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Sunday, Feb. 11, 2001

Israeli contemporary art: The endless game

With the election Wednesday of hardliner Ariel Sharon as prime minister, Israel is once again in the news. This can only help focus interest on the excellent exhibition featuring contemporary Israeli art at the Museum of Modern Art, Saitama, and the complementary exhibition featuring older Israeli modern art at the Museum of Modern Art, Kamakura.

"Compressed House" by Sigalit Landau

To the rest of the world, Israel seems very much a country with a chip on its shoulder. With its history as a state founded in the face of intense opposition by refugees from Hitler's death camps on what were formerly Arab lands, this pugnacious pose may perhaps be inevitable. But what relevance can the art of this embattled and some would say artificial state have for the rest of us? Is there not bound to be something of a siege mentality in art produced under such conditions?

The work of Penny Yassour (b. 1950) and Sigalit Landau (b. 1969) would definitely suggest so. In "Screens: Railway Map Germany 1938" (1996), Yassour tries to explore the irrationality of rationality itself. Depicting Germany's prewar train lines in giant rubber screens, her intended message is that this apparently ordered and convenient system of transport facilitated one of the most barbaric acts of genocide in history.

Much more effective than this confused work, however, is "Landaus Barbed Hula" (2000). Entering a darkened corridor, you are confronted with a screen on which a film is playing. At first the monochrome image is titillating: a fully naked woman, in good physical shape, gyrating with a hula hoop! As we watch, however, the film slowly zooms in until we realize with horror that the hoop is in fact made from barbed wire and the barbs are digging into the artist's flesh.

From looking like an illicit porno movie from the 1950s, it suddenly becomes an artifact of the Holocaust, and our voyeurism is now transformed into a sense of guilt. Such strong testaments to the persecution of the Jews, however, do nothing to justify Israel's own victimization of the Palestinians.

With the contemporary Israeli art scene so dominated by conceptual art, there is a danger that non-Israeli viewers may be just as alienated as they are stimulated by the ideas explored. It is refreshing, therefore, to find the work of Belu-Simion Fainaru (b. 1959) at the exhibition. Showing the proverbial black-tinged Jewish sense of humor, his installations brighten up what could easily have been an overly serious exhibition. "Sake Table" (2000) has a sake bottle and some small cups implanted into the trunk of a cherry tree, poking fun at the way poetry and alcohol are often confounded in Japanese culture, while his "Man's Underwear Filled With Jerusalem Earth" (1996) is funnier at a more gut level. "Table" (2000), which has two small flames burning side by side in deep freeze, works on a humorous level, but also seems symbolic of the stuttering peace process.

Although conceptual art dominates, the range of methods and views on display testify to Israel's experience as a microcosm of globalization, mixing Jews from all over the world. This gives much of the art a more than local significance.

"Infinity" video installation by Uri Tzaig

"Infinity" (1998) by Uri Tzaig (b. 1965) can be related both inwards to the dilemmas Israel faces and outwards to more international problems. This video installation shows a ball game between two teams wearing the same uniform in which there is no way to score, but in which the playing area alternatively contracts and expands, intensifying the meaningless competitiveness of the game. What better symbol for the next round of the endless Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

"Messages to the New Millennium -- Israeli Art Today," until March 20 at the Museum of Modern Art, Saitama, near Kita Urawa Station on the Keihin Tohoku Line, (048) 824-0111. Open 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m (Fridays until 8 p.m.). Closed Monday. Admission 840 yen, students 630 yen.

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