Behind-the-scenes art

Mamuta at the Daniela Passal Art and Media Center in Ein Kerem serves as a retreat for artists working on the periphery.

The  Mamuta Project 390 (photo credit: Courtesy of Mamuta)
The Mamuta Project 390
(photo credit: Courtesy of Mamuta)
A quiet village on the outskirts of Jerusalem, with a somewhat unquiet history, Ein Kerem’s pastoral groves and winding valleys provide a seemingly innocuous backdrop for the artistic activities of the Sala- Manca group, one of the country’s best known and most prolific art collectives.
The Mamuta Project at the Daniela Passal Art and Media Center was initiated in 2009 by Sala-Manca, with the assistance of the Jerusalem Foundation. The building was formerly owned by Daniela Passal, a Polish-born artist who came to Israel in the 1950s.
Passal died in 2005, and one of her last wishes was that her house be used as an art facility, a “place free from bigotry and open to all.”
Incorporating a multidisciplinary and technological approach, the center offers a space for collaborative and individual art practice, exhibitions and research and an artist-in-residence apartment. The house and grounds are extensive, providing ample space for video, sound and electronics laboratories as well as a workshop for wood, metal and plastics.
The creative forces behind the Mamuta project are Diego Rotman and Lea Mauas, two Argentinean immigrants with a background in theater and contemporary art. Rotman and Mauas began their creative life in Jerusalem under the banner of the Sala- Manca Group in 2001, with the intention of establishing an independent art platform that would, among other things, give a voice to artists working outside the mainstream.
This was during the second intifada and Jerusalem’s artistic and social climate was bleak and tense.
Rotman and Mauas recollect the city during this time as being reminiscent of a “ghost town.” As well as pursuing their own artistic practices, they began publishing an art journal, He’arat Shulayim (Notes in the Margin) and curating site-specific art events, He’ara (Comment), the proceeds of which went towards financing future issues of the journal.
The events were created by issuing an open call for artists to participate. Rotman and Mauas chose unusual, innovative urban spaces referencing Jerusalem’s “weighty” and charged political and historical landscape.
The Underground Prisoners Museum, Sergei’s Courtyard and David’s Citadel all proved successful locations. Jerusalem’s art establishment started to take notice and in the case of He’ara No. 4, the use of the Prisoners Museum worked so well that Jerusalem’s Artfocus Biennial, much to Sala-Manca’s chagrin, adopted the location for its own purposes.
The He’ara events grew in size and became notable events in the Israeli art world. Suzanne Landau, the head curator of art at the Israel Museum, purchased a work on behalf of the museum from one of the exhibiting artists, Sagit Mezamer. Rotman and Mauas acknowledge He’ara No. 4 as a turning point; artist participation had doubled from 30 to 60 artists and public attendance had grown to over a thousand.
Over time, Sala-Manca built up a roster of hundreds of artists, who even after leaving Jerusalem returned to participate in the events. Artists such as Jan Tichy, Shahar Marcus and Victoria Hanna worked with the group, and in a recent conversation Sagit Mezamer, now one of the curators at the Jaffa 23 Art Space, remarked that for Israeli artists the event at David’s Citadel, which took place in 2007, had the feel of a “pilgrimage.”
FOR ROTMAN and Mauas, the event at the Citadel (He’ara No. 11) proved to be the last in the series.
Rotman recounts how, due to the enormous size of the building, “it was a difficult space to curate.”
Taking as the point of departure the Citadel’s history as a military stronghold, the event was themed around the “architecture of power.” In a simple but strong gesture, one of the artists persuaded the municipality to lower the three flags hoisted on a daily basis – the flags of the state, the city and the museum – and replace them with a white flag, a symbolic gesture whose significance would be lost on nobody.
Taking stock of their situation, Rotman and Mauas decided that the publication of the journal and the one-day events, regardless of how successful they were, were not enough. Their decision was possibly a “reaction to the street-festival culture that had started to become a part of Jerusalem’s public and social sphere,” although they were also aware they were looking for a base from which to explore long-term projects and their own artistic practice.
As artists, Rotman says “when we first arrived in Ein Kerem, it was difficult to create” as the idyllic setting did not lend itself to the tension the artists felt was needed to inspire creativity. Nonetheless, Ein Kerem’s history and the Arab building in which they are housed have provided a backdrop and some raw material for Sala-Manca to work with.
Under the new platform of Mamuta at the Daniela Passal Art and Media Center, the first exhibition opened in October 2009, entitled “What’s Hidden Behind The Pastoral?” The exhibition resembled a “happening” with performances, installations, kinetic sculpture, murals and group tours of the village.
The tours were designed and curated to offer differing perspectives on the history of the village, one that was inclusive of the Palestinian and Christian narratives.
Rotman and Mauas’s artistic and curatorial approach has continued to be eclectic and exploratory.
In 2010, the group was invited to participate in a group show at the Tate Modern in London, marking the museum’s 10th anniversary. The artists created an on-site “hair salon,” titled “Mame Moderne Salon,” a Yiddish play on words that translated literally means “modern mother.” The “salon” came complete with hairdresser, a waiting room, live performances and video and film work.
While using the village’s history as a backdrop, the exhibitions and artworks at Mamuta are rarely overtly political. The exhibitions tend to present a wide variety of artists and performers and reveal as much about the state of contemporary art as about Jerusalem’s current artistic climate.
Framed under the title of “The Museum of the Contemporary,” the present exhibition at Mamuta is multilayered and connected to notions of landscape and memory. In effect, the house itself has become the installation.
The bricks on the house facade have been marked, similar to the markings on houses scheduled for demolition. The interior of the house is given over to three installations and a room with archival materials, some of which were created by resident artists. There are books of drawings and prints, plants and seeds from the gardens of Ein Kerem and a “souvenir shop” where some of the artists sell their work.
The centerpiece of the exhibition is a room constructed of pinewood planks, made to resemble the interior of a church, titled the “Church of Criticism.” Natural light has been muted using a camera-obscura effect and stained-glass doors complete the scene. In this setting, Rotman and Mauas, who have assumed the characters of guards and are dressed in uniform, recite a dialogue. They are accompanied by projections of archival film footage of prestate Israel, a vocal and music score and projected text, all interweaving in a dissonant montage.
With the use of laptops and other multimedia effects, the work presents us with a somewhat esoteric and Kafka-esque scenario; two guards who are not really guards, reading text in a church that is not a church, all housed in a museum that is not really a museum.
In the “Private View” installation, electronic shutters have been installed in a room, closing off the landscape. If the viewer wishes to sample the view, they must pay a small fee. The viewer then mounts a small set of steps, the shutters open for a few brief moments, revealing a wonderful view, and just as quickly close again, leaving the spectator wanting more, but also feeling slightly cheated. In tune with our prevailing consumer-led culture, I found myself thinking, “I want more, and want it now,” and immediately began feeling all the more guilty.
The “Museum of the Contemporary” is a work where very little is in clear view. An installation full of obscured landscapes, oblique references and disembodied voices, Sala-Manca asks us again to consider the question “What is hidden behind the pastoral?” and also try to shed some light on a reality where things are not always as they appear.
For all the group’s exploration of Jerusalem, Rotman and Mauas continue to extend their projects through the aesthetics of the Web and are preparing an open-source platform that will serve as a “storage facility” for online exhibitions, which will enable exhibits, at the curators’ request, to “migrate” and be shown at international museums and galleries. The current exhibition finishes at the end of this month.
Mamuta at the Daniela Passal Art and Media Center is a place that will reward if visited regularly, and surprisingly appears to be a suitable setting for Sala-Manca activities. The center has the feel of a “retreat,” a place for artists working on the periphery who can quietly and intently pursue their work. There is something of the “holy artist” in what Sala-Manca does, and traces of Joseph Beuy’s idea of the “artist as shaman,” involved in a healing process. But more than this, Sala-Manca is engaged in a “public art,” art for one and all. •