The Israeli artist closes the Biennial exhibition, urging a ceasefire and the release of the hostages

Since February, thousands of pro-Palestinian activists have tried in vain to convince the Venice Biennale, one of the world's most prestigious international art exhibitions, to ban Israel for its conduct in the war on Gaza.

But on Tuesday, when the international pavilions of the Biennale open for a media preview, the doors of the Israeli pavilion will still remain closed, at the behest of the artist and curators representing Israel.

“The artist and curators of the Israeli pavilion will open the exhibition when a ceasefire and hostage release agreement is reached,” reads a sign that the Israeli team taped to the pavilion door.

“I hate it,” Ruth Patir, the artist chosen to represent Israel, said in an interview about her decision not to open the exhibition she is working on, “but I think it's important.”

The sign Tuesday on the window of the Israeli pavilion.Credit…Matthew de Mayda for the New York Times

She said that although the Biennale, which opens to the public on Saturday, is a huge opportunity for a young artist like her, the situation in Gaza is “much bigger than me,” and she believes closing the pavilion was the only action that he could undertake.

The war cast a shadow on major cultural events. After the October 7 Hamas attacks in southern Israel, in which around 1,200 people were killed and 240 taken hostage, according to Israeli authorities, and the Israeli campaign in Gaza, which local authorities say killed more than 33,000 people, the artists reacted to major events around Israel. the world. There were protests from the stage at the Oscars and Grammy Awards, an artist cleverly included a “Free Palestine” message in her work at the Whitney Biennial, and there were debates over Israel's participation in the Eurovision Song Contest.

All of these protests came from outside Israel. And although many Israelis share Patir's desire for a ceasefire and hostage agreement, a call for a ceasefire by an artist representing the country at a major international event could draw criticism from Israeli lawmakers, said Tamar Margalit, curator of the Israeli pavilion who reached the decision with Patir and Mira Lapidot, another curator of the pavilion.

The Israeli government, which paid about half the pavilion's costs, was not informed in advance of the protest, Margalit said. Israel's Culture Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.

Margalit said visitors will still be able to see one of Patir's videos through the pavilion's windows. For that two-and-a-half-minute piece, Patir used computers to animate images of ancient fertility statues, which are a recurring motif in her work. The female statues, many of which have broken or missing limbs, come to life in the film and move, moaning in pain and anger.

Patir said the artwork, finished this month, reflects his sadness and frustration over the conflict. The emotions depicted in the film “felt true to the experience of living in this moment,” Patir added.

In recent decades, the Venice Biennale has often reflected Israel's fraught relations with other Middle Eastern countries. In 1982, after Israel invaded Lebanon, an Italian communist organization detonated a bomb outside the Israeli pavilion, damaging some of the artwork inside. More recently, in 2015, pro-Palestinian activists briefly occupied the Israeli pavilion and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.

The furor around the Israeli pavilion this year began in February when Art Not Genocide Alliance, an activist group, published an open letter urging a ban on what it said were Israel's “ongoing atrocities” in Gaza .

“Any official representation of Israel on the international cultural scene is an endorsement of its policies and the genocide in Gaza,” the letter reads. Signatories include photographer and activist Nan Goldin and artists representing their countries in 14 pavilions of this year's Biennale, including those of Chile, Finland and Nigeria.

On Tuesday, Art Not Genocide Alliance said in a statement on Instagram that Patir's protest was an empty and opportunistic gesture “timed for maximum press coverage.” Patir should not show a video work even with the pavilion doors closed, the statement added.

In its February letter, the group drew historical parallels to justify its call for a ban. In the 1960s, the Italian government banned South Africa due to apartheid. And when Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the Russian artists chosen to represent it decided to withdraw. (This year too, Russia is not participating and has lent its large pavilion to Bolivia, in a privileged position in the Biennale gardens.)

Biennale organizers rejected these comparisons, saying that any country recognized by the Italian government was free to participate. Italian lawmakers gave even stronger support. In February, Gennaro Sangiuliano, Italy's culture minister, said that Israel has both “the right to express its art” and the duty to “bear witness to its people precisely at a time like this when they have been ruthlessly struck by ruthless terrorists. “

Throughout the uproar, Patir, whose work is little known outside Israel, remained silent, declining interview requests as she completed work on her pavilion show, which is called “(M)otherland.”

Initial descriptions of the presentation called it “a fertility pavilion,” but Patir said the show was actually an exploration of the pressure on women to become mothers. Four years ago, Patir said, she was diagnosed with a genetic mutation that increased the risk of breast and ovarian cancer, and doctors recommended that she freeze her eggs so she wouldn't lose her chance at motherhood.

In that moment, she found herself “confronted with the patriarchal gaze of the medical world, which was trying to put me in this fertility box,” Patir said. She began recording her medical appointments for use in her work.

Last September, a committee of Israeli art professionals, appointed by the culture ministry, chose Patir to travel to Venice; a month later, Hamas attacked Israel.

Patir said he cried regularly over those attacks and Israel's retaliation in Gaza. He had also regularly participated in protests in Tel Aviv, he added, calling for a deal on the hostages and the resignation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Working on the pavilion show was his only solace, Patir said, although the conflict casts a shadow over that too.

During a visit to the Israeli Antiquities Authority's warehouses to examine the collection of ancient fertility goddesses, Patir said, an archivist let her handle a series of broken and fragmented statues. “It was almost shocking,” Patir recalled, “to see these women destroyed in relation to all the images on the news.”

As the event approached, Patir said she and the curators hoped the situation might change. They couldn't imagine “that we would be in Venice in April with the hostages still prisoners, with the war still going on,” Patir said. So they made some decisions: first to cancel the party that traditionally celebrates the opening of the pavilion, then to create a work of art in response to the war, and finally to close the exhibition completely.

There has been little progress towards a ceasefire and tensions have risen between Israel and Iran. But Patir said he hopes the conditions will be met to welcome visitors before the Biennale ends on November 24.

“I believe we will open it,” Patir said. “I think we will.”

Gabby Sobelman contributed reporting from Rehovot, Israel.

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