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Masada, 2010-2020, three - channel video, single-channel sound, 05:02 min


Every year, the members of the Masada scout tribe in Jerusalem spend several months planning a special Memorial-Day ceremony. Considered the climax of the tribe’s annual activities, the ceremony is attended by the bereaved families of former scouts fallen in Israel’s wars or killed in terrorist attacks; current members of the tribe; and residents of the surrounding neighborhood. In preparation for the ceremony, the adolescent scout members form think teams responsible for planning small exhibitions, staging a ceremony, and preparing fire inscriptions concerned with remembrance.

One past exhibition, concerned with the Hebrew word halal (which refers both to a soldier fallen in battle and to an empty space), was described as follows by one of the scouts: “This exhibition is concerned with the emptiness experienced by the family who has lost a soldier. It underscores the emptiness in the fallen soldier’s room, in contrast to the life that continues to unfold in the other rooms in the home.

”Over the course of the past decade, Gaston Zvi Ickowicz repeatedly visited the Masada tribe, located inJerusalem’s Valley of the Cross. He intentionally returned there on the day following Memorial Day – a day on which the exhibitions remained orphaned, the tightly stretched banners grew loose, the incinerated fire inscriptions were black with soot, and the wind was the only visitor at the site. His camera captured the remains of the ceremony and the exhibitions, constructed by amateur hands that had greatly invested in them. Among the captured exhibits is the site of a suicide bombing composed of sponges, Styrofoam and an abandoned bag, alongside a poem written by the scouts: “I understand that my father … / Can one say that he has grown? / Where can he be found? / In what dimension of time?” Another image captures silhouettes of armed soldiers, alongside an engraved poem by Yehuda Amichai: “A man leaves a house / but the house does not leave the man / it remains on his walls and accrues to what hangs on them . . . ” A number of the exhibits do not spare the audience – such as the decapitated solider standing with his hand still raised in the air, alongside the figure of a fallen soldier covered in a stretch of burlap. Also included is footage from the ceremony itself, in which the scouts appear standing formally, reading various texts or lighting memorial torches.

The images in this exhibition are suffused with Israeli symbols, which bespeak the powerful role of Israel’sMemorial Day in shaping local society through clearly defined behavioral codes designed to reinforce a sense of solidarity and collective responsibility. The uniforms worn by youth-movement members and soldiers, the Stars of David constructed out of wooden poles, and the ceremonial atmosphere are pervasive. The title of the exhibition, borrowed from the name of the scouts tribe – Masada – alludes to one of the central myths of heroism rooted in Israeli collective consciousness. The educational manuals printed by local youth movements in the early years of Israeli statehood discussed this myth by underlining the preference for dying as free men, rather than succumbing to a life of slavery and torture, which would have been the lot of the besieged Jews had they capitulated. The Valley of the Cross, where the scout tribe is located, adds another mythical, religious dimension to the exhibition themes. By means of the subtitles, based on comments that appeared on the online chat during last year’s memorial ceremony (broadcast on Zoom), Ickowicz undermines the decades-long message of solidarity and collective responsibility. The scouts, who are used to ceremonial formations, uniforms and discipline, chitchat on the screen in the course of the ceremony and complain of being bored. The counselors’ predictable response is to admonish the unruly participants, noting that their behavior does not accord with the gravity of the event.

This exhibition raises complex, difficult, painful questions that provoke an emotional response, especially among the members of bereaved families. The traditional Memorial-Day ceremonies conducted by the Masada Tribe in Jerusalem unequivocally represent the Zionist ethos: a soldier fallen while on duty is a hero, and his family is sanctified. How does this long-term concern with death impact the adolescent scout members? Do they not become apathetic to this tragic subject, turning all of their attention to the success of their commemoration project? And what about the possible role of critical thinking in preparing for Memorial Day, and its expression in the exhibitions themselves? Ickowicz’s artistic practice points to the traces of this event, combining different temporal moment sand observing its aftermath with a subtle gaze, one that implicitly calls for a discussion and a clarification of what is unfolding outside the frame.

Exhibition Curator: Shira Friedman

© 2022 Gaston Zvi Ickowicz . All rights reserved.