Shai Kremer's Infected Landscape: Photos of battle-scarred Israel and Palestine at Florida Museum of Photographic Arts

But this odd burg — whether abandoned, in-progress or altogether artificial is unclear to the uninformed eye — sits atop a flat expanse of the arid Negev region in southern Israel. A cluster of human figures clothed in all black, tiny in the landscape’s foreground, hint at the faux-city’s function as an urban warfare training center, constructed by the U.S. and Israel to simulate combat conditions. (The lighted towers sprout from imaginary mosques.) Beneath a lavender sky streaked with clouds, the city’s eerie peace takes on poignant irony in light of its purpose as an incubator for war — its intrusion on the landscape’s beauty suddenly horrific, its mysterious allure repulsive.

Such ambivalence is par for the course in work by Kremer, a 35-year-old Israeli artist who lives in New York, where he graduated from the School of Visual Arts in 2005, and enjoys representation by galleries in Manhattan, San Francisco, London, Paris, Tel Aviv and Toronto. Though he spent the first 27 years of his life in Israel and served in its military (compulsory for young Israelis) as a medical instructor, when Kremer looks at his homeland’s landscape, scarred by interminable conflict, he sees symptoms of an “infection” that he hopes will one day be cured.

Infected Landscape, as his exhibition at the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts is titled, ventures into territory — Middle East politics — where (intellectual and emotional) travelers are often expected to pick one side or the other (i.e., to be “pro-Israel” or “pro-Palestine”). When he first picked up a camera, Kremer assumed he would become a photographer in the practical sense, practicing photojournalism or documentary image-making. That his graduating show at SVA attracted attention that led to inclusion in group exhibits at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is an indicator that his philosophical complexity might not make much sense in disciplines of “straight photography,” while his thought-provoking photographs have found a warm welcome in the realm of art.

Still, Kremer’s practice resembles that of a documentarian, even if his results are of those of a poet. Traveling to locations where he shouldn’t be and photographing without a permit occasionally lands him in trouble, like being detained by Israeli police. (At the urban warfare center, an architect helped him get a birds’ eye view.) But you won’t find the conventions of conflict photography or documentary in his photographs: there are no bleeding children or grieving mothers, nary a gun-toting soldier or a street protest to be found. Instead, the absence of such familiar tropes — so familiar that, as Susan Sontag argued, we hardly feel anything upon seeing them — and, in their place, a silent, wounded landscape bears witness to the systemic damage wrought by war as a disease on bodies personal, politic, social and geological.

Many of Kremer’s photographs, like one of flowers blooming at the site of a former munitions storage facility, take up the visual theme of re-growth or locate improbable natural or formal beauty at a site implicated in conflict. Tank Barrier, Golan Heights (2006) captures verdant ground incised with a trench, looking ethereally calm and lovely — but not quite as picturesque as Soldiers Viewing Platform, Israel Lebanon Border (2006), a series of stone steps fitted into a grassy hill that suggest a prehistoric monument beneath a misty sky. Curator Joanne Milani aptly refers to the image as a “stairway to heaven.”

Other images edge closer to political engagement; the title of Palestinian Olive Trees Beheaded ‘Due To Security Reasons,’ East Jerusalem (2007), another of the exhibition’s stunning panoramas, takes a clearly disapproving tone. Dromology: Controlling and Blocking Movement in an Occupied Territory, West Bank (2005) shows a woman and child on foot, navigating a long road studded with rubble blockades. “Dromology” alludes to French theorist Paul Virilio’s idea that control over the flows of transportation and information sustains political power, but the disempowered pedestrians in Kremer’s photograph ask what kind of power — a power with what ethics? with what right? — would want to curtail their mobility.

Also included in the FMoPA exhibition is a group of images from Kremer’s latest series of works, Fallen Empires, an exploration of the visual evidence of past and present settlements and civilizations in Israel. Juxtaposing signs of current occupants with visual remnants of biblical civilizations and 20th-century British presence, Kremer embarks on an even more general critique (i.e., one that is existential and broadly historical, rather than specifically political or contemporary) of the human propensity to claim territory, when such claims result in wounded landscapes and wounded peoples.

Shai Kremer. Soldiers Viewing Platform, Israel Lebanon Border (2006). Lambda Print. Courtesy of the artist and Julie Saul Gallery, New York.

In one of photographer Shai Kremer’s beautiful panoramas, a curiously quiet city surrounds a pair of central towers topped with green lights. Composed of squat, concrete buildings — uniformly stark white with square windows, as if made of Legos — the strangely placid town bears little evidence of human habitation. It is, perhaps, the shell of a planned community under construction, a viewer might reason — particularly if that viewer comes to Kremer’s image steeped in the recent history of American residential booms and busts.

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