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related exhibition:
Middle East Europe / Strategies of Reenactment
25. April 2012. - 18. May
 

Zoltán Kékesi:

Images of Mourning and Revenge

 

 

“Strategies of re-enactment”: this was the subheading of the Hungarian section of the Middle East Europe international exhibition project, which took place in Labor Gallery. [1] The exhibition explored the possibilities of artistic re-enactment through the works of European, Israeli and Palestinian artists, in relation to a conflict, a fundamental element of which is the essentialist conception of collective identities. The curator of the show, Eszter Lázár, quoted Inke Arns’ definition regarding the artistic practice of re-enactment: “[A]rtistic re-enactments are not an affirmative confirmation of the past; rather, they are questionings of the present through reaching back to historical events that have etched themselves indelibly into the collective memory.” [2] The pivotal question of the exhibition was, therefore, how contemporary strategies of re-enactment can transform the logic – based on solidified patterns of identity – of representing the past and reproducing conflicts. [3]

The gallery’s visitors were welcomed by a large digital print and a video, the work of the Israeli artist group Public Movement. Its title (Also Thus!) is an allusion to the slogan of the Zionist paramilitary group Irgun, which operated until 1948. The slogan (“Only thus!”) originally referred to armed violence. It is doubly loaded, as it carries the memory of Al-Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophy of 1948, [4] while later it was appropriated by the extreme-right Kahanist party Kach (banned in 1994).

In the video documenting the Jerusalem performance of Public Movement, we hear a group of men and women dressed in white uniforms make an oath, which represents the individual as the member of a homogenous community that cites transcendental affirmation and territorial rights. In the background of the scene we can see the Wailing Wall and the Dome of the Rock, which, beyond their religious role, are symbols of territorial struggle and collective identities. The text of the oath, however, turns into its own deconstruction at one point, wherefore the final act of swearing becomes empty and the performance of identity ironic (that is, we cannot know who exactly is swearing what exactly “at this moment” “here” and “now”). [5]

But what is the meaning of having the participants of this scene stand in front of the Olympic Stadium in Berlin? The choreographed order of the uniformed bodies refers at once to olympic ceremonies, military parades and political demonstrations; what is more, in the shadow of a building that – via the architectural axis starting from the gate of the Olympic Stadium seen in the photograph and ending in Langemarckhalle – represented sports as a preparation for war and heroic death. This building and the neighbouring Olympic village became a symbol of Nazi Germany precisely because it served as the site not only for the 1936 Olympics, but also for the National Socialist mythology (here: the Langemarck-myth), the military facilities used during the war (such as a military school) and Nazi mass demonstrations (that is, the creation and representation of a racially defined, homogenous community).

Public Movement originally planned to perform a choreography at the site that would have involved the German extreme-right party NDP, the German Antifa movement and the German police. Eventually, it fell through due to the resistance of these organisations, and the performance actually realised in front of the Olympic Stadium was a perplexing re-enactment of Nazi mass events. The photograph seen at the exhibition, however, with Israeli youth in front of the Olympic Stadium, facing the future, is not an allusion to present-day Germany, but instead a peculiar stage adaptation of Zionist meta-narratives and Israeli memory rituals, using a militant choreography to point out the aggression inherent in all of them through.

On the wall opposite to Public Movement ‘s installation was the video I, Soldier by Palestinian artist Khaled Jarrar, showing a unit of the Palestinian security forces perform a drill from bird’s eye view, which made the minute signs of disintegration in the choreographed order visible: instead of the disciplined movement of bodies standing in regular rows and the repetitive process of training, we can perceive a randomly appearing pattern moving about. By purely aesthetic means Khaled Jarrar, artist and former member of the security forces, breaks what he himself calls the “atmosphere of collectivism”.

From the works shown at the exhibition, Swiss artist Christoph Draeger’s video Black September alluded most powerfully to the role of media (images) in the perception, memory and re-production of the conflict. Draeger’s work restages the 1972 abduction and murder of eleven members of the Isreali Olympic team by Palestinian terrorists during the Olympic Games in Munich. This massacre cast the shadow of the 1936 Olympics on an event whose political role was to project the image of a renewed, open and modern West Germany. [6] The media attention surrounding the Olympics played a decisive role in the preparation of the plot: although press and media publicity is always a significant element of terrorist actions, this was the first attack (way before 9/11), which had been planned by its perpetrators as a truly global media event. [7]

Draeger’s re-enactment of the terrorist attack is based on images that – precisely for this reason – have a central role in the cultural memory of the period’s global wave of terrorism. The image of the terrorist standing on the balcony of a building in the Olympic Village condenses both the fears of western societies and the pain, grief and hatred of those affected by the conflict. One screen of the two-channel video installation shows archive images of the attack, which Draeger adopted from the documentary One Day in September, [8] a film that shows the drama of the attack quite one-sidedly: the “Palestinian problem” only appears at the very beginning of the film, as the personal motive of the former assassin speaking in the film, compared to which the Shoah gets disproportionately great emphasis during the presentation of the life stories of the athletes killed in the attack. This implicitly confirms the official Israeli interpretation of the attack, which places the terrorists next to Eichmann and Nazi Germany.

Draeger’s installation is a piece of critical work employed on the archive images and the logic of their recycling, and it does not make do with extracting the images from the interpretative framework in which they appeared in the documentary - and before, in the contemporaneous perception of the events. For the second screen of the installation shows a re-enactment of the attack: based on the also widely known press photographs taken after the attack, he reconstructed the room of the hostaged athletes, [9] and with the help of amateur actors – in a quite Brechtian, that is, alienating manner - he re-enacted the entire story of the hostage-taking, everything that could not be seen, only imagined by the contemporary TV-viewers.

If one watches Steven Spielberg’s movie Munich made in 2005, they will understand that imagining the events that took place behind the balcony became such cultural technique after 1972, that served the work of mourning as well as the passing on and keeping alive of the desire for vengeance. [10] When Christoph Draeger juxtaposes the archive images and the re-enactment of the events taking place in the room behind the balcony, he inquires into this cultural technique – while the goal of his work is to liberate the event and its images from the logic of the conflict’s mediatic, psychological and political reproduction.

Similarly to Public Movement’s Jerusalem performance, Joanna Rajkowska’s video also closes with a peculiar act of oath. The video was made in 2008 at the refugee camp of Jenin, with youth who had undergone deep traumas during the Second Intifada and the Battle of Jenin in 2002. Rajkowska invited the Jenin-based Freedom Theatre founded by Jewish-Palestinian actor Juliano Mer Khamis to hold therapeutic sessions for the young people.

This is the only one of the exhibited works in which an artist (who is even European) works together with local civilians affected by the conflict, who represent themselves and the aspects of their identity related to the conflict during the re-enactment. [11] Rajkowska’s work, however, goes beyond the transparency of the therapeutic process and the ethical questions regarding the form of collaboration. [12] For the video is not a mere therapeutic re-enactment of the traumas, but the entire workshop is a re-enactment of the performances held by Juliano Mer Khamis’s mother, well-known left-wing politician and activist Arna Mer Khamis at the Stone Theatre, established in 1989 in Jenin, after the First Intifada. This raises such questions regarding the history of the conflict and the possibility of therapy, to which the work provides no inherent, relieving answer.

One can learn about the performances at Stone Theatre from the documentary Arna’s Children, directed in 2003 by Juliano Mer Khamis about the theatre that closed in 1995, after his mother’s death. [13] The documentary also gives an insight into the tragic story of the children who grew up by the time of the Second Intifada, which raises questions about the role of therapy, art and Arna’s performances, which are hard to answer (especially from here).

The film suggests that the Stone Theatre’s sessions also prepared the children for fighting – in the spirit of the slogan “there is no peace without freedom”. “When I’m on the stage, I feel like I’m throwing stones; to me, acting is like throwing a Molotov cocktail”, says a boy in an archive footage from the years after the First Intifada, and it is hard to decide whether the performance transforms his aggression into a symbolic act or reinforces it. By 2003 almost all of them were dead, most of them as suicide bombers.

Rajkowska’s video brings scenes of Arna’s Children to life. The act of oath, however, which closes the video, is an answer to the depressing heritage of the Second Intifada: the oath that is spontaneously improvised by the youth is a parody of collective identity rituals, and refers to an artistic and therapeutic praxis that fails to absorb them into their identities tied to trauma and conflict. Juliano Mer Khamis himself, who sought new, non-violent forms of resistance, and considered himself “100 percent Palestinian and 100 percent Jewish”, was an example of rejecting homogenous and essentialist identity patterns. [14]

Similarly to Draeger’s work, the film of one of the classic figures in Israeli documentary-making, Avi Mograbi (Mrs. Goldstein, 2006), also deals with a terrorist attack. The film features a casting, where young actresses re-enact the testimony that Israeli assassin Baruch Goldstein’s wife made in court. Baruch Goldstein was a member of the extreme right Kahanist movement, and he murdered 29 Palestinians in 1994 in Hebron during their Friday prayer – this event has become part of Israeli collective memory as the first attack to undermine the peace process and the beginning of the new wave of violence that would flare up later.

The fictive casting was originally conceived as part of Mograbi’s documentary August, shot in 2003 during the Second Intifada, [15] and was inserted among scenes which suggested that tension and aggression is present in all layers and spheres of Israeli life, from daily communication to violent conflicts. During her testimony, Miriam Goldstein demanded that the court return her husband’s gun. The testimony is delivered in different voices and acting styles, suggesting that any of the young ladies could be, and neither of them actually is, Miriam Goldstein. In this case, re-enactment helps both actors and viewers to establish a distance from the story and the grievances and passions it involves, while adopting them in the medium of fiction.

 


[1] Middle East Europe. Strategies of Re-enactment, curator: Eszter Lázár, Labor Gallery, 27 April 2012 – 18 May 2012

[2] Inke Arns: History Will Repeat Itself: Strategies of Re-enactment in Contemporary (Media) Art and Performance, in: History Will Repeat Itself, ed. by Inke Arns, Gabriele Horn, Revolver Publishing, Frankfurt am Main, 2008., online here

[3] The English phrase re-enactment caries a double meaning: enact at once means the representation of a role on stage and the coming into effect of a law. In other words, the notion of re-enactment involves the replaying of an event, and also what this act gives rise to, somewhat like this: it takes place in the symbolic order of reality. Cf. Domenico Quaranta: Re: Akt!. Things That Happen Twice, in: Re: Akt! Reconstruction, Re-enactment, Re-porting, szerk. Antonio Caronia et al., Vice Versa, Berlin, 2009, 60., online here.

[4] Irgun took part in the Deir Yassin massacre, which was one of the sparks for the 1948 Arab exodus, cf. Benny Morris: The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, Cambridge UP, 2004, 237sk.

[5] “I am within the boundaries of a state / I stand firm / (...) / Gaze forward, toward the future / Chest broad, uplifted, proud / (…) / I feel a great presence / I am a member of a group / (…) / I am confident in my position and I know / My place is here / My cause is just / I will not stand here forever / No / I may be wrong / No / (…) / I am not wrong / I am right / I am here / I am alone / I am captivated / I swear / At this moment / Now! / Now! / Now!”

[6] Cf. Kay Schiller, Christopher Young, The 1972 Munich Olimpics and the Making of Modern Germany, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2010, online here. And this was indeed not the West-Germany where ten years earlier – before the 1963 Auschwitz-trial and the 1968 left-wing movements – it was possible to commission the same Werner March who had built the Olympic Stadium of Berlin in 1933 to reconstruct it. (Although March applied for the construction of the new Munich Stadium as well.)

[7] It is common knowledge that live television coverage became part of the event in other ways as well: the German police intervention was thwarted by the terrorists being able to track the movement of the forces live on the TV set in the room of the hostaged athletes.

[8] One Day in September, directed by Kevin Macdonald, Great Britain, 1999, '94

[9] Draeger’s installation originally – for instance, at the exhibition Middle East Europe at the Prague DOX – included a life-size reconstruction of the room (which would not have been possible to place in Labor owing to the size of the gallery).

[10] Munich, directed by Steven Spielberg, USA, 2005, '163. The bloody scene in the room of the Munich Olympic Village is imagined in the film by Avner, leader of the Mossad team commissioned to carry out the retaliation, when – on his way to Europe – he sets out on his mission. In addition to the conversations with Golda Meir and his mother (which place the attack into the story of the Shoah), this fantasy helps him dispel his moral doubts regarding the assignment. In the novel the film is based on, the story of the terrorist attack is told by a narrative “Prologue”, which has the same ideological role, but is undoubtedly less suitable for interiorizing the scene as an imaginative technique. Cf. George Jonas: Vengeance. The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team, Simon & Schoster, 2005. 11-29.

[11] This is what Claire Bishop calls “delegated” performance. Cf. Claire Bishop: Outsourcing Authenticity? Delegated Performance in Contemporary Art, in: Claire Bishop, Mark Sladen: Double Agent, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, 2008, 111–125., and Trauma, Antagonism and the Bodies of Others: a Dialogue on Delegated Performance. An Interview with Claire Bishop by Julia Austin, in: Performance Paradigm, May 2009.

[12] On the critique of the ethical model, cf. Claire Bishop: The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents, Artforum International, 2006.

[13] Arna' Children, directed by Juliano Mer-Khamis, Israel – Netherlands, 2003, '84

[14] Juliano Mer Khamis was assassinated in 2011.

[15] August: A Moment Before the Eruption, directed by Avi Mograbi, Israel, 2002, '72. The film is accessible at the Open Society Archives.

 

10. July 2012.
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