False Awakening Between Model and Reality in Dana Yoeli’s Olympia
Dr. Joshua Simon
A screen, stage, cards, dice, uniform, lines marked on a court – all these are objects or means that transport us into a game, a model, playacting. Some are enacted within what is perceived as reality, conjuring up institutions with their own internal logic that makes up everyday life (household, work, hospital, jail, military), while others supposedly take place outside of the quotidian realm as its elucidations and transgressions (ball, board, and card games, the theater, the monument, and the museum). Dana Yoeli’s Olympia addresses the modes in which objects and means produce a model – whether in the theatre and on stage or in a memorial hall for fallen soldiers. The installation comprises a film, objects, and a model, weaving them together to shed light on the relationship between play and presence, past and future, reality and dream. All this is set in contexts that are both ideological and formal, while the references from which the elements draw are cinematic, literary, political, and topical.
In November of 1989, during the Fall of the Berlin Wall, the Central Channel of the USSR chose to broadcast a series of mass hypnosis shows (or “televised séances” as they were called). The hypnotist Anatoly Mikhailovich Kashpirovsky tried to heal the ailments of the Soviet citizens and divert their attention from the dramatic events unfolding in Berlin. The prevalent interpretation maintains that in this hypnosis show of the end of the Soviet era, the tension between reality and imagination was particularly poignant. The conservative claim that informs the accepted interpretation of this event sees communism as a dream, hallucination, lie, illusion, while the fall of the Berlin Wall is likened to a wakeup call, an event in which actual reality erupted in full force, breaking through the layers of the dream. In our current reality, this interpretation falls short. Our condition is more complex – reality did not materialize; rather, we stepped into a dream within a dream, and this second dream pretends to be reality. Like in a Luis Buñuel film – we are in a false awakening. The conservative interpretation of the encounter between the television screen and the iron curtain sees communism as a collective hypnosis while capitalism is a purportedly inescapable catastrophe. In this state of affairs, we no longer have access to the dream (a political project of equality) and the dream in which we exist (absolute inequality presenting itself as freedom) pretends to be reality. We are in a hallucination, but believe we are in reality, and at the same time have no access to any reality other than that hallucination, which de facto defines any other reality - “a false dream.”
This precarious relationship between reality and dream spreads to more facets of Dana Yoeli’s Olympia. The relation between play and reality, between past and future, between model and place, is undermined in her work in a way that offers the false awakening as a means for understanding our reality. The installation is composed of two stone marionettes resting against the wall; a puppet theater that looks like a model of a theater, in which different planes of the backdrop simulate bare concrete; and two video works. In one video, the camera moves past a model of a mound with “Greco-Roman” ruins. In the second video – projected on a black wall that engulfs it when the images fade – a hand sets up different arrangements of miniature archeological elements as scenes with one focal point, framed by the puppet theater/theater model. In the video, Yoeli uses the model of the theater stage, a hand, and various models of archaeological objects, and when there is no image – the video fades to black. The video is projected on a black wall rather than a screen, which in conventional screening establishes the image as a model. The video of the model which includes a theater, which in itself is a model in relation to reality, is presence itself. When it appears – it exits. When it is gone, there is no square from which it is missing – there is merely the presence of the black wall.
Puppet theater has a certain age. We may think of it as a prelude to theater. It is more childlike and juvenile and in that respect, serves as the model of theater, as a child is to an adult. In the opening of Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander (1982), the boy Alexander plays with his puppet theater, in which small candles illuminate the stage. The sadness of the boy is not a pretense, nor is the flame of the candles. Theater has a role in constituting reality by processing it through playacting. While in the theater, actors portray characters – in puppet theater the puppets are the characters. They do not portray a character, they are the character, whereas in the theater, by acting the actors generate the gap that separates them from the character. The aspect of presence and playacting is undermined by the way that Dana Yoeli presents the stage for the direct performance in terms of presence (puppet theater) as a model of the more indirect performance (theater). With that, she transforms direct staging and presence itself into playacting, a portrayal of a space that simulates presence.
The material element to which the eye returns time after time, in the video and in the puppet theater displayed in Olympia, is the bare concrete – a direct allusion to the Yad Labanim building that houses Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art. Designed by architects Rechter-Zarhi-Peri, the building and the round entrance wall are covered with texts and recurring shapes incorporated in the bare concrete. At the same time, the entire building is experienced as a model based on variations, so that each section in it is singular. The “maquette” quality of the building is amplified by the arched roof and the rhythm created by the vertical wood beams of the concrete cast. Casting is yet another form of relation between model and reality: a light and portable material (wood beams) creates a massive elaborate structure (concrete wall). In Yoeli’s puppet theater the bare concrete patterns revert into a model, since they are purely decorative: there is no wall that supports the structure, but rather a representation of a wall on the theater stage. The ornaments relate to an existing and present structure (the museum in which the piece is displayed), but instead of establishing it as a place, they turn the spotlight on its qualities as a model.
The diagonal slashes of the backdrop planes are in themselves a relation to reality. Like the streets and houses that Walter Riemann designed for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (dir. Robert Wiene, 1920), which seem to curve like a camera shutter and whirl the horizon line into a spiral, here too, the space takes shape from the inability to distinguish dream from reality, model from a place. This Expressionist context is significant to Olympia not only in how reality is shaped in it, but also in the frame story in which Dr. Caligari is transformed from a villain who controls Cesare the murderer through hypnosis, into a doctor that treats a madman who confesses his crimes. Sleep and wakefulness, hypnosis and storytelling, dream and investigation of the truth converge seamlessly, blurring the lines between them.
Dana Yoeli’s models in Olympia are ruins. This is evident in the video in the fragments of antiques scattered across the desert – just like in the opening of Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia (1938) – and in the actual theater that frames the antiques. These are the ruins of a world in which there were models and there was reality. Today, in a reality of modalization (simulation), of a dream within a dream, of a false awakening – the ruin is the model. The installation’s elegiac tone does not stem from the Romantic tradition of the folly, the artificial ruin of the English Garden. A world in which archeology is a tool in the service of a certain ideology also does not fully encapsulate the experience that Yoeli offers us. In the video Olympia, the camera moves along the same tracks in the artist’s studio again and again, but the landscape changes as if it were a long and uninterrupted expanse. The repetition of a distinct section time after time creates a horizontal expansion. Like in the Peter Fischli and David Weiss’s video, The Way Things Go (1987), which was shot in a tiny studio and portrays a chain reaction of mechanical actions, as though they unfolded in one sequence in a huge hanger, in Olympia too time is converted into space. But in Yoeli’s video, the conversion takes place in a model that underscores the status of this relation as the element that organizes our reality – as a model in itself.
In the first two decades of the Soviet Union, during the revolutionary electrification and montage craze, models held a special status – they were plans for the realization of a utopia, constituted instant monuments, expressed the construction frenzy, served as time machines of sorts, and were a bridge between children and reality in the form of construction toys. The most famous model is arguably Vladimir Tatlin’s The Monument to the Third International (1919-1920), which was never built and was left as the ultimate model by being an unrealized proposal. The relation to proportions, scale, and feasibility, the imagined dimension and projection into a future in which the technological and ideological conditions will ripen, were manifested in the Soviet models. And so, in the revolutionary stage, the Soviet model was a site in which one could visit the future, encounter the reality that the implementation of the revolution’s ideals will bring about. There are some models that were never realized (like the Palace of the Soviets in Moscow), but were nevertheless depicted in art and culture (film and painting) as if they were a part of the characters’ present and landscape. The Soviet visual models acted in the gap between architecture, visual arts, science fiction, and documentary. They bridged and even cancelled the gaps between these mediums, and with that, acted in reality while shaping it in their image.
The special status of the model in the Israeli sphere was already articulated and described by Zvi Efrat, who addressed the first national outline plan, Sharon Plan (1949), as the origin of Israel’s landscape and total unification that engineered a language, a country, and a people. These were not created through haphazard improvisation, speculator’s initiatives, or organic evolution, which we tend to attribute to the Israeli character. Efrat illustrates how Israel was shaped by a well laid-out plan with arithmetical formulae, charts, and models. These had a special role in formulating the space as empty, available, and hospitable for all the programs designed to be materialized in it.
Today, when we live in simulations contingent on a certain perception of reality that sets in motion the computerized machines that control us, Dana Yoeli’s Olympia charts the murkiness and the conflict between reality and the model. We are constantly acting in and are activated by models. The strongest models are the ones that offer us meaning and assign coherent roles to us: parent, worker, wife, child, soldier. Yoeli’s stone marionettes, dolls on a string, offer a model in which a person operated by one string does not have much leeway, hence the insistence on one identity, one defining attribute (national, gender, political) that reduces her human existence. The multiplicity of communities, expanses, models, and roles that activate us are comparable to multiple strings that allow breadth of movement and a richer repertoire of gestures and ways of conduct.
In Dana Yoeli’s Olympia, the relation between past and future and between model and reality is different from the optimism that characterized the Soviet revolutionary experience and from the reality forming dimension of the model in the Zionist Project. Here, destruction is the model, because the relation between playing and reality has been turned on its head. There is no optimism and no control. There is a world within a world and the principles of the model have taken over reality.
In the novel La tregua (in English: The Reawakening, 1963), Primo Levi describes the return home to Turin at the end of the Second World War as a dream. The relation between model and reality was destabilized – the force and horrifying scope of the Lager jumbled model and reality, and with his return home and to reality of his home he finds himself feeling that he is in a dream, and at any moment will wake up to the reality of Auschwitz. In Beit Yad Lebanim, a memorial hall for fallen soldiers , the future that will never be is what transforms destruction into a model. The building itself is a monument, a symbolic backdrop in which the viewer’s presence and gaze take part in a never-ending memorial service. The gaze activates the site – the bare concrete is our archeology and the ruin is the model. In our current ideological reality, death itself is a false awakening.