An official view of death

The artificial ambiance of the world’s most recognizable Holocaust center, says Altaratz, also helps to bring in the funding needed to keep it going.

Visions of Heaven and Hell  (photo credit: DORON ALARATZ)
Visions of Heaven and Hell
(photo credit: DORON ALARATZ)
There are few areas of our lives in this country that are more likely to expose a collective raw nerve than putting in your pennyworth about how we grieve. The sensitivity Geiger counter reading shoots up a couple more notches when the departed in question are loved ones who died in the defense of this country, or pertain to the national iconography pantheon.
With that in mind, Doron Altaratz is either one of the bravest or most misguided artists around in these here parts. Altaratz is “a multidisciplinary artist, researcher and educator who acts in the fields of photography and new media,” he notes on his website.
He adds that his professional purview takes in the fusing of “original photographic footage with visual- readymades, mostly found in cyberspace.”
His latest showing is currently on view at a new display space called The Villa Gallery in the grounds of the EMUNAH Appleman College of Art and Technology on Bethlehem Road. The exhibition, curated by Sara Kopelman, goes by the uncompromising and somewhat oxymoronic heading of “Visions of Heaven and Hell” and runs until February 13.
The show comprises around 20 out sized prints featuring visual vignettes, often computer-manipulated, of three iconic state facilities – the Mount Herzl Military Cemetery, the Resting Place of Great Leaders of the Nation (on top of Mount Herzl), and Yad Vashem just up the road. The works were accumulated gradually, with the source pictures captured between 2006 and 2017.
The photographic images pack a punch or two.
They certainly draw the eye, before widening it, and have the spectator wondering about the artist’s intent and, in some instances, what is actually going on in the frame in question. It is not that Altaratz questions our need or right to mourn, it is the way we go about it, in an official, ritualistic manner, that bothers him.
The titular extremity reach, says the photographer, is open to debate and assignation.
“Sara [Kopelman] and I don’t agree on that,” he says. “For me, heaven is the military cemetery and hell is Yad Vashem, on either side of Herzl’s grave,” says Altaratz. “I have, God forbid, absolutely no intention to hurt the feelings of bereaved families.
The Zionist ethos sanctifies the death of soldiers. The military cemetery accentuates that, aesthetically and conceptually.”
Altaratz says the obligation to remember the fallen is instilled in Israelis from an early age. “I remember when I was at school, in Jerusalem, on Remembrance Day we’d all gather in the yard and talk about the fallen soldiers, and we’d mention the names of those who’d been at the school. Every school would do that.”
Altaratz said he shared a sense of patriotism and heroism with his peers. “We all wanted to be one of them. We all wanted to be soldiers and to die for our country.”
That, says the photographer, resonates at the cemetery; but now, a couple of decades or so on, he looks on the ambiance of the state graveyard with something of a jaundiced eye.
“They have made it into a sort of Disneyland. You have the legend of the so-called yefei hablorit vehatohar [handsome and pure],” he suggests, citing the well known phrase from the anthemic “Shir Hare’ut” (Song of Friendship), written by Jerusalemite poet Haim Gouri, who served in the pre-state Hagana paramilitary forces and died this week aged 94. “The soldiers in the graves will be young forever. All the clichés are there [at the cemetery] in aesthetic terms,” Altaratz continues.
“‘Visions of Heaven and Hell’ deals with the gaps between pleasurable aesthetics and the trauma-based national identity,” he also states on his website.
The exhibition offers a left-field perspective on the way we may choose to view the iconic sites. When we visit Yad Vashem, for example, most of us probably don’t take the time, or even consciously see, the pine trees growing on the hillsides, consider the meandering trajectory of the paved pathways, and certainly not the rest areas and the facilities for depositing the flotsam of our stay at the state Holocaust memorial.
The Yad Vashem-derived exhibits in “Visions of Heaven and Hell” feature gently bending trees, which look mystical and, possibly, invitingly mysterious in the Jerusalem mist, while another shot, taken in similar meteorological conditions, shows fauna gently cascading off some strategically placed rocks.
That, Altaratz posits, is part of a grand plan to condition the way we think about the atrocities that befell the Jewish people during World War II. “That is the ‘aesthetics’ of the Holocaust. It is not the actual aesthetics of the Holocaust; rather, it is the image, the way it is presented to us. It gives us a vision of how the Holocaust looks.”
The artist even goes so far as to suggest that the afforestation of Mount Herzl is tailor made to complete a designer-contrived representation of the genocide.
“Concentration camps were located in forests,” he says. “It is the aesthetics of Europe. My grandfather, in Yugoslavia, hid in forests during the war. He was a partisan there. In my family we know these stories.
These forests on Mount Herzl were planted there by Keren Kayemeth. They are designed backdrops. It’s Disneyland.”
The artificial ambiance of the world’s most recognizable Holocaust center, says Altaratz, also helps to bring in the funding needed to keep it going. It is, after all, a commemorative site for all Jewish people, and not just for Israelis. That proffers a fertile substratum for fund-raising, an aspect that is starkly alluded to by Altaratz’s compelling shot of a donor plaque amenity at Yad Vashem. The mailbox-looking slots are all, as yet, empty, seemingly just waiting for the dollars to come rolling in.
Altaratz confesses to intentionally playing around with our senses, much in the same way, he contends, that the state memorial sites on Mount Herzl aim to do.
One photograph shows an enclosure surrounded by large cut stone walls which, says the artist, is supposed to commemorate the mass graves in various Holocaust locations. The actual site has plaques with the names of the Jewish communities from which the victims hail, but Altaratz airbrushed the titles out. The installation of the names, he claims, is detrimental to the desired effect of the place.
“The names are there so you don’t pay too much attention to the idea of the mass grave,” he observes.
“But it doesn’t work that way. I took the names out so you can focus on what is important, the sense of the mass grave. The names detract from that. It’s taking the concept too far. I am saying to the authorities, don’t mess around with my mind. I know it’s supposed to be a mass grave. I don’t need the names.”
He says it is about getting back to basics and shedding the state ritual patina.
Wisdom has it that you have to push a bent stick past its original alignment to get it to eventually straighten up. The same goes for Altaratz’s visual manipulations.
He adds snow to the trees and ground around Yad Vashem “because that’s what we see when we think of concentration camps, no? That’s what we’ve been conditioned to see. It’s always winter at concentration camps,” he notes, tongue in cheek. “I think we need to see beyond the official version.”
The icing on Altaratz’s critical look at state mourning comes across in no-nonsense satirical terms in a short video work, in which we see a woman, presumably a Yad Vashem employee/volunteer, approaching an information desk with a sign that reads “Join Us” hanging over it. The video operates in a loop, so that the woman is constantly “joining.”