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Debbie Kampel’s “Waterboys/Water Heart Face” for the Jerusalem Biennale. Photo: courtesy ISRAEL21C

Debbie Kampel’s “Waterboys/Water Heart Face” for the Jerusalem Biennale. Photo: courtesy ISRAEL21C

The Biennale runs from Oct. 1 to Nov. 16, 2017, encompassing 25 Jewish contemporary art exhibitions in several venues across the city.

By Abigail Klein Leichman

If you’re in Jerusalem between October 1 and November 16, don’t miss the third Jerusalem Biennale, encompassing 17 group and eight solo exhibitions interpreting the theme “Watershed” through the lens of contemporary Jewish art.

The show includes photography, video, installation and performance art created by 200 artists hailing from diverse locales: New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, London, Paris, St. Petersburg, Budapest, Buenos Aires, New Delhi, Singapore and of course Israel.

“We’ve really become international,” Jerusalem Biennale founder and director Ram Ozeri says with pride. “This fulfils the vision we had from the beginning, to create a meeting point in Jerusalem for all those interested in the intersection between contemporary art and the Jewish world of content.”

The first Jerusalem Biennale in 2013 featured 60 artists, mostly Israelis. The biennale in 2015 attracted many artists from outside Israel but few from Europe. The third time was the charm, as Ozeri and his committee fielded 95 exhibition proposals from hundreds of artists across the world, not all of them Jewish.

The theme this year is “Watershed,” Kav Parashat Hamayim in Hebrew.

“In Hebrew, kav parashat hamayim is the drainage divide, the line at which raindrops split. If they fall west of the line they go into the Mediterranean and if they fall east of the line they fall on the Jordan Valley and Dead Sea. Jerusalem is that line,” Ozeri tells ISRAEL21c.

“In English, a ‘watershed moment’ changes the course of history. Jerusalem is a city where so many watershed events have changed the course of Jewish and world history.

“The theme allows us to ask metaphorical questions about identity, about the places in which we split into separate streams as human beings,” says Ozeri.

Venues include the Tower of David, Van Leer Research Institute, Austrian Hospice, Bible Lands Museum, Bezeq Building, Skirball Museum at Hebrew Union College, Museum of the Underground Prisoners and Achim Hasid.

Umbrella of Peace

A group of nine Indian artists built their biennale exhibition, “War and Peace,” around a shared watershed moment: Indian and Israeli independence from the British Mandate, which occurred in 1947 and 1948, respectively.

“When I read the history of Israel I found a lot of similarities between India and Israel. And I have been working on watershed themes for years, inspired by events in New Delhi,” curator and participant Hemavathy Guha tells ISRAEL21c.

She had no trouble finding artists eager to join in the group exhibition even though they are not Jewish.

One of the artists, Arpana Caur, “has given two of her paintings which depict the dual concepts of love and war with the use of guns and flowers and also touch upon the relevance of Buddha. She loved the magical Jerusalem, which she had visited earlier and recommended strongly that I should visit too,” says Guha.

Guha will bring her “Umbrella for Peace,” created from a sketch she’d done years ago.

“Flags of different countries have been printed on cloth and pasted on an umbrella, and all the countries have been connected with stitches and lines. I wish this earth would be devoid of war, terrorism and border conflicts and we could all live peacefully as it was intended to be,” she explains.

Vessels explored

Israeli artist Ofer Grunwald came to Ozeri’s attention because of his critically acclaimed exhibition in October 2016, “Disconnected Medium,” using bonsai (living tree sculptures) as a platform for contemporary artistic expression.

“My emerging artist status is based on the shockwaves of that exhibition,” says Grunwald, an Israeli native and resident of Jerusalem since 2009. He currently is “reimagining” the bonsai collection at the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens as part of a strategic partnership.

For the biennale, Grunwald created “Vessels,” a series of five installations that capture the tension inherent in waiting to see on which side of the divide the raindrops fall, or metaphorically the emotive sense of tension within the context of contemporary Judaism.

“The series tries to explore that by taking Jewish religious objects like tefillin and fetishizing their utilitarian attributes — for example, the tefillin’s leather straps have fetishistic overtones of restraint,” Grunwald says.

He made a tefillin-shaped cube with a sculpture inside, and peep holes operated by pulling the leather strap. “Opening one peep hole closes the other, and so the work creates a conflict between visitors to the exhibition, where one’s gaze negates the other,” Grunwald tells ISRAEL21c.

Private and group tours of the biennale are available in English. Information:

For general information, click here.

Jerusalem Biennale displays works of 200 global artists

Dani Karavan’s Way of Peace (1996–2000), 100 sandstone columns leading from Nitzana 5 into Egypt. Photograph by Neil Folberg

 Many of us live our lives at the computer screen—here we are, in fact—and that can get us quite a distance. But our time spent in the blue glare gives us, perhaps, a new kind of appreciation for encounters that are straight up and live, unmediated: that is, for experiences in the world.

Each column in Way of Peace is inscribed with the word peace in a different language, representing all the peoples who have traveled through or lived in this area through the course of history.

Dani Karavan’s magnificent site-specific sculpture Way of Peace (1996–2000) can of course be admired with the help of the Internet, but to experience it in reality is something else entirely. The work consists of a hundred sand-colored columns, running from the hills of Nitzana in the Western Negev Desert to the Israeli-Egyptian border—about three kilometers. Each column is inscribed with the word peace in a different language, representing all the peoples who have traveled through or lived in this area through the course of history. If you are lucky enough to be here—with your feet in the sand and the warm air in your mouth—as the sun sets in the wild desert sky, you will see the shadows cast by the columns, running far into the distance. The engagement with place, time, and history here is intense, even electrifying. Straight up and live. It is for this kind of experience that we travel.

Dani Karavan’s Way of Peace

Ayala Serfaty’s Entudia. Courtesy of Maison Gerard, Robert Levin 

The border between fine arts and applied arts is not always distinct. Designer/artist Ayala Serfaty’s work lives on that frontier. She has long been known for her organically inspired shapes in light known as Soma, works that have been exhibited at museums and galleries from Tel Aviv to New York to Milan. These delicate pieces, made of glass and silk, recall the strange wonders of undersea life—graceful jellyfish, proliferating corals—all lit from within, ethereal, seeming almost to breathe. Serfaty’s light works have become so popular that they are now produced in a steady stream, with her oversight, by a team of fabricators at her Tel Aviv workshop, and sold in high-end design stores around the world.

I really like the parameters of design.
— Ayala Serfaty

One body of work (and body is the operative word) called Rapa is driven by the same organic impetus but yields a very different outcome: massive pieces of furniture. Instead of gossamer strands of glass, with silk and light, the material here is thick, chunky felt: soft as moss, earthbound, comforting as an animal’s warm hide.

  Serfatystudied art at the Bezalel Academy in Jerusalem and started out as a fine artist, but moved into design: “I really like the parameters of design. A chair—okay, it can be anything, but it does have to be comfortable to sit on. With a sculpture, there is no such requirement.” After years of producing and selling the Soma work, what led her to shift gears so radically into the felt furniture? The curse of success:  Serfaty found herself directing a fabrication business, instead of making things with her hands. “To run something is different from creating art. I had to figure how to make the split.” And furthermore, she was very ready to try out a new sensibility: “With the Soma work, I can’t let anybody touch it. With the felt pieces—you can put your feet on them, you can do whatever you want. You can jump on them! They are so solid, nothing will happen to them in two hundred years.”

Ayala Serfaty >

Artist Ayala Serfaty’s Organic Forms

A still of artist Sigalit Landau welding in the film Out in the World

Out in the World is a film about four artists making an impact on the international scene: Sigalit Landau, Barry Frydlender, Micha Ullman, and Michal Rovner. These artists embrace what seems to be an ongoing theme among Israeli artists: finding inspiration even in the dark and troubling aspects of life, forging from them works of art that help us, if not to reconcile, then to begin to understand.

Four artists making an impact on the international scene.

Sigalit Landau  explores her own body and the body politic in myriad media from sculpture to striking performances captured on video. Barry Frydlender is a photographic artist who assembles painstakingly crafted image “mosaics” that comment on time and place. Micha Ullman’s multi-faceted, minimalist sculptures often make use of the orange-red sand of the Sharon area north of Tel Aviv. And Michal Rovner’s monumental stone structures are at the center of her thinking and her art.

The stills are from the film Out in the World, available with the purchase of The Desert and the Cities Sing: Discovering Today’s Israel

The Film: "Out in the World"

Artist Michal Rovner contructing one of her stone "Makom" structures

On Michal Rovner’s small farm in Ayalon Valley she keeps a pack of white dogs, each the size of a small furry sofa, and a donkey named Nof (meaning “Landscape”). “I always like to be close to the ground,” she says. “I always like to touch the earth, I like to smell it, I like to see people creating something that is very real, that has a very real dimension, when I wake up in the morning.” In her meadow stands a stone structure, like a temple, in the middle of the wide mantle of colorful blossoms.

These are the ingredients that make me who I am.
— Michal Rovner

Such monumental stone structures—collectively titled Makom (Place)—are at the center of Rovner’s thinking and her art. In the film Out in the World, we see the painstaking process of assembling one, block by weighty stone block, outside the Musée du Louvre in Paris, where Rovner’s work was showcased. The structures are fully cohesive—clean-lined, room-size boxes with perfect, mysterious apertures for peering in, or for entry or exit—yet the stones derive from a variety of dismantled or destroyed Israeli and Palestinian houses, from Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Haifa, Nablus, Hebron, the Galilee, and elsewhere. The lifetime of the stones in her Makom pieces is greater than the singular grievances of any one person’s brief time here.

Often, Rovner inspects humanity as a scientist inspects a new virus under a microscope, or as an entomologist studies insects: as a teeming curiosity, as a single multi-minded organism. In much of her imagery, swarms of humanlike creatures, unidentifiable as individuals, march in file over landscapes and across screens, or crawl like ants over rocks.

The artist is clearly at home in her Ayalon farm/studio, which has a spartan magic: a single red poppy raises its head from a vase on a deep white windowsill; outside, the branches of an orange tree are weighted down with fruit. “This place is my element,” she says. “These are the ingredients that make me who I am.”


These stills are from the film Out in the World, available with the purchase of The Desert and the Cities Sing: Discovering Today’s Israel


Michal Rovner: This place is my element

Sculptor Micha Ullman. Still from the film Out in the World.

 “I am interested in the level of our shoe soles—and below,” says sculptor Micha Ullman. He is speaking both metaphorically and literally. Some of his work has been dubbed “subterranean sculpture”—as with his 1995 Bibliothek (Library), located beneath Berlin’s Bebelplatz, the infamous site of Nazi book burnings in 1933. The work is an underground room filled with nothing but walls of empty shelves: a library without books, visible only by looking downward through a pavement-level window set into the cobblestone square. Visitors pause and consider, remember, mourn.

What is full and what is empty, earth and air, matter and spirit . . . where does one thing end and another begin?
— Micha Ullman

Sand—often the orange-red sand of the Sharon area north of Tel Aviv, where Ullman lives—has been a staple medium of his for many years; it provides, he says, a kind of language for him. At Sands of Time, Ullman’s 2011 retrospective at Jerusalem’s Israel Museum (for which we see him preparing in the film Out in the World), the floors were dotted with heavy minimalist iron structures coated with rust-colored sand.

Ullman’s works are as silent as history: viewers bring to them what interpretations they will. There is a deceptive simplicity to his sculptures, which contend with basic human relations or derive from everyday elements: a chair, a television, a book, a camera, a table. As in life, the meanings are never clear—except perhaps for the idea that there is duality in all things. “For me,” he says, “a pit is above all a question regarding the relationship between what is full and what is empty, earth and air, matter and spirit . . . where does one thing end and another begin?” The concave and convex are integrally connected, of course. “I look for good in evil,” says Ullman, “for the sky in a pit.”

These stills are from the film Out in the World, available with the purchase of The Desert and the Cities Sing: Discovering Today’s Israel


Micha Ullman: Sculptures made of Iron and sand, as silent as history

Sigalit Landau sculpting a wax casting

Sigalit Landau works in a range of media and modes, from sinewy sculptures of elongated human figures to conceptual videos and films to massive installations. A former dancer, the artist is closely attuned to corporeality: she engages the idea of the body in nearly all her work. In one of Landau’s most striking videos, Dead See (2005), her own body becomes part of a dreamlike form floating in the salt-saturated waters of the Dead Sea: a spiral raft made of watermelons, threaded together like massive green-and-red beads, and her naked self.

I like to be on the periphery…if I had to make a choice, I would choose to be here.
— Sigalit Landau

Among the artist’s enduring and elemental fixations are water, sugar, meat, earth, and in particular salt. She has long planned to build a bridge of salt between Israel and Jordan, and for her 2016 project Salt Bride, she submerged a replica of a traditional Hasidic dress in the waters of the Dead Sea—no easy feat given the mineral-dense water’s buoyancy—the garment hovers there like a specter. “Salt heals, preserves, hides, kills,” Landau has said. And of the Dead Sea, which has provided her with such inspiration, she observes, “[It] has myths and (pre)history all around its shores, stories of radicalism, Christianity, heroics, unbelievable agriculture—and it is a border as well, so the behavior of salt and the natural environment is highly metaphoric, and keeps changing direction as I experiment.”

Israel is a very small country, and the number of major art venues is limited. “Many very good Israeli artists are living abroad,” says Landau. Why does she stay? “I like to be on the periphery, for various reasons. If I had to make a choice, I would choose to be here.”

It is perhaps inevitable that an Israeli artist will make work that engages society and politics, whether obliquely or directly. Artists have an advantage over politicians, as Landau eloquently observes: “Through politics you can show bottom lines. But bottom lines are never good. Through art, you can show much more complex things.”

These stills are from the film Out in the World, available with the purchase of The Desert and the Cities Sing: Discovering Today’s Israel

Sigalit Landau: An Artist with Elemental Fixations