translated by: Margalit Rodgers
An Inaccurate Quote
Artist Shelly Federman (1975-2014) created the sculpture Monument for the Anonymous Construction Worker in 2011 following six separate incidents in which construction workers fell to their deaths in June of that year. In his article No Interest in Construction Workers, Roy “Chicky” Arad wrote: ‘The statistics are horrendous. According to the Ministry of Economy, in Israel a construction worker is killed every two weeks, or approximately twenty-five each year. Every twenty-two minutes a construction worker will be injured as a result of falling from height. The dead are nameless and faceless’. As a response Federman decided to build a provisional monument, made from aerated concrete blocks, cement, and wood scaffolding, to commemorate those who had literally fallen to “build up the country”, and asked Arad to compose the text that would be inscribed on it:
In memory of hundreds of the country’s builders who lost
Their lives on scaffolding, some thirty each
Year, since the establishment of the state.
Arabs, Jews, and foreign workers, contract workers,
And hired laborers, whose names are unknown.
In their deaths they bequeathed us the Israeli real estate,
Rent, and acquisition groups
Monuments are generally erected in outdoor public spaces, in remote locations that become pilgrimage sites, or across cities as part of their residents’ everyday landscape. Monument to the Unknown Construction Worker, however, was created for an interior space, an exhibition space – for an exhibition that was mounted in the Spaceship Gallery at Seventy Hayarkon Street. In her works Federman would quote familiar establishment aesthetic forms, and distort them, and thus, like a move performed by a skilled Tai Chi practitioner, she would use the aggressor’s language and turn it against him. In this monument Federman used, with sensitivity and sharp irony, characteristics of the Zionist pathos and the aesthetics of the monument sculptures and memorial plaques adorning the city streets to expose the fact that “building up the country” is a Zionist value that has undergone dramatic changes in the past one hundred years. Not only has it shifted from Jewish labor to Arab labor and from there to foreign labor, but the Zionist-colonial enterprise has metamorphosed into a capitalist real estate enterprise.
Federman employed a technique that can be defined as “an inaccurate quote” to create an object that is sufficiently similar to the familiar, ad nauseam, monuments, and yet contains a distortion (or perhaps correction) of the norms and agendas they usually express. Adhering to the language of the establishment and even adopting it only to distort it, is what stands at the heart of this work. At the same time, this action cannot be called subversive for it does not attempt to oppose the rules of the establishment, but rather uses them to serve its needs. If this is how the memory of people in the built environment is honored, the range of elements we seek to remember can be extended, making the necessary adjustments to the required aesthetic expression – consequently, it is obvious that we will commemorate construction workers by means of wood scaffolding and construction blocks. It is almost an action that the establishment itself, if it were ingenuous, might have commissioned. And since sometimes an external agent seeks to teach the establishment something, Federman made the required artistic move and enlisted herself to the service of the nation, putting into its mouth the words she thinks it should speak. And indeed, when asked about the appropriate place for the monument, she would reply without hesitation, in the street.
Scattered all over Tel Aviv there are numerous monuments possessing national character and are, in the main, dedicated to those who fell in battle, on a secret mission, or in a terrorist attack. They are minimal in nature, and their design is fairly standard. They are not pilgrimage sites, their function is to merge with the everyday environment – they do not take up too much space, and yet they are built from a purposeful mass of material situated on a street corner or strategic location, as a kind of finger resting on a map, indicating: “It happened here”. And yet, the distinctiveness of these minor monuments is that emerging from the mass of material is a slab inscribed with an informative and laconic text delivering the story of the event with the measured and credible succinctness that is reminiscent of a military incident report. If a person is walking along the street and encounters such a monument, ten seconds at most will be sufficient to read and register the message. Thus for example, situated on the corner of 64 Hayarkon Street and 8 Trumpeldor Street is a monument that served as the inspiration for Federman’s sculpture, and it bears the following inscription:
From which on 18 June 1946
Five British Officers were abducted
And taken hostage – to save the lives of
Etzel fighters Michael Eshbal and Yosef Simchon
Who were sentenced to death by the British government.
The abduction resulted in their verdict being commuted
To life imprisonment
This, therefore, is the story of an entire event and is conveyed to us in fifty words (forty in the original Hebrew). Consequently, the information conveyed can be considered a literary genre to all intents and purposes. It is a kind of miniature story that condenses into a few short lines, set out in the form of a poem, everything we need to know: first, here, in this place, the event took place, and consequently it is sacred; second, the act of heroism: abducting the British officers from the hotel; third, the conflict: the names of the heroic Etzel fighters who were sentenced to death by the British government, and to save their lives the heroic act was carried out, namely the abduction; fifth, the catharsis: their sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. The author of the story is unknown, but the body that commissioned it can be presumed – the municipality, the army, or the state.
The image of the hero, at least according to literary theory, is typified by the fact that the qualities that make it a heroic figure reflect the social ideals of the period. Qualities of leadership, courage, sacrifice, and any other lofty skill stand at the basis of the reader’s systems of identification with them. And indeed, the image of the hero sketched by means of these monuments possesses courage, dedication, and self-sacrifice, and the monument seemingly ensures one thing – their lives and deaths have value, and the national entity and its citizens embrace their memory. However, the distorted tribute Federman made to these urban monuments exposes the cracks that have appeared in the national value systems in an era wherein urban development is the product of global processes and liberal ideals. Who, then, is the author of the texts inscribed on monuments in an era wherein it is the tycoons and entrepreneurs who govern? Is there any likelihood that the Municipality of Tel Aviv, for example, will erect this kind of monument on its sidewalks and street corners, overlooking the tower blocks increasingly being built, from a genuine desire to honor the memory of those who have fallen on the altar of urban development?
Federman’s sculpture-monument serves as a tribute to the anti-hero, one who is viewed as not belonging, and whose values ostensibly threaten those of society. But does he in fact threaten society’s values? After all, building up the country is still a foremost and aspirational value. So why is the construction worker a valueless figure? And why is his life treated with such blatant disregard? It is for good reason that Federman chose the word “unknown” for the monument’s design. Monuments dedicated to the unknown are generally directly connected to war and national sovereignty. Thus for example, the first monument to unknown soldiers was erected in 1958 in Denmark, and bore the name Landsoldaten (The Foot Soldier) (the first monument to actually bear the word “unknown” is The Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey, London). This is a physical monument that contains an abstract thought that adheres to a general representation of the victim: each country and its dead, whoever they may be, and even if their names are unknown and their bodies are scattered elsewhere, we shall remember them. We shall insist on remembering them. But the way Federman uses the concept of “unknown” is entirely different, since the construction worker’s body was found and his name is known. Federman chooses to point an accurate finger at the establishment mechanism that creates anonymity, to expose it and use it as an antidote; for if the construction workers are in the main Palestinians, migrant workers, or Jews with low socioeconomic status, their bodies inevitably contain an inherent contradiction – they are the builders of the country, but at the same time they are also perceived as a threat to it. That is, to its Jewishness or to the destructive economic mechanism that drives it. How, then, can this gap be bridged? It can’t. It is intolerable, and consequently mandates the creation of a psychological mechanism of repression and erasure that opens up a black hole in memory into which they fall.
Although Federman is part of a rich tradition of artists in Israel and the world who have designed monuments, in most cases these monuments are commissioned by the establishment and erected in public spaces which are under its auspices, whereas Federman created a monument at her own initiative, and to date every time it has been exhibited it has been installed indoors – in exhibition spaces. The thought of installing a monument, all the more so one dedicated to construction workers, in an interior space opens up a new and interesting possibility associated with the concept of “intimate publicness” that is not subject to establishment spaces and the conflicting interests between initiators and the municipality, and points to exhibition spaces as a space for the public that can engender public logic that identifies with different values to those expressed by the establishment.