Crossing the Abyss, at Entrance to Jerusalem’s Muslim Quarter

A controversial exhibition at an ancient Roman square is part of a project to bring art to Jerusalemites.

Emil Salman

An ancient Roman square beneath Damascus Gate, right at the entrance to the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, is the controversial location of an exhibition of Israeli artists as part of this year’s Manofim project, a contemporary art initiative in Jerusalem comprised of dozens of exhibitions and art events tailored for the city.

Rinat Edelstein, one of the artists who dreamed up Manofim and has been running it for seven years (along with Lee-He Shulov), says the decision to hold an exhibition at the Roman square is not a political statement or an attempt to show Israel’s control over East Jerusalem, as some felt it was.

“Our intention was not to say, ‘This part of Jerusalem is ours as well,’” Edelstein says. “We wanted to keep it at the level of the experience of coming here, at the most basic level. Almost ready-made. Crossing the street from West to East Jerusalem is like crossing an abyss, going to a different country. We feel it’s important that people cross over because as we see it, what’s worse is ignoring that part, turning it into a black hole. It is not art that serves anyone. We wanted to enable anyone who was around here to have a well-thought-out, high-level art exhibition nearby. While this is a decision that we have to justify anew every year, we always choose work over boycott, not to build more roadblocks above and beyond the ones are already there.”

Rami Maimon, Morse, 2011, stills from video.

This isn’t the first year that Manofim, whose opening today marks the start of Jerusalem’s exhibition season, has held an exhibit at East Jerusalem. On the contrary, Edelstein and Shulov decided four years ago to try to have at least one exhibition in East Jerusalem at each event because they were unhappy with the disconnect between east and west. In previous years, Manofim exhibits have been held at the Tower of David Museum, the Rockefeller Museum and the Notre Dame Monastery.

The site of the ancient Roman square where the exhibition, called “Made of Stone,” will be held is a visitors’ center that has not been open in recent years. The East Jerusalem Development Company, which runs the site, is a partner in the production of the exhibition to be held there.

Manofim’s organizers hope the exhibition will help revive the site, and that it will be given enough funding to reopen. The square itself, which was built in the time of the Roman emperor Hadrian, was the main entrance into Jerusalem in Roman times, and had three gates. One of the gates, which was discovered in archaeological excavations in the 1960s, is beneath the present-day Damascus Gate and leads to the remains of the paved square, which was uncovered in 1982. Today the square also lies beneath the present-day entrance to the Old City. A marble column that once stood there is the source of Damascus Gate’s Arabic name, Bab el-Amud (Gate of the Pillar).

‘I didn’t want to close my eyes’

Boaz Arad, Astonishment, 2014.

Tali Ben-Nun, who curated “Made of Stone,” said she had originally conceived of the exhibition as one for Palestinian artists.

“When you do an exhibition in a place like this, it is obvious that you have already taken a political stance,” says Ben-Nun. “So I agonized a lot over how to write about the curating work in a place like this. I had a thought that this exhibition would feature only Palestinian artists. As I worked on the exhibition, a war broke out, too. I felt that I didn’t want to close my eyes and stop my ears and run away from dealing with the real monster.

“On the other hand, that monster was so present during the time of the war that I felt that precisely because this was territory that is underground right now and symbolizes something significant from the multicultural perspective that it bequeathed to Jerusalem, I want to go to the more sensitive places. I don’t think that this is running away from reality. I simply wanted to see something that was more authentic. The response to it is taking place here and it is physical, material, emotional, and does not shout the political just to try to cleanse my conscience because I feel like I’m an occupier.”

Maayan Elyakim, furnace, 2014.

Ben-Nun invited 10 artists to visit the site and get a feel for it before deciding how to respond to it in their work. The resulting exhibit will officially open on October 28, though it will be open to visitors as of the Manofim opening tonight.

“The permanent exhibition at the site tells a highly specific narrative, and it is dusty and abandoned,” she says. “We don’t want to clean it up; we want to bring a new pulse there. The artists came back with a response that is reflective of the site. To me, that was the only way to connect the artistic work to the site that is the subject of the exhibition in the most authentic way.”

Ben-Nun says that after delving deeply into the history of Jerusalem and of the ancient Roman square, she understood the multicultural significance of the Roman era in Jerusalem. “The archaeologists who study that time period say that the Romans’ fingerprint in Jerusalem is highly significant in the present as well. Anyone who conquered Jerusalem gave a certain amount of respect to the way it had been built previously,” she says.

Although Ben-Nun invited Arab artists to participate in the exhibition as well, some of them were not convinced by the multicultural message, refusing, for political reasons, to participate in an Israeli exhibition on land they consider occupied.

Family-style dishes

Some of the artists who will be showing their work in the exhibition integrated their work with the physical structure of the site, while others dealt with its history — Roman, Byzantine or Arab. As part of the exhibit, Rami Maymon’s video will be shown in a niche that marks the start of an excavation that was stopped in the middle because the excavators encountered the wall of a residential building. Yael Ruhman and Simon Krantz cast a floor sculpture at the location that relates to the sloping outlines of the square.

At the front of the site, in a room that became an olive press some time after the square was built, Boaz Arad will show several sculptures that have to do with acts of murder and city squares. Shai Ratner’s work will be installed between two domes that were built above the square during the Mamluk Period, while Matan Israeli’s work will be placed in the cafe at the entrance to the site, which is a bit hard to spot as a cafe because so few customers visit it.

Israeli, in partnership with the family that runs the cafe, will add to the menu a dish of Jerusalem-style bread in olive oil, served on plates that he is creating especially for the occasion. The plates will feature the images of the family that owns the cafe. Other artists whose work will be shown at the exhibition include Dana Darvish, Yoav Weinfeld, Ayala Landow and Lior Pinsky.

In addition to “Made of Stone,” Manofim will also open exhibitions in various places in Jerusalem. Walking tours will be held in a different part of the city each evening.