joshua neustein texts
How did Conceptual Art manifest itself in Israel?
by Elen Ginton

Gideon Ofrat told the story twice, once in the book The Story of Israeli Art13 and again in his article "Two Cities - Two Epistemologies."14 Both narratives were constructed in the form of a pair of opposites: the "New Jerusalem School" versus the "School of the Art Teachers Training College," in the first instance, and the "Jerusalemite Epistemology" as against the "Tel Avivian Epistemology," in the second. Ofrat claims that the first local venue of Conceptual Art was Jerusalem, site of the Jerusalem River Project, 1970. This was reiterated by Amnon Barzel in his book Art in Israel, relating the occurrence of Conceptual Art in this country to the political landslide occasioned by the 1967 war (though, in the foreword, Barzel emphasizes the fact that the student riots of the late sixties - one of the most significant international sociopolitical events of the period - "skipped over Israel"): "The need to clear up the confusion, to study and implement the new reality, to understand and investigate the logic of existence in Israel, gave rise to a new artistic attitude, expressed by deserting the aesthetic of the art object. This tendency, later accelerated by the turmoil of political and existential awareness following the 1973 war, defined the main bulk of the art in Israel throughout the late Sixties and the Seventies. This art reveals two trends, which are interlocked, parallel, and simultaneous: one is political, mythological, and embraces earth works, conceptual, behavioral, and body art and their derivatives; the second is the 'new drawing' or the Epistemic Abstraction, as Robert Pincus-Witten defines it.,, 15 Barzel then sets out to define the second trend as no less political: "I try to suggest here, that even such an esoteric art activity, which is conscious of the intimate questions of the logic of art and its processes, had in Israel political roots. Almost all the artists who dealt with epistemic drawing simultaneously executed political- mythological works. 16

In the catalogue of the exhibition "Concept + Information," Yona Fischer writes: "The first conceptual action in Israel was carried out a few months ago, namely, the Jerusalem River Project - an attempt to materialize an imaginary river by means of sound"17 (see ill. on p. 34). The priority of Jerusalem, i.e., the fact that the first major conceptual project was planned and performed there, is of great interest in view of the fact that for more than forty years, since the late twenties, the city had not been in the forefront of artistic activity in this country. The Jerusalem River Project represents a junction of several dislocations of artistic activity: of the scene of the action as well as its operational and artistic execution. All these aspects link up with the political situation: the 1967 war, followed by the unification of Jerusalem and the erasure of the physical border that had divided and disfigured the city ever since the War of Independence, turned the capital of Israel into an open, almost cosmopolitan city, colorful and bustling - at least for a limited period. Jerusalem became a center of attraction for Jews immigrating from cultural centers in the West, and with them Conceptual Art arrived fresh from New York. The shift of the artistic focus from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in the late Sixties gained momentum in the early seventies, when Tel Avivian artists exhibited their works there and taught at Bezalel; however, this trend evinces the city's new political status and the attending euphoria and short lived illusions more than the existence of a 'Jerusalem School." Nevertheless, the inauguration, in 1965, of the Israel Museum, which, under the directorship of Willem Sandberg and during the period when Yona Fischer served as its chief curator, became a forum for contemporary art activities, also played a role in this development. Indeed, until the mid-seventies, when a new management was appointed at the Tel Aviv Museum, the leading position of the Israel Museum was uncontested.

Ofrat titled the chapter in The Story of Israeli Art dealing with Conceptual Art "The New Jerusalem School."ls This appelation is intriguing, since "the New ,Jerusalem" is a theological-mystical Christian concept - indeed a symbol of Christianity (and see also Pinchas Sadeh's cycle of poems, "The New Jerusalem," first published in Life as a Parable, 1958). In fact the theological expression is compatible with the political-Messianic turn of which Jerusalem now became the symbol, and also with the covert content of the Jerusalem River Project. In the present context, I found it appropriate to start from an earlier project by Neustein (together with Georgette Batlle) - Boots, an installation of 17,000 used army boots piled on the floor of the Artists House in Jerusalem in December 1969. This project is described in detail in an article by Adam Baruch in the art magazine Kav, titled 'Joshua Neustein and Georgette Batlle Want to Show You a Thing or Two." The magazine introduction to the article defines the work as an "environmental display," and Neustein and Batlle as two young artists having received their artistic education in the United States: "We present herewith the evolution of the 'event' as recorded by the artists, followed by Adam Baruch's critique. 19 The artists' account is instructive: "February 69. Near the airport at Kalandia between Jerusalem and Ramallah [until the Six-Day War.

the Jordanian airport of East Jerusalem] , we came across a pile of shoes.... We went to have a closer look at them. They were traded by a local Arab who had accumulated an enormous quantity of old shoes.... Saturday after Pesach, April 1969. We were engrossed in those piles. What if we were to fill the Artists House with them? We thought that the building, being a public institution, would be an appropriate venue for such an action. The Artists House belongs to those institutions which mustn't make mistakes. Their functionaries are people representing a certain mentality, people invested with official authority. Rather than hanging pictures in such a place, we were going to scatter shoes around it. We are still concerned mainly with the mischievous aspect.... Mid September ... we went to Kalandia again. Now it struck us that the object we had selected spontaneously encapsulated manifold implications. We recalled the accounts of the army boots left scattered in the Sinai in the Six-Day War and pondered the obvious implications of the quantity."20

This account returns us to the first years in the wake of the war, and more specifically, to the scouting of the Occupied Territories - a popular pastime of those days. In the course of their expedition the artists' attention was arrested by the sight of a pile of old shoes, which aroused their curiosity. At a later stage, they underscore the spontaneous choice and disclose a hidden level of meaning: the shoes are a readymade encapsulating "manifold implications." Part of these implications relate to the Arab merchant: "a local Arab who had accumulated an enormous quantity of old shoes." This, then, is the junction where the Palestinian Arab makes his reappearance into Israeli art, after his absence from it since the late twenties, when the true proportions of the national conflict became apparent. History repeated itself, just as the political reality did: the erasure of the border rekindled, albeit under changed circumstances, the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, and also sharpened the polemic within Israeli society.

Even though the Arab merchant appears only in the background story and not in the work itself, it is informed by his presence. Moreover, the boots, as it turns out, are in fact army boots of Arab soldiers from the Six-Day War; they thus become a metonym for Arabs, albeit Arab soldiers rather than Palestinians. The "obvious implications of the quantity," the artists write, and it is not clear whether this conclusion refers to the boots of a routed army punctuating the Sinai Desert or hints at another evident association: the piles of personal belongings of Jews who perished in the Nazi extermination camps. The ambiguity of this image unwittingly condensed the problematics of the historical "Holocaust - Revival" dialectic.

It is interesting to make a comparison between Boots and the Jerusalem River Project. Both projects were experimental from the point of view of the means employed: the first was an installation or environment; the second created the extra-museal and virtual setting of a "river" through the medium of sound: a line of loudspeakers was installed along the wadi of Abu Tor, from the St. Claire Monastery to the Valley of Kidron, emitting the sound of flowing water. Both projects also contained a metaphoric dimension or subtext: Boots turns the attention to a local Arab while hinting, as mentioned above, at additional associative directions; the Jerusalem River Project also contains covert elements, as specified in the "Proposal" appearing in the "Concept + Information" catalogue: "There is an unconscious as well as conscious need for a wet element in the landscape of Jerusalem. In the Bible, ancient maps, and folklore of Jerusalem, a river is shown or mentioned. Contemporary writers and painters also dwell on the lack of water in the landscape of this region. Again and again, references can be found to a river that should-be-and-is not. We will create/invent a river in Jerusalem, a "sound" river, a fantasy using the medium of sound." Indeed, the Books of Ezekiel and Zechariah contain descriptions of a river issuing from Jerusalem: "And by the river upon the bank thereof, on this side and on that side, shall grow every tree for food, whose leaf shall not wither, neither shall the fruit thereof fail; it shall bring forth new fruit every month, because the waters thereof issue out of the sanctuary; and the fruit thereof shall be for food, and the leaf thereof for healing" (Ezekiel 47:12); "And it shall come to pass in that day, That living waters shall go out from Jerusalem: Half of them toward the eastern sea, And half of them toward the western sea; In summer and in winter shall it be" (Zechariah 14:8). The context of both passages is a prophecy of the Messianic age, and the artists-creators of the Jerusalem River are absorbed by this vision; they too imagine a river in the city, envisage the Messianic age, announce the redemption-to-come. This is "the New Jerusalem" of the "redemption" that is to follow in the wake of the 1967 war, and it only takes a river to make it complete! The innovative and poetic project in fact confirms the prevailing Messianic-mystical spirit, still devoid of a critical political awareness.

13 Gideon Ofrat, lloreet LeN'itte, Benjamin Tammuz, The Siorl' of lsmeli Ar/ (Tcl Aviv: Massada, 1980), p. 277 [Hebrew].

14 Gideon Ofrat, "Two Cities - Two Epistemologies," Studio 38 (November-December 1994), pp. 44fi1 [Hebrew].

15 Amnon Barzel, Ail in Israel (Milan: Giancarlo Politi Editore, 1987), p. 81.

16 Ibid.
17 Concept + Information., n.p. [quotation translated from the Hebrew].

18 The Story of Israeli Art, p. 277.19

Adam Baruch, 'Joshua Neustein and Georgette Batlle Want to Show You a Thing or Two ...," Kav 11 (1969-70), pp. 32-45 [Hebrew].
20 Ibid., p. 32.316

Elen Ginton, curator, Tel Aviv Museum, "Eyes of the Nation", 1998.