On Snorri Ásmundsson's Hatikvah
Icelandic artist Snorri Ásmundsson recently distributed a video on YouTube, that has since been publicized through most Icelandic-speaking news media. In the video, Snorri sings the Israeli national hymn, Hatikvah, in Hebrew. It seems objectively safe to say that the artist sings it badly: the unimpressive singing seems to be a deliberate part of the piece. The music was arranged and produced by Futuregrapher, while Marteinn Þórsson handled cinematography and editing. All that work is professional enough to be uninteresting compared with the video’s content.
The video starts with a close-up of a woman wearing a hijab or a burqa, a black veil covering half her face. She is then grabbed and pulled out of the frame by a man wearing the Jewish star of David over his upper arm. Consequently, the artist, Snorri, appears in drag: red lipstick, eye shadow, tight shiny dress, black feathers extending from its back, over the artist’s head. Snorri has explained the outfit as a reference to Dana International, the drag queen who, as Israel’s representative, won the Eurovision song contest in 1998. The artist is surrounded by characters, each of which is defined by an apparently obvious reference to nationality: two men with downs-syndrome are dressed up in what seems to be the traditional black-and-white clothing of Hasidic Jews, including hats and the traditional locks of hair. They dance, while the third apparently Jewish character, the one with the star of David around his arm, plays keyboard. A woman wearing a pink dress, a vest and a cowboy hat, dances and occasionally rides on the veiled woman’s back, while the latter rests on the floor, on all fours, throughout much of the video. This master-shot is interrupted with close-ups of individual characters dancing or Snorri’s painted lips singing, and his chin, covered with a distinct five o’clock shadow. Some close-ups focus on the artist’s lips, tongue and cheek in grotesque detail without any singing going on. Over all of this float Eurovision-like glittery spherical fractions of colored light.
The video disturbs me and I presume it will disturb some others as well. I also imagine that this was the artist’s intention. Watching it, I feel, in short, faced with something akin to anti-Semitic propaganda —or at least the question: is this it? This question comes first —only after do I separate the elements of the composition, enumerated above.
I find the phrase anti-Semitism hard to use. It often seems employed as a handy carpet-defense against due criticism, let alone clear condemnation, of Israel’s acts of aggression. At worst it seems to function as moral teflon-coating for repeated acts of state-authorized mass-murder. The word will continue to be used that way, because it can. Such use, however, does not change the fact that anti-Semitism does exist. It didn’t take more than winning a football match for nationalist extreme-right-wing groups to momentarily make themselves comfortable in the streets of Germany —I’m not speaking about waving flags or even sporting those tricolor flower decorations, but physical threats to foreigners, and shouting that now it’s time to send the Jews to the gas chambers again. Obviously the people who express themselves in this way are few in number and wield no political power. Milder, seemingly harmless, expressions are much more widespread. I remember the jokes on Jews that circulated in my childhood – in the complete absence, it might be added, of actual Jewish culture. They alternately focused on stereotypical projections of greed or frugality, or made fun of the Holocaust, and mind you, not at the nazis’ expense. No one who uttered these jokes would have seen themselves as any sort of nazi, not even racist. Perhaps most of them would not have treated people of a Jewish identity, whether ethnic, religious or cultural, any different from the way they treated other people. That, however, does not make the anti-Semitism of some of these jokes any less palpable.
At times, it seems that our idea of the ‘baddy’ is so sticky that now, when most Icelanders have realized that Palestinians are not a lawless mob that should have the good sense to vanish, some seem to assume that the Israelis must be. This is the sentiment that strikes me when I watch Snorri’s video. At the same time, I remain sceptical and suspect myself —of what? Being too sensitive? I approach the artist, but somewhat wavering. I contacted Snorri through Skype to ask him about this work. Among other things, I found out that the artist sports some teflon-coating himself.
‘I Am Not Going to Answer That’
I started by asking Snorri how he would reply to those who might call his video anti-Semitic.
‘I don’t know. I don’t care. I’m not dancing around anything. If someone wants to put me under a particular label he has all the right to do so. I am not going to answer that.’
What about the division between criticizing the acts of a state, on the one hand, and mocking its culture, population or the people themselves on the other. Does that difference matter?
‘I don’t really have a clear opinion on that. Of course we interpret things according to our own experience, language and maturity. There is a heap of things I know nothing about. Many things I am not familiar with. I am more like a child, asking questions. Many questions. The thing is, I had this idea a few years ago. At the time, I was living in Antwerpen, the most highly Jewish-populated city in Europe. I have always been attentive to the situation in Israel. I was a child when the situation in that part of the world first caught my interest. Today I am somehow dismantling my own prejudice. I may catch myself phrasing an opinion I haven’t actually held for a long time. In the meantime, I have opened my mind and my heart for other things. You catch me exactly at the time when I am challenging my fears.’
‘Friends Who Fear About My Life’
‘I am a chronic rascal. You must be disobedient. I cannot be well behaved for any extensive time. I knew very well that I was approaching a delicate matter. Many of my friends have feared about my life, when I have spoken to them about this piece. The thing is, that my method was, that this is done in absolute exhilaration. It was a lot of fun to make this piece. We laughed a lot. I have always found the idea behind it very funny, amusing. If someone wants to label me as some sort of anti-Semite or neo-nazi, I just know better than that, and people must somehow manage those thoughts for themselves.’
I didn’t mean that Snorri was a neo-nazi, I say. Anti-Semitism exists and appears in a wider spectrum than that, and in more subtle ways. Snorri replies:
‘There are always suppressed opinions, there’s always a tendency towards thinking in terms of black-and-white, but this is not black-and-white. That applies to everything. There are so many layers. I have a hard time looking at things from the point of view, that things are fixed as they are. But of course I remember having thought in black and white-terms myself, I know that tendency, to have formed an opinion that way, from my own experience. People need to process or interpret in order not to be afraid. That’s what I mean with prejudice, how people need to categorize or interpret, how things can’t just stay open. People can’t just look at things without judging, without categorizing. This is what it is. Things are what they are. Art is what it is. Art exists and it will exist and it will never become a props. The art that appeals to me is not props-like, proposed according to law and regulations. Art happens when you are connected, as if the works are delivered to you.’
I mention to Snorri, that in apparent contradiction to this avowed dislike of black-and-white categorizations, his video seems to portray clear oppositions: a Jew and an American are there seen using force against a Muslim woman. He assents to that, and then goes on to dismiss such simple portrayals:
‘You cannot generalize about anything either. Jews are not like this and Muslims are not like that. There are all sorts of Jews and there are all sorts of Muslims. There are all sorts of us. You cannot take one group of people and process it: this it the way they are. To include this woman was exactly that, my thoughts on how it seems taken for granted that violence against Muslims is okay. I have heard many, many accounts of that, and know witnesses, that it is considered alright to assault Palestinians.’
‘Then You Would be Belittling Them’
When I listen to Snorri speak, and then, after the interview, read through his words, he sounds as if his main agenda is to fight against prejudices. There are all sorts of people, he says, they cannot be categorized and so on. When I review the video, however, these words don’t account for what I see. Concentrating on the physical excess of faces, their grotesque details when examined in a close-up, is among the trademark distortions employed in racist imagery. Add a wart to Snorri’s nose and there would be no doubt left about the visual reference. These closeups, however, are of Snorri himself —isn’t misanthropy just fine so long as it is universal —as long as you detest yourself as much as you detest others? Snorri may have a touch of genius —perhaps in the way he navigates between such questions and stays afloat. He doesn’t subjectively assume authorship of his work but says that art is ‘delivered’ to him. It just is what it is. Tautologies aside, the question lingers: Alright, but what is that then?
It felt as if Snorri had dodged the question of anti-Semitism, rather than answer it. But I couldn’t get rid of it. Looking at the video, it is just about all I see. I had another look at the list of questions that I had scribbled before the interview. I saw one question there, that I had not posed. That’s a shame, I thought, It would have been good. Then Snorri sent me a message, to add that those of his friends who had worried about his life, had changed their minds once they saw the video. He said that they found the piece itself too much fun to have such concerns. I wrote back and asked if he would be willing to answer one more question. Sure thing, he said. I called and started: I recall the video you made a few years back, about Icelandic proletarian pop-culture, where some of your actors had Downs-syndrome.
‘Yes, that’s right. One of them acts in this video as well.’
Yes, and two of the actors have Downs-syndrome, don’t they?
And both of them are dressed as Hasidic Jews?
And now, if I understand correctly your method in this piece, you put me up against a wall, where I want to ask if you, by this, intend to belittle Jews —but if I ask you that, it will sound as if I am belittling people with Downs-syndrome.
‘That’s exactly it. That’s precisely the point,’ said Snorri and laughed.
So you consider that to be a fair description of the trick you play there?
‘I partly work with, yes, I am disrupting something there. I expected this question. Saw it coming. But you sort of answered the question for me as well. Then you would be belittling them, you see. I knew in advance that this was what I’m putting on the table, you know.’
I remember, as a child, when a representative of the Simon Wiesenthal Foundation had reason to approach Icelandic authorities, because of a nazi executioner purported to live in the country. As far as I remember, the man’s identity was never refuted, nor was his past. The local population, however, seemed to consider it an example of seriously bad manners to not let such bygones be bygones: he’s an old man, now, they said, an honorable citizen, beloved by many —his son one of the country’s best footballers. As far as I recall, Simon Wiesenthal’s men left empty-handed. The general attitude seemed to imply that more or less any accusation of anti-Semitism was inherently unfair, even a symptom of some kind of pathological paranoia. And now I feel this doubt gnawing at me: have I stepped into a nonsensical chase after apparitions? Am I trapped in other people’s paranoia when I put into words what stares me in the face: that the artist assents to anti-Semitic motives underlying his evidently anti-Semitic work? Is it necessarily anti-Semitism just because the work centers on mocking Jews? And so what? Can’t you make jokes? Can’t you despise people? Isn’t it a case of disdain gone mad, a condemnatory mindset gone out of control, to put this into words, that:
After going here and there through the first part of the interview, Snorri finally confirmed to have, in his video to the song Hatikvah, aimed at belittling Jews in a way that would make it as hard as possible for others to put their fingers on; and that he had, for that sake, employed actors with Downs-syndrome, as a sort of moral human shield, teflon-coating against possible criticism.
Precisely at a time when unequivocal condemnation and determined opposition against the conduct of the State of Israel seem vitally important, we also face the danger of short-circuits between that resistance and idiotic prejudices. The latter can be, it should be needless to say, very damaging. In Snorri’s video I, sadly, only see the promotion of such short-circuits, regardless whether the work was ‘delivered’ to the artist or composed by him.
This article originally appeared in Icelandic, on Starafugl.is. Shortly after the English translation’s first appearance here, I found the text to be full of typos and omissions, which I have to some extent fixed. Some probably remain. The content of the article was, to my best knowledge, not altered by any changes made. HMH.