When the Tower of David, an ancient military citadel, was first turned into a museum in 1921 during the early days of the British Mandate, its first exhibit featured works by artists from the local Bezalel Academy of Art and Design.
Nearly a century later, the museum, known for its focus on the city’s past, is hosting an exhibit of the intensely modern yet historically relevant work of two industrial designers, both longtime Jerusalemites and Bezalel professors.
“It’s one thing to talk about the past and tell the story – of course we’re doing that,” said museum director Eilat Lieber. “But to bring art to these special spaces is to say something about the present.”
The exhibit, “Objective,” showcases commissioned work from Haim Parnas and Ezri Tarazi — fellow graduates of Bezalel as well as good friends.
Both designers were born in Jerusalem (Parnas is a 16th-generation Jerusalemite), and the museum asked them to create collections expressing how the city has influenced them. The curator, Smadar Keren, chose to exhibit their responses on separate, parallel platforms that run the length of the gallery in an effort to highlight the artists’ different approaches to design.
Tarazi focused his designs on the Old City, in a series of nine tables in the shape of its map. Map-shaped tables are not a new concept for Tarazi, who is well known for his “New Baghdad Table” (2013) in the shape of Iraq’s capital city.
Tarazi’s Old City tables – “gathering tables,” as Keren calls them – aim to bring people together and encourage interaction.
The “Remapping” (2015) tabletop features a projection of a map of the Old City, which, when it detects an arm moving across the table, is reconfigured according to the motion – and then falls back into its original arrangement.
“Maqam Makom (Place)” (2015) has indentations for coffee cups and a coffee pot, and a network of copper making up an electrical circuit. When a Turkish coffee cup is placed in one of the slots, it completes a circuit and activates a musical loop of a single instrument, so that different combinations of cup placements create numerous combinations of sound.
Working with found materials is one of the similarities Keren found in Parnas and Tarazi’s works.
“Ezri is really an engineer,” Lieber explained, “and Haim thinks in another way. He’s a collector.”
In “Objective,” Parnas’s collected items are divided into four assemblages: Jerusalem Forest, Grafting, Fragments and Ammunition Hill, all of which display found items that Parnas has adorned or changed by virtue of their groupings.
“Jerusalem Forest” is an installation of wooden stools, sculptures and 1950s and 1960s ornamental pieces, which Parnas turned into Israeli cultural symbols. “Grafting” is a selection of items Parnas re-appropriated or re-assembled for functional use, like “Screwdriver Knives / Spreading Screwdrivers” (2015), which are knives affixed with screwdriver tips to give them a new, functional use.
Parnas used old methods to create new art in “Ammunition Hill,” which contains his contemporary interpretation of Trench Art – historically made by soldiers in World War I with remains of weapons while sitting in the trenches – and Death Masks, based on the molds made of the deceased in 10th century Europe as a family keepsake and here made from the bullet holes left in Jerusalem stone from the Six Day War.
Parnas and Tarazi made their works about and, literally, of Jerusalem. For both artists, creating pieces about Jerusalem meant rediscovering their hometown.
“When they came up with the idea, they said they wanted to look again to their sources, to this city,” Lieber said, “and to walk again through its markets, to look at its colors and the shapes, and to think again about design in Jerusalem as not just inspiration but the source.”
Lieber spent time with the pair of friends exploring the city in preparation for their work and, in doing so, came to understand the differences in the ways Parnas and Tarazi relate to their shared home and their craft.
“It was a process,” she said. “They came [to the Tower of David] again, and again, and again, and we walked through the Old City. Haim took me to the Jewish Quarter and showed me his parents’ house and he had so many stories and memories. Ezri’s really different – he can’t remember anything. He really thinks from his head, and Haim from his heart.”
Other than a 1999 Dale Chihuly exhibit of glasswork, most of the museum’s exhibitions since before 1948 have been historical.
It can be a challenge to bring modern art into an ancient tower.
“To put designers, who have exhibited at very important institutions for design, together here in a historical museum is very unique,” Keren said. “But I asked myself, what am I going to do? It’s not my first time curating an exhibition in Jerusalem, and it’s always the same question when you exhibit in a historical space: you can’t compete with the stones.”
Lieber said that despite the challenges that come with housing exhibitions like this, it is important to bring art into the historical tower.
Displaying contemporary crafts was, after all, the museum’s original purpose – and it is a way to build upon the many layers of history contained within the tower.
“We are doing now what Ashbee and Storrs did a hundred years ago,” said museum director Eilat Lieber, referring to Sir Ronald Storrs and Charles Robert Ashbee, the then-governor of Jerusalem and his secretary, an architect by profession. “Since then, actually, no one’s thought to look to the Old City and think about design and about what’s really unique here in the city in terms of shape and color.”
“Objective” at the Tower of David Museum through December 2015.
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