MAC, SHREK, AND A FLAG WITH A HOLE, OR: WHO WILL GATHER THE FLAGS?
- Tali Tamir
"All the country - flags upon flags," goes a popular ditty sung by kindergarten children in Israel over the generations. Indeed, Israel Roly Netiv's camera reaffirms the patriotic Israeli penchant for the national flag: the two horizontal stripes with the Star of David in between, bluing against the backdrop of the white cloth, fluttering in the wind under window sills, from balconies, on gates, next to fruit and vegetable stalls along highways, on shopping mall rooftops, on barbed wire fences, on prison walls, in the entrance to industrial zones, in building sites, and on plain hilltops... Flags in Migdal Ha'emek, Ramat Yishai, Zarzir, Yafi'a, Haifa Bay... Large rectangles or slight-waisted triangular flags, solitary or in chains, and finally - a flag with a big hole at its heart, fluttering in-between a McDonald's ad and Shrek's greenish figure... Everywhere - the Israeli flag flutters, like a common, readily available instinct waiting to be pulled out, a delineation of a local sphere. Patriotism appears more optimistic when it is hoisted high up, energetically undulating in the wind.
Liberty in Delacroix's famous painting hoists a flag from amid the ruins of the revolution. Her standard is beautiful and intact, although turbulent and wavy. The wind - whether a real breeze or the dynamic spirit of the revolution - inflates the flag like a ship's sails on a stormy sea, enhancing its dramatic content. The wavier the flag and the stronger its motion in the wind, the higher it rises, moistening our eyes and blurring our gaze. The sound of wind repeatedly hitting the flag high above our heads strikes our ears, suggesting commemoration or swearing-in ceremonies, eliciting a sense of collective identity. According to sociologist and scholar of Israeli culture, Prof. Uri Ram, "all flags share the same code of 'national flagness' ... they lend their followers a sense of common national identity." (1)
The well-known children's song, sung on Independence Day, speaks the language of the people: "A merry nation, rejoicing children / a great festival to Israel." Netiv, however, photographs flags without festivity, without a merry nation, and without rejoicing kids. Inadvertently, he sees nothing but torn flags. Just as the camera of American photographer Diane Arbus was always drawn to the anomalous and freakish, so Netiv's eye is only drawn to unraveled, torn flags, out of some inner attraction, which even he himself cannot quite explain. As a paraphrase to Tolstoy's well-known opening sentence of Anna Karenina, "All happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion," one may say about Netiv's magnificent collection of torn flag photographs that all intact flags are alike, proud and happy against the backdrop of the sky: blue-and-white-against-blue-and-white; but a torn flag is torn after its own fashion - one is unraveled, the other - split, the third remains with only a quarter of its stripes, and the fourth - with only a Star of David... One releases a leaping trace of string into the air, groping its way alone in the space before it, another strikes the wind with a short fabric-stump, like a dwarf's legs... One flag is hoisted on a straight, smooth mast, another is attached with an improvised knot to two planks... There are tears that have skirted the Star of David and split around it, and others that have entrenched themselves and shattered it from within... Flags torn of age, frayed by the sweeping winds, worn out until they have lost their flag-image and transformed into crumbling rifts...
Prof. Yeshayahu Leibovitz described the national flag as "a rag on a pole," mockingly wondering why people are willing to die for this piece of cloth fluttering in the wind. The flags photographed by Netiv are indeed rags of sorts, inevitably reflecting the condition of national statehood, having been severely damaged by processes of advanced corrosion. While the hoisted flag articulates national uprightness and pride, the torn flag symbolizes the deep rifts of post-nationalism, of a state that licks its wounds and gathers its fragments.
Roly, however, did not embark on his quest to seek proof of the frailty of Israeli nationalism. The initial, instinctive, unconscious motivation for these photographs was the acute presence of gaps. Netiv depicted the gap between the flag's energetic waving and its limpness. He depicted an image of disappointment, a metaphor for acceptance and disillusionment. In his endless wanderings in local landscapes, armed with his camera, Netiv captured these ironic sights when it was no longer possible to deny the incongruity between sign and signified. The torn flags symbolize for him an inevitably bending treetop, an unstitching, a necessary fading… Roly-Israel's torn flag is also a private-personal symbol, the standard of leniency and compromise, the flag of sobriety and reason, a flag with a hole...
Netiv entitled this series of photographs "Derekh Degel" (literally "the way of a flag"), alluding to "the way of a man with a maid" (Proverbs 30:19). Can this paraphrase be extended to "the way of a flag in a country"? Is the relationship between a man and a maid tantamount to that of a flag and its state? Does the flag spare the nation entrusted to it? Does the state spare its flag?... Will the state send one of its officials to traverse the country's lanes with a large sack, gather all the flawed, torn, cloven flags, and replace them with other, newer ones? Who exactly is responsible for the flags here? Who is responsible for the holes and the tears?
- Tali Tamir
Uri Ram, The Globalization of Israel: McWorld in Tel Aviv, Jihad in Jerusalem (New York: Routledge, 2007), p. 202.