A review of
Operation OZ Belev-yam by Lior Shvil
Andrea Rosen Gallery
A different war, a different country, a different enemy; Full Metal Jacket is one example out of countless which entertains and interrogates an American pathos that is at once subjective and universal -- the specifics are interchangeable. It is a pathos of insecurity, of mis-directed fear and shameless egoism. Turned, it is one of vigilance, of determination and global altruism. It is turned often and more than not it is extolled in the name of security -- a defensive posture that excuses discrepancies between action and rhetoric, where a deliberate semantic slurring grays out priorities and values. In the end, it is what keeps the Mission Accomplished and lets the Jersey Shore fill our tweets while the West Bank slips by. Against this backdrop, in the shadows of these structures, Lior Shvil carries out Operation OZ Belev-yam in the consistently upstaging Gallery 2 at Andrea Rosen (I'm looking at you Wysocan).
The work exists as an installation of sculptures, video and performance. The center-piece is a relatively large structure built of 2x4s and wood panels. Labeled “Vessel 101″ it is worn and utilitarian -- scrapes, dents and scuffs belie the solidity of its purpose. Ropes and ladders hang from it and a black Benn! flag sags proudly above. It reads, “Engage and Control.” Even alone and inactive, what it is used for is evident. We’ve seen its image before -- on the news, in the media, as children projecting fantasy onto it, and as adults safely removed. It is a surrogate of greater ideologies and the site where they are practiced into being. Recently it is manifest in ‘leaked’ videos of terrorist training camps -- notably footage from an Al-Qaeda training video that rapidly made its way across the internet in lieu of the September 11th attacks (you know, the one with masked men on the monkey bars). In this case, Vessel 101 is a stand-in for “an enemy compound”; it is a training apparatus, a make-believe fortress and it is here that Benni will harden the hearts of his warriors.
Training, by definition, is a mediated experience. Simulation, program, code and protocol; repetition, automation and specialization. Shvil uses this as the vehicle for the larger discourse. Namely, that it is symptomatic of a power structure governed by the manipulation of fear; confusing not only its direct objects (the Soldier) with a narrow sense of duty and prolonged sense of vigilance, but also the greater support structure (everyone else) with shadows and static. He gets into this with a projected video that loops between footage of OZ engaged in his training mission and scenes of combat instruction from Benni. Speaking into the camera, Benni puts us in the position of a potential soldier and the video begins blurring the lines between warriors and ordinary citizens. While this fuzzy switch in perspective is only half received in such a staged setting, it highlights the theoretical underpinnings of the work.
The thrust of Shvil’s work is built upon a tacit morality described in international relations as Political Realism. It describes “a conflict-based paradigm [of international relations], in which the key actors are states, in which power and security become the main issues, and in which there is little place for morality.” This form of self-interest, or national self-interest, contributes itself as the principal drive of foreign policy. Security is at the heart of it and it can be skewed toward fear-mongering or petered to stolid nationalism. For instance, throughout the Bush administration, and well into Obama’s, we are reminded to “Stay Vigilant”. The tone is optimistic but the sonorous undercurrent of “Stay afraid…” perforates the sentiment. Even after the death of Osama bin Laden, public enemy number one, Cheney parrots out this exact catch-phrase. Be vigilant. Be prepared. Never let your guard down. It’s not over, it’ll never be over. This is the terrain of Operation OZ Belev-yam; a post 9-11, righteous-in-our-fear world dynamic spearheaded by the United States and perpetuated incessantly by global media.
While the gallery’s press release reveals a more direct conceptual terrain for this work -- suggesting a primary read that concerns itself with the political climate surrounding Israel -- the broader dimensions of this work ring truer to the works potential. Especially with the exhibition taking place in New York, the United States, the Western world. The performance in Operation OZ Belev-yam, which is hebrew for “brave in deep water”, is the exhibition’s most powerful component to this -- activating the work and beautifully showcasing the thought in action rather than linguistics or language. In this performance we have OZ, a warrior we’ve seen trained by Benni himself, carrying out one of his exercises. He climbs Vessel 101, crawls, jumps inside it, breaks, kicks, and rolls with a determined, if not slightly sloppy, purpose. Think Mission Impossible if they couldn’t afford the set, Tom Cruise, or writers. In the small gallery, removed from context, it is a bit absurd but perhaps it is exactly this delusion that Shvil calls out. We have the solitary hero receiving phantom orders, fighting ghosts in a crude fortress of his own fabrication. Going through the motions ad nauseam until the shadows in his mind solidify into something altogether real, something not to be questioned. In the same way, we are subject to the identical program by watching him; we are empathetic to the same call for vigilance that motivates his actions. Theatre after all, presents us with that particular form of catharsis. OZ becomes the metaphor for something larger, perhaps the United States, perhaps our fear of… of what?
"We must after all lead a highly protected life to have the time to fear all the potential dangers that may strike us. Fear begins with our fearing this and that, but with a sufficient number of repetitions and a spreading out to ever more phenomena it can become a general perspective on life. In a culture that in many ways is characterized by social disintegration, fear is something we all share, a unifying perspective on existence."
Lars Svendsen, in his book A Philosophy of Fear, speaks to the delusion more throughly. He posits that the object of fear, inasmuch as it is the reason of fear, is never discreet; rather, it is enmeshed in a net of uncertainties, possibilities and projections. It is as if fear is some kind of black hole you could never truly see or touch the center of, but isn't less real for it, or lessens its incredible influence. We fear oblique ideas of the future, often degrees removed from the object itself. Knowing this, it is frequently the case that "potential dangers are presented as if they were actual dangers." The media and the whole political structure use this to mitigate their agendas; whatever those may be. OZ reminds us of this through embodiment; he is the product of this structure, and we're along for the ride.
If we take Shvil’s work as a caricature of this persistent fear or its concurrent need for vigilance, the work is solid -- the point is overt and delivered dramatically. OZ’s delusional determination and Benni’s blunt instructions reflect the absurdity of it all. “Everything is a mind setting!” Benni declares at one point, almost in a Borat kind of broken english. This statement is the key to opening up the work further than we have. So far, we’ve tried to delineate a possible terrain for this work, but have failed to be receptive to its aesthetic or expressionistic qualities. Taking a step back to do this is important because it takes the work beyond an obvious cynicism about the ubiquitous state of fear, something too serious and dark given the aesthetics of the work. There is another level present, a shadow operation being carried out by Shvil, not Benni. His is a two pronged attack on the American ‘mind-setting’. Benni was never the mastermind and the rabbit trail leads back, as it should, to Shvil.
There was a moment when OZ, near the end of his mission, found himself back on the roof of Vessel 101. Panting and fighting a strap loose from his combat harness, he bore his pistol slowly over the crowd, not in any dramatic way, but a very programmed, indifferent way. I don’t know if this was in the script, but the effect was menacing. For a second I stared down the barrel of a prop gun and was made suddenly, acutely and embarrassingly aware of the giggling woman beside me, her manicured boyfriend, the collared shirts, the summer skirts, the Chelsea gallery run by attractive woman and sharp-dressed men, my own idiotic grin and the smell of coffee. I looked back at OZ and, as delusional as he was, he’s in it to win it. His is a singular world. And we, as spectators, live safely back to view it in kaleidoscope; through texts and television, magazines and blogs and performances in galleries -- our understanding and vision fragmenting with every new bit of mis-lineaged information.
In another part of the world, in another equally absurd situation, the scenario is real. It isn’t a choreographed routine. It isn’t paintballs and trial runs, wavering phantom images or abstract experiences, but un-fragmented and solid. I don’t bring this up to cheapen the experience of the work. In fact, quite the contrary. That we live in a mediated world is a belabored fact. That Facebook and the media are disassociated modes of experience have been an exaggeratedly talked about topic. It is by and large understood that such mediation is required. Roger Silverstone speaks to this dissociation eloquently in his article, “Mediating Catastrophe: September 11 and the Crisis of the Other“: “…for without that containment, the containment of metaphor, of cliché, of stereotype, it would outrun our capacity to make enough sense of it; and without enough sense of it, our lives would be unlivable.”
Shvil knows this and his strategy is a good one. Instrumentalism is hardly at home in a gallery, so far removed from its primary audience. So he takes the essential components of his position, and obfuscates them into broader themes -- from Israel and international foreign policy to a mediated culture of fear, candy coated for delivery. The caricatures of his hostages and other sculptures show as much. One is the 2×4 frame of an incomplete wall with video screens along its side which depicts live video from security cameras installed around the small gallery -- entertaining, but not in the clever Bruce Nauman kind of way. An almost life-sized cut-out of a hostage leans against the frame, barefooted with a bag over his head, a trendy striped sweater and what look like Diesel jeans. An ambiguous pose and a target over the heart finish him off -- a political and literal unbalancing act. The theatric intensity of OZ cornerstones the message, but the pageantry of the exhibition brings dimensionality to the cynicism. The entire presentation and styling of the work establishes mediation. It is light and familiar. Shvil isn’t going for authentic, he is going for fun, safe, and digestible.
He costumes the work this way to cloak a different operation -- one that reveals both our susceptibility to the program and how such a thing is fed to us. It is a parody of how the media proliferates mediated and filtered experiences safely to a hungry, scared audience; making caricatures out of real tragedy and fake tragedy out of statistics. Shvil isn’t merely highlighting the pathos of global insecurity, he is calling out the nakedness of this program; it is one of secured ignorance and ever-impending oblivion.
Shvil’s success isn’t that he was able to lobby his position or persuade any overt change in our worldview, but that he got us on board for the ride. It is a strategy that I can’t help but relate to the parafictional. Instrumentalism, it seems, has taken an intelligent step backward from the in-your-face approach or the alienating “this is how it is” approach. In its place comes more narrative and involved methods of dissemination. Culture, it turned out, can’t be force fed, but must be inoculated. Abstracting the discourse, even if that involves taking liberties with the narrative and fronting an aesthetic, becomes an effective move.