Described as the first of five such works created under the title The Sick Man of Europe, Dor Guez’s new installation entitled ‘The Painter’ is a complex narrative exploring the heretofore unwritten story of an Israeli reservist soldier in the 1970s. More broadly, the work is a development of Guez’s interest in how art can be used to explore history that is unexamined or unaddressed within the wider framework of contemporary social and political commentary. He himself of Christian Palestinian and Jewish Tunisian descent, Guez’s work focuses on the story of D. Guez, a Tunisian Jew who immigrated to Israel and later served in the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Initially a painter, D. Guez was later diagnosed with what we would now refer to as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a result of his experiences in the conflict, and the work traces the man’s path from an immigrant painter to a soldier, and then back to painting.
The story of the eponymous painter is beautifully told in a mixture of Arabic (the man’s native language in Tunisia) and Hebrew (the language of his adopted home) in a large screen video work. Bookended by two parts of a parable about a small beetle that wanted to find a husband, the story of the painter narrates images from the man’s life, his paintings, photographs and official documents as they all play across the screen. Almost all of the materials which form the visual part of D. Guez’s story are displayed in another room in a series of 6 vitrines, like artefacts in a museum.
Guez as a character is both fascinating and identifiable. His story of moving as a child to Israel in the face of local pressure against the Jewish population in Tunisia, and the sort of duel identity he lived speaking Hebrew when out of the home, but Tunisian Arabic at home with his family highlights the kind of separation that is evident elsewhere in the work; the dychotomy of painter and solider, Arab and Jew, and even the coincidence of having the same initial and last name as the artist Dor Guez. As the work progresses and D. Guez’s journey from young and somewhat earnest painter to damaged solider is developed. Later to be rescued when at University by his Palestinian wife, the notion of identity, it’s fluidity and the path to claiming and indeed reclaiming it emerges as another crucial cornerstone of the installation.
The personal element of this story is in equal measure captivating and complex, and D. Guez as a character appears both sympathetic and innocent; a man caught up by circumstances who finally appears to claim control of his life in part through a mixed marriage and also his experiences with treatment for PTSD. What is interesting however is how Dor Guez determinedly frames the man as a painter first and foremost. In the accompanying catalogue there is an interview between the artist Dor Guez and the painter D. Guez. Early on D. Guez asks “Should we talk about my accounts of the war?” to which Dor Guez replies “We always talk about war. I’d rather discuss your early paintings…” What follows is an account of D. Guez’s paintings, described not necessarily as images but in terms of the mistakes evident, the “fractures and gaps,” which both men freely admit probably interest Dor Guez more than the images themselves. In an essay entitled “Drawing a Line,” by Achim Borchardt-Hume (Head of exhibitions at Tate Modern, also included in the catalogue), he describes the “the space between, the ground uncovered, the seam and the pause that Dor Guez reveals as most pregnant with meaning.”
The political undertones of the work are veiled but by no means unnoticeable. The title of the work ‘The Sick Man of Europe,’ was a phrase coined by Russian Tsar Nicholas I to describe the crumbling Ottoman Empire which finally disintegrated at the conclusion of World War I. Parts of this failed Empire, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, were the invading forces which sparked the Yom Kippur War with Israel and led to a great deal of soul searching in the country after what was perceived as the hubristic arrogance of its leaders and military in the years leading up to the conflict. Borchardt-Hume’s essay title refers to a small black line which is evident in the central video work, tracing its way around the shapes with the paintings and photographs on screen. In his essay, the line is linked to the infamous Green Line, a symbol of the contested boundaries of Israel as declared in 1948 and the changes to territories in the wake of the War and other conflicts (something which feels timely given the still recent War in Gaza last year). It also alludes to the contested existence of Israel itself, a major aspect of the regional tension which Dor Guez is clearly so provoked by.
At times the show almost feels frustrating however. The visual elements are beautiful certainly, a personal archive empathetically narrated and portrayed. From a different perspective though, Dor Guez seems to favour the spaces in between the narrative, leaving you almost wishing there was a greater cross-section of the painters life on display, particularly in terms of the painting he has made later in his life. In the small partition between the vitrines and the major video work is another video piece, with nearly three hours of the man’s accounts of the war committed to tape as part of his therapy. Listening to even a small segment of this massive dearth of material is an interesting insight into how Dor Guez has chosen to edit his subject, the elements which he has bought to the fore in his presentation and those which have been left out either as unimportant asides, or crucial pieces but of an altogether different puzzle. Given this somewhat peripheral approach, it will be interesting to see what the other entries in this body of work will be like, and how their focus will compare to the story of ‘The Painter.’
The installation is now showing at the Institute for Contemporary Art, London until April 12, 2015.
By Will Gresson