The Jerusalem Biennale art exhibition returns to the city

the Jerusalem Biennale is back in town for the fifth time, a considerable achievement given what has been a difficult two years for the arts in general.
This year’s Biennale includes more than 300 artists and is spread across the city in a variety of venues. The guiding hand behind the event has been Rami Ozari, whose vision was fueled by a visit to the Berlin Biennale in 2010 where he had, as he puts it, an epiphany.

“I thought that if Berlin could attract art from all over the world, why shouldn’t Jerusalem?” Ozari said.

A religious man, an economist by training with additional studies at the Bezalel art school, Ozari was convinced that there was a place for both Jewish and contemporary art.

“I realized early on that there just wasn’t a platform for contemporary Jewish art,” he says. “When visiting the artists, I discovered that they could not find a place to exhibit their work. Some were told that they were too contemporary, others that they were too Jewish. We wanted to create a space where art was contemporary and Jewish at the same time. “

‘Four Cubits’ by Ken Goldman. (credit: KEN GOLDMAN)

He has succeeded beyond his wildest fantasies. In the last Biennial of 2019, 50,000 people visited it. Of course, 2021 has its own challenges, notably noting that the crown has meant that the vast majority of artists exhibiting their work are residents of Israel. “Although we have artists from Italy and Turkey, while the United Emirates have sent works here even though the artists could not accompany them,” said Ozari.

What started as a dream has grown into a high-profile event that shares with the rest of the world questions about the meaning and function of art today.

“Art” is no longer a matter of easel painting, academic drawing, or sculpture. Today’s art includes video, photography, film, installations, and the use of a plethora of never-before-used materials. This Biennial takes this definition even further, trying to place art in people’s homes and showing the public that art can and should have a place in its own private space, or within what this year’s Biennial calls its “Four Cubits”.

Four cubits is a biblical and later rabbinic phrase that signifies the spatial dimensions that we inhabit as individuals. According to Ozari, everyone in the last two years has had to come face to face with their own four cubits, as the corona epidemic has forced us to enter ourselves. For artists, this meant art in private places and not in public places, such as museums, galleries, or open-air squares. The function of a work of art in your home is very different from art in a public space, hence Ozari’s motivation to bring art to private homes. “Four Cubits” also raises questions about the relationship between public and private spaces.

Another sign of the Biennial’s success is that it has acquired its own building. The former Shaare Tzedek building on Jaffa Road has now been handed over to Ozari as the venue for the Biennale, at least for the next four years. It will become a gallery between the biennial party.

“Right now,” explains Ozari, “we have had the biggest exhibition we’ve ever had here. We call it ‘Take me home’. We asked artists to present works that could be hung in people’s homes, rather than in a museum. We received around 700 submissions and we chose 200, out of more than 100 artists. We also gave spaces for two artists, Chanan Mazal and Motta Brim, to work here during the last month, on their own four cubits ”.

Mazal often paints brightly colored canvases with stylized patterns against bold figures. Motta is a more conventional painter and was modeled after the Haredi artist portrayed on the popular television series Shtisel.

The building was owned until recently by Israel Radio, which neglected the religious dimension of the building. The city’s first Jewish hospital in Jerusalem outside of the Old City, Shaare Zedek opened in 1902 as a 20-bed facility that included a synagogue. The new owners, Ruach Hadasha, wanted to restore the religious dimension of the place but in the context of an artistic center.

“Ruach Hadasha chose us because we are on the delicate border between religion and art,” said Ozari. Hence the synagogue space has been turned over to an exhibition by Sari Srulovitch, a graduate of both Bezalel and the Royal College of Art in London who works in sterling silver and produces Jewish pieces to the highest standard.

From November 12 to December 30, the Biennale will take place in different locations in Jerusalem. Some of these sites are art and exhibition centers, such as the Jerusalem Printing Workshop, Kol Ha’Ot, Agripas 12, and the Tower of David Museum.

Other sites are somewhat unusual, such as the outdoor space on the outskirts of Binyan Klal, where a series of large photographs are displayed. All taken during the crown closings, they show families enclosed within a specially designed structure measuring four cubits.

At the nearby Alliance House, adjacent to the Mahaneh Yehuda Market, are several studios of individual artists. Featured here are artists from a new art school, Pardes, in Givat Washington, which is for artists with religious backgrounds. As with much of the Biennale, the works on display are of the widest variety of styles, from abstract designs and installations to realistic portraits and landscapes.

Behind all these exhibitions is a more general question about what constitutes art today and, more specifically, what makes art Jewish. This is an ongoing challenge to which each artist and viewer provides their own response. Ozari has managed to not only bring together this wide variety of approaches, but also explain the motivation behind his choices.

“In Jerusalem, we have a wonderful Museum of Islamic Art; in the United States, there are museums of specific American art, ”said Ozari. “These are totally legitimate. So why not a place for contemporary Jewish art?

Why not?

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