Trauma everywhere

Consisting almost entirely of video art – with one notable exception – the ‘Prolonged Exposure,’ exhibition at Tel Aviv’s Center for Contemporary Arts will fascinate almost everyone.

‘Occupied,’ a video by Yael Brandt 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
‘Occupied,’ a video by Yael Brandt 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Near the back of Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market, literally within sight and shouting distance of the last row of vendors’ stalls, is the Center for Contemporary Arts. Established in 1998, the center spent its first six years operating out of one small room at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque before moving to its present digs in a spacious, gray, minimalist-designed building called the Rachel and Israel Pollak Gallery.
In its relatively short lifespan, the center has initiated two biennials, one for video and another for performance art; established a fund and distributed grants for the production of video art and experimental cinema; accumulated an archive of more than 3,000 videos by Israeli and international artists, with works from the 1960s to the present; and even produced a TV program devoted entirely to video art, broadcast for four years on community TV channels throughout Israel.
It has also – in spite of these numerous accomplishments – remained relatively obscure and not well known to Israeli public at large.
That, however, is likely to change with the current mounting of an exhibition called “Prolonged Exposure,” which promises to be thought-provoking and very controversial. Consisting almost entirely of video art, with one notable exception, “Prolonged Exposure” will no doubt delight some, infuriate others and fascinate almost everyone.
The exhibition and its name are the creations of Maayan Sheleff, a very earnest young woman in her early thirties who serves as the center’s curator. She explains:
“Prolonged exposure” is a term used in photography to describe a picture taken with a slow shutter speed. During the long exposure to light, the details are slowly, gradually revealed. Unlike a snapshot, which captures a decisive moment, with long exposure the image forms gradually and all the details slowly, slowly become clear.”
“And ‘prolonged exposure’ is also a type of psychological therapy which has proven to be very effective in treating patients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD – especially warrelated PTSD.
“The idea is to expose the patient to sights, sounds, smells and other sensations connected to his traumatic event. The patient is exposed to these gradually, under safe conditions, over and over again, until they don’t hurt anymore.”
Most of the video works in this exhibition are, in fact, the result of long-term documentation. Video artists from Israel, Syria, Bosnia and Colombia blur the line between documenter and documented by moving in and living with the people they are videoing.
Says Sheleff: “Every one of these artists worked between two and seven years with these people. It’s not like ‘I’m going to this very exotic place, I’m taking a picture, and then I’m leaving.’ It’s a total approach in which they truly tried to relate to these people and to give the people control in the process.
“So, in a way, the documented became artist and the artists became documented. I think that this is the most important point in the exhibition.”
Many viewers are likely to miss this point, however, as they react either favorably or unfavorably to the content of the various video works. Describing that content, Sheleff says, “We are trying to bring a voice to people who usually don’t get to talk. Their voice is not heard. We hear the voices of people in the media and government, speaking with their kind of voices.
“I think that there should be a place for people to speak with a very different voice – a voice that is not heard, a voice that is sometimes considered extreme.”
The exhibition begins with its sole non-video entry, called Trauma, an installation by Austrian artist Christoph Weber. As the viewer approaches, he is confronted by a locked door that he can open only with a key. A key is provided; the viewer opens the door. Inside, he finds himself in a white corridor full of more doors – all identical, all locked, and each defaced by an identical gaping hole, complete with splintered wood. The holes appear to be the result of someone inside, in a moment of rage or anguish, smashing his fist through the door.
“From a distance, all the splintered holes are identically black. But if the viewer wishes to, he can peer into them and discover that each locked door covers a ‘trauma’ inside.
“It’s about trauma repetition,” Weber continues. “You have, like, one trauma, and it comes back to haunt you again and again. Or as a methodology of therapy, it’s about needing to repeat the trauma again and again in order to get rid of it.”
From this corridor, the viewer eventually passes into galleries displaying some of the traumas documented by the video works of the exhibition.
And trauma is virtually everywhere. First, we see Mouths of Ash, in which video artist Juan Manuel Echavarría documents the survivors of massacres in sequestered mountain villages in Colombia. The survivors, all Afro- Colombians and coming from the lowest, most impoverished rungs of that country’s social ladder, appear on camera individually to sing – yes, sing – their testimonies of murdered husbands, wives, parents and children.
In Female President, artist Lana Cmajcanin stands at a podium as though she is giving a speech, reading the testimony of a woman who was raped during the war in Bosnia. A sad testimony of the sort normally stated quietly, perhaps in a dull monotone, is instead read stridently, in a tone best described as demagogic.
Occupied is the product of more than a year of Israeli artist Yael Brandt’s attempt to document the lives of prostitutes in the vicinity of Tel Aviv’s old Central Bus Station. Brandt finally decided to set aside the video portraits she had made, break through the barrier between documenter and documented, and simply ask one of the prostitutes to hug her on camera.
The resulting video, shot in a rented room in south Tel Aviv, shows a 40- minute embrace of the two women, presented without editing.
Without doubt the strangest, and perhaps most disturbing piece in the exhibition is Martha Bouke, the result of a seven-year collaboration between Israeli video artist Rona Yefman and “Merav,” an unnamed male 80-year-old Holocaust survivor who has created and performs in a female persona. Claiming to be a young woman born after the war, the Holocaust survivor has buried himself, or herself, under protective layers of wigs, make-up, fashionable dresses and – most disconcerting of all – mannequin-like face masks.
The going gets even rougher from here. Sooner or later, the viewer wanders into what might be called the hard inner core of the exhibition, a video installation called Testimonies by the group known as Breaking the Silence.
Dedicated to gathering testimonies by former IDF soldiers about what they either did or witnessed during their service in the “Occupied Territories,” the group has filled an upstairs gallery with no fewer than 15 video testimonies, all going on at once.
Entering the gallery, the viewer is confronted with 15 faces on 15 video screens and hears a cacophony of voices in the midst of confession. All but one of the confessors are men, and only one face is deliberately blurred. Stepping close to each screen, the viewer sees the soldiers as individuals and hears them attesting to everything from merely unpleasant encounters with Palestinians to what some are calling “war crimes.” The monologues are raw and very difficult to listen to.
Photographer Miki Kratsman, co-editor of the testimonies and a driving force behind Breaking the Silence, says, “The reason we have this kind of exhibition is that people don’t want to see these things, people don’t want to hear about these things. But it’s a kind of balance, really, because in Israeli newspapers and Israeli radio and television, usually you hear more about our victims. And I think that what is special about these testimonies is that it’s all about us.
“These are testimonies by us, and not by Palestinians. These are our soldiers.
You may meet them in your street, in the supermarket, in the universities or in your house. And they are part of us, talking about us. Things about us that we don’t want to know. So it’s important...I don’t know if it’s important, but we have a need to do it.”
Asked if we can ever expect to see videos produced by Palestinian artists showing Hamas fighters confessing to acts of terror, Kratsman replies, “I don’t know, but it doesn’t matter. We are us, so who cares about the others?” When curator Sheleff interjects that we have a responsibility to talk about ourselves, Kratsman ends the discussion by saying, “Absolutely, but I don’t care about the responsibilities of other people. That’s their problem.”
Although many exhibition catalogs are produced as high-quality, glossy soft-cover books, the catalog for “Prolonged Exposure” is printed on newsprint, presumably to lend the exhibition an air of immediacy as fresh and relevant as today’s news.
It also pulls no punches. One video by Israeli artist Avi Mograbi, called Z32, portrays a former IDF soldier recounting what the catalog calls a “quintessential war crime,” in which “he shot innocent people while following an illegal order.”
It’s not all grim, however. Moments of almost amusing irony are provided by Mich’ael Zupraner, who has lived in Hebron for the past two years in an abandoned Arab house that he has converted into a video studio. His video, Snow Tapes, is the result of a project by the B’Tselem organization which, according to the catalog, distributed video cameras to 30 local Palestinian families “to document human rights violations in the city.”
Snow Tapes documents a tense confrontation between Jews and a local Palestinian family who had been building a snowman on a bright winter’s day.
The family uses its B’Tselem video camera to record the scene. The viewer at the exhibition sees two screens side by side, one showing the actual videoed event, and the other showing the family watching the video at home.
Almost incredibly, rather than discuss the event, the family members, some of whom are children, watch the video with a newfound artistic awareness, critiquing such technical points as composition and perspective.
Sheleff concludes, “’Prolonged Exposure’ is an activist exhibition, but with complexities. I think if the viewer will come and give it a chance and not see it through clichés and prior opinions, he will have an opportunity to experience something new.”
“Prolonged Exposure” is on until June 23 at the Center for Contemporary Arts, Rehov Kalisher 5, Tel Aviv. Tel: (03) 510-6111.

Opening hours: Monday to Thursday: 2 to 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.