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What Remains? A Critical Historiography of 1960s–70s Israeli Lost Performance-Based Works

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 July 2020

Dror Harari*
Affiliation:
Department of Theater Arts, Tel Aviv University
*
Corresponding author. Email: drorh@tauex.tau.ac.il

Extract

To understand performance art of the past is to grapple with the fact that this art was designed to be lost. That is to say, it purposefully aspired to the condition of the lost work of art.

Type
Articles
Copyright
Copyright © American Society for Theatre Research 2020

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Footnotes

This research was supported by the Israel Science Foundation (grant no. 555/14). I would like to extend my thanks to the artists Dov Or Ner, Micha Ullman, and Motti Mizrachi for their generosity with their time and for giving me access to their personal archives. Unless otherwise indicated, translations from the Hebrew are mine.

References

Notes

1 Lambert-Beatty, Carrie, “Documentary Dialectics: Performance Lost and Found,” in Live Art on Camera: Performance and Photography, ed. Maude-Roxby, Alice (Southampton: University of Southampton, John Hansard Gallery, 2007), 94102Google Scholar, at 95; emphasis in original.

2 Harari, Dror, “From Object to Performance in Israeli Art: A Historiography,” TDR: The Drama Review 62.4 (Winter 2018): 4163CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3 Kirby, Michael, “The New Theatre,” Tulane Drama Review 10.2 (1965): 2343CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 41.

4 Harari, Dror, “The Historiography of Undocumented Israeli Performance Art,” Theatre Annual 65 (2012): 3550Google Scholar.

5 Phelan, Peggy, Unmarked: The Politics of Performance (London and New York: Routledge, 1993), 146Google Scholar. Lambert-Beatty writes that “theories of ‘live art’ have . . . been written around the ing, locating the meaning of performance solely in the vivid moment of its presence” (94; emphasis in original).

6 Lambert-Beatty, 95.

7 Phelan, 146.

8 Lambert-Beatty, 95; emphasis in original.

9 Rebecca Schneider, to mention only one example, questions the validity and priority of the material record in performance historical discourse. She maintains that if we approach performance “as both the act of remaining and a means of reappearance (though not a metaphysics of presence) we almost immediately are forced to admit that remains do not have to be isolated to the document, to the object, to bone versus flesh.” Schneider, Rebecca, “Archives Performance Remains,” Performance Research 6.2 (2001): 100–8CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 103.

10 Lambert-Beatty, 94.

11 See Ilana Tenenbaum, “On Television and the Projected Image in Israeli Art,” in Video Zero—Communication Interferences: The First Generation of Projected Images, exh. cat., cur. Ilana Tenenbaum (Haifa: Haifa Museum of Art, 2003), 47–60 [Hebrew].

12 Gabi Klasmer, personal interview with author, Beit Berl College, Faculty of Arts–HaMidrasha, 3 August 2016.

13 Berger and Santone write that “with documentation, artists had the potential to record, elaborate, or even generate works or ideas, but the portability and cheapness of its materials helped artists communicate those ideas to larger international audiences and expressed a political desire for the ‘de-commodification of art.’” Berger, Christian and Santone, Jessica, “Documentation as Art Practice in the 1960s,” Visual Resources 32.3–4 (2016): 201–9CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 204.

14 Bedford, Christopher, “The Viral Ontology of Performance,” in Perform, Repeat, Record: Live Art in History, ed. Jones, Amelia and Heathfield, Adrian (Bristol, UK, and Chicago: Intellect, 2012), 7787Google Scholar, at 77–8; emphasis in original.

15 For discussions on the iconic status of certain images and selection strategies see, for example, Barbara Büscher, “Lost & Found: Archiving Performance,” MAP—Media/Archive/Performance, February 2009, www.perfomap.de/map1/ii.-archiv-praxis/lost-found-archiving-performance (accessed 1 December 2018); Happersberger, Sarah, “Icons of the Performance Still: Photographic Staging of Happenings by Heinrich Riebesehl and Ute Klophaus,” in Stedelijk Studies 3 (2015)Google Scholar, www.stedelijkstudies.com/journal/icons-of-the-performance-still-happersberger/ (accessed 1 December 2018). On “the problem of the iconic image,” see Auslander, Philip, Reactivations: Essays on Performance and Its Documentation (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2018), 83CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

16 See Schwartz, Joan M. and Cook, Terry, “Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory,” Archival Science 2.1 (2002): 119CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

17 This was one of the first exhibitions in Israel to introduce live art inside a museum. See Harari, Dror, “Curator Yona Fischer and the Transition from Object to Performance in Israeli Art of the 1960s–1970s,” Text and Performance Quarterly 37.3–4 (2017): 220–38CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

18 The exhibition took place during the holiday of Hanukkah, commemorating the Maccabean revolt (167–160 bce) against the Seleucid Empire and the Hellenic culture forced on the Jewish community in Palestine (hence the participation of wrestlers, alluding to the ancient Greek sport). By implicating this historical memory, Mizrachi's piece responded to the growing Americanization of Israeli culture in the 1970s.

19 Historian Gideon Ofrat misrepresented this work: “Motti Mizrachi brought to the museum a group of Georgian wrestlers who wrestled in front of a printed speech of Ben Gurion.” No printed speech by Ben Gurion was present in that piece. Ofrat, Gideon, “The New Jerusalem School,” in The Story of Israel's Art, ed. Tamuz, Binyamin (Tel Aviv: Masada, 1980), 277327Google Scholar, at 310 [Hebrew].

20 This three-part retrospective comprised the following exhibitions: “‘The Eyes of the Nation’: Visual Art in a Country without Boundaries,” at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art (cur. Ellen Ginton); “The Boundaries of Language,” also at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art (cur. Mordechai Omer); and “Tikkun [Repairing],” at the Genia Schreiber Tel Aviv University Art Gallery (cur. Mordechai Omer).

21 Mordechai Omer, the director-general and principal curator of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art at the time of these exhibitions, passed away in 2011, and it is impossible to obtain his version of the story.

22 Philip Auslander, “The Performativity of Performance Documentation,” in Perform, Repeat, Record, ed. Jones and Heathfield, 47–58.

23 It says: “Mizrachi probably created a performance art piece that combined photographs and a slide projector.” None of these elements was included in this piece. “Open Workshop” entry in Wikipedia: https://he.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D7%A1%D7%93%D7%A0%D7%94_%D7%A4%D7%AA%D7%95%D7%97%D7%94 (accessed 5 November 2019) [Hebrew].

24 Motti Mizrachi, official website: https://mottimizrachi.com/about/ (accessed 13 June 2020).

25 See Harari, “From Object to Performance,” 44–6.

26 Noa Avron Barak, “Mashkof Group, 1968–1970: Group Creativity and Relocation in the Field” (M.A. thesis, Tel Aviv University, 2015) [Hebrew].

27 Indeed, several art critics who reviewed the 10+ group's exhibitions were also artists and occasionally participated in these exhibitions.

28 For example, in the prominent Israeli curator Yigal Zalmona's encyclopedic book 100 Years of Israeli Art, there is a relatively lengthy discussion on Lavie and his art, which proceeds to a separate, shorter discussion on 10+, yet there is no mention of Mashkof in the book. Zalmona, Yigal, 100 Years of Israeli Art (Jerusalem: Israel Museum, 2010) [Hebrew]Google Scholar.

29 It is worth mentioning here that while there have been retrospective exhibitions of the work of dominant art groups that had left their impression on the Israeli art field, such as Ofakim Hadashim (New Horizons, active 1948–63) and 10+, no such exhibition or writing has so far been devoted to the pioneering intermedial and highly performative art of Mashkof.

30 At that time, this book was one of the few publications that, to quote Ofrat, “pretended to reflect the development of Israeli art from its beginning.” Gideon Ofrat, “The Chronicle of Israeli Art's Historiography: The Historiography of the Art in Israel 1939–2014” (2014), https://gideonofrat.wordpress.com/2014/03/24 (accessed 27 October 2018) [Hebrew].

31 Ofrat, “New Jerusalem School,” 304.

32 Ofrat's use of the term “New Jerusalem School”—a witty name evoking the New York School art movement—reflects and discursively asserts the shift in Jerusalem's geopolitical status after the Six-Day War, and bears, perhaps unintentionally, theological connotations. See also Ellen Ginton, “‘The Eyes of the Nation’: Visual Art in a Country without Boundaries,” in Perspectives on Israeli Art of the Seventies:The Eyes of the Nation”—Visual Art in a Country without Boundaries, exh. cat., cur. Ellen Ginton (Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv Museum of Art, 1998) [Hebrew and English], 324–289, at 314. [Note: Hebrew texts read right to left and are paginated in reverse order from accompanying English texts.]

33 Ofrat had experienced the vibe of American neo-avant-garde theatre while studying at Brown University in the late 1960s.

34 “When I presented the thesis that performance practices first appeared in Jerusalem, I was beheaded in Tel Aviv . . . they said they had done such things before.” Gideon Ofrat, personal interview, Jerusalem, 4 July 2006. Recently, Ofrat considered his witty designation, the New Jerusalem School, an “unfortunate” one; see https://gideonofrat.wordpress.com/2019/05/07/ (accessed 13 June 2020) [Hebrew].

35 Harari, “Curator Yona Fischer.”

36 Ofrat, “Chronicle of Israeli Art's Historiography.”

37 Rather, Ofrat's concern in this text (ibid.) is to point at what he identifies as a certain rift between the art field and academia in Israel, whose scholars of art history have tended to neglect the local scene.

38 Ofrat, “New Jerusalem School,” 312.

39 Azoulay, Ariella, TRAining for ART: Critique of Museal Economy (Tel Aviv: Porter Institute for Poetics and Semiotics, Tel Aviv University, HaKibbutz HaMeuchad, 1999), 156 [Hebrew]Google Scholar. Also, between 1993 and 2003 Breitberg-Semel was the editor in chief of Studio—Israeli Magazine of Art, the most significant Israeli art journal at the time and an important platform for reviews, interviews, and critical writing on local art. See Osnat Zukerman Rechter, “The Curatorial Act: Curatorial Practices in the Art Field in Israel” (Ph.D. diss., Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2014), 179–81 [Hebrew].

40 Sara Breitberg-Semel, “The Want of Matter: A Quality in Israeli Art” [1986], HaMidrasha 2 (May 1999): 257–82 [Hebrew]; Sara Breitberg-Semel, “Identical Twins and the Model of Modernism in Israeli Art,” Studio—Israeli Magazine of Art 35 (July–August 1992): 24–7 [Hebrew].

41 Breitberg-Semel implicates here the common view that because of religious restrictions there was hardly any Jewish art prior to Jewish secularization in the nineteenth century. Such a view has been put into question by recent historiographies of Jewish art and theatre. See, for example: Bland, Kalman P., The Artless Jew: Medieval and Modern Affirmations and Denials of the Visual (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000)Google Scholar; Bial, David, ed., Cultures of the Jews: A New History (New York: Schocken Books, 2002), xix–xxGoogle Scholar; Lipshitz, Yair, Theatre and Judaism (London: Red Globe, 2019), 21–9Google Scholar.

42 Breitberg-Semel, “Identical Twins,” 24.

43 Sara Breitberg-Semel, “A Turning Point,” in A Turning Point—12 Israeli Artists, exh. cat., cur. Sara Breitberg-Semel (Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv Museum of Art, 1981), 4–6, at 4 [Hebrew].

44 Ibid., 4. Interestingly, unlike the other artists in this group exhibition, neither Mizrachi nor Bluzer was introduced with a biography in the catalog.

45 Ibid., 5.

46 See also Azoulay, 144–59.

47 Ginton, 323.

48 Ginton, 317.

49 See Harari, “From Object to Performance,” 49–50.

50 Micha Ullman, personal interview, Ramat HaSharon, 13 July 2015.

51 Uri Ram, “A Decade of Turmoil: Israeli Society and Politics in the Seventies,” in “The Eyes of the Nation,” 346–326, at 346.

52 In fact, this exhibition could be seen as the fourth part of the major retrospective of 1998. A generous part of the preface to its exhibition catalog was copy-pasted from the preface to the catalog(s) of the 1998 retrospective; Omer, Mordechai, ed., My Own Body: Art in Israel, 1968–1978, exh. cat., cur. Mordechai Omer (Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv Museum of Art, 2008) [Hebrew]Google Scholar. Osnat Zukerman Rechter suggests that through this exhibition Omer extended, as a curator, his hold on the interpretation of 1970s art, as well as his association with the artists who had been active in those years; Zukerman Rechter, 258–9.

53 Tamar Hermann, “The 1970s,” My Own Body, ed. Omer, 37–53 [Hebrew].

54 Roms, Heike, “Archiving Legacies: Who Cares for Performance Remains,” in Performing Archives / Archiving Performance, ed. Borggreen, Gunhild and Gade, Rune (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculaneum Press, 2013), 3552Google Scholar.

55 Zalmona, Yigal, Sands of Time: The Work of Micha Ullman (Jerusalem: Israel Museum, 2011) [Hebrew]Google Scholar.

56 It is interesting to note that rather than considering the photos he had taken as documentation, Ullman assigns them the value of testimony. On his studio wall is hung Jan van Eyck's The Arnolfini Wedding, with the painter's clever inscription on the back wall (above the mirror in which he is reflected) stating, “Jan van Eyck was here 1434”—thus testifying to his presence at the moment of the wedding, bearing witness to the ritual, and reporting the event by painting it. Likewise, Ullman's photographic documentation of his field activities affirms: “I was here.”

57 Foster, Hal, “An Archival Impulse,” October 110 (2004): 322CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 5.

58 Sue Breakell, “Perspectives: Negotiating the Archive,” Tate Papers 9 (Spring 2008), 1–7, at 5, www.tate.org.uk/download/file/fid/7288 (accessed 28 January 2019).

59 Taylor, Diana, The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 17CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

60 Online Etymology Dictionary, s.v. “milieu”: www.etymonline.com/word/milieu (accessed 12 February 2018).

61 Lindee, M. Susan, “The Conversation: History and History as It Happens,” in The Historiography of Contemporary Science and Technology, ed. Söderqvist, Thomas (Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1997), 3950Google Scholar, at 42.

62 Merewether, Charles, “Introduction: Art and the Archive,” in The Archive: Documents of Contemporary Art, ed. Merewether, Charles (London: Whitechapel Gallery and Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006), 1017Google Scholar, at 10.

63 Dov Or Ner, personal interview, Kibbutz Hatzor, 9 January 2015.

64 Quoted in Tamir, Tali, Dov Or Ner: Actions in the Nearby Planet 1970–2070 (Tel Aviv: HaKibbutz HaMeuchad–Sifriat Poalim Publishing Group, 2014), 300 [Hebrew]Google Scholar.

65 It could be suggested that this was also an allegorical critique of the condition and ideals of kibbutz society in those years, as well as of Israel and its objection to negotiating with the neighboring Arab countries.

66 These activities were performed while wearing a T-shirt on which the logo “The Museum of Museums” was printed (see Fig. 5). Some of the most radical activities took place in and around the Kibbutz Gallery in Tel Aviv: for example, The Last Supper (1979), in which, after the seated viewers witnessed a black snake devouring a white mouse, a sheep was slaughtered in front of them, cooked, and served; and in Paravizia (Cow-TV, 1980), he spent two weeks in the Kibbutz Gallery with a cow (para in Hebrew) that he fed and milked, and with a television set to entertain the beast. This work criticized the changes taking place in kibbutz society (and in Israel in general), mainly the crisis in socialist ideals and the shift toward capitalist values and mass culture. In 1978 he performed The Peace Cage in response to the public controversy over the Egyptian–Israeli peace process: Or Ner locked himself in an iron cage outside the Kibbutz Gallery on the corner of two main streets in the center of Tel Aviv, exposed to passersby's reactions. In 1993, documentations and relics of Or Ner's works that had been carried out as part of The Museum of Museums were collected for the first time and displayed in the alternative, noncommercial, and leftist-oriented Bograshov Gallery in Tel Aviv. “Dov Or Ner: From Object to Action (a Reconstruction),” cur. Ilana Tenenbaum, Bograshov Gallery, 1993.

67 Or Ner was 87 years old at the time of publication. The publisher, HaKibbutz HaMeuchad, is associated with the kibbutz movement.

68 This series comprised four actions: (1) Or Ner lying on his back while someone drags him across the ground; (2) Or Ner standing with his eyes covered, trying to resist the strong flow of air being directed at him; (3) Or Ner swimming fifty meters backstroke; and (4) four people digging four pits in accordance with their physical measurements. In this fourth action, each person then lies down in the pit he or she has dug, after which all change places and try to adjust to the different pits; this was carried out by Or Ner, his wife, and their two children (Tamir, Dov Or Ner: Actions, 279). On Israeli body art of the 1970s, see Harari, “From Object to Performance,” 51–9.

69 In an attempt to trace the documentation on film of these body actions, I contacted the registrar at the Haifa Museum of Art (23 April 2018), who vaguely remembered a box with various films. On 30 April I received an email happily announcing that the box had been found, and an attached series of images evidencing its unsorted, piled up content. The curator recently returned the material to the artist.

70 Since the lion's share of this publication is a catalog of photographic documentations, thematically organized, I do not discount the possibility that Tamir had decided to omit this conceptual action due to the documents’ poor quality.

71 During 1962–3 Or Ner had studied with the German-born Israeli sculptor Rudi Lehmann, who exposed him to Egyptian mythology. Or Ner became preoccupied with Ra, the sun god, and created several sculpture and solar sculptures that contained photovoltaic cells that transform solar energy to electric energy. Tamir suggests that Or Ner's preoccupation with the sun had also to do with his fascination—being a European immigrant—with “the shock of the burning [Israeli] light” which, rather than representing it in painting, like other artists who had emigrated from Europe, he incorporated materially in the form of light and energy. Tamir, Dov Or Ner: Actions 36–7.

72 Or Ner told me that, before he had known he was creating conceptual art, he had considered his works simply as “activities”: “The activities unlocked endless possibilities of creation. . . . I didn't know at that time that other artists were engaged in this too; even in Israel: Avital Geva, and [Moshe] Gershuni, and Micha Ullman” (Dov Or Ner, personal interview, 9 January 2015).

73 Ginton, 316.

74 Ginton, 316–315.

75 Dorit LeVite, “The Sixties—Increasing External Influences: 10+”, in The Story of Israel's Art, ed. Tamuz, 247–74, at 247 [Hebrew].

76 Barzel, Amnon, Art in Israel (Milan: Politi, 1987), 75Google Scholar. See also Fischer, Yona and Friedman-Manor, Tamar, “Conversation: The Birth of ‘Now,’” in The Birth of Now: Art in Israel in the 1960s, exh. cat., cur. Yona Fischer and Tamar Manor-Friedma (Ashdod: Ashdod Museum of Art, 2008), 711, at 7 [Hebrew]Google Scholar.

77 Most significantly, these were the artists of the Ofakim Hadashim (New Horizons) group (see note 29), which had advocated modernist abstraction and dominated the local art scene for a decade and a half.

78 Being a kibbutz member, Or Ner was expected to devote his time and energy to the needs of the collective community. In accordance with the norms and priorities of the kibbutz movement in those years, Or Ner in the 1960s was allotted only one day a week for creating art.

79 Or Ner, personal interview, 9 January 2015. In this project, Or Ner provided inhabitants of both the Arab village Meiser and Kibbutz Metzer with plastic bags, which after being filled with personal belongings, were sealed and deposited in a twenty-meter-deep pit.

80 Kirby, Michael, “Criticism: Four Faults,” TDR: The Drama Review 18.3 (1974): 5968Google Scholar, at 65–6.

81 Or Ner, personal interview, 9 January 2015.

82 It would be irresponsible to posit such an observation had Or Ner's extensive body of work not responded, along the years and in various ways, implicitly and explicitly, to his personal biography. Most significantly, in recent years, is his persistent grotesque engagement, in painting, video art, and performance, with the long shadow of Adolph Hitler through the campy persona performance of Bad Renro (an anagram of Or Ner's name in Hebrew), attired in a shamanistic long and heavy red gown and featuring, painted, the iconic traits of “Hitler”—the mustache and the side-parted hair. See also Tamir, Tali, “Dov/Bad: Redeeming Reversal,” Dov Or Ner: Bad Renro, ed. Tamir, Tali (Tel Aviv: HaKibbutz HaMeuchad, 2010) [Hebrew and English], 122–120Google Scholar.

83 Lambert-Beatty, 100.

84 Telephone exchange with Tali Tamir, 12 April 2018. Tamir's acquaintance with Or Ner and his work began when she served as curator at the Kibbutz Gallery in Tel Aviv (1994–2004). However, it was not until she delved into the book project that she began to realize the scope of his art.