A gust of wind slammed shut the outer door to my studio and jammed the tongue in the locking mechanism to stick out into its chamber in a way that seemed rather aggressively directed to me, personally.  “So there – now what are you going to do?”  asked my upstart of a door.

With a visitor due to arrive, I realized I could arrange entrance through the neighbor’s space who shares a common bathroom with my space, as unceremonious a welcome if ever one there was.  Short on time till the meeting and with a repairman on the way, actually getting down and dirty did not seem particularly enticing.  I realized not too much was going to happen at the easel today.  Purposely unplugged in my work space, I turned to an actual pen and real notebook paper to address the long-brewing impressions I had of the President’s Conference. 

No doubt this will be the last blog post you are likely to come across assessing the events of the conference for 2012 (the organizers are probably already sitting down to thrash out the one for 2013).  The conference, which took place a good two weeks ago, started off at the top of my “must write about this” list only to slither down ever lower in the competition with real life challenges, which conspired to bump it off altogether.  Having been handed the lemons, I was now going to take advantage of unexpected down time and get busy making blogpost- lemonade.

The events which ran over a three day period included an impressive roster of speakers across a host of fields, predictably with a strong emphasis on politics, economics, and Jewish community, but with more picanti items thrown into the mix, like the “Future of Sex,” with Dr. Ruth drawing in a young crowd.  This year, apparently for the first time since the conference started 4 years ago, a panel discussion on Israeli culture was included, in the final session of discussions.   Lucky for me, my esteemed colleague- bloggers managed to give this panel a miss, leading me to ponder: Where does culture rank as a subject of popular interest?

“DeadSee” by Sigalit Landau, 2005
DVD projection, 11:39 minutes
Purchase, Dov and Rachel Gottesman Fund, Tel Aviv and Geneva
The Israel Museum, Jerusalem
(Photo © Sigalit Landau, courtesy of the artist)

James Snyder, director of the Israel Museum, moderated the panel with great flair. Starting with the sartorial, he has created a brand look that certainly sets him apart in dowdy, post-fashion Jerusalem – he is known for his impeccable suits and “no hair out of place”  silver pompadour cut.  Here, as a “suit” amongst the “talent,” in response to to ribbing from Joseph Cedar, he referred to his jarring lavender socks as a stroke of the unpredictable, an indulgence to his own creative side. Better known, though, for his accomplishments at the helm of the museum, he has achieved high visibility in fundraising and stewarding the museum’s recent three-year renovation and expansion.  The idea, according to Snyder, was to anchor the museum in the ancient world, but simultaneously focus on the contemporary in a “universal” museum, with an intentionally “wide net” cast.  No small feat to achieve and people voted with their feet – Snyder noting that over a million visitors came within the first twelve months after the doors re-opened (OK, let’s be crass and call them what they are: ticket buyers; they didn’t pop in for beer and pitzuchim [nut or seed snacks]). Snyder attributes this success to being able to convey a distinct culture, while at the same time, “going global.”

Acknowledging that Israeli artists are enjoying high success internationally, he credits this with being part of the “perfect storm of the moment” – interest in new media intersecting with a natural local talent open to experimenting in technology, video, and the like.  With a certain amazement, Snyder remarked that art from Israel has done very well as it has been absorbed in the rest of the world.

The participants were some of the cream of the Israeli arts scene, with international recognition under their belts at fairly young ages, all now in their forties.  Joseph Cedar, film director of two Oscar- nominated movies for Best Foreign Language Film (“Beaufort” and “Footnote”); Etgar Keret , author, playwright and screenwriter, whose books include “Suddenly a Knock at the Door” (2010); sculptor, video and installation artist,  Sigalit Landau,  who represented Israel in the Venice Art Biennale 2011 and has works in MOMA and other high profile venues;  and composer,  popular concert and recording artist, Achinoam Nini –all of whom shared private observations and their personal takes on cultural issues.  Representing the side of the movers and shakers in the art scene was Rivka Saker, Director of Sotheby’s Israel, who is active in cultural diplomacy, sending Israeli artists out into the world, as well as bringing prominent curators from abroad to Israel. The auditorium was filled beyond capacity, with many standing and sitting in the aisles. (A podcast of the panel may be viewed here.)

If there was a common thread running through their introductory remarks discussing the formative events that led to their current life’s work, it was the part difficult circumstances played in their youth. None of the creators had golden childhoods, each traversing challenges that seemed to set them apart from their peers, and, perhaps, pushing them to introspection, creating a rich inner world.   Cedar’s parents brought him to Israel from NY at the age of six, and his ventriloquist mother created two male dummy characters of dubious value as role models to the impressionable child – while his father hardly spoke at all.  Keret’s parents were Holocaust survivors, instilling in him a perpetual sense of guilt (the laughter in the auditorium evidenced an audible recognition of his plight) and stressing that he should strive beyond material success in life. Relaying the story of his first work being read by his revered older brother and then used unceremoniously to collect the remains of the dog’s early morning walk in the park, his was a hysterical reminder to any aspiring writer not to get swell-headed by acclaim.   Jerusalem-born Landau moved countries a number of times during her childhood, something which she recognizes as bringing both instability and worldliness to her young years, yet noting that her parents’ immigrant experience left them with “no memories,” while her own memories of childhood in Kiryat HaYovel remained vivid.  Nini reported being the only secular Yemenite in an Ashkenazi yeshiva in Riverdale, while her Bronx world was comprised of street-smart Latinas, and in marked contrast with her traditional Yemenite up-bringing, replete with a pillow-strewn living room floor– she kept those worlds completely separate, and credits her choir director with encouraging her early musical development.  Saker also spoke of a strained family life, her mother being a Bergen- Belsen survivor and  the refugee family never really speaking Hebrew.

Nini brought up issues of Israeli identity early in the discussion.  Stressing that as a concert performer, she, amongst all the participants, is in closest proximity to the public, and, as a singer from Israel, she knew immediately that she must confront her identity straight on.  She chose not to hide behind the persona of “citizen of the world” and knew that being Israeli was a very specific part of who she wanted to be on stage, from a place of choice and pride.

Taking issue with Snyder’s desire to associate the Israel Museum with a “universal” venture, she responded that she did not find that approach particularly interesting.  “If it [art, culture] is not personal, unique, idiosyncratic, why put it out there?  We must show our childhoods or country and convey it with love,” emphasized Nini.”When it is so pure for you as an artist, it comes across.  The audience may not even understand the words I am singing, but they understand the honesty.” The particular, she found, is the most desired form of expression.

Landau echoed this sentiment as she showed projections from amongst her work.  Living in Kiryat HaYovel after arriving in Israel, her childhood bedroom had a view of the reflected light from the Dead Sea in the distance.  That view eventually became the source of inspiration for much of her mature work in sculpture and installation art, including what Snyder referred to as her “iconic” projection “DeadSee” (2005) displayed on the floor of the new Israeli art wing (see above).

In “Salted Lake,” a 2011 work shown in the Israeli pavillion at the Venice Biennale, Landau used sea salt crystals in a project related to the Gdansk shipyard workers who formed the “Solidarty” union. She sculpted workmen’s boots encrusted with salt at the Dead Sea, and videoed the ice slowly melting below them in a frozen European lake, making the video in Gdansk, Poland, with its layered associations.

“Salted Lake,” H-D video, 11:04 minutes, Tthe Israel Museum, Jerusalem (still image © by Sigalit Landau, courtesy of the artist)

Landau announced her upcoming project “The Sea Route” at the conference.  In the ambitious project,  Landau hopes to literally create a self-forming  bridge formed out of Dead Sea salt crystals and meant to extend from the Israeli western shore of the Dead Sea to the Jordanian eastern shore. In Hebrew, the name is  “Derech Ha Melech,” a double entendre comprising of the play- on- words through the similar-sounding salt and king in Hebrew., evoking both the literal meaning of salt, and of the king’s way, or, as we would say, taking the high road.  The images and her explanations clearly affected the audience and the other panelists alike, who seemed to be transported by the avenues of thought and beauty shown.

“Outline of Salt Totem Pole,” Salt Park Project by Sigalit Landau. 2011, white-out drawing (courtesy of the artist)

Nini continued the exploration of politics as it crosses into her own performances.  While she comments that the American music culture is one which often combines performing artists with political statements-  the protests singers of the 60’s being the most notable examples, she finds that in contrast, Israeli audiences want their performers to steer clear of politics.  She feels that she has paid a price for her views from both ends of the political spectrum.  In Israel, she garners criticism from the right, and in Europe, where she performs under the name Noa; she says that it is the left that attacks her. For them, she says, shy of burning her Israeli identity card in the public square, nothing will satisfy them.

A question from an unidentified young woman photographer pointed up a hole in the subjects covered in the conference.   She asked the panel about the difficulties of breaking into the arts as a career for women.  Landau  remarked that ”it is just hard to be a woman”  and Nini offered her personal take on balancing family life with a demanding schedule away from home.  She is the only panelist that referred to her role as parent. One can surmise that she could allow herself to address the fact that she has a young family and that it is an ongoing challenge- only because she has achieved a high level of professional success. Women at lower rungs of the career ladder struggle with the career/home balance, but may be stigmatized when they acknowledge these conflicts.   Nini then launched into her personal views of a political solution for Israel and our Arab neighbors and, on that note, so to speak,  acquiesced to Snyder’s suggestion,  closing the session with her impromptu  a’ cappella performance of her signature song “Uri,”  to the great delight of the attendees.

On leaving the auditorium, with her clear, expressive voice still in my ears, I half-expected that the audience would spontaneously burst into “Give Peace a Chance.”   And then, reaching the exit to Binyanei Ha’Ooma, I had to blink until my eyes re-adjusted to the world outside the conference.  On the taxi radio, news of the Egyptian election results were just coming through, as were reports of more massacres in Syria filtering out.  My eyesight quickly acclimated to the blazing, unforgiving light of a Middle Eastern summer.

———

To answer the question I posed above on popular interest in culture, and, one might add, where the correct placement of the value of culture is in  our society’s agenda,  one must take into account many factors that are not easily distilled into numbers and statistics, unlike so many of the other topics at the conference. Much like a cold analysis of whether one should make aliyah,  it is not a comparison of career opportunities, salary, home size or school quality that tips the scale in that decision -  it is often the unspoken, but deeply felt factor that may even be counter-intuitive, but all important – a feeling. It is the intangibles of life that often make all the difference.  The proper emphasis on the arts should be considered not only in the blogosphere, but in our society as a whole, and is one which the conference organizers, the writers, and each of us should weigh.   Even in our difficult reality, culture is at the essence of life. With U.S. Independence Day just behind us, I am reminded of this:

I must study politics and war, that my sons may study mathematics and philosophy…in order to give their children the right to study painting, poetry, music and architecture.

 

John Q. Adams

(And daughters.)   May it go at least as well for our coming generations.

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