Many Israeli and Diaspora Jews view Jerusalem as the world’s holiest city. But it is much more than that for two American-born art world entrepreneurs, who see it as a visual arts hub with untapped potential.
Jenna Hughes Romano, 32, and Danielle Gorodenzik, 28, both immigrated to the Israeli capital earlier this decade, and each in her own way fell in love with its art – and the artists who struggle to create there.
Romano, an art adviser, guide and writer, and Gorodenzik, an aspiring curator and art writer, met when they both worked as contributors for a local online magazine about arts and culture. They struck up a friendship based on their mutual passion for the arts, and soon afterward decided to team up to showcase Jerusalem’s art scene to the rest of the country and the world.
The duo decided that their project, which they are funding out of their own pockets, should turn the spotlight on a rare artistic medium: artist books.
And so, last year Romano and Gorodenzik launched Jerusalem’s first-ever art book fair, In Print. The three-day pop-up event, in which they sold carefully curated books made by local artists, succeeded beyond their expectations. Now they are gearing up for the second edition, set to take place at the Hansen House Center for Design, Media and Technology this week.
Spreading the word
Romano, who hails from New York, moved to Jerusalem eight years ago after obtaining a bachelor’s degree in museum studies at Arizona State University’s Herberger College of the Arts. In 2012, she launched an online platform called Contemporary Art in Jerusalem, where she blogged about the local art scene. She soon moved from the virtual world to the city streets, where she leads both public and private art tours.
“I think people would be surprised at how much art is created here, and how many artists are actively working here and want to stay here,” she tells Haaretz. However, creative work in the capital is fraught with challenges.
“There is no real commercial art here,” Romano says. “When artists exhibit in Jerusalem, it’s usually with a nonprofit organization or a museum – so they’re not exhibiting works that are for sale. I think it’s very hard for artists to develop professionally in that way. That being said, it also leads for artists here to experiment without the pressure of what is trendy, what might sell or what a collector wants.”
Gorodenzik, who immigrated from Los Angeles five years ago, got her master’s degree in curatorial studies at the local Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. She recently moved to Tel Aviv to work as the manager of Serge Tiroche’s “Africa First” collection and residency program, but considers Jerusalem a second home.
“Jenna and I knew we wanted to do something in Jerusalem, and we were trying to think what was missing and how we could add to our community,” she recounts. “We wanted to create something accessible and functional, and thought that artist books were just that.”
Artist books, Romano explains, are artworks in and of themselves – but “in a more accessible format for audiences. For artists, it’s a way to elaborate on their artistic process. In a lot of the books you will see texts that accompany the images which were written by writers, academics or critics that the artists invited to write about their work.”
The 300 books being showcased at In Print this week are a diverse selection: Some are limited-edition creations made by prominent artists, while others were produced by emerging talents. Exhibiting photography books, catalogs and zines (artist books manufactured in a magazine format), the two sell them in an affordable price range: from 20 shekels ($5.75) up to 5,000 shekels (over $1,400).
“The art and the unique language that is happening locally here shouldn’t just stay here. It should spread – and books are a way to spread the word,” Gorodenzik says. That’s why the pair are displaying books by artists from all over the country, as well as some from overseas.
They also applied and were accepted to November’s Chicago Art Book Fair, where they represented Israeli artists in a trip that was completely funded through an online fundraiser. “People were really excited to see works by artists from the region,” Gorodenzik shares.
Romano admits to some concern in advance that they would be received poorly because of their affiliation with Israel. “We had to interact with the audience, greet everyone and tell them who we are. I wondered: Should we say we represent Israeli artists? We did have intense conversations about some of the topics of the books – because some are about Israeli politics. But because we were there as representatives, we didn’t get negative reactions,” she says.
Some of the books on sale at In Print are indeed political. American-Israeli artist Andi Arnovitz, 60, a participant for the second consecutive year, brings a humorous twist to the political subjects in her work. The conceptual artist, who moved to Jerusalem from Atlanta 20 years ago, says she tries to “have fun with the genre.”
“Most people don’t realize it,” she tells Haaretz, “but an artist book can be a roll of toilet paper. It isn’t necessarily something with pages that looks like a book.”
When Arnovitz, who is also a printmaker, says that artist books can be created out of such materials – she means it literally. One of the three books she is showcasing this week, “The Only Thing Left to do with the Oslo Accords,” was made from the substance one would expect to find in a restroom, not at a cultural event.
“What inspired my book is the total futility of the Oslo Accords,” Arnovitz says of the agreement signed between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1993. Arnovitz charges that the agreements “are not worth the paper they’re written on, they’re clearly dead. I wanted to create a sarcastic commentary on that.”
The artist, whose books have been purchased and displayed by the likes of Yale University and the U.S. Library of Congress, expressed her political frustration by printing the accords on three rolls of toilet paper in Arabic, English and Hebrew. Due to a technical issue she couldn’t print the entire text of the agreements, so she cut them down. “And at the place where I did, I inserted the words ‘Blah, blah, blah,’” she laughs.
Arnovitz clarifies that “it’s a tongue-in-cheek artist book. I haven’t encountered anyone who was upset about it, because the reality is that [the Oslo Accords are] worthless now. Most people laugh and say, ‘This is a crazy, great idea!’”
An example of the diversity on offer this year is “Doing Right By You,” a photography book crafted by emerging Israeli artist Yael Meiry. The multidisciplinary creator, 37, produces photo-based installations, and explains that they tackle the question of form, gender and identity “as signifiers of political and social affairs.”
A graduate of the photography department at the Hamidrasha Faculty of Arts at Beit Berl College, Meiry is another In Print veteran. “Doing Right By You,” which contains 180 photographs the artist took, is an intimate project that corresponds with themes Meiry often relates to: Emphasizing the presence of queer individuals in Israeli society; gender reassignment medical procedures; and the hostile manner in which the local LGBTQ community is sometimes perceived.
Meiry explains (using preferred pronouns) that through their artwork, they hope “to enable a dialogue. If someone is pissed off by my work, it means I moved something in their inner world,”
The artist is also familiar with contrarian reactions. “I remember when I displayed my solo exhibition ‘Rightgendered,’” at Tel Aviv’s Gallery 4 in August 2017, “a man who visited the gallery was very preoccupied by the gender identity of one of the people I photographed,” Meiry recalls. “He started asking questions that were invasive and disrespectful, like whether the person in the photo had undergone surgery. We started talking, and our conversation evolved into a general discussion about body image.”
“Doing Right By You” is Meiry’s first full-length artist book. It features photos that seek to display the violent and disturbing relationship between Israeli spaces and queer bodies, according to the artist. Alongside it are interviews Meiry carried out with the subjects, including conversations with their mother, partner and a close friend.
“Each of these conversations present the complexities through which we perceive photography today: As a documentation of truth, as a snippet of memory, as a healing tool, as a pair of eyes that relentlessly observe us,” Meiry says.
Dead Sea obsession
Another artist book on sale at the fair deals not only with identity or a concept, but a tangible place: the Dead Sea. Over the past 20 years, Sigalit Landau has carried out a creative process dedicated to the lowest point on Earth – an artistic research she presents in her artist book “Salt Years.”
It includes essays by scientists, fellow artists and philosophers, who address Landau’s fascination with the geographical spot as well as with salt as a substance that heals and conserves other materials.
“It all started when I worked on a video for an exhibition I did at the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion for Contemporary Art [in Tel Aviv]. Then I discovered a lot of other processes, and returned to the Dead Sea a year later to understand more,” explains Landau, 50.
“I thought that was it – but then every year I had to return. I became addicted to the Dead Sea and the different things you can do with salt, like a junkie. It got out of hand,” she laughs.
The sculptor and video and installation artist is recognized globally for her experimental craft. Her works can be found in important permanent collections such as New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Paris’ Pompidou Center and the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art. She may be one of Israel’s best-known artists, but Landau says she doesn’t give much thought as to whether she is perceived as Israeli or not.
“I present my work first and foremost as my own,” she says. “I understood quite early on that it wouldn’t help me to cover up [my Israeli identity]. There were moments over the years where I could put out press releases about my work and omit the fact that I’m Israeli, but I chose to mention it.” However, the artist concedes that “the issue of identity is increasingly tiring. It’s a field unto itself. It’s a matter of agendas, and that’s not interesting to me at all.”
Alongside her book, visitors to Hansen House can expect to see works by far lesser-known local artists. Landau, who succeeded in breaking out where many of her contemporaries failed, admits that “it’s harder for Israeli artists” to get exposure overseas. “For some, Israel is a taboo. Some museums don’t want to get in trouble, or maybe they’re not interested in things that are too closely linked to what’s happening in Israel. And there is also a lot of ignorance,” she says.
In Print will take place at Hansen House, 2 Dubnov Street, Jerusalem, on December 18-20. Opening hours: Wed. 19:00-22:30, Thur. 15:00-22:30 and Fri. 10:00-14.00.