In a series of guest posts, writer and Walker tour guide Christine McVay shares her experiences traveling to Tel Aviv for the SupraSpace conference on June 3 and 4, 2012. Read part one.
When I arrived, jet-lagged, in Tel Aviv, people advised me to take to the beach, which I did. It’s long, Mediterranean, and festive: couples thwack balls back and forth in the shallows, kids build castles and moats, there’s a promenade patterned in Copacabana-like swirls, and beachside shops offer fruit smoothies and sunglasses.
Farther south in the old Arab port of Jaffa the seaside road followed the line of a Crusader seawall. An Ottoman-era clock tower marked a square, outdoor cafes encroached on the sidewalks, and tourists snapped away at fantastical graffiti.
Between this gentrifying Jaffa port and the Tel Aviv beaches, I walked through an area where neither center seemed to set the style. A grassy park and a rocky area interrupted the sandy beach. One or two people were reading on the rocks and Muslim families barbecued in the park. Across the street the Hotel David Intercontinental towered over a mosque. On the beach side stood a memorial/museum, a glass box inserted into a stone ruin. And at the edge of the rocks, an abandoned hulk of modern concrete, burned out and layered with tags and other graffiti, overlooked the sea.
My Lonely Planet explained that this transitional zone had been an Arab neighborhood before the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. The glass and stone Etzel museum commemorated a pre-state military group and the battles it fought. The blackened concrete building–once an aquarium, then a disco–was the site of a suicide bombing in 2001. The mosque had survived both the war and a riot that followed the bombing.
Obviously, much history lay beneath the quiet surface of that sunny space. I wondered about the different people using the Manshiye neighborhood peaceably now, what it meant to them, what they’d want to build or how they’d re-inscribe it if they could.
Later I remembered an Israeli artist, Yael Bartana, who imagined a different marking of place in this vicinity. Her video, A Declaration, (which appeared in the Walker’s 2007 Brave New Worlds exhibition), showed a young man heroically rowing out to a little rock offshore. When he arrives he replaces the Israeli flag flying over this tiny territory with an olive tree. After my walk through the area’s unsettled mix of elements, his gesture still seemed to me absurd and brave at once.
The convivial SupraSpace conference spanned centuries of mostly western art, from Roman imperialist narrative and Byzantine sacred spaces to Chelsea rooftops, Flux-Tours and the overlapping soundscapes that simultaneously occupy the same space in the Old City of Jerusalem. There were cognitive maps of Treblinka, rendered in ghostly pencil lines. An Israeli geographer talked about landscapes–the naive and the critical–painted on the Israeli side of the Separation Barrier in the West Bank.
The conference ended with a talk by Israeli artist Larry Abramson, who’d struggled with using the image of an abandoned Palestinian village that had been effectively erased in Israeli historical memory and artistic representation. Abramson described a dilemma of showing what was really there without “taking advantage” or condescending to the absent Palestinians.
There were no Palestinian scholars at the conference to present villages, walls, rooftops or imperialist narrative from their point of view, although an Israeli-Palestinian film on water that I missed was screening elsewhere in the city. The next day, I left for the West Bank.