Thursday, June 17, 2021

“This Place” Exhibition, The Unbearable Complexity of Israel

View from the Harvey is a Weekly column by Sandra Schulman, arts writer, music and film producer.

“I wanted to do a broad ranging exhibition that looks beyond the headlines,” says photographer/curator Frederic Brenner at the preview of This Place at the Norton Museum of Art. “It was not done to connect the dots.”

The Norton Museum of Art is the first U.S. venue to host This Place, an international photo exhibition that explores Israel and the West Bank and helps us understand the unbearable complexity of Israel. Brenner started the project in 2008 to “try and question the complexity of these people and how they survive with their identity in the face of such prolonged conflict. I have always felt that a project undertakes you, you do not undertake the project.”

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While it acknowledges and pays heed to the region’s history of war and division, This Place and its photographers ask that viewers look beyond this — that they “widen and multiply our lens.” It tells a multi-layered, mysterious, exotic, sometimes frightening story as portrayed by a dozen contemporary photographic viewpoints of Israel and the West Bank, created primarily between 2009 and 2012. Organized by Brenner (France), the exhibit includes Wendy Ewald (United States), Martin Kollar (Slovakia), Josef Koudelka (Czech Republic), Jungjin Lee (S. Korea), Gilles Peress (France), Fazal Sheikh (United States), Stephen Shore (United States), Rosalind Fox Solomon (United States), Thomas Struth (Germany), Jeff Wall (Canada) and Nick Waplington (United Kingdom).

This Place by Scott Ewald
This Place by Scott Ewald

None of the photographers are from Israel, which adds to the individual sensibilities and approaches to produce a diverse and fragmented portrait of this important and much contested space. Each photographer brought their own visually formed opinion to a very foreign land.

Brenner himself displays large blown up images of partially destroyed hotels and portraits of families with little explanation. This is not National Geographic or Travel & Leisure – no tourist sites such as the Dead Sea or Masada were explored. Instead it’s a photo essay of the human condition, though some of the most powerful photos are of the land itself – wartorn, dusty, barren, strewn with centuries of religious and national symbols in the form of temples, housing sites, partially built or destroyed walls.

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Photos of black clad Hassidic Jews scrambling up and down walls, dismembered goats in the streets, families huddled around ornately decorated tables – who are these people? What are they doing and why? There are no answers, only more questions.

Brenner says it is all a “symptom of our world today, we are looking beyond pro or against, it is just a place, but a place of otherness from the place one comes from. All the invited photographers have different nationalities, so this is a fragmented project open to paradoxes. At first the photographers were asking me ‘What is the agenda?’ but it honestly took maybe a year to figure out that there was no agenda and they were afraid of being instrumental in creating an agenda. They were all there separately in different locations with a translator, being exposed to a spectrum of characters. The translators were photography students who were very excited to work with famous photographers they had studied at the school. Then they picked one area – streets, The Wall, a village – to focus their images on, everything from tribal to post-modern.”

The exhibit itself is installed in a few different ways, from smaller rooms hung with one photographers images all together in one entrance leading to the largest exhibit room that becomes an oblique, graphic, symbolic recreation of the geography of Israel. One photographers work, Josef Koudelka, depicts the landscape of The Wall – the hotly contested Separation Barrier between Israel and the West Bank built in 1946 and still under endless construction by the government. A book of these photos is printed in a long continuous folding page and displayed in a slate gray glass topped case that replicates a wall itself. It sits slanted between two free standing walls with projections and photos on them. It’s a powerful set up, this wall of photos nestled in a wall of a case that forces one to walk around it and be confronted by it.

This Place by Stephen Shore
This Place by Stephen Shore

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“The Wall is an open wound,” Brenner admits. “It is a land of many scars still under construction. Like the Wall and the conflict there is no completeness, the viewer is on their own journey here. I learned from every photograph – artistically, emotionally, personally. Ultimately what I wish for is that viewers look with compassion and humanity when confronted by a place that is so strange and foreign all the time.”

The project was funded partially by Brenner and monies he raised through foundations in the US and Europe. In conjunction with the exhibit is an Israeli film series, Many Faces of Israel, which will showcase the diversity of Israeli, Palestinian and Bedouin directors and film students. The films range from dramas to documentaries and focus on the human side of Israel which is often overshadowed by the political events. The series was compiled by Karen Davis, a 20-year veteran director of the Palm Beach Jewish Film Festival. Films will run several at a time once a month through January.

The exhibit is also unique in its seriousness, as the last few seasons of main exhibit shows at the Norton have focused on tea sets, fashion and pop art/culture personalities. Along with the extended Black Panthers exhibit, another serious show dealing with hard core history that is installed with great imagination and select memorabilia, the Norton is taking a darker turn this year, hoping to engage a more intellectual audience.

The scale model in the lobby of the new museum design is stunning in it’s scope and scale with a huge shady metal roof landing on the new Dixie Highway entrance that plans on keeping the almost 100 year-old Banyan tree front and center. A fountain and courtyards and skylights will be added also. Houses for artists residences are planned along the south side and there will still be expansion room in the back for future additions.

THIS PLACE explores the complexity of Israel and the West Bank, as place and metaphor, through the eyes of twelve internationally acclaimed photographers and you can find out more here:

This Place is about The Unbearable Complexity of Israel. Come and See This Place Exhibition at the The Norton Museum of Art, the first U.S. venue to host it

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