There’s nothing like a deadline to get your mojo working. Almost any artist will attest to that. You start out with some nebulous idea that has lots of enthralling possibilities, but putting the damn thing into some kind of coherent form that is intelligible to the public – and to the artists themselves – can be another matter entirely.
The 40 or so artists who were busy as beavers at three venues around Jerusalem this week certainly had their work cut out for them. Twenty local and 20 offshore professionals were invited to get down and dirty – at Hamiffal (“The Factory”) in Mamilla; at Muslala, in the upper reaches of the Clal Building; and to Beita, close to the Mahaneh Yehuda shuk – to produce works of art that will remain on display for several months.
It’s all part of the ArtBnB Jerusalem Art Festival that opened this week, a collaborative initiative of Hamiffal, the Jerusalem Municipality Youth Authority, the Jerusalem Development Authority and Eden JDC.
The artists’ roll call includes quite a few figures of international renown, such as American multidisciplinary artist Michael Beitz, Russian-born Canadian interdisciplinary artist Marina Fridman, environmentally aware Spanish sculptor Joaquín Jara and currently Canada-based Japanese digital artist Yuma Yanagisawa. The domestic roster is pretty impressive too, taking in socially conscious multidisciplinary artist Noa Arad Yairi, designer Daniel Nahmias, British-born sculptor Paul Taylor and mosaic artist Anan Adnan Hamdan.
The foreign contingent arrived here around two weeks ago, creating significant time constraints. “That didn’t leave them much time,” admits Kobi Wagman, joint artistic director of the Hamiffal slot. “They really had to get down to it.”
Wagman, a graduate of Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, fully appreciates the huge logistical and creative challenges facing 40 artists working across three venues, particularly for those who came from afar. “They had two or three days to get over the jet lag, and then they needed to settle in.”
Fridman agrees. As I entered the multi-hued, multi-faceted, 19th-century Hamiffal arts cooperative building, I caught sight of the Canadian artist laboring away in cozy confines. Actually, “cramped” or even “incommodious” might better describe her work space. There was hardly enough room to swing a proverbial cat there, but Fridman was well into her productive stride. At first glance it seemed she’d pulled the short straw when activity areas were apportioned for the project.
“No, I chose this,” she laughs, adding that her first textural impression of the city prompted her choice of location. “I am building two sets of stairs,” she explains. “One is going to be made of Jerusalem stone, and the top one, which is upside-down, is going to be made of dichroic film.” Dichroic film offers some beneficial visual effects that help compensate for the lack of physical space. “It casts some pretty spectacular light, and it is also reflective, so we will be able to come in here and see our reflection.”
Fridman says she was bowled over by her first encounter with the city. “Stone. The Jerusalem stone. That’s what struck me first when I got here.”
SHE IS in good company. Poets, artists and thinkers have fed off the ubiquitous building material for centuries, both in an allegorical and a tangible sense. As she muddled through her initial jet-lagged grogginess, Fridman began getting a feel of the city and its unique history-laden ambiance. She also took in some of the energy and practical dynamics, which locals may not be aware of on an everyday conscious level. “There is something a bit inaccessible here,” she notes. “Even going to the Western Wall – all the stone, which has something potentially mystical about it. But it’s not actually the stone. It’s what’s behind it that is really significant.”
That perspective of the local constructional veneer pointed the way for Fridman’s ArtBnB contribution. “That’s why I literally wanted to create this mirror dimension of the steps. The stone seems to be everywhere here. I love it.”
There is a general consensus among the visiting artists regarding Jerusalem’s ubiquitous stone. “I think there are several artists here who are working with this,” Fridman continues. “We are so influenced by it, being here. I didn’t really have too much of an idea of what Jerusalem was like, and what I would do here. I try not to come to a place with a fixed idea.”
It was time for me to move on and let Fridman get on with her work. “I have to get this done by Thursday,” she laughs. “We were at the quarry yesterday, picking out stones, which I hope will turn up by Tuesday, which gives me a day to finish the bottom staircase.” Nothing like a bit of pressure to focus the mind.
Beitz was also waiting on a stone, although his order was of a very different weight and volume. “I went to the quarry and I picked out a rock,” he says while just about stifling a yawn. I didn’t think he could be bored with my company that quickly, but it was physical exhaustion rather than ennui that prompted the oral stretch. “I haven’t slept much for a couple of days. I have a lot to get done.”
Time constraints notwithstanding, Beitz was perfectly happy to spend a few minutes with me near the Hamiffal dining area. As we chatted we could hear the sounds of earnest creative intent from various parts of the voluminous building, while the American’s co-professionals got on with the business of drilling, hammering, scraping and fashioning their evolving contributions to the project.
Beitz expresses a dislike of politics, which has led to a general lack of interest in the doings of the world’s leaders. He also tends to avoid media reports of events in the Middle East, which led to a tabula rasa approach. “I came here to meet people,” he states simply. “I wanted just to meet artists here, understand how they create, what they’re working on.”
AS WITH any true artist – and Beitz’s impressive list of exhibitions all over the world clearly attests to that – Beitz came over to witness, absorb and respond. “I came here with an open mind and an open heart,” he says. “I took a couple of days to acclimatize, but I tried to get working right away, just to start something, to start playing with things.”
Beitz is a self-confessed creation junkie. “I have to do that all the time, everywhere I am,” he notes, adding that he feeds off local vibes too. “I’ve been experimenting with some ideas, to see how they might fit in to the city, or to public art.”
I caught Beitz in action, well sort of, in the work space he shared with Arad Yairi. He appeared to be a little lost, although it is safe to say the wheels were aturnin’ in his capable head. Something was brewing. In fact, he’d set the practical side of the process in motion.
“We went to a quarry and I picked out a rock, a really big rock,” he laughs, spreading his arms to indicate something of the immensity of his chosen centerpiece. “Big” doesn’t really do it justice. The slab in question weighs in at three tons, and was due to be delivered to a site at Independence Park the following day, officialdom thumbs up permitting.
In fact, Beitz would have been happier going even heavier. Talk about thinking big. “I guess three tons is about the limit they can move with a crane. We’re trying to get permission to put it in the park, and then I’ll have one of the old park benches going through the rock.” It is an oxymoronic, give-and-take theme. “The rock is sort of the reason for getting together, and also keeps people apart,” he observes a little enigmatically. “There is also the idea of boundaries. A lot of my work is about relationships and personal, social elements. I am always looking at how people function.”
Divisions between groups of people, communities and countries are, sadly, a highly pertinent subject for this part of the world. “It is an idea I have been thinking about for a while,” Beitz continues. “I was never in the right context for this work.” He appears to have found an appropriate milieu here, in a spiritual and corporeal sense. “My first impression of being here was being so overwhelmed by the stone. I’m a material person. I’m sensitive to design and – just – materials.”
Like Fridman, Beitz was taken with the indigenous masonry, although for him, there is a deeper, historical resonance lurking below the surface and emanating from within. “One of the things I loved, especially walking around the Old City, was the silence. It was loud there, but it was quiet, too. To me, there was a quiet quality to the city because of the stone. It felt like the stone absorbs everything – energy. You can tap into all the thousands of years of history here.”
BEITZ SAYS the complementary concept will be evident in the installation in the park as well. “I like the idea of sitting with the stone, but you also have your own private space.”
There is a utilitarian aspect to a lot of Beitz’s creations, partly fueled by a past daytime job. “I look at furniture and design, and how things work. I worked for a furniture company, making furniture. You know, everything was the same size and the same shape. You have all these designs, but it all ends up looking like IKEA.” The Swedish home furnishings and accessories giant puts out similar products across the globe, regardless of the local culture, much like boundary-leaping brands such as McDonald’s and Starbucks, a corporate-enforced uniformity Beitz rails against. “People are different. We all have our baggage, and I think we need to express that.”
Arad Yairi’s creation, which was coming along nicely when we met, also references days gone by and conveys a historical-political message. At first glimpse she seemed to be fashioning a hanukkiah out of clay. But then I noticed the figurative intertwining. “There is a figure and sabras [cactus plants], figure and sabras and so on,” she explains. “The project takes in a 100-meter perimeter space around Hamiffal. I want to put this out there in a few spots – like a sort of fence.”
The work goes a lot of further than just proffering neat nip-and-tuck aesthetics. “When you go anywhere in the country, and you see a row of sabras, that means there was once an Arab village there,” says Arad Yairi. “When you see sabras in the middle of nowhere, you know it was once a fence – that something has disappeared.”
Although she was feeling the worse for the time-constraint wear, Arad Yairi, who served as joint artistic director of last year’s inaugural ArtBnB, says things have improved and that lessons have been duly learned. “Last year was terrible. There was just no time at all to get things in place. We had to get the thing up and running within a few weeks.” Progress has been made on more than scheduling. “Last year it was more a conceptual thing,” Arad Yairi continues. “This year there are sculptures and works of art – actual presence of works of art.”
The fruits of the international artist roster will be on display at the three venues over the next two or three months. Judging by the organizers’ intentions, at the very least, local art lovers will have plenty to feast their eyes on for the near future.
For more information: www.artbnbjlm.com.