Posted by: simonsteachingblog | August 26, 2009

Ruins as Political Images

In a recently published text related to their ‘Decolonising Architecture’ project, Sandi Hilal, Alessandro Petti, and Eyal Weizman commented on the decision taken by the Israeli government to destroy the Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip that were evacuated in 2005, observing that this destruction ‘was meant, amongst other reasons, to deny the function of this architecture as a political image.’ The ‘political image’ in question was that of Palestinians living in former Jewish homes, or transforming synagogues into mosques. As they suggest, such images would have reversed the process of occupation and colonisation through which Israel was created in 1948, when Palestinians were forced out of their homes to make way for new Jewish residents.

Demolishing three thousand formerly Jewish homes in Gaza may well have blocked the generation of dangerous images showing Zionism being undone, however, another result of this action was the creation of a landscape of ruins that itself enabled the production of other images potentially corrosive to the Zionist ideal. When translated into pictures these ruins carried connotations that are the opposite of conceptions of the productive creation of Israel as a modern society in an essentially empty land. Here was destruction instead of construction, despoilment instead of beautification, desolation instead of hope. These pictures also had the potential to generate other connotations related to the destruction of Palestinian villages and urban neighbourhoods in 1948 and after. Thus the ruins in Gaza opened up possibilities of metaphoric linkage to other ruins made in the creation of Israel over Palestine.

It was not only the news media that pictured the ruins of the Gaza settlements, but also artists. For example, the Israeli art photographer Gaston Zvi Ickowicz travelled to the former settlements in 2006 to photograph their remains. One photograph he produced is particular striking. It depicts a pile of rubble and other detritus in a sandy area topped by an Israeli flag. The latter seems to have been planted in an attempt to assert Israeli sovereignty over land ceded to Palestinians, yet it also sets up a pictorial dialogue between the rubble pile and the flag. Instead of topping a public building, army base, or a site of triumphal victory, the flag tops a scene of devastation wrought upon one of the creations of Israel. The symbolic implication is that Israel in the present, or, perhaps more significantly, in the future, is a space of destruction and ruination.

Gaston Zvi Ickowicz, Untitled (episodes from a settlement series), 2006

Gaston Zvi Ickowicz, Untitled (episodes from a settlement series), 2006

Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, Israel 1963

Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, Israel 1963

The pile in this photograph is resonant in an additional way in that it can be read in relation to Niza Yanay’s suggestion that national icons often involve vertical pyramidal motifs (Niza Yanay, ‘Violence Unseen: Activating National Icons’, Cultural Studies, Vol. 22, No. 1, January 2008, pp. 134-158): for example, the Iwo Jima flag raising photograph, or in Israel, Micha Peri’s photograph of the raising of the Israeli flag at Elat in 1949. One might also consider a family-snap taken in 1963 at the Yad Mordechai kibbutz that I picked up in a Tel Aviv flea market. This photograph shows a group of Israelis posed in four ascending rows in front of the statue of Mordechai Anielewicz, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising leader that was built in front of the remains of a water tower damaged during the successful repulsion of an Egyptian assault in 1948. The combination of the people, the statue, and the water tower establishes a pyramidal configuration that suggests the aspiratory values associated with the nation and signifies heroic resistance and defence against acts of military violence aimed at Jews. Zvi Ickowicz’s photograph seems to mock such motifs, presenting a negative image of destruction in place of the optimistic and proud image of the national community in microcosm. It is in this sense that the ruination of the settlements in Gaza paved the way for the creation of images that present alternatives to the icons that populate the Israeli national imaginary.

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