Orna Lutski: Flags


Orna Lutski's exhibition consists of three basic elements: the Mediterranean basin - as a platform and a conceptual basis; the flag - as a leading visual motif; and a paraphrase of the original image of the flag - as a fine feminist interpretation of existing symbols. The artist's choice to address the national flags of Mediterranean countries is a reflexive choice which lends a single frame to the flags of neighbors sharing one sea. Lutski's manipulation of the symbols and colors representing her neighbors' flags articulates the motivating power underlying the exhibition - female power.

The Mediterranean Sea

The geographical region addressed by Lutski touches on three continents, on whose shores the twilight of human history in the west of the Eastern Hemisphere erupted. The unique art and culture created in this part of the world cannot be fathomed without understanding the geographical data from which this history derives. It cannot be grasped without exploring the enigmatic manner in which nature permeates history and art; without inquiring how the shores are reflected in the architecture constructed along them, and how borders are influenced by religious expansion and the migration of eels. It cannot be comprehended without studying the flow of rivers and the areas where vines and olives grow, nor without alluding to stories preserved in ancient manuscripts and maritime dictionaries, to languages that have become extinct or have been revived, to jargons or pidgins that have changed and evolved unheedingly in space and time.

The Mediterranean mosaic is made of many different elements. It cannot be encapsulated by describing its religious or political singularity. The Mediterranean is not only a sphere of belonging, nor is it mere history or geography. Here, perhaps more than in any other place, peoples and races that fought one another for generations have intermingled. Along its shores ran the winding routes of silk and amber, salt and spices, oil and perfumes, tools and weapons, crafts and sciences, prophesies and beliefs. Here the lingua franca was prevalent as an internationally spoken regional language of commerce. It is a region that has assimilated Europe as well as the countries of the Maghreb and the Near East; Judaism, Christianity and Islam; the Talmud, the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Koran. Athens and Rome; Jerusalem, Alexandria and Constantinople; Venice and Genoa; Greek art, dialectics and democracy; Roman law, the Forum and the Republic; Arab science; Provence and Catalonia; Italian Renaissance; Spain in various periods, both glorious and inglorious; the southern Slavs on the Adriatic Coast; and many other elements that have shaped its unique character.

In order to capture the full scope and content of "Mediterraneanism" one must avoid isolating its constituent elements. In order to grasp the essence of the region it ought to be considered as a totality: one must not reduce the notion of "environment" to mere geography, geology, climate or ecology, just as one must not apply it solely to society, economy, religion or history.

So what is "Mediterraneanism"? Is it a mentality, coloration, a musical sound, a specific kind of light, a distinct aroma, an atmosphere or body language? Is it made of clear skies, the shining sun, the shades of darkness on the water, the ambience of the street, the bustling sidewalks lined with cafes, the theatrical way in which the fishermen in the market announce their merchandise, the juicy vocabulary and diverse gestures accompanying them, people's nature, joie de vivre, the Seven Species for which the land is noted, the scents of Jasmine, the taste of garlic, the developed tourism, the warmth of the water and the culture of crowded beaches? It seems that an inexhaustible spectrum of qualities and characteristics intertwine to generate magically that which we designate "Mediterranean."

Unfortunately, recent reports predict a rather gloomy future for the Mediterranean Sea itself, mainly due to accelerated and inconsiderate construction carried out in its vicinity. The shores of North Africa, Southwest Europe and the Middle East are possibly the last places where one may still find today a combination of sand dunes and natural cliffs with agricultural landscape designed by man for millennia. According to estimates, by 2025 half of the coastal plain will be built-up, and in some countries large urban centers will cover shore sections measuring tens and even hundreds of kilometers.

The UN report on this issue is replete with examples of construction expansion, indicating that there are still great differences between the various countries lying along the Mediterranean coast. In Albania, for example, only some 7% of the shoreline is built up, whereas in Israel, Lebanon, the Palestinian Authority (Gaza Strip), Monaco, and Slovenia, it is almost entirely built up. Doubtlessly, there are great differences between the capacity of European countries verging on the Mediterranean to confront the challenges of development in comparison to that of southern and eastern countries, such as Algiers, Egypt or Tunisia. Israel and its neighbors, for example, confront the heavy burden of the ongoing conflict, which forces them to invest vast resources in military needs.

One of the main recommendations in the UN report suggests an increase in the collaboration between Europe and other Mediterranean countries, to include assistance in know-how, technology and planning expertise. The report notes that it is a quintessential interest of European countries that their neighbors to the south maintain stable economies and undergo processes of modernization which will substitute poverty, violent conflicts and incessant migration toward Europe. The writers of the report declare their faith that the resourcefulness that has always characterized Mediterranean cultures may be used, as well as the many natural resources the region offers its inhabitants and its many tourists. They further indicate that even today, despite the accelerated development, the pollution and ecological destruction, one cannot ignore the fact that the unique climate, landscapes and lifestyle make the Mediterranean one of the most pleasant regions worldwide. Indeed, in this context, it is hard to dispute philosopher and literary scholar Predrag Matvejevic, who in his book Mediterranean: A Cultural Landscape, maintains that the Mediterranean cannot be exhausted, adding that "anyone can become Mediterranean, regardless of his place of birth or residence. The Mediterranean affinity is not inherited but acquired; it is a decision rather than an advantage. Being Mediterranean requires more than history or geography, tradition or faith: the Mediterranean is also fate...".

The elements comprising the Mediterranean mosaic, which is both spectacular and highly charged, emerge in different variations throughout Orna Lutski's oeuvre. In an ongoing series which she entitled "Israel," she has explored the notions of border and homeland, and the way in which they shape everyday life in our region, from both the political and the personal aspects. The pivotal image in this series is the map of the region, whose borders change from one work to another, in keeping with the current affairs in this dynamic region. The map and its implications become a metaphor for life: in one instance the map is represented in a nail-strewn iron, like a fakir's threatening prickly bed; in another instance it protrudes like a large symbol planted defiantly on an altar; and in yet another it is sculpted as a lush female body - a type of Mother-Earth who absorbs all the pains of war and her offspring's ailments. The artist wraps one map with a coiling barbed wire; another she generates as a rose decorated fabric. In one piece, called "Kria'a", the country's map is buried at the bottom of a coffin, whereas in another - it grows a verdant lawn.

Other works manifest ideas of cooperation, multiculturalism and multi-religion characteristic of the region - like a realization of the vision of the end of days. In many of her works Lutski embeds the symbols of the three monotheistic religions, which she installs in various forums, such as sculpture gardens and festivals promoting tolerance and peace among nations.
In other works with an installation character Lutski incorporates local natural elements. Herbs and spices, citrus and olive branches become basic components in these works that give off Mediterranean fragrances and bear anti-militarist messages.

The element of mobility is likewise prevalent in Lutski's works. The horses she installed in 1998 on the rooftops in Haifa's Wadi al-Nisnass neighborhood - a spectacular installation that evoked the caravans that passed in the ancient trade routes - traveled from the wadi to other venues, and were installed in different contexts over the years. Finally, the woman's figure dominates many works in different contexts. Women bear the weight of the world on their heads and shoulders; the women are interlaced as if they were melted together by a goldsmith; the huntresses arranged in a spiral structure; the basic house structure generated by a fabric of women, one standing on the other's shoulders; women running around in an endless circle like a rolling ball; and finally - women running in place, counterclockwise, against all odds. The Running Woman was featured as early as 1999 in Women March for Peace - a project installed on the Israel-Jordan border for the 5th anniversary of the peace treaty between the two states.

Shipping the flag project between the Mediterranean countries is likewise part of a broader concept in Lutski's work, pertaining to the theme of mobility in general. This time the running woman who sets out to cross borders is likened to a torch bearer striving to present her position wherever she sets her foot.

The Flag

The national flag has always evoked a powerful emotional response in its beholders, mainly since its design, colors and symbols strive to encapsulate the principles and values of those hoisting it. Originally, flags were created for the purpose of signaling and identification, a function which they still fulfill. The main objective served by flags is arousal of identification and pride among their bearers, a function reinforced by heightening nationalism as an expression of patriotism. Usually, the flag consists of symbols, forms and colors that reflect historical events in the body they represent, its underlying ideology, its collective memory, the motto guiding its people to take to the barricades, etc. When these factors change, the flag's design may also change, mainly in the wake of war, social revolution, or new territorial alterations, creating the need for new symbolism.

It is beyond the scope of this essay to unfold the entire history of the flag, with its various colors and symbols, whether permanent or changing, its mode of hoisting (upside down as a sign of distress; at half-mast as a sign of national mourning, etc.), and its color code (white flag as a sign of surrender; red flag which is now identified mainly with communism, yet bears a history that goes back to the 14th century with the Norman ships; black flag as a sign of danger, etc.; to the various meanings attributed to the colors in each national flag).

The chronicles of each nation are interwoven with some historical instance of flag hoisting underlain by a story of heroism passed on from one generation to the next. Two impressive photographs from the end of World War II masterfully illustrate the inexplicable power of that fluttering piece of fabric called flag. One depicts the raising of the American flag on Iwo Jima during World War II - a famous photograph taken on February 23, 1945 by Joe Rosenthal, portraying five American Marines and a Navy medic, hoisting the US flag on the summit of Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima. Rosenthal was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for that photograph in 1945. Of the six combatants appearing in the photograph, only three survived the battle, and resurfaced for a short guest performance in the film Sands of Iwo Jima starring John Wayne who represented the ultimate man in the mid-twentieth century cinema. The second photograph, equally impressive and spectacular, is by Evgueni Khaldei (who was already familiar with Rosenthal's picture) who on April 30, 1945, perpetuated Red Army soldiers raising the Soviet flag on the Berlin Reichstag building. Ironically, it later turned out that both these famous photographs were staged. Nevertheless, this discovery did not prevent them from taking a center seat in history's pantheon of heroism, and become inalienable assets in the history of documentary photography. Until a certain point in time, the flag image in art was shrouded in heroism. An example of this is discernible in Delacroix's painting, Liberty Leads the People (La Libert? guidant le peuple) depicting the July Revolution of 1830. Delacroix himself did not participate in the battles, yet he felt the need to "paint for the country." His painting features a large number of armed fighters representing the people, the revolutionaries' bodies at their feet, as white smoke fills the background. The crowd is led by a semi-nude woman who bears the tricolor flag of the French Republic, whose colors - blue, white and red - are clearly highlighted. The female figure, dominating all the other figures and representing freedom, is the only one in the painting modeled after a classical ideal, while all the other figures obey the principles of surrealist representation. The monumental woman, symbolizing an abstract concept, appears barefooted, like a Greek goddess, wearing a loose gown, her breasts exposed like an Amazon. Despite her classical appearance, her garment is made of plain, crude popular material, indicating that she is one of the people. She wears a red cap, and appears exciting and vital, as she holds a rifle and waves her country's new flag.

Usually identified with men, the flag in Delacroix's painting is carried by a woman in a period when women were still devoid of rights, and never took to the barricades with raised flags in hand (despite the amendments to the law introduced some 40 years before Delacroix's painting, following the French Revolution. The appearance of a mythological goddess which Delacroix gives the woman in his painting reinforces her significance as an allegorical figure, rather than a flesh and blood woman. Indeed, from time immemorial, such gestures have been identified with patriarchal culture. It was men who usually bore the flag, raised it, fought for it, and even fell in battle for it. The female position adopted by Lutski in her series of flags joins a broader current in the history of art that has, since the mid-twentieth century, engaged in the deconstruction of the flag as a sanctified symbol. Jasper Johns who centered his work on the object as a symbol reflecting conditions and events, refers to the American flag as a modern icon, copying it with his brush. By transforming the flag into a painterly object, he reexamines it, questioning its implications and values. Johns managed to shock the American art audience when he referred to the national symbol as a theme in art, while subverting all the national and patriotic standards that clung to it. Since the 1970s deconstruction strove to debunk symbols and conventions and to shatter myths. This trend made the flag a marked target on the way to undermining the traditional and conformist frames, presenting it as a major theme in many solo exhibitions, as well as in various group shows.

Female Power

The flag's transformation under Lutski's hand lends it a soft effect and a slightly different view of what could or should have been its actual meaning. In her artistic practice Lutski expropriates the flag from the male authority, entrusting it to female hands both conceptually and visually. Categorically using photographs of female hands, she combines them with a new image that she stages and edits for every flag she creates, as an antithesis to the representation of power hoisted on every flagpole as a stronghold of masculinity.

The female hands which Lutski photographs, all of them originating in a world of active praxis, surrender many details about their owners age, personality, occupation, strength or weaknesses. The female dimension which the artist lends the flag renders it a more human and less official or symbolic object. Many of the female hands appearing on the flags are bound or bandaged, alluding to generations when women's hands were tied and their voices were unheard. The gradually opening hands, however, illustrate the continuation of the female struggle that still has a long way to go, a way bound to be filled with struggles and obstacles, until it realizes all its goals.

The hands themselves were granted a sweeping representation in the history of art. Children's first gesture, as an act of artistic expression, is immersing their hands in paint and imprinting anything at hand: paper, table, wall, themselves and their parents. Through this act the infants express their yearning to "leave their imprint" on their surroundings, as part of an emotional and developmental process involving the representation of the self.

The concentration on the hands as an image that represents an idea or as an element that intensifies the transformation of a specific message has numerous examples in art. D?rer, for one, attributed great importance to the depiction of his figures' hands, believing that the appearance of the hands surrenders a great deal of information about the depicted figure, as in the painting of the young Christ's hands (1506) or the artist's self-portrait with his left hand (ca. 1493). In the fourth part of his work, The Creation of Adam, on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (1511-12), Michelangelo chose to depict, under the title Creation of Man, two outstretched hands, one toward the other, as a symbol of creation. This image has infiltrated today's consumerist culture, and even serves for sales promotion in advertising. Goya illustrates the extent of the horror experienced by one of the victims in his well-known painting, the Execution of the Defenders of Madrid, Third of May, 1808, via dramatic outstretching of the hands; likewise, in Munch's The Scream (1893) the hands holding onto the horrified head play a crucial role in the construction of the drama.

The significance of the hands as a formative image is masterfully expressed in the negative by Japanese sculptor Yasui Tomotaka who maintains that the hands are so meaningful that they shift our attention from the simplicity of the forms he wishes to perpetuate. Tomotaka thus sculpts his figures handless, although the power of the absent in his works is sometimes greater than that of the present. Similarly, the opening of Raymond Carver's story "Viewfinder" (1974) exemplifies the necessity of the hands for the activation of an artistic mechanism: "A man without hands came to the door to sell me a photograph of my house..."

Lutski's female adaptation of the masculine, fixed national symbols hoisted by her female friends, is not a display of power. Her works do not employ the blunt defiance characteristic of 1970s feminist art. At the same time, her feminist message is not neutralized from the political context (of which the woman is usually absent). Through her use of female refinement, soft and colorful fabrics and muslin ribbons - ostensibly elusive elements that may shift attention from the guiding motto of her work - she introduces an explicit alternative to the still dominant patriarchal culture, proposing to imagine another future, where female involvement will be much greater.

Precisely in the Mediterranean Basin, at the meeting point of Europe, Asia and Africa, in a multi-cultural, multi-national region, developing countries and established ones lie side by side; in a place where battles take place incessantly and the political problems remain unresolved; in sites that share one sea in need of ecological conservation; in a territory that demands mirroring in society, education and religion - precisely in this intricate, conflict-ridden region there is room for massive female collaboration in order to solve problems. In an era of mass culture, of Internet and mobility, women are capable of playing a crucial role as reconciling and influential; or, to use the artist's own words: The possibility for discussion and practice furnishes us, women, with the ability to take an important part in the historical making of our region."