What’s happening on the other side?

Artists Aithan Shapira and David Borrington set out to help others reflect on the meaning of walls.

the other side 521 (photo credit: Three Faiths Forum)
the other side 521
(photo credit: Three Faiths Forum)
Walls are all around us, in different shapes and forms, but it’s not often that we stop and think about their meaning. Israeli-American artist Aithan Shapira and British artist David Borrington set out to do just that with a collaborative piece, The Wall Has Two Sides, displayed in central London last month at an art exhibition put on by the Three Faiths Forum (3FF).
The exhibition, “Urban Dialogues,” is running for the fifth consecutive year and aims to raise questions about the interplay between art, belief and identity, in keeping with the British organization’s mission to build understanding and relationships between people of different faiths and beliefs.
“Walls have two sides, though we live in a world accustomed to seeing only one at our homes, offices, hotels and underground stations, without thinking what is happening on the other side,” the artistic duo states.
With this concept in mind, alongside the theme of reflection, Shapira and Borrington set to work creating their respective sides of the wall: Shapira in the US and Borrington in the UK, with the Atlantic Ocean between them – the first wall to play a part in their collaboration.
The pair laid down only two rules: that the wall would be one foot by seven feet (30 cm. x 2.10 m.), and that it would be black and white. The pair worked together with Kings College London academic Dr. Aaron Rosen, who advised and guided the artists as they built their joint wall.
Shapira is a first-generation American with Israeli roots going back 10 generations in Jerusalem, and his work is heavily influenced by this background.
While his father’s family descends from Israel, his mother – a refugee from Iraq – moved to Israel in the 1950s. “When I think about walls, I thought about the traditional immigrant story that I have, of being a first-generation immigrant in a new place,” Shapira explains. “I think about seeing two sides of the wall at the same time.”
Though Shapira says he can see both sides of that wall, he laments that neither side fully accepts him as one of them: in Israel he is told he is American, and vice versa in the US. Shapira decided to make a white prickly-pear cactus, or sabra, covered wall for his part of the collaboration, using plaster, concrete and real thorns. “I always wanted to be a sabra,” he tells me, referring to the symbol for native Israelis – prickly on the outside, sweet on the inside.
He says growing up in Israel, he would see the prickly pears running for a mile or two in a straight line, making up the traditional borders between neighbors.
“You could see both sides... it looked natural, porous, fluid in a way. I wanted to use this as a symbol, make it out of something solid.”
Shapira identifies three main issues central to his project: hope, migration and Israel. “In the world today, there is one word, symbol, idea on all fronts,” he says of the first. “Wars are started and ended on the idea of hope. Economy is struggling around the idea of hope, science, technology. Hope is this incredible symbol.”
He asserts that walls are a good way to describe hope, raising multiple questions: “Do I want to build it? Take it down? Make it better?” Migration, he says, is crossing the wall, “what me and my family did.”
“A bird might carry a seed from one place to another and it might become something, it might grow in this new place,” he elaborates.
When Shapira and Borrington met at the start of the project, the former brought with him a poem, which he read to his fellow artist. The poem was “Mending Wall,” by Robert Frost, about two people who meet every year and walk along a wall and have a neighborly conversation. Shapira was struck by “the beautiful idea of the wall bringing them together.” As the two neighbors talk about the wall, they mend it, Shapira explains. “They are reconstructing it, reconfirming it, strengthening their connecting by meeting at the wall.”
He goes on to say that there are three ways of looking at a wall. The first: you only care about your side of the wall – the part that you look at. The second: you look at your side but consider the other side, and wonder what is going on there. The third, which Shapira describes as “the most profound,” is when you can see both sides of the wall at the same time. “That for me is the mending wall, and it’s what I grew up with – seeing two things at the same time.”
Shapira envisions installing tall, bright green sabras along sites such as the West Bank security barrier, the route of the former Berlin Wall, the Gardens of Babylon, Hadrian’s Wall or the US-Mexico border. The artist uses real thorns in his work, and envisions spectators touching the concrete wall and being shocked by the prick. “That’s a great symbol,” he opines.
Meanwhile, Shapira avoids making any bold statements himself, preferring to act as a catalyst for contemplation and dialogue, and believes his work provides a platform for some strong conversation.
“I’m not a politician,” he stresses.
“What I’m concerned with as an artist is that people are looking at the world, and trying to show them… the idea of walls and why it is there. Why did I get pricked?” Prodded on his opinion of the infamous wall dividing Israeli and Palestinian territory – the security barrier – he reiterates, “I am not a politician,” before noting that since the wall has been erected, there seem to be fewer people getting hurt on both sides. “I think we can only take steps forward,” he says. “My goal is to bring conversation and questions. If this means there is going to be more conversation, and questions that bring more questions, then that’s healthy.”
He adds that we would be “foolish as people” to think that because we built something out of concrete it’s going to last. “We need to come back to it, like the mending wall, and we should reshape it and mend it. Even if it is now concrete, it is going to fall, and we need to reshape it each time, and there need to be more people looking at it with that open idea of ‘Let’s talk.’” SHAPIRA AND Borrington’s relationship goes back to their first day of class at the Royal College of Art in 2006, where they instantly bonded over the fact that they were the only ones with pilot licenses. “And no one else really liked us,” Borrington laughs.
While Shapira emphasizes the personal nature of his work, Borrington’s is fiercely political, and his side of the wall – strikingly different from Shapira’s – boasts a vast and intricate drawing focused on social barriers. The bottom layer of the wall is covered with famous figures representing different sociopolitical ideas. Among the sea of faces, Borrington points out to me members of the royal family; controversial author of The Wandering Who, Gilad Atzmon; American white supremacist David Duke, US President Barack Obama; Tony and Cherie Blair; and a juxtaposition of Jewish writers Alan Dershowitz and Norman Finkelstein. “People get obsessed with an idea, and think their idea is right, instead of looking at the bigger picture,” Borrington explains, saying he included in his drawing people he knew, read about, were “a bit crazy” or had some valid points.
The second layer of the wall represents propaganda and the media, with images of TV shows, newspapers, magazines, websites and British soldier Drummer Lee Rigby, who was killed in a terror attack in London. Towering over it all is “the elephant in the room,” holding the Magna Carta in its trunk, representing the “ripping of our rights to pieces.”
The third layer portrays the State, including a closed-eyed Statue of Liberty, St Paul’s Cathedral with an oil sign on it, “because the new head of the Church of England is an ex-oil baron,” and Lady Justice being taken to pieces. Borrington says the three layers demonstrate all the things that divide us, but which could unite us if used differently. “People get attached to one idea and end up taking it too far, defending this one-sided view, which leads to a lot of conflict. But if we could see things from multiple perspectives and we could see each other’s views, we would have a greater chance of working together,” 3FF communications manager Philip Ybring says, summarizing his interpretation of the overall idea of the piece, as Borrington leads me through a mind-boggling maze of ideas. Ybring’s explanation is met by a nod of approval from Borrington, who adds: “The elites are pushing these people to think this way – the elites are creating this wall. It only benefits the people who get power from it.”
After gazing at Borrington’s intricate sketch, the artist walks me over to another wall, where a smaller but similar drawing was placed, this one standing above Shapira’s recognizable sabra – these of a bright green color, closer to the plant’s true shade. Borrington explains that after having completed and seen each other’s first pieces, the pair decided to do a second collaboration, working side by side in Borrington’s London studio. Shapira’s piece holds up Borrington’s, as it were, the former looking upward from the earth and the latter working on a downward perspective, on what 3FF describes as a “scheming political pyramid,” which Borrington explains is the resolve of the first piece.
Borrington’s second piece is based on the 100th Monkey Theory, whereby a new behavior spreads rapidly between groups, once a critical number of members of one group acknowledge the new idea. There are 99 people in his drawing, and the viewer makes the 100th – which, Borrington says, is what is needed to change the world.
Meanwhile, Shapira is trying to make his mark on the world with various international gigs, including in Jerusalem, Florida and Mexico. After having installed an over nine-meter mural of trees in a synagogue in Jerusalem’s Ramot neighborhood in September, he is now in conversation with the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens, which he says is supporting a lot of artistic and cultural activity in the city. “One of the things I’m excited about is that they have Israelis and Palestinian children planting together – you can’t say it’s mine or yours when you plant together,” he enthuses.
“Those are the best kind of roots, that go into the earth and toward the sun at the same time.”