Checkpoint Charlie, the third crossing point of the Berlin Wall, was one of the most renowned symbols of the Cold War. This is the place in which American and Soviet tanks faced each other in October 1961, armed and ready for the conflict finally resolved through negotiations of then US President John F. Kennedy, and his Soviet counterpart, Nikita Khrushchev. This is where Peter Fechter, one of the East German border guards, bled to death in the view of spectators and media cameras after trying to escape west.
Checkpoint Charlie set the imagination of the West on fire and was depicted frequently in books and espionage films: a dense drainage filter in the mass of scar tissue dividing Berlin, with the city residents as pawns in the hands of superpowers. It is not surprising that since the demolition of the Wall, this point has been recommended to tourists visiting Berlin.
Today, millions of tourists visit the site each year. They have their photos taken alongside the sign warning that “You are Leaving the American Sector”, near the guard post barricaded by sand bags, with actors in military police costumes (2-3 euro per photo). They buy military caps and shiny new Soviet military badges (probably manufactured in China) from one of the many stands there, or painted fragments of the original wall (astonishingly still available after decades).
Every element of the historical site is fake. The warning sign is a replica (with the original exhibited in a nearby privately-owned museum). Not a single one of the original building remains. The guard post is a kind of Disney version – in keeping with the rest of the site.
Who falls prey to this tourist trap? What bait does it contain to lure them in?
Tourist traps are designed to catch visitors looking for a local “authentic” experience, meaning a fantasy from home come to life, packaged neatly along with the underwear and toothbrush in your suitcase (who among us has been privileged to lay eyes on the actual Eiffel Tower, rather than its depiction in movies, postcards, or tourist pics on social media platforms?).
Tourists aren’t naïve. They know they are being duped. But they accept the trickery willingly, as it confirms a point: you are a tourist. You are not interested in reality – and reality has no interest in you.
Tourists are mobile, moving from place to place, protected by their foreignness. They are mobile in a world where mobility is critical for the survival of millions fleeing the terrors of war and climate change, knocking on the ever-dwindling number of doors in the countries of the West still open to them.
The world has never seen the scope of immigration, escape, and mass displacement we are witnessing today.
This privileged mobility of tourists is limited. For the most part, the limitation is self-imposed. You land in Paris, Prague, or Jerusalem, but the routes you take have long been paved and rutted by others and represent a tiny percentage of that country’s actual area.
Moreover, it is not just the tourist movement which is restricted, as the actual experience of each site is dictated by the pre-set and reductive visual cues permitted there. The tourist gaze is typically that of a consumer. It allows for contact with others, but never with the intention of breaking down the constructs of his/her personal world. The tourist gaze skims a surface made glossy and restrictive. Thus, the fantasy’s outer husk stands between the gaze and actual reality.
The exhibition “Always Duty Free” focuses on this search for the authentic within the continuum of recycled marketing images, presenting a range of options for movement (and life) under the tourist cover.
In a world where Bar Refaeli, Vladimir Putin, and Saddam Hussein have become images subject to equal measures of interest and attention, a world where multiplicity and diversity are framed in predetermined structures, the participating artists in “Always Duty Free” offer options of transience, aberration, and deconstruction. They present a way out through “bad” tourism.
“It’s just a crosswalk”
The most famous crosswalk in London, and perhaps the most famous in the world – is on Abbey Road, situated facing the EMI studios (now the “Abbey Road Studios”), where Ian McMillan photographed the Beatles crossing the street on the morning of August 8, 1969. The photograph appeared on the cover of the band’s last album, with countless variations and parodies to follow, along with innumerable tourist pics.
In fact, this is the only crosswalk in the world declared to be a preservation site, serving as a place of pilgrimage for Beatles fans. Many visitors, as stated, come to participate in filmed reenactments of the mythological image. This results, as you may expect, in serious disruptions to traffic, as this is an active road with cars driving through even today. An online camera was also installed to monitor movement around the clock, so that footage of family members and friends can be reviewed in real time from across the world.
Very few tourists know that the original crosswalk was actually several meters distant from its current location, moved during the 1980s due to changes in traffic routes.
The tourist moves within the safe range provided by the cliché – in contrast to the researching traveler, discovering worlds and clearing a trail towards the uncertain, the dangerous, and the unknown.
Artist Dana Lev Livnat left her home in 2013 to embark on an ongoing tour across the world. Her photography project is presented in Instagram under the heading “Permanent Vacation”. Every two hours, she shares a photo of the last day. Thus far, tens of thousands of photographs have been collected, a constant testimonial of her journey. Lev Livnat photographs people, foods, and buildings, her temporary living environments, and their transient or permanent inhabitants. The outcome bears no resemblance to a vacation album. Lev Livnat takes pictures constantly, amassing an archive of life. Tourism is the camouflage she uses to obscure the nomadic lifestyle she has adopted (the project title, therefore, must be read with some measure of irony).
Lev Livnat does not seek the security inherent in being a tourist, but rather the encounter with something new or foreign. Her journey is not time-restricted. Even when she goes “home”, to Israel, she is homeless. Her addressees experience her statically, through renewed status updates shared under the headings of hashtags. The project itself is lawless and homeless, already an act of defiance against the norms that demarcate the boundaries of our comfortable lives. But the photographs themselves are modest, filled with humor and basic humanity – a rare phenomenon in the world of Instagram, a platform that celebrates “personal expression” but is actually laden with cliché images so heavily filtered they have been flattened into uniformity. “Permanent Vacation” manages to salvage life from drowning on the surface.
Jennifer Abessira is not a nomad, but she does cross borders through linking images she photographs and compulsively collects, particularly from the internet. Close-ups of her immediate environment are joined to the glittering images taken from fashion magazines or reproductions. Abessira digitally marries the esoteric and private with the global, nullifying the hierarchy between canonic and arbitrary, ramming them together and forcing on them her own approach to order.
In “Always Duty Free”, Abessira presents images from the “Elastique” series (based on the song by Charlotte Gainsbourg), connecting past and present photographs, quotes, and images that the internet introduces us to on every random internet search. The artist’s method of coping with this profusion of images is to classify, reorganize, and link them. In Abessira’s hands, images accessible to all are transformed into the building blocks of a global, but also extremely personal, universe. The result is a cultural archive of an age that has lost its mannerisms, not pining for an authenticity that no longer exists. Abessira cedes attempts to find the source, and not does waste a moment bewailing its loss. Its echoes suffice for her to create images rich with meaning.
Abessira knows. The Earth is flat. It is comprised of engineered images refined using graphic software, images duplicated and disseminated, cloned, and cited. She has no interest in discussing the image inflation, or even the erosion of their potency as reliable testimonials. Rather, she delves into the possibilities of living a life on the surface. Her work is accomplished through simple digital means, available to her at any moment. She does not need a studio. The images are everywhere, and her life and body of work are one.
Rona Stern also collects images of daily life. She explores the aesthetic of cheap products, vain attempts to hide triviality under the guise of luxury. Stern deals in the evolution of iconic images that have lost their exalted status and their original ideological association to become mere decorations.
The sculpture “Paradise Lost” is a poster sagging down a shelf attached to the wall. The poster dangles down from the shelf to reveal a long waterfall surrounded by tropical plants. On the shelf (and the poster) is a round decorative stand with small perfume samples. Bluish light spills over both shelf and poster, providing everything with a hyper-realistic tone that resembles garden lighting set up for events. The title is obviously a reference to Milton’s “Paradise Lost”. For Stern, redemption may be thwarted, but the yearning for it is greater than ever.
Stern also presents two other works. “Relax-Nature Sounds-8 Hours-Waterfalls-Bird Songs-Sleep, Relaxation, Meditation and Study” is a sunset made of wire mesh, painted a thick industrial yellow. On the grid, serving also as a shelf, Stern has placed a tablet presenting another waterfall, part of an 8-hour video of soothing nature sounds and birdsong found so easily on the internet: a synthesized nature, cleared of insect bites and allergens. Some clip used as a crutch for meditation, or something relaxing in the background after taking Oxazepam. The tablet is hooked up to two cheap computer speakers, with a LED light mechanism and water. The birdsong operates a network of small fountains, bright with LED-light color.
The third work by Stern “Salame” is a video shot on Salame Street in south Tel Aviv, focusing on the “SuperZol” supermarket, decorated with murals of a sparkling, sunlit bay, a calm seaside view, and white ships in the distance. The pastoral landscape has been glued to the façade of a building in one of Tel Aviv’s weakest neighborhoods. The naïve wall painting, depicted on a street so filthy it almost carries its own stench, is complemented by flashing lights that illuminate the scene in changing colors. Paradise is here, in all the colors LED lighting provides.
“Don’t go there on weekends, it’s packed with tourists”
The village Giverny in Normandy, approximately 80 kilometers from Paris, is known as the place where Claude Monet, the founding father of the Impressionists, lived and worked. For 43 years, Monet painted the flower garden and Japanese water garden of the village, turning it into one of the most famous landscapes in Western culture.
These paintings provided the visual cues for the restoration of the garden (opened to the public in 1980) by the Claude Monet Society, restoring it to its original 19th century condition.
Reaching Giverny today requires boarding the train on the Saint Lazare station – also known because of a canonical Monet work – and legions of tourists do make the effort to visit. The garden is open to the public throughout seven months of the year, with an average of 500,000 visitors each season. For 10.20 euros, they get to visit the painter’s home, wander among the irises, tulips, and daffodils in the garden, and stroll the famous bridge laden with wisteria in the Japanese garden. One should note that movement through the garden is restricted to the central path, as other walkways are blocked. Photos are thus also limited, as you can take pictures only from the lane accessible to visitors.
Sasha Tamrin visited the place as a tourist, taking grainy pictures of poor quality. The plants in the gardens do not lend themselves to photography. The details captured are cliché and overly embellished (particularly with the accompanying soundtrack selected by Tamrin, opening with a Karaoke version of “I Just Called to Say I Love You” by Stevie Wonder). Moreover, every frame is crammed with tourists from around the world. Tamrin approaches them, compliments them, interviews them, and asks to pose for a photo alongside them – a mix between a genuine fellow tourist and a stalker. He also is dressed in tourist garb: gaudy and light leisure wear, accessorized with backpacks, pouches, cameras, smart phones, tablets, and exaggerated wide-brimmed hats. Tamrin sparks up conversations even with people obviously uninterested, asking trivial questions (Where are you from? or What do you like about flowers?), and provided with reserved generic responses. Most participate reluctantly, disinclined to volunteer any personal details.
Some tourists even complained to the local security guard, who approached Tamrin and clarified that while the garden and flowers may be photographed, visitors may not. Their lack of enthusiasm for conversation is easy to understand, but their choice to involve the guard is not immediately clear. In fact, as the scene unfolds, it seems Tamrin’s repeated requests not only disturb visitors, they directly clash with the tourist’s primary desire: that of not meeting others in any true sense, while simply sanctioning one’s place in the world by observing others. Any alternative option could raise to the surface the repressed contradiction between the fantasy of place and the actual place itself.
The tourist seeks to establish self-presence in a place through repackaging, usually by means of photography. He/she does not pursue experiences, but merely the memory of experiences. And such memories are already predestined to be cast in familiar molds, previously prepared forms of memory installed in their proper place, prior to any event occurring. On actually arriving to the event site, the tourist is faced with one inevitable task: filling it with preordained content.
Shining bright like Diamonds in the Sky
Very few people photograph the Taj Mahal from the side. You make the long journey to Agra, then stand in the entrance line for hours, and are finally awarded the famous shot – meaning, the view from the bench facing the building’s façade. The noisy clicks of thousands of cameras held by other tourists, taking the same exact shot, leave very little to the peace and tranquility this mausoleum was designed to inspire, memorializing an eternal love lost forever.
It’s not just the Taj Mahal: a vast deluge of images bombard us each day, every hour, a flood that leaves no time for reflection and is bent on sweeping us into the vortex of a uniform standard. The torrent limits the boundaries of our imagination and instructs us on what and how to think. It is established fact; we are not required to experience life, but to consume it. That is true globalization. Space recedes into the virtual dimension. The source no longer applies, the place no longer exists. From now, the pre-made synthesized echo must suffice.
Saddam Hussein’s image in the collage exhibited by Hanna Qubty is instantly recognizable, immediately familiar, as if we ourselves have personally arrived at the Sadat Airport in Bagdad during the 1980s. Although Qubty cut the portrait at the eyeline and repasted it, the figure’s identity is clear. Saddam Hussein appears without eyes, but the “Saddam” pattern is so ingrained, it abides even as this dominant feature is omitted from the image.
With this simple act of disruption, Qubty breaks the familiar, one-dimensional form. The temporal rift this creates in the ruler’s figure (one already exposed in its abject defeat) allows Qubty to shake clear this worn image. Thus, he reveals something about the dual attitude of Palestinian citizens of Israel towards this Iraqi leader, a loathed and vicious tyrant, and yet also a hero to the Arab nations for defiantly facing the Americans.
Nearby stands another portrait: Bar Halof (“Transient”) by artist Sapir Gal. This hyper-realist oil-on-canvas depicts the model – and brand – Bar Refaeli. This alluring and meticulous oil painting, based on an image from a lingerie marketing campaign, is Gal’s ongoing investigation into body, body image, and the body’s deterioration. The juxtaposition of this hyper-realist rendition against the flat synthesized original amplifies the call to consume when faced with a combination of the “Bar Refaeli” and lingerie brands.
The figure of Bar Refaeli stands at the center of the painting, sultry eyes looking ahead, and the standard breeze playing with her hair. Her posture seems odd and unnatural, its only obvious intent to display her breasts in a pushup bra (the bra exceeds its traditional role of simple support to now provide new representation).
Gal takes the generic original and pumps up the volume. She sanctifies the surface, as it is the only thing left to us. That, and super-sized images. A tourist arriving today at the Ben Gurion Airport may mistakenly assume that Bar Refaeli rules this country.
Race does not Exist
The video by Pascal Lievre La race n’existe (“Race does not Exist”) presents a black-and-white 3×4 format of a female figure singing in French. The figure is reminiscent of old footage of Angela Davis, a revolutionary social activist who has fought for racial and gender rights in the US and beyond since the 1960s.
And yet, even those unfamiliar with the reference to Davis will find it easy enough to orient themselves in the right era. The photograph format and Afro hairstyles ensure instant recognition. That’s the power of Retro – that nostalgic look that empties away the facts, leaving behind just the style, now divorced from the conditions and social reality that created it. The Black Panthers also had style.
The woman croons her lyrics to the music of “Diamonds” by Rihanna, also immediately identifiable. However, this is no French cover version for the well-known original song. The lyrics are actually those of the philosopher Achille Mbembe, based on excerpts from his book “The Society of Enmity”, published in 2016. The words can be heard throughout the entire gallery, becoming the soundtrack for the whole exhibition – Race does not exist.
Lievre solders together familiar patterns of past and present, but this impossible merging enables him to utilize their power merely to break them. If race does not exist, what is the source of racism? Where did the division between the underprivileged and overprivileged originate? How did we come up with a system that allows some people to roam freely, joyfully – while others are forced to flee for their lives and often lose their lives entirely.
The figure of the tourist is one of bourgeois comfort, but this fortunate status exceeds the bounds of fun and frolic. Behind this figure is the invisible privilege of satiation and survival.
The global gaps between those few who can and the countless many struggling for their lives are now expanding before our eyes. These gaps often result from the far-reaching environmental impact paid by the developing world as it satisfies the ravenous consumption and energy demands of the developed world. The tourist space demarcates the borders in which one is shielded from this reality. But the effort is in vain. Much as we try, there is no golden beach or global city we can visit without absolving ourselves of any responsibility or involvement, whatever the case may be.
Others are not objects, but the tourist representation games seeks to make them so. The “authentic” tourist experience makes local residents into archetypes, and local landmarks into selfie shots. Everything is consumable. Everyone is at our service.
Tourism is the consumption of otherness, and now we are called to abandon it. We are to search for possibilities of life, not just the consumption of a receding space, hiding behind its artificial representation.
Discovery was replaced by the journey.
The journey was replaced by tourism.
And tourism has taken hold of mobility to fabricate a simulation of enjoyment.
We are all tourists in quest of the appearance of authenticity, plodding the beaten tracks laid to prevent any possibility of authentic experiences.
The entire span of history and every stretch of this world are nothing but the backdrop waiting for your mobile phone to click.
Don’t forget to visit our gift shop on your way out.