Fighting fire with art

The provocative exhibit ‘Iran’ – on a Tel Aviv rooftop overlooking the US embassy – asks viewers to question the motives and ideological basis for war.

Still photograph from Haya Rukin’s video, ‘To Kill the Sun' (photo credit: Courtesy)
Still photograph from Haya Rukin’s video, ‘To Kill the Sun'
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The line between art and activism is thin and fraught with risk. If a curator veers too far into politicking, an exhibition might alienate the open-minded. But when art ignores political reality, it loses the power of persuasion.
Opening Saturday night, the exhibition “Iran” wears bright activist colors in a warning sign against possible military action. Featured at The Spaceship Gallery on 70 Hayarkon Street in Tel Aviv – across the street from the US Embassy – the exhibition employs televised multimedia and unconventional mediums to convey an unequivocal anti-war message and criticize the socalled Holocaust mentality.
Curator Roy Chicky Arad is not shy in describing the art show’s message, which draws attention to psychological neuroses and deep-rooted fears. “Bibi [Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu] feels as if he’s a kid in Auschwitz,” says Arad, worrying about the prospect of war. “The comparison of [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad to Hitler is crazy.”
In the multifloored exhibition hall, different displays provoke and unsettle the visitor. On the rooftop, a 3.6-meter missile entitled Nimrod points at the diplomatic mission. Constructed from a metal plumbing pipe, the rocket is spray-painted with flashing solar lights attached to the side.
“It’s a very sad joke,” artist Guy Briller says. Like a phallic object, the rocket is “a very basic symbol of masculinity, a representation of power and control.”
Its initial placement upset US Embassy officials, who raced across the street to check its lethality. “After an hour, five guards came from the embassy and said, ‘Hey, you can’t point this toward the embassy,’” says Briller. In an attempt to defuse the crisis, “Iran” organizers offered to move the rocket away from the embassy and point it toward the sea.
“You see this missile – it’s become disco and rock ’n’ roll,” curator Ari Libsker says as loud trance music blasts from the roof deck. “We should be afraid, but instead we’re making fun. It’s not so serious.” Downstairs is a screening of the violently erotic short film Tse, directed by Roee Rosen and winner at the Venice Film Festival.
The movie contrasts sexualized violence to far-right rhetoric, shocking the viewer with BDSM (bondage-domination- sadism-masochism) scenes. The naked protagonist is possessed by Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and thrashed by an exorcist. As the dominator whips the haunted, she belts out Liberman’s provocative language of incitement.
At the entrance to the exhibition stands a miniature wax sculpture of Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Entitled The Most Dangerous Man in the World, the statute takes issue with Barak’s reputed support for a military strike on Iran.
Libsker designed the wax sculpture and compares the Iranian nuclear threat to underlying neuroses in the Israeli psyche. “It’s about the Israeli obsession with Ahmadinejad, with a threat. But most of the people don’t want war,” he says.
“Iran” also looks askance at media coverage in the lead-up to war in Iran with two mockumentaries. One film shows two Iranian inspectors visiting Israel, investigating the Dimona nuclear facility. The director, Yossi Atia, wants the film to question viewers’ preconceived notions about the Iranian threat.
“We are so afraid of Iran that we forget that we have enough power to destroy them, says Atia, referring to Israel’s ambiguous nuclear program. “But change it to absurd, to a kindergarten, to a symbol. I see the political issue in Israel as a metaphor – it’s part of your life; it’s like love.”
The other mockumentary challenges Holocaust invocations in justifying an attack on Iran. Labeled Rambo in Yad Vashem, the film shows Israeli fighter planes bombing Auschwitz. A so-called Holocaust mentality continues to haunt Israel’s leadership and general public, says the mockumentary, with past threats haunting us in the present.
The curators’ synopsis takes issue with “Israeli hysteria and fear of destruction, the never-ending quest for a new Hitler-Nasser-Saddam at all costs.” The statement also faults the never-ending existential threats, stating that they are manufactured psychological neuroses.
“There is actually no need for Ahmadinejad, the current hero of our psychosis,” the curators say. “He is no more than a provisional extra… Any existence involves a threat, and any threat is no less than a threat to our existence.”
Despite public polling that indicates hesitation among the Israeli populace about going to war, the exhibition may undermine itself by pushing the envelope far beyond the mainstream. At “Iran,” conspiracy theories abound, and legitimate skepticism is transformed into artistic radicalism.
“Iran” attempts to provoke the viewer into political action, questioning the obedience of the silent majority following alleged intelligence reports. But does the exhibition merely preach to the converted? Can the exhibition provoke unsettling questions about the threat of war?
In conversation, curator Arad says he doubts that civil defense preparations are in place.
“I’m sure if there’s a war there will be a commission like Winograd asking, ‘Where were the shelters? Why didn’t you plan?’ The country is not ready for war,” he says.
Despite the curator’s logical points, “Iran” makes few serious, inflective points. A winning political argument needs more than ironic and comic relief. The exhibition does not address the threat of war in a serious manner.
“Iran” delves into advocacy without a basis in political reality. But the curators would say the same of the architects and planners in the lead-up to war. The exhibition beguiles and intrigues but does not offer a practical political alternative.

“Iran” is on display until April 19 at the Spaceship Gallery, 70 Hayarkon Street, Tel Aviv. The hours are Sunday to Thursday, 11 to 7; Friday, 11 to 2.