‘Watershed’ in the capital

Jerusalem Biennale features an admirable array of exhibits.

Ruth Schreiber stands beside her exhibit of the Balfour Declaration (photo credit: MORDECHAI BECK)
Ruth Schreiber stands beside her exhibit of the Balfour Declaration
(photo credit: MORDECHAI BECK)
VISITORS TO any one of the nine centers of the latest Jerusalem Biennale may well be excused for being overwhelmed. From its modest beginnings four years ago, this art show has become an octopus of an event, spreading its tentacles over much of the capital’s landscape.
For many, it will be a major revelation.
Displayed before them is not only a huge reservoir of Jewish art and artists, but also art that is contemporary both in its conceptualization and its execution. Called “Watershed,” this year’s Biennale, which began in early October and runs until November 16, is the brainchild of Rami Ozeri.
Its origin was in Germany in 2010, when Ozeri saw the Berlin Biennale and “had an epiphany” ‒ why couldn’t a similar exhibition take place in Jerusalem with mainly contemporary Jewish artists? It took three years to turn this epiphanic moment into a reality, but in 2013, the first Biennale was launched in five locations within Jerusalem.
Ozeri, an economist by training, gave up his nine-to-five job to promote his dream.
He also had studied at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, but felt uncomfortable there because the institution did not relate to his Sephardi roots. This was something he now wanted to change.
In “Watershed,” Ozeri has brought together artists from Israel and abroad to celebrate in graphic form the implosion of art and artists in the Jewish world. Participants cover the spectrum of Judaism from converts to religious and atheists and even include some non-Jewish artists ‒ significantly Chinese print artists ‒ brought together under the rubric “watershed” with its multiple meanings. On the one hand, it is a geological term for the place where water converges. But, beyond that, in a more metaphorical sense, it relates to a pivotal point in time when significant changes take place so it can cover such topics as emigration, or events during the Jewish Diaspora such as 1492 (the expulsion from the Iberian Peninsula), the Holocaust or the establishment of the State of Israel.
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. “Art” is no longer a question of easel painting, skillful drawing or sculpture. Art, today, includes video, photography, film, installations and the use of a plethora of materials never used before.
Ozeri has succeeded not only in bringing together this wide variety of approaches, but also in explaining the motivation behind his choices.
“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. In some places they were told they were too contemporary, in other places that they were too Jewish. We wanted to create a space where the art would be contemporary and Jewish simultaneously. In Jerusalem, we have a wonderful Museum of Islamic Art. In the US, there are museums of specific American art. These are totally legitimate, so why not a place for contemporary Jewish art?” A major issue Ozeri had to deal with was that Jewish tradition puts an emphasis on texts, so it is not surprising that they are included in many of the art objects displayed here.
One of these celebrates the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, which is represented here by three Anglo-Jewish artists who show in different ways how it was a watershed moment for the Jewish people.
Ruth Schreiber uses the text of the declaration alongside a looped slide show of the famous letter accompanied by photographs and films of Lord Balfour and Lord Rothschild, the latter showing his lordship sporting about in his private zoo. The films and photographs are projected on loosely hung fabric, hinting at the fragility and even ambiguity of the enterprise for both the British and the Jews. What makes this particular piece even more piquant is its location in the Museum of the Jewish Underground, a structure used in the British Mandate period against the Jews of the Yishuv.
Elsewhere in the Museum of the Underground is a multiscreen exhibit of the Jewish Quarter of Budapest that includes a photographic and video record of a once teeming Jewish neighborhood. It shows the fate of a number of buildings that went from being owned by Jews (such as restaurants, synagogues, coffee shops, schools and art clubs), their destruction in the Holocaust and their surprising restoration in recent years. The videos and photographs are all the work of artists living in Budapest, which is now celebrating the rebirth of a historic area where Jews and non-Jews can once again converge. The exhibit underlines the way in which the past and present are forever intermingled, especially if you are Jewish.
The problems of communication are at the center of Mirta Kupferminc’s installation, based on the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel, “which for me is the origin of otherness,” says the multidisciplinary artist. She, like many in the Biennale came to Jerusalem especially for the exhibition. A native of Argentina, Kupferminc saw in the Babel story a metaphor for human interaction.
“Though the original tower was destroyed, we can learn from it and repair what was broken asunder then.” Her installation is a complex web of letters representing 70 languages from Chinese and Hebrew to local dialects from South America. Around the walls is the Biblical story told in 70 languages, while in the background is music recorded in 56 languages. “We cut the letters with a knife and with a lot of patience,” she says with an awkward smile, noting that it took three years to complete the project.
AT THE Tower of David Museum, there is an exhibit by Lili Almog, an Israeli living in the US, who saw a striking similarity between women from different traditions and backgrounds covered from head to foot, and thus almost invisible.
“I started photographing the Lev Tahor (literally, pure-hearted) group of extremist Jews, but then saw a similar phenomenon among certain Christian and Islamic sects.
So, I photographed them, too. I never asked them awkward questions, but I was curious as to what this form of dress does to them,” says Almog.
The exhibit is mounted on and in specially made boxes, as if to show that these women have literally boxed themselves in a world of their own. It is fascinating even as it is disturbing.
Up on the roof of the museum, Avner Sher shares his vision of old and new Jerusalem in cork.
“Cork is the only material which cannot be destroyed by fire, rather like the burning bush,” he explains. “Cork is the bark of a tree that renews itself every nine years. In a forest fire, it becomes black but does not burn. It may look black on the outside, but inside it is alive. This is a great metaphor for the Jewish people. Hence, I was drawn to it as the material with which to express myself.”
Sher is fascinated by the layers of history in the small territory of the Old City. “How many times has it changed hands, been conquered, recaptured, deserted, renewed? This museum where we are standing was built by Muslims, and yet, today, I have erected a kosher sukka from cork.”
This structure, which was approved by the rabbi of the Western Wall, is filled with maps – some realistic, others fantastic – showing Jerusalem as it was and as it is imagined by different people in different eras. “Everyone has a Jerusalem they aspire to,” says Sher, who calls his show “950 Square Meters: Alternative Topographies.”
There are many other exhibits in this multifaceted Biennale. In the Bezeq Building, for example, there is a horrendous video about mamzerim (bastards) in Jewish law side by side with some wonderful paintings of scattered Jewish communities, particularly from the Middle East. There is also an exhibit based on tefillin (phylacteries) but used in a way never imagined by the ancient rabbis who designed them. At the Bible Lands Museum, there is an exhibition focused on the question of gender, drawing on biblical narratives, but also using a contemporary feminist critique on the complex questions surrounding the issue today.
Though there is much to query in these exhibitions, there is much more to admire.
This is art that crosses boundaries – historically, aesthetically, conceptually. The visitor is obliged to ask questions, which is no bad thing for any exhibition. Or, as Ozeri says, “We hope that the Biennale is a watershed moment in and of itself.”