Israelis fuse fact and fiction at the Tate

An exhibition of work by young video artists reveals a dark humour and a playful subversion of the documentary film genre

February 25, 2010

Tate Modern is devoting this weekend to a programme of innovative and radical work by a group of Israeli video artists.

Trembling Time: Recent Video from Israel is curated by Sergio Edelsztein of the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA), Tel Aviv and falls into the broader film programme at the Tate run by Stuart Comer. The pair met several years ago and have been waiting for the right moment to bring the most interesting Israeli artists to London.

The programme will survey recent video work from over 20 young Israeli artists. Some are already relatively well established on the British art scene - Karen Russo is represented by London gallery Paradise Row and Yael Bartana exhibited at Modern Art Oxford in 2004. Others, such as Dana Levy, Doron Solomons, and Amir Yatziv are less familiar.

"These are artists that have worked through Sergio's screening programme in Tel Aviv," says Comer. "We've focused on the Middle East in general before but not on Israel specifically."

He adds that outside of the West in general a lot of contemporary art is being made in film. "For example, In Beirut and Poland there is relatively easy access to film and television studios which allowed artists to experiment with the medium."

Edelsztein elaborates: "Reality-based art is the most interesting in Israel - because the reality in Israel is so interesting. Film and video based work is the most idiomatic of our contemporary art." The notion of being "based in reality" is a thread that seems to run through a lot of the artists' works. Many of them, in particular Roee Rosen, scramble the relationship between fiction and documentary in their work, the result being that it is not always entirely clear what you are watching - a scripted or spontaneous event.

Comer points out that Rosen plays with humour, a natural reaction for an artist working in a tense political environment perhaps. Confessions of Roee Rosen, the hour-long piece on show at Tate Modern, opens with an elderly woman speaking to camera in a thick Hungarian accent. She is reading Hebrew text written by Roee that she does not understand. The speaker's frustration at not understanding the language she is being asked to speak gets more and more pronounced as the film goes on. She misspeaks and slurs. The effect, while at first comical, descends into discomfort or even pity for her.

Rosen himself agrees with Comer's and Edelsztein's interpretation of the trend in Israeli film-making: "There is a small group of Israeli artists - mostly thirtysomethings - whose approach to the moving image is exciting. They have in common a wilful undoing of cinematic preconceptions, a critical sense channelled through humour and an often surprising twist on what we perceive as reality and documentation."

This development can be seen to be trickling into commercial filmmaking, for example in Ari Folman's acclaimed Waltz with Bashir, where he fused a traditionally fictional story telling tool - animation - with documentary footage of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon.

Karen Russo's work, while quite different from Rosen's, shares a focus on the darker or more eccentric side of life. The Mole Man, from her 2009 London show, was a photographic record of William Lyttle, a septuagenarian who lived in Hackney and had spent decades digging a complicated network of tunnels under his house. The metaphoric similarities between the obsessive artist and Lyttle's obsessive behaviour quickly becomes clear. Lyttle's tunnels might not be considered art but demand the same intense thought and compulsive attention to detail that art-making demands.

She is currently working on a show for CCA, Tel Aviv centred on her research into "remote viewing", a paranormal phenomenon investigated by the CIA during the Cold War, whereby a "viewer" could infiltrate the mind of the enemy and read their thoughts.

Russo lives and works in London and while she does not believe that her Israeli heritage affects her work directly, she does concede that the political environment prompted her to move abroad. "The violent tone of contemporary Israeli society and the growth of nationalism and right-wing religious sentiment are leading many artists to live overseas," she says.

'Trembling Time: Recent Video From Israel' is at Tate Modern, London SE1 until Sunday

Last updated: 2:07pm, February 25 2010