I went to Jerusalem’s semi-famous Museum on the Seam the other day (“MotS”). A couple of friends have asked for a report on what I saw there and how I liked it, so I thought I’d blog it.
Here’s the Museum’s self-description, from its website:
The Museum on the Seam is a socio-political contemporary art museum located in Jerusalem. The Museum in its unique way, presents art as a language with no boundaries in order to raise controversial social issues for public discussion. At the center of the changing exhibitions in the Museum stand the national, ethnic and economic seam lines in their local and universal contexts.
The Museum is committed to examining the social reality within our regional conflict, to advancing dialogue in the face of discord and to encouraging social responsibility that is based on what we all have in common rather than what keeps us apart.
It’s a relatively small place, three floors of museum plus a guillotine-equipped observation deck, housed in a building that played an important role in the 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars. The wartime damage to the facade of the building is still visible, and constitutes part of MotS’s aesthetic-political appeal. The owners are obviously proud of the fact that the place manages to look both chic and bombed-out, and though the comparison isn’t exact, the vibe is a little bit like Manhattan after 9/11.
The Museum gets its name from its physical location–on the seam or borderline between largely Arab East Jerusalem and largely Jewish West Jerusalem, two halves of an “eternally undivided” city divided by one war, and fused together by another. Strictly speaking, MotS is located in West Jerusalem, but that’s only because it’s on the west side of Hel Handasa, the street that divides the city. So it’s at the eastern edge of West Jerusalem, across the street from the Arab neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem, and next to the ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Mea She’arim.
Though the Museum is obviously well-named, I’m inclined to wonder whether anyone from either Sheikh Jarrah or Mea She’arim ever visits the place. As it happens, the only people in the Museum during my visit there were American tourists like me. There’s a kind of symbolism in that: East doesn’t seem to meet West in Jerusalem; the two keep their distance from one another, leaving Americans to fill the gap. I get the sense that for the most part, Americans visiting “Israel” tend to go as far East as is compatible with staying firmly in the West. In other words, they stay in Israel, and visit the West Bank, if only for Bethlehem. My visit to MotS reinforced that sense.
MotS is controversial by design, and there are at least two rival perspectives on it. Partisans of Israel sing its praises as a daring exercise in contemporary guerilla art. Partisans of the Palestinian cause regard it as an overhyped pseudo-radical exercise in Zionist apologetics and imperialist bullshit artistry. My own sensitive and deeply nuanced view sits somewhere in between those unsubtle extremes. In other words, I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to MotS, but ultimately sympathize with the Palestinian take on it. It shouldn’t surprise you that, as an American, I feel entitled to have it all.
I particularly liked four of the exhibits I saw, and through the wonders of the Internet, I can show you two and a half of them right here.
The first was this film, “Los Encargados,” by the Spanish artists Jorge Galindo and Santiago Sierra, which depicts a motorized protest up the Gran Via in Madrid, Spain in August 2012. It’s set to an old socialist worker’s anthem, and for me, that really did the trick (not because I’m a socialist, but because I liked the anthem).
The message is not exactly subtle–Spain’s leaders have betrayed the country’s working class–but aesthetically, it works, so I liked it. (Trigger warning: I’m really not that sophisticated or articulate about art, so this is the level of commentary you should expect for the rest of this post.)
This second film is a lot longer than the first (37 minutes), but frankly I think it’s a masterpiece, and I was riveted by it from beginning to end–despite knowing absolutely nothing about the issue it engages with, and having no idea how to pronounce the artist’s name. It’s Chto Delat’s “The Tower: A Songspiel,” in Russian, and it’s about a controversy concerning the (pardon me) erection of the Gazprom Tower in St. Petersburg. If you don’t have 37 minutes to spare, just watch the first two minutes. I don’t know about you, but I found it hilarious.
The depiction of the short-haired elite woman struck me, somewhat vaguely, as a parody of Ayn Rand–not so much a political parody (the woman’s views are not particularly Randian) as an aesthetic one. To be precise, it seems like the kind of parody you’d expect of someone who had heard of Rand but never read her (there’s no shortage of such people). But I still liked it.
I can’t show you the third film, William Kentridge’s 3-minute “Monument,” but here’s a description of it:
Monument is Kentridge’s second film in the series and explores his feelings of ambivalence about the privileges and comforts of the white South African society into which he was born. It was made from a basis of eleven drawings and is accompanied by music composed by Edward Jordan. Soho Eckstein, wealthy real estate developer, here assumes the guise of civic benefactor and erects a monument to the black South African work force, from whose labour his wealth is derived. The monument is a huge statue of an anonymous African workman. During the ceremony of unveiling the monument, in the first half of the film, the statue comes to life. Slowed by the enormous burden on his shoulders, he makes his way across the outskirts of the city, before disappearing into the distant landscape.
There’s a vague Rand connection here, too: the film managed to remind me of Rand’s essay “The Monument Builders” in The Virtue of Selfishness, and the film’s protagonist bears an obvious similarity to John Galt from Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. That said, I somehow doubt that Kentridge has ever heard of Rand, or that the average Randian has ever heard of him; same symbolism, different messages.
A fourth piece I liked was a bitter sculpture of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin by the Israeli artist Uri Lifshitz. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find a version online. Since you really have to see it to appreciate its power–and it was powerful–I’ll leave my “commentary” on it at that.
I should add that the Museum’s staff was excruciatingly nice to me in that disarmingly earnest, half-apologetic way that I associate with a certain brand of Israeli leftist. Maybe it’s my American imagination on overdrive, but I felt as though the staff was saying, “We realize that the occupation is in its 48th year–and we apologize for that–but we hope you’ll like the Museum anyway.” Which I did (thanks). I guess I should also mention that MotS is responsible for the “CoExist” meme you’ve probably seen, which combines symbols from the world’s religions to form an icon spelling that word. If the Museum had a slogan, it might be the one associated with Rodney King (of Los Angeles riots fame): “Can we all just get along?”
So that’s what I liked about MotS. But there were some things I didn’t like–really, one big thing with a variety of different aspects. In a way, this complaint is a response to the somewhat facile nature of the whole “CoExist” idea associated with MotS. There are reasons why coexistence is not as easy as putting a clever bumper sticker on your car.
To approach that problem, consider some of the hype in favor of MotS. The authors of Lonely Planet’s Israel and the Palestinian Territories are typical in their accolades for the place:
Conflict, prejudice, racism (and occasionally coexistence) are on display at the Museum on the Seam, a socio-political/contemporary art museum that pulls no punches. …
Do not mistake it for a museum about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; the issues here are broad and far-reaching and the Middle East conflict is just one small piece of a larger puzzle. (2010 edition, pp. 130-31)
Well, that’s one–rather euphemistic–way of putting things. I think it’d be more accurate to say that the Museum does its best to avoid the Arab-Israeli conflict, and in so doing, pulls a lot of punches. You couldn’t guess, by walking through it, that MotS is on the seam of the Arab-Israeli conflict. In fact, you couldn’t guess that the Museum is in Jerusalem, much less that it advertises its proximity to Arab East Jerusalem. Going by its contents, MotS could just as well be located in New York or Chicago as anywhere in Israel.
None of the artists featured in MotS are Palestinians. Neither are any members of the Museum’s administrative staff. With one exception, none of the exhibits had anything to do with the Arab-Israeli conflict. The exception is the Uri Lifshitz sculpture I mentioned, but even there, Lifshitz depicts things entirely from an Israeli perspective. His approach reminds me of Ari Folman’s in the 2008 film Waltz with Bashir: the theme is the anguish, from an Israeli perspective, of Israel’s having fought the 1982 Lebanon War, not the anguish of being on the Palestinian or Lebanese receiving end of the Israeli invasion. I don’t begrudge Lifshitz his perspective on things (he was a paratrooper in the IDF), but the fact remains that the closest that MotS comes to engaging Palestinians is the artwork of an Israeli paratrooper lamenting the fact that he had to kill some.
Mariam Shahin, author of Palestine: A Guide, is harshly dismissive of MotS:
Israelis established the Museum of [sic] the Seam in the confiscated home of the Baramki family. The theme of the displays is the development of Jerusalem since 1948. Although the curators say the museum is designed to bring Arabs and Jews together from both sides of Jerusalem, the signs are only in Hebrew and English. (p. 337)
Though I sometimes find Shahin’s nationalist polemics wearing, and would dispute the accuracy of the second sentence, the first and third sentences of this excerpt are very much on point. Nowhere is MotS candid with the visitor about the complex and problematic history by which it claimed ownership of the building it calls its own (more on that below). And for a Museum that prides itself on bridging East and West Jerusalem, Shahin is right to suggest that it’s not exactly an Arab-friendly place. Shahin was writing in 2007, but things don’t seem to have changed that much since then: though a small handful of the signs are in Hebrew, English, and Arabic, the vast majority are only in Hebrew and English. You can see why the residents of Sheikh Jarrah are not exactly lining up to get in: even if you could cough up the 30 shekel entrance fee, you’d have no idea what was going on around you. No surprise that the only Arab in the whole place was the guy serving coffee in the café.
But all of that really pales in comparison with the property-rights issue, bitterly summarized by the Arab Israeli politician Awatef Sheikh in a 2011 piece in Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, “Jerusalem’s Museum on the Seam: Artful Dodging.” Reading the first paragraph, I was inclined to think that Sheikh was overdoing the polemics, but having worked my way to the end, I had to admit that he was painfully right.
The building which today houses the Museum on the Seam is, in fact, owned by the Baramki family. It was designed by Andoni Baramki, then a young Palestinian architect who designed many of Jerusalem’s houses. In 1934 he built it and rented it to two Palestinian families who were forcibly expelled from the house in 1948. The Baramki family lived in a rented house nearby and, like hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, were forced to flee their homes in search of temporary safety during the violent spring of 1948. Denied return to their home, the Baramki family lived as refugees in Gaza before moving to the village of Birzeit, north of Ramallah, in 1953. Following Israel’s occupation of the West Bank in 1967, all members of the Baramki family with the exception of son Gabi—his parents, brother and sister- managed to obtain Jerusalem ID cards and live in East Jerusalem. The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, contacted Dr. Gabi Baramki, who was 18 when his family fled Jerusalem in 1948. A former vice president of Birzeit University, he lives in Ramallah.
After 1967, when the family was able to cross over to the west side of the city, Gabi’s father, Andoni, fought for his right to his house. He went to the Israeli Custodian of Absentee Property, presented the deeds to his house and his identification documents. According to Gabi, “My father, a 6’4″ tall man, stood in front of the Custodian and told him: ‘I’m Andoni Baramki and I want to return to my house.’ The Custodian looked back at him and replied: ‘you are absent.'” The family then turned to the court but received no justice there, either. “You will get your house when there is peace,” the judge told Gabi’s father. People often told Gabi that his father, a very well-known figure in Jerusalem, “stood in front of the house for hours looking at it the way Romeo used to look at Juliet.” Andoni Baramki was never allowed to set foot inside his house again. He died in 1972.
There seems to be a pattern here: just as MotS is the expropriated home of a “present absentee” Palestinian, so the forthcoming Simon Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance is currently being built on top of the Mamilla Muslim Cemetary in violation of the property rights of the Palestinians whose family members are buried there. (For more on the Mamilla issue, see this article from Columbia Journalism Review, featuring my friend, Rawan Dajani.) The ethos seems to be: Injustice must be done so that good may come of it (and feed the insatiable desire for uplift characteristic of bien pensant American tourists).
Given betrayals of this nature, it becomes hard to take Israeli liberals’ claims about the need for mutual understanding and tolerance at face value, and tempting to regard their brand of liberalism as a self-deceived charade. When they tell you that “art lacks boundaries,” I guess they really mean it: boundary violations, you might say, are part of the picture.
I hate to end on that downer note, but unfortunately, that’s the way Jerusalem is, at least in my limited experience. Every time you find something to feel good about, you find something bigger to feel bad about. And that was my ambivalent experience of MotS as well: the premise of the place seemed to be protest of injustices located at a safe remove built on injustice perpetrated nearby.
For me, the lesson is to disavow the smiley-faced, faith-based interpretations of this place one so often hears back home, of which Birthright Israel is perhaps the most nauseatingly delusional exemplification. In fact, Jerusalem is the scene of deep tragedy, worthy of a Sophocles or a Shakespeare, and built on tragic flaws that seem to reproduce themselves with every passing day. And while MotS was interesting and enjoyable–I’m glad I went–it wasn’t a catharsis. I’ll tell you if and when I have one. But don’t hold your breath.
Postscript, August 21, 2015: Here’s an interestingly if indirectly relevant item from The New York Times: Holland Cotter’s “What I Learned from a Disgraced Art Show on Harlem,” discussing the “Harlem on My Mind” art show at the Met in 1969, from the Times’s “Virgin Eyes” series.