The Dove - Summer 2062

 

When our children were born – whether it was yesterday, a year, a decade or several decades ago – we used to say that when they grew up there would be no more wars. Circumstances and facts proved us wrong time after time and showed that this saying, by other and earlier parents, had no grounds in reality – but certainty and disillusionment did not stop us from repeating it again and again, if only as a cliché, a hollow mantra, since without such dreams and hopes, how can one bring children into the world?

            This faint hope, an illusion that fades and evaporates even as it is being uttered, and yet without which life is not worth living, is at the heart of the installation The Dove, Summer 2062, created by Benni Efrat for Contemporary Gallery. The lion’s share of the installation is made up of the word “shalom” – peace – its Hebrew letters carved out of vast ice slabs that are gradually thawing and collecting in a pool fitted into the gallery’s floor. A video camera documents the spectacle of the melting ice letters so that it continues to haunt the place like a phantom vision when it is screened onto the pool once the ice letters have completely dissolved. It is precisely the paucity of means that emphasizes the resources invested here in uttering the word “shalom” – the enormous scale of the ice letters and the effort invested in carving them out – when it is all clearly going down the drain and remaining no more than a mirage. This striking gap between the investment and its rapid loss cries out vanity of vanities or even presents that labor-intensive, dramatic and spectacular pronunciation of the word “shalom” as an expression of vanitas. The dripping ice inscription “shalom” suggests a contemporary version of the classic image of the hourglass, which demonstrates the hopelessness of devising plans and lofty ideas in the face of time running out, embodied in the materials, circumstances and languages of this world. But every single minute – and every drop that trickles down and punctuates the pathetic and Sisyphean labor of creating the ice placard spelling “shalom” – also articulates, however faintly, the heroicness of the act; since only in verbally and physically-sculpturally expressing the word “shalom”, and in casting a disillusioned gaze on the absurdity of doing so, can one reside and act in a world that still welcomes newborn babies, works of art, or any alive and vital continuity of the spirit of the world.

            Over the years, representations of water have been associated in Benni Efrat’s work with the danger it embodies. In the work Who Turned the Sun into A Terrorist, 2046 (1998), for example, water drips on the head of a human figure as in Chinese torture. A foreboding fear of icebergs melting due to climate change often pervades his work, which in the last decades has continually dealt with ecological catastrophes threatening the planet as a result of the criminal negligence of those with economic and political interests. To give these catastrophes an extra-political dimension (thus making them suitable for a role in the realm of art), Efrat connects them with the biblical Flood, as he did in the installation/performance Ararat Express, 2034 that he enacted on the streets of Lyon, France (1986), or in the installation Ararat Training Center, 2036, created with uprooted olive trees at the Museum of Israeli Art, Ramat-Gan (1987). In The Dove, Summer 2062 Efrat returns to the biblical epos, juxtaposing the water dripping from the ice slabs with the image of a fighter plane made of lead with an olive branch in its nose (like the dove in the story of the Flood). This image traps in the heavy and toxic material of the lead a mutant, the crossbreed of a war machine (dramatized as an animistic entity) and an animal (which has become an instrument of destruction). The text inscribed on a plaque at the feet of this hybrid image reads: “According to the Old Testament, the dove was the first to be sent forth to explore the land. The dove discovered that the olive tree had defeated the flood. The dove with the olive branch in its beak is a symbol of victory rather than peace.” Efrat’s interpretation reverses the figure of the dove and sees it as a survivor having escaped a fateful journey over the devastated land, an emblem of a colonialist rhetoric suggesting subservient obedience to fate. Times of war and times of peace, times of catastrophe and times of prosperity, are decided by the word of a supreme power, which makes a decisive distinction between good and evil and provides a moral justification for a collective punishment – which is then pushed out of memory by a demonstrative gesture of reconciliation that follows it. In his interpretation of the end of the Flood story, Efrat pours into items that seem like emissaries from the past – frozen words, a lead text reminiscent of tombstone epitaphs, an organic being that looks like a fossil, images that rely on the seal of approval of archeological appearances and material evidence – a meta-historic truth still attributed to the chronicles of the past.

            Embalmed/frozen items have populated Efrat’s works since 1982, in a strategy that displays all of them, with all their varied media (installation, performance, video, photography, painting, relief), as the findings of an invented future archeology that have seemingly been discovered/dug up starting with the post-apocalyptic year 2030. 1982 is designated in his works as the Year Zero of this post-history, the year when the world was destroyed as a result of man’s failures, and to which congregate the killed witnesses of the crimes of the present time. Efrat’s chronology thus locates the artist, and thus the viewer as well, at an empty point in time; it is as if they are interpreting a past tense for a nonexistent present, which sends dispatches to a lifeless future of ruins. This eschatological non-time may also be a meta-time, a no-place where the primeval figure of Chronos resides, floating new interpretive tools for familiar myths launched as past-images (a past which is today’s present) for future-times. The result is a dialectic between fossilization and floating, freezing and thawing, between the determinism of circumstances and the freedom of imagination, interpretation and invention, which simultaneously forms a living ground – and mainly a point of departure – for a different view of reality: abandoning a world that stretches between contrasting poles for situations where there is no one privileged decision, exclusive judgment, supreme value, conventional ascription, common characterization, fixed order or normative meaning.

            Even the word “peace” is stripped of its linguistic patterns, its values and especially its rhetorical or demagogical usages, so that, as it dissolves before our eyes, all we can do is look in it for its leftovers, for that casual and habitual gesture signifying an encounter with someone familiar, or that offhand aspiration for peace (shalom, shal-om, like a meditation mantra, like a sound that in various cultures designates the primal situations of tehom (chasm) or em (mother)), as a recognition of the other’s belonging to all that is sacred and ancient in the universe’s soul. It brings to mind the French word adieu, used as a farewell greeting and also understood as à-dieu, to God. This age-old insight suggests that when we identify someone as touched by the sign of God, that is, as a subject, we also part with them, or at least with our ownership of them; and this insight is also woven into Efrat’s work, which greets us as it thaws, receding and disappearing from view, like the echo of a foreign wanderer who has passed through our world and has gone on his way but whose greeting and parting word – if only as a phantom vision in a video image – seems to guarantee a world that will never stop being reborn in an act that knows disappearance and beginning, heaven and earth undifferentiated other than by the force of a word, as if to say “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters” (Genesis 1:6).

 

Sarit Shapira