Whose Land is It?
In her on-going multidisciplinary project, "The Road to Ein Harod," Efrat Galnoor tracks the journey undertaken by Raffi, the protagonist of Amos Kenan's novel with the same title. In a series of exhibitions and events, she raises political questions about borders and freedom of movement, and looks reflexively at the way space is constructed by way of stains – an act that questions not only what you look at, but how.
"The Road to Ein Harod '' is artist Efrat Galnoor's on-going, multidisciplinary project, which started in September of 2017 and would end in January of 2020. It comprises several exhibitions and events in various locations throughout Israel – a journey tracking the locations visited by the protagonist of Amos Kenan's novel, The Road to Ein Harod (Am Oved, 1984). The multiplicity of sites, mediums, and actions might seem to interfere with the reading of the works as a comprehensive language, but recognizing multiplicity in Galnoor's work over the years as a single process that starts with direct painting and the use of stains, will present it as a political possibility of creating a space of multiple possibilities – a space of freedom – especially in relation to the novel's narrative.
Raffi, Kenan's protagonist, is a rebel attempting to reach "Free Ein Harod" covertly after a Zionist military Junta has taken over the country and ejected its Palestinian population (they were banished to Mecca, according to one character in the book). Raffi embarks on the journey and tries to avoid encounters with other people. However, he kidnaps a local inhabitant, Mahmoud, to serve as a guide and lead him through hidden paths. Mahmoud becomes his main companion on the journey. Several other figures join the pair later on.
Galnoor's exhibitions are presented in geographical areas that generally mark Raffi's journey: Tel Aviv, Herzliya, the Triangle area, the Sharon, Wadi Ara, Ein Harod and its environs, and Megiddo. Accordingly, her journey begins in a Tel Aviv apartment, belonging to the collector and gallerist Oded Shatil, which since 2016 has been functioning as Liebermann 8 Gallery. From there Galnoor moved on to the Herzliya Artists' Residence (May 2018), Tapuah 'Pais' Space Center in Taibeh (March 2019), the art gallery at Kibbutz Giv'at Haim (October 2018), the Umm al-Fahm Art Gallery (April 2019), and the Mishkan of Art, Ein Harod (April 2019). The project is due to be finalized with an exhibition at the Afula Municipal Art Gallery, in February 2020.
During this period, Galnoor performed multiple subtle activities: walks, conversations, still and video documentation, notes, and sketches. These activities have led her to create work in various mediums: painting, drawing, ready-made installation, murals, video, and photography, as well as a Web site accompanying the exhibitions.
During her long career, Galnoor created various visual works, principally paintings, and most share a painting method based on looking from a specific, situation-related viewpoint, which involves laying down smudges, side-by-side, directly registering an impression of what the eye sees at a particular moment in time. The method, called "color spots," was developed in the early 20th century by Charles W. Hawthorne, and later fine-tuned by Edwin Dickinson.1 Galnoor became familiar with the method during her studies at Israel Hershberg's Jerusalem Studio School. Like the direct, realistic painting of the 19th century, such as Gustave Courbet's or Manet's, Color Spots advocates the deletion of all previous knowledge about the subject and focusing on the here and now. But unlike 19th-century realistic painting, Color Spots does not aim at describing the object in detail, being interested in freeing the eye and training it to see the objects of observation as stains, shades, and hues, rather than formal details. With Color Spots, the painter abandons prior knowledge about seeing and the construction of a painting through drawing or a systematic laying down of colors. All academic methods are cast aside, even those based on "impressions," such as Impressionism and Pointillism.
This issue is not a specific style of painting, but a tool for painting from a direct impression. Thanks to the laying down of spots one next to the other, possibilities emerge that could not have drawn attention otherwise, such as the focus on which color is darker, or which tone is warmer. This kind of operative observation might be similar to Gestalt psychology, which appeared in Germany in the early 20th century. It proposed that humans tend to perceive reality as whole forms rather than as isolated details, in what might be called "a tendency to complete."2 Similarly, according to Color Spots, various 'secondary' elements in the observed object, such as sub-hues, which are not perceived as meaningful in an ordinary observation or a quick glance, are swallowed up in the tendency to compete, the tendency for wholeness, thus creating a form that is understood as a whole object, with boundaries.
The Color Spots method invites the question – what is being seen? It trains the eye to look without narrative or notions, in an attempt to discern the secondary elements that make up the image perceived by the eye. The result is, sometimes, a painting that seems to be fully abstract, with uncertain borders between the different colors. This kind of looking is an expression of the here-and-now of the painting, which only the painter can provide. Thus even though Dickinson places a great emphasis on looking and seeing, viewers might find it hard to identify a distinct image with defined shapes while looking at such a painting, ask themselves what they are seeing, and wonder what was the painter's object of observation.3
Galnoor takes this approach in her work, but she broadens it to include psychological meanings, as well as political ones, and therefore she contradicts it (because of the conceptual expansion that goes beyond the perception true only to the here-and-now). Either way, her conceptual expansion would not have occurred without the color spots and the acquiring of impressions. For instance, in the years 2005-2007, she painted urban locations in Israel, using only spots of pink tones: kindergartens, junctions, and empty building sites. Sometimes the spots build the image, and at other times they seem abstract, taking over parts of the canvas, or they might seem as spattered stains. In Galnoor's work, then, the spots behave in two contradictory and complementary ways: one constructs the space in three dimensions (in colors and hues) while the other deconstructs it, thus flattening the space back into two dimensions (a solid stain).
The manner in which the space is constructed in the painting, as a reflection of another reality that hides below the surface, is something Galnoor has been working on for a long time. In a conversation with Meital Raz she said: "For many years I have been addressing landscapes and asking questions about what it means to be a landscape painter in Israel – what is it that you are looking at, whose land is it, and what is landscape anyway?" The landscape bears political significance in this region, being one of the main building blocks of the pioneering Zionist ethos, which seeks to cultivate the land and make it thrive.4 Control of the landscape is, of course, at the center of the ongoing violent conflict. In Kenan's novel, this control has become absolute, and the possibility of a free, direct, and critical impression does not exist any longer.
In her following of Raffi's trail to free Ein Harod, and also because of the reflexive nature of the Color Spots tradition and direct Realist painting, Galnoor casts a reflexive gaze also on herself and the construction of space through stains – an action that asks not only what you look at but also how.
The conceptual expansion of the color spots, as something that simultaneously constructs and deconstructs and creates a link between a concrete smudge and a mode of looking, becomes, for Galnoor, an important quality of painting in general. This happens often in the series of exhibitions "The Road to Ein Harod." At Givat Haim, for example, she presented an installation of 12 food-trays hung on a wall, on which she painted various locations throughout the kibbutz. Painting on the trays created a sense of urgency and speed as if at the moment no papers or canvases had been available, but the urge to create immediate experience of direct painting was there. The Color Spots method contributes as well to the experience of immediateness, which is evident in the brushwork and the stains that testify to a quick impression of the kibbutz's surroundings - reminiscent of Color Spots method exercises, designed to train the eye to see stains and colors. A large painting was displayed on a nearby wall, showing two water towers in yellow contour over a large, two-dimensional, formless red stain, which takes up most of the canvas. As in the paintings on the food-trays, here too a structure can sometimes be discerned with the help of the contour, while the flat, red stain conjures up subjective associations, perhaps because of its Rorschach-like appearance. The water towers are politically significant in the history of Zionism's gaining control of the land. "Several of the towers have become landmarks over the years, like monuments (…). In most settlements, they were used as watchtowers, and as links in the communications chain through signaling. (…) [For that reason] already in the 1920s the water tower was already present as a motif in Israeli painting and in the local literature (…) as one of the central symbols of Zionist settlement."5 Moreover, the yellow contour used by Galnoor to outline the towers might suggest a similarity to a different type of towers in Zionism's visual history: "Wall and Tower" – as projects common in the late 1930s were called, involving mostly kibbutz communities. The goal was to quickly build Jewish settlements (usually in one day – building a fence and a tower out of wooden planks) in order to set them down as facts on the ground - taking control of the land to expand the borders of the future state. Wall-and-Tower structures are not round, like the water tower in the painting, but, like them, the painted ones are hollow and have a background, standing out thanks to the bold contours outlining them. Together, they and the kibbutz food-trays create political and personal significance, also because it is about serving food equally to the members. Food and water are, of course, essential to life.
The transformation of the color spot, from a tool for structuring space in the painting to the social and mental realm, occurs when Galnoor's spots travel between mediums. At the Herzliya Artists' Residence, the transition is from the painting to video and folk tales. Galnoor showed two video works: in one, she is sitting with her daughter by the Sidna Ali mosque, in the ruins of the temporary housing that had been constructed on top of the demolished village of Al-Haram, telling her a Zionist-inflected story about the sudden appearance of the Evening Primrose flower on the Mediterranean eastern coast in the late 19th century (the work was also shown at Liebermann 8). In the second video, set in a pastoral scene, she talks about anemones, “red buttercups, and poppies, a bright tapestry long thought of as a metaphor for fallen soldiers," in the words of the show's curator Ran Kasmy Ilan). In both works, Galnoor employs the form of educational walks and tutorials, central components throughout the generations to disseminate love of the land. The red and yellow flowers and the fallen-soldiers metaphor are reflected in the red and yellow stains in the paintings. The works hang close together, covering the entire wall. The painted spots come in different shapes: describing details, splattered on, or suggesting a Realist painting. The various painterly idioms used and the different platforms, Kasmy Ilan writes, "take over the gallery walls, their edges merging together like a patchwork quilt, constituting an uneven and inevitable façade of the local landscapes."6
In Kenan's novel, the wide-open spaces are blocked: border crossings, sieges, and military forces on constant patrol. Consequently, Raffi and Mahmoud must escape silently. In Galnoor's project, the spaces seem open, but they raise political issues of borders and freedom of movement. In one of the stations, Galnoor marched among communities – the village of Meiser, Kibbutz Metzer, Mitzpe Ilan, Barta'a, Umm Reihan, and Umm al-Fahm. After her stay there and the various encounters she had experienced, she made three paintings, which were shown at the Umm al-Fahm Art Gallery. One is of an impression of Mitzpe Shalom, a lookout point above Umm al-Fahm. The place was intended to be a tourist attraction, but had been demolished "due to the absence of permits, since Arabs may not build anything within the 50 meters (or so) adjacent to the road, for reasons of security."7 A second painting was made in a zoola (a shack to relax in) situated between Barta'a and Mitzpe Ilan. "Barta'a – a town that is half in Palestine and half in Israel. Mitzpe Ilan is a relatively new settlement within the Green Line, intended to enhance Jewish presence in the area."8 The third painting is an impression of a charcoal-making shop in the town of Umm al-Fahm, "one of the few which are still active."9 The town was named after its almost extinct charcoal (fahm) industry. Charcoal is a primary tool for drawing in stains, creating "dirty" zones (the dictionary definition of "stain") on the flat face of the paper.
In these three works, as in the pink ones from a decade before, the landscapes are unstable, put together from color spots; some are red and appear to have been squirted on. They call up connotations of blood, of a lifeless, undefined situation. The absence of people from the painting stands out, same as in the novel, which describes a place from which the residents have been expelled and where others live in hiding or under curfew.
Galnoor connects the color spots that make up the painting's space and the non-verbal associations of the stains. To a large extent, the concrete artworks are not of the essence here; it is the artist's act of looking while building the painting as a series of questions (the stains) laid side-by-side. These are questions about the place, and perhaps she employs them to try and give back to the viewers a direct, non-mediated experience of the painting, hoping it might generate feedback from the user back into the conditions of the present, to the boundaries of freedom and of oppression, movement, consciousness, and criticism.
This option does not exist in Kenan's literary present, where the military determines the boundaries of thinking and expression, and the subjects reduce their capabilities of subjective impression since it is not possible in a space where existence is only for Jews (and even they must adapt to the mind-frame of military rule, and – perhaps - bureaucracy and politics). Quiet, reflexive contemplation, which generates unique, critical, and original insights that ask how the landscape is constructed – such as those in Galnoor's works – threaten the regime because they are an expression of a free spirit, entirely individual, loyal only to personal impressions and nothing else.
The current situation in Israel is not yet quite like the novel's dystopia, in which all the Palestinians have been driven away and only Jews remain. However, dystopian works often address an extreme condition of the reality in which the readers or viewers live. It appears that the ongoing denial of the rights of the Palestinians, the increasing deterioration of the civil status of Israel's non-Jewish citizens, and, recently, the violent expulsion of children of guest-workers, come very close to it. These are examples that prove the rule. The importance of Galnoor's project lies not only in her final products but rather in the very possibility of producing them.
- 1. Francis Cunningham, "Color-Spots, Form, and Space", Linea: Journal of the Art Students League, Vol. 4 No. 1, Winter 2000.
- 2. Shraga Sarouk and Galia Rabinowitz, A Person in Full: the Challenge – Gestalt Psychology in Everyday Life, Yehoshua Orenstein, Yavne Publishing LTD., Tel Aviv, 1893' p. 9.
- 3. See, Ibid, Cunningham, supra note 1.
- 4. Tali Goldshmid, "The Dystopia of Zionism: a Reading of the Road to Ein Harod by Amos Kenan, Gilui Daat, Vol. 2, July 2012 (pp. 33-56), p.40.
- 5. Rivka Nachmani Shusterman, "The Development of Water Towers in the Land of Israel," from: Water Towers in Israel 1891-1993. (Editor: Mordechai Omer) Tel Aviv University, the Genia Schreiber University Art Gallery, Tel Aviv, 1993(pp. 9-32), p. 9.
- 6. Ran Kasmi Ilan, Outlining the End of the World, from: Exhibition text, The Road to Ein Harod - The Coastal Spray Zone #2: Efrat Galnoor, Artist Residence Herzliya. May 2018.
- 7. From e-mail correspondence with Efrat Galnoor, August 2019.
- 8. Ibid.
- 9. Ibid.