It was both interesting and sad to see our worst fears for this past spring’s Ann Loeb Bronfman Gallery exhibition (L) attitudes, a show about mapping Israel/Palestine, realized in a similar exhibition at Chicago’s Spertus Museum which closed their exhibit Imaginary Coordinates early. What never happened in DC came to pass in Chicago: a controversial show, in a Jewish setting, was closed by pressure from donors and in particular, explicit criticism from its sponsor federation.
I have not seen the exhibit at the Spertus, so it is hard for me to compare it to our show–was there something that stepped over the line? From what I’ve read about the exhibit, some of the controversial material in the exhibit included:
… a collection of postcards portraying the ordinary lives of Palestinians working, playing and mourning—an attempt to personalize land disputes as battles for livelihood, not real estate.
A video installation showed a nude woman spinning a barbed-wire hula hoop around her waist against a peaceful backdrop of the Mediterranean near Tel Aviv.
Another video showed a woman driving around Jerusalem asking for directions to Ramallah, a Palestinian town in the West Bank. Everyone gives her different directions and describes Ramallah as far away, when it really is quite close by, illustrating how mental distance can affect the maps in our mind.
I’m left to wonder if those materials were so much more provocative than Alban Biaussat’s Greener Side of the Line series of photographs that depict scenes from along the unofficial border between pre-1967 Israel and the West Bank. Were they more provocative than Nikolas Schiller’s Israel/Palestine 1993 in which his geometrically altered map includes the cartouche of the Palestinian cartoon character Handala? Or were we more balanced because we also included artists like Avner Bar-Hama’s Orange Israel:Today Gush Katif-Tomorrow Jaffa, which created a map of Israel in the color of protest used by settlers who were removed from the Gaza Strip in 2006. Did we escape major criticism because along with including Palestinian narratives, we gave prominent space to an artist’s right wing politics?
While we had a minor issue with our local Federation over the exhibit concerning the Israel@60 Event Calendar–to their credit, they never even remotely implied that as our largest single donor they could apply pressure regarding what was appropriate to display in our gallery. Why the difference between DC and Chicago? It even appears that the folks at the Spertus attempted to address some of the concerns about their exhibit by closing it, tweaking it, and then reopening it. Still the exhibit was closed with chastising comments that seem to demonstrate ignorance as to the role that art plays in a healthy culture.
Is Chicago a more conservative town? I didn’t think it was. Is DC that much more liberal? Do debates over art just matter more in Chicago? Are debates about politics just too common in DC for one amongst artists to garner much heat? Perhaps the Spertus, in a brand-new $55 million dollar building was a bigger target while our proud, but far humbler Ann Loeb Bronfman Gallery skated beneath the radar?
Whatever the reason, my heart goes out to our colleagues at the Spertus Museum.
And, whether the reason be tolerance or negligence, I am proud that we were able to produce a show like (L)attitudes at the 16th Street J. Check out the virtual gallery for the show.
ADDED: The JTA Blog has an excellent entry on this controversy.