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The Masada Complex- Esther Gabrielle Kersley

During my time in Arad, I became fascinated by how land and place is so deeply connected to our myths and memories - a work of the mind more than anything physical. Yet this doesn’t make it any less ‘real’. On arriving here, I realised that Arad had existed in my mind long before I’d heard of it, etched in me from childhood stories of history, identity and place.

Arad’s founding coincided with the excavation of Masada in the early 1960s – the ancient desert fortress that was the last holdout of Jewish resistance against Rome that sits 20km east of Arad. Arad became a symbol of the new state – the first planned city in Israel, a utopia in the desert. At the same time, the story of Masada from 2,000 years earlier – also became a symbol of the state in the early decades of its establishment. As the accuracy of the story of Masada has been questioned in recent years, the myth of Masada says as much about the present as it does the past. Today, Masada exists not just as a historical site but as a location of pilgrimage – merged with religious mysticism and a symbol of nationalism, it mirrors the complexities of the modern state of Israel.

Archaeology and photography emerged at a similar time in the 19th century and were connected to the modern nation-state. Both are concerned not just with time (the relationship between the past and present) and how to record it, but these disciplines also reveal the limits of this endeavour - both are merely samples, revealing not just what remains but also what is gone, what we forget as much as what we chose to remember. In these images, I have photographed natural objects – plants, trees, rocks, and stones – found in the desert surrounding Arad close to Masada. They have been distorted through digital collages – a process of cutting out, recontextualising, and layering to show the blurred boundaries between the real and the imaginary and how the past constantly merges with and is shaped by the present.


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