Berlin Jewish Museum: Exhibiting "This Place"

A personal take on Israel

Twelve artists from different nations were invited to participate in the long-term project "This Place". The goal was to explore Israel from a personal perspective. Their photographs and video installations can now be viewed at the Jewish Museum in Berlin. By Heike Mund

Initiator Frederic Brenner is a professional photographer with an international following, who himself has exhibited in galleries and museums. While working on the project "This Place", however, he found himself fulfilling a whole range of functions: "I was manager, curator, tour guide, technical assistant, fundraiser and much more. I sometimes had very little time for my own work."

Brenner was born in France in 1959. During his career as a photographer, he has mainly devoted himself to presenting aspects of Jewish life – both in Israel and around the world. His most famous work is "Diaspora": for over 25 years he captured the life of Jewish communities in more than 40 countries. Homeland, belonging, exclusion, community and religiosity are not only topics that interest him as a photo artist.

No artistic guidelines

The idea for his ambitious photo project arose in 2005: "This Place" was intended to bring together artists of different nationalities, religions and biographical backgrounds. Everyone would be able to explore the land of Israel from their own cultural and religious background and choose their own motifs. They were expressly encouraged to take a subjective view.

There were no guidelines, neither in terms of time nor content. The only restriction was that Israeli and Palestinian photographers should not be included. "We wanted people with a fresh perspective, not those involved in the daily political conflict in Israel," explained Brenner.

It took years of intensive collaboration with curators and Brennerʹs gallery owner in New York to turn it into an artistic concept. "I knew I needed comrades-in-arms," Brenner says in retrospect. "Artists who are driven by their own questions and whose works can highlight rifts and paradoxes."

Exhibition initiator and professional photographer Frederic Brenner in the Berlin Jewish Museum (photo: DW/H. Mund)
A multi-faceted portrait: "Israel is a place of radical otherness and radical dissonance," says exhibition initiator Brenner. "This project is also about a kind of polyphony that characterises the country today. We need to understand that we have to get involved in this polyphony – even that which is inside us"

Twelve internationally renowned photographers and photo artists, including Brenner, travelled to Israel time and again for the project. Using their cameras, they explored the highly diverse Israeli landscapes and, after internal discussions between the project leader, curator and participating photographers, even ventured into the West Bank.

The photographers travelled from the barren Negev Desert in the far south to smaller towns and historical cities such as Jerusalem, Ramallah and Bethlehem to the Golan Heights on the border with Syria and on to the coastal city of Tel Aviv. Sometimes alone, sometimes with a team. Their empathetic view of Israel ultimately yielded a fascinating puzzle of the multi-religious and multi-coloured society of this country.

A visual portrait

For some, it was the first time they had ever visited and experienced what it means to live in a country steeped in religiousness and biblical history. All participants were given as much time as their photographic excursions required. The elaborate project was financed by a foundation.

Some photographers travelled several times to Israel for short flying visits, while others stayed for weeks and even months in the country to deal intensively with the protagonists they had selected. Their photographs document Israel in the years 2009 to 2014, each artist made their own selection of images for the exhibition.

It was important to Frederic Brenner to maintain an artistically detached overview. Nevertheless, Brenner – himself a Jew – as an international photographer with changing residences in Moscow, New York, Israel and currently in Berlin does acknowledge his own artistic subjectivity in conversation. His works reflect with almost archaeological precision the places and soul landscapes of this country and its people.

"Daybreak": sleeping olive pickers in the early morning (photo: Jeff Wall/2011)
Social criticism in soft focus: on a round trip through the Israeli Negev desert, Jeff Wall discovered the sleeping place of a group of Bedouins working as olive pickers on a farm. Every morning for two weeks, he took a picture of the sleeping Bedouins before sunrise, in the background the nearby prison next to the Israeli olive farm – a serial work that only changed in tiny, almost painterly nuances

No contradiction: technology and tourist resorts

Germany is represented in the exhibition by photographer Thomas Struth. During his travels to Israel, the rmember of the internationally renowned "Dusseldorf School" dealt with religiously and socially-charged places such as the Annunciation Basilica in Nazareth. In his large-format photographic work, the famous monument takes on the appearance of a military bunker as a result of the massive concrete construction on the ceiling.

Struth is also interested in technologically advanced high-tech sites. From Struth's perspective, a futuristic experimental laboratory in the "Plasma Lab" of the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, where groundbreaking medical research is carried out to worldwide acclaim, takes on sculptural traits. "My interest or intent is to address something that has a greater scale, a greater value than the specific detail," he said.

The photographer travelled to Israel six times. His image of the abstract-modern architecture of Tel Aviv's City Hall reveals more than just the bold facade – much resonates between the lines. On 4 November 1995, the then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was murdered at this historic site. The light of dawn surrounds the building with an uncanny aura, its edges overly sharp.

Biblical motifs in the Negev Desert

U.S.-American photographer Jeff Wall is also known for his extremely large-format photo tableaus. For four decades, he has contributed to the art world's recognition of photography as a major contemporary art form. For the project "This Place" he travelled to Israel in October 2010. On a round trip through the Israeli Negev desert, he discovered the sleeping place of a group of Bedouins working as olive pickers on a farm. Bedouins have lived in this area for centuries, many have been resettled by the Israeli government and few have been able to save their traditions.

A year later, in the autumn of 2011, Wall returned and chose a position for his camera. For two weeks every morning before sunrise, he took a picture of the sleeping Bedouins, in the background the nearby prison next to the Israeli olive farm. A serial work that only changed in tiny, almost painterly nuances. Every day he developed this photo in a temporary darkroom in his hotel room. Only later did he make the final selection.

His large-format photographic work "Daybreak" hangs centrally at the top end of a room in the Berlin exhibition – like a biblical landscape painting from the 17th or 18th century and yet of the highest digital image quality. In large format, Wall captures the delicate colours just before the day breaks. Everything is softened by the lighting conditions. Yet between the lines are socio-critical implications.

Artist project with political ambitions

The photographer Frederic Brenner, who has his own Jewish family background and therefore rather an intimate view of the subject of "Israel" was not interested in "This Place" producing photographic effects, cliched images or newsy angles. That's why no photo journalists were invited.

The twelve professional photographers, each with their own aesthetic concepts, devoted themselves very specifically to the stories behind the facades – the buildings, the people, the religiosity, the official politics, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A concept that fits well into the previous exhibition philosophy of the Berlin Jewish Museum.

These artworks that, following stops in Tel Aviv, Prague and New York, are now being shown as a visiting exhibition at the Jewish Museum in Berlin, paint a multi-faceted picture of different aspects of life in this country. "Israel is a place of radical otherness and radical dissonance," Brenner remarked in interview. "This project is also about a kind of polyphony that characterises the country today. We need to understand that we have to get involved in this polyphony – even that which is inside us."

Heike Mund

© Deutsche Welle 2019

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