“What’s that huge white bridal dress floating over the Tower of David?”
That’s what visitors to Jerusalem’s Old City asked last week. The wedding gown, created by leading Israeli artist Motti Mizrachi, is part of the 2nd Jerusalem Biennale for Contemporary Jewish Art, an event that blew into town as the Sukkot holiday got underway.
Mizrachi, who lives and works in Tel Aviv, created the dress that floats majestically over the Tower of David, the main exhibition site of the Jerusalem Biennale, as part of an installation called “Betrothal.” It’s just one of many thought-provoking pieces that make up this year’s Biennale.
With exhibits taking over seven of the city’s most interesting public spaces, the Biennale adds a fresh dimension of culture and innovation to the city’s more traditional Sukkot activities.
There’s definitely a buzz around this year’s Biennale, which features 10 exhibits in the seven locations scattered throughout Jerusalem. Almost 200 Israeli and international artists are taking part in the event that has grown significantly from its first appearance in 2013.
At the opening of one of the exhibits in the new Polonsky Building of the Van Leer Institute, the Biennale’s founding director, 36-year-old Rami Ozeri, explains the goals of this year’s event: “The Biennale provides a stage for professional artists who refer in their artwork to Jewish thought, spirit, tradition or experience. The first Jerusalem Biennale in 2013 created an exciting buzz in the contemporary Jewish art world and, as a result, we were inundated with submissions of the highest quality from Israel and around the world. Biennale 2015 will further expand the debate on what is contemporary Jewish art and we are thrilled that, once again, this is taking place in Jerusalem, the spiritual and creative center of the Jewish world.”
This year, two Jewish artist groups from the U.S and one from Buenos Aires are taking part in the Jerusalem Biennale. Artists from the Jewish Art Salon of New York brought their exhibit—“New York, New Work”—to fill much of the ground floor of the Polonsky Building. Curated by Israelis David Sperber and Dvora Liss, the works include pieces by Siona Benjamin that connect Indian iconography, American pop culture, and Judaism, and the comics of Eli Valley that explore the complex Diaspora-Israel relationship.
At the crowded opening, Sperber points out, “Israeli culture has no defined or well-developed field of Jewish art. Judaism—as a living and unique religious tradition—is usually excluded from the central discourse of Israeli art. Viewing the ‘there’ from within the prism of the ‘here,’ through an art exhibition that draws its inspiration from Jewish tradition, sources, and culture, can challenge the conventional dichotomy in Israel that separates art from religion, and Jewish art from Israeli art. Unraveling these dichotomies and subverting the resulting hierarchies can inspire the local art scene that alienates itself from tradition.”
Another installation that explores the elements that bind and separate Jerusalem and the Diaspora is on display at a restored Templar-era building in the German Colony neighborhood. The Jewish Arts Initiative, based in Los Angeles, uses part of the old buildings for an exhibit called “7,567 mi,” which uses the prism of art to explore the issues that connect as well as separate Jerusalem and Los Angeles. The name of the exhibition is the distance between the two cities. At the same time, and for the first time, the Jerusalem Biennale is extending its reach overseas, with three simultaneous exhibitions in Los Angeles and video hook-ups between Jerusalem and Los Angeles.
One exhibition—“A Sense of Place, A Sense of Space”—is primarily the work of immigrants from English-speaking countries. Curator Mallory Serebrin and the artists, including Heddy Abramowitz, Andi Arnovitz, Ruth Schreiber, Hadassah Berry, Zavi Apfelbaum, and Sharon Binder—all explore issues related to home and place.
New York native Heddy Abramowitz, an artist and photographer, says this year’s Biennale—with the expanded presence of Jewish artists from abroad who were looking for the opportunity to show their work in Israel—is refreshing.
“It’s also an important outlet for artists working with Jewish subject matter who have limited opportunities to show in Israel,” she says.
Over at the First Station space in Jerusalem’s original train station, the “Women of the Book” exhibition hosts 54 artists, including Judith Margolis, Aliza Freedman, Susie Lubell, and Nava Levine-Coren, who bring their visual interpretation of the weekly Torah portion to the public.
Funding and support for the Biennale comes from an array of sources including the Jerusalem Municipality, the Jerusalem Foundation, Bank Hapoalim, and the San Diego-based Leichtag Foundation.
Charlene Seidle, the Leichtag Foundation’s executive vice president, tells JNS.org that the Biennale fits into the foundation’s “Jerusalem Renewal” vision, whose goal is to encourage young people to stay in Jerusalem and contribute to its diversity.
“We see Jerusalem as a source of creativity and creative people should flock there because of the nature of the city….The Biennale is a piece of that…and it’s great to see artists using Jerusalem as a muse,” Seidle says.
In April 2016, the foundation will help bring some exhibits of the Jerusalem Biennale to the annual conference of the Jewish Funders Network in San Diego.
The Biennale runs until Nov. 5. More information is available at www.jerusalembiennale.org.