“Jerusalem is so loaded,” said Itay Mautner, artistic director of the Jerusalem Season of Culture, a multidisciplinary program of events spanning visual arts, music, performance, new media, and food that unfolds across the city each summer—this year from July 27 to September 4. “Here you never just throw a party—it becomes a declaration of the right of the non-religious people to dance on Shabbat night. Anything you see in Jerusalem always has other connotations to it. It’s a burden sometimes. But I feel in my bones that really meaningful and maybe life-changing cultural experiences can happen in Jerusalem.”
Since it launched in 2010, the Jerusalem Season of Culture has directly engaged the city as a place of complexity and diversity, beauty and contention. Featuring close to 1,000 artistic happenings at museums, historic sites, contemporary galleries, performance spaces, private homes, and marketplaces with some 3,300 Israeli and 240 international artists, the event has drawn more than 300,000 viewers. The annual program, planned in collaboration with dozens of local cultural venues, has helped to stimulate the artistic ecosystem in Jerusalem, more often thought of in terms of religious and political narratives. Underpinning the project from the start has been the premise that art and culture can help promote openness and build bridges in a society riven by conflict—between Israelis and Palestinians, between secular and ultraorthodox Jews.
That idealism was tested last summer. Thirty-six hours before the Season’s opening program at the Israel Museum, called Contact Point—an annual evening event where artists choreograph live interactions involving works they select from the museum’s collection—the war between Israel and Hamas erupted in Gaza. “We had to decide what was our role at a moment of such strong violence and racism,” said Naomi Bloch Fortis, executive director of the Season of Culture. “We could not continue as usual when nothing around us was as usual.” The organization canceled or postponed scheduled events during the war, which lasted 50 days. Yet they created new artistic responses to the situation.
One was a pop-up mobile radio station called Zion FM, created out of an old van that traveled to different cultural institutions in Jerusalem each day and broadcast interviews about art under fire. The station aired conversations about the play The Road to Ein Harod from the Gerard Bahar Center; about modern-day lepers, and ghosts in the Hansen Compound; and about soul-searching in the art world from the Israel Musuem. Another response was a video project called We Are Here (2014), conceived by the artists Yair Moss and Yaron Steinberg, for which representatives from Jerusalem’s many communities came together over several weeks to write a text affirming basic human values that all could agree upon. Palestinians and Jews—secular and religious, young and old—recited it in Hebrew, Arabic, and English. “We made our offices like a command room for a radical coalition of all the pluralistic voices in Jerusalem,” said Mautner. We Are Here went viral on the Internet and television, and a print version appeared in national newspapers and on billboards. It was reprised recently to announce the coming Season.
After the 50-day war was over in late August, Contact Point was held belatedly at the Israel Museum. “Our modus operandi is never to cancel,” said James Snyder, director of the encyclopedic museum, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. While international tourism to Israel disappeared during the conflict last summer, local attendance at the museum rose, according to Snyder. “People were coming to the museum as a kind of respite from the anxiety of what was happening in Gaza,” he said. “We’re the antithesis of conflict.” Among the slate of anniversary exhibitions this year is “A Brief History of Humankind,” currently on view through January 2. It displays objects from the museum’s collection—including evidence of communal fire some 780,000 years ago and the original manuscript of Albert Einstein’s “Special Theory of Relativity”—all tracing the universal history of civilization, a story that perhaps no other museum is as well positioned to tell.
While the Israel Museum, a partner with the Season of Culture since 2010, doesn’t tackle politics head-on in the same way, Snyder pointed out that the organizations share a belief in the cultural richness of Jerusalem. “The Season of Culture has succeeded in part by stimulating awareness of the deep cultural texture of Jerusalem that has continued to build on its own,” he said, pointing to how cultural events with music and dance initiated by the Season in the Machane Yehuda market now happen independently in an ongoing way. In the past five years, he has seen an increase in pop-up exhibitions and freelance curated projects, including the launching of the first Jerusalem Biennale in 2013, which will be held at different locations around the city this year from September 24 to November 5. Manofim, an annual event, now in its seventh year, showcases the contemporary art scene in studios citywide and will take place from October 15 to 22. “More and more art-school students are deciding not to move to Tel Aviv,” said Snyder. “There’s a growing workforce of young creative talent that’s staying put.”
Guy Biran felt Jerusalem was a different cultural landscape when he started as artistic director of HaZira Performance Arts Arena, a platform for avant-garde theater in the city, shortly before the Season of Culture took off in 2010. “When I first spoke here about site-specific theater, people looked at me like I was speaking science fiction,” he said. “The Season of Culture brought it out very strongly into the light.” HaZira has collaborated on several projects with the Season over past summers, including, in 2012, a nocturnal tour called “The Opposite of Alive” at the Nature Museum. People could roam one at a time with a flashlight through the museum’s old stone house with its animal and anatomical displays, guided on earphones by a monologue about the boundaries between life and death. The experimental performance has continued through the auspices of HaZira at the Nature Museum regularly on Thursday nights.
This year at the In-House Festival, which launches the Season of Culture from July 27 to 31, the Season, in collaboration with the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, is developing a site-specific sound piece to be experienced at Lifta, a Palestinian village on the outskirts of Jerusalem that was deserted when Israel was formed in 1948. People will wander with earphones through the ruins of the old village and hear voices representing the different communities who inhabited it over the centuries. “It’s a village that unfolds the whole history of Jerusalem,” said Mautner. “It makes you think about what you see and especially about what you don’t see.” HaZira will continue to present this project at Lifta after its premier in the Season. In tandem with the opening of the Season, Bezalel will hold its end-of-year student exhibition from July 23 to August 7, as will the Musrara School of Art from July 16 to 30.
Another highlight of the upcoming Season of Culture is Under the Mountain, a public art festival to be held between August 23 and 26, dedicated to Temple Mount—one of the holiest, and most contested, sites in the world for Jews and Muslims. “We want to look at Temple Mount not only in political, religious, and historical ways, but also in an artistic way,” said Mautner. The Season has commissioned some 20 artists, including the playwright Yonatan Levy, the visual artists Yael Bartana and Santiago Sierra, and the designer Hed Mayner, to respond to the highly charged site considered in Judaism to be the location of Abraham’s binding of Isaac and in Islam to be the place where the Prophet Muhammad ascended from earth to heaven. Israeli law does not allow Jews to go on Temple Mount unless it’s very early in the morning, but various artistic actions and performances will be staged in the area around it, physically and conceptually.
The Season of Culture has concluded each summer with its Sacred Music Festival, drawing musicians from all over the world. This summer an expanded program will run from August 30 to September 4. Last year, nine bands stayed committed to the festival throughout the war despite international pressure to boycott Israeli-sponsored cultural events. Musicians came to Jerusalem to perform in September from Mali, France, the United States, Brazil, Zimbabwe, Burkina Faso, Jamaica, and Morocco, as well as Israel. Mautner and Fortis said a high point was seeing the Orchestre Chabab Al Andalous, Muslim musicians from Morocco, and Rabbi Haim Louk, one of the world’s leading liturgical singers, perform Andalusian music together in Arabic and Hebrew on the outdoor stage at the Old Citadel of Jerusalem.
“Two weeks after the war ended, to have those musicians from all over the world, from all faiths and colors and beliefs, together with the audience, it was very healing,” said Fortis. “At moments last summer, my belief in the power of art and culture was shaken, but it has come back stronger than ever. Maybe only art and culture can be there in those terrible moments when you’re speechless.”
Hilarie M. Sheets is a contributing editor of ARTnews.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 80 under the title “All Together—At Least for Now.”