At the end of August, Jerusalem saw its fourth Under the Mountain festival , an annual series of happenings taking place in public spaces through socially engaged, interactive artworks with an emphasis on identity politics and performativity. This year, curator Omer Krieger focused the festival around Temple Mount, the epicenter of both spiritual divinity and territorial and racial division. The Temple Mount can itself be considered a carefully choreographed world stage on which centuries of ritual, performance, and drama continue to unfold. The loaded context provided ample inspiration for the artists who responded with site-specific interventions with highlights by Yael Bartana and Yonatan Levy. The artworks were presented alongside fascinating educational tours of the area and discursive events led by diverse scholars such as archeologists, poets, botanists, archeologists, community activists, and security experts.
In a small sunken corner of the Jewish Quarter in the Old City, Santiago Sierra presented Veterans of the Wars of Israel, a re-staging of a piece that has been presented in many other countries wherein war veterans stand solemnly with their face to a wall. They are living monuments to the violent events in which they participated, literally embodying loss, sacrifice, survival, and time.
In the overwhelming spectacle that is the Temple Mount, it is often simple gestures that work best, such as Yael Bartana’s Simone the Hermetic, a sound work experienced via headphones while overlooking the Wailing Wall. A story set in the very distant future tells the tale of a fictional saviour, Simone, who transformed from male to female through an act of god and led the world to a post-gender transformation on a Biblical scale following the third destruction of Jerusalem. . Listening to the religious utopian narrative while viewing devotees at prayer turns them into performers and the Wailing Wall to a stage. The “play” being enacted becomes a contemplation on gender and segregation through Bartana’s imaginary future, where patriarchy has long been destroyed.
Another highlight was Yonatan Levy’s The Pit and the Base, a play in three acts that took place in the cistern under St. Helena’s Coptic Orthodox Church, at the Border Police Company C base that is situated next to the Temple Mount complex and overlooks the Wailing Wall, and the walk between the two. The event began with the participants’ descent to the church’s underground pool, which dates to the 4th century, via a dank compressed stairwell. On the dark pool (which provides water to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher) floated candles that dimly lit the space, enough to see a woman in white on a small boat that appeared as one’s eyes adjusted to the darkness. Beautiful music was played on a kanun (a string instrument used in many Middle Eastern and Asian countries) while the woman sang covers of songs starting with Madonna’s Like a Virgin and ending with Nina Simone’s Ne Me Quitte Pas. The latter accompanied Levy himself, who had been in the water with snorkel gear and a dry suit, as he exited the cistern and walked out into the city. We followed him to the Border Police base, which overlooks the Wailing Wall and is one of the many security posts in the heavily guarded area. At the police base, Levy read a passage from the Book of Jeremiah where the prophet chastises the people of Israel for practicing idolatry at the Temple, the very spot we were all standing in. The base is housed in a madrasa built during the Mamluk period in the Middle Ages and the contradiction between its architecture and its current use parallels the many contradictions brought out in the piece itself – the dark, underwater, round, romantic “yin” of the cistern versus the robust, controlling, bright, harsh “yang” of the military as well as the irony of cover songs versus the loaded context in which they are sung.
A beautiful physical manifestation of contradiction was the recreation of Allan Kaprow’s Ice Happening from 1980 for which he constructed a large wall made of ice blocks perpendicular to the wall of the Temple Mount. The recreation of the wall in the August heat by a group of participants in the Jerusalem Archaeological Park, close to the Western Wall, was followed by a discussion with researchers and artists about art, walls and boundaries, clearly a loaded topic in this many-walled, segregated city, with the separation barrier still partially under construction nearby.
Other works explored context and place as well, such as Shasha Dothan’s daily tour of the Temple Mount , and Hed Mayner’s fashion collection created in collaboration with Bilal Abu-Khalaf, a veteran cloth merchant who tailors a variety of religious dress for clergymen, sheikhs, and members of the Hasidic community.
These and the many other finely considered events made for an eye-opening rumination on sanctity, history, conflict, and performance within the beating and bleeding heart of Jerusalem. In line with Krieger’s words, Under the Mountain:
“Examine[s] the relationships etched in a blood-soaked history, as well as the daily fabric of life on the Mount. The festival … offer[s] a conversation that incorporates the sanctity, the history, the conflict and the mythology, together with the occupation, the beauty, the hatred, the splendor, the nationalism and the pain buried in this mountain; and it … seek[s] to piece them all together into new combinations and understandings about this place and this time, about the potential and imaginary future. The festival’s actions and assemblies … present structures of holiness and desires for secularization through which we can ask how – out of this cultural wealth that we share as human beings, and recognizing the differences and various identities – can we dream of a common future of justice and peace, how can we learn and unlearn the Mount and examine ways to escape the political and spiritual impasse in which it has been caught up.”