Tear down this wall: Khaled Jarrar at the Ayyam Gallery

Khaled Jarrar has made playful sculptures from fragments chipped from the eight metre high wall which runs through the West Bank. Is this trivialising or accepting the wall's existence?

The looming grey wall confronts you as soon as you step into the gallery. It is claustrophobic and you have two options: walk all the way around the length of the wall, or squeeze through the chiselled opening in the shape of historic Palestine.

Khaled Jarrar’s provocative installation is a piece of the West Bank in the heart of London. Earlier this year I travelled to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and was intrigued to see how the wall, a symbol of division, would be integrated to express freedom and unity. The Jenin-born artist combines video, photography and sculpture to reflect life in the shadow of the separation wall.

We are introduced to Jarrar in a short film, as he chips away at the eight metre high wall, working quickly with a chisel, hammer and red plastic bag. As you walk along the installed barrier, you come across a heap of concrete rocks in a corner of the gallery. It is the crushed and recycled sediment of the wall that acts as a base and links all of the sculptures in the gallery.

A football, table tennis rackets and a basketball are seated on plinths. They are sculptures made of concrete. The heaviness of the items contrasts with their usual lightness. Jarrar also makes international parallels, and a concrete figure of Buddy Bear, which was first exhibited at the site of the fallen Berlin Wall, stands in the gallery’s shadows.

We also encounter a short film featuring a surreal badminton match over the wall, in which a split screen shows the Israeli side of the wall painted bright, and the Palestinian side grey and dusty. The only thing unifying the uncanny scene is the blue sky and the ball going from one side to the other. It is a reflection that dark humour can be found in the most absurd situations.

Then there is the poignant film of an elderly woman who travels to the wall to talk through the gaps to her daughter, who was forced to live on the other side when the village was divided. It is heartrending to see her searching for her daughter’s voice, seeking her eyes through the gaps, touching her daughter’s fingers under the wall with her frail hands. “What can I tell you. It’s hard,” she says to the camera. You can feel the love they have for each other, but at the same time you feel helpless.

Jarrar’s sculpture of a halved olive tree, with a half-concrete branch is particularly powerful. The traditional significance of the olive tree to Palestinians, as a symbol of peace, resistance, life and growth, contrasts with the dead concrete. Yet at the same time, both sides are needed to make the branch whole. The lighting in the gallery creates a sombre mood, and all is still and quiet in the shadows aside from the distant sound of chiselling.

Eleven years have passed since the first slabs were erected separating the West Bank from the rest of Israel. Referred to as the ‘Apartheid Wall’ or ‘Security Wall’ depending on which side of the fence you are on, is it right that this Wall is already being memorialised in a bourgeois gallery space, moving from active resistance to the realm of grieving, of history and acceptance of the status quo?

Jarrar is clear that his art is not an attempt to beautify the separation wall. Far from it – especially as he moulds his sculptures from its destruction and emphasises how the concrete could be used for a much better cause. But this debate has been raised before: there is a story that an old man confronted Banksy as was putting up his street art in Bethlehem, telling him to go home and not make the wall he hates beautiful.

Whether it is the old woman who communicates with her daughter through a crevice in the wall, a student who feels like she is living in an open-air prison, or a farmer separated from his olive groves by an electric fence, Khaled Jarrar’s work is fresh and at times eccentric. Although he could be bolder in exploring some themes in greater depth, Jarrar doesn’t use clichéd images and certainly helps to unpack and re-contextualise the wall. He is keeping the issue on our conscience.

Whole in the Wall is at the Ayyam Gallery London 20 June – 3 August 2013

Palestinian artist Khaled Jarrar with a football sculpted from pieces of the Israeli separation wall in Qalandia. Photograph: Abbas Momani/AFP/Getty Images.
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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge