Sigal Barkai

‘Historiographic Irony’: on Art, Nationality and In-Between Identities

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Studies in Visual Arts and Communication – an international journal / December 2016 3(2)


The paper deals with questions of identities of native Israeli artists who chose to live out of the country, or to move back and forth to and from it. It asks about the ways these wanderings are reflected in their artwork. “Historiographic Irony” is a hybrid notion, combining criticism of historical narratives concerning the Israeli state with ironic artistic expression.

The article discusses the work of four contemporary artists who produce artworks in diverse techniques, such as video, performance and installation art. Yael Bartana, Erez Israeli and Tamir Zadok are artists who constantly deal with Israeli nationality and history in their artwork, using ironic components. In comparison, I examined the works of Mika Rottenberg, who is now a New York based artist. She is concerned with global social issues and neglected specific national identity altogether. All of them use visual irony as a means of reflecting and criticizing society.

The analysis was done in awareness of the life stories of the artists, in an attempt to trace the ways they establish their identities through their art. I pre-supposed that these identities will be shaped in the in-between space of being an Israeli citizen and a citizen of the world. I asked how ironic expression appears in their work, what kind of irony do they use and in what ways does it serves them.

The methodology combined visual analysis, interviews with the artists and analyzation of secondary discourses in the media. As theoretical background I used various fields of knowledge such as literature and language studies, Sociology, and Visual Culture studies. Definitions of Irony from other fields of knowledge were adjusted to art review and analysis.

The findings point out that visual and artistic irony has many different goals in the use of historiographic fiction. It can bind an artist to his homeland and native society, or it can help to detach, or to heal the breaches in the in-between space. In comparison, when a detachment from any identification with a native origin occurs, the subjects of ironic art become cosmopolitan and a-historical.

Keywords: Irony, Identities, Visual art, Israel, Mockumentary

Biographical note

Dr. Sigal Barkai is the head of Visual Literacy – Arts Education Graduate Program M.Ed, at the Faculty of Arts, Kibbutzim College, Tel-Aviv, Israel.

She is a researcher and curator of contemporary Israeli art. In her past she was a curator at the Petach-Tikva Museum of Art (2005-2009) and since then she worked as an independent curator in various venues such as the Eretz Israel museum and Haifa Museum of Art. She published numerous papers and articles about Israeli visual arts from a feminist and sociopolitical point of view, including the chapter: “Between the Joy of the Woman Castrator and the Silence of the Woman Victim: Following the Exhibition The uncanny XX, in:  Sensational Pleasures in Cinema, Literature and Visual Culture: The Phallic Eye. Editors: Padva, G., Buchweitz, N., Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. Her PhD dissertation, named: “A Stage for Masculinities: Representations of Israeli soldiers in the theatre” was submitted to the Faculty of the Arts at Tel Aviv University, 2012. Since 2011 she is the national supervisor of art education in the Israeli ministry of education.