Virtual-reality brings us into Palestinian and Israeli homes

“Within the wider subject matter I discerned that, differences notwithstanding, there is much closeness, and similarities,” said Daniel Landau, the creator of the exhibition 'Visitors, 2018.'

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September 23, 2018 05:13
In the ‘Visitors, 2018’ media installation, a member of the Sabatin household expresses her views

In the ‘Visitors, 2018’ media installation, a member of the Sabatin household expresses her views about life in the Middle East. (photo credit: DANIEL LANDAU)

 
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Going to a virtual-reality exhibition can be something of a double-edged sword. Okay, we all know that entering the portals of a museum generally means leaving real life behind. Then again, all art must necessarily feed off personal baggage and common or garden elements.

All the above can be found, in abundance, at the Visitors, 2018 media installation created by Daniel Landau, and curated by Shir Yamagutchi, currently up and running at the Israel Museum’s Ruth Youth Wing.

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Landau’s basic premise is a so-near-yet-far state of affairs, and the unnatural alienation or partitioning of neighbors. The proximate characters in question come from the Sabatin and Avidan-Levi families. The former reside in a Palestinian village in the Jerusalem environs, the Israeli contingent lives in a sprawling urban settlement just a pebble’s throw from there.

“Their homes are literally a few dozen meters apart,” Landau explains. “But, in a way, they couldn’t be further away from each other.” That is clearly conveyed on one wall of the bisected living-room installation setting, as we watch a birds’-eye view video clip that has two patently split sections to it, with houses, thoroughfares, vehicles and assorted greenery on either side. While we don’t see the corporeal reason for the division, it is clear that the dividing line is the Security Fence, a.k.a. West Bank barrier. With the plethora of red-tiled roofs to the left, and mostly flat-topped buildings to the right, there are no prizes for guessing which is within the Green Line and which is the Palestinian Autonomy.

That, of course, places an impassable obstacle between any possible socializing between the members of both communities but, for Landau, that is just a – literally – concrete manifestation of the cultural gaps that exist between Palestinians and most Israelis. But do they exist? And, if so, to what extent?

The physical accoutrements Landau has placed in the exhibition area are mostly easily identifiable as being either “Jewish” or “Arab.” The Palestinian part is kitted out with hookahs, or nargilot, furniture and decorative accessories one readily associates with the Middle East, while the other side has a more familiar Western look to it, with a stereo set, a picture of the Lubavitcher Rebbe and various Judaica items. Landau has clearly paid close attention to detail, with the carpet comprising two halves – an intricate oriental design and a nondescript gray side – and even the floor tiles are indicative of the styles prevalent in Jewish Israeli and Palestinian living rooms. The latter are deftly fused into the video.

The creative centerpiece of the whole installation is the virtual reality (VR) apparatus. Half a dozen visitors at a time can ensconce themselves on comfy armchairs, or slightly less well-padded computer chairs, and hold the VR headsets up to their eyes. What you get is a video of visits made by the artist to both homes.

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We are introduced to the two abodes, and various members of the respective families, who express their views about each other, and their way of life. Considering both families are clearly religiously observant, if one were to adhere to the generally held line of thought, one might expect a deep and unbridgeable fissure to come through. In fact, matters come across as far from black and white. That is central to Landau’s artistic ethos. “I approached this work with great caution,” he admits. “This work was a sort of trap, a sort of challenge – Arabs and Jews.”

In practice, Landau says he was surprised by what he got. “Within the wider subject matter I discerned that, differences notwithstanding, there is much closeness, and similarities.” That, despite the physical barrier to the chance of personal encounters between the neighbors. “They live in the same geographic area but they can’t meet each other in reality, from either side of the [security fence] wall.”

In a paraphrase of the tough-get-going proverb, when reality leads you up a cul de sac check out more alternative avenues of endeavor. “This is where the art gallery comes in. The gallery is a place for unrealistic meetings. These two families can’t come together, but they can through the means of virtual reality.”

They can and do, in Landau’s intelligently crafted video work. You not only get to meet the Palestinian and Israeli neighbors, they give the impression of being less divided, in personal and cultural terms, than the imposing efficient physical barrier between them suggests. The head of the Palestinian home, for example, says he doesn’t feel too much of a cultural discrepancy with Sephardi Jews, while an adult member of the Jewish household states he was a guest at his Arab neighbors’ homes, in pre-security fence days, and learned more about hospitality from them than from his own family.

This is not, Landau points out, a tit-for-tat situation. “This is not a story of symmetry between the two sides. But I think this [installation] does create a kind of bridge, and an invitation to experience these two families in as direct a way as possible, through the facility of virtual reality.” Landau believes that VR can enable us to overcome certain inbuilt sociocultural, emotional and, possibly, political barriers. “Virtual reality is a new medium, which offers a context of presence and empathy.”

At the end of the day, like any artist, Landau would like us to leave his installation with some food for thought, and a slightly modified outlook on life. “Here, we are attempting to examine whether this [virtual] encounter can act as a sort of layer in the fabric of this complex relationship [between Palestinians and Israelis]. When you go out from here, I’d like you to leave after experiencing something which doesn’t happen in reality, does happen in the gallery, and projects into the outside world, outside the gallery.”

OF COURSE one could posit that reality is a subjective matter, and that one man’s meat is another man’s poison. Then again, you could take the Martin Luther King line of thought whereby the way things actually are depends on a system of indivisible interpersonal checks and balances. “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly,” said the slain civil rights leader. “I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” Dr. King’s philosophy was echoed by a man who made a fortune out of creating fantasy worlds. “You can design and create, and build the most wonderful place in the world,” noted Walt Disney, “but it takes people to make the dream a reality.”

Indeed it does. So, does it follow that by merely taking a peek at virtual reality, through a hi-tech gizmo, one can experience a sense of togetherness which may not really exist, but that may, eventually, take on corporeal form in actual reality?

Eli Bruderman, head of the Ruth Youth Wing, certainly wants to get as many people as possible on board the virtual-reality trip, as well as offering them a generous glimpse of the whole slew of fascinating exhibitions currently on display at his arts repository. “The Youth Wing is the biggest wing of the Israel Museum,” says Bruderman, adding that the junior epithet is something of a misnomer. “We are really the education wing of the museum. We have a staff of 100, and we are responsible for the relationship with the community, and for making art and the museum accessible to the general public.”

Bruderman says the wing is a global leader in its field. “We hold annual exhibitions of works by youth, which is unique in the world. There are almost no education wings that do that – taking an exhibition and using it to convey values, social values and cultural values, across a range of areas, to families and the general public.”

That, says Bruderman, also applies to the Visitors, 2018 installation. “This exhibition is devoted to the topic of encounter, in particular interpersonal encounters, and to conduct some kind of analysis of interpersonal encounters.” That may be easier said than done. “We always bear in mind that our aim is to take the subject matter and make it accessible, to adults, children and families in general.”

Judging by the patron participation we witnessed during our press foray, Landau and Bruderman and his cohorts have nailed that. We saw people of all ages, and of various religious leanings, come into the installation area and don the VR headsets. The Youth Wing director is very much aware of the complexity of the installation topic, and the fact that it may make some museum visitors a little uncomfortable. “We don’t want to have a situation in which a subject that, on the one hand, is so heavy and complex, emotionally too, is inaccessible to the wider population. On the other hand, we don’t want to aim for the lowest common denominator.”

In addition to Landau’s installation, the current crop of Youth Wing offerings includes a trio of intriguing, and somewhat comical, video works by 25-year-old Nazareth-born artist Karam Natour, outsized prints by American photographer Eric Pickersgill, whose conceptual purview includes examining how cellphone addiction impacts on our daily lives and social interaction, while 40-something Jerusalem-born photographer and video art installation artist Meirav Heiman studies human interaction in trying circumstances.

Landau, 44, who also makes a crust as a lecturer, researcher and consultant, has been spreading his crafted wares across the globe, and various artistic disciplines, for some years now. He took a master’s degree at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague, and wrote music for Dutch contemporary music ensembles that performed with his works at such prestigious venues as the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam.

After a decade in Holland, he returned to these shores and started to work on a performance creations based on projection and movement. In 2008, in collaboration with artists, dancers, engineers and designers, Landau created the British-Israeli co-production stage piece One-Dimensional Man.

In recent years Landau has delved ever deeper into the twilight zone between human beings and their technological creations. In 2015 he presented Oh-Man, Oh-Machine, a site-specific work at the Tel Aviv Museum which incorporated VR and choreography, and he says he seeks “to promote a techno-social critical discourse through the philosophical framework of Posthumanism.”

That may sound a little like a sci-fi, futuristic line of exploratory attack, but Landau’s artistic mind-set harks back to palpable experiences he had in his earliest formative years. That can certainly be said of Visitors, 2018. “I lived in French Hill and, before the First Intifada [1987-93],” he recalls, “there was a valley between our neighborhood and an Arab neighborhood [Shuafat] and, as a kid, I used to go there and we’d play together. I had lots of Arab friends. That all ended when the intifada began. That was sad.”

Landau says that he intentionally chose representatives of seemingly polarized sectors of the Palestinian and Jewish Israeli populations for his current work. “You have to go into places where things are tough, and then you discover there are lots of shades, and the situation is far more complex.” Rather than exacerbating an already challenging situation Landau believes that can help to alleviate matters, and offer hope of finding solutions. “When you discern the different nuances you realize there is a chance to bridge the gaps. Virtual reality and art can help bridge those gaps.”

Visitors, 2018 closes on April 14, 2019.

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