Snapshot: Places to Worship Death

Tal Niv
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'Surface,' video art installation by Nira Peleg, as part of 'The Right to Clean' exhibition at Ticho House.Credit: Courtesy of Nira Peleg
Tal Niv

1. Long pink fingernails with black decorations. And eyeglasses, which I didn’t notice when I sat against the wall covered in black, alone, in an exhibition space that is too narrow for video installations but perfectly suited for the serious, intelligent works of Nira Pereg. In the renovated Ticho House in Jerusalem – located in a garden divided by paths winding around olive trees, surrounded by crude “luxury apartment” projects – a crew wearing the black shirts of a cleaning company and the staff of a catering company poured juice from cartons into glass pitchers. There was also a team from the Israel Museum, which administers Ticho House, and bone-chilling air-conditioning, which preserves the works in the exhibition space to the right of the entrance, as well as the former rooms of the ophthalmologist Dr. Abraham Ticho and his wife, the artist Anna Ticho, and a collection of Hanukkah lamps, paintings by her and furniture. Israel Museum director James Snyder presents the project.

A wooden staircase leads up to the second floor, which will now house a restaurant, and which I ascended on my own – despite the warning by the guard not to do so just yet – to see the blue murals that had been uncovered on the ceiling. The sight is lovely. The man there looks me in the eye. His are blue. Ahalan. We nod. Then back down, and to the left, to the space where Pereg’s work is on view, in an exhibition titled “The Right to Clean,” a video installation which she shot over a few years in the church of the Holy Sepulchre.

At the entrance to the exhibition rooms, an object is shown on a pedestal – dramatically lit. A simple object, a modest one. A miniature of a separation wall, such as exists in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Pereg extricated it from her installation, recreating images as a tangible object, a physical metonymy to her work (and to the church ) displayed as a reference point for the exhibition. I like the way it’s done. Highbrow – as expected at art shows – yet simply accurate. I turn left, to the interior space reached by stairs that lead to screens showing the films Pereg shot.

Later that evening. I will read in David Rapp’s book “Churches and Monasteries in the Holy Land” (English edition, 2015), that some consider the delicate yet highly passionate weave that exists in that church to be an example of mental rigidity and religious zealotry. In one of the holiest places to Christianity, Rapp notes, placing a wooden ladder outside, leaning on the façade of the structure, is seen as a provocation. Highly publicized quarrels – about the right to remove a particular pillar, or over the right to conduct religious ceremonies in a particular way – also make many believers uncomfortable, he writes.

In the Ticho House foyer, Snyder, attired in a fine suit, talks about the investment made in the renovated building. In the interior room there are three screens, one bidirectional. I realize I can watch the footage from both sides of the screen. I sit alone, looking at the bidirectional screen, at a film showing the people who pass by the red Stone of Unction in the church, where one is cleansed of sins. I recall the exchanges of worshipers and the different religious services held in the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, which Pereg showed in her seminal video work “Sarah Sarah” (2012). Her installation “Ishmael” is now on view at the Braverman Gallery in Tel Aviv. A follow-up project to the Hebron video, it shows Muslims praying throughout the day at the mosque. I also call to mind her 2010 exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum, “Har,” which she shot at Har Hamenuchot, Jerusalem’s vast cemetery. Arenas of ritual, places where the living handle the dead with and without pathos – burial caves, cemeteries, a sepulchre church – every place where one can bow down to death and be wary of it and accept it.

Sitting on a bench, I watch the video. A woman kisses the stone, a couple in love passes by it, people make wishes. I see a nun who cleans up religiously – I entertain the pun – after the visitors going to another section of the church. Each section, I tell myself, is closely watched over by a different denomination. What is holy? Work is. Cleaning again and again. I did not think I’d be so mesmerized. To my left is a complementary video work, showing a street artist in the form of a human sculpture of Churchill in London – a poor, heavyset Eastern European migrant caring for injured pigeons with diligent hands. It occurs to me that in this film, shown with the others shot at the church, Pereg is depicting St. Francis, who spoke to birds. A mark of absolute modesty.

This is a well-curated exhibition (by Timna Seligman) in a building that is related to a shared life – Dr. Ticho, as we know, treated every person who needed help and was even persecuted for doing so. I hear the voices of visitors resonating outside, and then I notice, more vividly than in Pereg’s shows in more comfortable spaces, the devotion with which she says or depicts things. Without pathos. She is looking at worshipping, both dictated and idiosyncratic, as part of a shared rhythm. Yet – the visitors can leave. The cleaning nun can not.

2. And in the evening, the two female soldiers at the restaurant table who left their cars at home. They want to have a good time. They discuss whether they will be able to leave the base on Wednesday or Thursday. With their weapons; make sure one of them isn't snatched, let’s not get stuck with it at some intersection. For sure. And they eat. Another Push notification. Another stab. Another clip of people shouting at the assailant, already subdued on the floor. "Die, dirty Arab." Chanting "Death to the Arab.” Or “Shoot her.” Or ”Kill him.” Mobiles shivering with images. Be careful, I say. We’re off, they reply. Yallah, bye. Shalom.