Jerusalem Season of Culture 2015
27 July – 4 September 2015
Under the Mountain: New Public Art Festival
25-28 August 2015
by LILLY WEI
Under the Mountain was a series of programmes bundled together as part of the Jerusalem Season of Culture (JSOC), the sprawling, six-week festival that debuted in 2011, headed by its original executive director Naomi Bloch Fortis and artistic director Itay Mautner, who both say it is thriving. This year’s Under the Mountain (UTM) presented a programme of “actions” and “assemblies”, organised by artist and curator Omer Krieger, its four-time artistic director. Designated new public art, it differed from most such presentations in other festivals and international exhibitions, its format that of talks, tours, performance and events rather than simply art objects.
Focusing on the Temple Mount (Haram al-Sharif in Arabic, the Noble Sanctuary) as the site to “activate”, Krieger chose what is arguably the world’s most fiercely contested city’s most fiercely contested location, a zone of conflict for millennia. Addressing its volatile swirl of social, political and religious issues against a history that is as fraught and complicated as any on Earth, it is more combustible than ever, the fallout from last summer’s turmoil still hanging over the city with no lack of new incidents to escalate the tension. The circumstances were so extreme then that JSOC cancelled its 2014 Season; Mautner said it was unconscionable to put on a festival while people were dying nearby.
The Temple Mount compound, sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians, holds Jerusalem’s most iconic monuments, the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque, edged by the Western Wall. Impressed into the project as a reference, a hot potato of a readymade, Krieger chose it because it is, “in a sense, the most important place in the land. I look at it as a stage of ritual, a major site of public choreography that relates to both the most sublime wishes of humans and to their most destructive and violent actions.” He continues: “It is an extremely dense symbol, a geo-political hotspot that calls for reinvention by artists and intellectuals. It is also the heart of two nations, and an archetype of a temple on the mountain, a public place that has functioned as such for more than 4,000 years.”
JSOC and UTM wanted to be “respectful,” but knew that it could be a “delicate” situation, Mautner acknowledges. Anything might create an “explosion,” even as Jerusalem gradually regains its semblance of equilibrium, precarious at best, which makes it a cultural venue unlike any other, a potentially different order of spectacle with unexpected consequences.
UTM began for our group of four journalists with a visit to Temple Mount, not something secular Israelis do in the normal course of their daily lives. It is open to non-Muslims only between 7.30 and 9.30 each morning. Hava Schwartz, a freelance guide who also works for Ir Amim (City of Nations) and other progressive organisations that advocate for co-existence between Jerusalem’s Israelis and Palestinians, gave a succinct and informative overview of the Temple Mount’s past and present in what might be designated the first exchange of ideas.
All the numerous other offerings (many one-time only and as wide-ranging as lectures on the botany and political economy of the Mount to a visit to the Palestinian Heritage Museum hosted by its director Khaled Khatib followed by a photo meditation on the Haram al-Sharif by Dr Ali Qleibo of al-Quds University) revolved around it, radiated from it. It was never far from sight, literally and conceptually, like the centre of a pilgrimage from where you begin and to which you return in a ceremonial circumambulation. Indeed, Krieger’s crash-course, symposium-like structuring of events reinforced the notion of pilgrimage, intellectually, emotionally and physically, as we marched through the Old City time and again. He wanted to create an exchange of knowledge that would “inform the discourse about the site”, proposing multiple meanings for the same places, he explained, the Mount the double-edged symbol of both conflict and the “promise of peace”, of “a future sharing this land”.
Works by visual artists included that of Israeli film-maker Yael Bartana. She debuted her futuristic sound piece, called Simone the Hermetic (remove the final “m” and it becomes Simone the Heretic, also apt) about a person who would “transform the world”, a wonderfully absurdist, even preposterous proposal that might also be prophetic. The viewer, given headphones, faces the Temple Mount and the Western Wall from a small lookout, the real panorama providing the visual element for Bartana’s piece, the silken, portentous voice of the narrator imitating that of touristic sound-and-light shows. It celebrates the fictive story of Simone, who was born 1,600 years ago, according to the speaker, and the “three-dimensional” view of Jerusalem spread out below is meant to be a replication of the city as it appeared in her lifetime, that is, in 2022, while we are now supposedly in 3622. It is a clever shuffling of real and imagined time (as well as cost effective, since she didn’t have to build the set). Bartana’s sumptuous Inferno (2013) and Chilean film-maker and mystic Alejandro Jodorowsky’s cult classic The Holy Mountain (1973), a terrific pairing, were screened at the Museum on the Seam for one night, the subject also that of the ecstatic construction and destruction of temples and sacred spaces, of intransigent beliefs and the loss of human lives that has always been their inevitable collateral damage.
Spanish artist Santiago Sierra has staged similar performances in multiple countries. This one, Veterans of the Wars of Israel, featured former soldiers of the Israeli Defense Forces standing in front of a stone wall within a niche of what was once an ancient shop on the Cardo, the principal thoroughfare during the city’s Byzantine period. As living sculpture, they were a reference to heroic classic statuary, as well as a memorial to all the soldiers who have fought in the countless wars that have ravaged Jerusalem and the world in general. Krieger selected the outdoor venue purposely, so that it would be more publicly accessible and people could encounter it accidentally.
Israeli fashion designer Hed Mayner and Palestinian cloth merchant Bilal Abu Khalaf, in a conciliatory venture, collaborated on a project in the latter’s store in the Old City. Visitors were invited to try on clothing inspired by the distinctive religious, ethnic and military garb of Jerusalem’s diverse residents, the underlying message one of interchangeability and similarity beneath the disparate, divisive apparel. Another project emblematic of the breaching of boundaries and barricades was the reprising of American performance art pioneer Allan Kaprow’s ice wall, reconstructed near where he built it in 1980, angling off one side of the Temple Mount near the Western Wall; if only barriers in reality could melt as easily.
Palestinian journalist Sliman al-Shafi, director of the Arab channel for the French network i24 news and formerly with Israeli Channel 2, gave a talk about the Temple Mount called The History of Violence, summarising some of the major events that have taken place there and have determined the region’s historical trajectory. Among them was the assassination of King Abdullah of Jordan in 1951, Ariel Sharon’s provocative visit to the Mount in 2000, which many blame for the Second Intifada of 2000 to 2005 (or the Palestinian Uprising, depending on your point of view), and the renewed demands of ultraconservative and nationalists Jews for the right to pray there, which many fear might spark a Third Intifada/Uprising. One of the most singular of the “assemblies”, as these talks and walks were called, was led by Ami Meitav, a former Shin Bet security service coordinator for the Old City. It included a visit to two security stations, one near the Jaffa Gate and the other at the Western Wall, with a prime view of the Temple Mount compound. The 1 sq km (0.4 sq miles) of the Old City, he claimed, is the most closely watched place in the world as hundreds of security cameras record every movement that occurs within its walls, every gate into it monitored. Lockdown, if required, can be virtually instantaneous. In effect, no “normal” crime takes place here it is so closely scrutinised – only acts of terrorism. It was a prime example of Krieger’s stated goal to share with the public “access to public areas and knowledge that are normally restricted or hidden”.
UTM was an uneven, but intense and indelible experience, both for what it did and did not (could not) present. Responsive to criticism that JSOC in past editions largely ignored the city’s political realities, it attempted to redress the imbalance between Israeli and Palestinian points of view, but with only partial success. For instance, on the security tour with Meitav, we visited a young Israeli family living in the Muslim quarter. The husband shrugged off any strong ideological commitment on his part (he said his wife was more ideological, while he found the location convenient and affordable), stating it was a question, after all, of who truly owned the neighbourhood, a continuing debate. He also shrugged off his Arab neighbours’ unhappiness with their presence (his family is often accompanied by a security detail) and doesn’t have much to do with them, socialising only with the other Jewish families in the quarter. But there were no Palestinian counterparts to discuss the matter with. On the other hand, other Israeli organisations – but still Israeli organisations – have a more integrative attitude. Orit Golan and David Mendelbaum, who manage several community and environmental initiatives working with mostly Palestinian women as partners, said that there is a political infrastructure and a human infrastructure,: “If things are mired on the political level, they are not on the human level where we have had successes, small successes but successes.”
While JSOC has stressed from the beginning that the festival’s well-intentioned mission is to present the unique cultural life of Jerusalem (and it has a vibrant one), its culture is inseparable from its politics. This time, it did not separate them, to its credit. “We are bringing things to the surface and dealing with it,” Mautner said. Referring to the anti-Israeli, anti-normalisation boycott, he said: “It makes things worse; we will stop talking to each other and, if we do, the other side is more demonised than it is now and that is a certain road to a bad end.” He remains optimistic that Jerusalem Season of Culture can help by forging new partnerships, new friendships, and new conversations. Call him an optimist, but he believes it already has done so.