Land of Bitter Lake, 2022

In 1967, following the Six-Day War and the transformation of the Suez Canal into the new border between Israel and Egypt, the canal was abruptly closed to all shipping. As a result, a fleet of 14 ships from various European countries became trapped there and was forced to anchor in the wide part of the canal known as the Great Bitter Lake. Trapped in the canal for eight whole years until it was reopened to vessels in 1975, these ships were nicknamed the “Yellow Fleet” because of the layer of yellow desert dust that accumulated on them after years of immobile mooring. In the first months of docking, the ships’ crews banded together to form the Great Bitter Lake Association to organise support for the trapped ships and their crew. Over the years, the crew met regularly on the decks of the ships for various social events; established a “church” for Sunday prayer gatherings; held an impromptu “Olympics” in 1968; and even organised a postal service with stamps and seals of their design, which over the years became sought-after collectables around the world.

Raz’s exhibition is inspired by the story of the “Yellow Fleet,” focusing on the symbols of the postal service established there.
To this end, she extracted images from the painted stamps and created sand sculptures from them, like archaeological finds from a land that had never existed. The decision to sculpt magical or enigmatic creatures featured in some of the stamps (such as dinosaurs, seahorses, or a bird spreading its wings) underscores the story’s almost mythical aspect, allowing it to hover between an archaeological and archival sphere and a surreal fairy tale.

The preoccupation with sand runs throughout the exhibition, reflecting thoughts about movement and movement controls, freedom of movement versus incarceration, and the meaning of political borders in general and those of Israel in particular. The movement of drifting sands is a free movement that does not heed political borders. The sand is borne upon the wind, unimpeded, as it crosses countries and borders, creating new landscapes and redefining territories. The sand of Israel’s shores comes this way from the banks of the River Nile in Egypt. Raz examines the contrast between the sand’s free movement and the inability of the ships of the Yellow Fleet to move—an inability to extricate oneself from political borders, be they temporary or permanent, which is also a reflection of Israel itself.
The sand sculptures in the exhibition are accompanied by two large black-and-white photographs of sand dunes taken at Zikim Beach, near Kibbutz Yad Mordechai—the southernmost beach in Israeli territory. Raz turns her camera from the southernmost point of Israel’s accessible shores toward those of the Gaza Strip, documenting natural, wild-looking dunes that conceal military antennas behind them. The camera records a place that the artist herself cannot see in reality, so she is obliged to imagine.

There is a duality in Raz’s work; On the one hand, she has created an invented, fantastic territory that resembles an ancient land suffused with myths. On the other hand, she creates an exhibition with a contemporary political touch that relates both to Israel’s location and its borders and to the European colonialist narrative—for the “Land of the Bitter Lake” was a tiny and temporary European colony outside the borders of Europe, similar to Israel itself, prior to 1948. Through this implicit parallel between the “State of Yellow Fleet” and Israel, Raz articulates a thought about territory and borders as mobile and changing entities shrouded in local myths.

Ravit Harari, 2022.

© Copyright Shir Raz 2022