Art is supposed to inspire dread and wonder and a sense of the sublime or the beautiful or both. Conceptual art, a catch-all for works in non-traditional media built around arcane theoretical gimmicks that are usually baffling to all but the most patient of museum-goers, almost never accomplishes this. But only almost never: A temporary exhibition of Israeli artist Tamir Zadok’s work, currently on display at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, succeeds where so much other high-concept work fails, motioning towards the biggest questions about the nature of art Itself without even a glimmer of pretentiousness. It helps that there’s a Mossad angle.
A 27-minute film and accompanying photograph and painting display, collectively titled Art Undercover, revisits one of the great overlooked episodes in the histories of both espionage and the visual arts—indeed, this story is so compelling, and such an interpretive puzzle-box, that I’m struggling to accept that it’s even true. In the early 1950s, a Mossad agent named Shlomo Cohen-Abravanel was sent to Egypt, under the cover-story that he was a French abstract painter named Charduval. Abravanel’s fake artist persona was so successful that he scored a small solo exhibition at Cairo’s Museum of Modern Art, while the actual Abravanel went on to design the Mossad’s official emblem.
In Zadok’s film, one of the expert interview subjects—whether in art or spycraft isn’t specified, although the film posits that these two things aren’t really so different from one another—notes that because of the alleged decline in basic artistic standards by the mid-20th century, any enterprising con-man could fake an expertise in sculpture or painting; thus, art is “a good cover story for a spy.” Another expert reads a contemporaneous Arabic-language review of Charduval’s show, which criticized the paintings’ supposed lack of aesthetic depth. “It seems to be appropriate,” the expert drolly observes, given that Charduval was a fake artist. Or was he? Is it possible for a fake artist to produce real art? Museum-goers can decide for themselves: Helpfully, Art Undercover includes several paintings by Charduval, angular and softly-hued Orientalist scenes that have either an alluringly naive or unappealing basic sense of flatness to them. Charduval had some important fans though, and he sold an acclaimed painting of an iftar meal to Cairo’s modern art museum. That work disappeared decades ago. Zadok’s film recounts a 2017 trip to Cairo in which he tries to find out where this mind-splittingly bizarre fragment of humanity’s shared artistic heritage actually ended up.
Zadok’s is a spy mission of sorts: He’s an Israeli in search of a piece of Egyptian government property whose very existence is proof of the Zionist Entity’s success in playing its southern neighbors for fools. But while the title of Zadok’s project is Art Undercover, Zadok isn’t referring to himself. In one of the film’s opening scenes, an Egyptian fixer furtively imparts a series of commonsensical warnings: “You’re here to do something that’s rather odd…whatever you do, don’t say the artist was in the Israeli Mossad…don’t say you’re here to find a painting…say you’re a tourist…don’t say you’re Israeli.” Zadok violates every single one of these rules in some way or another. Much of the dark hilarity in his film comes from the fact Zadok is perhaps the least undercover Israeli Jew ever to venture into the Egyptian capital.
In an opening scene, an older man—who is assumedly Zadok’s grandfather, who worked as a Mossad agent in Iran and Yemen in the 70s—recalls that “being an undercover agent in an Arab country you have to be alert 24 hours a day…the way you walk, the way you behave, you way you order at the coffee shop. Some were uncovered.” In Cairo, Zadok enthusiastically discards this advice, immediately revealing to a bartender at a fancy restaurant, and later to a gallery curator, that he’s Israeli. “People are wary of that,” she says helpfully, seeming not the least bit horrified (In general, Zadok, the child of Yemeni and Libyan parents, resists any temptation to present the Egyptians as uncultured bigots or suckers, and he is never personally threatened over being Israeli). When he notices that he’s being surveilled by a man in an antiquated-looking tan suit, Zadok decides to talk to him—although in the film’s climactic scene, Zadok’s stalker warns him that “it’s best you don’t search at all [for the painting]. For your own good.”
Appropriately, I have no idea what is and isn’t staged in Zadok’s film. The film’s accompanying photo display, entitled “The Man in the Suit,” depicts Zadok’s follower trailing him through marketplaces and the Egyptian Museum, and shows them finally walking side-by-side through Tahrir Square. Maybe the man is supposed to be a representation of Abravanel, meaning that the story culminates in a kind of cross-temporal confrontation between the two artist-spies, one that forces Zadok to reassesses his own artistic and personal motives in coming to Cairo in the first place. Or maybe the man is a real-life agent of Egypt’s oppressive security services, and a reminder of the long shadow that even (especially?) fake art can cast. It’s best to leave the answer ambiguous and focus on Zadok’s real accomplishment: the fact that an Israeli artist can openly hunt for physical evidence of an undercover Mossad agent’s mission in freaking Cairo is evidence of art’s ability to simultaneously open and heal the exact same wounds.