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(photo credit: Courtesy)
Artist Michael Blum believes that speculation and imagination are ways of trying to move forward in what appears to be an Israeli-Arab stalemate
Anyone with an opinion about Israel was in for a visceral reaction this winter upon encountering Exodus 2048, an arresting mixed-media installation at New York City's prestigious New Museum.
Sitting on the museum's quiet fifth floor was a bleak glimpse into the future of the Middle East - or, depending on your outlook, a triumphant one. Cordoned off by makeshift curtains was a startling display: a mock refugee camp for Jews displaced during the 100th year of Israel's existence after an Arab takeover of the country.
In a reversal of the path taken in 1947 by the real-life Exodus - a ship that famously delivered Jewish refugees to pre-state Israel, despite the best efforts of the British - the passengers aboard the Exodus 2048 had sailed from Israel to Europe, where, according to a fictitious news report accompanying the piece, the "boat-people" were allowed into the Netherlands at the mercy of the Dutch queen. The modern Jewish homeland had collapsed, in other words, and its former citizens were once again spread across the world for a new period of dislocation and exile.
"I'm not saying it will happen, but it's a possibility," said Michael Blum, the Jerusalem-born artist behind the show. "I don't know what's going to happen, but as an artist, I can speculate."
That "speculation," unsurprisingly, produced an array of sharp responses from visitors to the New Museum, inspiring silence and even tears in some cases and, in others, short-lived accusations of anti-Semitism or anti-Arab sentiment. While some viewers interpreted the display as an unfair comment about Arab behavior in the Middle East, others focused their attention on the hypothetical Jewish displacement - and offered a range of responses from there.
The piece generated "two main readings," Blum said earlier this month, drinking a coffee not far from his own temporary home in lower Manhattan. "One was that this is [about], 'Watch out, Jews, this isâ€¦ a forewarning.' But you can also see it as a work of schadenfreude, like, 'Because you're not smart enough or because you didn't want to negotiate, this is what you get.'"
The son of refugees who arrived in Israel from Europe, Blum is not without his own opinions and prescriptions for Israel's dilemmas, but he said his main ambition with Exodus 2048 was to inspire what he called a "plurality of discourses." The installation has done exactly that in its two outings at contemporary art museums, most recently in New York and before that at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, Holland.
Previously envisioned as a radio program to be broadcast in Munich - as a fake report about the return of Jews to Bavaria - the installation ultimately came into being as part of an exhibition called Be(com)ing Dutch, an exploration by multiple artists of nationality and identity in the Netherlands. The show was inspired, Blum said, by the controversies that have roiled that country in recent years over immigration, with Exodus 2048 generally understood in terms of assimilation and political asylum.
The display ended up being the one of three Be(com)ing Dutch pieces to cross the Atlantic for the New Museum show, which concluded at the end of March after provoking a "much greater echo" among New York viewers.
"There's a cultural element to the response," Blum said. "People are much more outspoken here. They aren't afraid of speaking up and expressing opinionsâ€¦ In Holland, people are much more laid back, but they wouldn't share their opinions."
The divergent reactions also reflect the populations of the two places - specifically the abundance of Jews in New York and their absence from the Netherlands since the years leading up to Israel's re-establishment. "In Holland, people know very little, and the most common response is to [want to] appear that they're Jewish-friendly, so they always tell you that they went to Israel, or that they have an Israeli friend," he said. "But you feel there's a great distance."
"New York," by contrast, "is so Jewish that even if you're not Jewish, you know so much about [the issues]."
IN POSSESSION of three passports, four languages and a history degree from the Sorbonne, Blum offers a striking contrast - as well as a resemblance - to the Jewish refugees referenced in Exodus. He's free to live in any country in Europe thanks to the German and French citizenship he gained through his parents, but he's constantly on the move nevertheless. Based in Vienna in recent years, he's been awarded professional residencies in countries ranging from Indonesia and Mexico to England and the Ukraine, delivering lectures at Harvard and MIT and addressing the Royal Art Academy in Copenhagen.
Even with his day-old stubble and occasionally academic-sounding English, it's still possible to imagine him as the seven-year-old who emigrated from Israel to Europe around the time of the Yom Kippur War, forgetting his first language - Hebrew - after picking up his parents' native German and French. "I don't see myself as belonging to a place," he said, displaying a hard-to-pin-down accent bearing traces of German. "After a certain number of years, you adapt very quickly and assimilate very quickly, but you also get bored very quickly."
He's regained his Hebrew since turning 40 a few years ago, taking informal language lessons with his mother when he visits her home in Paris.
Gloomy about the large number of Ashkenazi Israelis who have applied for dual European citizenship in recent years - "it's an image of hopelessness of the new generation" - he acknowledges in Exodus the large proportion of Israelis with no connection to the continent. In the imaginary world of the installation, the country's Mizrahi Jews, unable to return to their ancestors' homes in the Arab world and Iran, flee instead to Uganda - an ironic nod at a discarded proposal of the early Zionist movement.
Though critical of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians - particularly during this winter's fighting in Gaza - he's traveled to the country with increased frequency in recent years, and though he doesn't quite say it, he seems to imply that parts of it feel something like home. "I don't want to look at Israel through the lens of my family's history," he said, but later added, "When I'm in Europe, I love going to Israel because [of] the more Mediterranean feeling. In northern and central Europe, it's too polite, too well-behaved - sometimes it feels good to argue with strangers on a bus."
He has no plans to display Exodus elsewhere, but noted that he's been surprised by the "afterlife" of several earlier works.
And the shocked reactions of those New Yorkers might be of service elsewhere, he said: "When you are thinking of the situation progressively, it's too locked on all sides. Speculation and imagination are ways of - not of solving the situation, but of trying to move forward."
"When people were upset," he said of the New Museum show, "this was really great, because if you spent more than 10 minutes in front of it, it destroys any kind of certainty."