January 20, 2004

It's Diplomacy, But Is It Art?

I have followed the Israeli ambassador art vandalism affair with some interest. The affair has many similarities with conceptual art, and might be a better artwork than the installation that caused the furor.

Some years ago celebrated Swedish artist Dan Wolgers stole two benches from the Liljevalchs art museum. He had been asked to participate in an exhibition 1993, intended to have artists depict their view of human nature. He stole two benches from the exhibition hall and sold them - that was his artwork. It was probably the most debated, most significant artwork in Sweden of the 90's. Everybody was debating whether it was art (and good or bad art). His earlier tricks of hiring an ad agency to make one of his exhibitions or putting his own phone number as an artwork on the Swedish phonebook had earned some remarks, but this made the recondite intellectual debate on what should be called art and the limits of conceptual art spead everywhere in society. In the end he was fined (he also sold the fine at a profit - who said crime, and art, doesn't pay?).

I get the same feelings from the "Snowwhite affair". At first I thought the ambassador had just drunk too much at the reception and become sincerely angry - an amusing faux pas, but little more. But then he claimed that he knew what he was doing and senior Israeli government officials came out in support. Now things began to turn interesting.

The artwork itself is, as concept art goes, not bad from what I have seen. A basin of red water, a floating sailing boat with the picture of the suicide bomber. Some Bach music, and (this is important) a text that links together the story of Snow White with the terrorist. Compared to much other concept art it is quite aesthetic by the contrast of red and white, the fixed water and the floating boat (although the recent cold has apparently frozen it in place, maybe another metaphor for the Mid-East conflict?). And compared to nearly all other political art it is subtle. Hardly a call for blowing somebody up (especially given the text), unless it is because "the red is beautiful against the white". And as antisemitism goes, a boat with a picture of prime minister Ariel Sharon sailing on a sea of blood would likely be far more likely to be interpreted as negative against Israel or jews.

But just like those stolen benches, the real interest isn't in the object, it is the happening that is occuring right now. People are rushing to the museum to see the artwork, interview in front of it, criticise it, vandalize it (one threw a picture of Mijailo Mijailovic into it) or even attack the curator. And of course to see all of the above. But that is just the local part of this active artwork. The real beauty occurs in the diplomatic sphere.

Dagens Nyheter suggested an analysis that made the political pieces fall into place for me. Why would an ambassador attack art? Due to uncontrollable rage? Given that Zvi Mazel has been ambassador in Egypt, he is used to far more critical (not to say hostile) treatments of Israel and jews. But right now Israel is under growing international criticism, and Europe has become interested in negotiating in the Mid-East situation. This is not something Israel wants (or rather, not something that the Likud government wants). It is responding by counterattacking western Europe for not doing anything about the growing antisemitism, and hoping to reduce the credibility of all EU governments in dealing with the middle east. But Sweden has been unusually pro-Israel due to the interest Göran Person has taken in various holocaust memorial and prevention projects (despite the otherwise strong Swedish left support for the palestinians). An art scandal is perfect: not something that will cause lasting problems, but just the right amount of bad feeling at the right moment to keep another part of the EU from meddling. This makes a kind of sense, although it is the kind of sense one expects in an Illuminati game.

The part that actually makes this artwork interesting and interactive, is the media. I watched how the news climbed on the newssites in Sweden across the night and saturday. Then it began to pop up in google.news, climbing in the World section until it got to the first page and finally climbed to top news a few times. It was like watching a brave snail racing to the top. And the real fun was of course to read the different takes on the story.

At first, everybody uses the same Reuters and AP sources and prints identical articles. But then things diverge, and everybody starts to give the story their own slant.

Israeli press had a field day with the perfidious Swedes and all their antisemitic plotting. One reported that the Israeli embassy was being forced out (it is located in the middle of an otherwise normal affluent mixed office/apartment building, and presumably the landlord might be a bit nervous about it and might not want to renew the contract).

Then there is of course the Tensta angle. According to one Israel newspaper, those antisemitic Swedish authorities had banned another Israeli artist, Amit Goren, from participating in the Making Differences exhibition and were now relenting under international pressure. The real reason his artwork was not originally shown was actually due to a guest performance by the board of the Tensta art hall where he was intended to be shown. Tensta is a less fashionable suburb of Stockholm, but had a local art hall led by the ambitious Gregor Wroblewski who actually managed to put it on the map. Unfortunately the board wasn't quite as daring and had problems with him, so they forced him to quit. Much chaos ensued, with Wroblewski occupying the hall, refusing to give away the keys and denouncing the board as being antisemites. Local people organized themselves in defense of their art hall against the art council, politicians making confused statements. I must admit I had a hard time keeping track of this little affair, but now it has joined the big one. Points for style.

The BBC had a British deadpan "You are ruining our party, Ambassador" headline. One of my favorites was the obviously twice (or more) translated Turkish paper that claimed a painting had been attacked.

But the final piece, the one that turned this from merely diplomatic irony into true satire, was that Dror Feiler has been accused by a music company for copyright infringement. Apparently he used a Bach recording (downloaded from the net) that may have been copyrighted. And here the artist immediately relented and switched to another recording - angering Israel is safe, but woe to he who breaks copyright law.

In the end, what do we have here? The stolen benches was on the first level a statement about the greed of humans, on the second level a media circus (and a play on media circuses) and on the third level a continuation of the "what is art" discource in public, linking it to the goal of getting the public involved with art.

But that was a partially deliberate structure. The Snowwhite piece was on the first level an attempt to understand what drives a suicide bomber. On the second, a happening arranged by the ambassador (as somebody at the reception remarked, "first I thought the demolition was part of the piece") but actually on the third level a political/diplomatical game. But it also has a fourth level of media coverage, where the original story explodes outwards, mutating to fit whatever agendas are around. To return as a chaotic urge to see, destroy (=participate) and debate. There is a beautiful feedback here, with the contrasts of blood/purity, serious diplomacy/rage, illuminated plotting and ridiculous maneouvering as driving symbols.

In the end, the art attack might be a cynical attack on free expression for murky political goals. But it might ironically be good art itself. In many ways it is far more interesting than the conference that is being held right now, a conference on preventing genocides where no genocide where the major participant nations have participated (like Armenia, Chechnia, the Mid-East situation etc) is to be discussed. The conference is a planned event with no unexpected moves. It could probably be criticised as "bourgeois art". And while the art vandalism scandal certainly had elements of planning, the different plans collided in an interesting and creative explosion.

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