Like many regional art scenes, Israel’s is tightly knit and has its own set of internal references. Artists from the region bear the responsibility of not only unpacking weighty issues but also rendering them communicable to a wider audience. Of late, we’ve seen many Israeli video artists move out of the country (often to Berlin or New York) to pursue this practice, launching successful international careers. In Dafna Shalom’s case, returning to Israel after living in New York for nearly two decades has possibly inspired her to create her best work yet.
“Fearful Days (Yamim Noraim),” the apt title of Shalom’s new video trilogy, refers to the time when Mizrahi Jews pray and cry fervently for the 30 days leading up to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The artist, a Mizrahi Jew herself (she was born in Yemen), utilizes recordings of the Mizrahi prayers as the aural backdrop for each of the videos. For the viewer, the meaning of the words of the prayers (which are about disorientation) is less important than their presence as textural material. Sung in the typically atonal, Arabic-inflected Hebrew that is specific to Mizrahi Jews, the songs add urgency to the work as well as a conflicting sense of both solace and discomfort.
Shown on a monitor, Fearful Days #1 (2006, approx. 3 minutes) depicts the process of carefully applying military camouflage paint to one’s face. In Fearful Days #2 (2007, approx. 6 minutes), displayed on a monitor laid flat on a platform, we see the close-up activity of honeybees, a subtle meditation on their suspected demise. The most elaborate video, Fearful Days #3 (2010, approx. 15 minutes), presents shots of two figures in a grassy field bestrewn with stone walls. Located in southern Israel, the field is a historic British Mandate site where hundreds of stone walls stand as ruins from a time when the British sought to hide weapons for a potential (unrealized) German attack. In Shalom’s frame, the walls double as iconic minimalist sculptures, while also seeming to have a firm hold on the psyche of the land (one where walls with great significance abound).
In one scene, the two figures, donning stringy handmade camouflage headdresses, engage in choreographed hand-to-hand combat. The dance-fight-embrace conjures a sense of the eerie codependency of war. In other scenes, two people, this time wearing full-body military camouflage outfits (which look a bit like Sasquatch costumes), walk slowly through the field. At times, filmed from a distance, they appear to sink (crouch?) into the grass or blend into it fully—as camouflage enables one to do. Set against the still field, the burly figures creep through the grass and occasionally climb the walls, creating the impression of a beastly melancholic presence rising from the ground.
In all three videos, the prayer songs that speak of losing or not knowing one’s way—recalling the Western honeybee’s disorientation in maintaining its colony—suggest a widespread organic crisis affecting our species.
Photo: Dafna Shalom: Fearful Days #3. 2010, video, approx. 15 minutes; at the Petah Tikya Museum of Art.