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April 30, 2014

Finbarr O’Reilly and the Fabulist Art of the Israeli Bomb Shelter

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As far as irony goes, it doesn’t get any better than Finbarr O’Reilly’s portraits of bomb shelters in Sderot. This Israeli town, the closest to Gaza at about half mile away, has been the main target of Palestinian Qassam rockets for over ten years now.Talk about putting on a face or pretending like everything’s natural. What’s powerful about this shot is not just the perpetuation of the fantasy of the land of milk and honey but the outrageous suggestion (in juxtaposition to that gate, no less) that the land is limitless. The way the land is, instead, partitioned and confined, the invitation of this road to golden hills is simply cruel. What strains also, as Israel builds settlements and expands suburbs into the desert in a manic race against time and demographics, is the actual imagining of a “promised” land — with the delusional notion that, once the air raid siren goes off, residents simply meld into the Zionist dream.

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This one is ironic for its ancient, almost biblical ideal, reframing the box from a symbol of insecurity into a statement of continuity. Sderot being a former Arab village, one more notable for people migrating away, however, what could be more contradictory than the simple, nostalgic rendering of the days of old?  (On the other hand, fortressed walls and the high ground as caricature makes perfect sense.)

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I was curious about this one though, the barriers/blast walls as redundant protection of the box already making this shelter more unnerving. Associating the place with a figure also ratchets up the vulnerability, although the surreal — the green face and the scarf of of fiery hair grafting with the flower — does seem to engage the imagination for the purpose of distraction. Beyond that, though, I was drawn to the words on the side of the barrier wall. In rewriting “Sderot” so it reads as “SdeROket” here in rocket land, the graffiti punctures what is otherwise largely fanciful about these scattered canvases.

The full Reuters edit.

(photo 1: Finbarr O’Reilly/Reuters captions: A decorated bomb shelter sits in a school yard. A decorated concrete bomb shelter on the roadside. A decorated bomb shelter stands in a playground at a school built from reinforced concrete in the Israeli town of Sderot. March 27 – April 8, 2014.)

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