HOW'S THE BEAST? | 2015
"How is the Beast?” features three fictional artists – a Polish choreographer, a German-Israeli artist, and an Israeli performance artist. Working against the back drop of Operation Protective Edge, the artists each create an artwork in response to an article published in the summer of 2014 in a German newspaper, which expressed concerns regarding Israel’s policy in Gaza.
Combining dance, video, and performance art and making use of a range of artistic tools and a special performative syntax, the three artists examine the normalization of relations among their countries, as well as the evolution of collective narratives following the Second World War. The German-Israeli video artist Uriah Rhein-Merhav’s work is concerned with the co-dependent relations created between victim and perpetrator; the Polish choreographer Agnieszka Tz'zak creates a confessional performance that explores how Polish and Israeli societies come to terms with feelings of guilt; and the radical performance artist Liora Alshech, the soloist of the band Liora and the Schwarz Schwänze, is concerned with the themes of uprooting and immigration.
* In collaboration with the Goethe-Institut, Israel, in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of Israeli-German diplomatic relation.
Eyal Weiser deals with three different artistic perspectives about war. They are crystallize into a high peak, in the third part, where actual videos of bombings and IDF air strikes are being accompanied by a distorting absurd poetry that tears the pictures out of their horrible context.
Theater der Zeit | Kerstin Car
“HOW'S THE BEAST?" - ISRAEL FESTIVAL
Where Three Roads Meet
Three episodes devise Eyal Weiser’s “How’s the Beast?”, a prominent Israeli-international work that premiered in the 2015 Israel Festival.
Even after its 60 minutes and the hours that have since passed and to the writing of this article, I’m still unsure that I’ve come to terms with its maneuvers, let alone deciphered them. However, I can say with all certainty that it has a clear anti-war message, and moreover, a political stance that stands out beyond the aesthetic and artistic challenges it poses itself and its audience.
Much like in his two previous pieces, “Mein Jerusalem” and “This is the Land”, that along with “How’s the Beast?” create a fascinating trilogy, Eyal Weiser doesn’t choose the easy path either for his material or for that of his three “fictitious collaborators” – Agnieszka Tz'zak from Poland, Uriah Rein-Merchav, a German-Israeli, and Israeli Liora Alshech – who, during operation Protective Edge, have allegedly worked together to create a show that combines disturbing dance, video art, personal texts and soundtrack. Weiser creates detailed, fictional, credible biographies for all three, as is specified in the playbill. Their starting point for the show was the phrase: "If Germany is the 'abuser father' which initiates the final solution and Poland is 'mother Earth', which contained the atrocities, Israel is the result of this sin; the 'sick baby' that was born from this rape case." This highly charged sentence appears in an article dealing with Israel’s policy in Gaza and whose title “Where Three Roads Meet”, references the tale of Oedipus Rex. It is perhaps redundant to mention that both the article and its author, Oliver Tall, a writer in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung are part of the list of fictitious elements that Weiser creates for the purpose of the show that the three artists put on in an attempt to examine the complexity of the triple relationship Israel-Germany-Poland, the normalization of their relationships and the collective narratives that have been embedded in them since WWII.
A Swarming Beehive
First on is the Polish Agnieszka Tz'zak, portrayed by Sylwia Drori in text and Tamar Lam in dance while in the background a video of Yad Mordechai’s beehive is playing. In an episode titled “Sometimes I need to walk far away from where I am to see myself”, Tz'zak creates a sort of confessional show, examining the coping mechanisms of both Israeli and Polish societies with guilt. I was intrigued by the video of the hundreds of bees and so hardly noticed Lam’s movement on stage; Nor did I understand at the time the concept of dressing Drori with a dog collar, one that is put on dogs after surgery to prevent them from opening their stitches. But after further thought – and that in itself may attest to this piece’s major potential – the canineallegory and its Polish moral finally hit me. In the second episode, “White Lie”, which is a video filmed in black and white contrast and a blotch of red on the character’s lips – the character being Geman–Israeli video artist Uriah Rein-Merchav, born in Kibbutz Mishmar Ha’emek, whose father was killed in Begin-Sharon’s Lebanon War. Uriah is portrayed by actor Max Wagner (a German performer who isn’t fictitious, as were the first two performers and the third in the next episode) and he does so with magnificent inter-gender accuracy when he lip-syncs (his mouth is moving, but the voice belongs to a German actress) the diary of his mother dealing with the dependency between victim and victimizer.
A Chilling CryIn
the third episode, “The Desert of the Real”, Adili Liberman portrays with great persuasion the character of radical performance artist Liora Alshech, lead singer of the band Liora and the Schwarz Schwanze, who tackles the modern terms of detachment and immigration. Throughout her scene comes a bit that by pure coincidence may be dedicated to Israel’s new ministers of arts and education, Miri Regev and Naftaly Bennett, despite the fact that it was created before what seems to be a process of political and financial drying out of Israeli culture. This episode is compiled of a video chronicling IDF’s aerial, land and tunnel operation during “Protective Edge” and the text of Steven Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds” based on the H.G. Wells novel. The contrast between what we see in the movie and the what we hear Liberman say, followed by her chilling cry, were the clear ending and summation of Eyal Weiser’s creative efforts in this piece.
The list of non-fictitious partners to this piece is long, intricate and impressive, and each person on it deserves a compliment for the creativity that helped Eyal Weiser to construct, yet again, an event that’s a true accomplishment in terms of its elaborate complexity.
It’s not easy to watch, it’s not entertaining and its meaning is pressed into the 60 minutes allocated to it. And yet, one should congratulate the Festival for including it in its program, even if not on the main stage, with the support of Goethe Institute, marking 50 years of diplomatic relations between Israel and Germany.
Abama Internet Culture Magazine | Zvi Goren
ROUSING THE BEAST
Eyal Weiser became infatuated with the aesthetics of war, especially as reflected on the screen. In the process of working on his new performance, "How's the Beast?", created in response to Operation Protective Edge ("Zuk Eitan"), the playwright/director collected hours of war footage – including aerial shots of Iron Dome, IDF photos, American drone photos, and more – only to discover that when stripping them of their horrendous significance, their grotesque and nearly psychedelic beauty can be nothing less than addictive.
When these militant images are projected in sequence on a giant screen as part of his performance - which premiered at the last Israel Festival and is returning to the stage this weekend (at Jaffa's Mandel Cultural Center) - they are especially potent and seductive. For instance, the night-vision image of a bomb's mushroom cloud transforms into a noxious greenish Rorschach stain, and missile projectiles seem to become fireflies in a black sky, particles of light that slowly descend, like hypnotic rain, onto the urban landscape.
Beside the screen is a fictitious female artist who analyzes the images, using the pointed terminology of art critique, which serves to enhance the irony. "I find these photos amazing, in their abstraction," says Weiser, 40, one of Israel's leading fringe artists, "especially the aerial shots." Their beauty is only part of the manipulation, he says. "Aerial shots allow monitoring and control. Like Big Brother. These photos were meant to show the greatness of the IDF through a defensive and heroic filter. They are accompanied by canonic texts about the righteousness of the operation, about how the war was triggered by the death of the three soldiers and for their sake, that there are attempts to protect civilian lives, and so on."
The shooting angle provides a point of view which is inaccessible to the common citizen, Weiser continues. "You can shoot from above only if you have power and money. Meaning, if you're a country. The satellite image says: 'this is how I make the rules' – a really effective deterrent."
Therefore, the angle is a manipulation: "there's something in aerial photography that ignores individual lives – the citizens who actually undergo the horror. On the other hand, it makes us feel more in control, more in supervision. Beyond that, and what's most horrific, is that they are simply very photogenic and tough to resist. The lighting is artistic; there is passion in these photos. They expose our passion for destruction and the vitality that emerges at the sight of ruin."
Weiser uses his fascination with war footage to say something about war in general and specifically the Gaza war last summer, as well as something about silencing and repression. After all, the results of this war, the destruction and ruin, the victims on both sides and the anxieties entailed – these all disappeared from public consciousness almost magically, and even if mentioned in the context of noting the first anniversary of that war, it was only in passing. The war has sunk into the abyss, covered by the trend of the times and by other conflicts.
"To me, what was most frightening about 'Protective Edge' was knowing that we're living on borrowed time," says Weiser. "The next war is just around the corner, it's only a matter of time. Evil lies ahead. The conflict will come. I think the tunnels were the climax. You live your life; you know how to prepare for one-on-one battle or aerial combat. But suddenly you realize that the threat is below ground, right underneath your most basic existence. And immediately after you are engulfed by the terrible fear in that discovery, the question arises of whether you can create a large ghetto and expect its inhabitants not to want to escape."
Weiser recognizes a strong mechanism of repression designated to dampen those fears and prevent them from surfacing. "I have no doubt that the goal is repression. There is an absolute truth that has taken over our public sphere: that the war is right. There is something very disturbing in doubt or unresolved questions. And now more than ever, the people here are unable to contain unresolved questions, reaching repression at its extreme. They have completely forgotten what happened last summer. That's strange. I do not believe in repression as a way of life. To me, a place that is deterministic is a dangerous place."
Weiser goes back to the IDF's photos of exposing the tunnels, projects them on screen, but makes sure to create a distance, even a parody, by accompanying them with a narrated fictional text he wrote as a tribute to Orson Wells' legendary 1938 radio sketch (based on H.G. Wells' "War of the Worlds"). That sketch created the illusion of a real report about Martian aliens infiltrating Great Britain through underground tunnels, and generated public panic. By making this connection, Weiser showcases the absurd discrepancy between the reality of a moment (the war) as it happened mere moments ago and its repression as if it were a figment of the imagination.
Weiser continues to use various artistic means to show the panic-tinged idolatry Israel and the West in general has for wars, displays of power, and violence. Our enthrallment with war, he claims, leads to its commemoration, to its repetition as a self-fulfilling prophecy, like a spell or a curse that cannot be lifted. That same curator / learned scholar that appeared at the beginning of the war footage screening, played by Adili Lieberman, appears again, this time wearing a metallic bodysuit that is a clear shout out to sci-fi, and practices various Yoga positions as a sort of ritual prayer to an unseen God. Her movements increase in velocity until she undergoes a transformation and symbolically becomes a creature. The performance ends on a gut-wrenching beastly growl of the creature-woman, with the pixelized images in the background. When she concludes with a wailing sob on a chilling note, there's something primal about it. At the end of its Israel Festival premiere, the audience was so overwhelmed by the powerful image that they seemed to have trouble getting up and leaving.
Weiser's insight on the passion for war was influenced by star philosopher Slavo Zizek's book "Welcome to the Desert of the Real". Among other ideas in his book, Zizek explains how the destruction of the World Trade Center was a cinematic aesthetic experience like those viewed in Hollywood disaster films, and therefore the catastrophe could not burst the American bubble. Zizek also claims that 9/11 was not the result of a conflict between Islam and the Western world, but rather an expression of an inner-cultural conflict. One might disagree, but his conclusion – that America provided the tools for its destruction – is interesting. "The question is whether our absorption with the aesthetic of war incites our passion for it," Weiser says.
In contemporary discussion of the visual conception of war, one cannot ignore ISIS' videos of beheading or destruction of art. "They have raised the aesthetic to the level of an art," Weiser says. "They cut off heads, but do so while taking camera angles into account. It's an aesthetic of evil, and it's important not to look away. This is our life. We are captives in this sea of images."
In the world of theater, there is the constant wondering about the disappearance of political plays from the Israeli stage and their replacement with entertainment. To paraphrase, one could say that one image as supplied by Weiser through his animal-woman as she gives birth to the agony of war is worth a thousand words, and it is only one part of a performance that is densely layered with meaning, in its three episodes that all reflect on war. At the center of each episode is the figure of a fictitious artist – a Pole, an Israeli, and a German, whose narrative relates to a story of war. The three are trapped in a cycle of guilt and victimhood.
The first episode revolves around Operation Protective Edge, as told through the diary of a Polish choreographer volunteering at a honey farm near the Gaza border during the war. "The thoughts of a Polish tourist in Israel, who has surrendered to anxiety after two sirens, three missiles and a selfie with the remains of a missile," she says. "I'm trying to understand who is to blame for all this shit." This is only one quote from Weiser's witty text.
One of the most prominent and thought-provoking images is that of worker bees in a hive, only to later die (taken by Hinda Weiss, who also served as artistic consultant). It inspires thought about civilians who dedicate their lives to a worthy goal, only to die in its name.
In the second episode, an Aryan-looking artist called Uriah Rein-Merchav steps into the shoes of his German mother, telling her story in first person. The mother came to a kibbutz (Mishmar Ha'Emek), fell in love with a local and had his child, whom he never saw, because he died in the first Lebanon War. Finally, the episode that uses the war footage, which to me was most powerful of the three, tells the story of Israeli artist Liora Alsheich, who lives in Germany and creates a performance out of internet data downloaded from the IDF Spokesman's Unit.
As an artist, Weiser deals with the material of reality, distilling it into images and symbols. He shoots directly towards his target. His previous work, "This is the Land", was an ironic counter-response to the Zionist Creation Award, and featured three artists whose works were rejected by the Award Committee. "I use fictitious artists as tools that enable me to investigate narrative, identity, and culture," Weiser explains. He chose to show narratives from Germany, Poland, and Israel, because "it is a bleeding triangle of guilt and victimhood. Whenever Israel refers to any external threat, the Holocaust is ever-present." In this performance as well, which deals more in visual arts than theater, he mercilessly draws the discrepancy between reality and its representation, and the resulting vulgarity, grotesqueness, stupidity and violence.
There are many examples of this in the current performance. Take for instance the video of Israeli soldiers dancing to a silly pop song on a battle site – an Israeli version of a viral clip posted by American soldiers in Afghanistan. "What we were interested in was the absurdity of war as displayed in an imitation of Britney Spears at a Qasbah in Gaza; as well as the Americanization that has infiltrated our culture and the IDF. It's a mad trend: soldiers at war try to ameliorate their frustration and anxiety, the pressure they feel while waiting, through these songs. They entertain themselves, and it grows into a viral trend. It's aesthetic, it's erotic, and it's absurd. The gap is inconceivable – you're fighting for your life in the name of an ideal, or a certain interest, and you're busy trying to retain your joie-de-vivre, an attempt to maintain your humanity."
Unlike Zezik, Weiser thinks that the Tel Aviv bubble certainly has burst in recent times. "If once we thought that perhaps there was a future here, now it is clear that there is none," he says. Weiser can see a direct connection between the war and its silencing, and the current of censorship that has developed in the media since the appointment of Miri Regev as Culture Ministress. "Another thing that was frightening about the war was how quickly everyone fell into step to justify it. That signified what was coming," says Weiser. "Anyone who cast doubt was immediately considered a traitor or a hater of Israel. If someone dared speak out in opposition, they were silenced with violence or with budgets. Israel has become a very scary place."
Weiser does not automatically side with the Left. "The Israeli Left has received a legitimate slap in the face, it's true," he says. "These are privileged people whose discourse is condescending and silly, and they are obtuse to the Right-wing public. But there are also those who work to uphold society, people who promote social agendas and dedicate their lives to activism, and of course, artists. One cannot silence those who create with their life's blood. One cannot silence the voice of criticism and doubt, and one cannot silence political art."
Weiser, who is known for his criticism of repertory theater, decided to uncharacteristically attend the recent Theater Awards only to observe firsthand the current trends in the cultural world. He was there when Gila Almagor spoke out against Miri Regev's statement that budgets should be re-allocated to the peripheral parts of Israel. "Gila Almagor did not say anything that was arrogant or incorrect," Weiser said. "For years she's been working, not for a great deal of money, and the attempt to claim that she's stealing from the public coffer, as if she were some sort of opportunist, is nothing but ignorant and reflects a complete lack of understanding. Nothing but violence. From the public response, I realized that there was a well-oiled PR machine at work – every sound bite said by someone from the Left is immediately stripped of context to become a weapon in the hands of the Right. It's unfair. Saying "de-legitimization of Israel" is a very strange way of phrasing things. If I create political art that is critical, meaning I have my questions about this place, does it mean I think Israel should not exist? I don't get it."
"There were violence and evil there," Weiser summarizes his experience of the annual theater celebration. "I heard things I could not believe were being said. It was scary. It's a new reality to which we must become accustomed, to understand. It's going to get very bad. Much more abrasive, more violent. And sometimes you have to respond in kind, to act out. But on the other hand, history shows that artists are weak and narcissistic people who seek approval."
The damage is done, Weiser says. "Fear has permeated everything. Artists are starting to ask whether the most elementary things are legitimate. There is confusion and a lack of orientation. In art, after all, you're not supposed to ask for permission." He believes that people must see the controversial film about Igal Amir – a film that was banned from the Jerusalem Film Festival. "He's a despicable murderer, but one has to see the movie. How will I know how to arrange my set of values if I don't see the profile of a killer, if I don't look evil in the eye? I base my moral code on opposition, too."
This week, "How's the Beast" will be performed at the Mandel Center in Jaffa, and in October it will kick off Poland's Konfrontacja Teatralne Festival. Weiser hopes that he will be able to run the show again, though it may be received as criticism of the war or of IDF soldiers. Weiser claims he has no fear, in spite of the current trend of censorship in Israel. Delving through reality and studying it are an integral part of his work. "To me, art is the space in which we are invited to investigate taboos. Only if you're a politician do you work in the sphere of reality. What will prompt you to think if you're not shocked? What will spark the wave that will change reality?"
Incidentally, Weiser has no problem performing in Ariel or any other settlement. "I'd be the first to agree to perform in Ariel, because I seek discussion, and I go wherever I'm asked. To me, the goal of art is to expose your truth to those who don't share your beliefs. To create a friction and thus perhaps change minds."
What is happening today in the cultural arena is "a type of vulgarity," he claims. "There is no sanctity. If there is any place that is completely secular, it is the stage, where there are no taboos. And on stage, you can even say something about IDF soldiers. If there are more and more taboos with which we refrain from dealing, I'm afraid it will be really boring around here."
Erev Rav Art Magazine | Tamar Rotem