e-interview with Israeli artist Basil C. Frank
Eve Kask: You were born in South Africa, and now you live in Israel. What can you say about Political / Poetical in that context?
Basil C Frank: Both social and political situations deal with ethnic conflicts, borders and separation, but with defined strategic differences. In both instances beauty and horror Political / Poetical are uncompromisingly thrust together on an epic scale. My award-winning work, Saartje Baartman’s Story, is a signifier of the slave trade and of 19th century Darwinism intending to prove the superiority of Europeans. This carried through to the era of South African Apartheid based on the doctrines of National Socialism. The Baartman story was the basis of the Christian civilizing mission – that ‘diseased’, uncontrolled African sexuality had to be contained. This intellectual perversion is exemplified by the 19th century French scientist and anatomist Curvier, who dissected her body and sexual organs, which were subsequently exhibited in the Musee de l’Homme in Paris. Her remains were returned to South Africa for burial only in 2002.
The State of Israel in l948 was partly established by victims and refugees from both Arab countries and the European Holocaust. This resulted in the displacement of Palestinians to neighbouring Arab states. While fanaticism or zealotry, be it Palestinian or Israeli, has not vanished, similarly the end of the South African Apartheid heralded a huge crime wave primarily by the poverty-stricken black community. A solution to this reactive behavioural situation is neither a security wall around a home as in the post apartheid installation ‘Design for living’ by the South African artist, Jane Alexander, at the 27th Sao Paulo Biennale, nor for that matter the Israeli border security wall painted as a symbol of protest by Israeli artists.
In my work, Walls and Words, the wall of the second Temple symbolizes Judaism’s 2000-year quest to return to Jerusalem. Above the Western Wall is the Dome of The Rock, built more than 700 years later and sacred to Muslims, as it represents the location from which, in a dream sequence, Mohammed ascended on horseback to heaven.
The wall is a living visual metaphor, a signifier of Palestinian and Jewish aspirations; it is poetry interwoven into the politics of horror.
You have been hypersensitive in the past in reference to borrowing Nazi symbols in art because the meaning can be ambivalent and debatable in an artwork. Do you think that one should censor the use of Nazi symbols in international exhibitions? Why?
Angela Merkel says it best: “I am glad to live in a democracy. We know what that means. That is why we will adopt an attitude of zero tolerance towards the forces who want to take us back to National Socialism (Nazis)." Chancellor Merkel made this statement on Holocaust Memorial Day last year. Personally, I believe that the term “hypersensitive” is inappropriate. I am sensitive, as any person should be, to the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany and their collaborator states. Similarly and with justification, Estonians are sensitive to Soviet-era symbols, reminders of Stalin’s expulsions, repression and brutality.
Members of my own family were slaughtered in Lithuania during the Holocaust.
Sharlene Kahn wrote on curatorship in Artlink magazine 2005:
"This ability to represent others however, is indeed a burdened one. Representation comes with a level of responsibility and accountability not only to an audience, the sponsors and an institution but to those being represented – and with extensive histories of oppression, colonisation and exploitation in any African country to work against, this is certainly not an enviable task."
This responsibility should similarly be applied when the curator is confronted with Nazi imagery and is the ultimate censor, not the educational mission of some state ideologue or propagandist. The use of Nazi symbols would be nothing short of alarmist, a possible guarantee to stardom but leaving in question the merit of the work. It should be remembered that in 1934, the Nazis finally condemned modern art as fundamentally "un-German", alien and "Bolshevist". Hitler sent his soldiers to jeer at the works of the Bauhaus on exhibition. In this instance any contemporary artist or curator with any perception of history should bear the accountability. Ambivalence has no role in a doctrine of horror.
What should be done to expiate the holocaust problem internationally in your opinion? Is it possible at all?
One cannot atone for the Holocaust, but one can try and learn to prevent it happening in the future. Unfortunately, in the face of the killing fields of Cambodia, Rwanda, Darfur and the Congo – people don’t learn from the past. “Never again” has become a hollow sentiment. Even in contemporary Russia, neo-Nazis and the extreme right-wing glorify Nazi Germany, this in spite of horrifying losses inflicted on the Soviet populace when the Nazis invaded. In the Baltic States, as a reaction to Soviet tyranny, there are many who view the Nazis as liberators.
What is the point of printmaking for you?
Printmaking for me is a process for projecting the inner self (karma) that has undergone a trance state from the negative to the positive – working from inside out to be printed and projected to reach a mass global audience. (Nietzsche states in The Birth of Tragedy that art is made in a semi-trance like state)
Furthermore, the marvellous invention – digital technology violates national demarcation lines with impunity, disguising the toponymic source of original production and becomes the ultimate government unto itself. Subversive, anarchistic, eliminating the state censor and system, art being the subliminal force in a chaotic collision of forces when boundaries are eliminated.
As in the art process, the original print never remains the same – it is perpetually in a state of flux and evolution. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said one can never step into the river of time twice, although it is the same river – a complex and dynamic system that is always changing.
What is the importance of International print triennials and biennials in your life?
For me the institution should be a highly evolved global democratic platform for change where artists are thrust by the merit of their work. In many cases it is the tool of national states to promote their national character in a world arena, but for the artist by contrast it is for propagating his work, universalist doctrines or concepts whether through serious political engagement or the metaphysical. I would add what Beuys has said "I'm interested in the distribution of physical vehicles in the form of editions because I'm interested in spreading ideas”. If that’s the case Joseph B’s dream of physical vehicles has come to fruition in the form of monthly or almost weekly International print triennials and biennials.