Underground art

The artists under Jerusalem's Teddy Stadium want to remain an alternative to the Tel Aviv art scene, but don't know if the money will dry up.

cross 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy )
cross 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy )
In 1997,five years after the Teddy Stadium sports arena opened, Shlomi Brosh, the Jerusalem Municipality's adviser on cultural affairs, looked under the stadium and thought, "What a giant waste of space." Back in his office, he devised a plan to build studios and galleries for new artists, to help stave off the ongoing migration of Jerusalem's young artists and intellectuals to Tel Aviv. At the municipality, he says, "it was not a small war. They thought I was crazy." But in 1999, after securing NIS 100,000 of city money for renovations to build a floor, walls and water and electricity connections, the New Gallery was up and running with a NIS 10,000 a month subsidy. The gallery, with its 14 in-house studios, is experimental and avant garde by Israeli terms and in some ways even by international standards. First, it is apparently the only art gallery in the world housed under a sports stadium. The cavernous space can be considered an ingenious use of idle space, without interfering with the intended use of the building site. The site plan was modified by Brosh himself, who placed the gallery near the center of the stadium and the artist studios encircling it, around the edge. Beyond the design, this center for young and emerging artists to work independently in Jerusalem with artists from every medium is unusual even in the studio environment. Animation artists may mingle with portrait painters and jewelry designers. Photographers arrange their prints next to sculptors. An ongoing dialogue is meant to ensure that everyone learns from every discipline and from diverse artists and their approaches, without competition, says Hedva Shemesh, the founding director and curator, who was Brosh's partner from the start. Shemesh launched a regular series of exhibitions to highlight the fledgling artists, with special attention to those who use new and experimental techniques. Today, the subsidy rate is about half what it once was, with the artists paying rent of NIS 200 to NIS 600 a month, with municipal taxes, electricity and water fees waived. Shemesh, a longtime player on the Jerusalem art scene as director of the Artist's House, is thankful for the subsidy, but says that amid worries about further cuts, she has hoped to increase, not cut back on the artistic activities there. While Brosh has retired from the municipality, he says that no one has taken over in his stead and this could mean trouble for the Teddy artists. "It's a shame the space isn't growing. There are still enormous unused spaces there. They could double the gallery space and add an additional 20 studios. I had already mapped out the design and all the municipality has to do is come up with the funding," he says. (The city's culture department did not return calls to The Jerusalem Post.) WHY DO young artists deserve municipal funding? It's all for the benefit of Jerusalem's cultural life and to keep the artists in town, says Shemesh. "Most young artists leave Jerusalem to go to Tel Aviv, where they are kidnapped by the TA galleries. But there is no reason that Jerusalem shouldn't also be an art center. Right now there are two cooperative galleries and the Artist's House and workshops in Talpiot. This is a place of culture, but it seems that the funding will be cut. "The problem is that following graduation, young artists on one hand are still under the influence of their teachers and on the other are in shock about how to stay part of the art world. This environment prepares them for personal development and to find their own voices, without worrying about the commercial scene in Tel Aviv. We also connect them with curators." The "lab," as she calls it, also gives artistic services to at-risk Jerusalem populations. Pregnant girls are given art therapy workshops. Youth at risk and the elderly are given free lectures and classes. "Museums have an entrance fee, but here it's free, you can come, talk to the artists, learn, enjoy the culture," Shemesh says. "Artists are the voice; the seismograph of the country," she says. "If New York knows to [support the arts], then Jerusalem, the most famous historical city in the world, should also know how to nurture its artists." Jerusalem, haunted An artist hangs herself from the ceiling with a rope tied loosely around her neck, mimicking an attempted suicide or murder, as she delivers a monologue on life and death. The performance kicks off a new multimedia art exhibition that basically asks: What's a little Jerusalem Syndrome here or there? The Jerusalem Syndrome disorder, often attributed to people visiting the capital who come to believe they are biblical characters, is a broader subject of haunting that affects local residents and not only visitors, on however slight or grand a scale, says Hedva Shemesh, curator of the show that opened July 17 at the New Gallery. The exhibition explores how the unique history and environment of Jerusalem invigorates, obsesses, possesses, haunts and inspires. That the mock hanging seems to push the subject to the edge is not foreboding. The exhibition is not all about life-and-death matters. "The city is very distinct, amazing, beautiful, different, up and down, tense and even psychotic. Even the sun and the light are different than anywhere else and influence the spirit," explains Shemesh, the gallery's founding director. "Is it bad to live in a valley of ghosts? Can it be positive? What does it really mean to be crazy?" Over 40 artists - painters, photographers, sculptors, videographers, animators, mixed-media artists and performance artists - have joined forces at the concrete underground galleries at Teddy Stadium, showing works created to explore such questions. With the size of the gallery and the broad scope of artists, materials, imagery and references, the show feel more museum than gallery-like. A number of the artists explore religious icons in the haunting of Jerusalem. Using Jewish text, artist Silvia Licht has created a surround-around mosaic of painted black and white Hebrew letters, taken from the opening of the Book of Genesis. The biblical passage becomes at once wallpaper and yet a focused look at a religious idea transposed large and graphically onto a three-dimensional space. To stare for a long time at the encompassing design of the letters can, arguably, become a spiritual, meditative or psychological event in and of itself. Andre Lev, also using a graphic approach, paints dots, as if in photographic pixels, making up portraits of prophets and biblical scenes that from close up look like op art. The further one distances oneself from the works, the more the seemingly abstract images come into focus, however fleetingly, like a spirit emerging from smoke. Painter Shimrit Yariv's prophet paintings in a realistic style, yet marred with scratches, explores the concept of prophets, rather than actual religious figures. Her works explore issues of construction and destruction and memory and oblivion, she says, with these particular paintings raising question of what is a prophet. "Are they normal people who think they are prophets? Are they crazy or fools? Or are they spiritual prophets?" she asks. In the installation Séance, sculptor and mixed-media artist Max Epstein partnered with photographer Boris Oicherman to create a small, squat, statue of the mythical golem, surrounded by three television screens. Flashing from the screens are animated photo images of old men whose faces very slowly change expressions. "This golem is a helpless newborn; too fat to get up," says Epstein. "We are exploring an ironic point of view. Jerusalem, except for the spiritual, is also a very small, alive city of mine, and not only a spiritual monument." Beyond religious iconography and references, many of the artists also took a more individual approach. On the gallery's elevated ceilings, Hannan Abu-Hussein fashioned a round structure made of sheep's wool. The material, she says, reminds her of the traditional mattresses passed down through the generations, like the one she received from her mother and grandmother. Today, mattresses are bought by individuals and stuffed with synthetic materials, but in previous years, families made their mattresses by taking wool from their sheep to make a filling that was opened up yearly in a ceremony, to beat it and air it out, she says: "The wool connects me to home, our sheep and the family. It's an echo of the past and how we bring the tradition to a universal language. It's also nostalgic; we remember how our mothers want us to be like them, yet to be in a different, better place." In Cellular Diary, Revital Cohen used her cellphone lens to snap 200 pictures from the two previous years, capturing the things she was doing, seeing and feeling. In Crazy People Are Walking Among Us, her series of small, primitive, Edvard Munch-like portrait sketches capture strangers and friends. "I live in Jerusalem and you can call it a town haunted by spirits," explains Cohen. "The crazy people among us include me. And everyone." Among the more philosophical, guest sculptor Israel Rabinovitch repairs a small, broken burial ground with a turquoise wire for good luck against the evil eye. Cypress trees grow from the ashes. In another small work, a memorial altar with burned candles becomes the studio for a young girl in a ballet stretch. There are works about the Israeli version of haunted houses, like an animated children's story in a wooden-book format to an empty stone house sculpture animated with an original score of music. And there is a work dealing with the life of an immigrant haunted by his nation of birth in contrast to the unique scenes of his life in Jerusalem, as in the video, Tea with Lemon and Two Sugars, by Ilizirov Lev. The participants at the opening have also become a part of the exploration, recorded on video by Lev Goldser. There is nothing wrong with living in a town inhabited with spirits, but it is different, says Shemesh: "Other cities permit a life of indifference and passivity, but not Jerusalem. Jerusalem is no place for neutrality... Here, you're neck deep in it all - the historical associations and the psychological pressure of thousands of years of intense passion." The New Gallery, Teddy Stadium, Jerusalem (on the far left side of the parking lot) is open 4 p.m.-7 p.m., Sunday-Thursday or by appointment for groups by calling (02) 679-2968 or e-mailing [email protected] The current exhibition on Jerusalem Syndrome is until August 17.