As many an artist should know, there is something about leaving your spectator guessing, to draw them into the thick of your work. Quite a few moons ago, when I had a couple of photographs on show in a group exhibition, a painter friend alerted me to the possibility of visitors walking past my works without giving them so much as a sideways glance. That, he said, would make me feel far worse than, say, if they were to laugh or scowl at them. He was right.
Joram Rozov must have taken that on board. Most of his paintings currently on show at the Museum on the Seam, as part of the “The Case of Hiroshima” exhibition, feature fighter pilots. We get to see the uniform and all the associated paraphernalia in something approaching hyper-reality. You can almost feel the texture of the material, the very warp and weft, but you never get to see the pilot’s face. You are left wondering who, in fact, was behind the controls when the bombs were dropped on enemy territory, possibly killing innocent civilians along with some strategic military facility.
War and destruction, and the possibility of their flip side, are the central strands to the diverse array of works – paintings, ceramic artifacts, installations and video-based creations – spread across three floors of the museum.
The inspiration behind the showing comes from a book called Burning Conscience: The Case of the Hiroshima Pilot Claude Eatherly. The latter was a US Air Force pilot who carried out the reconnaissance flight over Japan that provided the green light for one of his colleagues to drop the atom bomb on Hiroshima in August 1945.
The book contains correspondence between Eatherly and Jewish German philosopher Günther Anders. There are a total of 71 letters in the collection, a large part of which focus on Eatherly’s inability to shake off his nagging sense of culpability for the deaths of tens of thousands of Japanese civilians, which, in essence, brought an end to World War II. Anders was intrigued by the pilot’s refusal to toe the “only following orders” line of reasoning.
The question of taking responsibility for an act that results in mass destruction and a morally indefensible outcome runs through the entire exhibition. Questions on such conundrums as where we draw the line between doing our duty in the military context, as opposed to our obligation as a human being, pop up all over the show.
There are a couple of riveting video creations by Iranian artist Shirin Abedinirad, provided by a private collector from Germany and sent here without the artist’s knowledge.
“1s White 1s Black,” which comes with a commensurately textured musical backdrop scored by Iranian composer Alireza Mashayekhi, shows transparent liquid in a glass bowl gradually becoming opaque, as some substance drops into it. The inference is glaringly obvious. At certain stages of the gradual metamorphic process, the billowing white substance resembles the mushroom shape of the deadly aftermath of an atom bomb explosion. That and the ultrahigh resolution of the video image make for compelling viewing.
The same can be said of the second Abedinirad work in the exhibition, “Passage,” in which a soldier’s helmet goes through a delicate alluring jig, as a block of ice melts around it.
Some of the exhibits tell their tale in a clear unambiguous way, while others appeal more to the subconscious and require a little more effort on the part of the observer.
Gilad Ophir’s photographic tetraptych incorporates monochrome shots of four World War II bunkers in Normandy. His work proffers a chronological viewpoint and an opportunity to take a step back and consider military might from a possibly more balanced and sober perspective. While the bunkers may have seemed impenetrable 70 or 80 years ago, the temporal and physical shifting sands have almost obliterated these once indomitable structures. Makes you think.
EATHERLY, AS one might have expected, did not live happily ever after. He went through an emotional roller coaster, and was in and out of institutions – penitentiaries and mental hospitals – for several years, before dying at the age of just 59. The exhibition catalogue cites a couple of letters – one from each correspondent – from the protracted exchange between the troubled former pilot and the German philosopher, who at the time was resident in the States.
There is some fascinating, almost prescient insight in there. In his opening letter to Eatherly, sent in June 1959, Anders talks about reality being “governed by technology” and how people can be “transformed into screws in a machine, the effects of which are beyond our imagination, and which, could we imagine them, we would most definitely not consent to.” While massive armies, with long chains of command, had, of course, already been around for eons, this is long before the advent of the Internet and virtual reality, and before the vast majority of people had any grasp of long-range control and how one’s actions in one location can have a corporeal effect on people way beyond the horizon. All grist for the cerebral, emotional and ethical mill.
Museum founder and chief curator Rafie Etgar feels there are lessons to be learned from the letter exchange of half a century or so ago.
“The Case of Hiroshima is a fascinating and troubling book because the matters being discussed by Anders and Eatherly are as important today as they were during the lives of the correspondents,” he notes, adding: “Their insights should serve us as warning signs to avoid repeating a nuclear holocaust catastrophe, whose intensity this time will in all likelihood be apocalyptic.”
Some of the exhibits at the museum convey that idea more overtly than others. British-resident Israeli artist Guli Silberstein, for example, presents us with the inescapable results of the decision to press the bomb release button, on a three-screen piece. His “Target: Over & Out” spells out the clinical, professional and impersonal execution of an order issued from higher up the military ladder, and its cataclysmic denouement.
ROZOV HAS been investigating the dichotomous gulf between human beings and war machine cog for several decades. Naturally, for a painter, aesthetics also come into play, as do thoughts and feelings. Through a web of personal links with various high-ranking officers, Rozov found himself immersed in a long-running, nationwide effort to help IDF bases put on a better face. His beautification project brought him into contact with the likes of then-chief of staff Ehud Barak and various generals and heads of command.
The welcome, seemingly incongruous initiative ran for a number of years, through the First Intifada and beyond, and besides making life more pleasant for soldiers as they went about their daily business on base, Rozov got to know some of the uniformed personnel quite well. That included pilots, a role with which he says he has been fascinated for a long time.
In an eponymous book of his works he published 20 years ago, Rozov talks about the Israeli fighter pilot, whom he describes as “swaddled in protective garments, tight coils, convoluted tubing and other, earthly, gear.”
All the above accessories feature front and center in Rozov’s oils, and the terrestrial reference is highly pertinent. He is drawn to the ostensibly antithetical marriage of humankind and flight, man’s ability to take remarkable technological strides while simultaneously making his very existence dependent on his own artificial creation, and humaneness and the ability to wreak mass destruction.
“I do not know of any other living creature endowed with such power and skills, who must rely so absolutely on a complex array of paraphernalia which restricts and even paralyzes him, virtually turning him into a robot – all for the sake of demonstrating his might, conquering human frailty, and defying the laws of nature,” Rozov posits.
Rozov also struggles to reconcile his own similarity to the pilot – after all, they both belong to the very same human race – and the chasm between them in terms of technical dexterity, and the willingness to carry out orders that often lead to the decimation of their fellow human beings.
Rozov seeks to connect with attributes he and his co-professionals share with the highly trained aviator, professional and possibly moral divergence notwithstanding.
“In the creative/artistic context, we tend to attribute to the hero – any hero – whether the events are dramatic or not, characteristics that go beyond reality,” he observes. “The hero becomes a model, a prototype, a source of inspiration.”
That is certainly true of the Israel Air Force. Here, there is a saying that “the best become pilots,” a promotional slogan coined in the 1960s, designed to encourage youngsters to try out for the IAF. But Rozov peeks behind the glory and the shining patina, to try to get a handle on some vulnerability lurking beneath the militaristic strut.
“My interest has always been in the less obvious, the soft core, the minor drama, the crack in the wall, the anti-macho, the antihero,” he says, adding that, basically, he is looking to connect with “the earthly component that is closest me, to my own faults and weaknesses, to that which he and I share. This common denominator lies as far away as can be from the image of the superman!”
The attempt to find some common ground, some mutual language, seems doomed to failure. And while that may be the source of great frustration, Rozov still believes the journey is just as rewarding and worthy as the possibility of reaching the ever-elusive destination.
“I have always felt there are areas between us, on a personal level, that remain unsolved. There is something which I want – and have always wanted so much – to penetrate but have always felt there is a barrier there.”
Rozov does his utmost to equate his quotidian existence with the extraordinary performance of a fighter pilot, while abstaining from excoriating military aerial action across the board.
“There are many examples of our pilots pulling out of a bombing mission at the last minute after observing civilians near the target. Where would we be without our air force?” he wonders.
Where, indeed. The question is wherein runs the line between necessary evil and overstepping the boundaries of morally acceptable conduct.
As Eatherly suggested 60 years ago, and with the approach of the general elections here, perhaps we should take keen note, “I believe that we are rapidly approaching a situation in which we shall be compelled to reexamine our willingness to surrender responsibility for our thoughts and actions to some social institution such as the political party, trade union, church or state. None of these institutions are adequately equipped to offer infallible advice on moral issues, and their claim to offer such advice needs therefore to be challenged.”
For more information: www.mots.org.il