Issue 27 07.15.2011

Issue 27
The Art of Sharon Paz

A merry-go-round of scenes that offer only excerpts of action, without developing any clear narrative or suspense. This strategy also runs through artist Sharon Paz’s performances, theatrical installations, and video works.

Scene one: silhouettes of a high-rise building skyline by night, blue smoke clouds, and a small group of people with Mickey Mouse ears who are playfully swiping or, perhaps, actually punching each other. Above, the light beams of military helicopters are circling coolly and quietly.

Another scene: two watchtowers on the beach, a romantic sunset in front of which the watchtower guards wave to each other and look deeper into each other’s eyes through binoculars. Between the towers, someone is hauling a lifeless body away. On the horizon, a warship is cruising sedately through the ocean, underscored by the staccato of Morse code signals.

A further scene: night reigns and between the camouflaged bushes and trunks, several human silhouettes are discernable, pulling on a rope. Perhaps they are in an adventure camp–the jungle rhythms and the mating calls of a tropical frog seem to suggest so–and is it a big stone, a whale, or a tank tied in the rope that they are pulling. Under a tree, two reservists seem to have been waiting a long time for their deployment; a sea of emptied beer bottles has accumulated around them. An ostrich nearby is sticking its head in the sand; as usual, a cripple is struggling away on his crutches; and further groups of human figures pass by, carrying each other away or hitting one another.

Indeed, Paz develops her dramaturgies as a collection of isolated combinations of reality and fiction. The mysterious mood of the scenes from IS THIS A GOOD DAY TO START A WAR (2009)–an exhibition with several videos and large scale panoramas–arises from Paz’s unconventional use and superimposition of documentary references and images with the aesthetic subjects and motifs of animated film, which assume a contrasting function.

Image courtesy of the artist.

The scenes allude to social and military events without explicitly specifying any particular incident. Since Sharon Paz is an Israeli artist, it is a logical step to interpret her work within the very specific political situation of her country. Where else can one watch warships and warplanes from a beach towel and afterwards go to work or to the shopping centre? The everyday, the holiday, and the constant potential for political and military emergencies merge into one layered existence in Paz’s homeland, producing a pervasive tension from which the search for entertainment offers an escape. Juxtaposing the cut-out silhouettes of sparring figures with Mickey Mouse ears and military equipment, Paz aims to imagine a collective memory, while also referring back to reality by incorporating documentary photography from the Palmach archives. Indeed, there is a specific political undertone to her work.

Founded in 1941 by Hagana, a Jewish underground organization in the British Mandate of Palestine, the Palmach was a paramilitary outfit that specialized in covert military training. The Palmach was relatively small, but played an important role in Israel-Palestine relations. Its members were trained in basic military capabilities, which qualified them for positions of command in the subsequent Israeli armed forces. The photographs from the Palmach archives show young men and women training in attack and defence exercises in disturbingly cheerful camps.

These photos were the inspiration for IS THIS A GOOD DAY TO START A WAR. However, Paz is not interested in simply reproducing or re-staging these photographic documents; she is interested in understanding how people manage to accept war as part of normal life. In the composition of images, choreography of action, and sequences of movement, her layered video art resembles a computer game more so than photographs. For example, computer game figures repetitively simulate activities, programmed in micro-movement loops, until they get an action command from a player. Waiting for that command input, the figures seem to be holding themselves in permanent readiness for (violent) action. They are the perfect reservists, so to speak, or witnesses whose endlessly repeating micro-movements have neither reason nor purpose: these are movements that go nowhere, movement for movement’s sake. While the fairytale ambience à la Lotte Reiniger gives an almost childlike, gaudy, cuteness to the figures, their performance, which follows the logic of a computer game, reinforces the aspect of constant simulation. Hilarity creeps into the work due to the absurdity of this permanent escalating simulation. Still, one cannot be quite sure about the actual aggressiveness of the silhouette figures. There are several astonishing examples of commercial computer games that are beamed into the market and transform young people into cold-blooded amok runners. It is exactly this situation that interests Paz–virtually arming people against perceived threats–and the possibility that eventually this rehearsed violence will be useful.

Image courtesy of the artist.

Paz hits the nail on the head with the title: IS THIS A GOOD DAY TO START A WAR. The question seems absurd, at least in Europe, which according to its own self-conception waged its last war more than 60 years ago. Israel, on the contrary, is a country which has been tangled up in half a dozen warlike conflicts over the last few decades and perceives itself to be encircled by enemies. Things are different there, and perhaps people really do ask themselves some mornings, before taking their children to kindergarten, whether someone has not deemed today the day to start the next war. Military logic creeps into everyday life in Israel. Citizens must be prepared for the outbreak of war at any time. Hence, any day could be a good day to start a war. When I called Paz shortly after the outbreak of the Gaza attack in December 2008 to discuss whether or not I should postpone my planned visit, she showed concern about the calmness with which Israelis were carrying on with their normal lives. However, with the title of her work, Sharon Paz summarizes an attitude that is not exclusive to Israelis. It is no different from when the German army mission in Afghanistan staged a peace mission. Citizens in many parts of the world consider the next war to be completely unavoidable and, as a result, mentally prepare for it.

Alongside the use of Mickey Mouse pop culture iconography, cut-out silhouettes from early cartoons, and computer game aesthetics, a formally striking aspect of this video artwork is the slide-like ordering of scenery into panoramas that are traversed by the eye like a sequence shot in a film. In the foreground and background, various small fragments of the action are installed. The panoramas displayed in the exhibition follow a very similar principle and aesthetic. The narrative fragments of the works are reminiscent of romantic paintings, as well as the photo wallpaper developed by contemporary designers. Paz succeeds in keeping her complex worlds of layered aesthetics and histories formal and yet transparent enough to accommodate photographs inspired by the Palmach archives, other war imagery from documentary and fictional film epics, and, ultimately, the private image banks of observers.

By Dörte Ilsabé Denneman