Jerusalem joins the biennale crowd

Exhibitions of contemporary Jewish art abound in the Holy City.

‘Snow’ by Gil Cohenh Magen (photo credit: Courtesy)
‘Snow’ by Gil Cohenh Magen
(photo credit: Courtesy)
There are prestigious biennale arts events that take place all over the globe. The highest profile of the bunch is the Venice bash, which began more than a century ago, but other glittering arts exposés are held every other year in New York, Beijing, Berlin, Melbourne, Moscow and Paris, to name but a few major world arts powerhouses.
As of September 16, the name of Jerusalem has been added to that global category.
The first Jerusalem Biennale for Contemporary Jewish Art is taking place at five sites around the capital: a refurbished historic building of the Achim Hasid complex on Emek Refaim Street; Beit Avi Chai; the First Station; Heichal Shlomo; and Musrara. It will run until October 10.
The Jerusalem Biennale incorporates the results of the professional judgment of five curators and curator teams who hail from different backgrounds and bring disparate religious outlooks to the cultural table. They will explore their own interpretation of contemporary Jewish art in exhibitions, dance and installations. This is not Judaica but rather Jewish art that relates to the world of Jewish content, as seen through the eyes of haredi, Orthodox, Conservative and secular curators, as well as the artists whose works of art are on display.
The person responsible for conceiving the new artistic venture hit on the idea when he was in foreign climes, although the seed was sown much closer to home.
“When I was a student at Bezalel [Academy of Arts and Design, in Jerusalem] in 2009, I felt that the domain of expressing Jewish content in the art world was very important to me,” explains head curator of the biennale, Rami Ozeri.
“I felt that for some reason, the topic was not considered acceptable or was not adequately appreciated.”
A trip abroad brought the idea into sharper focus for him.
“After I left Bezalel, I took a trip to Berlin in 2010, and totally by accident I found myself at the biennale there. It was there that I had my epiphany – that’s the best word for it. That’s when I realized that was what I wanted to do in the field of contemporary Jewish art in Jerusalem,” he says.
The gestation period lasted a full three years, during which Ozeri conducted extensive field research and gradually began to define the concept.
“In the interim, I met many Jewish artists, a large number of whom felt that they had nowhere to exhibit their work. Artists who produce work that connects with the Jewish world find it difficult to present their creations to the public,” he explains.
Part of that, says Ozeri, is down to marketing and general perception.
“For some reason, art with Jewish content is viewed as a bit lowbrow. People bunch artworks like that with souvenirs sold in stores for tourists on Ben-Yehuda Street [in Jerusalem]. In fact, there is an abundance of wonderful artwork in all sorts of disciplines and genres that relate to Jewish content and offer depth and quality. Everyone agrees that the domain of Jewish content is very rich, and I believe that it can be expressed well in art. And that is why we got the Jerusalem Biennale together,” he says.
At Heichal Shlomo, for example, the exhibition titled “My Soul Thirsts...” expresses the yearning for holiness from a contemporary perspective. The shared focal point of the works is the longing and the desire for holiness.
Sometimes God’s presence can be found in the simplest places and in the smallest of details. In each of the works, there is a desire for a connection between Heaven and Earth. “My soul thirsts for You; my flesh longs for You” (Psalms 63:2).
On Emek Refaim Street in the German Colony, the exhibition titled “Now” explores the autonomy of the moment of “now” in traditional Jewish thought: between “The past is gone, the future is not yet and the present is a blink of an eye” and “I am here, all is here.” The artwork is a forum in which the moment can be explored apart from time and space, as an object that exists for itself, independent of history or expectations of the future redemption.
Instead, it is now.
The Jerusalem biennale displays works by a wide range of artists, such as 33-year-old painter Netta Elkayam and her acclaimed Judaica artist and designer father, Michael Elkayam; South African-born multidisciplinary artist Jessica Deutsch; 38-year-old painter Raya Bruckenthal; 53-year-old US-born Israeli- resident artist Ken Goldman; and internationally renowned New Yorker painter and sculptor 61-year-old Tobi Kahn.
Kahn is a perfect fit for the biennale and has gained worldwide renown for his meditative and sacred art projects. The acrylic on wood installation that he created especially for the Jerusalem event, titled URAH VI, forms part of his Sky and Water series. It features 12 panels measuring 25 x 19 x 2.5 cm.
Kahn started the series 15 years ago, and there are currently more than 20 variations on the theme on display in the US, Europe and Israel.
“These paintings invite you to contemplate water, light and air, the elements of our creation, paradoxically vast and intimate,” explains the artist. “In the face of the world’s instability, I want to reveal what is transcendent; not the evident reality but its essence, infinite and significant.”
Kahn, who wears a kippa, says he has been combining his religious practices and artistic explorations all his life.
“I went to synagogue on Saturdays, but I went to a museum every Sunday,” he says. “It was part of a weekend tradition that we went to services and also to museums. I love looking at art.”
The shades and shapes in Kahn’s work are strikingly singular, an approach which, says the artist, was fueled by his teachers.
“I studied with a lot of Joseph Albers’s students,” he says.
The latter was a German-born American artist and educator who relocated to the US when the Bauhaus center at Dessau was closed due to pressure from the Nazi authorities.
“I love color theory, and my teachers were all from that world,” he adds.
Kahn puts his aesthetic penchant to good use in various creative areas, including photography, painting and sculpture, employing a range of materials in his work. He keeps his professional options open.
“I got my BFA in photography and print making, and I ended up working in painting and sculpture.
Now I teach a course in visual thinking, I teach a painting class, and I give a foundation color theory class,” he says.
His Orthodox take on religion notwithstanding, Kahn does not present himself to the world as a combination of his Jewishness and his professional pursuits.
“I do not consider myself a Jewish artist,” he declares. “I am very proud to be an artist who is Jewish, just like I am proud to be male and am happy I am married.”
Several decades ago, Kahn spent some time at a yeshiva in Israel and says he naturally gravitated towards studying themes that had a strong artistic base to them.
“I loved reading about the Mishkan [Tabernacle], with the detail of the design. I am a conceptual artist who loves beauty.
I am very good at math, and I also love the idea of color theory,” he says.
That comes through loud and clear in much of Kahn’s work, such as his Saphyr sculpture, which is on permanent loan to the Wolfson Museum of Jewish Art in Heichal Shlomo and will be on display at the biennale. Saphyr, which relates to the counting of the Omer, comprises 49 sculpted forms set in a grid that fuse the concept of the individual and society.
Kahn also favors a multipronged approach to his final aesthetic offerings.
“I love the idea of arriving at a color by going through the entire color spectrum,” he says.
“My paintings are about layers. There may be 40 layers of paint in my paintings.”
Kahn feels that the strata ethos ties in with his religious origins and that his artistic output and religious credo are inseparable.
“To me, that’s very Jewish.
I also make a lot of ceremonial objects. The Omer counter is in a lot of museums. I think all my work involves theory that I learned in my Jewish education.
That, to me, is more interesting than whether or not I am a Jewish artist,” he asserts.
Professional-religious definition notwithstanding, Kahn’s works comprise a substantial and welcome contribution to the inaugural Jerusalem biennale.
Meanwhile, Ozeri hopes that art lovers and people interested in artistic representation of Jewish themes will make the rounds of all the five biennale sites.
“Each one is different, and I think it is important to get as well-rounded a view of the range of works as possible,” says the event organizer, adding that he hopes the public also leaves the exhibition areas with food for thought. “I think the works of art reflect deep thought on the Jewish people and who we are.”For more information: