A call to violence or fight for democracy? Israeli artist Itay Zalait creates a polarizing new work.
If one isn’t used to crossing Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, they might be forgiven for thinking the statue of a kneeling man holding an Israeli flag has long been there. The 900-kilogram bronze sculpture on a five-ton pedestal seems larger than life — and made to endure. The work, called Israel's Hero, was inspired by an iconic photo of a young Israeli demonstrator kneeling on the street, holding an Israeli flag as he is pelted with the dense jet of a water cannon. "I wanted to create something that was massive. Something that the police can't hit, the way they do demonstrators," says artist Itay Zalait.
Originally, the statue stood in Jerusalem's Paris Square, the central site of protests against Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is facing corruption charges. Yet it wasn’t there for long. Zalait, who was chained to his work of art, managed to remain steadfast for 40 minutes before the police took the statue away with a large crane. "That was longer than I thought it would be," Zalait says, grinning.
He had anticipated that the statue would be removed. "I do performance art," he says. "The police play a role in it as much as the statue itself." And, of course, the prime minister plays a role as well. Zalait is convinced he personally arranged for the statue to be taken away.
In general, Netanyahu seems to be something of the artist's adversary. He has already caricatured him twice in his performances. In 2016, he created a golden statue titled King Bibi, which is what Netanyahu's supporters call their prime minister. He has now ruled the country for a total of 14 years with only one interruption and has come out on top in numerous elections, despite widely publicized corruption charges against him.
14 years of 'King Bibi'
When Zalait says that "Bibi" rules like a king, he does not mean it in a positive way. His bronze likeness shimmers like gold, making a statement about the Israeli leader's wealth. Netanyahu supporters saw their idol being made fun of — one man toppled the statue in a rage, involuntarily creating an iconic image very much in the spirit of Zalait. "Actually, this man ultimately created the work of art. That was lucky. Only four minutes passed before the police came to remove the statue anyway," the artist says.
In the summer of 2020, the installation The Last Supper followed. It was another larger-than-life caricature of Netanyahu, this time featuring him as a puppet sitting alone at a festively set table full of food: bread, sausage, chicken legs, tomatoes, pomegranates, grapes and more. He dips his hand into a giant cake decorated with an Israeli flag, as if he were eating the country for dessert. Zalait wanted his work of art to be understood as the "last supper" of Israeli democracy.
Politicians from Netanyahu's governing coalition, including former culture minister Miri Regev, have accused the artist of inflaming the mood and indirectly calling for the murder of "Bibi" due to the title of the work. In 2018, Zalait had caricatured Regev as the evil queen from Snow White in the square of the HaBima National Theater.
"People shouted at me in front of the installation. Yet they are the ones spreading hatred, the ones pushing a division of the country into 'left' and 'right.' They call us traitors and anarchists, but they are the only true anarchists who undermine democratic institutions. I wanted to do something to counter this," says the artist.
With the right to demonstrate restricted during the coronavirus pandemic, Zalait had the idea of memorializing the "brave people" who continued to demonstrate on the streets, standing in small groups at street crossings, waving their Israeli flags on highway bridges and continuing to march in front of the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem. They believed Netanyahu was using the pandemic to suppress criticism of him. Some parts of the government, on the other hand, said the demonstrations were causing the coronavirus to spread. Violence broke out repeatedly: water cannons were used, the police beat demonstrators —some people were even arrested.
Will the statue stay?
Zalait's work is not the only bronze sculpture to have been erected illegally. New York City's bronze sculpture, Charging Bull, created by artist Arturo di Modica after the 1987 stock market crash, is another such example. Di Modica illegally installed the statue outside of the New York Stock Exchange, transporting it in a large truck. Police removed it the same day. Eventually, it received permission to be located temporarily at nearby Bowling Green, yet it became such a popular tourist attraction, that it was eventually allowed to stay for good.
Zalait also hopes his statue will remain for the time being. He received permission from Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai to install it in Rabin Square. Huldai is considered a prominent supporter of the protest movement and had himself suffered a head injury at the hands of police during a protest.
Israel is more divided than it has been in years, so naturally, Zalait's new artwork is again the subject of dispute. On a Friday morning — the beginning of the weekend in Israel, a group of young men stood in front of the hero statue, saying it had no place there. Although it might represent those on the political left who are against Bibi, they said they did not feel represented by it. Demonstrators are in no way heroes; in these times there are more important things to lament than the prime minister, they said, pointing to rising coronavirus infections.
Rabin Square hosts a coronavirus testing center, and in front of it, a long line has formed. Zalait supporters jump into the discussion, saying the demonstrators have not been the ones to spread the virus. Within minutes, people are shouting at each other in front of the statue.
Forty days on the move
"If people are discussing things, that's good," Zalait says. "The worst thing that can happen to my art is if it leaves you cold." But it's not enough for Zalait that the statue now stands in Tel Aviv. He wants to take the six-ton monument on a forty-day tour, installing it in different cities. Forty days would commemorate the forty years that the people of Israel had to spend in the desert before Moses led them back to Israel. "My statue is meant to encourage people. An old lady who goes to demonstrations despite the coronavirus is a heroine to me. I created the statue for people like her. These people give me hope."
"We are at a crossroads," the artist says. "I hope it's not too late." The permanent site for his statue will be Paris Square in Jerusalem, not far from Prime Minister Netanyahu's residence.
This article was translated from German by Sarah Hucal.