Exhibition at the Musrara Art School in Jerusalem: an undecided journey

Grappling with topics such as the urban experience and sexual self-expression, some of the projects hit the aesthetic mark while others remain a mere promise.

A drawing from Hadar Mordechay’s book. (photo credit: Courtesy)
A drawing from Hadar Mordechay’s book.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In the heart of Jerusalem’s Musrara neighborhood, wedged right between the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea She’arim and the Christian and Muslim quarters of the capital, there nestles a peaceful compound. Established in 1987, the Naggar Multidisciplinary School of Art and Society is an academic art institution that offers students three-year programs in a variety of artistic mediums, ranging from photography to music to visual communications and new media arts. 
Since its inception, the Musrara Art School failed to gain the same recognition as its competition, the revered Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. However, its socially oriented curriculum and prime location right on the seam between the eastern and western parts of the city have garnered it the reputation of an experimental space that allows its students to explore political themes through their creations. The school has also been known to attract attention through MusraraMix, a diverse art festival that takes place on the institution’s grounds annually. 
Earlier this month, Musrara’s classrooms and halls were transformed into an exhibition space in which the final projects of the school’s latest crop of graduates are on view. Despite the sociopolitical orientation that Musrara is affiliated with, the artworks on display were surprisingly personal in nature. They reflected less the complex circumstances that characterize life in Jerusalem, and more the personal dilemmas that plague the lives of the millennials who created them. 
Presented in a maze-like array throughout the school’s buildings, the projects crafted by 2020’s graduating class seemed like fragments of private journals that were translated into visual installations. The video works, photography series and illustrated books created by the young artists may have tackled very eclectic themes, but altogether looked like an attempt at documenting an initiation process. We are on the cusp of a new stage of our lives, the works seemed to communicate. Once we cross over to the other side, we might emerge completely transformed. 
A Photograph from Eli Freiman's project 'Tears.' (Courtesy)
 
This is where I leave you
The most cohesive and mature of the projects showcased in the exhibition, albeit with some of its technical drawbacks, is Inna Orly’s Hine Makom Iti. The literal translation of the title Orly gave her body of work is Here a Place with Me. It is a grammatically incorrect string of words that lacks the necessary structure that would have turned it into a sentence. Orly’s choice of title is interesting, because it corresponds with the notion that she has attempted to express through her photographs: the paradoxical longing for a place one is not certain existed to begin with.
The subjects of Orly’s photographs are disparate, inanimate objects that look like they were withdrawn from their original contexts, thus becoming mute testimonies from scenes that lack a clear narrative. A hand holding a pair of apples in a shot that is purposely out of focus, an old blue vintage car parked on the roadside in a darkened street, and a half-empty coffee cup resting next to a full ashtray all look like abandoned elements of a still-life composition. Hanging next to one another on the gallery walls, the series of images appears like the visual manifestation of the name Orly gave them: Here are memories of various places the artist loved, left or passed through. 
Inna Orly’s Hine Makom Iti. (Courtesy)Inna Orly’s Hine Makom Iti. (Courtesy)
The less moving aspects of Orly’s project are the video works she has composed. These brief, moving frames feature other intangible spaces, like the interior of a car seen from the passenger seat as drops of rain pelt the windshield. The video works are too short, and don’t add much to the fractured story Orly tells through her photographs. 
In the artist book accompanying the pictures, Orly shares written correspondence with a former lover, in which she asks him whether a picture of a view from a window that she had taken 15 years ago was shot in his house. Her ex-partner responds that while some memories have become blurry due to the passage of time and his ongoing consumption of alcohol, he is convinced that the photo in question was not taken in his home. The disappointment this conversation must have caused the artist is the sentimental foundation upon which her project rests. It is as though her acquaintance told Orly: “This is where I leave you, in the land of in between.” 
Inna Orly’s Hine Makom Iti. (Courtesy)Inna Orly’s Hine Makom Iti. (Courtesy)
Naked but not exposed
Many of the artworks in the show, although created separately in different departments, seek to expose the naked body or ask questions about the formation of a sexual identity. 
One example for a project that champions this theme is a naive photography series by Rivy Shapiro. An image of the bare-chested artist, who crouches in front of the camera and looks directly at the lens, is accompanied by other pictures that seek to portray the liminal space in which a young person’s bursting sexuality is confined. Some of the snapshots are direct, such as a close-up of a male nude chest that portrays the subject pointing at his own nipples. Other photographs by Shapiro show an attempt at more subtlety, like a picture of a half-made bed on which tangled, creased sheets in pastel colors suggest that a warm body was nestled within them just moments ago. 
Rivy Shapiro self-portrait. (Courtesy)Rivy Shapiro self-portrait. (Courtesy)
Shapiro tried to capture a libidinal, youthful essence in her photographs. This is a fascinating subject matter, but one that a young artist should probably avoid taking on unless he or she has a new angle through which they would like to present this topos. One need not look far to find other photographic series that have handled this theme more gracefully. 
In the contemporary Israeli scene, photographer Daniel Tsal is presenting a similar-minded but far better executed project in a solo exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. In the 1980s and 1990s, legendary German photographer Juergen Teller put forth many images that represented that elusive, sweaty, teenage spirit of lust and vulnerability. 
In a nearby room, graduate Ehud Lax presents his video-and-sound installation, named Triad. Lax writes in a short text that appears at the entrance to the exhibition space that he “decided he wanted to deal with the subject of triad, a thing that exists in almost every aspect of our lives.... I built a character that is composed of three inner characters, which I tried to convey to viewers in two ways: Sound, which is the main part of the work, and video.” 
Indeed, the sound installation accompanying the video work is dominant. The uplifting composition played in stark contrast to the contemplative visual track, in which Lax’s face could be seen breaking the surface of the bubbly water overflowing in a bathtub. Lax slowly submerges himself in the water, his expressionless face disappearing, resurfacing and turning to the side. 
Unlike the frontal nudity that takes center stage in Shapiro’s photographs, in Lax’s work the naked body functions as an absence, an idea that the viewer can only guess at. In his work, Lax is portrayed as a drowning man. But instead of giving in to the tumultuous waters of the ocean, he is devoured by the supposedly harmless water of the bathtub. Thus, an interior home scene is tinged with a sense of dread and desperation. 
Other projects in which the artists offered their own interpretation of the complex relationship one forms throughout life with one’s own physical presence and sexuality are those of Hadar Mordechay and Yuval Zickout. Both graduates created small, illustrated books that touched on potentially explosive subjects: rape and female lust. Neither of the booklets was especially imaginative or reflective of virtuosic graphic design or illustration capabilities by their makers. Nonetheless, it was moving to see two artists taking a risk and choosing to grapple with such controversial themes in their final projects as students. 
Mordechay’s book, which featured monochromatic illustrations tinged with occasional splashes of red shades, recounted a first-person narrative fraught with agony. The text appearing alongside the thin-lined sketches evoked the memories of a woman who was raped at the age of seven, and had later suffered more abuse at the hands of men. 
“Out of her own body, there formed flowers of love,” Mordechay concludes at the end of the book, hinting that there is light and pleasure to be had despite the pain. 
Zickout’s book is less inspiring, both in form and in the content it offers. The artist chose to use bold neon colors to depict very graphic sexual scenes. Zickout explains that her project is “an illustrated book that describes the female sexual experience from my perspective,” but that perspective unfortunately lacked originality. A previously taboo topic that was left outside of the public discourse and the art world for decades, the feminine gaze and bodily experience are riveting subjects that deserve to be explored seriously and not just via semi-pornographic, comic-book-like imagery. 
The story of a city
Some of the most resonant projects on view at the Musrara graduate show are those that managed to convey how Jerusalem found its way into the students’ hearts, inadvertently making its presence known in their art as well. 
The works that featured the cityscapes and unmistakable architecture so identifiable with the Jerusalem aesthetic served as reminders that the artists who made them are residents of the city, or at least temporary inhabitants who passed through its gates during their studies and let the metropolis affect their creative approach. 
Graduate Coral Yefet took over one of the exhibition spaces and turned it into an installation that celebrates the iconic Jerusalem stone, which has been in use there since ancient times. In the darkened room whose windows had been shuttered and covered in tinfoil, Yefet mounted piles of the limestone that is so synonymous with the Holy City. Adding very few decorations or distractions, Yefet succeeded in drawing the visitors’ eyes to the shape and texture of the stone, rendering it into a presence of its own. 
“In my work I made the stone come alive,” Yefet writes of her project, and she is not wrong to state so. Yefet’s display was not necessarily sophisticated, but its strength lies in its simplicity. She let the Jerusalem stone take center stage, becoming a silent character that has its own tale to tell. 
If the focal point of Yefet’s work was the stone, graduate Eli Freiman’s photography project zeroed in on the general urban landscape. Freiman embarked on a year-long process to create his series of photographs. Images of the city that were pasted on fences that separate large construction sites and public spaces were then photographed and manipulated. 
Eli Freiman's Tears. (Courtesy)Eli Freiman's Tears. (Courtesy)
Titled Tears, Freiman’s work makes a distinction between three different kinds of cities: the real Jerusalem, teeming with tension and the mundane human humdrum; the photographed Jerusalem that appeared on the city’s walls; and the third city, the one that is depicted in the pictures appearing at the entryway to the Musrara building. The latter is visually appealing and disorienting to look at because it hints at the duality characterizing the urban experience. Side by side, there exist two versions of the city at once – the tangible one we live in and the fictional, inner city that is made up of our memories. 
Eli Freiman's Tears. (Courtesy)Eli Freiman's Tears. (Courtesy)

Musrara’s graduate show is on view at HaAyin Het Street 9, Jerusalem, until August 6, Sunday through Thursday, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. For more information, call 02-628-6519.