By Alyssa Kapnik
Saturday we slept in. We awoke to the same view we’d left the night before, but even on the second day, a panoramic look at the Old City of Jerusalem manages to overwhelm. Breakfast on the terrace, joined by giant crows with dull gray bellies, and it feels a bit like we’re sitting on a movie set. Mandates insure that every building constructed in Jerusalem be made strictly out of Jerusalem stone—an off-white-ish limestone—glass and metal. The result is positively majestic.
The day begins with a trip to the Israel Museum, which houses the Dead Sea Scrolls, and a number of other ancient texts. The texts are beautiful, and it’s the first time we’re doing something that feels less about the art and more about the pure history of this place. These thousands of years old writings are delightfully imperfect. A forgotten sentence inserted here, misplaced words there, squeezed between the lines.
We visit the archaeological wing of the museum, with pots and jewels of ancient Jews, arrows and silver amulets. A room filled with bridal costumes of Jews around the world: gold necklaces, bracelets, giant earrings, and intricately woven, bright and colorful draping fabrics. And then cut to the Modern Art Wing, where paintings and installations sit side by side with photographs of Israeli soldiers. A constant in daily life here.
In the evening we take a walking tour through thousands of years of the Old City, and we’re left standing at the studio doorstep of renowned artist, David Moss. His works are so thought-filled, so obsessive, so perfectly rendered, that through his presentation, we can’t help ourselves: we constantly let go sighs of disbelief, gasps, oohs and ahs. I let a few tears drop to my lap as he discusses the now-famous Moss Hagadah. And within his other works, there is such variety of styles, traditional to modern, each work delicate and resilient at once.
Our Sunday morning is spent bussing around Jerusalem from artist to artist, beginning with the deceptively simple, color-filled and joyful works of Moroccan-Israeli Shai Azoulay. Much of Azoulay’s work seems to come directly out of a Moroccan dreamscape – the rich and pale desert blues, reds and yellows, donkeys and exotic birds, and patterned rugs and tapestries lofted, floating through his scenes. His parents are from Morocco, but not the artist. Azoulay is Israeli – as Israeli as anyone else here – which is to say, an immigrant. Of an immigrant family. The country is a collection of immigrants, and the result is a strange combination of knowing that no one truly belongs here, and at the same time, feeling that perhaps everyone belongs here equally.
Azoulay prods us on in our search to understand his works, and laughs joyfully listening to our interpretations and impressions. The pieces tell great narratives and personal histories, and he often winds up the subject of his own work. He’s Gulliver, held prisoner by the droplets of paint that surround him in his studio. He’s the conductor of a strange and unruly orchestra without any musical instruments. He is the recurring subject in his paintings until he’s not. And then, in the few where he’s not around, the absence is significant. The paintings are almost sadder. Lonely.
Azoulay surrounds us with his works, bringing out three, five, six, eight, ten of his giant paintings, six feet tall, seven feet wide. With each one, we are caught off guard. The more he brings out, the more we are immersed in his strange and colorful world. The more we want to burrow deeper inside. What at first appeared almost simple is now breathtaking and a bit addictive. We only want more.
We visit next the studio next door. One door over, and an entire world of difference. Though the neighboring artists are dear friends, Etti Abergel is more reserved than Azoulay. She’s quiet, gentle and vulnerable. The world inside her is one of tumult, self-doubt and a lovely, quiet confidence. Her pain is at once entirely exposed, and also protected.
Abergel teaches to subsidize her art. She doesn’t know another way, she says. But her works, these apparent tangles of white plaster, rope and common objects: pens, plastic whistles, plates and bowls, are installed in galleries and museums around the country. Her small studio doesn’t accommodate any complete works, but she tries to describe what these pieces all around us in her studio, these fragments of a larger story, will look like. I didn’t fully grasp the work until we saw her installations in the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv. The art is indescribable. Emotional and raw.
Finally we arrive at our last art studio of the day. The second floor of a stunning house in the Baka neighborhood in Jerusalem, home to prolific American-Israeli artist, Andi Arnovitz. We have to walk to get there – the old roads are too narrow to accommodate the tour bus. Once a deserted and dilapidated Arab neighborhood, Baka was taken over by Jews in 1948, and has since come to represent a population of well to do, mostly observant Jews.
Arnovitz is careful with her studio. It’s so ordered and neat – one artwork laid neatly and orderly in a drawer, others hanging in the window, and books. Hundreds of books line opposite walls. She is very obviously a graphic designer, and the entire room feels balanced in color, shapes and sizes of objects and artworks. She’s fervently political, and nearly every work she shows us has a message. A translucent wedding dress with stones sewn into the skirt. A bomber vest covered not with metal flecks, like a suicide bomber might do, but with thousands of tiny rolled scrolls of prayer books, each sewn carefully and lovingly together with white string. Arnovitz’s works all have an element of the obsessive compulsive: even the strings hanging off the garments are perfectly placed.
We leave the artists’ studios, and are buzzing from the morning. It’s a bit difficult trying to unpack all of what we saw and learned. The variety and similarities, the intensity of listening to one brilliant person after another speak about matters that are so close to their hearts. So impossibly personal and important. We’re back to the bus, back to our seats, back to the highways. This time we’re stopping for some light recreation, to take a quick dip in the Dead Sea. The water is so dense with salt that almost nothing – with the exception of bacteria and microbial fungi – can live inside it. No seaweed. No fish. We walk into the water, and start laughing uncontrollably. It’s nearly impossible to do anything in the water except float. We shift and roll, as Georgina said, like beach balls. We have so little control over our bodies, and we relinquish ourselves to the sea. It feels good to let the water hold us for even a short period of time.
Back on the bus, it’s nighttime again. We’re now officially in the Negev Desert, and as we drive along the darkened highway, we look out onto almost nothing. Scatterings of yellow lights, open spaces, cars passing. After dinner we dance with the Adama Dance Company, and drift off to sleep in a landscape that holds the memories of our ancestors.