Not on display
This text discusses Yerucham, 1997 (P11752-11755), four photographs by Gilad Ophir from the Necropolis Series, a collective work by Israeli artists Ophir and Roi Kuper (born 1956). Tate owns a number of other photographs from this group, five by Ophir (titled Shooting Targets, 1997, P11747-11751), and eight by Kuper (all Untitled, 1999, P11736-P11743).
The Yerucham photographs portray abandoned camp emplacements near the small development town of Yerucham in the Negev desert, southern Israel. None of these sites are marked on the map but knowledge of them is gained by word of mouth. They are thus secret or quasi-secret locations. No reason is given and no evidence available as to why the camp was abandoned. Ophir highlights the issue of colonisation of the desert, this time for military reasons, when man displays his omnipotence by imposing structure and order on nature. However, once vacated nature strikes back and the weeds begin to reclaim their ground. An emblem of power becomes an emblem of absence where the power has been emptied out. Each of these photographs has a pervasive sense of memory, as indeed do Ophir's Shooting Targets. They are in fact memorials to time past and lives lived.
The archaeology of the Holy Land is a revered subject with a sense of romance attached. Kuper and Ophir are stripping away that romance and manifest a new approach to the archaeology of the desert. The title of their work, Necropolis Series, is telling: the necropolis is literally a 'city of the dead'. It also harks back to the ancient past and archaeology of Israel, when the Jews buried their dead in carved sarcofagi resembling Roman ones, which were placed in catacombs or burial chambers (a notable example in Israel is the huge necropolis of Bet She'Arim, 1-4 century AD). Like these eight untitled photographs, other works in their Necropolis Series deal with Israel's recent past through the portrayal of what its wars and their protagonists left behind, whether they be Jordanian jeeps, abandoned military camps, derelict shelters or man-made mounds. Kuper and Ophir's photographs map the geography of an Israel blighted by war, chronicling neither losses nor successes, but the eerie impact of Israel's wartime relics on its landscape.
There are two particular themes which recur in the work of Ophir. One is the opposition of nature to culture and the other is the impact of militarisation on the landscape. In both he seeks an engagement with urgent social and political issues in Israel.
90 70 90, exhibition catalogue, Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Tel Aviv 1994
Gilad Ophir: Cyclopean Walls, exhibition catalogue, Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Tel Aviv 1995/2002
Revised by Giorgia Bottinelli
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