Last winter we were all witness to an art scandal. An Israeli ambassador’s attack on the installation Snow White and the Madness of Truth quickly became a world event that took on a life of its own. At the height of the controversy, Google yielded 128,000 hits related to it. Now the media coverage has faded away and the ambassador has long returned home. In an unusually frank and thoughtful look back, Gunilla Sköld Feiler, one of the two artists involved, recaps and interprets what happened.
Now that the dust has settled over the Rose Garden of the Museum of National Antiquities, which once glittered in newspapers and on television screens around the world after the Israeli ambassador’s tantrum, everything is apparently back to normal. The only gleam is coming from the roses. So what was really going on during those short, turbulent weeks? What happened to public debate, truth and madness as the installation’s creators found themselves at the epicenter of the storm, as the furor peaked and contemporary art was on everyone's lips? My immediate experience was that of witnessing a constant barrage – attacks on freedom of expression, on the intent of the installation, on any and all resistance to the dictates of obedience and silence. The techniques varied but they all exhibited the same arrogant logic: coercion and slander; threats to kill the museum’s management, critics, our friends in Israel, our families and us; and threats to bomb the museum.
Before 2000, it was relatively easy to characterize a suicide bomber. The standard profile was of a young unmarried man, poorly educated, unemployed, fanatically religious and lacking a future. Now we might just as easily be talking about a 47-year-old father of eight or a law graduate who happens to be a woman. It goes without saying that life in Israel reflects such developments. Each visit to the country makes us more aware of the peril. It can strike at any time and any place. But we also know that Israel is indiscriminately killing innocent civilians day by day in the Occupied Territories. The figures speak for themselves. According to a recent survey by the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme, one out of every four Palestinian boys under 18 want to be martyrs, 97% of the children suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome and 60% have been present when a family member was shot to death or wounded.
”There was the terrorist wearing her perfect makeup”[i]. When I heard the ambassador refer to the suicide bomber’s makeup as he justified his attack on Snow White and the Madness of Truth, I flashed on Holocaust historian Christopher Browning. The Nazis in his books aren’t cruel fanatics, but run-of-the-mill people who have changed somewhere along the way. Understanding that dynamic isn’t the same thing as mitigating, excusing or acquiescing to evil. On the contrary, the horror is that much greater for its sheer banality, stripped of its cryptic mask to reveal a sentient being capable of distinguishing between right and wrong. It might be rather disconcerting to recall that the Nazis were Europeans and the Palestinians aren’t. Because “run-of-the-mill people,” with all that term implies, is hardly the label that the world currently pins on suicide bombers.
Seeking the causes of political rage and contextualizing terrorism has become politically unacceptable and morally inadmissible. Doing so could turn ”them” (Palestinians, Chechens, Tamils) into people like us, whose actions may appear logical, understandable and – even worse – trivial. So we issue shrill warnings to make sure that it won’t happen. We associate words like ”explain, understand, excuse, encourage” with a treacherous and slippery descent into chaos. Since nobody can navigate such territory with any degree of assurance, why be so foolhardy as to even try?
Fully conscious of that taboo, we sought to describe the contours of the enigma – terrorism and suicide bombers – that everyone is wrestling with today without trying to serve up unequivocal, all-embracing explanations. The world increasingly presents itself to us as polarized into “civilization” and a “barbarism” characterized by the pure, unadulterated evil of fairy tales. The atmosphere is both frighteningly new and hauntingly familiar. Love and hatred, good and evil are chiseled into archetypal features, as in old statues of heroes.
We wanted to avoid the preaching and oversimplifications that simply confirm what we’ve already been taught – a monster is a monster, unfathomable and definitely not like us. Such attitudes serve only to demonize the enemy, absolve ourselves of any responsibility and preserve the status quo. Instead we sought to highlight ”the open wound”2 that Steve Sem-Sandberg, quoting Birgitta Trotzig, so perceptively spoke of in the Swedish press. Our goal wasn’t to cling to trauma but to wade further out. Art can touch nerves that are beyond the grasp of newspaper articles and documentaries, however important and compelling they may be. Its symbols can assume multiple roles in a simultaneous interplay of double exposures and skirmishes.
We realized that an explanatory model based on rational politics, irrational desperation or mystical death worship could never come anywhere near the essence of a deed, the inexorability of which is always elusive. That ultimate incomprehensibility must be safeguarded in order to keep the wound open and elicit the observer’s innermost images, the ones that often are the strongest and most difficult to ward off. Because the living faces of the victims will never return.
A sudden need to look at things in a new way can bring our conceptual shortcomings to light. Our categories and discursive systems fall short – we are caught by surprise and dumbfounded or reflexively cocksure. Those are very human reactions, even if they don’t have to go so far as at the opening of Making Differences, where the ambassador subverted freedom of expression and ultimately appropriated the installation for his own purposes. Mazel’s ”interactive exploit” was both a reflection and an amplification of the tragic, violent elements in the work itself. As suggested by his subsequent interviews, one purpose of the attack was to draw attention to art’s autonomy and “exaggerated freedom, especially in Sweden”.3 Even art’s practitioners are questioning its sacrosanct status within four walls, a territory reserved for inoffensive playfulness or provocation. Now the walls crumbled and politicians around the world were up in arms. So the originators of the installation became two more observers of the ambassador’s performance – authentic or not (he told both the Swedish and international press that he had made up his mind even before seeing it) – and actors on the political stage. In other words, the line was crossed whichever direction you were heading. Regardless of your point of view, it’s difficult to look at the piece now without broadening its context to include all the events surrounding Mazel’s action. The boundary between art and reality was blurred, and a new work burst into the spotlight.
What happens when a work of art is overexposed and perused beyond the point that it is normally designed to bear, when it ”comes in from the cold” in an unexpected, almost arrogant way and commands everyone's attention? Many ground rules were broken in the wink of an eye, and not only overtly political ones – the focus of the exhibit was supposed to be on more established and internationally famed artists. Now they were cast unfairly and pitilessly into the background. According to rumors launched by some of “Israel’s supporters,” it was a coup by the Feilers, whereas the more level-headed majority viewed it as a coup by Mazel. The event quickly became a hot topic, reported and discussed in arts and entertainment sections of newspapers, letters to the editor and nightly news shows. All facets of the controversy, unattractive as well as attractive, glittered away for all to see. Because everyone wanted to have a say – from those who hate installations or any kind of art and are prepared to molest it, to diehard “Israel supporters” willing to go down with the ship. Then there were those who suddenly didn’t know which side of the fence to sit on when art truly enters the realm of politics. Of course, the entire issue stemmed from a long, complicated Middle East conflict directly related to Europe’s historical mainstream and conscience, rather than a distant, forgotten genocidal war in the developing world – which is important to report on for that very reason but not as controversial.
All credit to the pundits and critics who bravely and factually defended freedom of expression. But as often happens when art is attacked, the substance of their arguments and the fundamental issue suffered under the perceived need to mount such a defense. So freedom of expression frequently has a hollow ring to it just when it’s needed most. Given the controversy that swirled around the exhibit, it was virtually impossible to seek any kind of objective meaning in the installation, especially since it could pose headaches and demand a reckoning with political, ethical and philosophical questions than are fairly rare in the art world. So an unfortunate, uneasy atmosphere gathered around the piece: was it political or not, was it an intentional provocation, was it a coup – and was it even art in the first place? Actually it was a dream come true – to take an unassuming, almost puerile installation ”that could have been put together at my children’s nursery school”6 and bring matters to such a head. The nature of the discussion suggested that a flanking movement was under way at a safe distance from the installation itself.
Might that explain why virtually all news reporting ignored the installation’s complete title? Too often to be a coincidence, they called it “Snow White” and nothing else, as if “The Madness of Truth” had little to convey. That was a paradox in itself, considering that the piece contained various textual layers laced with evocative interpolations and clearly stressed the importance of the words. Were the papers just trying to save space? In that case, they might write ”Remembrance of Things Past” as ”Remembrance.” Didn’t the piece deserve its complete title, especially since it had been so politicized, criticized and disseminated – like your everyday soap opera. At least in presentations and serious forums, the ground rules should have been adhered to: show ordinary respect for the name of a work. Why encourage the forces that wanted nothing more than to ossify, simplify and distort the debate? Could it be that as soon as art seeps outside the inner circles, becomes everyone’s business and scores attendance records, it is fair game for the media, which can mold it any which way?
A Cruel and Frozen Scene
I’m breaking the unwritten rule that a work of art should speak for itself and under no circumstances be subject to explanation by its originator. Something that was starting to be called ”the art event of the century” probably demands such a transgression. My purpose isn’t to insist on a single ”correct” interpretation, but to illuminate the piece’s various structural elements, suggest the complexities involved and somehow recreate it through the description of its internal process. You can’t just assert that something is complex – you have to actually prove it.
The various components of the polyphonic, “rather unassuming” structure were all charged with connotations. As in all intricate art, neglecting one element affects the entire interpretation. In a hybrid based on the relationship of word, image and music, the suggestive, linear structure of the text is quintessentially contrasted with the confrontation between the eye and the piece itself. The objective of the temporal dimension and movement of the text and sound was to reinforce the imagistic stagnancy of the stronger visual elements.
The intentional out-of-doors location in the paved Rose Garden – a choice that bordered on a cruel and frozen theatre of the real – was one of the decisive ingredients that the press routinely ignored. Cold and horror were at one end of the scale, heat and blood at the other: simple but not simplistic, thought provoking but something more. Or to put it more bluntly – it was a spartan work of art about a spartan way to wage war, lean as a scalpel. Because we weren’t trying to impress anyone with expensive, virtual high-tech manipulations that filter and establish distance as sanctioned by the current international discourse. We settled instead on a pungently authentic and austere low-tech chilliness that made the ambassador recoil in horror: ”I felt myself freeze suddenly.” 7. He doesn’t appear to have considered the possibility that his discomfort was rational in the face of a tragic, gruesome depiction. Shivering and shuddering are related bodily reactions, a sign that the artists effectively conveyed their intentions and devices.
Simply put, it wasn’t a place for exchanging pleasantries – particularly since it was outdoors in the middle of winter and was part of an exhibit linked to Stockholm’s Genocide Conference. The piece courted the senses, the body, a venue for pain – when horror freezes blood in the veins, where we are alone and nevertheless together, where shared humanity begins. The image of a suicide bomber could not be allowed to degenerate into a titillating logotype. Rather we felt that it had to be placed in a context of challenge and confrontation – it had to make a difference. So how could the chilliness be transmitted to the TV screen and newspaper page? And what if it wasn’t even mentioned or described? The authenticity of the translation from one medium to another was also an issue. That was illustrated by the media’s own shortcomings. Foreign newspapers, including those in Israel, placed the installation indoors out of habit and totally ignored the climactic factor. Of course, not everyone has grown up in a land of cold, dark winters. The misunderstanding was accentuated by photographs that focused greedily on the boat so that it grew to the size of a ship and dominated the scene without any relationship to the setting and the cold. It was an excellent illustration of how the media create reality and even art.
The courtyard was soon covered with snow as we had hoped for, and the boat– moored in the hallucinations of its own faith without going anywhere – shivered and grew redder. The words of Bach’s Cantata 199 came to mind: ”My heart swims in blood since in God's holy eyes, the multitude of my sins makes me a monster… My withered heart will in the future be moistened by no comfort and I must conceal myself from him before whom the angels themselves conceal their faces.”8 There is no forgiveness here – only sinfulness, shame, and horror. In stark contrast to the snow, the rearranged first aria poured time and again out of two black speakers.
That the mournful cantata sounded beautiful9 in the ambassador’s ears highlights the subservient role that background effects have come to play, particularly in art, as well as widespread ignorance about classical music. That may be an indication that it’s necessary to listen to art as well. But then time must be permitted to act on the observer’s sensibilities, even if she is cold – something that is easily forgotten in an age of fleeting impressions and glossy spectacles.
We placed the spotlight so as to heighten the sense that the scene of a recent crime was under investigation. The ambassador reinforced that atmosphere by pulling out the cords and throwing the spotlight into the water, interrupting the pumping system that circulated the “blood,” as a result of which it all froze on the bottom and had to be chipped away the following day. Also revealing is that the spotlight, which marked the line between art and reality, was the target of the attack. The installation and the entire museum remained under tight security for the remainder of the exhibit, highlighting the uncompromising aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as the gap between the real world and the conference’s theme of reconciliation.
Beauty and Evil
”To look the enemy in the eye is taboo in Israel[ii], wrote Israeli poet and author Yitzhak Laor in Haaretz, describing the Stockholm events. In other words, the need to meet the enemy’s glance, if only in a picture, is enough to infuriate an ambassador. The only proper representation of your foe – the one that enables and justifies war – is that of evil personified without a human face. And what if your enemy is beautiful?
That the ”monster” (the perpetrator) was an attractive Middle Eastern woman is a shattering, decisive psychological factor from both a gender and epistemological point of view. The stolid senses are put to the test. Associated with victimhood and weakness, women are to be spared in wartime. So the ambassador had great difficulty with a malefactor who wore kajal and lipstick, a femme fatale in the most devastating sense of the word. Despite the installation text (taken directly from a Haaretz article) that referred to Jaradat as “seemingly innocent with universal non-violent character,” she spared nobody. Nor did we sidestep that fact, in either word or image. Like any vain young woman, she had made herself up for her passport photo. We found the full-page picture in a brightly colored Israeli newspaper to which we subscribe. There she is, smiling demurely like one of Christopher Browning’s ordinary people. ”It’s indecent!” exclaim the respectable citizens and refuse to surrender or delve beneath the surface, lingering dutifully, seduced or indifferent, before the sovereignty of the image. But why get stuck there? Why not allow the deed’s horror and incomprehensibility to cast a shadow over the entire scene, from beautiful icon to beast, if that’s what you want? Or why not view it as a double exposure: beauty and the beast in the same ”seemingly innocent” shape, and maybe even the form of a human being, though ”made up”? Developing the ability to see it both ways at the same time neither belittles nor mitigates the horror – quite the contrary. As every art student learns right off, contrast accentuates. The photo contains an apparent taboo. According to various Israeli news reports, the artists made up, touched up and painted Jaradat’s lips to elicit a kind of Christian saint who would prepare the way for Jesus10. You might be tempted to ask which Christian saints wore red lipstick. On the other hand, we trimmed the scanned picture down to an oval shape as in an old scrapbook. If the image strikes the observer as beautiful, that comes from her encounter with its motif.
And who ever said that beauty is equivalent to virtue? Or ugliness to evil? Haven’t we gone beyond our Disneylike innocence? Take Osama bin Laden’s lofty, Christlike smile. It’s true that image and vision form a deceptive and sometimes dangerously symbiosis, abounding with culturally tainted layers and traps, never neutral. So you need to be on your guard if you don’t want to get lost. Because wasn’t the dark oval around Jaradat’s head a voided halo and thereby the negation of a genuine icon?
Text and Context
The text that accompanied the installation was located outdoors along with the rest of it. It was composed of intertwined narratives, visually and stylistically distinct, taken from two different sources. The layer based on the real world consisted of translated excerpts from Israeli reports on the course of events preceding the suicide bombing. Since they had all been published in the Israeli press, they were neither the “thoughts of the artists” 11 nor “the daily message spewed out by the Palestinian Authority’s propaganda machine”12 as has been spitefully maintained. Furthermore, the excerpts were italicized to emphasize that they had been taken from other sources. Important to keep in mind is that, driven by its survival instinct, the Israeli peace camp frequently examines the relationship of violence, oppression and Palestinian suffering to suicide bombings that target Israelis. Thus, the Israeli press will sometimes recount the life of the perpetrator during the period leading up to the attack. That is usually followed by a bitter vilification campaign on the part of the peace camp’s opponents – something that we got only a small taste of.
The other layer consisted of liberally rearranged passages from the story of Snow White that touch on the eternal questions of guilt, innocence, desire, abandonment, despair and obsession. Its childishly red calligraphy distanced it from the news stories, strengthening its stylized, naive and fantastic character. That illuminated the perilously thin boundaries between fact and fiction, myth and reality, that run through our increasingly media-oriented worldview. With a few rare exceptions, reproductions of the text in the media ignored that distinction and departed from the original typeset. However benign the intentions, the effect was greater confusion and misinformation. In other words, the imagistic and integrative aspects of the text have escaped public notice. The collage structure invited the spectator to read in a manner other than the traditional linear approach suitable for newspapers. Even though the installation made it clear that Jaradat was unmarried and childless, a number of critics promulgated the misconception that she had two children and that her husband had been killed.
The recurrence of red, white and black in both the text and the rest of the installation stressed that not even the archetype of Snow White is monochromatic, but “red as blood and black as ebony." Although metaphors and archetypes from old myths can grow trite, they rejuvenate themselves by constantly acquiring new contexts and meanings. Snow White represents an equivocal, deluded and ultimately dangerous psychic state that has crystallized its faith in the purity and nobility of one’s own family, nation or God. Since multiple layers of complex feelings and symbols are involved, interpreting the installation ironically may be misleading. A recent scandal in Sweden also involved an ”innocent young girl” who was drawn into a violent intrigue by means of religious programming that used the individual and collective tools of ostracism, humiliation and submission. Was she less guilty just because we know how it came about? And why are we so afraid of thinking clearly when terrorism is involved? Do we shrink in alarm that our worldview will be jolted?
The Ku Klux Klan’s robes – or the horse that the preacher, the “wolf in sheep's clothing,” rides in the poetic and horrifying film The Night of the Hunter – also illustrate the frightening import of white. And don’t forget that, just like black, white is the color of death. Playing on Snow White’s equivocally scarlet lips, red embraces both love and hatred and makes us human – but it also reveals our brutishness, as expressed in the Bach cantata and the text "the wild beast will soon have swallowed you." At the risk of sounding didactic in offering the above examples, I want to emphasize that the basic symbolism of the old folk tale is neither remarkable nor particularly original, but generally accepted. But given the misinterpretations and falsehoods that gained currency during the exhibit, there is good reason to discuss the myth. References were made to Walt Disney, as well as to Snow White “as a Lutheran symbol hung on the Christmas tree”13 and a sign of “the new nihilism in a godless Europe”14. Such interpretations were rendered by people with narrow, anxious perspectives who wrote in newspapers and magazines despite their not having seen the installation. At least you can’t accuse them of lacking imagination.
One unintentional and completely ignored detail was the dying water sprite, his neck broken, on the embankment. Not to mention the ladder that leaned up against a barren tree, which offered neither escape nor shelter.
Symbolism and Interpretation
The observer must accept ultimate responsibility for his or her own interpretation of a work. All art besides political propaganda invites various exegeses and responses, none of which can be called the correct one. But some may simply be wrong.
There is an abundance of evidence that the installation’s allegory and banal but baleful symbols had the desired effect. Art critic Roberta Smith wrote in the New York Times: “The work’s title, ‘Snow White and the Madness of Truth,’ suggests a suicide bomber as a person driven by fairy-tale simplicity and pathological faith. It implies that such faith and simplicity have caused bloodshed all over the world, not just in Israel»15. Here she is touching on Snow White as a pathological, infantile and fatal psychic state that can drive a person or a nation to the edge of the unthinkable.
So what did Mazel say? In order to take his interpretation seriously and examine its assumptions, it might prove helpful to place the concept of blood within the ideological context from which he is coming. The metaphor of blood has played a central and venerable role in Israel, both in ancient and modern times. In the 20th century, the metaphor has achieved its greatest prominence in the propaganda of the Israeli right, nourished by seemingly endless wars and the roller coaster ride from the flush of victory to devastating losses. Such symbolism is far removed from Sweden's national discourse, making Mazel's interpretation totally incomprehensible to most of the country’s citizens. “'With blood and sweat we shall erect our race…in blood and fire Judah fell, in blood and fire Judah will rise.” Ze'ev Jabotinsky (1880-1940), founder of Revisionist Zionism (precursor of the Likud Party) and key ideologue of the Israeli right, uttered those famous words. Thus, blood presumably symbolizes for Mazel the sense of honor and heroic struggle that repudiates art and recoils before the specter of its own murdered innocence. But the installation’s blood has other implications that are alien to Mazel's worldview – the blind spot that led to the deaths of 13 (including her brother, fiancé and cousin) of Jaradat's relatives in clashes with the forces of occupation. Blood has no face, no skin color. It mixes well. Our red blood cells are unique in that they lose their nuclei and DNA when they mature. In the age of science, blood more appropriately symbolizes our common humanity than narrow kinship bonds or secret rituals. But the rhetoric has been frighteningly effective both on the battlefield and in nationalistic projects – blood and its scarlet imagery have been powerful conveyors of meaning and inspiration.
The Physical Setting
Important to keep in mind is that Making Differences had a specific location and context and was not some kind of free-floating exhibit. The setting was a history museum with memories and remnants that illuminate and highlight the past. And that history is thoroughly violent. Thus, the process of fact finding must be eternally vigilant in seeking the roots of war and genocide in Judeo-Christian civilization – as far back as the Bible's tales of sacrifice and revenge. Even suicide – the most extreme manifestation of free will – finds early expression in the story of Samson. ”Let me die with the Philistines,” he roared as he destroyed the temple while three thousand of the enemy’s men and women stood on the roof. The deed was revenge for the torture and humiliation he had suffered in captivity. As a mythical and respected war hero, Samson’s fate should confront us with a number of painful questions.
So although Snow White and the Madness of Truth is both an old and new story, it might seem strangely pathetic to a country that hasn't experienced war for two hundred years. The discourse of violence and vendetta is as far as you can imagine from the Swedish ideal of blondness and elegant design. The ethical and substantive boundaries of national discourses are crossed when contemporary art becomes cosmopolitan and takes on diverse, culturally specific ingredients. That could explain why today’s exhibits – whether in Turkey, Sweden or Israel – tend to feature "consensus art" adapted to the current international discourse and amenable to non-threatening interpretations even when ostensibly political in nature.
So not everyone associates the paradoxical claims of “truth, snow white and madness” with the more equivocal concepts of snow blind, white lie and white noise. Take snow white. The visually impaired have great difficulty in snowy surroundings – they lose their sense of direction, are less able to probe with their canes and are disoriented by the muffled sounds. People who live in cold climates can identify with that plight even if they have normal vision. Thus, art will always embrace culturally specific elements and contexts. Transferring a work from its place of origin to the other side of the globe can be an exciting and enriching enterprise. But it can also be risky, and even devastating, if the piece is deconstructed and viewed from new, distorted perspectives.
Finding yourself in the eye of the storm and encountering a new work of art designed by Zvi Mazel and Ariel Sharon was something like being in a Woody Allen film – if a little on the horror side – when the protagonist is at her most paranoid and is fully convinced that the world revolves around her. When CNN, BBC and hundreds of other news channels around the world showed the Israeli prime minister calling his Sunday morning Cabinet meeting to order with the discussion of a fairy tale figure, maybe the “truth of madness” would have been a better title than the “madness of truth.”
So did Mazel, the newly born artist, succeed in his attempt? Not really, given that the installation was allowed to remain in place even after the Christian Democratic Youth League reported it to the police for incitement to racial hatred and allegations were made that it was a death trap and source of environmental toxins (water samples failed to substantiate the claims). To the dismay of some, it also scored attendance records – some 30,000 visitors in three weeks. On the other hand, voices were raised here and there to the effect that the ambassador’s actions were fully understandable and effective in that they “forced Swedes to empathize with the Israeli trauma provoked by suicide bombers.”16 But the hysteria that was evoked in Israel and trumpeted to the rest of the world came from another source, the origin of which was Mazel’s attack – planned or not – and the specious maneuvering that sought to exonerate and shroud it.
With the ambassador’s encouragement, the tragic narrative of the breakdown of dialog and its unforeseeable consequences proceeded apace. So the reaction of Israelis to ”the work of two antisemitic artists that urged on and paid tribute to suicide bombers and genocide against the Jews"17 wasn't particularly difficult to understand. Both Mazel and the Israeli Cabinet described the work in those terms while praising his "heroic deed.”18 The installation was also interpreted as the sign of "an impending new Kristallnacht since it appeared at a history museum in Sweden”19. And we felt for those misled people, whose wounds were so cynically reopened by that distorted interpretation. Those who so zealously attacked the installation must have realized that they were creating a sense of hysteria in a traumatized people who had no opportunity to judge the work on their own. “We’re at war,” explained Mazel afterwards. According to the logic of war, you have to defend yourself (go on the offensive) and seize the weapons at hand, whether it be in Gaza or at an art exhibit.
Looking back at history, the "inherited paranoia" that Jews often speak of themselves remains a very real phenomenon that deserves neither scorn nor rejection. Since that kind of paranoia makes it difficult to criticize Israeli policy without being accused of anti-Semitism and poses a serious threat to dialog and peace, it has frequently been a topic of discussion in Israel. Putting such criticism off limits would not only be devastating for the future of the Palestinians, but represent a tragedy for the Israelis themselves and ultimately world Jewry. Thus, illuminating the issue of paranoia isn’t harmful, but absolutely necessary. As clearly reflected in Mazel’s thinking and actions, many – perhaps most – Jews and Israelis see themselves as victims in the Middle East conflict way beyond what the facts of the matter would suggest.
Almost overnight, two artists became fair game. One of them – a Jew, native Israeli and well-known peace activist – was called “Israel’s number one enemy in Europe”20. Other Jews were urged “not to have anything to do with him”21. The results of that smear campaign were soon evident. Meanwhile, the enormous media coverage gave us little time at first to protect ourselves from the storm that was gathering – it was important not to underestimate the dangerous forces that had been unleashed.
Now that we have survived the harrowing experience, it seems clear that artists who are the targets of such threats should have recourse to a support network comparable to International PEN for writers. Acts of vandalism against art, along with censorship and police raids, has grown alarmingly in countries like Sweden, Russia, Italy, the United States and Israel. Given the global nature of today’s art scene, there will presumably be an ever greater need for such a support network. Because if we are earnest about defending the political content of contemporary art, collisions with vested interests will be difficult to avoid. Exhibits and biennials will play an increasing role as vehicles and symbols of freedom and progress, particularly in less stable and democratic countries. Expecting artists to represent certainty in a world that is becoming less certain by the day would be an absurd proposition.
The vendetta theme has recently hit the silver screen as well, often with women as the chief avengers. Because how should we interpret the Cinderella-like and submissive Grace in Lars von Trier's Dogville? The film confronts the limitless violence that the vast entertainment industry spoon feeds us daily without asking us to look at its reality. With an ostensibly simple plot and an elaborate, stylized and low-key narrative, von Trier demands that we face up to that encounter. At the end of the film, all ”grace" has vanished and we are left with the inexorable, unanswered questions of guilt and innocence, individual and collective responsibility. Then there’s Patty Jenkins’ true-life film Monster in which the tattered existence of a serial murderess becomes cause and effect in a vicious cycle without excusing her deeds in any way. The theme also appears, though in a more extreme and amoral form, in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill (Volume 1 and 2). But the vengeance motif drowns in the splatter of blood, conveniently sparing us from confronting any kind of political reality.
Some people argue that as modern judicial systems repress and appropriate the instinct of vengeance, it emerges in art and entertainment instead. Others maintain that such films reflect the pathological state of a society in which we are all vulnerable to the swoop of terror just when we least expect it. If the real world is increasingly reduced to day-by-day media warfare, the consequent wounds will eventually spew forth the most frightening scenarios– if only as whispers and echoes on the screen, or as escapist paroxysms of blood that momentarily shock and titillate at best. From that point of view, it is particularly perplexing that images of real-life cruelty immediately remind us of “fearful contemporary art” or medieval covens.
Snow White and the Madness of Truth, starring an enraged ambassador, was played out on the world stage. It lives on as a catalyst and watershed despite efforts to efface it. We feared that the attack would boil the whole thing down to a single issue. Empathy, openness and vulnerability were at risk when the observer was no longer free to pose his or her own questions, but had them served up on a platter – not an ideal starting point. But you can’t kill art with the slash of a sword – like the Hydra, it’s liable to sprout a head or two for every one that's severed.
The picture has grown clearer despite the fact that the pool is now empty and the snow melted. The interplay of events exposed power structures and mechanisms at the highest levels of diplomacy, not to mention contemporary art. And a lot more was going on behind the scenes: smear campaigns, political hanky-panky, lobbying efforts and clique formation. Media coverage was impossible to keep track of – there were some 128,000 hits on Google at one point. The Hydra’s new heads spawned dialog and debate about political art in newspapers, art journals and seminars in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Turkey, Israel, the United States, Canada and elsewhere.
Recent Israeli discussion has centered on dissemination of art within and outside of the discourse approved by the nation and establishment, as well as its consequences for crises like the present one. With growing uneasiness, Israeli artists have followed portents of censure and other restrictions on the freedom of expression.22 As a result, 85 well-known Israeli artists joined a spring exhibit at Military Prison No. 6 (where refuseniks are serving time) under the mottos “Artists also have to take action” and “Israeli art should be in prison”23. At the same time, they started an organization called “Artists Without Borders.”
The name of the organization suggests the growing necessity in Sweden, Israel and worldwide of cosmopolitan art that is international in scope without being bland and cultureless. Such art would reveal the contemporary landscape, its topography, barriers and boundaries, refuting the notion that they don’t exist or that they trace certain stereotypical contours. There’s so much out there to discover – especially where we are right at the moment.
“There was the terrorist wearing her perfect makeup.” »
Six months after Snow White and the Madness of Truth attracted so much attention, two new works – both by women – on the subject of suicide bombers were exhibited in Israel. The Haifa Museum of Art showed Dganit Brest’s photograph of a suicide bomber who blew herself up at a Tel Aviv shopping center. Taken from a newspaper, the photo was enlarged and placed in a context of "despair and death." During the public debate that accompanied the exhibit, museum curator Nissim Tal explained to the public that “Grief, at the center of the public consensus, is one of the taboos of Israeli society. The use of the portrait, in an exhibit that invokes death in various ways, intensified the emotional turmoil.” According to Dr. Ilan Saban of the Haifa University Law Department, “It is hard for me to understand how you see this as a glorification, you should have no fears regarding how most of us look at the picture. We all look at it from a place of fearing death.” Palestinian-Israeli artist Nisreen Mazawi exhibited six photos of potential suicide bombers, freshly showered and barely dry ("since Palestinians are viewed as dirty") at Ramat Gan Museum. In another connection, Mazawi did a portrait of herself as a terrorist. [iii]
Gunilla Sköld Feiler
2 Steve Sem-Sandberg, Svenska Dagbladet, January 20, 2004.
3 Interview with Zvi Mazel in K-special film, ”Who’s Afraid of Art”.
5 Rumors spread by ”supporters of Israel.”
6 Staffan Heimersson, Aftonbladet, January 24, 2004.
7 Interview with Zvi Mazel in K-special film, ”Who’s Afraid of Art”.
8 The original German goes: “Mein Herze schwimmt in Blut/ Weil mich der Sünden Brut/ In Gottes heilgen Augen/ Zum Ungeheuer macht […] Mein ausgedorrtes Herz / Will ferner mehr kein Trost befeuchten / Und Ich muss mich vor dem verstecken / Vor dem die Engel selbst ihr Angesicht verdecken“
9 Remarks by Zvi Mazel on Swedish television after the attack concerning the “beautiful music from the loud speakers.”
10 Dana Gillermans, art critic, refers to Tchelet's article ”Israeli Thinking” and Daniel Doneson's article on the installation that, according to him, carried obvious Lutheran symbolism, including Snow White on the Christmas tree.
11 Daniel Doneson, Tchelet “Israeli Thinking” no. 17 – 2004, Israel.
13 Daniel Doneson, Tchelet “Israeli Thinking ” no. 17 – 2004, Israel.
14 Daniel Doneson, Tchelet “Israeli Thinking ” no. 17 – 2004, Israel.
15 New York Times, May 13, 2004.
16 Anders Carlberg, Göteborgs-Posten, January 20, 2004.
17 Zvi Mazel, Gunnar Hökmark, (president of Sverige-Israel-förbundet) Expressen, January 19, 2004. Ariel Sharon in the Israeli press.
18 Ariel Sharon in the Israeli press.
19 Cornelia Edvardson, Svenska Dagbladet, on the official interpretation in Israel.
20 Remarks of Zvi Mazel on Israeli television.
21 Letter from Jewish congregation in Göteborg to its members.
IDF police invaded a photo exhibit that documented violence and abuse of Palestinians in Hebron (Jonathan Lis, Haaretz Correspondent: June 23, 2004). Those in charge of the exhibit were arrested afterwards. David Wakstein’s photos at Tel Aviv Museum have been accused of being antisemitic (Dana Gillerman, Haaretz July 8, 2004).
23 A satellite exhibit at Candyland in Stockholm featured some of the 85 artists from the Military Prison No. 6 project, including David Tartakover , Dganit Brest and Sigalit Landau. Dror Feiler and Gunilla Sköld Feiler selected and compiled the photos.
24 Below are other excerpts from the debate on Brest’s work (Dana Gillerman, Haaretz, July 8, 2004).
“A museum is a space that facilitates investigation. It expands self-examination and displays it." (Dganit Brest)
“The question is should museums show the public what it wants to see or should they dare to place issues on the public agenda.” (Larry Abramson, artist)
“ …an encouraging sign that art has been restored as a subject of public debate. Art may once again be more than a place in which to create beauty , and may dare again to deal with sensitive subjects that create public turmoil…” (Dana Gillerman, art critic)
“David Tartakover closed the discussion by saying, “Freedom of expression is not just the right to express accepted opinions, but also those that repulse the majority of the public.” (Israel Prize Laureate)
Internet links to the sources used in the installation text.
Ticking bomb by Vered Levy Barsilai – Haaretz October 14, 2003.
Haaretz, Jaradat article – Hebrew version
Female Suicide Bombers for God, by Yoram Schweitzer, Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies
When despair trumps hope, by Ruth Rosen, San Francisco Chronicle – October 13, 2003