Nocturnal Stillness

At night, as the shells come out, by Dana Arieli-Horowitz

For the third time the cooperative efforts of Reuven Zahavi and Ariane Littman-Cohen have produced a series of photographs and digital video art which is political but not one-dimensional, abstract yet focused, loaded with local context and still equally universal.

Littman-Cohen achieves these results when she takes her camera out for a series of night photographs.  The limited lighting creates a feeling of mystery and enigma, which is further sharpened by the presence of tens of triangles, each with a golden vertex.  At first glance, the composition seems to be Suprematist or Surrealist; perhaps these are giant-sized pencils?

The first brief effect passes, and within a few seconds the context changes to that of the so-laconic caption accompanying the photo:  “IDF artillery firing toward Gaza, 29.6.2006”.  The giant pencils are now shells, and the night is even grimmer than usual.  I am seized by feelings that are hard to deal with as I realize that the pile of ammunition is meant for Gaza; the presence of a youth who has become a soldier, bent over the shells yet not terrified by them, does not make things any easier.  Even the famous opening scene from Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, where a shell fired by Big Bertha loses its sense of direction, does not help me absorb what I am looking at:  rows of shells which most likely will reach their target at night, at night as the shells come out.

The limited lighting actually strengthens the feeling.  In the photograph “Tanks at Kissufim” a soldier is painting a fellow soldier’s face with camouflage paint.  The contrast between dark and light flattens the faces and makes them even younger and lacking in nuance.  In one place only a green-painted ear is illuminated, and in another bleary eyes and a determined look forward.  A third adds brown to the color scheme.  Does this sort of camouflage still work?  And all the usual clichés:  we “have” or “do not have” “sons for unnecessary wars”, his mother is very worried about him right now, but she still sent him there.

Reuven Zahavi, unlike Littman-Cohen, distances his testimony and yet brings it closer.  In his video work “Eighths” he processes an indefinite Israeli landscape down to the smallest details.  He scans, exposes, covers, and erases it:  acts identified with IDF land-clearing activities.  Still, Zahavi does not even hint at the specific locations he is focusing on.  In the background the monotonous sound of a helicopter may be heard; it does not stop even for a second.  The sound fits in with the circular return to the same places in the landscape, but the latter is completely universal; it is so monotonous that it creates a feeling of alienation.  Like the helicopter circling in the sky, we are also scared to discover that this maze has no specific point which can be returned to.  Thus Zahavi creates his labyrinth of the political landscape.  The features of the area may perhaps be revealed down to the smallest detail by the flashlights, but we have no idea where we are.  At precisely this point Zahavi’s night meets that of Littman-Cohen, and if it seemed that it was already hard to know where we are, now it is that much more difficult.  Everything happens at night, and this fact only strengthens the feeling of discomfort and fear.  The darkness creates a different reality, possibly an escapist one, which was also reflected in Smoke, Littman-Cohen and Zahavi’s previous exhibition.  The night creates different states of awareness.

The “Kissufim Maze” also shows circular motion, repeating itself, and creates a feeling of stress.  Zahavi’s digital work is based on the series of photographs by Littman-Cohen, and shows the process of collecting concrete barriers near Kissufim during the removal of the settlers from the Gaza Strip.  The attempt to repeatedly overcome the obstacles and the return each time to the objects in a loop emphasize the longing for a solution which is not possible, and the absurd.  The work creates a strong feeling of identification as, like “Eighths”, it makes a profound existential statement which seems to recall Camus’ Le mythe de Sisyphe.  The movement of the flashlights, like the movement between the hunks of concrete, emphasizes the labyrinth; the movement is purposeless, it repeats itself, and in this way creates an analogy to the dead-end political situation in which we find ourselves.

The dialogue between the two artists in the exhibition Nocturnal Stillness deals with the manipulation of the landscape by the army.  The act of exposure is meant both to prevent and punish.  It takes place in areas struck by terror and is meant to prevent ambushes and hiding places and provide a broad, obstacle-free field of view.  The army uses heavy equipment and bulldozers to carry out this mission; both appear in the night photographs of Ariane Littman-Cohen.  Both uproot but do not plant, destroy but do not build.

The act of destruction and uprooting also bothers Zahavi and Littman-Cohen in “The Dream of Donald Duck”, a cooperative project dealing with the withdrawal from Gaza in the summer of 2005.  The latter outlines and maps the existing situation, while the former draws an imaginary reality.  She looks at reality soberly, but he at least seems to withdraw from that situation.  Even so, abstract art could not be more political.

Translation from Hebrew: Andrew Lang

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Ariane Littman