"The Pale" Exhibition Text
Structured Destruction - On Gaston zvi Ickowicz's
Photographs of the Wall and of the Settlements
In choosing the title for his well known story "The Doctor's Divorce", Agnon created a situation in which the reader learns about the protagonists' eventual separation before they first meet and fall in love; the divorce shapes these events in advance. The knowledge of this future destruction does not, of course, invalidate the marriage; nevertheless, it divests it of that innocent hope - of the fullness that characterizes any such union - and imbues it with a bitter streak of irony. Such is the appearance of the Israeli settlements - whose mode of construction already contains the seeds of their destruction. Not only the wreckage of the abandoned buildings, which has been collected to be recycled, but even the new buildings - recently constructed on a plot hastily cleared of bushes and rocks - seem to already be marked by their future demolition. This impression does not stem from some form of prophetic premonition; it is related to the strong sense of non-belonging embedded in the very appearance of the houses, and is revealed to the photographer's eye in an immediate and painful manner. Even the permanent homes seem to have been set down upon the terrain without any foundations to connect them to the earth. The large settlement extending grandly over an entire mountain saddle, which is reminiscent of a standard Israeli housing development, is no standard development. Unlike similar developments throughout the country, it bespeaks no visible, practical relation to its surroundings. Its location is entirely random and arbitrary. It has no center, and is endowed with no sense of place. The rows of houses seem to have been set down on the mountain range by a blind giant.
Gaston Ickowicz's photographs are concerned with neither the denunciation nor the glorification of the acts of construction and destruction that have taken place on the Israeli settlements. Rather, these images respond to the mute innocence of the objects - the buildings, the pillars, the paved or recently abandoned roads - and give voice to them alone; to the grief imbuing the structures that await their own imminent destruction. These
Photographs are not concerned with grand narratives. They recount neither the story of those who invested such great hope in these settlements, nor that of those who regarded
Their construction as a crime - as the forceful overtaking of territory that does not legitimately belong to the state of Israel. Nevertheless, these images make tangible the commanding power of expulsion that pervades these places. A loud and commanding voice resounds out of the silence that surrounds them; a voice that decrees. Ickowicz's photographs reveal the intimations of expulsion already contained not only in the very construction of these settlements, but also in their raison d'être and in the manner in which they were built.
Despite their air of gloom, the photographs of the demolition of Amona and of Gush Katif also reveal a very different aspect of these acts of destruction: they do not run very deep. The same flat terrain that had been leveled in order to allow for speedy construction is reexposed under the ruins. And these ruins themselves are strikingly slight, their appearance reminiscent of piles of rubbish. The site where these ephemeral buildings once stood does not resemble the ruins of a destroyed city, but rather a mound of recently accumulated debris.
The image of the lonely palm tree on the abandoned lawn by the ruins in Gush Katif could easily become an expressive icon of the process of uprooting and destruction experienced by the residents of Gush Katif. Yet the more meticulous observer will immediately notice that this palm tree is not the ancient date palm, which is native to the land (and which has itself become a "decorative" tree easily transported and planted across the country); rather, this is a young Caribbean palm that was recently imported to Israel as an ornamental tree, and which was already fully grown when planted on this lawn. It had not been cared for over an extended period of time. This palm tree is characteristic of the ephemeral gardens planted in the centers of contemporary Israeli cities and in the seemingly pastoral event gardens that sprout up in the vicinity of shopping centers; it can symbolize nothing that is not hasty and superficial.
Especially fascinating is the relation that Ickowicz's photographs expose between the residents of the settlements and the surrounding environment. In the image of the man
and woman standing on the beach in Gush Katif, the filthy sand hints at the presence of a nearby settlement, which has vigorously contributed to the pollution of the area. The two figures are standing on the stretch of sand as if they were standing inside a room or on a city street. They do not belong to the surrounding expanse of land and know nothing about it. They are completely alien to it. This is not the case with the people whom Ickowicz photographed in the mountain settlements of Judea and Samaria. The casually dressed father and his pajama-clad son standing in the yard outside their home seem more closely connected to their environment; so does the couple walking along a road, who is linked to the surroundings by means of the gun and water canteen they are carrying. Yet here too there is a sense of alienation between the figures and the landscape. It is exceedingly clear that these people's lifestyle evolved over the years in other contexts far removed from this wild terrain, deep on the interior of homes located in crowded city neighborhoods. These are urban, bookish figures that appear to have suddenly emerged out into this natural expanse of land. The book held in the right hand of the man carrying the gun may symbolize for him the ideal of "the book and the sword" - of the scholar who is also a warrior; yet it only serves to render more extreme the gap between the human figure, which stands out as a verbal symbol, and its alienation from the landscape.
The fence - the Israeli wall whose route runs between Israeli and Palestinian towns and villages, and whose various sections have been constructed in different manners - appears in Gaston Ickowicz's photographs in all its ugliness. Its reinforced concrete units are arranged in rows that literally bisect the landscape, tearing through the texture of both the natural landscape and of human life. In the powerful photographs devoted to the bare fence, Ickowicz used a simple horizontal composition that creates a tripartite division between earth, fence and sky, with the fence situated at its center. Ickowicz underscored the physical power of the fence, its loud and crude presence and its basic, fundamental function: the image, whose center is occupied by the continuum of gray bunker-like units, seems to duplicate the act of obstruction taking place in the landscape itself. The terrain surrounding the wall in these images is completely desolate. There is no natural growth or life in the vicinity of the wall, which emanates a destructive and annihilative quality.
Especially powerful are the photographs of the murals painted over sections of the wall – the one created by Jewish children and flanked by an Israeli flag, and the series of painted arches. The wall painted with a wide arch, which seemingly attempts to create the illusion of an open space extending out on its other side, is the crudest of these murals. Ickowicz's composition, and his focus on the area where the color coordination between the different parts of the wall has been especially neglected, strongly underscores the cynical manipulation involved in using the wall as a support for a representation of everything it negates. The wall thus not only blocks the landscape, but also contemptuously mocks those standing or driving by it. The portion of the wall painted with an Orientalist pattern appears quite different: every unit of the fence has been painted with an identical image of a Middle Eastern arch, which encloses a continuum of blues that grow lighter as the wall grows higher. This pattern functions in a completely different manner: it integrates successfully into the landscape, and significantly downplays the presence of the wall by transforming it into a kind of stylized aqueduct. The portion of the wall that has been covered with children's paintings also functions as the wall of a school; here the mural manages to somewhat soften and domesticate the wall's violent and hostile quality, and to transform it into a childlike, ludic space. Some of these paintings carry an obvious national charge, which is echoed by the flag and the large wooden Hanukkah menorah leaning on the wall. Ickowicz transforms this charge into an important part of the conception of space that emanates from these images: the space seems to have been bisected by the nation and by this Israeli embodiment of the idea of nationhood. The wall does more than tear through the geological strata, which are powerfully cut into by giant bulldozers; it does not only devastate its surroundings on an ecological level, but also tears through very fabric of the landscape and of life in its entirety; the space, the air, the sky.