In 1973, during the Yom Kippur War, Gideon Spiegel, the Tel Aviv-based Israeli artist also known as Goodash, entered an abandoned Egyptian house and leafed through family photo albums that had been left there. That experience of connecting to photos of a family amid the ruins of what was once their home led to his creation of “Memories,” a series of digital collages, or “photodrawings,” which Spiegel says “use imagery that connects to ideas surrounding ancestry, collective memories, and abandoned spaces.” A selection of these works is on view at the Koch Gallery of the Schultz Cultural Arts Hall at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, Calif., until mid-June.
By blending his photographs of Christian, Muslim and Jewish buildings in Israel and the Palestinian Territories that have been abandoned since 1950 with antique photographic portraits, and then adding hand-drawn elements, Spiegel aims to evoke a bygone era, “reoccupying [the buildings] with images of former inhabitants.”
Except, the people in the old photos are not the actual former inhabitants of these crumbling, decrepit edifices, and therein resides the jarring juxtaposition of these works. In one piece (39 by 28 inches in size, as are most of the dozen pieces in the exhibition), famous writers of the Haskalah, including Hayyim Nahman Bialik and Mendele Mocher Sforim, are seen sitting behind collapsing metal shelves in an abandoned library. In another, a child from pre-World War II Poland riding a tricycle is superimposed over a moldy, paint-chipped wall that meets a bedroom floor of ripped up tiles strewn with garbage. In a third, a couple of young Holocaust survivors are peering out from a boarded up window. And in yet another, a couple from a century ago sitting for a formal portrait in Sarajevo hover ghostlike on a cracked wooden door somewhere in Israel.
Not only Jews appear in these collages. The likeness of an Arab from Jerusalem dressed in traditional garb is trapped by rebar in an abandoned house in the Golan Heights. Another, with his donkey, appears on the graffitied wall of a long-out-of-use hotel in Jericho. An elderly Arab man from Jerusalem, leaning on his cane, is placed in another piece in an arched niche of a decaying village living room in which a family must have once sat.
In his statement, the Fashion Institute of Technology-trained Spiegel says, “Living daily life in the ‘Holy Land’ often brings me to face scenes of Jews and Arabs, both trapped in their respective cultures, religions, and sense of honor. They seems stuck in a cursed scenario, full of pain and suffering… I follow those trapped people hoping that the world will understand that in order to make peace you must deal with those problematic scenarios.”
At first glance, Spiegel’s photodrawings obviously and powerfully present these problematic scenarios of trapped Jews and Arabs. These are melancholic, confusing, and even disturbing images meant to provoke more questions than they answer. However, to say that they “connect to ideas surrounding ancestry, collective memories, and abandoned spaces,” only scratches the surface of the highly charged political statements they make — intended or unintended.
What is the real connection of these people to these places? In what ways do people belong to places where they have never actually lived? Are memories and legacies exclusive, or can they be shared? Can what is broken and abandoned every really be reclaimed and restored?
These are some of the profound questions that these haunting digital collages pose, but do not answer. We may not know exactly how to respond to them, but they cannot be ignored.
View a slideshow of images from ‘Memories’: