Monthly Archives: February 2020

Redemption, Conservation and the Making of Territory

Our most recent landscape surgery session was presented by Dr Yoav Galai, a lecturer in global political communications from Royal Holloway’s own department of politics, international relations and philosophy. Yoav’s research is concerned with narrative politics, visual politics and collective memory.

The presentation was of an ongoing project of Yoav’s that is exploring the ways in which interventions in the natural world are used to legitimise political claims to land, with a specific focus on the production and realisation of Jewish imaginaries in Israel and the dispossession of Palestinian land. Yoav made frequent reference to Zionism here then, which for him, refers specifically to the ‘redemption’ of a Jewish nation is what is now Israel. Indeed, as can be seen below, these two lands often come into close contact.

Yoav adopts stereoscopic photography to visualise the overlapping cultural, social and political layers, that define these contested territories. This technique, very popular during the beginning of the 20th century, is used to portray picturesque views of urban landscape, consists of capturing and displaying two slightly offset photographs to create three dimensional images. Using two paired digital cameras and a visor to merge the resulting images into a three-dimensional composition, Yoav produced a series of landscape photography of contested areas in contemporary Eastern Jerusalem. The talk began with Yoav showing us a photo of his taken as such.

A section of land in Israel, that has been ‘colour coded’ to show the checkerboard-like nature of distinctions between Jewish and Palestinian land. Each colour corresponds to either Palestinian or Jewish ownership.
Photo taken, edited and provided by Dr. Yoav Galai.

From there, we discussed interventions on the land and photography more generally. The two main discussion points were interventions with flora on one hand, and fauna on the other, highlighting how each of these have been utilised in various ways to project the imaginaries of redeeming and restoring the Holy Land onto the landscape.

The first example we were presented with was flora, namely, an ongoing project of afforestation by the Jewish National Fund, to create abundant tree cover to Israel in attempt to re-create a landscape associated with ancient Jewish ownership. As Yoav notes, this is in line with the ‘making the desert bloom’ narrative, restoring the barren Palestinian land’s former vitality through Jewish reoccupation.

Of course, this example serves popular discourses such as caring for the environment, and creating natural public spaces, yet Yoav argues that it simultaneously works to legitimise Jewish ownership of the land, under the guise of what he calls an ‘angelical narrative’. It is thus an act that is weaved into that general category of redemption. We also learn that there is a ₪7000 (ILS) (this is currently around £1500 or €900) fine for removing the trees, and even the possibility of jail time, meaning that once these trees have been planted, that land is off limits.

We now turn to some of his more recent work, similar in nature, but this time concerned with live animals, the fauna. Hai Bar Yotvata Nature Reserve was established in Israeli in 1986 with the aim of re-introducing the biblical animals (to varying degrees of success) that are said to have been made extinct in the wild during Muslim occupation, such as the donkey, oryx and addax. The animals are bred here and then re-introduced into the wild.

The point of the Hai Bar then, is clear, to restore the land to its supposed former state, with a lack of modern intervention, recreating the fertile land associates with Jewish ancient occupation. Yoav reminds us here that, of course, it is not a biblical safari, but is a reproduction, bringing an imagined land from the past, to the present.

At this point, we spend some time thinking about the role of photography in this construction of this imaginary. Yoav introduces us to the late nature photographer Gail Rubin. Her posthumous publication Psalmist with a Camera (1979) worked hand in hand with the aims of the Hai Bar. Within are wide framed shots of the animals of the Hai Bar, representing at once both the fertile, rich lands and the fauna that belong in them. They are shot in such a way as to document the existence of the ancient Jewish lands, both influenced by and feeding the Jewish imaginary through representation, and thereby working to establishing the facts of the realm. 

Gail Rubin’s (1979) Psalmist with a Camera: Photographs of a Biblical Safari. Abbeville Press.

An interesting point here is the contrast between Gail’s nature photography and Yoav’s photograph included above. Gail’s work aims to represent solely Jewish ownership of the Israeli lands, denying the possibility of Palestinian associations by excluding the Palestinian lands from her lens. On the other hand, Yoav’s image above shows the reality of Israel’s contested lands, and how both Palestinian and Jewish claims to the land are not as separate as the former collection implies. We must remind ourselves then, that the camera is not an objective tool. In every photo, the photographer choses what to include and exclude, whilst these choices are often framed by social context and subjectivities of the photography. What is not in the frame then, can tell us as much about the image and what is visible.

So, what we are seeing with these examples is the construction of a biblical gaze that works as an antagonism, redeeming and restoring the former Jewish lands as legitimised by pro-environmental discourse, whilst dispossessing the Palestinian of that same land. It is, Yoav argues, the mobilisation of biblical narratives in various ways that work to legitimise a political, territory-based narrative.

Yoav finishes by reminding us that all of this is still ongoing in some ways, and that the take home point is that it is important to put such interventions under scrutiny, highlighting their political nature and origins.

Written by Rhys Gazeres.

Edited by Rachel Tyler.

Contributions from Stefano Carnelli.


Tagged , , ,

From Theatres, to Exhibitions, to Restaurants: Expanding and Deploying Scenography

Our most recent session was organised by Jihane Dyer (Royal Holloway), a 2nd year PhD student, and featured presentations from Dr. Rachel Hann (University of Surrey) and Prof. Judith Clark (London College of Fashion). The session explored the term ‘scenography’, how it can pull apart and expand, and what benefits this creates when thinking about exhibitions, experiential spaces and events.

Firstly, Jihane reminds us that scenography is a technical term denoting the art of perspective representation and is associated most closely with set design in the theatre. In this sense, scenography is about communicating a pre-determined idea to a spectating audience. We were encouraged to think about how this idea can be taken away from the theatre and thought of horizontally as an assemblage of facets and agents that come together when exhibiting things and places.

Judith Clark’s presentation was entitled ‘retrieving exhibitions’. Judith trained as an architect before becoming a curator and exhibition maker. She reflects that while fashion exhibitions are well documented in catalogues, these catalogues usually only include representations of the garments shown. They rarely include, until relatively recently, a sense of how they were exhibited or ideas about the physical curation of the exhibition. The questions that Judith asks us are: what happens behind the scenes of an exhibition? And, what about the spaces between the objects? 

We are introduced to Judith’s exhibition Fashion and Heritage – Conversations at the Cristóbal Balenciaga Museoa, Getaria, Spain (2018). Judith used a double narrative in the curation to both explain the evolution of Balenciaga’s designs and its historiography– through scenography and the use of visual ‘captions’. These captions would often reference (or retrieve) previous exhibits of Balenciaga. One example is  a miniature installation replicating a photograph from a previous exhibiton:  Balenciaga Ouvre au Noir, at Musee Bourdelle, 2019, which sits next to a dress displayed on a mannequin.  Judith notes that this image always came to her mind in relation to this dress and seemed relevant to this exhibition. It also pushes forward the theme of sculpture, and the evolution of sculptural elements in Balenciaga’s clothing.   

A collage exploring the themes and facets of Judith’s (2018) Fashion and Heritage – Conversation exhibition. Taken from

The point here is that past exhibitions can offer information that is pertinent to the objects on display in a current exhibition. The space around the object is important, in terms of both immediate physical space and the intellectual space in which they are thought about. Time; place (both the place of creation and places of exhibition); the garment; the garment’s production, are all equally relevant in costume history. 

Rachel Hann’s presentation offered an insight into the work presented in her recently released book ‘Beyond Scenography’ (Routledge: 2019). Rachel’s first point of departure is that scenography is not necessarily an individual phenomenon but can be thought of as a process rife with multiplicity and plurality. In this sense, Rachel notes that thinking of scenography in this way allows us to move beyond the notion that scenography is exclusively a visual phenomenon, but instead a multisensory process comprised of both human and more-than-human elements that come together in assemblage to create what Rachel calls ‘feelings of place’ or ‘of world’.

Rachel Hann’s (2019) Beyond Scenography.

For Rachel then, scenography is about investigating the processes and assemblages of the tangible and intangible, and of matter and mind, that are involved in the making of world. She reminds us that we are not simply looking at the world, but instead are intrinsically bound up, or with the world. To illustrate this, she details a first-person experience of a Vietnamese restaurant in Guildford that is designed to mimic a Bangkok street market. Here, one experiences a multi-sensory dynamic of smells, tastes, and aesthetics that work together to elicit a feeling of place through artistic, and indeed culinary, means.

Thaikun restaurant, Guildford (Photo on behalf of Rachel Hann).

Both presentations here were clearly rather different, one exploring museum space and the other the notions of place and world. What we see in both cases though, is how the idea of scenography can be expanded and deployed in various ways, aiding our understanding of both of these topics in some useful and insightful ways.

We would like to thank both Rachel and Judith for their thought-provoking presentations, to Jihane Dyer for organising and convening the session, and to all the landscape surgery participants that offered some interesting questions and discussion points.

Written by Rhys Gazeres. Edited by Rachel Tyler.

Tagged , , , , , , ,