Curatorial Responsibility and the Exhibition of Israeli and Palestinian Political Art in Europe

This essay was written for the catalogue of Overlapping Voices, Israeli and Palestinian Artists, 16/05/2008 – 26/10/2008. Essl Museum, Exhibition Hall. Curators: Karin Schneider, Friedemann Derschmidt, Tal Adler, Amal Murkus

Curators and organizers of exhibitions of Palestinian and Israeli political art in Europe will likely encounter two opposing positions concerning their responsibilities. The first is that there is no need to contextualize such works in a European country, even when they are exhibited in a society that was deeply implicated in the Shoah (as in the case of Austria). The art works will speak for themselves, and whatever entanglement there is between Israeli, Austrian, and Palestinian history is not qualitatively different from the entanglement that the histories of other countries also entail. According to this perspective, although many Austrians were implicated in the crimes committed by the Nazis half a century ago, this need not mean that the Austrians of today are incapable of seeing Israeli and Palestinian realities on their own terms. The second position presents Austrians and Austria as a society so deeply implicated in Nazi crimes that the exhibition of political art which deals with Jews in any way necessitates elaborate explanations on the history of Austrian antisemitism and the fate of Austria’s Jewry during the Second World War.

One of the aspects that cannot be changed is the fact that the artists are marked as Israeli or Palestinian. No matter what the title of the exhibition and how much effort the curators put into challenging preconceived categories, the “overlapping voices” will always be read as Israeli and Palestinian voices

The first option is difficult to sustain given that Austrian and Jewish history are not simply “entangled”. Rather, perceptions of Jews, Israelis, and Palestinians continue to be strongly conditioned by the images, debates, and sentiments that stem from Nazi rule in Austria. The idea of an Austrian nation gained acceptability in the post-war era when Austrians sought to dissociate themselves from allegedly German (that is non-Austrian) crimes. It would be disingenuous to claim that Austria – a nation state whose very existence is predicated on the disassociation from crimes against Jews – represents a neutral space for the representation of art that highlights the consequences of the foundation of a “Jewish state”. In a country like Austria and others with a history of strong Nazi or antisemitic sentiment, the discussion of guilt acquired by Israel and Israelis often becomes part of an attempt to deflect accusations that its citizens were implicated in the crimes of National Socialism. If the history of Nazism is not part of making such an exhibition site specific in large parts of Europe, what is?

Anisa Ashkar

Anisa Ashkar

The second position is much more sensitive to questions of site specificity but has its own pitfalls. This essay explores the possibility of a particular form of contextualization that is conscious of the limitations and dangers of creating ethically charged suggestions of perception for viewers. It will consider what sort of interventions actually create a space that allows for an engagement with the artists’ works and political message; even in a context that demands particular historical sensitivities. Although it explores the Holocaust and Israeli and Palestinian art specifically, the reflections pursued here might also apply in other contexts as well – for example, the way that the history of colonial relations and European Islamophobia colour the reception of political art from former North African and Middle Eastern colonies in different European countries today. Lastly, this piece should not be read as an explanation of the curators’ choices (which have been made according to their own considerations) but rather as an attempt to enter into dialogue with them and the other organizers of the exhibition.

Intervention and Explanation

The reception experience of the audience is conditioned not just by the arrangement of the exhibition space. It is shaped by many additional elements some of which can be controlled (such as the title of the exhibition) and others that cannot (such as the public identity of the producers and curators). One of the aspects that cannot be changed is the fact that the artists are marked as Israeli or Palestinian. No matter what the title of the exhibition and how much effort the curators put into challenging preconceived categories, the “overlapping voices” will always be read as Israeli and Palestinian voices.

There are two problems attached to this identification with a “side” in a conflict. The first is that the works could be seen as authentic voices or representative expressions of the feelings of one side. Since this is the issue that is usually and often addressed by critics and artists alike, I will not discuss it further. A second problem that has received much less attention is the fact that viewers with little knowledge of the political circumstances in the Middle East will focus on the pedagogical function of the works. They will mine them for basic information about political realities rather than read them as political commentaries.

BuytheWall.com, Yoav Weis

This is even true for projects that are not ostensibly trying to explain anything. Yoav Weiss’ project, which comments on the so-called separation wall in Israel, is a case in point. In his statement, Weiss notes that pieces of the Berlin Wall eventually sold for good money, once the structure lost its policing function. According to Weiss the Israeli wall will surely meet a similar fate and parts of it will soon become similarly coveted souvenirs. He thus offers a special deal for early birds who already want to secure their part of the wall.

In the Israeli context, Weiss’ work is an intervention. Interpretations of his work there are always predicated on the fact that the viewer already knows the Israeli wall and the reality it stands for. It should concern us less that individual viewers in Austria or elsewhere in Europe might miss the fact that Weiss is speaking tongue-in-cheek. More importantly, even those European viewers who understand this work as an ironic commentary will engage its references to the less familiar Israeli wall through the lens of the more familiar Berlin Wall. As careful Austrian viewers will scan his artwork with the aim of understanding the Israeli wall, its implications, and political meaning, they will inevitably do so through the prism of what they know about the Berlin Wall. Weiss’ work will to a large degree have an educational function to those unfamiliar with the history of the Israeli wall.

In short: the difference is that in Israel the artwork primarily intervenes into a context whereas in Austria it also explains. This raises the question: does the added pedagogical value that comes from transplanting political art and showing it in a collective exhibition abroad not demand that curators somehow engage with this level?

One way of resolving this issue might be the creation of a separate space that caters to the viewers’ desire to acquire information and learn about the context of the artwork on display. This is not an issue of explaining the individual works of art – of adding, for example, a sign that explains how we are supposed to read Weiss’ installation. Rather, a supplementary information section can unburden the work of art from its function as a medium of pedagogy, for which it is not well prepared. For the exhibition in the Essl Museum, information on such things as the history of the separation barrier being built by the state of Israel or a glossary can be found in a separate room – an approach that gives the works of art more space to develop their own autonomous language.

Information room the exhibition overlapping voices at the Essl usuem

Information room the exhibition Overlapping Voices at the Essl Museum

At the same time, the disadvantage of such an arrangement is that the art and information sections can end up competing with each other. After all, information and background can hardly remain neutral. Both the pieces being exhibited and information sections do political work. There is no easy solution to this problem. At best, the information section should aim to explain the context of the different pieces of art in a reflexive manner by historically situating the political debates to which they refer. Rather than make overt political declarations on “the wall” being built, it should show the history of debates on the project, including the history of the terminology (between “apartheid wall”, “security barrier” and “separation fence”), and competing arguments about its legitimacy and consequences for the life of Palestinians and Israelis. The aim is neither to claim an apolitical form of objectivity nor to suggest that works of art should remain untouched by curatorial interventions so as to preserve their authenticity. The intent is rather to avoid reducing a work of art to a mere illustration of a programmatic statement made by others. What would be the point of showing a complex work such as Yoav Weiss’ if, next to it, there is a long declaration (or indeed a confession of political faith) by the curators on their opposition to the wall?

Strange Meanings, Strange Allies

A second set of problems arises when, rather than viewing a work of art as the point of departure for an explanation, viewers see it as an intervention – but one that addresses issues that would not occur to the intended Israeli or Palestinian viewer. At the core, the problem is that the political messages of the exhibited pieces were often not made to directly address an Austrian audience. Works such as Tal Adler’s documentation of unrecognized Bedouin villages might be interventions into multiple contexts. Adler certainly draws on languages that are as familiar to audiences in Tel Aviv as they are to viewers in London or Vienna. Yet, he is not trying to challenge current Austrian images of Israelis, Jews, Palestinians, and Bedouins that are informed by the Austrian history of collective anti-Jewish violence, the guilt discourses on complicity in genocide, and anti-Semitism.

For Israelis and Palestinians alike, it can serve as a testimony to the viability of a common struggle against the occupation. Yet, that need not be the way it is read in Austria. In Austria, the notion that curators and artists have been recruited equally from “both sides” can potentially reinforce the false sense that Austrians can constitute an uninvolved third party.

Indeed, even the choice of curators and the organization of the exhibition have different meanings in Austria than they do within Israeli and Palestinian society. The very act of choosing a Jewish Israeli and a Palestinian as curators, as well as showing the works of Palestinian and Israeli artists side by side, is a statement against those who oppose such alliance-building. For Israelis and Palestinians alike, it can serve as a testimony to the viability of a common struggle against the occupation. Yet, that need not be the way it is read in Austria. In Austria, the notion that curators and artists have been recruited equally from “both sides” can potentially reinforce the false sense that Austrians can constitute an uninvolved third party. Even if both curators share a particular vision of opposition to occupation, there is still the sense that the mere fact that both “identities” are present makes Austrians honest brokers; a role they are, as noted above, badly equipped to assume in this case.

The question is how an exhibition should account for the fact that Austrian media always deal with Israelis and thus also Palestinians through the lens of the Austrian past. Indeed, perhaps the metaphor of reading through a particular lens is too weak: the important issue is not one of misreading but of projection. Political art coming from Israel/Palestine can become an opportunity to negotiate historical issues that are not always referenced in any obvious manner. A recent discussion at an Israeli film festival organized in Vienna can serve as an illustration of this. After the screening of a movie about a love affair between two women in the Israeli army, the organizers offered an opportunity to discuss the work with the director. In the discussion an Austrian woman in the audience brought up the suicide of her grandfather after he fought for the German army, the Wehrmacht. In reaction another member of the audience accused her of being a “fascist”. Within minutes the discussion moved from a conversation on sexual identities in Israel to a polemical exchange on Austrian involvement in Nazi war crimes. The film was not misread. Instead it served as a mere occasion for another debate.

Unrecognized, Tal Adler

Unrecognized, Tal Adler

In the context detailed above, any engagement with Israeli policies – and particularly those involving human rights abuses such as those Tal Adler documents in his work on “unrecognized” Bedouin Villages – has the potential to become part of the renegotiation of a collective Austrian history as well as the family history of individual Austrians. Part of the argument for organizing the current exhibition on Palestinian and Israeli political art was that it is exciting to see how these debates function in Austria. Unfortunately, these circumstances also have the potential to impede a reception that allows for a nuanced perspective on Israeli and Palestinian politics and struggles. Working through questions of Austrian guilt and historical responsibility can also undermine the aim of attempts to move beyond simplistic narratives which reduce complex realities to an uncomplicated situation of perpetrators and victims in the Middle East.

What can it mean to think about such an exhibition politically in the Austrian context under these circumstances? Should there be an extra section and instructions to art educators on how to deal with the reflection of the Nazi past in pieces of art that never wanted to address that subject? Where does this leave Palestinian art, which is only part of this constellation indirectly? Rather than offer straightforward answers, this essay can make a number of concluding observations and suggestions:

1) Although we presuppose that the perception of Israel in Austria is strongly influenced by the history of European Jewry and the genocide against the European Jews, an exhibition about Israel is probably the least productive place to address the history of antisemitism. This is best done, rather, in museums that aim to suggest new ways in which visitors can think about difference in their own environment.1 The aim should be to offer a space for reflection on Austrian perceptions that allows visitors to understand the interventions of the artists, not to use works of art on Palestinian and Israeli politics and life in order to rethink Austrian history.

2) Furthermore, we can only presume that the history of Austrian anti-Semitism is relevant for the perception of visitors because the targeted viewers are assumed to be a native Austrians with no migration background and a family history that might implicate them in Nazi crimes. Yet, audiences for art exhibitions can come from diverse backgrounds, which would make it a dubious move on the side of the exhibition designers to suggest that there is any typical or ideal viewer. The “space for reflection” suggested above would thus be most useful when created by museum educators in dialogue with actual visitors.

3) It is commonly assumed by those organizing events on Israel or Palestine in Austria that a discussion was successful if nobody made any uncalled-for references to National Socialism. Clearly there is the danger that comparisons end up equating Nazi and Israeli policies. Naïve comparisons are not just inappropriate in the Austrian context; they are also problematic for Palestinian and Israeli political activism. They reduce Israeli and Palestinian voices to proxies for guilt discourses instead of engaging with the arguments they are making.

At the same time, I would suggest a less anxiety-ridden approach to the fact that the Israeli-Arab conflict and the occupation becomes a space for projection. Representations of violence and collective ethical transgression (even if they are only hinted at in an artwork) always lend themselves to multiple reinterpretations and demand to be appropriated by the viewer. It is futile and unproductive to try to instruct viewers beforehand about the proper forms of viewing art through an official statement. If educators with school classes were to try to forestall any comparisons between German Wehrmacht and Israeli soldiers by declaring such statements taboo, they would merely deaden any productive debate. The emancipatory potential of such an exhibition is not served by forcing on the viewer ethically charged rules on the proper reception of the works.

Bidoun, Manar Zuabi

Bidoun, Manar Zuabi

In Austria, the interest in Palestinian and Israeli politics is always mediated through the Austrian past and the European past more generally. The most productive way to deal with this tendency is to take risks and see provocative, inappropriate, and embarrassing statements as an opportunity to offer new approaches to seeing Israelis and Palestinians. It is the work of curators to allow such debates and the work of museum educators to encourage them and make them productive – in dialogue with actual visitors, rather than imagined and stereotyped Austrians, the existence of whose prejudices we simply presume.

One way that museum educators can foster fruitful debates is to point out other models of reception; describing, for example, what type of reception a piece had or might have had or has already had in Israeli and/or Palestinian contexts. It is crucial to work with the fact that the pieces exhibited aim to challenge simplistic assumptions about identity, voice, or representation. This does not mean that there is not an ethics of reception. Guides should, for example, show their disapproval of inappropriate remarks. Nonetheless, the main aim should not be to reduce embarrassment but rather to use it.

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1. On museum pedagogy in this regard, see: Richard Sandell, “Museums, Prejudice and the Reframing of Difference