Three Cultures under One Roof
For the past several years, Israeli artist and curator Yael Katz Ben Shalom has devoted herself to two main themes: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the trauma of the Holocaust.
In order to bring art to the people, she founded the association "Artneuland Tel Aviv" in 2002. Her goal is to facilitate artistic exchange, initially by means of video art and photographic works and later through scholarly projects and readings. The association organized for example a workshop in which employees from a high-tech company and the residents of a slum area took pictures of each other.
Ever since the second Intifada broke out, the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue has come to a halt. This situation prompted Katz Ben Shalom to invite German artists to participate as well, and she was soon able to interest Israeli art patrons in this new trialogue. She managed to find sponsors who for the first time financed a dialogue with the Germans. As Yael Katz Ben Shalom recounts:
"They tried to understand why Germans with their past history can play an especially important role in this trialogue. They donated money because they found that we were on the right track with our concept."
Escaping the spiral of violence
Many of the patrons had been disappointed by the progress made thus far in the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue. It was like a ping-pong game. "I am discouraged as well, because wars here always follow the same pattern: a campaign triggers a reaction, which in turn induces a new campaign, and so on," the artist explains. "A third partner can perhaps show us the way out of this spiral of violence."
Yael Katz Ben Shalom has been organizing art exhibitions in Germany for six years now. This is where she also filmed an encounter with Rochus Misch, the last living member of Adolf Hitler's SS bodyguards. In the film "Hitlers Leibwächter - Der letzte Zeuge" (Hitler's Bodyguards - The Last Witness) she tried to really listen to the stories told by the former Nazi.
Yael Katz Ben Shalom began to feel more and more at home in Berlin and decided to export her "Artneuland" to that city: "I had the idea of establishing an art space in Berlin dedicated to the trialogue between the three monotheistic cultures. I wasn't interested any longer in just dealing with the theme of Israel, but wanted to branch out to more global everyday issues."
This was the basis, for example, for the project "Geld und Schuld" (Money and Debt) or for "Nova Paranoia" – examining how through capitalism and terrorism a new illness became a societal phenomenon.
When in Germany, Yael Katz Ben Shalom is constantly searching for traces of the past. For her 2000 installation "Made in Germany" she documented the history of the grounds of the "Topf und Söhne" company in Erfurt, which supplied the incinerators for the German extermination camps.
Her choice of the house at Schumannstrasse 18 in Berlin-Mitte for the Artneuland Gallery seemed suitable not only based on its location. It also embodies a chapter of German history: "It was important to me to find a historical place with which I feel a connection."
The house belonged to a Jewish family named Strassmann. The father was a prominent gynecologist and opened a private women's clinic there. Because of his Jewish background, he was unable to attain an executive post at the Charité hospital. In 1936 he was forced to sell his clinic and emigrate to the USA. "In a biography of the family that just came out, I learned that Strassmann was also an art collector,” the gallery owner recounts.
Praise from the Syrian Ambassador
In the first exhibition Katz Ben Shalom organized at the Artneuland Gallery, titled "Videoland," 18 Israeli, Arab and German video artists discover new geographies in their short films.
In "Message from behind a Wall," German artist Agricola de Cologne filmed a section of the wall dividing the West Bank that had become a playground for Palestinian children. Palestinian artist Hannan Abu Hussein improvises using a pile of tiles in her short film "A Small Country with 2 Big Moustaches," which reflects her feelings on the physical and mental occupation by Israel and on the Palestinian patriarchy. For "The Dreamers" Dana Levy from Israel filmed Israelis and Palestinians describing their dreams – young people, children, prisoners and poets.
Yael Katz Ben Shalom's endeavor has already met with a positive response from Syria: the Syrian Ambassador to Germany, Hussein Omran, announced that he approved of the project.
© Qantara.de 2006
Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor-Gaida