I was not here
Catalog text for Tzfia Dgani’s exhibition at ArtCube (2017)
Tzfia first told me about her ideas for the present project in the fall of 2015. At the time I was coming to her house every Tuesday morning for two hours. One hour we spoke Hebrew, for my benefit; the other hour we spoke English, for hers. One day she asked me to help her with a grant application for an art project she wanted to do in Berlin. The seed of the project was an experience she had had staying at a friend’s sublet there a few years back. She had felt like a ghost, she said; a delicious feeling of seeing without being seen, inhabiting a private space without the occupants’ knowledge. Now she wanted to recreate the situation, this time documenting her stay with photographs of the secret installations she would build there.
Berlin of course had a symbolism that would give an aura to the whole endeavor. And still, as I pointed out, it lacked a more personal meaning—Tzfia’s grandparents were not Germans. Her grandmother, living next door to her, was from Poland. Wouldn’t it be more meaningful to execute the project there? She was persuaded; we wrote the proposal; and toward the end of December we met at the gate for the flight to Warsaw. Tzfia was taking off on her airbnb project; I was meeting my mother to celebrate Christmas.
The project of Zionism is about memory in a few different ways. Most obviously, it is a project of remembering something forgotten: recalling an all-but-dead language, returning to a former home. But it is also crucially a project of erasing memory, of forgetting. The Jews were supposed to shed the identities they had worn in the diaspora, identities formed in a position of weakness. They were to forget their native language, whether it was Russian, German, Polish or Yiddish. In fact, from the long history of Jewish life in Europe, there was only one event that Israelis should never forget.
Here was Tzfia, then, flying to a country whose language she did not speak, whose culture she knew little about beyond what all Israelis have heard—that the Poles had been worse than the Germans. She did not know how to pick out proper boots for a week in the Polish winter; she did not know that on December 25th, the supermarket would be closed. Her connection to the place was an abstract fact, it had barely any content for her. Yet this emptiness precisely was at the heart of her project.
What she pursued, though, was not to connect with Polish people of her generation, or to discover some aspect of Europe to make her own. It was rather to put her strangeness in this place on stage, and proceed to document it. That strangeness was neatly figured by her relative anonymity as an airbnb guest, sleeping in the bed of someone she had never met. But she also wanted to build installations, intervening somehow into the strange environment.
This intervention was subversive in the sense that playing around with the furniture was not the express purpose for which people had rented her their apartments. But her rebellion had a very soft touch. True, the twin furs that lie across a commode in one of her photographs have grown horns, as if to say they resent being stepped on—they, who were once wild beasts, pulsating with life and hunger. But in general, the installations are harmless, even disarming in their innocence, as if saying “Don’t worry, I didn’t trash your place, I’m just playing.” The watermelon that floats in a bathtub is cheerful and friendly; it has found a kinship with the minty green bathmat, even as, in a northern European December, it is completely out of place.
Two basic but contrary urges seem to operate in the works. The first one is the desire to be present in this foreign space—to exist comfortably, holding your head up high, in a territory where people like you once had to hide in the basement. The installations are ephemeral pieces of evidence of successful penetration into the private realm of another—the photographs triumphantly declare: “I was here!” Yet Tzfia herself is not in the pictures: she leaves us searching the scenes for her avatar. That is because of the second urge: the desire to be invisible, to merge into the environment as an unobserved observer, taking a break from the gaze of others. Accommodating each of these urges in her installations, she leaves behind an ambiguous, even paradoxical message: “I was not here.”
For the two years I lived in Israel, I never met with hostility, but always with perplexity. I was not Jewish, I didn’t have an Israeli boyfriend, and no job at an archeological site had brought me to this place where war is always on the horizon. I tried to explain, when people asked, that I really just liked the atmosphere and the people. Sometimes I offered my theory that I felt at home in Israel because, although I had grown up in Sweden, part of my family was from Russia and Poland. But many people found this explanation to be a non-sequitur. They thought of European Jews as outsiders who had little in common with the majority culture in the places where they had lived. And still, the affinity I felt was often reciprocated. Some old and friendly ghost from a long-lost place would appear in the air between us, as my Israeli friends reminded me of my grandparents and I reminded them of theirs.