3 former Jerusalemite artists take alternative look at Jerusalem

The show, which runs through to May 6, features three seemingly contrasting creations that somehow flow together and dovetail seamlessly to offer the viewer a diverse yet complementary narrative.

 DANIEL PALEY’S crafted components maintain a dialogue with his natural surroundings. (photo credit: SHAI HALEVI)
DANIEL PALEY’S crafted components maintain a dialogue with his natural surroundings.
(photo credit: SHAI HALEVI)

Diehard Tel Avivians have been known to take a stab at the residents of this hilltop capital city. One of the more acerbic jibes suggests that the best part of Jerusalem is the exit to the west that leads down Route 1 to Tel Aviv.

Many a Jerusalemite has taken that trip over the years, some never to return as dwellers. But, hard as one might fight it, even if you spend most of your life elsewhere, the plain fact of the matter is that you can take a Jerusalemite out of Jerusalem, but you can never take Jerusalem out of a Jerusalemite.

Daniel Paley, Michal Sophia Tobiass and Shirel Safra would probably go along with that observation, and their work certainly corroborates that hypothesis. All three are Jerusalemites by birth, and artists by choice. And all three have work currently on display at the Beita Gallery on Jaffa Road, as part of the Heavens and Earth exhibition.

The show, which runs through to May 6, features three seemingly contrasting creations that somehow flow together and dovetail seamlessly to offer the viewer a diverse yet complementary narrative.

While the flipside moniker seems to suggest a celestial-terrestrial dynamic, the official stated titular backdrop comes from a relatively contemporary literary neck of the cultural woods. 

 PALEY’S ‘SELF-PORTRAIT in the Judean Hills’ work strikes a delicate balance between the natural and manmade worlds.  (credit: SHAI HALEVI) PALEY’S ‘SELF-PORTRAIT in the Judean Hills’ work strikes a delicate balance between the natural and manmade worlds. (credit: SHAI HALEVI)
THE EXHIBITION, curated by Hagar Raban, got the artists to wend their way through the storyline and enlightening subtext of Michael and the Monster of Jerusalem, a children’s book written by Meir Shalev and illustrated by Emanuele Luzzati, which was published in 1989 by the then-spanking new Tower of David Museum.

The book features two main characters, a young boy called Michael and the Jerusalem behemoth, called Shneiorir. They meet up in the aftermath of the lad’s mischievous deed, which causes much consternation among the locals. During the course of their tête-à-têtes, Michael gets to learn about the checkered history of the city, and also gains a valuable lesson about its bedrock – in both a physical and spiritual sense.

That suggests a yin-yang sensibility, which comes through palpably in Paley’s work. The artist clearly gets the business of checks and balances, constantly keeping a wary yet loving finger on the ebb and flow pulse of the ancient city. “Yes, it is a balancing act,” says the now resident of Moshav Mata in the Jerusalem Hills. “It is always on the verge of collapse.”

For Paley, that interface runs along numerous frontiers. It also references his quotidian position. His house is a highly topical stone’s throw away from a forest. That, for him, brings the Mother Nature/human existence and intervention interaction into stark focus. “We live side by side,” he observes. “The question is how we continue to do that.”

That’s quite a poser, and one which we are increasingly drawn into given the continuing fragile existential condition of our planet, notwithstanding the efforts of our political leaders as they intermittently jet their way to some global environmental summit or other, generally not to any particularly sustained, beneficial effect.

The equilibrium issue comes through in Paley’s work, “Self-Portrait in the Judean Hills,” which addresses the highly tangible material oxymoron between natural and human-made substances and artifacts, and how we somehow manage to keep that going without decimated everything around us – and, naturally, ourselves.

Like much of life, things are often complicated – but, equally frequently, are basically simple. Shalev notes that in his book. Before they part, the Shneiorir gives Michael a small stone. The gift is not initially appreciated by the boy who takes offense at the ordinariness of the gesture. However, the monster enlightens his young pal by explaining that: “There are no common stones in Jerusalem.”

Paley has some sizable stonework in his installation over on Jaffa Road, which deftly conveys the undulating and meandering nature of life on Earth – and how we try to navigate our way through our time here without leaving too much in the way of harmful human detritus.

His work is based on a fulcrum arrangement and has the observer considering the delicacy of the ongoing daily dynamic, and how we should go about weighing up our perceived creature comfort requirements and how that may impinge on the world about us.

Paley’s carefully crafted works incorporate large stones he gathered from the forest next to his domicile, fused with long wooden rods, and ceramic and copper bowls. The equilibrium factor crops up every which way. How do naturally fashioned elements, gleaned from the outdoors, communicate harmoniously with artificially made items? 

The shallow bowls at the edges of the fulcrum affair were, of course, not just picked up randomly as Paley made his way through the woods. He planned them, and thought them through with premeditated artistic intent. Nevertheless, they do not give you a feeling that the artist simply strode into the heart of his natural milieu and laid down the law. 

“I only took stones that were lying around,” he explains. “There were Arabs who lived here and built terraced areas, to grow food, but I didn’t remove the stones from the walls. I tried not to disturb what is there.”

Paley took a multistratified approach to his artistic brief. “There are all sorts of levels to this,” he posits. “There is the aspect of the form, including the shape of the olive press, with the counterweight.” That, says Paley, is a nod in the direction of the act of refining. 

There are, he notes, precedents for his material brew. “[Late Israeli multidisciplinary artist] Naphtali Bezem used pieces of wood that are like the oars I use. And there was [ceramic artist and sculptor] Moshe Sheck who made plates similar to the bowls I use.”

Employing a mesh of materials was more or less a given for Paley. He says that feeds off the intricate makeup of Jerusalem’s riveting evolution. “There are so many cultural levels to this city.”

In truth, he has been taking an insider-outsider peek at Jerusalem for some time. He studied at Shenkar College of Engineering, Design and Art in Ramat Gan, and lived in Tel Aviv for some years. “Yes, I’d say that enabled me to look in from the outside, and to gain a fresh perspective on Jerusalem,” he concurs.

Collating materials from his own backyard, says Paley, is also a direct result of the last couple of years, and being forced to stick close to home. “With the lockdowns and all that, I took a closer look at the things around me, in my own locale. That feels right: that this work uses materials from here.”

This suggests an intimacy which also informs the exhibition. While each work seems to have a different feel, in terms of the substance and design, there is also a sense that there is some kind of dialogue going on between the three parts.

MICHAL SOPHIA TOBIASS’S reductive creation encompasses the whole exhibition in a stark yet very humane embrace.  (credit: SHAI HALEVI)MICHAL SOPHIA TOBIASS’S reductive creation encompasses the whole exhibition in a stark yet very humane embrace. (credit: SHAI HALEVI)
THE ETHEREAL and grounded factors inherent to the exhibition title filter through all the works. Safra’s contribution, “Small Steps Upwards,” which is sewn like a winding rope ladder, draws inspiration from Ezra Orion’s sculpture, “Ma’alot,” better known as Jacob’s Ladder, Herzog Street. Others, possibly with a better developed seventies-rock-music psyche, refer to it as Stairway to Heaven.

Safra grew up in the neighborhood and, as a kid, used to hang out there with his friends. Climbing up the sculpture was a regular prank, which sometimes ended with a call to the fire department, who had to come to the rescue of Safra or one of his pals. They were, in fact, stuck between heaven and earth.

The complementary ethos is also sewn into the fabric of his work – literally. He took the implausible concrete sculpture and translated it into a much softer everyday clothing item, with a definitively human core. The ladder is made of used socks – socks that were worn, walked in, and made significant strides in this world. For Safra, both the socks and the ladder constitute a personal symbolic mesh that relates to his departure from the city.

That was probably a more dramatic move than Paley’s. Safra is an eighth generation Jerusalemite but was keenly aware that, in order to make progress, you have to create imbalance. There is definitely something to be said for stability, but you aren’t going to get too far if you don’t step into unexplored territory. For Safra, the socks on our feet, like the ladder which links the upper and lower realms, represent the possibility of going from one place to another, of moving away from the familiar and climbing toward the unknown. 

TOBIASS’S WORK required some structural and disturbing changes. “Untitled (Ein Yael)” extends right round the gallery’s walls, and comprises dozens of holes of different sizes she drilled into the plaster and stonework.

There is, sadly, nothing random about the arrangement which is a precise replica of the way the stars lined up over Jerusalem at 3:10 p.m. on September 4, 1997. At that moment Tobiass’s childhood friend, 14-year-old Yael Botvin, was killed in a terrorist attack on Ben Yehuda Street.

The blend of materials in Paley’s delicately poised work is gently and consummately offset by Safra’s softer, yet stirring, and comically presented “Small Steps Upwards.” Tobiass’s reductive creation encompasses the whole show in a stark yet very humane embrace. 

“There is something about these holes that draw you in,” notes Beita chief curator Avital Wexler. “And all these works, all the parts, talk to each other.”

Sounds very much like the city itself. ❖

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