City pirates

Shoedei Yam, a new Jerusalem gallery, presents art with attitude, sense of history.

Yoram Amir 521 (photo credit: Samuel Thorpe)
Yoram Amir 521
(photo credit: Samuel Thorpe)
"Do you want to see something so beautiful you won’t believe it?” asks artist Yoram Amir. We are standing on the balcony of Shodedei Yam (“Pirates”), his house-cum-gallery in a historic building in downtown Jerusalem, as pedestrians and trams bustle along Jaffa Road below. The narrow balcony is in disrepair, the ironwork rusting, with lengths of board covering holes in the wooden floor.
“But look what held the shutter,” Amir says excitedly, his brown eyes alight in a thin face framed by close-cropped grey hair and beard.
He points to a tiny iron latch, shaped like a man in a morning jacket and cap, that juts from the stonework under the arched window.
“Look how much was invested in this balcony,” he continues, enraptured by the artistry of the 19th century building, its trellises, arches, stones, and latch. Then he points across Jaffa Road to a squat, square apartment block built in the 1960s. Because of shoddy workmanship, Amir says, stones sometimes fall from the building’s façade, injuring passersby below.
“It’s as if it’s not the same city,” he sighs. “This side of the street and the other side.”
Amir’s activist art confronts the difference between the two sides of the thoroughfare, between the precision and workmanship of Jerusalem’s 19th and early 20th century buildings and what he considers to be the poor planning and substandard construction of the city’s architecture today. Motivated by his love for the city where he was born and raised, Amir aims his art at the shortsightedness and corruption of contemporary Israeli culture.
Architecture is just one expression of this larger cultural trend. “I’m busy with highlighting the almost absurd phenomena in this boorish period,” Amir explains. “Architecture is a mirror – the piggishness, the corruption, the belligerence, the lack of integration. To treat the city right is a behavior lesson for Israelis. If you learn how to behave in one area, you’ll know how to behave in the others.”
Amir, 49, has tackled his subject through different avenues. His first foray was through street art and graffiti in 2002. He followed that with sculpture and political performances.
His most famous coup was the 2007 scaling of the Calatrava Chords Bridge at the entrance to Jerusalem city to protest its extravagant $70 million cost. Using gear borrowed from his son, Amir climbed to the top of the bridge’s nearly 400 foot high tower and phoned the police, threatening suicide. Police, media and a large crowd soon gathered. Amir spent five hours at the top while an accomplice down below passed out copies of his manifesto, which called for the resignation of then-prime minister Ehud Olmert.
Now on display at Shodedei Yam are a series of photographs of Jerusalem’s architecture and urban space. The name of the gallery is an intentional pun. While shodedei yam means “pirates,” the Hebrew yam is also the modern Israeli abbreviation for Jerusalem.
Read this second way, the gallery’s name declares its witness to those who have robbed Jerusalem. The photographs are set in some of the hundreds of wooden window frames that Amir has rescued from Jerusalem’s neglected historic buildings: the old Jerusalem Railway Station, opened in 1882; the Eitz Chaim Yeshiva, built in 1908; and others. In addition to housing his collection of windows, his photographs, and other pieces, since last year Shodedei Yam has also served as a venue for exhibitions and performances by local artists.
The house at 93 Jaffa Road encapsulates Amir’s struggle. Constructed in the 1880s as the residence for the teachers at Jerusalem’s Alliance Israélite Universelle school, the expansive two-story structure still contains the original tile floors, ironwork trellises and shaded courtyard. It is hard to believe that the gallery, sitting just a few yards from the central Mahane Yehuda market on some of the city’s most sought-after commercial real estate, is still standing. Many of the other historic buildings in this section of Jaffa Road have given way to new construction. The Alliance school itself was demolished to build the 15-story inhumane, concrete Clal Center in 1972. In 2004, the glass-fronted Jerusalem Window Tower was built on another parcel of the former school complex.
The dissonance between the newer and the older structures is part of what enticed Amir to locate his gallery – and his home – in the teachers’ building. “It’s taken from a computer, it doesn’t fit into the landscape,” Amir says, pointing to the reflective glass of the tower looming over the wall of his courtyard. “It’s name is exaggerated in order to attract investors but there’s no tradition here, no continuity. The contrast between these two buildings led me to choose this house.”
Inside, Amir has dedicated the sprawling interior to preserving and promoting an older, more traditional Jerusalem architecture.
The Shodedei Yam gallery is housed in the three rooms of the bottom floor surrounding the central courtyard. Among Amir’s photographs and rescued wooden window frames stand the grey face of a wall of broken televisions and congregations of old tables and chairs. In the stone square of the courtyard are stacks of window frames, a workbench, vice and tools for restoration, colorful Tiki masks, cactuses, and a palm tree with a lone cowboy boot nailed to its trunk.
A staircase leads up the inside wall of the courtyard to the second floor. This upper part of the building houses the Story and Tower (Koma Umigdal) museum. The name is a pun on the early Zionist slogan “Stockade and Tower” (Homa Umigdal). Just as towers were built to protect Jewish agricultural settlements in the pre-state period, Amir sees the upstairs museum as a cultural front protecting Jerusalem’s architectural heritage. It is also where Amir and his partner live with their three-month-old daughter.
Their living space competes with Amir’s collection. Window-framed Jerusalem photographs hang in every high-ceilinged room. Window frames in various stages of restoration lean against the walls next to the stencils used to make his graffiti art, such as 120 Monkeys, an allusion to the 120 Members of the Knesset. An Israeli flag, knotted like a climbing rope, is slung over the living room door. “It’s either for breaking out or for breaking in,” Amir says.
Walking through the gallery, Amir’s photographs are eye-catching not only for their color and composition but for the way they capture the disjuncture between the city’s old buildings and the new. One image shows the cityscape of the Nahlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem, with the red roofs of the small apartment houses hugging Bezalel Street and climbing with the slope of the hill. On the crest of that hill, three tall buildings hog the skyline, out of proportion with the rest of the landscape: the City Tower, completed in 1980; the Sheraton Plaza Hotel, completed in 1977; and Jerusalem Heights, completed in 1996.
In pen, Amir has drawn more and taller skyscrapers as a warning, the rectangular ghosts of Jerusalem’s architectural future. The photograph is framed by a cerulean blue wooden window frame.
Dead end
One of Amir’s most moving photographs is also one of the simplest. The image is of a dead-end sign planted in front of an ornamental façade in the wall of Jerusalem’s Old City.
The tall, thin sign sits in the very center of an inset stone panel crowned by a double arch, as if the city had been waiting thousands of years for something to fill the empty frame. For Amir, the lesson of the sign is clear.
“In a historical city, every street sign and every stone needs to be thought through twice. Why did it have to be put in exactly the wrong place? Why not a little to the right or to the left?” Amir says that schoolchildren he leads on tours of the gallery, educating them about city planning and preservation, come to the same conclusion. “I ask them, is this the right place for the sign? Ninety-nine percent say it’s not.”
But is this photograph only a visual pamphlet denouncing bad city planning? Amir dismisses the suggestion that such a photograph is beautiful in its own right and that its beauty might justify the location of the sign.
“I used the weapon of the camera,” he says. “I shot the picture and I shot it well, so that it would be impressive as a photograph. Art is the labor of precision. But what we see in this photograph is a lack of precision, a lack of integration. The picture, then, is the precise truth of imprecision.”
Amir’s path to activism and art has been eclectic. After serving as an officer in the IDF paratrooper regiment and fighting the first Lebanon War, Amir worked as a security officer in Jerusalem’s luxury hotels.
“According to the normal timeline, I should have gone to work in the Shin Bet,” he said, “but as I was reading the newspaper in the hotel one day, a friend walked in and said, ‘Didn’t you have an idea once to open a camera store in the market? Didn’t you want to make something of yourself?’ I quit my job that very same day.”
Amir opened the store, Photomat, in the Mahane Yehuda market in 1997. After several years of successful business, he was elected to head the Market Traders’ Association in 2000. Amir fought City Hall in an unsuccessful attempt to bring more public services to the market, including an underground parking facility and a renovation of the market halls.
However, the demands of this public role left him little time to devote to his business. “Ten years ago I lived as if,” Amir said. “I had a mortgage, the business was on credit, the car was leased and I had a tab at the grocery. But after a year, everything fell apart. I defaulted on the mortgage and all the rest. I went back to point zero with a million shekel debt.”
“In that state I couldn’t buy things for the house – who knew how long I was going to be in an apartment – and the trashcans and the street provided me with everything that I needed: furniture, everything. Suddenly I arrived at the realization that I could use windows as frames, to take windows from the trash and to turn them into frames. I was recovering from a tough capitalist period and wanted to act like an old-time modest Jerusalemite.”
Today, Amir supports himself in part by leading gallery tours for school groups and others, but his main source of income is wedding photography. He sees the two sides of his camera work as intimately connected. The Jewish tradition describes Jerusalem as God’s bride. Amir says he is Jerusalem’s attendant, making sure that the city’s dress doesn’t get spoiled. “The same that’s true for a bride is true for the city,” Amir continued. “There is a simple lesson in architecture: a building is a piece of jewelry. And if a building is a piece of jewelry, a window is a precious stone. If a window is a precious stone, and this is the most beautiful city in the world, then I have here a collection of the jewels of the most beautiful city in the world.”
While Amir’s vision of Jerusalem’s architectural landscape is essentially conservative, preserving the forms and style of older construction, he insists there remains room for development in the jeweled city. “I’m not saying no building, no progress, no development,” he says. “I’m saying, how hard is it to understand the importance of Jerusalem? What’s the problem in understanding that you can’t build like this?” Amir takes out a final photograph. The image shows a two-story building under renovation.
Though part of the same structure, the two levels are ill-matched. The lower story is made of weathered Jerusalem stone and studded with arched windows with iron trellises. The upper story looks factory-white and has small rectangular windows.
“The Municipality gave permission for this building to be built,” Amir explains. “They said that you need to preserve the lower floor and you need to build with Jerusalem stone and that’s what the architect did. But if there had been an artist involved, he would have told the city, preservation is wonderful, but you need to add something to these plain squares. In the lower floor, there are Stars of David, arches, trellises. It’s clear to every child I ask: Was more thought put into the upper windows or the lower ones? They all say the lower ones. I ask them: To get to the precise, the beautiful, the good, do you need a little time or a lot of time? They all say that you need to invest to get a good result. A bride needs to get made up to look like a queen.”