Assaf Pinkus: Opening ceremony for „Israeli Collective Portrait Tel Aviv“ May 15th, 2016

Assaf Pinkus


Life is full of surprises, full of coincidences. During my research stay at Cologne in October 2014, working on passion and martyrdom imagery in late medieval devotional panels, I paid several visits to the Wallraf-Richarz Museum, which holds one of the most remarkable collections of late medieval painting in Europe. At the –box-office I had to choose between a regular entry ticket to the museum collection, or a combined one that included a special art exhibition dedicated to the representation of the Cathedral from the Romantic to contemporary art, including the famous series by Monet, Rodin, Duchamp, and others. So, by chance, I decided to took a couple of hours to enjoy myself with modern art. A huge photograph caught my attention. It presented the west façade of Strasbourg Cathedral, a masterpiece of Gothic civilization, projecting the interior of the cathedral onto its exterior. I was fascinated. This was something totally new for me; I opened my laptop and wrote down the name of the artist: Roland Fischer, whose work, I noted, I should follow.

Two months later, On a Saturday night, sometime during December 2014, I received a phone call from the Dean of the Faculty of the Arts, Prof. Zivka Serper, who informed me that on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of establishment of diplomatic relations between Germany and Israel, the renowned photographer, Roland Fischer, was interested in carrying out a project at Tel Aviv University: a collective portrait of one thousand students to be assembled into one vast composition and exhibited in Israel and worldwide. Less than a week later we met on the Tel Aviv University campus, a first meeting in a long process of exchanging ideas and sharing a passion for both art and politics. Living in Munich and working between Los Angeles, China and indeed all around the globe, Fischer has already created several collective portraits in different locations; his work has been shown in over 40 solo exhibitions in museums and art institutions worldwide, among them the Musée d’art Moderne in Paris, Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich, The Photographers Gallery in London.

I am delighted to launch this impressive installation this evening, and would like first and foremost to congratulate Roland Fischer for realizing this spectacular project here, at the main entrance to Tel Aviv University, on the walls of theThe Genia Schreiber University Art Gallery.For us, this installation celebrates not only the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries, but also the 60th anniversary of Tel Aviv University. Roland, it was an honor and a pleasure for me to be part of this journey, from solving technical problems to ideological controversies, such as how to address the students from all faculties and departments of Tel Aviv University, from all social strata and religious beliefs; how to attract them into participating? How to schedule the photography? What questions should be posed? What political implications the project has, especially in those turbulent times? It was a fascinating process during which we launched a dialogue on what it means to be an Israeli, what Germany means in our own personal and social memory, and what is the role of Tel Aviv University in shaping the Israeli identity.

Portraits have a life of their own. After modeling for Picasso, Gertrud Stein was devastated by her portrait, which, in her opinion, did not look like her at all. Picasso, however, assured her that with time it would indeed be so… Whether Stein fashioned herself according to her portraits or whether our image of her is an imagined memory, and whether her individual identity was actually lost in the portrait, is still an open question. The portrait, however, has received its own history and identity. Portraiture raises questions of individual, social, and political identity, and at the same time the loss of such; it points toward the tension between collective belonging and resistance to such belonging. These are among the many issues that Rolnad Fischers‘ project raises. During the project, one thousand students were documented, from all around the campus, from all faculties, all departments; from exact sciences to humanities, from eastern and western sides of the campus, encompassing all ethnicities, religious diversities, and social classes.The students‘ faces, staring at us from the walls of the University Gallery, demand our attention, demand that we will gaze back at them, that we would communicate: what do they reflect upon? What claims do they posit to us, their mentors? What responsibilities do they ask from us? What sort of personalities do they represent?

A face is a mask. We tend to take our own faces for granted, yet they are revealed to us only through an interaction with the other – human or mechanical: we learn about our faces from the reaction of our friends; the reaction of strangers; from mirrors and photographs. A person’s face might even become unfamiliar to us, when the social context changes. Our face is thus a mask that we wear in accordance with a specific interaction. The mask of our face defines our social personality. The relationship between a mask, face, and personalityisalready implied in the Ancient Greek word prosoponor Latin persona, which includes all three meanings. What face and what mask have one thousand students chosen to put in front of Fischer’s camera? Can they be considered authentic?

A face, as Emmanuel Levinas has taught us, is demanding; it confronts us with the Other, who makes her or himself present through a face that asks for our responsibility toward the individual; in Levinas‘ words: „A face is a trace of itself, given over to my responsibility, but to which I am wanting and faulty. It is as though I were responsible for his mortality, and guilty for surviving“ (Levinas 1991). What responsibilities, therefore, does a collective portrait call for? What claim does the artist make in putting one thousand students into one grid, in a unified web? What kind of Other emerges from a collective portrait, if at all? Can Israeli, Palestinian, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, foreign and immigrant students together comprise a definitive collective portrait? Does a collective portrait merge identities and erase subjectivity or does it resist it? How does an Israeli collective portrait differ, for example, from a Korean one? Is the idea of „Collective“ still possible and relevant in the twenty-first century, or has it become a worn-out notion of the age of modernism?

We invite you all to reflect upon these questions during the exhibition and to respond to the thousand faces in your own individual and collective viewing.

Professor Assaf Pinkus is the Chair of the Art History Department The Yolanda and David Katz Faculty of the Arts at Tel Aviv University