Instruction Manual – Introduction

In the 1970s, Israeli artists began searching for new forms of expression and alternative sites for artistic creation as a way to challenge the boundaries of art. The national and political upheavals in the wake of the 1967 War, through the 1973 War, to the 1982 Lebanon War, the international effects of the student protests in Paris, and the emergence of conceptual art, all constituted a catalyst for new artistic actions and experiments that sought to form a connection between art, life, and society. The inquiry underlying Instruction Manual focuses on artists going outside the gallery and studio space, and especially on how turning to the public domain formed new and immediate concrete relationships between artists and government entities and symbols, with soldiers and officials, and with citizens and residents.

Instruction Manual seeks to present familiar and significant works alongside less familiar ones and ones that exceeded beyond the period, and through them to examine what these artistic actions look like today, and what meaning they possess from the perspective of time. Over the years exhibitions have been mounted at the Israel Museum and the Tel Aviv Museum that reviewed the art of the 1970s and highlighted various distinctions emerging from it: attitude to the artist’s body, politicality, directing observation toward the world, and various aspects of conceptual art in general. The exhibition strives to examine these actions from two additional aspects: to reveal the forefathers of contemporary artists’ actions in the public domain, of artists acting in administrative and government frameworks, and in the civil-bureaucratic-governmental sphere; and to explore the unique position within which these artists acted in the 1970s and 80s: their initial understanding of the very possibility of art functioning from within and by means of life, what they freed themselves from with these actions, and what they were unable to break free from.

The conceptual position, venturing out of art’s “regular environment” and the connection between art and life, are revealed in the exhibition in a variety of ways. Actions created during the beginning of the conceptual wave are typified first and foremost by ephemeral, transitory events that left barely a trace at the site where they took place. Ariella Azoulay called them “assertion of presence”,[1] which is created from a principled and critical attitude to art. These were actions that did not occur before an audience; rather, their audience was a participant in the event and in effect sustained it by being present at the time and in the place in which it took place. On many occasions the involved parties did not appear in the documentation of the work itself, but only in its comprehensive description, in the explanation of the series of steps it comprised, or in the very possibility of its realization. However, the action cannot be understood without these intersecting entities. The artistic action appears as a one-time, singular possibility of encounter that the artist invites as a live occurrence.

These actions can be characterized by the new relationships formed between the artist and other entities: if up to the early 1970s the relationship between an artist and the governmental establishment was usually in the form of a commission – when the artist was asked to create a monument or painting for a particular site or event – with the emergence of conceptual art governmental entities ceased to function as patrons and became invitees to and attendees at the artistic action. It was a crucial moment and the beginning of relationships of a new kind between art, life, and politics. In these actions the artists broke free from the patron, which was manifested in the simplicity and fluidity of the artistic work and in its very presence, and they constituted the point of departure for a conceptual dynasty of artists who have since been acting with reference to government, but are not commissioned by it. Accordingly, Instruction Manual actually engages with that for which it is impossible to define instructions – the emergence of a new artistic language in the public domain, forging relationships from within and by means of the artistic action, and formulation of possibilities for action and operation in art in general, from here on in.

In the warp and weft of relationships between art and life this is not only the possibility of creating art that refers to life (and the public space), but also the possibility of creating “sense” in life. The very deviations in creating the action, that which does not possess regular meaning in place and time, is an attempt, transitory and limited as it may be, to dictate a possibility and meaning that did not previously exist. It is not a symbolic action, or at least not only such an action, but also the forging of new political-social-public relationships outside and through art, as the public space becomes a canvas on which each line can become a line of flight toward a new imagining of life, reality, and politics.

Going out into the public domain invited encounters with entities that were not accustomed to being part of artistic creation, and perhaps it is not surprising that many of the artistic actions during this period were created in encounters with soldiers, more than with any other governmental entity or representative. The Israeli public domain has always been a site in which the boundaries between civilian and military are blurred, since every citizen is a soldier and every space requires protection. For the soldiers these encounters were probably random, but for the artists they were deliberate. They were not random encounters in a kibbutz, an army base, or on the border, but the result of the artists directly approaching the soldiers and proposing cooperation and their participation in the action. Thus, the actions took the form of utilizing soldiers and officially using their presence at border points and in combat zones. Some actions were even carried out from the position of the artist-soldier himself. The reasons for this are many and varied, but the burden of the period should not be isolated from this choice; the public image of the soldiers and generals, the presence of the “people’s army” in the discourse and culture, the artists themselves as soldiers, and also the moral and social crisis that emerged with the occupation of the West Bank and imposition of control over the Palestinian population.

Most of the actions presented in the exhibition were created as a critical reaction to the political situation during those years, hand in hand with reflection concerning the boundaries of art itself. Some of the actions were actual demonstrations, and others sought to highlight a problem or question and challenge the “natural” order of reality. At the same time, it seems that most of the artists who created critical actions with regard to the political establishment in that period were afflicted on more than one occasion with partial awareness of their own positions and the unique possibility of acting in the public domain under the protection of art and the privileges of their class, ethnicity, and nationality. Who could execute or even imagine such actions at a given time vis-à-vis government entities or from within the governmental apparatuses themselves? What is the significance of artistic creation in uniform? Who is the wearer of the uniform prepared to listen to? Who is the leadership’s representative prepared to talk with? Who is prepared to conduct a dialogue with whom? On the one hand it may be stated that this very hybrid is a possibility for incitement and an opportunity to create a different source of authority for the involved entities, the soldiers and the officials, or at least a possibility to challenge the self-evident within which they act. On the other hand, when going out into the public domain it is important to also take into account those who are put at risk by such actions; those who cannot or are not permitted to act in a way that is possible for another.

Instruction Manual proposes an in-principle mapping of this series of actions and encounters as the definition of a point of departure for the way in which art asserts presence in public – the various forms of intervention in space, sense of community and building communities, and participation within and by means of institutions. Over the years this initial relationship between art, life, and society has changed. The encounter with government is different today, as is proximity to the centers of power. In an attempt to think about the relationships this kind of art can facilitate and create, we should also ask about the change that has occurred in practices, in the way contemporary artists engage in them, about the connection with tectonic shifts in Israeli society, about the position of art in relation to government and of government in relation to art.

 

Curator: Udi Edelman

 

Language editor: Rachel Peretz

English translation: Margalit Rodgers

[1]  Ariella Azoulay, The Place of Art, Studio 40, January 1993 (Hebrew).