Everything Flows and the Monument Remains: Dani Karavan’s Negev Monument and the Passage of Time / Adi Englman

1.

In a documentary film produced in 1976 by the Israel Film Service, and which constituted a kind of cinematic portrait of the Negev Monument, the monument’s designer and builder, sculptor Dani Karavan, relates: ‘I wanted the monument to be part of the landscape, and for people to be part of it when they are inside it.’[1]

The monument is a commissioned sculpture intended to serve as a memorial site for the 324 soldiers of the Palmach’s Negev Brigade who lost their lives in the battles that were fought in the Negev from 1947 to 1949, and as a heritage site for these battles. The fallen soldiers’ comrades in the brigade wanted to build a site in the Negev that would commemorate the fallen soldiers and the harsh events during which they lost their lives in defense of eleven Jewish settlements that had been established in the region prior to the establishment of the State of Israel. The brigade fought against armies of local Arab fighters and the Egyptian army that had advanced into the Negev with the aim of eliminating the Jewish settlements that had been established there. In 1962 the association established to build the monument commissioned Dani Karavan to propose a plan for a memorial site. At the time Karavan was not yet an environmental sculptor; he was a young and talented designer of stage sets for theatre and dance productions. In the Negev Monument, which was completed in 1968, he took his first steps as a sculptor who worked on an architectural scale and took into consideration the environment and the specific location of each and every sculpture.

In the monument’s design Karavan referred for the first time to the vegetation elements that constitute part of the sculpture. He planned the vegetation that is incorporated around the monument with the help of his father, Tel Aviv’s first landscape architect, Avraham Karavan, and landscape architect Zvi Dekel who went on to collaborate on the landscape design in many of Karavan’s works.[2] With the passage of time, as befitting a natural environment, the vegetation landscape that was planned and designed to serve as the monument’s environment, emerged as dynamic and changing: the pair of umbrella thorn acacias that were planted near the “well” at the end of the “pipeline” – multiplied. Additionally, species of desert plants typical to the region overran the area of the sculpture and became new and unexpected guests.

Like the vegetation component, the human component which, as mentioned above, was planned in advance and intentionally to be part of the monument sculpture (‘and for people to be part of it when they are inside it’) – has not remained static since the monument was built.

Engraved at the entrance to the monument is an inscription formulated by Haim Gouri, formerly a soldier in the Negev Brigade: ‘Passerby, you are entering the gates to a minor shrine of our love for the Land of the Negev’.[3] Who are the passersby who visit the monument? In addition to buses that bring soldiers or tourists to the monument every day, local visitors have been visiting it every day throughout the day for the past fifty years: residents of Beer Sheva and its environs. These visitors are not necessarily descendants of Palmach soldiers, and most of them do not visit the monument because it is a memorial site for past events. ‘The monument is Beer Sheva’s beach – it has all the pleasures you can experience at the beach, whether it’s proposing marriage, whether it’s lovers…’; ‘The monument is a place that concentrates energy… I come here to practice sun gazing, which is actually… a practice that connects us to the most potent source of energy in our solar system…’ – attest the city’s residents.[4] It transpires that over the years a rich and diverse program of civil uses of one kind or another has been created at the monument. It is a program that has been devised organically and spontaneously by the residents-users, and derives from the unique shape of the monument (“a village sculpture”[5]), from its location in relation to the city (Karavan called the path the residents created with their feet from the city to the monument ‘the most beautiful sketch I have ever drawn’[6]), and from the fact that is accessible and open to visitors.

Immediately after the monument’s inauguration children from the city began coming to the site to play inside the sculpture as though it were a sophisticated playground. They enjoyed the shapes, the shadows, and the sounds the sculpture produced, and for them, as well as for their parents and the city’s older generation, it constituted a unique urban site. Most of the people who visit the monument for civil purposes take no notice of the quotations from the battle journals the soldiers of the brigade kept and which are inscribed on the walls of the sculpture. Over the years people from different cultural backgrounds have visited the monument. Alongside new immigrants who came to Beer Sheva from North Africa, it was also used by ‘yekkes’ and East Europeans residing in the city and the Negev region. Later, in the 1990s, new residents who came to Beer Sheva from Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States also discovered the distinctive environmental sculpture and turned it into a site for social gatherings and events. For example, a group of immigrants from Russia assemble there on the eve of Independence Day to celebrate together in the open air with the fireworks display in the city below as a backdrop. Bedouin residents of Beer Sheva and its environs also visit the site. Couples often come to it after dark to spend some time together far from the scrutiny of family members and acquaintances in their community. And secular Jews, and religious Jews, and the list goes on.[7]

‘When visitors clambered onto the monument,’ Karavan recalls, ‘the Monument Committee members were shocked, feeling it violated the sanctity of the work. I explained that this was my intention… At the time, I didn’t know what I was doing, I had no theories. I did what I felt. A sculpture that people could climb onto and walk on, touch, hear, smell, and see.’[8] Fifty years of human activities in it prove that the monument is a special place that inspires people and serves as a sanctuary for lovers. The Negev Monument is a special site that engenders a reality within it. Karavan created a place that is dynamic, open, and inviting. He created a civil site that ‘concentrates good energy’, that is loved by residents, and attracts visitors of all genders, religions, and ages. The Negev Monument is no ordinary memorial site. It seemingly celebrates life and constitutes a lively arena for encounters between people, and between people and nature in a natural non-built urban environment (a rare commodity these days). Like the image of Chronos in Greek Mythology, it simultaneously looks backward, forward, and inward: on the one hand, it notes and reminds us of the past, and on the other, in its surreal and futuristic configuration and its exposed and seemingly unfinished materiality, it points like a compass toward the unknown future. And in the meantime, the present takes place within and around it.

 

2.

P.S.

At the time of conducting the research and producing the artistic events for “50 Years to the Negev Monument / 50 Years to Dani Karavan’s Public Art” (2014-2016), a large number of refugees who had fled their countries in Africa arrived in Israel in search of sanctuary. When the current policy whereby African refugees are held in detention facilities in the Negev is replaced by a humanistic policy that views refugees as people and not criminals, the Negev Monument will spread its wings over another generation of new citizens.

I clipped and kept the images presented below while working on the Negev Monument’s jubilee events, when I frequently visited Beer Sheva and the monument. The above text and the images below are inspired by the main insight that emerged while conducting research for the project: everything flows and the monument remains.

From: Nir Evron, “Playing a Role”, video film, 3:34 minutes. Commissioned by Under the Mountain Festival of New Public Art (curated by Omer Krieger), screened as a news report on the Channel 10 evening news program “London & Kirschenbaum”.

The film documents the construction of the “Tent City” detention facility in Nahal Raviv in the Negev. The facility was built to accommodate refugees who came to Israel from Africa illegally, but was ultimately never used. In the film’s soundtrack Evron reads excerpts from an interview he held with the architect who designed the facility (“An architect does not have to check the policies of the government that you and I elected”; “Architecture has always been associated with big money and political power”). The film points to the moral responsibility inherent in the architect’s work.

From: Avi Mograbi, “Between Fences”, 2016, feature film, 85 minutes.

The film documents, inter alia, a protest march of detainees from the Holot facility in the Negev to Egypt, in other words back to Africa. The march took place in June 2014 and concluded with the refugees being returned to the detention facility by the police. In one scene in the film a group of refugees passes by Dani Karavan’s sculpture “Way of Peace” (completed in 2000) in Nitzana in the Negev. The sculpture is 2.5 kilometers long and consists of 100 cylindrical columns. Each column is inscribed with the word “peace” in a different language, representing the different peoples who traveled through this region over the years.

Eyal Toueg, African refugees’ demonstration in Rabin Square, Tel Aviv, January 2014, digital photograph.

The photograph documents a moment in the demonstration organized by African refugees in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square against their mistreatment at the hands of the Israeli authorities. The photograph captures a line of young men sitting on the monument in the square, watching the events taking place below. Interestingly, sociopolitical events that belong to different times and places are crammed into this single frame: the revival of European Jews and commemoration of the Holocaust as manifested by the memorial monument, the modern civil city that “never stops” as the setting of this event, and the horrible civil wars in Africa embodied by the young men.

Adi Englman is the Initiator and curator of the “50 Years to the Negev Monument / 50 Years to Dani Karavan’s Public Art” events, editor of “Dani Karavan: The Negev Monument” (2016, published by Marcel Art Projects), initiating director of the Dani Karavan Center for Public Art in Beer Sheva.

October 2017

With thanks to Dani Karavan, Nir Evron, Avi Mograbi, Eyal Toueg, and Sandra Weil.

 

[1]   “Dani Karavan: Monument to the Negev Brigade”, Israel Film Service, 1976, documentary film, 06:40 minutes.

[2]   Zvi Dekel, “Environment and Landscape Design at the Monument”, in Adi Englman (editor), Dani Karavan: The Negev Monument, Marcel Art Projects, Tel Aviv, 2016, pp. 16-19.

[3]   For an interview with Haim Gouri about the Negev Monument: Yulie Cohen, “Minor Shrine for Our Love”, 2014, documentary film, 30 minutes, produced for the “50 Years to the Negev Monument / 50 Years to Dani Karavan’s Public Art” exhibition at the Negev Museum of Art, screened from October 2014-February 2015.

[4]   These and other testimonies of residents of Beer Sheva are taken from: Adi Frost, “My Monument”, 2014, documentary film, 12:37 minutes, produced for the “50 Years to the Negev Monument / 50 Years to Dani Karavan’s Public Art” exhibition at the Negev Museum of Art, screened from October 2014-February 2015.

[5]   Words of the curator Amnon Barzel in the artist’s statement: Dani Karavan, “The Monument to the Palmach Negev Brigade, Beer Sheva: Or How a Historical Event is Transformed into a Plastic Form”, in Englman, ibid, p. 13.

[6]   From the film by Yulie Cohen.

[7]   For more on civil uses of the monument, see Dr. Dalia Manor, “Where Memories Meet: The Negev Monument as a Site of Private and Collective Memory”, in Englman, ibid., pp. 72-80.

[8]   Dani Karavan, “The Monument to the Palmach Negev Brigade, Beer Sheva: Or How a Historical Event is Transformed into a Plastic Form”, in Englman, ibid, pp. 12-13.