“Ariel Sharon” lies propped up in a hospital bed, the frailty of the figure belying the larger-than-life dimensions that its namesake once personified. Sightless eyes stare ahead impassively; its chest rises and falls slowly as it ‘breathes’ unaided. Visitors are only permitted to view it in smalls groups of three, at most; the overall tone is sepulchral. The experience recalls that of visiting an infirm relative in a hospital ward, but at the same time echoes something more disconcerting; it is not entirely dissimilar to that of gawping at a monument, at an artifact of cultural importance. The emphasis is on an ‘artifact’ — what one sees is a relic, a reminder of what once was but no longer is.
“Ariel Sharon,” Noam Braslavsky’s solo exhibition at Tel Aviv’s Kishon Gallery (which is run by Renana Kishon, daughter of the much beloved satirist Ephraim Kishon), features the prone simulacrum of Ariel Sharon, warrior and statesman. The most significant and controversial personage of the Israeli political landscape over the last 30 years, Sharon has lain in a coma since suffering a stroke in 2006. Braslavsky’s solitary representation of the ailing former Prime Minister in his hospital bed is the subject of the exhibit.
Berlin-based Braslavsky says that “Ariel Sharon” is inspired by the place his subject occupies in the public imagination. “There is a national consensus that nobody touches his image,” he explained in an interview published on the NPR website. He describes his installation as representing the inertia of Israel’s political situation. “It’s an allegory about the State of Israel’s state of existence,” Braslavsky said. Sharon’s eyes are open, “but they don’t see. It’s reminiscent of the state of our government.”
Predictably, the exhibit has attracted widespread attention and not a little outrage. Yoel Hasson, a Knesset parliamentarian for Sharon’s Kadima Party, stated that “there’s no art here, only sickening voyeurism.” Ra’anan Gissin, a former senior adviser to Prime Minister Sharon was more philosophical. “This is not the way I would like to remember Sharon,” he said after visiting the exhibit. “I think Sharon would say ‘I would rather not be remembered, than be remembered that way.’”
Gissin — perhaps inadvertently — captures the thrust of the exhibit succinctly. While technically sound, the hyper-realistic representation does not particularly engage the viewer by itself. Likewise, one is not entirely convinced by Braslavsky’s arguments; one might take issue, for instance, with his assessment of a national consensus concerning Sharon’s legacy. Certainly, the notion of Sharon being beyond reproach was eroded, in Israel at least, after he forced through the withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. That said, it is correct to acknowledge that Sharon’s place in the public imagination was always almost mythological, whether as the tireless defender of the Hebrew nation or as the heartless conquerer associated with the massacres at Sabra and Shatila.
What “Ariel Sharon” does is separate the man from the myth. What we see is a weak shadow of what we once believed him to be; a reminder of his — and of our own — mortality. In the short essay that accompanies the exhibition, Joshua Stone writes that “commemoration is a launch towards destiny as well as a denial of death.” Perhaps so; by “commemorating” Sharon in this way, Braslavsky challenges our memory of the man even before he leaves us.