Arab or Jewish? Israeli photographer and video artist Dor Guez’s ID card says “Jewish”, but his family history is not as straightforward. Guez’s videos feature intimate interviews with his Christian-Arab relatives and his photographs of Al Lydd – the Arabic name for Lod, the city he was raised in – paint a counter-narrative of Palestinian culture.
Al Lydd, his exhibition at Kunst-Werke (Sept 12-Nov 11), deals with locality and narrative, nationality as caught between stereotyping and self-definition: Guez uses his personal situations to recollect a larger narrative.
Are your videos works of art or documentary films? Do you make the distinction between the two?
The platform does: it’s very different if you walk into a cinema rather than a gallery. So the context obviously changes things. I’m certainly preoccupied with matters of style; but I’m more preoccupied with content. But my works are pure art. I talk about these issues, and obviously they’re important, but there’s also a very strong aesthetic experience. Maybe my works are very well-disguised documentaries – if someone wants to call them docu-videos or something like that, it’s fine by me.
Your work is clearly political…
Yes, it’s really political. What I define as good art always deals with questions: cultural-ethical questions, political questions. It should go beyond the art field. I really feel that you can’t separate art and politics, or ethics and aesthetics – I think they are all combined questions, and that one should address them all.
What is the role of art in politics?
What can an artist achieve that a writer, or a politician, or a documentary filmmaker cannot? You know the Picasso painting about the Spanish Civil War [“Guernica”]? He was dealing in his way with a highly delicate political issue. He wasn’t a politician. Me neither. In 2003, when the USA went to war, they covered with an image of “Guernica” with a carpet in the UN building – the piece’s messages are still valid.
Would you say you are typical of your generation in Israel? Are all contemporary artists in Tel Aviv as political as you?
Not at all. The majority of Israeli artists are not dealing with local questions – I think because the reality is so difficult for them. So it’s like a big escape from reality, and a lot of artists focus on Europe. And I think the artist’s first responsibility is to the place he comes from. Art doesn’t have to take on a very strong stance or cultural opinion, but I do think that it should question things.
Why do you choose to use personal interviews in your videos – those long conversations you have with the Arabic Christian branch of your family?
I feel the only way to read history is through personal stories, because every article or official narrative you are presented with is informed by political interests and a certain national context. I think that by listening to a personal story, you can get deeper than that.
But you never appear in the videos. Why do youcut your own voice out of the interviews?
It integrates the viewer into the piece and helps him relate to the subjects. Intimacy is very important in these videos. Also, I think I’m very present in the intimate voice of the subjects. It’s obvious that the subjects are relatives of mine, or have a very close relationship to me.
How was your work received in Israel?
Parts of the current exhibition were exhibited in Petah Tikva, [one of five contemporary, state-supported art museums in Israel]. It was the first time that an [Israeli] museum had approached the 1948 war from a Palestinian perspective, and we thought no one would come. But it had the highest number of visitors in the museum’s history – and I think that was because it was an opportunity for major groups of the Jewish population to go and hear the story directly from people who aren’t politicians, and don’t have a hidden agenda. They’re just talking about what happened to them.
Where do you think static conceptions of identities come from? Are they a modern thing?
I think that the state, and some majority groups, define others with certain labels. It’s a way of controlling them; a way of feeling secure within one’s own identity. So there are always unobjective emotions and interests involved. For example, in Israel, we have seven “mixed” cities where both Jews and Arabs live. But it is not considered to be a “mixed” city if there are Russian Jewish and Ethiopian Jewish and Morrocan Jewish residents: only if there are Christians or Muslims with Jews. So all of these definitions are hard to understand – these divisions are created by the state interest and have nothing to do with reality.
What do you hope that viewers get out of your works?
It’s about getting people to question the obvious narrative. But it’s not like you can see one video and say, “I have one narrative, now I understand.” You just leave with more questions…
AL LYDD | Through November 11