Let them make pancakes: talking to Sivan Gabrielovich

This interview was first published on 16 September 2008 on Spark Online, and is normally available here.

"What Do You Think About Me?", still from the exhibition

Sivan Gabrielovich’s new project, opening on Wednesday 19 November at the Meat Market, a video installation titled What Do You Think About Me?, brings together members of the Israeli and the Palestinian communities together for a series of discussions, workshops and interviews. It is a rare moment of viewing these two groups thoughts and concerns about who they are, and what they think of the other.

Gabrielovich is rushing to finish the installation, neck-deep in cutting 60 hours of video footage down to 3. “I have these visions that I’ll be editing as the people are entering the gallery. I’ll be just putting the DVD in the player.”

Gabrielovich ended up in Australia quite randomly: “In 1998 I had just finished the military service. The lease on our Tel Aviv flat ran out, and we said, jokingly: Let’s go to Australia. We did, I shared house with a VCA graduate, and I fell in love with the idea of studying there. In Israel, there is no campus that brings different arts together in quite the same way.”

Having graduated in Creative Arts, and obtained a Diploma in Animateuring, Gabrielovich has since formed Running Blind, a contemporary performance company, and has created a body of work with a strong line of inquiry into the nature of the Israel-Arab military conflict. Her 2007 Fringe show, Home Grown, for example, explored the story of Hanadi Jaradat, a young Palestinian woman who blew herself up in a restaurant in 2003, killing 21 people.

Women, apparently, are much sought-after suicide bombers. As Ivana Sajko noted in her famed play Woman Bomb, they are less conspicuous, and able to hide the explosives masking as pregnancy. Furthermore, they are easier to coerce.

“Through my research, I came across examples of women who had a divorce, or an affair, different things that aren’t acceptable in the Palestinian community, which put them in a vulnerable position. They are the ones targeted for the role.”

“Jaradat witnessed the death of her brother. She was approached by her cousin from the Islamic Jihad while still in mourning, and coerced into becoming a suicide bomber. She was a trained lawyer, a provider for the family, she was trained in Jordan, which is all unusual for a Palestinian person, let alone a woman. She had prospects in life that she gave up, which made her an intriguing figure. She too masked the bomb as pregnany, which I found fascinating. The woman as a giver and taker of life.”

Sivan is fiercely intelligent and constantly raising difficult questions. “On the other side, if I was a witness to my own brother dying, I don’t know where that would lead me.”

The role of women in war is a complex one. Normally conceptualised as rape victims and civilian care-givers, (“baking the cakes in the background”, jokes Sivan), they have also been the most vocal war opponents in Milosevic’s Serbia, right up to Biljana Srbljanovic, a playwright and activist. Indeed, the woman-bomb is often conceptualised as an angry, vengeful but ultimately self-defeating pawn in a game played by men.

Our conversation meanders as we give each other food for thought. The enormous prostitution industry in Bosnia that catered for the UN peace-keeping forces is contrasted with the curious role of women in the Israeli military service.

“War is an instinctively male thing,” muses Sivan. “In my time, women in the army could only do very female things. We made pancakes! I was an arts instructor. I got to travel, source artists to perform at the base. You become the sister and the girlfriend, often the lover, the nurse and the f— psychologist. Our office was open 24-hours, and the boys could come in and have a cup of tea… It was absurd, but you fall into that role. However, since 1996, women have been allowed to take any role, go to combat, and now women have really taken on that masculine identity, in the way they walk, the way they talk.”

The complexity of the soldier’s existence is another thing that deeply interests Gabrielovich. Trying to set the rules of military conduct is deeply illogical, we argue, given the utter abnormality of life in a war zone. War is so unnatural to a human being (and this is what Waltz with Bashir, a film about the fallibility of memory, the repression of trauma, and the lives of the veterans of the Israel-Lebanon War, acknowledges with delicateness and grace), that the person often reacts in ways that are later impossible to justify, but equally unjustified to condemn.

The entry point for Sivan’s last project, Wall Stories, at fortyfivedownstairs in March/April 2008, was a series of testimonials by Israeli soldiers, that were collated into an exhibition by a human rights organisation called Breaking the Silence.

“The soldiers felt implicit in a cycle they didn’t want to be a part of. They put up an exhibition of photographs, implicating them in different kinds of human rights violation in the city of Hebron. It was only on for three weeks before the Army took it down. Exhibit after exhibit, they show you the randomness and the banality of war. They showed a whole heap of car keys they had confiscated from random Palestinians, “just because we could”. There was such an incredible honesty about it. It’s one of the most important things that has happened in Israel.”

Sivan Gabrielovich

“When they came to Hebron, they were given free reign. Essentially, there were no rules – you are given infinite power. You’re 18. You haven’t slept for three weeks. You’re hungry, you miss your girlfriend, you don’t even understand why you’re there, you’re pissed off that you are, you’re bored out of your brain, standing in a checkpoint for ten hours. You’re given a phenomenal amount of power. Of course you find yourself doing things you never thought you were capable of. They were not justifying themselves, they were trying to explain how it happens, how banal it is.”

“Later, you take the bus to Jerusalem, and enter normality. It is only 40 minutes away, but it’s a completely different galaxy. The bus comes on time, even just the fact that there is a bus, there is a platform, is astonishing.”

In her current project, Sivan notes, the single Israeli man became the representative of the army.

“He ended up having to represent this army machine, millions of people. A Palestinian woman asked, how can you go into a tank? And he says, because otherwise I’ll be dead. You have to understand, the person sitting in the tank is an 18-year-old boy, not even a man, and really afraid. On the other side there is always just a human being. So we are decomposing, debunking, destabilising all these notions we have about who a soldier is, what a soldier is, and what a terrorist is.”

So what do they think about each other?

“There was a lot of Australian politeness in the room, a lot of desire to like and respect each other, show they’re not war-mongers, not terrorists, but quite intelligent, civilised people. There was a lot of desire to meet the other side. The communities here are much more separated than back home. There is a level of dialogue there, and everyday interaction, because we live in each other’s arses. There is an actual humanitarian, artistic, intellectual, educational exchange. But here they’re completely separate. When they met, there was a lot of misconception on both sides, a lot of judgement that got debunked in the process. It was a fantastic outcome, which I hope transpires in the work.”

Is there something universal in these stories? There is and there isn’t, says Sivan. The problem of translation is huge.

“I feel I carry the conflict in my cell memory, in my body, in how I am here. I feel that someone who hasn’t grown up with war doesn’t have an entry point. It’s a constant negotiation of self. You need to open it up, provide an entrance into the work.”

“But I’ve started taking that problem into my work. In the past few years, I’ve started working with video. I’ve found the immediacy of the screen makes it easier to transpose the conflict to Australia than through performance. Showing it on screen, something gets immediately understood. Seeing an empty street, you realise it’s because no-one is allowed to walk there; and the meaning is created. In performance, you almost need to spell it out. Because you start with an empty space, you need to put in all the little details that are already, naturally there when you film.”

Wall Stories, set in a gallery space, created an immersive video environment that Sivan feels was more effective in “explaining the intangibles.” She is, however, planning to move back to the Middle East, and do the same project with Palestinians and Israelis.

“I’m starting to feel that I work in a bit of a vacuum, making political art in an apolitical society. There’s been a genocide here that no-one has dealth with, on any level. People have, individuals have chosen to, but not on a community level, or government level. The denial is so deep, so profound and so present in this society. How do you deal with genocide, if you don’t live with it on a daily basis? The great sorry happened, and it was great. But it was a tokenism, in a way. What does it mean in real terms?”

“This is a point of difference. In Israel, because of its compactness, we have to deal with our trauma. We all went to the army; we all know someone who died. You’re surrounded by it. Paradoxically, when I’m there, I feel I can breathe properly. Here, there is a real facade.”

There are compelling parallels that can be drawn with the war in ex-Yugoslavia, where activists have been fighting to establish an inquiry into the war crimes, and working on the process of reconciliation. The indictment cannot come from the outside, we agree, in order to wash away the collective guilt. It is important to own your criticism.

“While the Israelis have gone through a lot of sobering, the Australian Jewish community seems to still hold the values of what Israel was, perhaps, 30 years ago. Which I think is very common to many diasporic societies. It’s true, in many ways, for the Greeks, the Italians. In contemporary Israel, there is a real crisis in self-definition. More and more people are saying, we need to re-define ourselves, not as ex-soldiers, not as soldiers-to-be, but as a more enlightened place. But in the Jewish community here, you cannot say a word about Israel that isn’t positive.”

“Australia has allowed me to distance myself from the collective trauma, and to experience normality. It has allowed me to understand what’s going on there. But now I feel it’s my time to go back.”

In different ways, we are all children of conflict: Israelis, Croats and Serbs, and Australians. While in Srbljanovic’s condemning play Family Stories, which recently closed after a successful run in Sydney, children perpetuate the crimes of their parents, killing each other like helpless parrots, it is good to remind ourselves that, as children, we are also the only ones with the power to break the cycle.

“What Do You Think About Me?” by Sivan Gabrielovich
Gallery A, Meat Market , 5 Blackwood St, North Melbourne
19 – 23 Nov, 26 – 29 Nov, 3 – 6 Dec 2008
OPENING HOURS Wed – Sat 12- 6pm

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