Interview with Gaston Zvi Ickowicz
When Argentinian-born Israeli photographer Gaston Zvi Ickowicz turns his lens to the conflict-ridden land at the centre of the Israeli/Palestine conflict, his aim is not to focus in on a particular agenda, but rather to zoom out — to create distance in order to find a clearer view, and common ground across conflict lines. Ahead of Ickowicz’s upcoming show, “Imaginary Landscape” at SMAC, the Tel Aviv-based artist shares the trajectory of his practice, the importance of stepping back, and how he decides what remains outside the frame.
Interview: Anna Dorothea Ker
SMAC: The interconnectedness of absence and presence are amongst the central themes of “Imaginary Landscapes”. As an Israeli born in Argentina who moved to to Israel at age six, what’s the connection between the way in which these themes have played out in your life,andhow they are reflected in your work?
Gaston: The themes in my work, the political issues, and the fact that I wasn’t born in Israel — all those elements are important. It’s interesting to think what could have been were I born in Israel, and not in Argentina. I don’t know if the terms I’m working with would be the same.
When I start to research a certain landscape and a certain place, I know that I’m not a tourist, as I live here and know what’s happened here. But I’m trying to take one step back, and understand things from a great distance. The area here is very complicated. If you go directly inside it, the influence of the political issues on the land very deep. For me, to take one step back is to create a kind of space from which I can see the situation. If you’re inside something, you can’t see it — you’re part of it.
You touch on this theme when you speak about wanting to “neutralise” the visual language with which the landscapes featured on the stamps that this exhibition centres on are represented — landscapes with extremely complicated, emotionally-loaded histories. Can you elaborate how this stamp set came to form the basis of “Imaginary Landscapes”?
I started to be interested in these Palestinian stamps around three years ago. I was suddenly reminded that when I was a young child I had my own collection of stamps. I always wondered why I never had Palestinian stamps. Then I came across one stamp from this set of 12, and found it very interesting, it was the first time I saw a “direct” photographyon a stamp — not a graphic design or an illustration. The format and the gaze of the photographer who took those images felt similar to the way I photograph this place. I suddenly realised that both Jewish and the Palestinians share the same gaze on the landscapes for a different ideology. The image stays the same, but the ideology is different. It’s difficult to find photos like these in this format (of the stamps). On one hand, you have images, and on the other, you don’t have any information about the landscape or even where it is. Some of them I know simply from having been there, but otherwise nothing is revealed.
The stamps form the centre of the exhibition — can you share an overview of the other elements, and how they fit together?
The main issue in this exhibition is landscape. Three different types of landscape are shown — the first part is the set of 12 P.F.L.P (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) stamps from the ‘70s. The second part is the contact sheets from a series of photographs of settlements that I did in the early 2000s. This will be the second time they’re exhibited as original contact sheets. Then the last part is the video, which explores the connection between people and landscape, as well as the influence of the occupation on the people — how they have to appear because of the occupation of the landscape. I find in the stamps a kind of archive, and my work continues to deal with this archive.
So this exhibition is a natural evolution in the trajectory of your practice?
It’s a new development. If we had talked two years ago, I probably wouldn’t have even imagined getting to this point in my work. But when I found the stamps, they took me back to my archive. It’s interesting for me to combine these two works — the stamps and the contact sheets — and to see how you re-examine the same photographs in light of all the new issues that have occurred here in the last decade.
What are the main themes that have arisen in your work in response to the political developments over the past 10 years?
Because the situation in the past 10 years is getting more complicated and more extreme, in terms of new settlements and the political right, this series from the early ‘00s has become provocative, in a way. When it was created, there was a hope that the phenomenon of settlements would disappear a few years after I had finished this work. And now, of course, it’s even worse.
I don’t think I could photograph the people I did then today. Because I’m not sure that they would be happy to meet me, or to let me photograph them. Now I understand more than when I did it how important it wasto do it.
How did you go about shooting your subjects originally?
These are very strange places, the settlements. Not like the middle of a city, where there are a lot of people — it’s very quiet there. People are afraid — afraid that you’re a threat, from somewhere that’s opposed to them, or that you want to kick them off the land… so the moment of the photograph begins with a long conversation. I remember that with a few people, after we talked for 30 minutes they told me they didn’t want to be photographed. Today, the situation is more tense between the left and the right — and they know that I’m not from the right, so there was a lot of suspicion.
How do you consider your responsibility as an artist, representing these landscapes that are ridden with conflict?
Very simple: To show. To show the situation — to document and archive details that can help people maybe to understand the situation in another way. It’s very tricky as when I did this work 18 years ago, I was sure that if I talked with someone about belonging to the settlements ideology, that they might be able to understand where I’m coming from, and that something could change. But today I think the only way that’s available to me is to try and show the facts, what’s really there.
“Imaginary landscape” — what’s behind the title you’ve chosen for the exhibition?
It’s very close to what I said before — about how different groups can project different ideologies onto the same landscapes.
What does it mean to you to be showing in Berlin?
I think it’s very interesting when people who aren’t from this part of the world are confronted with the work. Some of the landscapes depicted on the stamps that look so obvious to us can look like a green mountain to other people. Here, we can obviously tell that it’s a charged place — it’s amazing how a simple piece of grass can become so charged from a single image.
Gaston, in your video work “Everyday Ceremonies”, the missing piece of the work — the local office of Interior and Labour Affairs, from which people are shown walking to and from — isn’t revealed to the viewer. Why was it kept outside the frame?
I shot “Everyday Ceremonies” in the east of Jerusalem, between two villages. The people who are walking there are going back and forth between both Israeli offices. If a Palestinian from the east of Jerusalem needs to travel or work, they need permission from the Israeli office. The work is 80 minutes of one shot — I tried to show the repetitive nature of the act of going back and forth. Something that’s important to say about this work is that it touches on the issue we talked about earlier, namely the tension between being inside a situation or taking a step back from it. Here, you don’t see the building, the office — which is very problematic.
I wanted to find something close or around the main issue, without showing it, so as not to be directly influenced by the situation there.
How do you view the power of a still image versus the power moving image can have?
You can see in my work that my still works and video are very closely linked. The videos are like video stills. I start with still images for all of my work, and then decide whether or not to move to video. It’s only when I’m sure that I need the time, and when repetition of an act is important, that I use moving image.
After this exhibition, what’s next for you?
I will show a larger version of the exhibition at SMAC in Herzliya [a city north of Tel Aviv]. The stamps and the settlements will be shown there, but I will produce a new video for the exhibition.
Interview: Anna Ker
Photos: Oz Barak