The Jerusalem Biennale: The incredible breadth of art

The fourth Jerusalem Biennale was bigger than ever. It comprised 14 venues all over the capital, involved 220 artists in 31 exhibitions, and displayed over 550 art objects.

Converge on a Question’ by Jean-Pierre Weill (photo credit: DANIEL RACHAMIM)
Converge on a Question’ by Jean-Pierre Weill
(photo credit: DANIEL RACHAMIM)
The crowds that swarmed to this year’s Jerusalem Biennale were a tribute to the founder and his belief that such an “impossible” project was possible.
Some eight years ago, Rami Ozeri was understandably nervous over the success of such an undertaking. With few sponsors and little experience of being a schnorrer, Ozeri was apprehensive that his innovative idea of turning Jerusalem, of all places, into a venue for visual arts would not succeed.
But succeed he did, attracting both sponsors and attention from artists and audiences, not only from Israel but also from across the globe.
The fourth Jerusalem Biennale was bigger than ever. It comprised 14 venues all over the capital, involved 220 artists in 31 exhibitions, and displayed over 550 art objects. Not only has it attracted Jewish artists in all media, but this year it opened its doors to non-Jewish artists, especially those representing different faiths.
As with much contemporary art, the Biennale includes not only traditional arts such as drawing, painting and sculpture, but also the new arts – videos, installations, even Instagrams. Two of the major clusters of exhibits were housed in the YMCA, and throughout the Hechal Shlomo – Jewish Heritage Center in the center of the city.
Marina Abramovic 'Waterfall'. 2000-2003. Photo courtesy - Jerusalem Biennale / Daniel RachamimMarina Abramovic 'Waterfall'. 2000-2003. Photo courtesy - Jerusalem Biennale / Daniel Rachamim
The YMCA of Jerusalem, which is itself an architectural gem, lent a whole section of its multifaceted building to the Biennale. This included what was once the swimming pool area, a large, roomy space in which two artists were able to exhibit two very large works.
Stretching the length of one wall, Andi Arnovitz’s “I’m not” was a massive creation that includes over a thousand painted porcelain fish moving across the expanse of a specially constructed wall in groups, each fish sticking to its own kind. All the fish are facing one way except one – visitors are asked if they can spot it.
The huge frieze can be appreciated as an aesthetic experience, or more profoundly as a comment on our age of conformity and reluctance to be open to the other. The one fish turning in the opposite direction is the real hero of the piece, swimming against the tide, standing up for independence of thought and action, not giving into the masses.
“The piece was meant for the last Biennale,” Arnovitz explains to The Jerusalem Report, “but I felt I wouldn’t have enough time to complete it. Hence its appearance here. It is my statement against an aquatic stampede of blind conformity that is so characteristic of our age.”
On the opposite wall is a video which, in some ways, represents both a complement to Arnovitz’s huge work and also an answer to its negative message.
Called “Waterfall,” the video was made by Marina Abramovic over a period of five years in India. Abramovic had visited numerous Buddhist monasteries and asked monks and nuns to recite the Heart Sutra prayer. When playing them all together she felt that she was in a waterfall, hence the name.
In all, some 108 monks and nuns were filmed reciting this prayer, the resulting sound being not far from that of the hall of a beit midrash in one of the local yeshivas. The similarity was sufficient for the organizers to place it in the Biennale, even though it is not Jewish, but it is surely connected to the main theme of the Biennale which was “For Heaven’s Sake.”
Also in the YMCA building was a large room where a whole miscellany of artists and their creations awaited the visitor. These included painting, installations, sculptures, and photography.
Many of the exhibitions celebrated the life of Moroccan Jewry. Collectively called Ziarra, the room shows off the Moroccan Jewish heritage, and how proud these Jews are of their traditions.
Jewish and non-Jewish artists exhibited a wide variety of their shared traditions, whether as photographs of their ancestors printed on leather; a print of the Western Wall on cloth; the wall of record covers displaying the many singers from Morocco who recorded their traditional songs in Israel; a wood and papier-mâché boat carrying emigrants from Morocco to Israel; or an empty shell of a house waiting to be inhabited.
Chani Cohen Zada: 'Let Thine Eyes Be On The Field'. 2019. Credit: Ateret Gerstal.Chani Cohen Zada: 'Let Thine Eyes Be On The Field'. 2019. Credit: Ateret Gerstal.
These images tell of a Morocco different from the usual story related about the country. Jewish and non-Jewish artists are “creating a profound visual language that is evolving into a common wisdom.” This points to a movement, even among Muslim Moroccans, to restore Jewish buildings, or reproduce traditional Jewish-Moroccan garb as contemporary fashion designs.
At the Begin Center, one exhibit combined installations, photographs, historical texts and video showing the progress (or lack thereof) of women’s struggle for equality. It is 100 years since the first women suffragettes began demonstrating for voting rights and the ability to run for office in the Yishuv (the predecessor of the State). Their campaign was mounted against the rulings of the leading rabbi of the time, Rabbi Isaac Kook.
In a parallel video, Prof. Tamar Ross, a religious feminist, takes apart all the arguments put forth by Rabbi Kook. The fact that this struggle is still ongoing adds to the piquancy of the multimedia exhibit.
The Jewish tradition of argument is nowhere more pronounced than in the Talmudic discussions of old. One of the most famous is over the Oven of Akhnai, a bitter debate during which the rule of the majority overrides the apparent truth. The artists in this project were asked to respond to this heated debate. Each brought their own graphic response, making the display in the studio space of Kol Ha’ot a veritable dictionary of contemporary art forms: paintings, drawings, sculptures, industrial designs and installations. Like the sages in the original dispute, these artists see the world as a place of resistance, creation and transcendence.
Two projects focused on female creativity. One, called “Female Waters,” was an exhibition of oil paintings by Chani Cohen Zada. Painted with a classical technique, they portray different female figures drawn mainly from the Bible in situations that reflect the artist’s reading of midrashic and kabbalistic writings. The results are extremely aesthetic, the only drawback being the need to understand them. This is not confined to these oil paintings. There are many pieces in the Biennale that really need explanations if the viewer is to grasp the deeper meaning that many of the works share.
As though to address this problem, the exhibit called “Living Under Water” is accompanied by a large format catalogue (this is apart from the catalogue of the whole Biennale called “For Heaven’s Sake!”)
This was a massive project in and of itself. Curated by Andi Arnovitz, it involved a group of print-making artists being invited to Venice by the small Jewish community there, and using their artistic talents to respond to the climate crisis that has enveloped us all.
Venice was chosen because it is affected more explicitly than many other places by the changes of climate. It is threatened with physically sinking as water levels rise, and tourists continue to flood this city known for its beauty and charm. The results of the artists’ visit were on display, from suites of 10 etchings to individual sketch books. The accompanying magazine is both graphic and written testimony to the project. In addition, a video recorded the long process of the whole event.
Another book of illustrations covered the walls of Heichal Shlomo’s imposing vestibule. Evolve by Jean-Pierre Weill is the title of the book that will comprise these 100 water colors.
Based on three Biblical stories – Adam in the Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, and the Binding of Isaac – Weill illustrates his own interpretation of these paradigmatic takes. For example, he describes The Binding of Isaac in paint and word as an encounter that each of us will face at the end of our earthly journey, releasing us from our ever present ego. The illustrations are full of puns and humor as it bridges the space between the written word and a painting.
Two other exhibits deserve mention, if only because they show the way in which art can be inclusive of groups that are normally considered outside the artistic community.
One is the etchings of the AKIM workshop, an organization for people with intellectual disabilities. Their works are overseen by the Print Workshop of the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design. Raw and unmediated by sophisticated techniques, they nevertheless show highly personal and sometimes enigmatic interpretations of the phrase “for the sake of heaven.”
The other group of ‘outsiders’ to show their work are Orthodox women who set up their own studio in 2010 in southern Jerusalem called “A Studio of Her Own.”
The studio gives them a voice of their own, even when, as here, they express the difficulties of living a fully kosher life under constant pressures. Their appearance at the Biennale shows how they are integrating into the wider world of Israeli art.
This has been a review of only a small portion of the works on display. It certainly lived up to Rami Ozeri’s wish when he opined: “The experience we want is for the visitors to feel the breadth of art.”