10 Contemporary Israeli Artists You Should Know

The Dining Hall (Installation view) | © Sigalit Landau/Wikicommons
Picture of A. J. Samuels
Updated: 19 April 2017
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Israel’s modern and contemporary art scene has long been overlooked by the art world; in recent years, however it has emerged as a dynamic and provocative environment where political and national issues are interrogated through art. From the installation art of Joshua Neustein and the multimedia political works of Yael Bartana to an emerging generation of artists like Gilad Ratman and Dor Guez, we highlight 10 contemporary Israeli artists who are breaking onto the global scene.

Joshua Neustein, b. 1940

In the 1970s, Joshua Neustein’s site-specific installation Jerusalem River Project put him on the artistic map as he ushered in Conceptual Art in Israel, in particular in relation to the environment. In the work, Neustein, along with Gerry Marx and Georgette Batille, attempted to ‘materialise an imaginary river by means of sound’. The work drew from biblical imagery, which speaks of a river flowing through the land, and evoked the promise of a day in which a river would flow through the land bringing life and abundance. Maps, posters and torn paper also feature heavily in Neustein’s works in which he explores the concepts of territoriality and movement. Born in Danzig, Poland, Joshua Neustein studied first in the New York then relocated to Tel Aviv where he has been a key player in its budding contemporary art scene, working across various media, including site-specific installations, paintings, mixed-media works and photography. In 2012, the Israel Museum launched a major exhibition showcasing the artist’s works over nearly 50 years.

Roee Rosen, b. 1963

Provocative, shocking and overtly political, Roee Rosen’s acerbic artistic commentary critiques are manifested through a range of media, primarily film. Whilst he is usually seen as a filmmaker / artist, Rosen is also a children’s book author, writer of a pornographic novel, and set painter (for his own films), though, given the artist’s penchant for irony and parody it’s impossible to discern what is truth and what is lies; Rosen’s work plays with the concept of absolute meaning, twisting it, embellishing it and ultimately subverting it to the point where one is left only with interpretative meaning. However, this multiplicity of meaning hasn’t saved his provocative works from controversy. In 1997, the Israel Museum exhibited Rosen’s Live and Die as Eva Braun (1995-1997) which generated outrage and controversy for its politically charged title and its attribution of voice to someone so close to the perpetrator of the Holocaust — Eva Braun was, famously, Hitler’s mistress with whom he committed suicide. In The Confessions of Roee Rosen (2008), Rosen created a work that turned the autobiographical expectations of the title upside down. With a ‘confession’ read by three non-Jewish women who are clearly not Roee Rosen, one quickly realises that truth isn’t where we expect; just as you think you’ve got your head around his work, another layer of complexity arises.

Adi Nes, ‘The Last Supper’, Chromogenic print, The Israel Museum, 1999

Adi Nes, b. 1966

Born in Israel, Adi Nes’ family immigrated to Israel from Iran as part of the Sephardic Jewish community. As a photographer, Adi Nes occupies an outsider role, taking pictures of society and Israel from behind the camera lens, beyond the action. Having grown up questioning his identity; many of his works have the undercurrents of an unposed question: ‘Who are we?’ In his recent work The Village, Nes created a series of photographs that depict a ficionalised idyllic village tableaux that, on its surface, harkens back to pastoral imagery. However, the apparent beauty of these scenes is undermined by the latent tension within the gazes and interactions captured by Nes’ camera. As social or political commentary, Nes seems to destabilise the viewer’s own assumptions of the ‘good life’, as well as providing a critique of the modern state of Israel. Other of Nes’ works layer meaning through allusion, both to the rich trove of art historical imagery and to biblical narrative; the multiplicity of voices in Nes’ work is intentional. As he explained, ‘It’s really hard to tell what is Israeli because there’s not one voice that covers everything…If you are looking from the inside, you will see a different thing than you will see from the outside. If you are looking from a political point of view, from the tension between the Palestinians and Israelis, you will find one answer. If you look from the historical point of view, or the Holocaust point of view, from Europe or the U.S., you’ll find different answers.’

Ori Gersht, b. 1967

Born in Tel Aviv in 1967, Gersht experienced the sudden warning alarms that would transform an otherwise normal day into a tense, frightening situation. Working with photography and film, at first glance, Ori Gersht’s works look like Old Master paintings: still life flowers, intricately arranged fruits and vegetables arrayed on a table against a black backdrop, an idyllic landscape. However, the stillness is broken as the whole scene devolves into destructive violence. In Big Bang, a still life flower vase recreates the best of the Flemish and Spanish artists, yet mere seconds into the moment, the illusion is shattered into a million little fragments in a fraction of a second, captured slow-motion on film, as a cacophonous symphony of violence disrupts the deceptive stillness of the scene. The effect is jarring, as silence is punctured by the warning of an alarm and stillness turns into chaotic motion. Through his landscapes, as well, Gersh contrasts stillness and motion to explore themes of poetic beauty amidst disruptive violence. Gersht explores the deep traumas of human history through his photographic works, including projects that have documented the effects of war on Sarajevo, the journey to Auschwitz and the persistent beauty of Hiroshima years after the trauma of the atomic bomb.

Sigalit Landau, DeadSee, 2005, Video, 11:39 min
Courtesy of Studio Landau.

Sigalit Landau, b. 1969

Born in Jerusalem in 1969, Sigalit Landau has been one of the foremost contemporary Israeli artists working with the medium of performance art. Interposing her own exposed body into the Israeli landscape and onto the screen, Landau raises questions about possession, power/powerlessness and vulnerability in the fraught political context of disputed borders and identities between Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Often inhabiting her own works, Landau’s artistic practice integrates site-specific installation, performance art and video to create works that powerfully explore sociopolitical and psychological questions. Notable performance/installation works by Landau include Somnanbulin/Bauchaus (2000-2004), a work inspired by the haunting Hans Christian Andersen story of the Little Match Girl and DeadSee (2005). In 2011, Landau was selected to represent Israel at the 54th Venice Biennale with a site-specific installation entitled One Man’s Floor is Another Man’s Feelings; she also participated in the 1997 Venice Biennale as part of a group show. According to the Israel committee: ‘[Landau’s] extensive body of work is rich in detail, a product of her historical and cultural vision; executed by a practiced hand with an inventive and intriguing use of materials, inspiration and dexterity…Every world created by Landau thus far is witness to her unending passion, and to the forcefulness with which she channels her anxieties as a woman and an Israeli about present-day issues, both universal and regional.’

Yael Bartana, ‘Mary Koszmary’, One channel video and sound installation 16 mm, Duration: 10’50”, 1997

Yael Bartana, b. 1970

Yael Bartana was chosen by Poland to represent the country in 2011 at the 54th Venice Biennale, the first non-Polish national to be selected. And Europe will be Stunned Bartana’s Polish film trilogy is a deeply complex, multilayered work that draws on iconology, symbolism, national histories and memories to produce a masterful work that stirs, seduces and disconcerts the viewer. Fact and fiction intermingle in this work, as Bartana creates an apparently fictionalised present in which the Jewish people are rousingly summoned back to lay to rest the nightmares of history. Nationalism is deeply evoked through anthems, the Star of David integrated with the White Eagle, a martyr’s death. Zionist dreams blur with the horrors of the Holocaust, as the symbolic building of a Jewish kibbutzim in Warsaw is juxtaposed with the historical memory of the Warsaw Ghetto. The brutal murder of the Jewish people is coupled with the utopic communities of the early Jewish settlers and the dispossession of the Palestinians. What Bartana creates in her inimitable way confronts and questions the collective narrative of Israeli identity; further melding reality and fiction, Bartana is the founder of the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland (JRMiP), a semi-fictional political movement featured in her film trilogy whose leader is Slawomir Sierakowski, assassinated on film but alive and well in reality. In addition to the 2011 Venice Biennale, Bartana has been awarded the UK’s Artes Mundi Prize, exhibited at Documenta XI, the Istanbul and the São Paolo Biennale.

Gilad Ratman, b. 1975

Gilad Ratman was selected to represent Israel in the 55th International Art Exhibit of the Venice Biennale. A video/multimedia artist, Ratman’s works ‘aim to deal with untenable aspects of human behavior by exploring the appearance of pain, struggle, and the wild.’ His site-specific multimedia installation for the 2013 Venice Biennale, entitled The Workshop interrogates the space between reality and fiction as well as the role of participation and intervention in the realm of art creation. Much of Ratman’s work can be characterised by its attentiveness to the presence of nature as a canvas for human interaction.

Ariel Schlesinger, b. 1980

Ariel Schlesinger, born in 1980, is amongst a younger generation of emerging Israeli artists. Incorporating mundane objects in his works, Schlesinger breathes life into these inanimate, lifeless castaways through a process of rearrangement and repurposing; cobbling together everyday objects, Schlesinger puts his DIY creativity to work. In one piece, Untitled (Masking tape), Schlesinger re-forms rolls of masking tape, grouping them and fusing them into iterative, interconnected objects. The act of fusing — literally lighting a fuse as well as amalgamating different objects — is central to Schlesinger’s playful creations that intermix sculpture, design and art. Employing mechanics and explosives, Schlesinger’s works seem to be caught in perpetual change and transformation.

Dor Guez, b. 1980

Jerusalem born artist and photographer, Dor Guez’ cultural heritage informs his work, which explores issues of identity, marginalisation and belonging. A Jewish-Arab artist with a Christian Arab and Jewish Tunisian heritage, Guez grew up as part of a minority within a minority in Israel that has long been an overlooked voice in the debates surrounding identity and belonging in the Israeli state. In his works, Dor Guez focuses his lens on these silent minorities to expose the false dichotomies that exist in much of contemporary debate. In 40 Days, Guez’ latest work, he explores through film and photograph the destruction of the Christian Palestinian cemetery in Lod (formerly Al-Lydd). The work is both historical and personal, part of the artist’s effort to build the Christian Palestinian Archive to collect and document their history. In his works, Dor Guez attempts to understand and give life to the unwritten people’s histories of Israel that have been forgotten.

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