Two concrete slabs hang side by side in artist Porat Salomon's living room. On them are charcoal drawings based on a Channel 2 news story.
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The piece was about Yarden Morag, a member of a Jewish terrorist group, Bat Ayin. He was caught in 2002 while, with accomplices, placing a bomb outside a Palestinian girls’ school in East Jerusalem.
“The first frame shows what appears to be contrition, eliciting a sense of identification with him. You say to yourself, he’s back being one of us,” Salomon says.
“But the second frame repulses you when you realize he’s settling accounts with the divine. That realization was very shocking for me. This issue of religiously ordained lawbreaking interests me a lot.”
This is an early work by Salomon, created when he was a B.A. student at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. He defines it as a political work, and the fact it now hangs in his home in the settlement of Bat Ayin, home of the Jewish terrorists, gives it added significance.
“This work preceded other topics that occupied me a lot later on,” he says.
I didn’t see Salomon’s drawings with my own eyes, because I met him not in Bat Ayin but in Tel Aviv. I had meant to go to the West Bank, but after protests by friends and colleagues, based on the risks of traveling there at a tense time, I relented.
Salomon was surprised I had even considered going there. Since embarking on his career in the Israeli art world, which is mainly secular and leftist, he has encountered rafts of people openly or implicitly put off by his place of residence.
These people feel that discussing his work would legitimize him and his opinions; some artists declined to be interviewed for this story for the same reason, even though they admitted he's a talented artist.
Salomon is religious, a settler who graduated from the most prestigious institution for studying art — Bezalel. These facts are interesting in the context of a recent popular topic: the place of art deriving from religious and right-wing sympathies. But Salomon's story makes clear that he doesn’t really represent anything but himself.
Salomon was born to a religious family in the town of Ma’alot in the north. His parents chose to live in a new development town for ideological reasons.
“I didn’t grow up in the religious mainstream of affluent Bnei Akiva young people," he says, referring to the religious-Zionist youth movement. "My attitude to the religious world is half in, half out.” The choice to live in Bat Ayin after his marriage 11 years ago reflected his ambivalent links to religious society.
“Ninety percent of Bat Ayin's residents are former secular people who turned to religion. This place is a phenomenon in its own right, stuck in the craw of the bourgeois and self-satisfied Gush Etzion settlement bloc," he says.
"Bat Ayin is something of an anarchist beast. It’s hardly a settlement and barely a community, only a collection of anarchists of all stripes. People who don’t find themselves end up there, including religious and political extremists.”
Postmodernism at the yeshiva
After studying at a religious yeshiva high school, Salomon joined a hesder (army-associated) yeshiva in Otniel. There he became a student of Rabbi Menachem Froman and followed him to the settlement of Tekoa.
Salomon started painting as a child, and because he wanted to become a professional, he studied at Bezalel after finishing at the yeshiva, not thinking about the divide between the two worlds he was moving in.
“Only when I got there did I realize that I had jumped a chasm. Bezalel had an image of a secular and permissive school, but at Otniel I’d learned not to avoid questions and confrontations," he says. "This seemed the logical continuation. Otniel is the most sophisticated of all yeshivas. I learned about postmodernism there, before I got to Bezalel.”
On the other hand, at Otniel he understood that the religious establishment, even the most sophisticated segment, didn't attribute much importance to art.
In any case, meeting other students and the Israeli art world was a profound event, Salomon says. The yeshiva was a very spiritual place for him; it was clear this was what his art would be about. But his first experience at Bezalel was a muted one.
In a first-year class the students were asked to respond to the idea of destruction. He wanted to present something ambivalent and moving from the Zohar, about the power of destructiveness in this world, but what he produced "seemed like embarrassing kitsch to people around me."
"Today I think it was a bad piece of art, but I realized I couldn’t talk about those things there. With friends from the yeshiva, in that complexly structured world, I can ask questions about subtle aspects of the world. You can’t go there with people who don’t share the experience of prayer or belief," he says.
"It’s like a physics professor who wants to present a new finding in which he proves that gravity is wrong, and people ask him why he thinks the world is round. You can’t discuss your subtleties and internal deliberations when you have to start explaining whether there is or isn’t a God.”
Salomon opted to abandon his attempt to talk about religion through his art, preferring to talk about politics.
“I shut the whole spiritual world inside a drawer and decided not to open it through art, and my work started asking questions about my place as a settler in Bezalel, about my ability to speak from the vantage point of my otherness," he says.
"The most significant work in my first year was a family portrait, of me, my wife and our baby. What rattled me was the way the most intimate family domain became the most political statement about settlers. It was important for me to hang a portrait of settlers in the hallway at Bezalel.”
Salomon’s political outlook was greatly influenced by Rabbi Froman.
“The dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians can only be a religious one. If religion causes problems, only there will we find solutions. For me it’s a discussion about utopia. People live by the light of their utopia, they don’t live by their realism," he says.
"The left's mistake is that they’re trying to create reality through basic living conditions and human rights, not according to people’s fantasies and messianic yearnings."
The word messianic was attached to religious Zionism, but Salomon argues that everyone is messianic.
"Everyone has a fantasy of how the world should look. If you don’t address this, all discussions are like froth on water," he says. "You could convince the Temple Mount loyalists to let Muslims pray there for 10 or 20 years, but would they let them continue praying there when the Messiah came?”
A new Jerusalem
It’s no coincidence that Salomon mentions the Temple Mount. For him, the issue of sovereignty over the Mount and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, who can pray there, is the core of the dispute between Israelis and Palestinians. Accordingly, he fantasizes about an initiative he’d like to create there. One might say fantasy is the watchword.
“I’d like to bring together architects, intellectuals and religious people of all persuasions to plan anew the holy basin area as a wound at the heart of the world; to create a space where people come to experience not what is but what is missing, where they come to yearn," he says.
"People won’t come to monuments of power or to phalluses reaching the sky, but to create the ultimate wilderness everywhere, including the Western Wall.”
Under the surface, questions on the link between faith and art continued to plague Salomon, as did Judaism’s injunctions against plastic art, as reflected in verses forbidding the making of statues or graven images.
Salomon says that while at Bezalel he understood the extent the art world was linked to the Christian faith. For him, one painter who highlighted the tight link between art and faith was Francisco de Zurbaran, a 17th century Spanish master.
Zurbaran painted Franciscan monks on an almost completely black background; he turned his images into objects of reflection. For him, Zurbaran and El Greco were the most religious artists in the history of painting, the ones most struck by religious fervor, Salomon says.
"Zurbaran was a very realist painter, but on the other hand you see him peering inside the material, the lemon, the white vase, demanding that they expose the god lurking within — the god in the stone. As a figurative realist painter, I was interested in how realism could be betrayed," Salomon says.
"The need to experience realism is a Christian need, which Christianity bequeathed to Western civilization. As I understand it, it’s not very Jewish. Thus, traditionally, Jewish art found it more convenient to turn to more abstract or conceptual horizons. I, as someone whose passion lies in realism, within observable reality, have to find a way of doing this.”
So why is realism un-Jewish?
“Western civilization invented the square frame, the window. This window looks out into the world," he says. "Every concrete image I take from the world and pass through this window is changed from matter to spirit. From this perspective, art is a miracle that depicts an alternative space, a sacred one."
According to Salomon, only in art can material things become sacred. Thus Western civilization's obsession is to take as much as possible from the concrete world and pass it through that window.
"Judaism shudders at such a concept. Judaism deals obsessively with the concrete, so that it stands in strong opposition to that alternative world, to the idea that sanctity resides in an alternative space," Salomon says.
"It’s actually a contrarian movement. The Christian artist uproots objects from reality and transfers them to God. Judaism asks that God in the material reveal himself. Sanctity lies not in art but in the world itself, in the real apple, not the painted one.”