An exhibition at the Jewish Museum in Berlin explores Israel and the West Bank as viewed by a bevy of photographers, including Josef Koudelka, Jeff Wall, and Stephen Shore… It takes us into the heart of a territory shaped by the conflict with Palestine.
Stern faces staring at you implacably, as if you were right in front of them, are enough to convey the complexity of the place, its history, and the idea of the soil…. These are Frédéric Brenner’s portraits which open the exhibition: a family on a beach; another seated round a large table in a traditionally furnished dining room. There follows an unforgettable face: a mutilated man with gouged eyes, whose arms have been replaced by prosthetics. What happened to him? Did he pick up a grenade? Did he find himself near an exploding bomb? We will never know. But his presence makes it clear we are dealing with a divided people, with a conflict—the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—which molds those who live there and produces a population of wounded and traumatized.
The Korean photographer Junjin Lee has captured the minutiae of this interminable, undeclared war. In a dark, black-and-white tableau, she shows the traces of bullets in a wall. Elsewhere, she lingers over the beauty of the landscape, where a tree may symbolize a few precious moments of peace. These landscapes also caught Stephen Shore’s eye. The photographer crisscrossed wide-open desert spaces where there’s nothing but rocks and sand as far as the eye can see. He created intense panoramas which give us an idea of how beautiful, but also how inhospitable, this land is, where especially water is scarce. In another room, the artist Martin Kollar exhibits empty containers customized by the Palestinians, such as the body of an old racecar, reminding us how crucial and life-saving water-filled barrels are to the inhabitants of these territories.
To get a feel for the country, one need only look at Gilles Peress’s images. Based in Jerusalem, he captured the hustle and bustle of the Holy City: here, people praying by the Wailing Wall; there, a Bedouin dozing under an olive tree. In this vein, a magnificent photo by Jeff Wall breaks up the exhibition. The Canadian artist recreated a striking scene he had spotted on his journey through the West Bank: a group of nomads sleeping on bare ground with a vast prison looming in the background. Wall decided to take this eloquently paradoxical scene as the subject of one of his meticulously staged tableaus. The nomads, wrapped in colorful cloaks, rest in the arms of Morpheus at the edge of an olive grove dwarfed by a sprawling prison complex.
The photographers featured in this exhibition all created their images between 2009 and 2012 during a stay in the region. The ambition of the project was to measure up to such photographic commissions as the one launched by the Farm Security Administration in the 1930s, aimed at documenting rural poverty in the United States, or the DATAR, which immortalized the French countryside in the 1980s. Unlike its predecessors, This Place received no government funding, and all participating photographers hail from countries other than Israel or the West Bank. They include one whose work, perhaps more than the others, stands out by its significance and its subject-matter: namely, Josef Koudelka. In an extremely sensitive way, he documented the wall which now separates Israel and Palestine. He depicts all aspects of this dividing structure, underscoring its terrifying absurdity as well as its bewildering imperiousness. Koudelka’s photographs find special resonance in Berlin which will soon be celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Wall that had once divided the German capital.
By Jean-Baptiste Gauvin
June 7, 2019 to January 5, 2020,
Jewish Museum Berlin, Lindesnstraße 9–14, 10969 Berlin, Germany