Jerusalem’s Biennale art exhibition comes back to town

This year’s Biennale includes over 300 artists and is spread across the city in a variety of locations.

The Jerusalem Biennale is taking place throughout the capital. (Moran Family, Nuclear Capsules Exhibition at the Black Box Gallery). (photo credit: YAIR MEYUCHAS)
The Jerusalem Biennale is taking place throughout the capital. (Moran Family, Nuclear Capsules Exhibition at the Black Box Gallery).
(photo credit: YAIR MEYUCHAS)

The Jerusalem Biennale is back in town for the fifth time, no small achievement given what has been a tough two years for the arts in general.

This year’s Biennale includes over 300 artists and is spread across the city in a variety of locations. The guiding hand behind the event has been Rami Ozari, whose vision was prompted by a visit to the Berlin Biennale in 2010 where he had, as he says, an epiphany.

“I figured that if Berlin could attract art from around the globe, why shouldn’t Jerusalem?” Ozari said.

A religious man, an economist by training with extra studies at the Bezalel art school, Ozari was convinced that there was a place for art that was both Jewish and contemporary.

“I realized early on that there was simply no platform for contemporary Jewish art,” he says. “As I visited artists, I discovered that they could find no place to exhibit their work. Some were told that they were too contemporary, others that they were too Jewish. We wanted to create a space where the art would be contemporary and Jewish simultaneously.”

 Ken Goldman's ‘Four Cubits.’ (credit: KEN GOLDMAN) Ken Goldman's ‘Four Cubits.’ (credit: KEN GOLDMAN)

He has succeeded beyond his wildest fantasies. At the last Biennale in 2019, 50,000 people visited. Of course, 2021 has its own challenges, not the least being that corona has meant that the vast majority of artists exhibiting their work are residents of Israel. “Even though we do have artists from Italy and Turkey, while the United Emirates has sent works here even though the artists could not accompany them,” said Ozari.

What started as a dream has blossomed into a high-profile event that shares with the rest of the world questions as to the meaning and function of art today.

Art” is no longer a question of easel painting, academic drawing, or sculpture. Art today includes video, photography, film, installations and the use of a plethora of materials never used before. This Biennale is taking this definition even further, attempting to place art in people’s home and showing members of the public that art can and should have a place in their own private space, or within what this year’s Biennale terms their “Four Cubits.”

Four cubits is a biblical, and later rabbinical phrase meaning the spatial dimensions that we as individuals inhabit. According to Ozari, everyone in the last two years has had to come face to face with their own four cubits, as the corona epidemic has forced us into ourselves. For artists, this meant art in private places as opposed to public places, such as museums, galleries or outdoor plazas. The function of a piece of art in your home is very different from art in a public space, hence Ozari’s motivation to bring art into private homes. “Four Cubits” also raises questions about the relationship between private and public spaces.

Another sign of success for the Biennale is that it has acquired a building of its own. The old Shaare Tzedek building on Jaffa Road has now been given to Ozari as a place for the Biennale, at least for the next four years. It will become a gallery between the bi-annual bash.

“Right now,” explains Ozari, “we have put on the largest exhibition we’ve ever had here. We call it ‘Take Me Home.’ We asked the artists to present works that could be hung in people’s homes, as opposed to being in a museum. We received about 700 submissions and we chose 200, from more than 100 artists. We also gave spaces for two artists, Chanan Mazal and Motta Brim, to work here for the last month, in their own four cubits.”

Mazal typically paints bright-colored canvasses with stylized patterns against bold figures. Motta is a more conventional painter, and was the model for the haredi artist portrayed in the popular TV series Shtisel.

The building was owned until recently by Israel Radio, which neglected the religious dimension of the building. The city’s first Jewish hospital in Jerusalem outside the Old City, Shaare Zedek was inaugurated in 1902 as a 20-bed facility that included a synagogue. The new owners, Ruach Hadasha, wanted to restore the religious dimension of the place but in the context of an arts center.

“Ruach Hadasha chose us since we are on the delicate borderline between religion and art,” said Ozari. Hence the synagogue space has been given over to an exhibit by Sari Srulovitch, a graduate of both Bezalel and the Royal College of Art in London who works in sterling silver and produces Judaica pieces at the highest level.

Running from November 12 to December 30, the Biennale is located at different sites around Jerusalem. Some of these sites are art and exhibition centers, such as the Jerusalem Print Workshop, Kol Ha’Ot, Agripas 12, and the Tower of David Museum.

Other sites are somewhat unusual, such as the open-air space outside Binyan Klal, where a series of large photographs are on display. All taken during the corona lockdowns, they show families shut inside a purpose-built structure that measures four cubits.

In Alliance House nearby, adjacent to the Mahaneh Yehuda market, is the site of a number of individual artist’s studios. Featured here are artists from a new art school, Pardes, in Givat Washington, which is for artists with a religious background. As with much of the Biennale, the works displayed are of the widest variety of styles, from abstract designs and installations to realistic portraits and landscapes.

Behind all these exhibitions is a more general question as to what constitutes art today, and more specifically, what makes art Jewish. This is an ongoing challenge to which each artist, and viewer, provides his or her own answer. Ozari has succeeded not only in bringing together this wide variety of approaches but also to explain the motivation behind his choices.

“In Jerusalem, we have a wonderful Museum of Islamic Art; in the USA, there are museums of specific American art,” said Ozari. “These are totally legitimate. So why not a place for contemporary Jewish art?”

Why not, indeed?