Israel, Through An Outsider’s Lens

‘This Place’ photography show at the Brooklyn Museum

An art exhibition title is often as telling as its content. Curators carefully select titles that reflect the art on view, and great titles pose questions rather than answers. That the title of the Brooklyn Museum’s current photography exhibit is “This Place” immediately begs the viewer to ask: Which place? The question is important, especially since the exhibition is about Israel and the West Bank; a place that has complicated borders.

On view through June 5, “This Place” steers clear of absolute resolutions, and instead spotlights the intricate layers of Israel and the West Bank, as both a place and a metaphor. The title is translated into Hebrew and Arabic on the museum’s banner, but in English, “This Place” draws attention to the sense of an outside perspective of the Jewish homeland. The show features 12 acclaimed international photographers, but none of them is Israeli or Palestinian. In this way, the art on the wall does not narrate “our” place (read: Jewish and/or Israeli perspective). However, where the exhibition lacks an insider’s perspective, it provides an accessible platform for observation.

Photographer Frédéric Brenner initiated the project as a residency that invited artists to visit Israel and the West Bank for an average of six months between 2009 and 2012. On a gallery tour with Brenner, he insists that there is no political agenda to this project. Instead, the 12 participating artists — Brenner (France), Wendy Ewald (U.S.), Martin Kollar (Slovakia), Josef Koudelka (Czech Republic), Jungjin Lee (South Korea), Gilles Peress (France), Fazal Sheikh (U.S.), Stephen Shore (U.S.), Rosalind Fox Solomon (U.S.), Thomas Struth (Germany), Jeff Wall (Canada), and Nick Waplington (United Kingdom) — were encouraged to offer their own portrayals of the land based on their personal experiences. The spectrum of distinct photographic styles and different perspectives is readily apparent in the galleries, and yet, there are strong themes that constantly recur.

Many of the artists focus on identity: Brenner and Waplington capture families in their environments, ranging from a traditional Shabbat dinner table to a community of caravans. Other artists focus on landscape: the timeless beauty found in the abstract forms of nature as seen in Sheikh’s aerial views of the desert mountains and Lee’s landscapes printed on Korean mulberry paper. “This Place” is not just a room with a view; it demonstrates the complexity of a country.

The layered narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is especially felt when viewing the two series by Kollar and Peress; the way in which their photography is displayed on the wall captures the tension of the locale without confining it to a frame.

Martin Kollar’s “Field Trip” series uses an observational lens to record Israel’s innovative scientific research. Displayed on three walls like fragmented vignettes that are part of a larger narrative, each of Kollar’s photographs encourages a closer read. The images are bright and colorful from a distance, but jarring in their depiction of raw bodies mid-medical procedure. Animals are splayed and cut open, while tubes are stuffed into human noses or over ears. Kollar says, “I wanted to make photographs that are still comfortable to look at but somehow you’re absorbing the tension from the place.” A third (and fourth) glance is necessary to better understand how the photographs relate to each other and to the whole story of the pictured place. A clever metaphor about Israel is created here; Kollar plays with the idea that as much as you look at the photographs, and as much as you feel the depicted pain, you are never fully equipped to understand the bigger picture.

Similarly, Gilles Peress utilizes the arrangement of his photographs to make a statement. In his series, “Contact Sheet: Palestinian Jerusalem,” Peress freezes and crops numerous candid moments: a girl defying gravity on a swing, boys playing in sprinklers and men climbing up a fence. However, the way in which these ephemeral moments are presented is visually overwhelming; the prints are so large that they tower over the viewer. The photographs are crammed so close together that they touch and climb up the wall so high (up to 129 ¾ inches) that viewers simply cannot see the whole tableaux and each detail at once. Peress is well-acquainted with the experience of the viewer: “The peculiar and radical beauty of photography is that it always answers questions you never thought of asking, and then comes a real moment of discovery; when you get answers to questions that never crossed your mind.” As it is with Kollar’s photography, it is both exhilarating and frustrating to attempt to piece Peress’ images together for an answer. The message that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is too impossibly complicated to fully understand is not lost in these carefully installed series.

“This Place” will inspire very different reactions depending on each viewer’s previous understanding of Israel and the West Bank. Perhaps this is where the exhibition’s success is found: an art show about art, rather than surrounding politics. The fact that no Israeli or Palestinian artists were featured reflects the inherently complex relationship between these two worlds. (Brenner explains at the end of the gallery tour that since he could not secure any Palestinian artists to agree to the project, he could not present any Israeli artists and maintain a balanced perspective.) The exhibit still lives up to its title by bringing these locales closer to home; Israel and the West Bank are not just that distant place anymore.

 

This Place” runs through June 5 at the Brooklyn Museum (Schapiro Wing, 4th floor), 200 Eastern Parkway, (718) 638-5000, brooklynmuseum.org.

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This Place

Frédéric Brenner

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