Those were the days. We knew there would be others. We sang about them to the knee-slapping tempo of a just, beautiful, sun-drenched society.
Oh, such nostalgia! A remedy for depression. A good reason to get up in the morning. To arise despite the memories, because they are jagged, unresolved recollections. Memory “brings you down”. But nostalgia softens: thoroughly masticating memory, kneading and molding it into familiar patterns, putting everything in place, dissolving the scars of history.
In the solo exhibition – “Shod Vashever” (Good Grief), Roy Menachem Markovich flirts with the nostalgic gaze by gathering local everyday items, street junk, the remnants of life: a mortar shell, a walking cane, furniture parts or metal scraps steadily piled high in the public space. These miscellaneous bits and pieces are assembled together to produce a series of small sculptures Markovich calls “miniments”.
The “miniments” are made of different materials and textures. They are leftover hybrids: keepsakes that breathe new life into our gilded past, making it a commodity. They employ aesthetic codes of bygone eras (with particular affection for the 1970s and ’80s). The result is reminiscent of Israel’s massive modernist sculpture and local national aesthetic. The miniature miniments are ironic and perverse counterproposals to the monumental sculptural art of that era. You could say Markovich creates the largest tiny sculptures in the world, producing a kind of “office artwork” or “MAMAD art” (as termed by curator and researcher Hadas Kedar). He makes “scaled-down monuments”, testifying in their tiny voices that yesterday’s tomorrow is not today’s reality.
The past is everywhere. We are surrounded by histories, remnants, and memories. We are vessels of memory; while reason makes us human, memory establishes our individuality. But memory is prone to blurring, to manipulation, and is easily distorted.
Memory is neither stable nor reliable. Every time we recollect something, we extract the memory and then store it anew after use. We reshape it according to our current needs, and the next time we recollect that very same memory, we will not recall the original, but rather its modified version. Memory is not a film you can watch again and again; it is a play that takes on diverse meaning as it is subject to the time and place in which it is staged. Each evening it is acted out anew for a different audience. Our memory is written and rewritten constantly, maintaining an unbridgeable span between what occurred, what we can remember of it, and what the “agents of memory” instruct us to retain.
This ability to manipulate memory – or the inability to do so – forms the roots of nostalgia’s existence, tasked with the social role of softening trauma. Memory’s repetitious character produces nostalgia. It transforms the bleeding wound into a scab, makes shock a tale of heroism. Unwanted details are omitted, the sharp spikes filed down to a smooth and tactile surface. Trauma disturbs order, while transmuting the memory of into nostalgia restores it.
In root of “nostalgia” is based on the Greek “nostos” (meaning homesickness) and “algos” (meaning pain). The term was first coined in the 17th century to describe the Swiss soldiers sent to battlefields far from their homeland. The yearning to return home was defined as an illness. In the intervening three centuries, the term underwent many changes: from a disease to a cherished melancholy, to coveting a past considered more complete than the present. The present is, quite obviously, uncertain, unstable, and directionless. Our now is the reason we distrust tomorrow. We no longer pine for a specific home, a place of windows and doors. We hunger for a world that may feel like home once again, as the world we live in seems to no longer fulfill that role.
Thus, nostalgia became a self-sustaining system. We do not miss certain times or places, we just crave – even eras that precede our birth. At this point, history is recycled into nostalgia the moment it is created. This is now a common life practice, a central element of our media environment. It is also a powerful capitalist leverage. The reason for so much nostalgia is the ever-present crisis, but when it becomes an established way of life, a channel for marketing, it needs to augment the crisis and sense of alienation in order to market ever more retro consumption goods to us, or recycled (better yet, seemingly recycled) products to garner ever more profits.
This form of nostalgia is object-based, and therefore remarkably lucrative. Past relics become current desires, ostensibly imbued with “olden day values” and childlike innocence. But the past these products actually represents is artificial and imagined, a story scripted to meet the broken needs or our present day. Nostalgia charges these items with significance, making the past a marketable commodity. Historical evidence – the links binding past to present – is replaced by a collection of mementos. There is no true trace of these elements in our reality, as they are just an assembly of fabricated images, pseudo-reconstructions, pieces of a fictitious bygone era.
About fifty miniments are scattered in the gallery space, pridefully erect. The miniment “Backpack and Walking Stick”, for example, encapsulates the entire Zionist ethos and pathos: the invitation to trek across the land like spies on the trail of the divine promise “…for I will give it [the land] unto thee”. To know the land by knowing the mountain and path, sensing it through your feet. To reach a place where the sun always shines. But the walking stick is now a wooden cane, far different from the shepherd’s staff one imagines, sadly upright from a mortar shell. The mortar is a familiar reminder of the 1960s and ’70s for many Israeli households, an artifact from mythological battlefields turned into a doorstop, or ashtray, or impromptu vase. A means of war become a prop of the setting of the everyday. Trauma that is always present, but is now desensitized, serving as an umbrella stand, or walking cane stand, or decorative urn to hold peacock feathers.
“Backpack and Walking Stick” and its 49 brethren fill up the space: pathetic projections, sculptures of impotence, flawed national pillars, dozens of examples of the ungraspable gap between an exaggerated sense of self-worth and the drab reality. Some are painted in opaque pastel tones, but the paint doesn’t tie in the various parts, but rather emphasizes the haphazard arrangement. Broken canes stood upright, made of scraps and installed on other leftovers also welded together: stands comprised of cheap plastic furniture, fragments of Formica tiles and parts of cabinets from the days when furniture was built to last forever. They are interwoven into each other – plastic table legs with wood shelves, occasionally wrapped in cheap felt fabric, providing the miniments a range of stages worthy of them.
The miniments and their stands are accompanied by a video work that also reveals the mechanisms of memory and nostalgia production – “Histotour”. Presented alongside the array of sculptures, it provides a seemingly home-made video tour of an (unspecified) German city. The voice of the photographer can be heard talking to us directly about the history of the place while roaming from site to site. The cunning combination of true historical facts with fictitious ones manages to harness the medium of video and the historical storytelling gestalt to activate our historical memory without anchoring it in any particular event. Here, as well, Markovich employs the mechanics of collective memory, and by omitting its origins he exposes the cogs and wheels of the truth-churning machine. In this way, he easily breaks the mold of the accepted documental lie, a fabrication one based on the intrinsic distance divorcing the documentary act from the reality that existed prior to the cameras arrival, the distance between natural and representational that we viewers habitually ignore.
The representations of memories Markovich brings before us are well mixed. Witnesses and testimonies, memory and obliviousness, grief and melancholy are intermarried. They deviate from familiar patterns, disrupting the mechanics of projecting the past into the present. They reveal the politics of nostalgia, designed to link the ideal image of the past with current authority structures (new and recycled). Consequently, we see that historical facts have long since surrendered to the sheer force of entertainment reality that is our universe. The result is a fantastical, synthetic performance that does not challenge us passive viewers, but stuns us with distractions while we ignore its superficiality. A fun show, appealing and seductive, one that opens the heart and enfeebles the intellect.
Within this system, where we function merely as observers (“culture consumers”), we experience a double shortage: that of the deficient present, and that of eternal exile from the idealized past, the past gone never to return. This sense of absence is what ignites the masses to flock after slogans that promise a return to past greatness, and allows leaders to peddle fear while somehow establishing we’ve “never been better”. These are not lies, merely “alternative facts”. And in a world where you can no longer definitively distinguish truth from bullshit, this mocking version of Markovich is a necessary act. If each one of us is a gun loaded with longings, our finger should be cocked on the trigger at all times. It should fire again and again, without pause. Until we understand that whether good or bad, there’s no going back. And there never was.
Like a ship towing a rescue boat behind it, so is the Israeli apartment umbilically linked to the “emergency space” of the MAMAD (or APS – apartment protected space).
The MAMAD is built according to a standardized protocol, per Homefront Command guidelines, always at least 9 square meters in area and made of a single slab of fortified concrete, without any beams or pillars. The idea for this room began with a 2007 government decision, determining that any new buildings in Israel must include a defensible room to provide protection for tenants against attacks when they cannot be alerted in time to find shelter in public bunkers.
The Israeli family does not leave the room empty throughout the year, and many find myriad functional uses for it. A space designated for times of emergency becomes a regular, livable space, transformed into storage, or a child’s bedroom, a home-based clinic, study or art studio.
This matter-of-fact treatment of a space dedicated to disaster raises many questions regarding the lifestyle of the Israeli household. The normalization process to internalize Israel’s constant security threats (and of Israeli society, always at ready for emergencies), is concretely tangible within the family space, with this particular room straddling the great divide. On the one hand – an internal and intimate space, and on the other – a space perpetually prepared against outside attack. This duality has generated intense interest in the aesthetic measures available to hide the disastrous aspect of the MAMAD, with numerous home design blogs and articles offering recommendations of MAMAD design options.
The artist and designer Eti Yakobi, for example, recommends “placing a padded sofa facing the MAMAD doorway, something soft and comfortable, so that the entrance is a calm area opening into the room”. Best would be a sofa bed, in case you need to spend the night there. A cabinet for foodstuffs and coffeemaker should be placed to the right of the door, in a corner hidden from immediate line of sight. Yakobi suggests treating the protected room as a space to design and decorate, presumably a method to silence the inherent dread it evokes. Yakobi and others believe that art and design can provide comfort to insulate against its built-in stress. For example, she explains that – “colors can have enormous impact on mood, either soothing or stressful”. She remarks that MAMADs should be painted with mild pastel tones, such as peach, mint or pale blue”. Feng Shui consultant Meirav Eichler, also interviewed at the time, does not recommend painting the walls white. “White is an alienating color”, she explains, “and so I recommend incorporating very light colors in gentle tones, such as blue, lilac or yellow”.
In contrast, the theoretical debate regarding MAMADs does not seek to blur boundaries or soothe. The exhibition curators and catalogue editors of “A Sheltered Homeland: The Construction of Civil Defense” (2011), Sheli Cohen, Tola Amir, Nir Rotem, Dafna Levin, and Ofir Zinati, express in the catalogue their misgivings of this extreme defensiveness so emblematic of Israeli construction. They claim that this over-protection is a self-perpetuating cycle: excessive protection breeds further excess. The heightened awareness of daily security threats “feeds into and strengthens the sense of victimization, which encourages a belligerent attitude that rejects any peace efforts of state leadership, a rejection that then spurs the need for further protection”.
Thus, the MAMAD functions as a kind of Israeli microcosm. It reflects Israeli society’s attempts to cope with the constant state of emergency that is its reality. And it is therefore relevant to ask: does the artwork presented in such rooms take part in these security efforts, focused primarily on blurring defensive elements, camouflaging an atmosphere of looming disaster? For Yakobi, the art in MAMADs is another means of disguising the sociopolitical content embedded within it: “To create an illusion of spaciousness inside a small space, you can dedicate one wall to artwork or wallpaper with open motifs, a horizon or a field with a pathway. The intimidating sight of the heavy reinforced door can be softened by extending the wallpaper across the door, so that it is swallowed into the space and no longer stands out”.
One could view the display of sculptures in “Shod Vashever” (Good Grief), Roy Menachem Markovich’s exhibition in the Herzliya Artists’ Residence as a “proposal of presentation” that addresses the small and protected space of the MAMAD, and the way in which it reflects Israeli reality. The abstract sculptures are presented on glass cases and bits of shelves, seeming at first glance as if fused together by chance in the daily clutter of home and office shelving. On second glance, the items are revealed to be meticulously selected, as if weeded out from the panoply of Israel’s peripheral streets and alleys: items from second-hand stores, old perfumeries and galanteries, flea markets and one-dollar shops, alongside things plucked off the streets (such as Ackerstein bricks and an ancient urn). The witty combinations of these elements testify not to “coincidence”, but rather “transience”.
In “Authenticity, Ideology, and Israeli Society”, Moshe Zukerman ruminates on –”What could establish ‘authentic’ art in a society so fundamentally heterogeneous since its inception, typified by such a marked gap between the national-ideological pretensions of its institutions, and the actual cultural practices of the diverse groups within it?” . Zukerman then adds –”A society established in such ‘inauthentic’ circumstances […] is not meant to create an ‘authentic culture’ […] at best, it has the means to create an authentic expression of its inherent inauthenticity.”
The transitory assembly of exhibition items, their impermanent materials, seem to reflect this “authentic inauthenticity” of the Israeli living space. The eclectic aesthetic creates a lexicon for remodelers: pebble and concrete rock with a nipple-handled kitchen cabinet knob, or a cluster of rocks riding a metallic medal stand from some sport event. Moreover, the sculptures appear as a funny reference to the tremendous momentum of creativity in the early days of Israeli sculpture, particularly the great monuments created by Israel’s most prominent founding artists and the generations of sculptors that followed: Shemi, Danziger, Kadishman, Feigin, and Tumarkin.
The haphazard-seeming connections between parts of items evicted from our daily life perfectly reflect the view so prevalent among many of Israeli art’s third and fourth generations. Following generations rejected out of hand the profound seriousness that epitomized our local art scene’s founders, so busy creating giant geometric shapes in tons of concrete and steel. In the history of European art one could easily find examples of using daily objects to express a place’s atmosphere, its standing and the markings of an era. One famous example is “The Ambassadors” (1533) by Hans Holbein the Younger, depicting two respectable figures clad in their finest, leaning on a carpet-laded cabinet. The top shelf holds celestial items, while the bottom displays worldly objects. In her book – “Art Within the Fields of Power”, Lea Dovev writes that – “the silks, furs, needlework, gold jewelry and polished stones are products of a system of labor, commerce, and credit. They were created through the fields of knowledge and art symbolized by the array of objects on the shelves. The first thing they convey is the economic power of their owners […] power, as evidenced [in the painting] is a tangible thing, very immediate, material and present”. Markovich’s gathering of sculptures can clearly be interpreted as such a tangible representation, concrete evidence of presence. Their miniature size and the relations of their components elude to the density, sparseness and urgency in which they were made. Their seemingly random links between each and every sculptural piece, and their presentation on home-made bases (also a product of this “junkyard” approach), establish a network of significant markers similar to that in Holbein’s work. And yet, while the ornamented artifacts in Holbein’s painting project a sense of wisdom and wealth on their owners, the vulnerability and bareness of Markovich’s sculptures are evidence of their origins as industrial castoffs ejected from the capitalist mechanism after their usefulness was exhausted. The use of “knickknacks”, their ad-hoc associations and DIY painting job expose the Israeli “instant-styling” attitude (eclectic ornamentation using broken bits, fabrics scraps, wallpaper and color), and the way it’s enlisted in the service of the national cause, camouflaging and masking catastrophe, facilitating the process of collective repression required to conduct life in a state of perpetual emergency.