The less you know

Ten video artists and still photographers attack the public's perception of uniforms at the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art.

navy seal art 88 298 (photo credit: Herzliya Museum)
navy seal art 88 298
(photo credit: Herzliya Museum)
Ten video artists and still photographers attack the public's perception of uniforms at the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art. As usual, chief curator and director Dalia Levin has assembled a collection so varied that at times she elevates art to a significant communication medium, while at others she merely grapples with conceptual and theoretical works that do little to broaden one's understanding of the media or the content. Entering the museum, the viewer is confronted with two mural-sized photographs (on loan from the Sabbag Collection) of combatants in full dress uniform taken years ago by America's Vanessa Beecroft. The sailors, serving as Navy Seals and each looking pretty much like his neighbor, stand in perfect symmetry. Led by an officer, these elegant combatants are sculpturally immobile and psychologically moribund, the antithesis of their true function. Trained in both covert activities and operating stealthy, high-endurance military platforms with great firepower, they are, fundamentally, killing machines. But in Beecroft's C-prints they are transformed into a squad of meticulously shaved, shined and shampooed sailors. At the core of the exhibition is Trackers, a photographic essay by the Israeli-Arab Ahlam Shibli that documents Beduin soldiers in the service of the Israel Defense Forces. Following in the footsteps of eminent photojournalists like Duncan, Eisensdat and W. Eugene Smith, Shibli's camera scans the horizon and depicts the day-to-day activities of the animated young volunteers, through their basic training, passing out parade, free time and home environments with candid, outspoken reality. Despite the fact that Beduin trackers have served honorably in the IDF since the establishment of the State in 1948, Shibli believes they, her brethren, being a minority group in Israel, are forced to pay the ruling class a price for being accepted; or, on a more sinister level, to change identity to survive among the mainstream. On the seam of politicizing her pictures, Shibli does not provide documentary information to back up her rather denigrating statements and, for this writer, undermines the very nature of Beduin volunteer service. But one particularly touching image is of a new recruit holding a weapon and proudly - without arrogance or conceit - displaying a Koran in his trouser pocket. More than most, this particular image seems to capture the true nature of the subject. The innocence of children playing hopscotch in a schoolyard is shattered by Melanie Daniel in High Noon, a video that captures the other side of extracurricular activities in the playground: shoving, wrestling, chasing and other behavior that implies potential aggression and hostility. The title has been borrowed from the gripping 1952 film classic and the musical accompaniment from the TV series Rawhide. Daniel goes one step further by editing her monochromatic film with a sepia filter while incorporating scratches and flickering effects. Through Daniel's lens, school recess becomes a metaphor for, as Levin has it, an allegory of life, human nature and the buds of destruction and violence. In an attempt to undermine the cowboy myth and offer an alternative to the macho heroes who captured the west, Jenny Rogers has created Trick Saddle, a rather jaded video in which several cowgirls in traditional bad guy black hats, fancy shirts and chaps jump into a swimming pool and simulate, in slow motion choreography, gunfights, wrestling, saddle jumping and horseback riding. Unfortunately, the true grit of the spaghetti western has been completely lost in the winsome quality of crystal clear water and indeterminate body movements. More underwater fare is presented by Shelley Federman, whose originality was actually born in the 1940s and '50s by Hollywood starlet Esther Williams in her famous one-piece suit and fluffy bathing caps. In a five-minute video, Federman revives those days of yore by filming an Israeli synchronized swimming team from Kibbutz Revadim going through their exercises. Clad in a just-right gold bathing costume and a pink cap, each woman confirms the work's veneration for the stylized genre as she approaches the camera with a forced smile emanating from heavily painted red lips. In the days before the Six Day War, the ideological youth of the country - Tzofim, Hanoar Haoved v'Halomed, Betar, Hashomer Hatzair, Bnei Akiva and others - were a potent force in the blend of an advancing collective democratic society. In Blue & Khaki, a display of color photographs, Sharon Bareket investigates the dynamics of these same groups and attempts to isolate the signs that have transformed their past cohesiveness into clusters of individual boys and girls. The zaniest video is KR WP by the Polish artist Artur Zmijewski. The work surrounds two separate marching drills performed by former soldiers in the Polish army's Honor Guard. Initially, the group is meticulously dressed in full-dress uniforms as they do their thing out on the parade ground. The fun begins when the action shifts to a closed dance studio where the soldiers have undressed and commence a second display of well orchestrated marching, this time in their birthday suits, to the sharp orders of their commander. In this comic relief, Zmijewski has successfully obliterated one's traditional perception of military norms by exposing the vulnerability of the individual and removing him from the ranks of archetypal fellowship. Even though these pathetic souls step to the cadence of left-right, left-right, having lost the emblems of military nobility, they have regained their individuality and in many ways, their self-esteem. Lacking personality and all other identifiable information, Valerio Berruti's pair of linear frescoes entitled Primary recall end-of-year class photographs depicting featureless rows of uniformed girls. Adjacent to Berruti's unremarkable works are several others by the Turkish artist Yoshua Ok n. His Poli V is one of a series of videos depicting Mexican policemen performing humdrum tasks for money and who by so doing are neutralized from their appointed tasks. This time the minion of the law, like an organ grinder's monkey, dances ruefully to obscure country music in an empty room. In the next space, also by Ok n, an aged, overweight figure of a pathetic etin Bas aran, the Turkish cinematic Tarzan he made famous in 1970, emerges from a rocky shore, bellows across the sea and returns to his hiding place over and over again. The complimentary passages written about these videos, in addition to photographic stills and a major, unintelligible, installation entitled The Gaza Stripper, are purely the curator's, for Ok n's entire package has only minimal impact and no content worth considering. A compelling display of gelatin silver and C-prints by Michal Chelbin reside somewhere in the shadows between the decadent photographs of Diane Arbus and the sexually-charged canvases by the painter Balthus. Often bizarre portraits of circus performers, gypsies and peculiarly costumed groups, her photographs, according to Chelbin, exist in the twilight zone between reality and fantasy. Culled from Strangely Familiar, a series of pictures taken in Israel, England, Russia and the Ukraine, her subjects reveal a mysterious blend of public and private lives. The collaboration between photographer and model results in a directness that is both telling and denying. Alicia in a Golden Dress (Ukraine, 2005) is an intimidating composition in which a striking sensual adolescent girl in the foreground curtsies before a ramshackle automobile in the middle ground, while a sinister-looking bare-chested male in dark glasses gawks from the background. It is this combination of hedonistic posturing and unsolvable riddle that weaves its way through Chelbin's contradictory images. Arbus once said that a photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know. (Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art, 4 Habanim.) Till July 30.