Jeff Wall doesn’t do commissions, but Frédéric Brenner is a very convincing individual. He persuaded Wall and ten other photographers, including Stephen Shore, Josef Koudelka, and Thomas Struth, to join him in Israel for a photo documentary excursion that has resulted in an impressive exhibition and publication project called This Place, which begins the U.S. leg of its tour at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida, on October 15 and travels to the Brooklyn Museum in 2016. In spite of the region being “overphotographed” by war correspondents, as one Times of Israel reporter remarked, Brenner tasked the artists with producing enduring images of contemporary Israeli identity. Beginning in 2005, he tapped a curatorial team headed by Charlotte Cotton, with Jeff Rosenheim and Urs Stahel, and buttressed by a massive donor campaign, resulting in 500 images of the region and its inhabitants, a published monograph by each of the 12 participating artists, an exhibition catalogue, and yes, Wall’s first ever commission.
“I was disturbed by the way Israel was being portrayed by photojournalists,” said Brenner, speaking by phone from the Netherlands. To counter the typical if-it-bleeds-it-leads media coverage of the Middle East, Brenner, himself a photographer with a long career documenting the international Jewish diaspora, invited artists to help navigate more conceptual territory. The project lasted from 2009 to 2012, and no Israeli or Palestinian artists were asked to participate. As Cotton explains in her catalogue introduction, they wanted fresh eyes on the region, photographers who were detached from nationalist ideologies. “The keyword is ‘alterity’,” said Brenner, who pinpoints “otherness” as a feature of Israeli identity. The photographers, of eight national and ethnic backgrounds, would be outsiders, too.
After initial research trips, the 12 photographers returned to Israel on their own, each staying an average of six months. Brenner describes the project as an artist residency more than anything else. (The roster of participating artists is Wendy Ewald, Martin Kollar, Josef Koudelka, Jungjin Lee, Gilles Peress, Fazal Sheikh, Stephen Shore, Rosalind Solomon, Thomas Struth, Jeff Wall, Nick Waplington and Brenner himself.) Each artist worked independently, but it’s telling that nearly all of the photographers except Wall (who produced a single image of Bedouin laborers in southern Israel) ventured into the West Bank to make pictures, provoking conversations about the complexities of identity when conflict and persecution are involved. (The Palestinian Gaza Strip, however, was off-limits from the project’s outset.)
“The working hypothesis,” Brenner said, “was to recontextualize Israel as a metaphor. It is a place of shared origin, but also an incubator where everything seems to be magnified.” Israel’s conflicts, he contended, belong to humanity as a whole. When discussing the project, Brenner tends to cite the poet Fernando Pessoa and theorist Jacques Derrida rather than peace treaties or history books, taking a different approach to the traditional documentary project, one that privileges the knowledge and point of view of artists.
Josef Koudelka, for example, focused entirely on the barrier that divides Israeli and Palestinian land in the West Bank, producing a monumental accordion book, Wall, which bisects a gallery space, from one end to another, when fully opened for display, revealing stark panoramas of barbed wire and activist murals. It may be one of the most significant views of what Palestinians call an “apartheid wall.” Koudelka returned to Israel seven times over the project’s duration, and in a catalogue interview that details his initial skepticism of the project’s funding sources (he did not want the state to be involved, and they weren’t), he tells how his camera broke while a soldier frisked him, causing him to lose several days’ worth of images. The anecdote exposes not only an aggressive militarism but also the perception that cameras can be a type of weapon, too.
With only an artist interview and brief pararaph summary to contextualize each project, the curators relied on the photographs to shoulder the weight of meaning – and the images deliver, but not in the tidy, linear fashion of traditional documentary. With a dozen voices in the mix, the messages become productively divergent. For example, Thomas Struth’s monumental photos of the Tel Aviv City Hall and the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth describe an unbreakable culture, from antiquity to postmodernism. By contrast, Nick Waplington focused on the West Bank’s freshly constructed suburbs and their happy Israeli inhabitants, casting the controversial land battle in the light of common needs, like family and shelter, thereby triggering an unexpected dose of empathy.
One project, by Wendy Ewald, smartly subverted the entire framework of This Place. Ewald was one of the few photographers who opted out of Kodak’s giant donation of large-format film for the project. Instead, she handed digital cameras to students in 14 community groups, thereby circumventing the curators’ prohibition on native contributors, and her community project flew in the face of Brenner’s well-intentioned theory that professional artists could deliver the best images. For the camera handouts Ewald specifically targeted students from all groups – Christian, Jewish and Muslim, Palestinian and Israeli – because she was interested in uncovering the ways that education structures the concept of a State. She asked the students to document their daily lives, and the hundreds of resulting images, from candids to selfies, not only lend special access to life in this region, they empower the perspectives of the people who live there. Standout images include six young military students embracing in the Dead Sea, and an eighth-grade girl’s sweet self-portrait. Perhaps some of the images are no different from what could be found on Flickr, but Ewald’s community project also included her own educational engagements with the students, some having never held a camera before. Likewise, Rosalind Solomon’s contribution, an in-your-face portrait series of people who have roots in the place, also achieves a compelling level of intimacy.
One wonders why any photographer would agree to undertake the fraught assignment of representing an entire country’s identity, but the success of This Place relies on that very problem. The wealth of complicated new imagery produced by the project reminds viewers that ambiguity is the truth of the matter in this region. The difficulty of depicting Israel was clearly an attractive feature for the participating photographers. Israel may be the subject matter, but the content is nothing less than the terrible beauty of survival.