Dreams and Dramas from Israel. Philosopher and curator Roy Brand

An interview with Israeli philosopher and curator Roy Brand


Riga is about to host the largest exhibition of Israeli contemporary art ever presented in the Baltic States. Dreams and Dramas, organised by the art and culture platform , will bring the spotlight on contemporary Israel – its vitality, directness, vulgarity, fun, high dreams and deep dramas.

Curated by Roy Brand, an Israeli philosopher and curator, the exhibition brings together works by fourteen distinguished Israeli artists: Porat Salomon, Dor Guez, Nir Hod, Guy Zagursky, Noa Eshkol, Avner Ben-Gal, Sagit Mezamer, Erez Israeli, Keren Yeala Golan, Marik Lechner, Daniel Kiczales, Eitan Ben-Moshe, Sigalit Landau and Yehudit Sasportas. It will be on view from October 7 at the forthcoming Zuzeum centre for contemporary art in Riga.

Dr. Roy Brand is a lecturer in philosophy at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem. He founded and directed Yaffo 23, a centre for contemporary art and culture, and has curated numerous art exhibitions, among them The Urburb: Patterns of Contemporary Living (Israeli Pavilion of the 14th International Architecture Exhibition in Venice, 2014) and Bare Life (Museum On The Seam, 2007). His book LoveKnowledge: The Life of Philosophy from Socrates to Derrida was published in 2013 by Columbia University Press.

I met Roy a couple of months ago, and we spoke about the upcoming exhibition Dreams and Dramas, life in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and a world where no one has a true sense of security anymore.

Sigalit Landau. Dead See, 2005. Video. 11:39, loop. Courtesy of the artist

The exhibition Dreams and Dramas will be about contemporary Israel, but not exclusively.

Yes, first let me begin by saying that in this project I had the chance of being granted an almost complete autonomy to create something spectacular, dramatic, political, unpolitical, timely...whatever seemed best. A little bit like a dream – a dream factory. And the space, a former cork factory, is unique in itself, which made it both a challenge and a wonderful opportunity.

Secondly, it was crucial for me to keep in mind the context of the exhibition, and raise the question of why we are displaying Israeli art in Riga. Displaying any kind of art under a national heading is strange nowadays, be it Latvian art, Swiss art, French art. This always comes up at the Biennale in Venice, which is still organised around national pavilions. If you think about contemporary art today, it’s not really nationally based. The artists don’t think of themselves in such terms. They’re international artists, and they do work that is supposed to speak to everybody. However, there is something particular about the place that they come from, and sometimes this can come out. It’s not as if the work is about a certain place, but the place somehow provokes them, inspires them. Maybe it’s something that they want to resist, criticise or even avoid – it doesn’t matter. In any case, there is a presence of a culture and a place in the work, even though the aspiration may be completely universal, to communicate that specificity to everybody.

This creates an interesting tension. On the periphery, this tension between being local and looking out towards a cosmopolitan world is even stronger. If you’re Latvian or Israeli and you work in, say, New York or London, then this tension might be less palpable; you’re just part of the scene. But if you’re working in a smaller place and looking to communicate with everybody, that tension is always very present. In that sense, the presented exhibition is local – you will learn something new, and I hope surprising, about Israel – but it also speaks to many others by capturing a tension that can be felt here and elsewhere as well.

Erez Israeli. Ship of Fools, 2015. Ink on wood. 339 x 399 x 134 cm. Courtesy of Gallery Givon, Tel Aviv, and Gallery Crone, Berlin and Vienna

If you had made this exhibition elsewhere, such as London, would it have been different?

I think so. Obviously, yes. Part of the concept for Dreams and Dramas came from the space itself. I saw photos of the space, and I thought – wow, this is a very dramatic space. And it used to be called The Dream Factory, so I thought – aha, “dreams and dramas”, that’s good, that works together. I also remembered a large neon sign with the words “Dreams and Dramas” in rainbow colours by the Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone installed on top of the Herzliya Museum in Israel for his solo exhibition back in 2001. The combination of these two – dreams and dramas – somehow characterises the kind of art that is coming from Israel nowadays. It captures contemporary Israeli culture: lofty ideals, aspirations, ideologies, perhaps has that side of idealism. And, on the other hand, our everyday life is very intense, very political, vital, even carnal. I think anyone coming to Israel will sense this very down-to-earth vitality mixed with a sense of fantasy and self-creation. There’s a very productive tension between the two that I think is at the core of much of the art coming from Israel. You will see it; it’s there in the works of art, and that’s what the show is about.

Guy Zagursky. Untitled (White Totem), 2017. Carved wood with a metal ring. 30 x 30 x 200 cm

The artists are mostly Israeli and mostly young.

They are all Israeli, but some of them live abroad. Many of them have become very successful outside of Israel, so they are international artists who keep studios in cities like New York, Los Angeles or Berlin, as well as in Tel Aviv.

 How did you choose the artists? Have you collaborated with them previously?

The Israeli art scene is still relatively small, and I’ve been working in Israel for many years now. As a philosophy professor at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, I teach artists, critics and curators. I also do a lot of studio visits, and I write for Artforum International and local media about shows happening in Israel. So I’m in almost constant interaction with Israeli artists. Some of them are my friends – we grew up together. I know what they did for their graduation project, I know what they did for their first major exhibition, both in Israel and abroad, I know what they did at the Venice Biennale, at a villa in Copenhagen, or out in Los Angeles. I follow what they do, and many times I’ve gone to see their shows. So it was easy, in a way, to come up with the artists for this show. They’re also artists that I really love. If I had enough money and space, I’d have their works on my walls – all of them.

Will these be works of art made specifically for the exhibition?

Most of them are new works, although out of the more than forty works on display, only a few were made specifically for the exhibition. That’s partially the result of working with tight deadlines, but it’s also because, as far as I know, none of the presented artists have ever exhibited here before. So the idea was primarily to bring to this new space artwork that most strongly carried a sense of a unique time and place – or, as the subtitle of the exhibition goes, “intensities from contemporary Israel”.

Dor Guez. Sabir, 2011. Video. 19:37

I know that it was also important for you to include works by Palestinian artists in the Dreams and Dramas exhibition.

Yes. If you’re going to do a show about Israel, then you pretty much expect that people will talk about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which has been ongoing for many, many years… It’s so present in the media…but I have to say that I wasn’t very successful in that regard. Even though some of the presented work is related to the topic, there’s nearly no representation of Palestinian art in the exhibition, primarily because most Palestinian artists object to the idea of showing together with Israeli artists.

It’s one of the first things people here think about when Israel is mentioned.

Yes... People may also think about religion, history...but then there’s this: the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Of course, it is present – everywhere and all the time. But I didn’t want to make a show focusing solely on this topic, because there is already so much about it, and that’s not interesting. We wanted to relate to this subject from different perspectives, perhaps, or to consider it from an insider’s point of view, rather than looking at it from afar and reporting about it.

The conflict can be seen in various works of art. It is manifestly the subject of Dor Guez’s beautiful video work Sabir. You see on the wall a projection of a sunset – the beach, the waves, and the sun slowly setting. Against this visual background you hear a woman’s voice describing her life in Jaffa, the old Arab part of Tel Aviv. She tells the artist, her grandson, about her life prior to 1948, which is when the State of Israel was established, and the ensuing war – Israelis call it the War of Independence, whereas Palestinians call it The Catastrophe. She talks about how life was before this rupture, about a certain sense of peace and ease of living close to the beach in Jaffa. It’s a family story, and her narration weaves together different elements: Jewish, Muslim, Christian, newcomers and old residents. Jaffa used to be a very cosmopolitan town – it was the port, so it received many different influences. I wonder if visitors in Riga will notice that she switches between Arabic and Hebrew. The two might sound very similar. I remember that I was surprised when I suddenly realised I hadn’t noticed she was switching from one language to the other. The story flows flawlessly, it’s a bit like a lullaby, with the sun setting and the ripples of the water. The story is about catastrophe and exile, but the way in which she weaves everything together – the languages and the cultures – makes a wonderful tapestry of differences. And her art of storytelling, I don't think it exists anymore. People don’t know how to tell stories like that anymore. It’s the way that old people used to tell stories in older times…and it has to do, I think, with the way life was lived, made of multiple identities that cohabited more naturally.

Porat Salomon. Atlas, 2010. Marker and graphite on board. 105 x 60 cm

Because they didn’t have television…

Yes, they didn’t have all these electronic gadgets. Which says a lot about how you would integrate different parts of experience once upon a time, before media, before the internet, before we became so disoriented and confused because of our attention deficit. The world used to come together as a long unravelling story, but today it’s made up of different chopped-up fractions. You can jump from one to the other, but they don’t have time to integrate and grow together. We live in bubbles: “Now I’m happy [pop], now I’m sad [pop], now I’m depressed [pop], now I’m exhilarated [pop].” The transitions, the passages from one state to another, are important – the passages and transitions between identities, sexual identities, political identities, cultural identities, whatever… Those passages are increasingly less visible and less possible for us. “You are male,” or “You are Israeli,” or “You are Palestinian,” or “You are gay”... The identities are so fixed and rigid now. We may jump from one to the other, but it’s very hard to assume a multilayered and wholesome identity, at least so long as we follow the media and the ways it cuts reality into easily digested news bites.

Daniel Kiczales’ video, The Messenger, is also very relevant in that regard. It documents a live performance in which he plays the electric guitar while the muezzin calls for prayer from the nearby Arab village of Issawiya. The performance is repeated five times, from dusk to dawn. Each time is different, because they are both playing and singing live. Only the light changes as Daniel is standing on Mount Scopus, right next to the Bezalel Academy of Arts, and looks down upon the Arab village in occupied Palestine. The two spaces are so close and so far apart. The artist and the muezzin are not coordinated, they are not “playing together”, yet they manage to come together and create wonderful, different tonalities.

Daniel Kiczales. The Messenger, 2011. Video. 18 min.

The oriental and the Western musical scales are different (quarter-tones vs. halftones), so for Western ears the oriental music oftentimes sounds “off”. And it’s the same the other way around. In the work, these two scales integrate – without merging. Again, it’s a question of cohabitation and coexistence without erasing differences. It’s a tense, conflicted situation that can nevertheless yield beautiful music. This is art rather than politics, although of course it carries political ramifications. An artist can choose to express his or her views about the political conflict by making works that unilaterally and directly criticise the policies of the State of Israel, or the Palestinian Authority, or terrorism, etc. But isn’t that precisely what most of the media do and search for? “What do you think?” “Are you for them?” “What side are you on?” This either/or type of logic induces people into believing that this is the only option – you have to take sides. That’s a bit reductive. Let’s leave that to the media. Art allows you to get closer and live it from within.

How do you see the conflict between Israel and Palestine? Will it ever be solved?

I’m optimistic, but I’m an optimist. My sense is that most people from both sides want a peaceful solution. But we are all caught up in conflicting narratives. So part of the issue is to learn to tell new stories or learn to tell stories in different ways, ways that are more accommodating of multiplicities. Perhaps we need to move beyond the nation-state and recognise a basic human right to live and work anywhere on our shared globe. That might sound as unrealistic in Israel as it does in Europe or the US, but by now you already know that I believe that dreams can shape realities…

Is this a common topic of discussion, in general, in the art that comes from Israel?

In a filtered way, yes. If you ask Daniel Kiczales about his political views, I think he’ll identify with a left-wing standpoint that is very critical of many of the State of Israel’s policies. But as far as his work is concerned – you could read it a number of ways. Maybe it’s beyond political conflict, maybe it’s about how cultures come together, how different musical tonalities can coexist, maybe it’s about sensations. 

When he stands on top of the mountain, looking down, he is also commenting on the history of romanticism. That imagery of the heroic individual, seen from the back and facing sublime nature, is very characteristic of the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich or J. M. W. Turner. Only in this case, the sublime nature is not the mountains or the sea, but a political conflict. It is the Palestinian village.

So, there are different layers coming in: Daniel is commenting on the history of art, on the history of romanticism, which is also partly the history of colonialism. It’s how the West would look at “the other”. And Jews who suffered from this history now participate in it when looking at an Arab village. It’s a very complex story. And it’s the task of art to tell much more complex stories. What I’m trying to say is that, when we go outside of Israel, sometimes we are reduced to a political position. Of course, I have a political position, but I don’t want to be reduced to that political position. There are many different aspects to my life that are important to me, and I guess that it’s like that for everybody. I believe art is about being human and being alive – more than just an expression of a political subject with a political opinion.

Noa Eshkol. Interior III (In Memoriam), 2007. Cotton, rayon, synthetic fibres, polyester. 149 x 196 cm. Photo: Jens Ziehe, Berlin. Courtesy of the artist and neugerriemschneider, Berlin

How would you describe the vibe, the cultural scene, of Tel Aviv nowadays? I hear it’s very alive and buzzing with events and happenings.

I think it’s a perfect city now. It’s not too big, you can still walk through it and experience its different parts, yet it’s still not completely made or shaped; it’s a bit undone and messy on the fringes, which makes it very vibrant. It’s very cosmopolitan because it’s very mixed with people coming from different parts of the world: you can have Moroccan food or Eastern European food or any combination of those things, as they have become completely integrated, one into the other – you can have schnitzel in a’s very common...with hummus and vodka. That’s the street food now – everything mixed with everything. And it’s lively and fun. The same goes for the people, the colours, the shapes, and the inventiveness that comes along with it all. Sometimes it’s chaotic and disorganised, messy and creative like an artist studio. There’s this sense of improvisation and freedom in the city. And there’s also the beach, which is amazing – the Mediterranean sea is always warm and inviting. It has a very strong presence in Tel Aviv. Not a lot of cities have such a lively beach. You can go there anytime of the day to swim or drink a beer, or just to take a shower – because it’s hot. I do that a lot – if I have an hour between meetings, I can go to the beach for a swim, shower off the salt, and then I’m refreshed again.

I also have to say that Jerusalem is a very strong place. Everyone always raves about Tel Aviv, which is true, and I live there and I love it, but Jerusalem is also amazing. The two cities are only an hour’s drive away from one another, but they are worlds apart. When you reach the mountains surrounding Jerusalem, you feel this sense of religiosity and heaviness – the weight of history. It’s even more diverse than Tel Aviv, the difference being that most people keep to themselves and don’t mix. This orchestration of different ways of organising life, different ways of thinking in a very small place like the Old City, or like Israel in general, it’s pretty outstanding.

I’ve heard that in Israel, people know how to enjoy life, how to enjoy every day, because they don’t know what tomorrow may bring (in terms of conflict, violence, etc.).

Yes, they say that a lot. And maybe it’s true – live today because tomorrow you may die. It’s very present. There’s this sense of “dancing on the verge of the abyss”, because the world is not stable, and life is not guaranteed. This is also a part of Dreams and Dramas. It’s a dramatic and intense feeling. What I wanted to do with this exhibition was to communicate what it’s like to live in a certain space, at a certain time. What it’s like to live in Israel, today. But I think the same is true in many other places. We talked about the media, the fragmentation of experience, the politicisation of life… All these issues come into sharp focus in relation to Israel, but similar concerns are now relevant everywhere. This feeling of “live today” is spreading… We live in a time in which no one has a true sense of security, at least not the way it used to be. There’s no more job security like previous generations had, no more security in relationships, or even in relation to the climate – nothing can be taken for granted anymore. After a relatively long period of stability, the world is becoming very unstable.

Marik Lechner. Untitled (Time), 2017. Oil on canvas. 360 x 180 cm

In an interview for, the gallerist Noemi Givon said that Israel doesn’t play a big role in the international art market. Do you agree with that?

I think that, compared to the size of Israel’s population, Israeli artists do play a big role. We are just 8 million compared to America’s 300 million, so of course there are many more Americans on the international art scene. But some of our artists – many of them in this show – have been very, very successful outside of Israel, including some who don’t have any gallery representation, which might be what Noemi Givon was referring to. But I think that the gallery system is going through a crisis in many other places as well. The internet and the growing number of independent art initiatives and exhibitions, such as this one, make gallery representation much less imperative.

I think she was referring to collectors.

A lot of the collectors who buy contemporary art are interested in Israel not because they’re Israeli or Jewish, but simply because they just really enjoy the art. Most times the work is inserted into a larger international collection, where its meaning is no longer local or culture-specific. A collector can be equally interested in Gerhard Richter and Yehudit Sasportas. Of course, Richter’s work is specific to post-war Germany, whereas Sasportas’ practice is infused with a sense of Israel, which partially comes out in this show. But for someone else, that might not be the defining parameter; one can just appreciate the fact that she’s a spectacularly good artist whose work is also about deep unconscious energies and rational structures that are completely abstract and transcend any nationality. Most of the collectors and people who enjoy those works do not have anything to do with Israel. Similarly, I hope visitors who are simply interested in good art will come to see this exhibition.


Related articles