Dana Yoeli - Olympia

Dr. Aya Lurie

 

“… [W]hat must be firmly established at the start is that myth is a system of communication, that it is a message. This allows one to perceive that myth cannot possibly be an object, a concept, or an idea; it is a mode of signification, a form. Later, we shall have to assign to this form historical limits, conditions of use, and reintroduce society into it. … Mythical speech is made of a material which has already been worked on so as to make it suitable for communication: it is because all the materials of myth (whether pictorial or written) presuppose a signifying consciousness that one can reason about them while discounting their substance. This substance is not unimportant: pictures, to be sure, are more imperative than writing, they impose meaning at one stroke.”

– Roland Barthes, Mythologies 

 

The exhibition presented by Dana Yoeli (b. 1979) consists of a two-part video installation: a bidirectional projection, and a puppet theater object. In this installation, she continues her examination of the aesthetics and ethics of the mechanisms of commemoration, conservation, and national memory and ethos that are encapsulated in conventional objects and ceremonies in Israel. Her engagement with this subject, which was already evident in previous sculptural installations of hers, stems from her personal experiences as the daughter of a bereaved family. But, no less importantly, it is an expression of her awareness of the collective sense of shared destiny that is ingrained in Israelis from an early age through the educational system and community institutions. Yoeli’s preoccupation with the mechanisms of commemoration and bereavement in her Olympia project transcends the autobiographical dimension, and offers a poignantly critical symbolic view of the Israeli public domain – at the national and the community level alike – that directs us to remember, to honor the fallen, to identify with the families’ loss, and to adopt the heroic narrative that is evoked through ceremony and cenotaph. 

In sociological research, nation states are regarded as a phenomenon of the last few centuries only, rather than as a self-evident “natural condition” that has existed since time immemorial. In contrast to the nation state – which is a modern, political, constitutional notion – the nations themselves are perceived as cultural entities, communities of common identity based on shared history, culture and language. The sociologist Edward Shils points to the role of intellectuals, writers and artists in forging the historical, cultural, ceremonial, and political narrative of a nation, and in representing and handing it down to future generations. In his essay “Myth Today,” Roland Barthes argues the existence of a myth-making mechanism that takes form through man-made visual devices, which are aimed at manipulatively enlisting and inducing identification with its messages. Thus, culture and its products are a dynamic force that can shape and reflect the nation’s Zeitgeist, essential identity, and goals.

Yoeli’s choice to hold the exhibition at this particular museum is intimately linked to the mechanism by which cultural institutions and their agents establish national commemoration and memory. When the museum was first founded, its museum function was closely integrated with the commemoration function of the adjacent Beit Yad Labanim military memorial center, in line with the model pioneered in 1952 by the museum-and-memorial complex in Petah Tikva. That model, which prompted the construction of the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art in 1965 (designed by the firm Rechter-Zarhy-Perry Architects), sought to break away from the previous static nature of commemoration memorials by integrating them with community venues of secular, cultural activity. In this way, the memory of the fallen and bereavement were merged with the resolve to carry on with normal life. In 2000, however, during extension works to the museum (designed by architects Yacov and Amnon Rechter), the museum entrance was detached from the memorial building, in favor of a new, direct entrance on its northern side. This confirmed a disengagement of the two functions that had previously been merged together, and marked the start of the museum’s existence as an autonomous space. 

Is there still a chance for these two functions to coexist in a non-binary, complex manner? What is the significance of severing the museum from the accumulated strata of a particular place, in pursuit of the universal concept of a “white cube” space? These are the questions that we seek to examine, both at the museological and the cultural level, in a series of events at the museum. Yoeli’s work examines the relevance of classical commemoration formats and their epic and heroic aspects as employed in local cenotaphs and commemoration spaces, particularly in the face of a waning Zionist ethos and the continuing erosion of the cohesiveness of Israeli society. To that end, she contrasts the local and peripheral formats of military memorials and cenotaphs throughout the country with the models on which they are based, which are drawn from Classicism, German Romanticism, and Modernism. 

One of Yoeli’s films presents the camera’s slow roaming over a series of imaginary memorial and heritage sites suggestive of the remains of some modern-classical culture at an abandoned location. It is a dystopian vision that laments the erosion of matter by time – the very element that it seeks to obliviate, erase, and eliminate. The continuous take, above and among the elements, occasionally results in a sense of a realistic, familiar, authentic landscape – while simultaneously evoking a sense of disorientation due to the artificial nature of these archetypal objects. The hybrid elements of the imaginary landscape merge together different cultures and historical periods, suggesting that the mechanism by which national and communal identity is formed is underlain by a ceremonial and formal system of distinctive stylistic attributes. These both express and shape the nation’s values, and unite individuals around a common identity.

On the one hand, the title of the project, Olympia, is a reference to the sacred site in ancient Greece where Olympic Games used to be held – an iconic site representing the cradle of western civilization. However, it is also an allusion to Leni Riefenstahl’s 1938 film of the same name, which documented the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. While Yoeli’s and Riefenstahl’s films adopt a similar cinematic strategy in the opening scene, they are profoundly different in all other respects. Riefenstahl makes manipulative use of the cinematic medium, to declare – in grand propagandist style – that the ruins of the illustrious culture and the tremendous might of classical Greece and Rome are reborn in the empire of the Third Reich. Yoeli’s project, by contrast, engages in incisive dialogue with the propaganda aspects of the visual medium, eliciting feelings of attraction and repulsion at the same time. 

The second film in Yoeli’s project documents meticulously performed ceremonious acts that follow an enigmatic protocol. The ceremonious acts are presented through the façade of a theater – which is also presented as an actual sculptural object in the exhibition space. Familiar components of memorial ceremonies in Israel are part of the sequence: the lighting of a flame, burial in sand, and so forth. However, it is difficult to discern in these ceremonies a distinctive expression of personal loss, such as expressed by the great myths presented on stage in classical Greece. At the heart of the existential paradox in Yoeli’s Olympia lies the disparity between, on the one hand, the authentic and personal pain of bereavement and, on the other hand, the mythical, national mechanism of commemorating the heroic action.