In Jerusalem, a De-Politicized ‘Season’


Now in its second year, the Jerusalem Season of Culture is a two-and-a-half-month program of music, performance and art. The festival is an effort to establish Jerusalem as a city with diverse cultural offerings, not just a religious hotbed. Journalists were invited to experience the final days of the Season of Culture, which concluded this month. The Jerusalem Season of Culture was initiated by the Schusterman Foundation-Israel in cooperation with the Jerusalem Municipality and the Jerusalem Foundation. Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat has been an enthusiastic supporter from the outset.

It is impossible to consider the culture of Jerusalem without taking into account its military, political and religious context. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu daily beats the war drum to bomb Iran. Civil war rages in Damascus, just 130 miles from Jerusalem.  Stateless Palestinians reside on the other side of a giant concrete barrier that runs along the highway to Jerusalem. The recent attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya, following the distribution of an anti-Islamic video made by right-wing Americans, only heightens the need to question the political uses of culture.

Most of the work in the Season of Culture, whatever its form, was by Israelis, though some musicians from other countries participated. Middle Eastern players have come under pressure from fellow Arab musicians not to appear in Israel or have their names associated with concerts or recordings produced in the country, to avoid the appearance of endorsing Israeli policy through cooperation.

What little visual art was to be seen in the festival was most often disengaged from the circumstances in which it was being shown.  For example, the headline in the visual arts for the final week of the Season was London-based designer/artist Ron Arad’s installation 720°, comprising a circle of 5,600 hanging silicon rods. An hour-long loop of videos by various artists (such as David Shrigley, Ori Gerscht and Christian Marclay) was projected on the rods. The name of the piece presumably refers to the fact that the 360° of the projected upon circle of silicon rods, approximately 25 feet tall and 25 feet in diameter, was doubly viewable—from both inside the circle and outside in the garden of the Israel Museum where the freestanding structure was situated. The crowd-pleasing piece is scheduled to tour major museums around the world. Watching the videos is much like going to the drive-in, with the pleasures of large-screen projections in the outdoors. Still, it was noticeable that the images were entirely anodyne—computer-generated geometric patterns, nature scenes, dancers, a bullfighter, birch trees, waterfalls, hands on a piano keyboard. Shrigley’s animated line drawing of a naked old man was the most risqué component.

The Season of Culture was rife with musical offerings, and here an effort to broach questions of the day was not always made. The music seemed almost perversely detached from the circumstances of its performance at the chamber concert of Debussy’s 1897 song cycle, Chansons de Bilitis, sung by the mezzo-soprano Elisabeth Kulman at the Jerusalem YMCA, in an event sponsored by The Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival. The Chansons are drawn from the apocryphal “Sapphic love” poems, written by Pierre Louÿs, though he claimed to have discovered them in an ancient tomb in Cyprus. Kulman was apparently substituting for a planned concert of Russian music. It was impossible to connect to this louche, fin-de- siècle reverie in the middle of Jerusalem.

A concert by the New Jerusalem Orchestra in the spectacular setting of the Tower of David in the Old City at least acknowledged the politics of culture. The concert was part of the Jerusalem Sacred Music Festival. The New Jerusalem Orchestra was formed over the past two years under the artistic direction of Yair Harel and Omer Avital. It is composed of visibly diverse people, and its sound sampled Western music, jazz, and Arab rhythms, vocal techniques and instrumentation. Unfortunately, video projections letters and repeating color patterns on parts of the structure did not enhance the experience, and the open-air venue had poor acoustics and sightlines. Still, the musical experience was rich. A nimble percussionist, Roni Ivrin, his face concealed inside a massive cloud of curly blonde hair, played a variety of drums in driving rhythms that propelled a string of gifted vocalists (Lubna Salame, Haya Samir, Abatte Barihun, Maimon Cohen and David Menachem) who sang in Hebrew, Arabic and Amharic. The mixture of styles and the diversity of the musicians and singers as well as the linguistic plurality suggested a utopian vision of coexistence.

The Sacred Music Festival, among a number of events at various venues, offered some of its program in a very interesting setting: Zedekiah’s Cave under the walls of the Old City, by legend the limestone quarry of King Solomon. The audience lounged on pillows and woven mats on the floor, while the musicians took the stage at the back of the cave. Father-and-son team Mark Eliyahu (playing the kamanche and baglama, stringed instruments from the Middle East and Central Asia) and Peretz Eliyahu (on the tar, a lute used in Caucasian and Persian music) led a talented ensemble that featured Sevda Alekperzade, an Azerbaijani singer, making her first appearance in Israel.

There were signs of grassroots groups opening doors to dialogue through art. Journalists on the tour were introduced to a collective of recent art school graduates from Jerusalem, who publish the Hebrew-language The Nose, a print zine with an online presence. Soliciting artwork from across Israel, the three principal editors establish themes for each monthly edition and are planning an issue devoted to Palestinian art later this year.

EmptyHouse, a squatter group that in October 2011 staged an art party in the abandoned President Hotel, now occupies a plot of open land in the Armon Hanatziv neighborhood as a sort of extended, communal art project. City press liaisons escorted foreign journalists there. The earnestness with which a handful of men (from the 300 they said were involved though very few were visible during our visit), discussed the ideology of their nascent movement was touching to hear, as they spoke in the scant shade of one of their tents. The current project is a rethinking of the kibbutz, as well as a thoughtful revision of the idea of the Israeli settler. Unlike Occupy participants, for instance, Empty House members are careful to describe their work as an art project, designed to open dialogue and provide a site for group labor and creativity. They spoke loftily of the communal structures they planned to build on the site, pointing at barely framed enclosures. The marginality of their project guaranteed in a way its authenticity, even after they revealed that they were elsewhere gainfully employed and had apartments to go to, although they “lived” on the site.

Headquartered truly underground, in a bunker that the city unofficially allows them to use, is another group, called Muslala, active in art interventions in the Musrara neighborhood. Speaking to journalists, Matan Israeli, the group’s coordinator, described Musrara as a “no man’s land,” a mixed neighborhood, formerly Arabic. He said he looked at Musrara as “not just a neighborhood to live in but a place to change.” Muslala’s most successful project to date was a watermelon “shack,” an architect-designed structure erected to provoke a mingling of Jerusalem’s peoples.  They sold watermelons because watermelon grows well in the area and holds a nostalgic association from an earlier time in Israel’s history, Israeli explained.

While there is little question that the people involved in these fledgling ventures are sincere, one must also consider what we did not see: the Palestinians, the other people of Jerusalem. What is the political effect of defining culture in this city? How does the presentation of culture to foreign journalists affect its reception? Why is it being shown to outsiders? How is the culture perceived by those who live in Jerusalem? How can culture become something that will reduce the violence and allow everyone to enjoy basic human rights?

Photo: Elad Garon of EmptyHouse