Art the frame beyond

Second Jerusalem Biennale for contemporary Jewish art returns to Israel's Diaspora roots.

Motti Mizrahi’s five-meter-tall wedding dress flaps in the wind above the Citadel’s ramparts; on the biennale’s last day in November, it will be set free to drift over the Old City skyline (photo credit: RICKY RACHMAN)
Motti Mizrahi’s five-meter-tall wedding dress flaps in the wind above the Citadel’s ramparts; on the biennale’s last day in November, it will be set free to drift over the Old City skyline
(photo credit: RICKY RACHMAN)
If you’re comfortable with the stereotypic view that modern art in Jerusalem is kitsch, barely more sophisticated than depictions of Elvis praying at the Western Wall painted on black velvet, don’t read this review of the Jerusalem Biennale for contemporary Jewish art.
The once-every-two-years spectacle of performance art, video and special installations – which opened last week at the Tower of David Museum and nine other venues across the city, including the First Station, Heichal Shlomo, the Skirball Museum and the Worldwide North Africa Jewish Heritage Center, and continues until November 5 – raises difficult questions about combining the words “Jewish,” “contemporary” and “art.”
These are questions for which there are no definitive answers, other than to say that the biennale is about art beyond the frame. And compared to the first Jerusalem Biennale in 2013, which had 50 artists as opposed to this year’s 200, there are now a lot more questions and a much larger frame.
Tower of David Museum curator Eilat Lieber notes she was originally skeptical of the idea of the biennale.
“I questioned founder Rami [Ozeri] and the advisory board. This [biennale] is part of a really large movement called Jewish renewal. It’s not religious but cultural renewal,” she continues, comparing the Jerusalem Biennale to the Jewish Cultural Festival in Krakow’s historic Kazimierz Quarter.
After nearly 70 years of statehood and a century of nation-building, Israel is ready for a return to its Diaspora roots, she notes. The artists of the biennale are involved in the highly personal artistic process of mining their parents and grandparents for meaning, she says.
“Some of us were ashamed of our past, in the galut [Diaspora]; they forgot their sources and roots. This exhibition is part of the ongoing dialogue between past and present.”
All five of the installations scattered in galleries around the Tower of David reflect this grasping for historical consciousness.
Among them is Sigalit Landau’s Salt Crystal Bridal Gown.
In the Dead Sea, Landau immersed a copy of the iconic black wedding dress worn by the legendary Habima actress Hanna Rovina for four decades while performing the main character Leah in Shalom Ansky’s play The Dybbuk. The frock was photographed eight times by Yotam From as it gradually became encrusted with salt and turned white.
The result is an eerie construction that evokes the biblical story of Lot’s wife turning into a pillar of salt – all while making a Yiddish-Hebrew pun about sticking.
Equally evocative is Motti Mizrahi’s five-meter-tall wedding dress which flaps in the wind above the Citadel’s ramparts while a series of statues stand guard below. On the biennale’s last day in November, the dress will be set free to drift over the skyline of the Old City.
Brazilian artist Pablo Lobato’s installation, “Disrupted We Stand,” consists of 21 close-ups of uniformed IDF soldiers standing at ease. The lack of faces, on the other hand, induces the viewer to feel a bit ill at ease.
Graphic artist Dov Abramson’s Kav 70 (“Line 70”) is a mosaic map of 70 tiles laid out to represent the geographic perimeter of the holy city. Alluding to the 70 names of Jerusalem over history, each tile suggests a meaning of Jerusaranging from a sign pointing to the directions to the toilets at the museum to the flowerlike emblem of the Jerusalem Foundation.
Together, the 70 tiles both unite and divide the city.
Even more ephemeral yet laden with layers of meaning are video artist Ynin Shillo’s installations.
One locks in on a scene of the ancient tombs in the historic Mount of Olives Cemetery, while a digital clock ticks down to 59 minutes. The installation evokes the tension of waiting for the imminent redemption, posing the question of whether the graves are a punctuation mark or a conclusion.
Irit Shillo is a Jerusalem multidisciplinary artist, member of the biennale team and a tour guide who is organizing tours of the various venues.
“There are no sacred cows on our tours,” she says of her threehour group tours.
“We need to bring famous artists from across the world,” says Lieber. “Jerusalem deserves the best. I hope this is only the beginning of the process. The connection between Jerusalem and [contemporary] art is still not strong enough.”