Israeli Artist Shuts Venice Biennale Exhibit, Calls for Cease-Fire in Gaza

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By Equipo
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Since February thousands of pro-Palestinian activists have tried in vain to get the Venice Biennale, one of the world’s most prestigious international art exhibitions, to ban Israel over its conduct of the war in Gaza.

But on Tuesday, when the Biennale’s international pavilions open for a media preview, the doors to the Israel pavilion will nonetheless remain locked, at the behest of the artist and curators representing Israel.

“The artist and curators of the Israeli pavilion will open the exhibition when a cease-fire and hostage release agreement is reached,” reads a sign the Israeli team said it planned to tape to the door of the pavilion.

“I hate it,” Ruth Patir, the artist chosen to represent Israel, said in an interview about her decision not to open the exhibit she has been working on, “but I think it’s important.”

She said that while the Biennale, which opens to the public on Saturday, is a huge opportunity for a young artist like herself, that the situation in Gaza was “so much bigger than me,” and she felt that closing the pavilion was the only action she could take.

The war has cast a shadow over major cultural events. Since the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks in southern Israel, in which Israeli officials said about 1,200 people were killed and 240 taken hostage, and Israel’s campaign in Gaza, which authorities there say has killed more than 33,000 people, artists have reacted at major events around the world. There have been protests from the stages of the Oscars and the Grammy Awards, an artist subtly included a “Free Palestine” message in his work at the Whitney Biennial, and there have been debates about Israel’s participation in the Eurovision Song Contest.

Those protests all came from outside Israel. And although many Israelis share Patir’s desire for a cease-fire and hostage deal, a call for a cease-fire from an artist representing the country at an important international event could draw criticism from Israeli lawmakers, said Tamar Margalit, an Israel pavilion curator who reached the decision with Patir and Mira Lapidot, another curator of the pavilion. Israel’s government, which has paid about half the pavilion’s costs, was not informed in advance about the protest, Margalit said.

Margalit said that visitors would still be able to see one of Patir’s video pieces through the pavilion’s windows. For that two-and-a-half-minute piece, Patir used computers to animate images of ancient fertility statues, which are a recurring motif in her work. The female statues, many cracked or missing limbs, come to life in the film and move around, wailing with grief and anger.

Patir said that the artwork, finished this month, reflected her sadness and frustration over the conflict. The emotions depicted in the film “felt accurate to the experience of living in this moment,” Patir added.

In recent decades, the Venice Biennale has often reflected Israel’s fraught relationships with other Middle East countries. In 1982, after Israel invaded Lebanon, an Italian communist organization exploded a bomb outside the Israeli pavilion, damaging some of the artworks inside. More recently, in 2015, pro-Palestinian activists briefly occupied Israel’s pavilion and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.

The furor around Israel’s pavilion this year began in February when Art Not Genocide Alliance, an activist group, published an open letter urging a ban over what it said were Israel’s “ongoing atrocities” in Gaza.

“Any official representation of Israel on the international cultural stage is an endorsement of its policies and of the genocide in Gaza,” the letter said. Its signatories included the photographer and activist Nan Goldin and artists representing their countries in 14 of this year’s Biennale pavilions, including those of Chile, Finland and Nigeria.

Art Not Genocide Alliance did not respond to interview requests, but in its letter it drew historical parallels to justify its call for a ban. In the 1960s, Italy’s government barred South Africa over apartheid. And when Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the Russian artists chosen to represent it decided to withdraw. (Russia is not taking part again this year, and has lent its large pavilion, in a prime location in the Biennale gardens, to Bolivia.)

The Biennale’s organizers dismissed those comparisons, saying that any country recognized by Italy’s government was free to take part. Italian lawmakers gave an even stronger endorsement. In February, Gennaro Sangiuliano, Italy’s culture minister, said that Israel had both “the right to express its art,” and a duty to “bear witness to its people precisely at a time like this when it has been ruthlessly struck by merciless terrorists.”

Throughout the uproar, Patir, whose work is little known outside Israel, remained silent, turning down interview requests while she completed the works for her pavilion show, which is called “(M)otherland.”

Initial descriptions of the presentation called it “a fertility pavilion,” but Patir said the show was really an exploration of the pressure on women to become mothers. Four years ago, Patir said, she was diagnosed with a gene mutation that increased her risk of breast and ovarian cancer, and doctors recommended that she freeze her eggs so she did not lose a chance at motherhood.

In that moment, she was “confronted by the medical world’s patriarchal gaze, trying to put me into this fertility box,” Patir said. She began recording her medical appointments for use in her work.

Last September, a committee of Israeli art professionals, appointed by the culture ministry, chose Patir to go to Venice; a month later, Hamas attacked Israel.

Patir said she had cried regularly over those attacks and Israel’s retaliation in Gaza. She had also regularly attended protests in Tel Aviv, she added, calling for a hostage deal and for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to resign. Working on the pavilion show had been her one comfort, Patir said, although the conflict also cast a shadow over that.

During a visit to the Israel Antiquities Authority storerooms to examine its collection of ancient fertility goddesses, Patir said, an archivist let her handle a set of broken and fragmented statues. “It was almost triggering,” Patir recalled, “seeing these broken women in relation to all the images on the news.”

As the event drew closer, Patir said that she and the curators hoped that the situation would turn around. They couldn’t imagine “that we would be in Venice in April with the hostages still in captivity, with the war still raging,” Patir said. So they made some decisions: first to cancel the party that traditionally celebrates the pavilion’s opening, then to make an artwork in response to the war, finally to shut down the show completely.

There has been little progress toward a cease-fire, and tensions have been rising between Israel and Iran. But Patir said she hoped that the conditions would be met so she could welcome visitors before the Biennale ends on Nov. 24.

“I believe we will open it,” Patir said. “I believe we will.”

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