Breaking out of Bezalel

Scratching the surface of Israel’s oldest educational institution reveals some interesting young talent bubbling away.

animated hebrew cartoon,  Israel Eldad and Yeshayahu Leibowi (photo credit: courtesy)
animated hebrew cartoon, Israel Eldad and Yeshayahu Leibowi
(photo credit: courtesy)
Lecturers at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design’s Fine Arts Department were surprised with Tal Engelstein’s final second-year art installation. They entered a darkened room to find five modern-day Israeli punks fast asleep on a semi-blackened sand dune.
Engelstein, originally from Haifa, found the punks living in a derelict apartment in downtown Tel Aviv.
After spending some time with them, he proposed his interest in using them as an art exhibit. Paying them NIS 300 each, he brought the group to Jerusalem and kept them up all night before handing each a powerful sleeping pill to knock them out for eight hours solid.
He layered five tons of sand acquired from a nearby Arab village on a specially constructed wooden base, before using black metallic car spray to give it the effect of a rugged mountainside. Before their heads hit the sand, dressed in ripped, black leather complete with a slew of earrings and typically outrageous hairstyles, each was fitted with a miner’s flashlight and lay down to sleep.
“The idea was to show them as if they were like lost hikers plucked off a mountain face,” he says.
Engelstein is among the 2,000 students at the academy today but has been touted as an artist to look out for in the future, to join the ranks of some of Bezalel's most renowned graduates. These include sculptor Yehudit Sasportas, contemporary artist Nir Hod, writer and animator Yossi Abulafia and photographer Adi Nes, whose print Last Supper sold at a Sotheby’s auction for $264,000 in 2007. In November, former Bezalel student and viral sensation Vania Heymann directed an interactive video to Bob Dylan's Like a Rolling Stone. It was put on the musician's official website and named by Time magazine as the number one music video of 2013.
The Bezalel Academy was established in 1906 and was the brainchild of Prof. Boris Schatz, one of the founders of the Royal Academy of Art in Sofia, Bulgaria. He presented his proposal to establish an arts and crafts school in the Land of Israel to Theodor Herzl in 1903 at the Sixth Zionist Congress in Basel. Three years later he realized his dream on Abyssinia Street in Jerusalem, with 20 students and four staff members.
The original school opened with an Art Department training designers of patterns for carpets and a Crafts Department training in modeling, ornamentation, plaster casting and carpet weaving. Today the Academy offers nine undergraduate programs including photography, fine art, screen arts, jewelry and ceramic design, and with four graduate programs including its highly regarded Industrial Design track.
Bezalel’s history of colorful personalities includes the founder of its Architecture Department, Arthur Goldreich, a close friend and anti-apartheid comrade of Nelson Mandela. Goldreich, born in Johannesburg in 1929, moved to Mandate Palestine, where he joined the Palmah, fighting for Jewish independence against the British. He later returned to South Africa to join the ANC led by Mandela to overthrow Apartheid rule. Acquiring a farm in a Johannesburg suburb which served as a headquarters of the underground movement, Mandela hid there posing as farm worker and driver writing affectionately about Goldreich in his autobiography, praising him for his fighting skills.
Speaking from an underground level of Bezalel’s seven-floor campus on Mount Scopus, Engelstein says his project was just as much about exploring new techniques as the message he was trying to convey.
“I was looking for a real image, and this achieved that more than a painting or photograph could ever have – you could feel them breathing. It’s also a strange and interesting sensation to be close to someone else when they are sleeping.”
Engelstein sits in a corner of a dimly lit open plan, a rugged student work space scattered with pieces of wood, industrial art supplies and building materials.
Surrounding him are pencil sketches and models – some made of plaster, others metal and wood – giving the distinct impression of a young artist already hatching plans for future designs.
“Punk culture was originally a bold statement about being anti-establishment and anti-capitalist,” he explains, “but now you walk into H&M and you see punk dress on the clothing racks and modeled in the window.
It’s ironic and a great example of how impossible it is to keep an idea true and untainted. As soon as it steps into the public domain, it’s loses something.”
“I painted obsessively as a child and a teenager,” he says, recalling how his parents bought him his first oil paints at the age of nine. That same year – he reveals shyly – a futuristic picture of a boy stepping out of a spaceship, listening to a Walkman, won him a prize in an international competition to design special millennium-edition postage stamps. In addition to seeing his design printed and sold to collectors worldwide, his talent won him and his family a trip to Los Angeles along with other national winners.
“I haven’t touched a paintbrush for years, though,” he says. “I’m loving my time here experimenting and learning new skills.”
He adds, “My mother almost had an anxiety attack when I told her I was going to study art, but since that initial shock my parents have given me their full support.
Engelstein’s relationship with his mother, who works as a psychologist, also features strongly in his artwork. His first-year project, a video installation, showed a set of three giant tables on top of each other forming a huge shelf structure with his mother lying underneath, reading from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders textbook, used by psychologists to recognize mental health disorders.
Engelstein sits aloft the wooden construction, while an Italian operatic voice plays in the background.
“When I was younger I used to read a lot of my mother’s books, especially the DSM book, and scare myself thinking I was recognizing symptoms of various disorders in myself,” he says, turning up the volume on the video to hear the opera voice. “Whereas these textbooks classify people’s deep thoughts, oddities and moodiness as signs of abnormality, opera embraces and romanticizes them. I have learned to embrace and not be perturbed by the ideas and thoughts that swarm around my head.”
An artist’s life is a costly business, and the sleeping punks installation alone cost NIS 2,500. Long summers selling Israeli cosmetics and skin products in a kiosk in Kansas have financed his studies, accommodations and art supplies thus far.
Keen to see more of the world and to learn new skills and techniques, Engelstein has been accepted to join the prestigious School of the Art Institute of Chicago on a student exchange program for a semester, beginning in January. Beyond that, a final year of studies awaits him back at Bezalel – and then what? “It’s easy for me to talk about the future,” he says. “I want to be working in art, expressing my ideas, sharing them and bringing them to life in different art forms. I hope I can do that.”
Two flights up from the Fine Arts Department and its improvised backstage appearance is the academy’s Screen-Based Arts Department, where rows of state-of-the-art computer and graphic design monitors fill whitewashed rooms. Among the sprinkling of streetwise students milling around is Ada Rimon of Jerusalem, a fourth-generation Bezalel student and one of the institution’s most highly regarded young animators.
Bezalel’s animation course made major headlines in 2009 when Waltz with Bashir, retracing soldiers’ memories of the First Lebanon War, made by a team of 12 graduates, picked up the Best Foreign Language Film award at the 2009 Golden Globes and was nominated for the 2009 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
Teaming up with fellow student Ofek Shamir, also now her partner, Bottles is a one-minute animation showing the pair joking around while blowing up a glass bottle. It received 60,000 views on the film-sharing channel Vimeo within three days, and landed them an unexpected invitation to the San Francisco Disposable Film Festival last year. “We had only made the film to experiment with some ideas, and it certainly wasn’t built to win a prize,” she says, “although it was a real boost to see that people liked what we were doing.”
“I find animation the best medium for communicating ideas,” she says. Ideas are not something she is short of, having found a voice as a vehement critic of what she sees as Israel’s bleak reality.
Deeply affected by attending a downtown school during the second intifada, Rimon spent her army service in Eilat, as far away as she could get from the capital, working as a tour guide in the red rock and desert landscape of the South before leaving Israel to spend a year in Berlin.
“When I eventually returned to Jerusalem and decided to study animation, the light rail trials were just beginning. I remember how they used sandbags instead of people to test its weight limit.
It was so surreal having left a city that was being blown up left, right and center, and coming back to a modern light rail carrying sandbags as people.”
This inspired Rimon’s first-year film, using that image of living sandbags walking around the city.
Now in her fourth and final year, Rimon’s most ambitious project has been animating a 1980 exchange between ultra Left-leaning Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz and Israel Eldad on the Right, debating the question of a two state solution to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, with Leibowitz making the argument that the only alternative to the solution is war.
“We looked for a clip that represented our view and went about animating the conversation to bring it to life,” she says. “In today’s Israel, you can’t speak about peace or a Middle East that is the tourist capital of the world; people think you are naïve, but for me that’s why it is important so that this idealism isn’t buried.”
Looking to their final-year major project, Rimon, who funds her studies by working as a waitress in a Jerusalem sushi bar, says the pair are planning a film at the Dead Sea. “It is a lonely, strange, desert-like place and the lowest point on Earth,” she says with a wry smile, “perhaps a little like Israel feels sometimes.”
Bezalel has several ways of nurturing and encouraging its young talent and ideas; there are exchange opportunities abroad and students are also encouraged to collaborate with lecturers, who are all employed on part-time contracts committing them to continuing their own creative pursuits. This also allows the institution to retain its talented students in semi-teaching roles.
Bezalel Labs, a relatively new initiative, mediates with industry, helping to develop ideas born inside the academy into patented, marketable ventures.
The most notable success, an earthquake-proof table designed by graduate Arthur Brutter and Prof. Ido Bruno, which can withstand up to 1,000 kilograms falling on it from roof height, recently gained widespread international interest and a nomination at the Design Museum Holon.
Bezalel’s table-crushing experiments, along with its sleeping punks, animated critiques of society and the rest of its creative and innovative designs, are being brought to life on Mount Scopus, where its campus has been situated since 1990. However, the face of Jerusalem could be set for an interesting creative injection when the academy returns to the heart of the city, on its new Russian Compound campus slated for 2017.