Little is as symbolically charged as land in Israel. Every tract is dense with significance for the three Abrahamic religions that consider this country their holy land and is mired in the highly conflictual politics of its nation-building. With this in mind, land in Israel – despite its austere beauty and robust pragmatism – is always more than just landscape. Employing a restrained pictorial language, informed by new topographics artists such as Lewis Baltz or Joachim Brohm, Tel Aviv-based photographer Sharon Ya’ari examines these complex relationships in the exhibition ‘The Romantic Trail and the Concrete House’ at Mies van der Rohe’s Haus Esters, creating multiple resonances between the works and the building’s modern architecture.
Through seemingly mundane subject matter, Ya’ari presents a version of Israel in which the country’s complex dynamics are pared back and cultural identity is exposed as a construct. Photographs of excavation sites nod to attempts to prove Jewish people’s connection to the land; scattered yucca palms and agaves act as reminders of settlement movements from Central America; while images of Mesopotamian fallow deer, originally endemic to the area, document the species’ recent re-introduction.
Ya’ari’s preoccupation with Israel’s cultural fluidity finds an apt setting in Haus Esters, a satellite of Kunstmuseen Krefeld. The Bauhaus villa was built by Mies between 1927 and ’28, shortly before the Nazis seized power and decried such modernist aesthetics as ‘degenerate’. It inevitably reminds us of the tragic circumstances that lead to the founding of the State of Israel in 1948. Beit Ha’am, Nahalal, East View (2019), a large black and white photograph, depicts the now abandoned titular cultural centre, which was built in 1930 according to Bauhaus principles by Richard Kauffmann, master architect of Tel Aviv’s famous White City. Another black and white image, Arad, Avishur Neighborhood 1969 (2019), shows a modernist concrete seating area in a courtyard in the city of Arad. Both works explore the migration of concepts – those of Bauhaus and new objectivity, which were under threat in Nazi Germany – along with the people who fled from Europe. More than just architectural styles, these movements spoke of the hope for social reform and the construction of a new utopian society in Israel.
The seating area also refers to the central group of works in the show, which was taken at a plaza in the city of Beersheba. Three large-format wall-mounted prints (Palms, 1 of 3, 2019; Palms, 2 of 3, 2017; and Bnei-Or, Beersheba, 2018), accompanied by a photo book, show the square both in use and undergoing regeneration. With its rows of concrete columns, the plaza is no architectural icon, yet its community-enhancing design as meeting point-cum-playground reflects one of the key tenets of modernism. As part of a renovation project, the battered seating columns were removed; Ya’ari salvaged them and transported them to Krefeld, where they now stand on artificial turf in the garden of Haus Esters, uniting two distant cousins of modernist architecture in a kind of family therapy.
Slightly detached from the exhibition’s strong Bauhaus connection is the beautiful diptych Sea Promenade (2019). It shows two young girls sitting at the very edge of the picture frame, staring out to sea. In the background, we see a large, docked cargo ship and a number of cranes. In the second picture, two girls are leaving an empty beach. Here, however, they do not serve as repoussoirs; rather, the image tailors the surroundings to the girls: the landscape exists in relation to them. The work’s composition of land/ship/children may serve as an echo chamber of the legendary immigrant ship Exodus, which carried 4,500 Jews to Palestine in 1947 in spite of a British naval blockade, reminding us anew that, in Israel perhaps more than anywhere, land is something created more than found.
Translated by Alexander Booth
Sharon Ya’ari, ‘The Romantic Trail and the Concrete House’ runs at Haus Esters at Kunstmuseen Krefeld until 30 August 2020.
Main image: Architect unkown, Bnei-Or, Beersheba, 1970, installation view, Haus Esters, Kunstmuseen Krefeld, 2020. Courtesy: the artist and Kunstmuseen Krefeld
First published in Issue 212