Jerusalem and its Latest Watershed MomentJuly 27, 2017
Jerusalem is situated on a watershed, or geographical drainage divide. Water that falls in West Jerusalem drains into the Mediterranean Sea. Rains in East Jerusalem make their way down the Jordan Valley and into the Dead Sea. Taken metaphorically, the concept of a watershed, and of Jerusalem, invites examination of the points in which people are split into different streams.
“Let’s say we all come from the same soul,” says Rami Ozeri, “but from many points we split – to men and women, Israelis and non-Israelis, old and young, Jewish and non-Jewish, Sephardi and Ashkenazi, Conservative, Reform and Orthodox.”
The points of departure go on and on. Ozeri is interested in both of these definitions of watershed plus one more – “a watershed moment” as a turn of phrase.
“This works both in Hebrew and English beautifully,” he explains. “In Hebrew when you say kav parashat hamayim about something it means a point in history that things have changed.”
Same with English – “a watershed moment” is the point at which an important change has occurred, a diversion from the previously charted course. About 14 months ago, Rami Ozeri and his team at the Jerusalem Biennale put out their bi-annual international call for artists to submit proposals for temporary art installations that grapple with the concept of watershed, through any of its three definitions.
“As we expected,” Ozeri says via Skype in early July, “we got a few proposals that are dealing with the actual geographical meaning of [watershed] and take it very strongly to the water component.”
He says what they didn’t expect was the number of proposals they’d receive for art that explores identity and the “watershed moments” that define who people become. Specifically, many of this year’s proposals related to what the committee termed “people on the move.”
Because of this, for the third Jerusalem Biennale, which will showcase contemporary Jewish art at five venues across Jerusalem this fall, Ozeri and his team have put together one section that explores a moment when the act of moving – whether as a refugee, an immigrant, by choice or by force – and how it came to be a watershed moment that shaped life and identity.
Venice was home to the world’s first biennale (“biennial” in English incarnations) in 1903 and has established itself as a premiere venue for contemporary art exhibitions. Other cities like Istanbul, Sao Paulo, Berlin, the Whitney Museum in New York City, have since taken up the tradition.
“Every city that sees itself as a cultural center holds a biennale,” Ozeri says.
It took a few years for Jerusalem’s to get off the ground once Ozeri arrived back in town from the 2010 Berlin Biennale with the idea. The organizer has a background in philosophy and a master’s in economics. He went to art school in his 30s and started melding his love of Plato, Nietzsche and Maimonides with his art practice. It was there that he confronted the difficulties of incorporating Jewish themes into his work.
“Basically the message that I got was contemporary art and Judaism cannot go together,” he explains of his time at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem. “Whatever your tradition is, just leave it aside and let’s talk about contemporary art which is supposed to be secular, western, not related to any specific identity. And not related, for sure, with any religious identity.”
He explains an art museum in Jerusalem:
“You can choose the Jewish department of Jewish art and life. It’s beautiful. It’s amazing treasures of the Jewish people. But it’s always about Judaica – menorahs and scrolls and objects that were used to practice a religious ceremony and it’s always from many years ago, many centuries ago. … [Or] you can go to another department in the museum [for] contemporary art and then again you see amazing, beautiful stuff. Very updated, cutting-edge contemporary art work but in this part it’s very rare that you’ll find any relation or reference to Jewish life, to the question what does it mean to be Jewish today?”
Ozeri says he grew to feel very strongly that there should be a third option in Israeli museums and Jerusalem culture, a place where art can be both contemporary and Jewish. He says he couldn’t shake the feeling that it’s important for art to stylistically cutting-edge and offer insight into what is happening today with Jewish values, Jewish phenomena and Jewish experiences.
In the idea, Charlene Seidle of the Leichtag Foundation saw, when
she was finally pitched the concept by Rami Ozeri in early 2013, the opportunity to “merge contemporary art with Jewish art and to showcase the two coexisting in full, vivid, living color,” she writes in an email.
“What better place than Jerusalem to explore Jewish identity of all kinds and to celebrate the strength, diversity and even challenges of our people?”
San Diego’s Leichtag Foundation, which has a significant presence in Jerusalem, was the first organization to fund Ozeri’s biennale that year and continues to be a supporter. This year, Leichtag is bringing a delegation of San Diego contemporary art appreciators to experience the biennale for themselves, through their Murray Galinson San Diego-Israel Initiative.
“Many people talk of Jerusalem as a place of tension,” writes Susan Lapidus, director of the San Diego-Israel Initiative, also in an email. “We see it as a place of so much opportunity, a place of excitement and dialogue. Art is the perfect medium to bring it all together.”
She says the San Diego delegation will be introduced to “such diverse groups of extremely different people.” Some notable San Diegans who have already committed to the October trip are modern architect Jonathan Segal; Emily Einhorn, whose resume includes former Board Chair positions with Jewish Community Foundation and Leichtag; Professor Allan Havis of the UC San Diego theatre and dance division of arts and humanities; Joyce Axelrod, founder of the Jewish Film Festival; artist Debbie Carnick; and Museum of Contemporary Art Board members Suzan and Gad Shannon.
“The art and depth of expression [on display at the Jerusalem Biennale] is unique,” says Leichtag’s Seidle, “and settings like the Tower of David Museum (among others) combine the ancient and modern in ways that are simply transformative. I’ve been to both Biennales and am really excited to share the experience with fellow San Diegans.”
Seidle notes she’s most looking forward to “Popthodox,” an Ultra Orthodox pop-art exhibit for the rare glimpses it will provide into “the daily struggle of balancing strong commitment to (and love of) thousands-year-old rituals with the realities of modern life.”
Not all artists in the Jerusalem Biennale are Jewish. Ozeri says it’s not a question that people are ever asked to answer. He only knows if an artist is Jewish if they say so in their project proposal. One piece in this year’s show in particular he recalls during our talk – an exhibition coming from India.
“The connection is they wanted to do something that compares the establishing of the independent India and the establishing of the independent Israel in ’48, which is a watershed moment for both nationalities,” he explains.
Ozeri says the Jewish discourse is very vibrant and getting “more awake” all the time.
“But if you think about it,” he continues, “the discourse is taking place in the academia, the media, politics. One thing that the Biennale is doing is to invite artists to take part in this discourse and help shape the present and future of the Jewish people.”
This year, as in 2015, there will be about 200 participating artists for approximately 20 exhibitions spread across the five different venues. Ozeri and his committee select proposals partially based on how much they’ll cost to produce. Artists are not paid to show in the Biennale, but the organization, which until only this year was operating remotely in cafes and Ozeri’s apartment, is able to cover some of the costs associated with producing and transporting the art.
“Of course we couldn’t afford all the exhibitions that we wanted,” he explains. “In some cases we had to give up some that we really loved but were just too expensive for us.”
While the Jerusalem Biennale is the focal point of the San Diego-Israel Initiative trip, organizers are taking the chance to explore additional, exclusive and less-trodden paths like a private tour of Jerusalem’s light rail system, a trip to East Jerusalem and Ramallah and into the artist Banksy’s “The Walled Off Hotel” in Bethlehem. At press time, some spaces were still available. Visit leichtag.org/mgsdii or contact Mitchell Price, firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.