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Reflections of wartime

Works by artists almost exclusively from Israel and the Balkans reveal ruin and hope.

June 26, 2007|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

HOLON, ISRAEL — Maja Bajevic walks into the opening frame of her video. The screen is almost completely green. The green of grass. Bajevic takes a few steps to the right, then to the left.

"You come in here," she says, gesturing toward the ground. "And here is where the kitchen window used to be." In the vacant vast green field, the Sarajevo-born Bajevic is tracing the walls of her house. The house was lost to her and her family when they were expelled a decade ago in the war that tore through their native Bosnia and the rest of the Balkans.

Bajevic's video, "The Green Green Grass of Home," is part of a new exhibition at one of Israel's small, spunky art galleries here in Holon, an up-and-coming city 15 minutes east of Tel Aviv.

"History Started Playing With My Life" opened this month and runs through August at the Israeli Center for Digital Art ( It features artists almost exclusively from Israel and from the Balkans. The curator, Erzen Shkololli, is from the Kosovo city of Pec.

Pairing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with that of the Balkans, despite similar ethnic, religious and territorial overtones, sets up a flawed comparison, organizers of the exhibition readily acknowledge. But it is also, certainly, a provocative one -- standard for a breed of edgy venues in Israel that welcome deeply political art.

In "History Started Playing With My Life," the common theme is how war, its traumatic bruising of memory and its enduring consequences are experienced not by a nation but "individually by the artists," Shkololli says. "What entices me is how these 'personalized' works move away from a standard notion of geography as physical territory, and enter a kind of 'personal geography' that surpasses theoretical generalizations on war or conflict," Shkololli, 31, wrote in an essay introducing the exhibition.

The works, he said, become instead "something suffered directly on one's skin." And so, Bajevic, 39, discusses her lost home, mentally attempting to rebuild it.

Diego Rotman and Lea Mauas, Argentine Jews who immigrated to Israel several years ago, use old fax paper (the kind on which the image gradually disappears) to sketch the enormous wall that they've watched being built around them, to separate Israel from the Palestinian territories.

"Making walls, dividing cities ... it's an artificial division that only makes it worse for people," Mauas, 32, said. (They work under the consortium title of Sala-Manca, Their rendering of the wall will fade as the paper ages.

Bulgarian artist Nedko Solakov, who was invited to Israel for an art show in 2003, at the height of the intifada, talks about his fear of getting hurt by violence in the Middle East. He has produced a tongue-in-cheek video -- two videos, actually -- that are broadcast simultaneously on a pair of monitors.

He asks an Israeli Embassy officer in one, her Palestinian counterpart in the other, if they couldn't please arrange a cease-fire during his scheduled visit. The two officials then launch into long discussions of the conflict as they see it -- the Israeli very descriptive, the Palestinian very bureaucratic, each symbolically talking past the other as the twinned videos play.

Eyal Danon, a curator at the Israeli Center for Digital Art, said the exhibition is the latest in a string of political shows that the gallery, housed in a former public school complex, has sponsored. The idea is to provide a venue for free speech, controversial ideas and minority viewpoints.

But Danon does not delude himself into thinking this exhibition, or any similar artistic venture, will lead Israelis to see their world any differently. Those who support the leftist politics of the artists will support and attend the exhibition; others won't.

"The question of influence is very limited," he said.

Danon, who oversaw the installation of the "History Started Playing" exhibit, said Israeli and Balkan artists have come with very different experiences of war, and it's reflected in their work. The people of the Balkans are living in a postwar era, while Israelis and Palestinians have not reached that point, Danon said, making it more difficult for them to analyze the conflict with the same distance.

Shkololli, the curator from Kosovo, whose hometown was devastated in the 1999 war, said he invited Palestinian artists to participate but that all declined.

To him, that illustrated the major difference between the two regions' conflicts.

"The participation of artists from all sides of ex-Yugoslavia's war is possible because of the postwar reality in the region," he noted, while, in Israel and the Palestinian territories, the continuation of occupation and fighting "blocks the same possibility in the Middle East." Finally, he said, the question becomes: What attitude should artists "take in the stories they tell of war, in order to plant the fruitful seeds of history" and not "the seeds of hate and revenge"?

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