Hailing from a country so young filled with stories so old, contemporary Israeli artists have no shortage of inspiration to draw on, from the region's ancient history to its more recent political strife. This lends their art an uncommon depth of engagment and rich societal context—elements that these artists pursue through all manner of mediums, from film (sometimes applying the tools of documentary to the logic of fiction) to painting, sculpture, and performance. The 20th century gave us several Israeli artists who became famous in the West, from Tal R to Haim Steinbach, but in recent years there has been an efflorescence of important rising stars from the country who have seized attention on the international stage. Here is a list of a few of the prominent names making the biennial and art fair circuits that you should know.
Hometown: Ramat-Gan, Israel
Lives and Works: Tel Aviv, Israel
In the 1999 video Berkeley’s Island, Guy Ben-Ner is shipwrecked in his family kitchen, standing on an incongruous pile of sand while wearing a swimsuit. It’s not an unusual situation for the Tel Aviv-based artist, who often presents himself washed up on the shores of solipsism in his work. In another early film, Elia — a story of an ostrich chick (2003), Ben-Ner creates a fictional Discovery Channel-style show featuring his family dressed as ostriches, while his celebrated 2007 Stealing Beauty chronicles him and his family as they make themselves at home in Ikea's showrooms, lounging on the couches, pretending to shower, and otherwise staging domestic scenes as if displaced refugees. His recent films, however, have taken a different turn along with the maturing of his children and end of his marriage. InDrop the Monkey (2009), Ben-Ner, shuttling back and forth between Tel Aviv and his girlfriend's home in Berlin, films a long-distance conversation that he has with himself as he utters one thought in one location and answers it in the other. Though cut loose from the domestic, the work feels no less absurd and displaced.
Born: 1967 Hometown: Tel Aviv, Israel Lives and Works: London, England
Ori Gersht layers his photographs and films with art historical references, only to then explode them—quite literally. In Big Bang (2006), a glass vase and flowers, which looks to have been excerpted from an 18th-century Dutch still life by Jan van Huysum, blasts apart in shrapnel-like shards while sirens wail in the background. (The sound of alarms is not unfamiliar to the Israeli artist who was born months before the 1967 Six-Day War.) Meanwhile, in his photographs, Gersht takes another approach to mine themes of violence, such as in Falling Bird (Untitled 01)(2008), a piece that depicts a bird plunging headfirst into dark water, pictographically decaptiating it while paying homage to the animal-carcas still-lifes of artists like Willem van Aelst. In Gersht’s hands, violence is made into something exquisite—while never letting the viewer forget its brutal reality.
Born: 1975 Hometown: Haifa, Israel Lives and Works: New York, NY
There is something lurking under the surface of Gilad Ratman’s oneiric films. If not mud creatures gurgling in a primordial soup or faces slotted through wall cutouts, it’s a group of wanderers on a subterranean journey from Israel to Italy, as in his latest showing The Workshop (2013) at the 2013 Venice Biennale. The five-channel video installation, like much of Ratman’s work, unearths the primal and prelingual—in the video, actors moan into microphones. Even in this primitive state, artistic and communal expression manages to feel higher-minded, even sacred.
Hometown: Afula, Israel Lives and Works: Tel Aviv, Israel
Yael Bartana represented Poland in the 2011 Venice Biennale with the film trilogy And Europe Will Be Stunned (2007-2011). The twisted geography of the event—an Israeli artist representing an Eastern European country in an international exhibition in Venice—is fitting, as her work often distorts history, geography, and ideology. In the film, Bartana depicts (fictional) radical activists who attempt to reverse the Zionist project and rebuild the Jewish population in Poland. A newer video installation, Inferno (2013), will show at the 19th Biennale of Sydney in March, and centers on the re-construction of the Temple of Solomon—originally built in Jerusalem in the 10th century—in Brazil, again displacing and reimagining a site of history.
Hometown: Jerusalem, Israel Lives and Works: Berlin, Germany
In his films, Omer Fast immediately engages the viewer by presenting journalistic-seeming interviews with people who have urgent stories to tell—but soon after gaining the audience's trust by exposing the mundane details of his subjects' lives, the artist bends the rules of documentary, editing, cutting, and creating fictional scenes, until the facts and narrative impulse become twisted. In his mind-bending, three-part film installation Nostalgia (2010), we meet a Nigerian refugee seeking asylum in London but being cruelly rebuffed; a group of British refugees seeking asylum in Nigeria in a dystopian counter-history; and a former Nigerian child soldier trying to flee his country. In Fast's most celebrated work, 5,000 Feet is the Best (2011), U.S. army drone pilots confess their anxieties and troubled conscience over their remote sorties in the Middle East, with their footage intercut with aerial shots of small American towns that suggest the drone pilots' vantage. A more recent work focusing on porn stars in Los Angeles, Everything that Rises Must Converge (2013), similarly digresses into stories of illegal immigration and a search for dinosaur eggs.
Hometown: Ben-Tor: Jerusalem, Israel Lives and Works: New York, NY
In a range of wigs and costumes, performance artist Tamy Ben-Tor throws herself fully into eccentric characters: a Middle East scholar speaking gibberish, a Jewish intellectual condemning Israel, an anti-Semite speaking as a talk show host. Often working in collaboration with her husband Miki Carmi, she combines virtuosic mimickry with keen social commentary in her films and performances, leaving the audience unsure where to laugh and where to cringe. In "Kook" (2010), Ben-Tor dresses in part traditional, part modern clothing, capturing a catchall of styles—at once, grotesque, comic, and banal—allowing many forms of bigotry to emerge, find expression, and meet the viewer's censure.
Born: 1973 Hometown: Tel Aviv, Israel Lives and Works: London, England
Gideon Rubin paints anonymous portraits, inspired by found 20th-century photographs. Though the scenes are often familial, details are obscured, faces blank, and colors muted. The effect is both unsettling, and yet the subject remains intimate. For example, in Untitled (2011), two women, possibly sisters, pose side by side in bathing suits and caps in a scene that could be imagined anywhere across the American coast. In an interview with Artspace, Rubin said these unspecified absences allow the viewer and the painting to meet halfway, as the viewer imposes her own memories upon the washed out surfaces. “This thread of history—of style, people, fashion, et cetera—and storytelling is, in many ways, what I'm still trying to paint today.”
Born: 1977 Hometown: Haifa, Israel Lives and Works: Tel Aviv, Israel
“The flatter I go, the deeper it is,” says Guy Yanai of his paintings of everyday objects pared down to a geometric, faux-naif style. A flaneur, Yanai takes Tel Aviv as his subject, gathering images with his iPhone camera, then distilling the photographed objects to the essentials in paint. With nothing superfluous on the canvas, the works teeter on the edge of representation and abstraction, as in his depiction of a leaning potted plant in The Athlete (2012). "Somehow simplifying and editing things down to the most basic makes it much more intimate and personal," Yanai told Artspace in an interview. "I can say that a lot of the color and structure in the works is a sort of decoy, a way to get you in, and once you really enter the work it takes on a different meaning."
Hometown: Jerusalem, Israel Lives and Works: Tel Aviv, Israel
Working near the Dead Sea, Sigalit Landau possesses a profound sense of place—it's the lowest point on the surface of the Earth—that she explores in DeadSee(2005), shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2007. In the video, she floats nude in a pool of swirling watermelons, while in another film, Barbed Hula (2010), Landau swings a barbed hula-hoop around her hips, allowing the viewer to watch as it cuts and tears into her exposed flesh. Lying between the poetic and the perverse, the actions in her work are marked with futility. And she does not shy from their reprecussions. In her 2000-04 project Somnambulin/Bauchaus, she handed out "Little Match Girl" popsicles, the figure from the Hans Christian Andersen story who freezes to death after vainly striking match after match.
BORN: 1980 Hometown: Jerusalem, Israel Lives and Works: Jaffa, Israel
Both a PhD researcher and artist, Dor Guez is sensitive to the forgetfulness of history and elegiac nature of archives. These interests converged in Pines 1 (2011), part of his eerie series of black-and-white photographs from the Ben Shemen forest in Israel, where villages were destroyed during the Arab-Israeli war. In another project, The Christian-Palestinian Archive (2012), Guez documents images of the diasporic population of Christian-Palestinians living throughout the Middle East. His interest is personal—Guez is the son of a Christian Palestinian and Jewish Tunisian—and challenges the lines of nationalism, ethnicity, and religion.
Hometown: Tel Aviv, Israel Lives and Works: Berlin, Germany
Multimedia artist Keren Cytter’s associations are loose, her narratives cyclical. The critically acclaimed film, The Victim (2006), for example, loops a dinner party of five characters that transforms into a mass suicide and then reverts to a dinner party, in an endless cycle. In other works, the mismatch between the visual and audio of her films create strange disjunctures. Though involving unaccustomed works on paper, her new show of drawings at Zach Feuer creates no less jarring juxtapositions, presenting intimately observed doodles of newspaper clips next to sketches of fish.
By Noelle Bodick