Architecture, sculpture, installations can all be found in Jerusalem and always the unexpected. There is always something new to see or experience and much that stays the same. That’s easy to do when you are in a place that’s been around for many thousands of years. Our final day included a visit to the Israel Museum, where sculptures abound.
I’ve followed the work of Ai Wei Wei for a number of years and had the great fortune to see his installation exhibition at Alcatraz a few years ago. It was amazing to find an exhibition of his work at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. One question I’ve had about his work is, would his work be as meaningful or would he have as much attention for it if he had not been a Chinese dissident and imprisoned for speaking out against the injustices he sees. This show confirmed for me that his work is probably among the most powerful and potentially effective means of communicating injustice around the world and maybe even making change. It certainly makes you think- first step on the road. I have chosen to include excerpts from the caption panels that appeared with each work as it helps you understand his thought processes and about his personal struggles.
Another small gallery is given over to an exhibit of works in the museum’s collections that doesn’t usually see the light of day. This time the exhibit is entitled “No Thing Dies” and is composed of collages by Lilit Azoulay, combining disparate works of art and the tools and detritus of the museum itself. I apologize for the poor quality of the images. I usually try to find the images online without the glare of glass, etc. but these works are not available so you’ll at least get an idea of how interesting this is. The artist asks the questions, how does an object become a valuable collectible, how does this affect art history and contemporary artistic practice, and can contemporary art offer ways in which the objects may be reused and redefined? Collages are put together as webs of cross-cultural and cross-historical possibilities, allowing the objects themselves to generate narratives both historical and fictional. These large scale collages appear dimensional but are all flat.
One of my all time favorite museums in the world is the Israel Museum, which holds one of the largest collections of antiquities in the world, the original copy of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, outstanding modern art, and I have never visited there without seeing something amazing. This time I am going to talk about three exhibitions in three separate blogs. If you are one of my students there is something for everyone in these three postings so enjoy. The first is from a small gallery that always has a surprising gem of antiquity to share. Those of you in Art Appreciation are just starting to explore ancient art and those of you in Ancient Art History just completed your look at Greece and Rome so you will appreciate this too.
The gallery showed exquisite original Roman gold coins and in the center had a 360 degree option to look at these coins on both sides.
Coins dating 211-294 CE, the portraits are less delicate and more rugged perhaps to emphasize that these emperors were soldiers as well as rulers and some did not come from “high society” either. We even can detect variety ethnicity since most of these emperors were not of Roman or even Italian origin.
These coins date from 294-335 CE show that individual realistic portraits were replaced with a standardized one. The large faces are meant to have a pensive upward gaze that still invokes a sense of power and superiority.
3rd Century CE was a turbulent period with those seeking to seize control striking coins bearing their image and circulating them widely as an attempt to project independence. They often portrayed themselves as soldiers. Since these usurpers didn’t last their coins are very rare as not many were made.
Roman emperors also placed their family members on coins meant to convey to the empire how women were supposed to appear and behave. Sometimes they even depicted their ancestors as gods which would make them sons of gods.
We visited a small museum in an old house in the Old City built 500 years ago and typical of architecture in the Mediterranean with an internal courtyard, small and cramped rooms, with the courtyard serving as the center for family activities. Cooking was not done in the house because of ventilation problems, and each family had their own corner in the courtyard for that purpose. Although living conditions in Jerusalem remained unchanged for generation, and the Old City was quite inhospitable, at the turn of the century progress had been made for affluent residents though not for the majority. During the British Mandate (1917-1948) electricity came to Jerusalem and wealthier families could hook up to the grid.
The museum is set up to simulate one of these buildings. One unique thing is that the room that simulates the synagogue is the room where the Ari was born. The “Ari” which means lion is the name given to Isaac Luria, a famous rabbi and mystic, considered the father of Kabbalah. While he may have been born here his main following and attention (including a famous synagogue with his name and location of his burial) are in Safed in the north of Israel.
Jerusalem is very hilly and one of the largest hills is called Har Ha’Zikaron (Remembrance Mountain). At the bottom of the mountain is the Valley of the Communities, a stone labyrinth laid out in the shape of Eastern and Western Europe. The canyon created by the stones has the names of all the communities (big and small) lost during the Holocaust in geographical order. One wanders through to find the one that is meaningful to them. It’s powerful. Next up the hill is Yad Va’Shem, the Holocaust Museum, then higher on the hill are graves of soldiers, too many of course. Above that are the graves of the leaders of Israel through time and on the very top is the grave of Theodore Herzl, founder of the nation. It’s a sad place but a very beautiful one and scattered throughout are memorials (not graves) of various significant events in Israel’s history. They are the subject of this blog posting.
This seems like an odd name for a synagogue, especially one so beautiful and large in the center of the Jewish Quarter. It was established in the early 18th century and then destroyed by Muslims in 1721. It lay in ruins for 140 years so it became known as the “hurry”, the ruin. It was rebuilt in 1864 only to be blown up by the Arab Legion when they took the Old City in 1948 during the War of Independence. In 1977 a commemorative arch was erected that is the exact size of one of the large arches you see on each side of the building and then a newly built synagogue modeling the original one was dedicated in 2010.
I’ve always been fascinated with the Armenians who live in the Old City. The tall hats in the shape of Mt. Ararat, particularly appropriate this week since we just read the story of Noah on Saturday and the secrecy about their quarter in the Old City. I should explain that I am here partly for a reunion for my very first trip to Israel when I came two weeks after the 1967 War (6 Day War) when I was 16 years old. One of the participants moved to Israel and is a tour guide so he guided our group for a few days to some interesting sites, some of which are a bit off the usual track. This is part of one of them. Getting back to the Armenians, they are believed to have first settled in Jerusalem in the 4th century. Their numbers swelled after the genocide in the early 20th century though their numbers have declined steadily and are at about 2000 today. The Jewish quarter is also today inhabited by about 2000 people though the Jewish community is thriving more than the Armenians. Inhabitants of both quarters are for the most part very religious though the Armenians are much more private and secretive. They do not let visitors enter their section. Both communities within the Old City were lively areas in the 19th century and unfortunately the Jewish Quarter was decimated in the War of Independence in 1948, only allowed to return after 1967 when Israel retook the Old City from Jordan.
The Citadel of David, just inside the Jaffa Gate of the Old City has a wonderful historical museum about the origins and development of the Citadel and the entire Old City. Just as Mesopotamia was conquered and reconquered over centuries, so was the location of the Old City of Jerusalem. The amazing this is that one conquerer did not dispose of what was already there, rather added to it. Excavations in the Old City are controversial to say the least so there is likely quite a bit that is unknown and probably will never be known about the earliest times of this city.
There is always lots to look at in Jerusalem and whenever you have to good fortune to get a “view” it’s amazing what you can see. It confirms that this city is unique in the world in many ways and I do believe those who say it is exactly the center point of the world. So many revere this place and so many come to experience it.