Baring witness

The underlying theme of "Bare Life" is the many manifestations of authoritarian repression by states.

museum on the seam 88 (photo credit: )
museum on the seam 88
(photo credit: )
With their latest exhibition, "Bare Life," the curators of the Museum on the Seam have pulled yet another rabbit out of their seemingly bottomless hat. Following on from the enormously powerful "Equal-Less Equal" show, "Bare Life" leaves the viewer punch-drunk and reeling from the force of the offerings in their newest display. The museum, set in a former Jordanian guard tower on the edge of the Old City, is the ideal setting for its typically hard-hitting exhibitions. The stark, austere architecture of the military installation tallies perfectly with the no-frills fare served up by the curators, and puts the viewer in the right state of mind for the show before they've even set foot inside the building. The underlying theme of "Bare Life" is the many manifestations of authoritarian repression by states against their citizens, and the various artists involved use a variety of means to drive home their cautionary message. From the start, the mood is bleak and harrowing, with a huge display of police riot helmets thrust menacingly into the center of the viewers' line of sight - and the exhibits only get darker. Bill Viola's video installation, Observance, reels in onlookers and leaves them transfixed as a host of characters take center stage while the camera films them. Each is racked with some kind of unbearable pain, and the tears stream down their faces as they gaze out. Although no clue is given as to what is causing the characters such uncontrollable anguish, in a decade swamped under a deluge of terrorist atrocities and carnage the impression is that they are witnessing the aftermath of some kind of bloody attack. Equally, their torment could be a comment on the state of the world at large in this violent age of war and hostility. However, it is not what the actors are seeing that matters, rather the sheer awfulness of their grief-contorted features that hammer home for the viewer the fragility of our existence and the horrors that can engulf us at any moment. A series of photos taken in the squalor of a South African high-security jail evoke feelings of unlikely empathy for the world-weary inmates forced to exist in such atrocious conditions. Prisoners lie head to toe on tattered mattresses; wardens lurk in corridors with shackles ready to tie up their charges; and the hopelessness of the convicts' environs seeps from every inch of the photographs. Much of the exhibition focuses on the totalitarian nature of today's authorities - stills from CCTV cameras invoke the anonymous, hidden forces that keep a watchful eye over the citizens of the 21st century. Other pieces depict the futility of trying to take on the powers that be, including an exceptional video by Clemens von Wedemeyer set in a Russian forest that follows a young woman trying vainly to make her way through the hurdles of an army checkpoint. Her futile travails are comparable to a rat desperately seeking to navigate a cruelly devised laboratory maze, as she tries and tries to reach the promised land that continually eludes her. The bleakness of the inhospitable Russian woodland only adds to the atmosphere of despair, and the steel-like coldness of the soldiers in her path fits perfectly into the icy portrait painted. Although composed of the work of international artists, Israel-themed pieces form a sizable part of the exhibition. From the humiliation of a blindfolded Palestinian prisoner to the emotive portrait of sleeping, vulnerable IDF soldiers, the theme of "Bare Life" ties in seamlessly with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One vast, striking photograph depicts Israeli forces wading into a crowd of demonstrators with batons raised and plumes of tear gas engulfing the protesters. The familiarity of the scene tricks the viewer into seeing the army's opponents as a horde of Palestinians. However, on closer inspection, they turn out to be religious youths fighting the army during the Amona evacuation in 2006, reminding the onlooker that a state apparatus can prove just as vicious when turned against its own people. Catherine Yass's video of the security barrier's seemingly never-ending snaking through the heart of the West Bank is chilling precisely because of the interminable amount of footage. The silent film focuses solely on the stark, forbidding slabs of concrete that march inexorably through the midst of fields and meadows, splitting asunder the land and with it the opportunity for coexistence that can never scramble over the colossal pillars. The notes next to the installation warn that the film "threatens to fall into the sin of beautifying the scene, as if depicting a vast modernist structure which looms [over the farms and villages of the West Bank]." However, to the layman there is an undeniable and terrible beauty to the image of the wall - much like the Great Wall of China's power to stun witnesses into a reverential, if uneasy, acclaim. The discomfort felt throughout the exhibition, as well as the bitter aftertaste upon exiting the museum, is all part and parcel of taking the plunge into the disturbing world that "Bare Life" depicts. But after digesting and internalizing everything that's been offered up within the museum's walls, there is no doubt that it is an extraordinarily rewarding way to see a different side of life than the average museum or gallery offers. The gauntlet has been laid down by the artists and curators - and it's in everyone's interest to take up the challenge and experience "Bare Life" for themselves. The Museum on the Seam is located at Rehov Hel Hahandassa 4. The "Bare Life" exhibit is open Sundays to Thursdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on Fridays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. For more information, call 628-1278.