The region that Israel now comprises was the birthplace of Judaism and Christianity. From 1923 to 1948, the British Mandate of Palestine put the territory under British administration. In 1948, the State of Israel, or Eretz-Israel, declared its independence from the British Mandate of Palestine, which sparked the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Israel eventually prevailed over the Palestinians and neighboring Arab nations. In 1967, after the Six-Day War, Israel gained a considerable amount of territory: the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza Strip, and Golan Heights. Since then, Israel has been engaged in a globally contested ideological and violent conflict with the Palestinians on the basis of creating a Jewish state called the Land of Israel, a territory designated in the Torah as a god-given inheritance. Israel currently occupies territory that the State of Palestine considers to be theirs: the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and the Gaza Strip. Israel is the world’s only Jewish-majority state; approximately 42% of the world’s Jewish population lives there today. The official languages are Hebrew and Arabic. According to the UN Human Development Report, Israel has the 43rd largest economy in the world and the highest standard of living in the Middle East. Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, mediated by the United States, began in July 2013 and are ongoing.
Ratman’s work for the 55th Venice Biennale was a five-channel video installation entitled The Workshop. Each channel is eight minutes long and on a continuous loop. The tale begins with a group of people who enter a hole in the ground that they discover outdoors in Israel. Upon entering the hole, they find a network of tunnels and caves that they travel through and eventually find their way to the Israeli pavilion in the Giardini. The group of people break the floor from underground and take over the pavilion, and, according to the artist, “maybe occupying it”. The group then begins a sculpture and sound workshop wherein each individual carves a self-portrait out of clay. A microphone accompanies each bust that the sculptors utter incomprehensible sounds into, creating a disorienting atmosphere when heard in that context. However, the sounds made into the microphones are fed collectively into a mixer that is manned by a DJ in the first level of the pavilion (the sculptors are located on the second level), and the resulting musical production is uncannily harmonious.
In order to grasp a true sense of the disrupted quality of the narrative, understanding the sequential set-up of the installation is vital. The implied narrative is exhibited in a non-linear organization that utilizes the multi-level design of the Israeli pavilion. This enhances the disruptive quality of the work. The visitor to the Israeli pavilion enters on the first floor and is confronted with a hole in the ground placed before a video channel of the DJ mixing sounds, standing in the very spot where the visitor now stands. The visitor then proceeds to the second level (via stairs) where the remaining four channels are located. The far left channel is the group of people about the enter the hole in Israel. The remaining three channels non-sequentially depict the group of people travelling through the tunnels, entering the Israeli pavilion, occupying it, and creating the sculpture and sound workshop. The sound on the second level is disorienting in comparison to the melodic composition below. Additionally, the finished sculptures are placed beneath one of the channels.
Gilad Ratman was born in 1975 in Haifa, Israel and he is one of the youngest artists to be chosen for the Israeli pavilion. He received his BFA from Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem in 2001 and his MFA from Columbia University in New York City in 2009. An artist who works primarily in video and installation, Ratman often investigates the dialectical opposition between nature and culture through fantastical primal scenes that subvert reality. His video installations are often multi-channel. Ratman splits his time between Tel Aviv, Israel and New York City. He is represented by Braverman Gallery in Tel Aviv. Some of his recent shows: Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (2011); Braverman Gallery, Tel Aviv (2010); the Haifa Museum for Contemporary Art, Israel (2009); La Tolerie Center for Contemporary Art, Clermont Ferrand, France (2009); Ferenbalm-Gurbrü Station Gallery, Karlsruhe (2008) and The Center for Contemporary Art, Tel Aviv (2006).
Analysis of Success:
The Israeli government’s Ministry of Culture and Sport officially organizes/commissions the Israeli pavilion each year and the budget for the 55th Venice Biennale was 900,000 ILS ($263,534.97 USD). The selection process for the artist is not an open call; that is, the Ministry selects the artist with a clear sense of the ideal fit for the Biennale. I think the choice is inherently politically motivated because the government selects the artist. For a relatively young nation like Israel, establishing a strong cultural presence on a global scale is important. I thought the exhibition was a success overall in that it provoked reflection on the idea of the Encyclopedic Palace. By disrupting a linear narrative, Ratman brought an awareness to images and their importance in shaping human knowledge and experience. The fictional history and gap in history created uncertainty in reality–did they really travel underground? It seems impossible, so was everything else real? Additionally, I thought the choice of clay (as a medium with “ancient” connotations) for the sculptors and the return to unintelligible sounds also reflected the desire to see and know all but also the impossibility of knowing. It reminded me of the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, before the tower was built and everyone had only one language. Politically, I think Ratman’s work was successful in its open-endedness. I personally thought it quite optimistic for the future. The gap in history leaves room for the viewer to ponder an imagined past and imagine a (hopefully positive) future for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.