The Museum of Underground Prisoners in Jerusalem, where the biennale Art Focus 4 will open tomorrow, is located in the Russian Compound, quite close to the the new municipality building.
Despite its central location, however, even taxi drivers have not heard of the museum. The striking building was built in the 19th century as a hostel for female pilgrims and during the British Mandate served as a prison.
In 1991, the building was transferred to the museums division of the Defense Ministry, which renovated and reconstructed the Mandate-era prison, using former prisoners' testimony and letters written from jail and inmates' drawings.
Such a historic, romantic place, full of pathos, is every curator's wish.
Yigal Zalmona and Suzanne Landau, Art Focus 4's curators, sat last Thursday in what once served as the prison's registration and reception room.
After managing to release the works of international artists from customs (despite the strike sanctions), they still had to convince Art Focus' management to finance extra security guards for the days before the exhibition's opening.
"The museum closes at 18:00, and it is impossible to leave the place open and unguarded," explained Landau. "We have to stay here to tie up loose ends, make sure all the installations are working properly, solve the last-minute problems that crop up at any exhibition.
"But up to now, they have not approved our request for guards. There is no money for anything."
Art Focus events this year are being done on a shoestring budget. Maybe it's not right to say this, in order not to scare off the few art philanthropists left, but it seems that the budgetary constraints actually did the project good.
The event's budget was NIS 2 million - far less than the $1.3 million invested in the last Art Focus, four years ago.
That event was held at the Teddy Stadium and the Sultan's Pool in Jerusalem and was grandiose and disappointing.
Then ostentatiousness and wastefulness were manifest, among other things, in the management's decision to invite Kasper Konig to curate the main project at Sultan's Pool.
Konig, a world-renowned curator, assembled an expensive, embarrassing and superficial exhibition, marked by a lack of familiarity with local art and history.
The intifada and the recession made raising funds for the current project difficult, and resulted in its postponement for two years. This eventually led to two decisions that in retrospect were just what the event needed: the selection of one exhibition site, unlike previous biennales, which exhibited at several locations, and the choice of two local and experienced curators.
Landau and Zalmona, two of the senior curators at the Israel Museum, have been working side by side for more than 20 years, but this is the first exhibition they are curating together. "We are on the same wavelength," says Landau.
Their combined knowledge, which is vast, their experience and their comprehensive familiarity with local art (Zalmona) and international art (Landau), created a focused, precise and complete exhibition.
The selection of artists reflects a deep knowledge of their works and an impressive ability to see each work's contribution to the whole. The exhibition will feature new works by local artists, including Orit Adar Bechar, Zvi Goldstein, Hagar Goren, Masha Yozefpolsky, Ofri Cnaani, Sigalit Landau, Arkadi Greenman, Michal Na'aman, Ruti Nemet and Miri Segal. Some of the international artists participating in the event are being brought to Israel to install new works, while others will lend existing works.
Among the works are those of Bill Viola, Nedko Solakov, Christian Boltanski, Mark Wallinger and Peter Maltz. There is no doubt that the choice of existing works was done to save costs - there is no need to fly an artist in before the exhibition and finance his stay here - but the economizing does not give any impression whatever of compromising on creative quality or suitability.
The works go well together and with the place. They are modest, attentive, blend well and to not try to overwhelm the already charged site.
"We did not see our goal as an exhibition, but rather as an open-ended story in which each of the former prison cells would stand as an independent entity while becoming an integral chapter in the narrative," wrote the curators in the catalog.
"All [the artists] chose not to compete with the architectural grandeur of the building but, rather, to approach it with a certain amount of trepidation and then become part of the site in a small-scale, intimate way. The cumulative product of their works envisions art as a type of spiritual pilgrimage."
The works of the 46 participating artists (20 of them from abroad) are displayed in the prisoners' museum's pty cells, in the solitary confinement cell, in the exercise yard, in hidden alcoves and in some of the reconstructed rooms. Thus an interesting dialogue has been created not only between the past and the present but also between the types of display: between a historic display aimed at reconstructing reality and a display that does not accept reality as taken for granted, but rather fabricates it anew, reflects it, defies it.
The contemporary works in the reconstructed cells create an interesting, sometimes deceptive blend between the periods and the objects. In the bakery, for example, between the oven and the kitchen utensils, there is a video presentation by Masha Yozefpolsky, showing a child's dress floating in the sea. In the reconstructed infirmary, Halit Mandelblit and Noga Elhassid have installed "The Recovered," a giant abstract blue object, lying on the original treatment table, and somewhat reminiscent of a sea lion.
Moshe Ninio is exhibiting a new installation in the solitary confinement cell complex - images of a dead end and obstruction that create an experience of confinement.
Some of the works blend in with the architecture of the site and create a kind of new arena that looks like a combination of an amusement park and a scene from a horror movie - an enchanted experience mixed with a feeling of fear.
Just such a feeling is inspired, for example, by the work by Monica Sosnovska. She built a dead-end tunnel, and walking through it creates a feeling of suffocation. The installation by Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, which invites the viewer to peek through the cell's door, blurs the relationship between jailer and prisoner.
Hagar Goren's audio work, of interviews with detainees in the Russian Compound, is broadcast through the pipes and comes out of the faucets in the prison's shower room and recreates the experience of detention. This time, however, these are not the voices of arrested members of the Jewish underground, but of Palestinian detainees interrogated in the adjacent modern-day lock-up. For them this is a harsh daily reality, and not part of the entertainment of the art world. This thought momentarily shatters the enchantment of the site. Suddenly there is a feeling of discomfort from the overpowering combination between a national fixture and contemporary art.
Perhaps Sarah Breitberg-Semel had this combination in mind when she wrote her scathing article regarding Art Focus in the last issue of Studio. The article was published in response to one of the clauses in the contract that the biennale's participants signed, requiring them to respect the site.
"Since it has been clarified to the artist that the work not include exhibits or displays that damage the spirit of the place, the museum reserves the right to ask the artist to make alterations to the work, such that the work not damage the spirit of the place," states the contract.
It was apparently not the censorship nature of the clause that bothered Breitberg-Semel, but the fact that all the artists agreed to sign it. "Pilots sign a petition and artists a contract of obedience," she concluded in her article.
Apparently it is actually this successful cooperation between the establishment and the artistic community that proves once again that local art decided to forgo the need to criticize and influence the public discourse. This is also the message that Zalmona transmitted to Goren in response to her request to relate to the activities of human rights organizations in the framework of her installation.
Goren says that at first she wanted to have a discussion between artists and representatives of the organizations, and after she received a negative reply, suggested displaying works by other artists that relate to the activities of these organizations.
"Zalmona said it was a matter of principle," says Goren, "that even though he respects all those organizations, there is no connection between them and art."
"There was never any talk of a discussion," says Zalmona. "We denied her request to display the works of other artists. The idea was not befitting to the exhibition and the site."
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