Field Hospital X at the Israeli Pavilion: Discerning Relevant Questions?

FALL 2019

by Chadd Caldwell Cohort ’19

As much as I enjoyed the Biennale, I have to confess that I didn’t mind respite from the Venetian heat and long hours of intense looking. I had entered Field Hospital X of Israel’s pavilion and was met with a wave of cool refreshing air. The clinical space was a clean, if not severely modern with uniform rows of chairs, an informational video, and nurse-like women quietly and professionally instructing visitors (or, patients); maintaining precise order. Exhausted, I took a number, parked myself in a chair, and retreated from flesh and blood social engagement by passively yielding to the informational video that was looping through rather perplexing, if not disorienting, segments such as one nurse-like women instructing the viewer to remain calm, followed by carefully articulated procedures in how to properly execute a scream; and then several rather unnerving example screams shaking me out of my respite. Everything in the pseudo-medical clinic was clean, sterile, exacting; that is, except the video acting as a precursor for what awaited.

Field Hospital X Ticket stub
Ticket to Field Hospital X. June 2019.

My number appeared on an electronic sign and I was directed to a workstation in order to receive my care-kit consisting of a Field Hospital pamphlet and a patient wristband. I was instructed to choose the content for a video during segment of my stay in field hospital. I hesitantly chose child abduction from a selection of disquieting social and political concerns and ascending a flight of stairs, dawned a pair of booties one might wear in a sterile operating room, was reassured by a somewhat patronizing nurse that no one would be able to hear me or see me as I was led like a sheep to a private, claustrophobic, soundproof scream room. Did I scream? Perhaps not. Perhaps I should have if I fully comprehended the disturbance that awaited.

Field Hospital X, Venice Biennale, Israeli Pavilion. June 2019.  Photo Source .
Field Hospital X, Venice Biennale, Israeli Pavilion. June 2019.  Photo Source .
Field Hospital X, Venice Biennale, Israeli Pavilion. June 2019.  Photo Source .

After another flight of steps, I entered the final room of the field hospital occupied by individual reclining benches, each with a private video screen and headset. I was helped to a bench and in a clinically safe nexus of comfort, I watched tragic testimony of what I can only imagine is abject horror for any loving mother; testimony of three Mizrahi women, foreigners residing in Israel whose infants had purportedly been abducted at various Israeli clinics near seventy years ago. Desperate to recover their loved children from these clinics, the confused women were informed that their children had deceased and were already buried. Suffice it to say, there was a brokenness about these women and their experiences; a horror that has never been assuaged; a deep need for restoration. Today, closure remains inaccessible. No answer has ever been given as to what has become of these lost children. No official records. No further explanation. Nothing. Did these clinicians believe they were somehow rescuing the children from lives of despairing poverty? From social ostracization? Is this a case of institutionalized prejudicial oppression? Genocide? Why are there no apparent answers? How can these women…how can we move on? Must we agree with Nietzsche when he exhorts his reader, “…to recognize that everything which comes into being must be prepared for painful destruction; we are forced to gaze into the terrors of individual existence – and yet we are not to freeze in horror: its metaphysical solace tears us momentarily out of the turmoil of changing figures” (Nietzsche, 80-1)? Or is there another way to move on, to connect with something larger than our individual selves? And then, suddenly it seemed to me, the tragic testimony of these women was objectively analyzed by professional experts in various fields of significance! Moments later a nurse cut my hospital bracelet off and replaced it with one of those playful rubber band bracelets that children wear. The reassuring pure white bracelet displayed in refreshing cobalt blue the Field Hospital X emblem which appears as an askew medical cross, with the bold promise in all capital letters, “HERE ANYONE CAN LIVE FREE.”

I cannot possibly discuss all the relevant questions arising from this experience but let me address a few close to my own heart and mind. First, I imagine that the Israeli pavilion uses interactive art, installation, architecture, performance and video all to signal something close to what Kristeva claims for literature: “Because it occupies its place, because it hence decks itself out in the sacred power of horror, literature may also involve not an ultimate resistance to but an unveiling of the abject: an elaboration, a discharge, and a hollowing out of abjection through the Crisis of the Word” (Wood, 1138). Somewhat analogously, we see interdisciplinary arts at the Israeli pavilion showing us inexplicable horrors; horrors that have no naturally verifiable rationalistic solutions for restoration; but is there truly a “hollowing out of abjection,” a neutralization of pain, a distancing, mythologizing? Rather than emptying horror of its ontological status, are we not merely mimicking the recourse to brokenness seen in Freud’s wolf man who became, “unassailably entrenched behind an attitude of obliging apathy;” as one who “gave up working in order to avoid any further changes, and in order to remain comfortable” (Gay, 403).

Second, if the horror cannot be mythologized, perhaps we can distance ourselves through calm stoic objectivity and rationalistic neutrality? Like Pontius Pilate, can we simply ask in rhetorical fashion, “what is the truth” without waiting around long enough for a heartfelt relational response? Although he did not desire to execute that strange Nazarite, and even tried reasoning with those passionately crying for blood; but alas, to maintain the ideal of the Pax Romana, to appease the rioting masses, Pilate turned Jesus over to death and self-proclaimed his own innocence with the ceremonial washing of his hands? Was that self-purification sufficient? How did that work out for Pilate? Likewise, can we simply wash Mizrahi blood from our collective hands? Can we look the other way? Am I my neighbor’s keeper? Would we…would I be innocent?

Finally, is it appropriate to query divine purposiveness in response to this child abduction tragedy? Ancient Jewish literature seems to have been undaunted in its attestation to such perspectives. Consider Naomi who wanted to be renamed Bitterness (Mara) after she presumed to have lost all hope. She had fled famine in Bethlehem (somewhat ironically meaning the House of Bread) with husband Elimelech (meaning My God is King), and their two sons due to severe famine. Naomi’s narrative was realizing the Divine covenantal promise to redeem Israel…through a lack of bread that forced her from the House of Bread and the termination of her immediate family once led by My God is King! Why would a benevolent, all-powerful God be immanent in this tragedy? Similar to the Field Hospital X women, Naomi was a sojourner in the merciless land of her tribe’s ancient enemies. Her tribe, that is, her source of identity and hope in an uncontested patriarchal world was inexplicably lost. Unexpectedly amplifying the reader’s awareness of the scope of divine redemptive purposiveness beyond ancient Israel’s gender and ethnic hegemonic paradigms, Naomi’s Moabitess daughter-in-law refused abandonment of the elderly widow. Ruth transgressed tribal boundaries ultimately leading to Yahweh’s redemption of embittered Naomi: “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without a redeemer, and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age, for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has given birth to him” (English Standard Version, Ruth 4:14–15).

The question remains: Is it appropriate to apply ancient cultural hermeneutics to contemporary discourse arising from Field Hospital X and the like? The answer, our course, is left to the discretion of each individual reader’s discernment.

                                                                                                            Works Cited

The Bible. English Standard Version, Crossway, 2016.

Gay, Peter. “From the History of an Infantile Neurosis (“Wolf Man”)” The Freud Reader, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1989, pp.400-404.

Kristeva, Julia. “Powers of Horror” Art in Theory 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, Blackwell Publishing, 2003, pp.1137-1139.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy: And Other Writings. Cambridge University Press, 1999.