The Power of the Powerless or Sponge as a Metaphor

Niza Yanay

At the center of the exhibition ‘Also Compasses Turn About, I am Telling You’, stand Orientatzia – an architectural installation that sprouts a life and grows a living. Orientatzia offers a call for both a landscape and a social change, for a topographic turnabout of a hidden geology that aspires for its own externalization, for making present what has already been destroyed but not vanished, for an explication what we have not known so that it would itself know again. Layers of repressed history are engraved and marked afresh by the artist Relli De Vries, in her own way, on and in a synthetic sponge that does not allow itself easily to art neither to an artist. Persistent and intransigent Orientazia moves as a burdensome reality, a product of a subversive imagination, forming an image of width and depth that leads us through slotted and embedded landscape toward the heart of the paradox, to the “Blue Bridge” – the village of Jisr az-Zarqa – toward its houses that face…. not the sea (as if we would have expected) but to the fast road…. the road that obstructs and closes on them. But perhaps the houses’ entrances do not face the road, road no. 2? Rather towards the swamps eastward, once their land?

The inhabitants of Jisr az-Zarqa are enclosed and blocked between the sea and the fast road, dead-ended. But the cynicism of the State has no limit, for this is how the survey of the Ministry of the Interior can be read: “For the location of the village, PICA (the Palestine Jewish Colonization Association) added to the allocation of land a detailed parcelization…. The houses were therefore built on lengthened width-plots that stretched from the axis of the meridianal road both eastward and westward. This localization of the village gave its population proper geographical characteristics: proximity to the sea and to exploiting the fishery treasures, proximity to the Tel Aviv-Haifa road, and neighboring a developed Jewish surrounding – a source of employment and a source of cultural influence” (Gideon Golani,  Ministry of the Interior, Department of Minorities Affairs, 1963, in Hebrew).

The village is indeed built close to the sea, to the fast road, to Jewish environs. But its inhabitants were distanced from the seas, from the road, from Jewish environs – by government policy. For the State of Israel the residents of Jisr az-Zarqa do not exist (except of course during elections). What has not been already said on the people of Jisr az-Zarqa? That “they lack tradition”, “status-less swamp people”, “the most backward village in Israel”, “lacking any national sentiment”, “have no heroes and martyrs”, “with no historical events, nor battles nor victories”, “not knowing where they originated from or why their skin is dark brown”, and so forth “learned” assertions by press columnists, party bureaucrats and government officials that have for long determined their future. 

Only accidentally (but what’s an accident?) did De Vries choose to represent an un-representable injustice using a rebellious material that absorbs all but always recovers itself, otherwise – perhaps for being wounded – relaxes, stretches itself, filled in with layers of air for self protection, resistant to folding and twisting. But not accidentally De Vries ties the sponge to the power of the powerless, between their dependence on the State and the latter’s dependence on them. Four hundred and fifty years the people of Arab al-Jawarneh live in the Kabbara swamps area; it was they, resistant to malaria mosquitoes, who were granted the tenure rights of the land. And since then it is them who hold the desire of the State (for expensive land plots) who do not give up. Similar to the sponge they fold, but no easily fold.

In contrast to Plato time does not work as a pedagogue. That is why it is imperative to remind time and again the old women’s song clamoring “Chaining me he puts chains on himself”. The road that fetters Jisr az-Zarqa to a dead-end reality also fetters the State to forgetfulness and guilt. Through Orientatzia De Vries brings back absence to memory – memory of the reclamation of the swamps and their violation, of the eradication of the buffaloes, of the Roam aqueduct that penetrates under the village houses, of the old quarry; and she resurfaces the discussion of the injustice already perpetrated and that that can be still prevented.