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Conference review: Insight Palestina

8 October 2012

A review of a conference that took place earlier this year focusing on Palestine and Israel and the range of current research approaches to images of the conflict.

Review of Insight Palestina: Images, Discourses, and the Image of Discourse
by Shelley Harten, Free University Berlin; and Eva Bentcheva, School of Oriental and African Studies

On the 7 June 2012 the University of Leeds, in collaboration with the University of Huddersfield, held a one day conference entitled ‘Insight Palestina: Images, Discourses, and the Image of Discourse’. The central aim was to “explore and challenge a range of current research approaches to images of the Israel-Palestine struggle … without removing academic investigations … from politicized discourses or critical historiography”. In light of this, the organizers Dr. Gil Pasternak and Lior Libman introduced the conference as aspiring to “complicate scholarly/political debates on the Israel/Palestine conflict”. Keynotes by Professor Griselda Pollock, Professor Sander Gilman and Dr. Ihab Saloul had been selected with the intent of presenting and discussing art and culture from both Jewish and Palestinian voices.

Since the 1980s, scholars of Israel and Palestine Studies have been questioning their subjects’ political agendas. Therefore the combination of political engagement and academia is neither a radical nor a new idea. In the opening lecture ‘SCANDAL! Images, Discourses, and the Image of Discourse that ‘hurt people’s feelings’’, Professor Sander Gilman dealt with the controversial exhibition Imaginary Coordinates (shown at the Boston Jewish Museum in 2008). He analysed the factors behind why this exhibition had been criticized as “anti-Israeli”. Building on from this, Gilman challenged the conference’s aim, arguing that when seeking to understand the influence of political bias on interpreting art, he would rather simplify the already highly deconstructed and theoretical discussion. This claim was met with a response showing that the many of the conference participants viewed simplifications as counter-productive and at times even impossible. The main argument in support of broader academic debates was that the political, social and cultural roles which visuality and the discourse of visuality play in Israel and Palestine are multifaceted and continually reveal new perspectives. It was stressed that further questions need to be raised about issues such as the importance of art as an indicator for Israeli nation-building as well as the Palestinian reclamation of national symbols that have become part of the Israeli narrative. Critics of Gilman’s talk expressed the sentiment that opening up those new fields of analysis is a much-needed factor in such a heated topic. Thus from the outset the conference’s aim to “complicate scholarly/political debates” was regarded as a legitimate agenda. Nevertheless it soon became evident in the organization of the conference that many practical challenges exist when tackling such a dense and multi-faceted subject.

In spite of the conference’s intentions coherently to balance discussions on both Israel and Palestine, only two presentations dealt solely with contemporary Palestinian arts. Dr. Ihab Saloul gave a talk on Tawfik Saleh’s film The Dupes (1972). Keeping away from cliché ‘conflict rhetoric’ of good and evil, the film challenges the concepts of treason, community spirit and national unity that are deeply imbued in Palestinian discourses. Dr. Alma Mikulinsky’s presentation ‘Crossing Discursive Borders: Representations of Checkpoints in Palestinian Art and Film’ focused on Elia Suleiman’s film Divine Intervention (2003). She explored the mixture of realism and magical realism in portraying perceptions of the Other as experienced at the border. In spite of their insightful analyses, both these presentations were restricted to film. On the whole, examples of other media in the Palestinian visual arts were significantly lacking in the conference. Furthermore, art produced by the Palestinian Diaspora was also not discussed, whereas a discussion brought up by Professor Gilman on what constitutes and characterizes the American Jewish Diaspora’s worldviews, touched upon the topic of visual perceptions outside of Israel.

A central part of the conference was the discussions around Yael Bartana’s trilogy …And Europe Will Be Stunned (2011), a film describing the Jewish Renaissance Movement of building a Jewish state in Poland. The film was screened at the end of the conference and followed up by a discussion (moderated by Professor Griselda Pollock) between Yael Bartana, her theoretician Slawomir Sierakowski, and the conference participants. The talk presented an opportunity for the artist to explain her motivation behind choosing Poland as the destination of the Jewish Renaissance Movement. Among these is the reason stated by Sierakowski: Poland – a country whose contemporary history strongly intertwines with that of the Jewish diaspora and the foundation of Israel – is currently in desperate need of greater cultural plurality. This point did not go unaddressed in the heated discussion that followed where Professor Gilman challenged both the need for variation and the historical basis for this claim. In spite of these critiques, the conference must be commended for its selection of talks, which added to a better understanding of photographic and filmic developments in Israeli art over the course of the 20th century that had strongly fed into Bartana’s film.  Dr. Gil Pasternak’s discussion of Rineke Dijkstra’s photographs of Israeli soldiers Israel Portraits together with Dr. Orly Shevi’s thorough research on Jean-Luc Godard’s film Ici et Ailleurs (1976) both showed how these artists entered into the conflict from an external point and the impact this had on their work. They served indirectly to illuminate some motifs and themes in Bartana’s film, among which is the influence of Helmar Lerski’s photographs. Lerski was the most important Jewish photographer of the Zionist pioneer movement in Mandate Palestine before the declaration of the Israeli state. His library of fascist- style, ‘body-centred’ images of builders, fighters and farmers has remained prominent in Israeli visual memory. Bartana is among the contemporary artists who have critically engaged with this photographic tradition and translated it into the search for a new Zionist identity in …And Europe Will be Stunned.

In dealing with such historically and visually complex works, the question of ambiguity in art did not go unaddressed in the conference. In his talk Dr. Simon Faulkner questioned the value of ambiguity in art when dealing with conflict.  In present-day Israel, the borders of religion and state, democracy and occupation, pluralist society and unity, are becoming increasingly blurred. Art may have a unique potential to present these complex situations in a multilayered, sometimes ironic or even sarcastic way. However, the situation may also be viewed from another perspective. It may be argued that artists simply avoid taking a political stance – and thereby exposing themselves to political criticism – rather than employing ambiguity as a means to deal with the above-mentioned complexities of the conflict. This point was highly relevant to many of the discussed works throughout the day. Dr. Orly Shevi’s discussion of the aforementioned film ‘Ici et Ailleurs’ by Jean-Luc Godard argued that Godard’s experimental filming technique and ambiguous representations shed a new light on deeply complex perceptions of the Self and Other. It may be said that in this case ambiguity assisted in stepping away from stereotypes, yet the mechanisms of how it did this were highly complex. While Dr. Shevi’s talk brought up an important example of a prominent work where ambiguity plays a key role, the matter was not discussed in great depth following the talk, thus leaving many critical questions in the air. What are the benefits of ambiguity in the other artworks discussed in the conference? More importantly, how may ambiguous artworks be studied if they cannot even be clearly understood? Dr. Faulkner himself admitted to having no clear answer to these questions. With Dr. Gilman’s call for simplification in mind, it was evident that complication had not served to shed any further light on the role of ambiguity in art for the time being.

The conference and its organizers should be commended for undertaking an enormous task by striving to add in new perspectives into an already dense debate. Having sought to emphasise the connection between visuality and politics, they questioned cultural authenticity and its role in Israeli and Palestinian nation building. The selection of speakers and their case studies brought to light numerous markers of power in contemporary visual/cultural discourse. A point of criticism is that certain explanations were assumed as self-evident from the outset of the conference. Among these are the historical evolution of visuality in the region; the impact of visual culture and art on society and the political sphere; definitions of stereotypes, concepts of ‘the enemy’ and visual/cultural colonialism, all central to the Israeli and Palestinian visual spheres. What was needed was a greater ethnographic and historiographic approach.

Nevertheless, in spite of the absence of these definitions, the conference succeeded in raising two key questions about the philosophy underlying contemporary studies of Israel-Palestine. Firstly, should we simplify the already dense academic discussions? To which the conference discussions raised the objection that social, political and cultural perspectives oftentimes cannot afford to be simplified. Secondly, what are the merits of ambiguity in art dealing with this highly complex conflict? This latter question is still largely open for discussion. The very posing of these questions suggests that we are indeed seeing a progressive change within academia in this field – from a narrow political approach to a more holistic and philosophical approach. We are yet to see whether in Israeli and Palestinian societies, the discourses raised by art will influence notions of the Enemy and the Neighbour in the years to come.

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