Deep within the heavily guarded Israeli Embassy in Bangkok, David Polonsky is taking a sip of his coffee, discussing the role of politics in his work.
"In Israeli art and cinema and literature, you might say that the political situation is too preeminent," Polonsky said. "Real art cannot deal with flat political questions."
Polonsky, an illustrator and an artist who moved to Israel when he was 8 years old, does not seem hung up on his heritage or identity. If he recognises the influence of his homeland in his work, it only to the extent that art is aimed at an audience.
"Illustration could be defined as a form of pop art, meaning that it has
to use the visual or semantic vocabulary of the culture it belongs to," he said.
On first glance, Polonsky's turbulent home is very much present in his art. From his illustrations of Old Testament stories to the animated documentary "Waltz With Bashir", on which he worked as art director, much of Polonsky's work has dealt with Israel and Judaism. "Waltz With Bashir", which premiered this May at Cannes, follows the film's director, Ari Folman, as he reconstructs his memory from Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Polonsky said the movie deals not with politics but with memory. It is not a critique of Israel's policies, but a universal condemnation of "the stupidity and atrocity of war".
The film was recently released in Israel and France, where it has been well-received by critics and audiences alike. "Before the film's premiere, we were a little bit worried that people would put too much emphasis on the political issues. The moving thing is that this isn't the focus and people are relating to the film as something that moves them, something that makes them think," Polonsky said.
The animated documentary is set for an autumn release in the United States, just in time for the Oscars, but as of now, it has no distributor in Thailand.
Asked to choose his favourite work, Polonsky quickly settled on "Waltz with Bashir".
"Movies are the most influential form of art today," he said. While discussing favorite film-makers, he expressed equal admiration for the animation of the Hayao Miyazaki and the slapstick humour of the French director Jacques Tati. "I haven't seen a lot of his films, but every time I do, my jaw drops like 'wow'," Polonsky said about Tati.
"I'm not very funny, not ha-ha funny," Polonsky said, though he does identify with the Soviet-Jewish comedic tradition. Having lived in Kiev until the age of eight, Polonsky feels a kinship with other Jews who grew up in the Soviet Union. He described similarities between his life and that of the protagonist in "The Russian Debutante's Handbook", a book that "caught something very idiosyncratic" about those who lived (and left) a fading Soviet empire, he said. "There is a certain kind of sadness and humour in them because they were brought up in a dying culture on the one hand and on the other a deep culture," Polonsky said
Polonsky, who described his favourite authors as "a lot the big Russians, but not Dostoevsky", identified traces of this humour "something akin to Woody Allen, but with a darker turn to it" in his Old Testament drawings.
"This is the kind of Soviet-Jewish humour," he says, "like if you see that Abraham is a little bit shabby, that's funny for me." The illustrations, which were commissioned to accompany reworked Biblical texts by the satirical writer Ephraim Sidon, are on display at Khon Kaen University until July 30.
Neither Polonsky nor Sidon considers himself religious, and the artist and illustrator approached the project as a chance to highlight the Bible's literary qualities, "maybe even showing that there is some kind of Jewish mythology and it's very, very beautiful and moving and not necessarily related to religion".
Polonsky sees a very different, but equally interesting, challenge in being an Israeli artist. "The good thing and the bad thing about being an artist in Israel is that you have no tradition," he said.
"You can invent things and nobody tells you what to do, and so a lot of creative solutions come out of that lack of tradition."
How would Polonsky assess the state of art in Israel today? The illustrator, who teaches at Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem, hesitated to draw a conclusion, but eventually described it as booming.
"It's funny that regardless of the political situation for us, you might say that it's not a very bad time for Israel right now," Polonsky said.