iconic 1967 Life magazine picture of Israeli soldiers bathing in the Suez Canal. But it is contemporary exemplars like Collier Schorr and Jeff Wall who really haunt Nes’s work, underscoring its predictability in an art world that, given the present geopolitical crisis, needs to rethink some cherished assumptions about how art and photography can best address the mess that we’re in.