Where East and West Meet

In Jerusalem, Museum on the Seam aims to start a socio-political conversation through art. Its current exhibit explores the confrontation between Islam and the West, and the reality of the growing Muslim presence in Europe.

(Download this story in Microsoft Word format here)

Click photo to download. Caption: “Terminator Terrorist/Terrorist Terminator” by American artist James Clar, displayed at Museum on the Seam in Jerusalem. Credit: Museum on the Seam.

Jerusalem is a place where a change in who’s in charge, who’s building what and whose name is on a street sign all have the ability to spark a riot and international commentary. The city straddles the line between east and west, holiness and hatred, conflict and normalcy. It is at once fragile and extremely durable.

Against such a backdrop, the Museum on the Seam, a socio-political contemporary art museum located on the “seam line” between east and west Jerusalem, strives to create a dialogue about conflict and coexistence, human rights, and the boundaries of individual freedom in Israeli society and in societies around the world.

“The agenda of the museum has been to face the reality outside,” says the museum’s designer and curator Raphie Etgar, during an interview with JointMedia News Service in the museum’s café. “This museum is here in order to maybe start some kind of discussion, some kind of dialogue.”

The current exhibit, “Westend: A clash of civilizations and a battle for domination in the world of tomorrow,” deals with the confrontation between Islam and the West and the reality of the growing Muslim presence in Europe. Running through mid-January, the exhibit raises questions of militaristic, cultural and social dominance. Who will win this battle? The pieces, which come from 27 artists from Israel, the U.S., eastern and western Europe, Iran, Saudi Arabia and India, among others, confront viewers with the hostility and fear that exist concerning the Muslim world in the liberal West over a feeling of tricky, evil Muslim entrapment.

Sven Kalden, a German sculptor, created an intricate 400x400x25 polymer-plaster model of Tora Bora—the fantastical cave complex that the U.S. Army was convinced was Osama bin Laden’s hideout. Kalden’s structure is precise in its staircases, entrances and exits, but there are no people or signs, and its gray and tan hues suggest an anonymous, mythical space. It exists in a vacuum; an imaginary place constructed by a terrified American psyche to conquer its aggressor.

“Terminator Terrorist/Terrorist Terminator” is American artist James Clar’s hologram of, from one angle, the cinematic Terminator, and from another, a popular image of a terrorist. The 80x105 cm. print juxtaposes a Western science fiction character with today’s ultimate threat to society from the East, interspersing their features and reflecting them in each other.

Ahmed Mater, an artist based in Saudi Arabia, portrays the consequences of global dependence on oil in “evolution of man,” a series of five boxes shining with electric blue light, each 79x59 cm. in size. The first light box shows a gas pump, and is followed by boxes of the gas pump gradually morphing into a skeleton holding a pistol to its head. “The pump is a metaphor for the man who persistently consumes the finite resources he has been granted, thus in fact bringing about his own destruction,” according to the exhibit’s catalogue. Mater’s piece points to the oil economy of Saudi Arabia that fuels terror and the destruction of a society from the inside.

Etgar says some of the Arab artists who contributed pieces to the exhibit, which runs until December, now live in Europe, perhaps where it is safer for them to make art critical of their home country. He says these courageous artists take on art as a mission to make societal change. “They feel a responsibility to do something more” for their communities, he says.

It has not been easy courting artists from Muslim countries that shun Israel.

“When I approached artists in the Islamic world in the past, the response was disappointing,” Etgar told The Huffington Post in August. “It was even worse when we approached Palestinians just across the road.”

He says, though, in more recent years, he has had greater success convincing these artists to contribute to Westend. “I think there has been an individual ripening and maturation of artists, an understanding that their contribution will be much more significant if they bring their work to our public,” Etgar said.

The Museum on the Seam offers these artists a platform for debate on the measure of a good society, to criticize the shortcomings and imagine the possibilities. Israeli society is no exception.

Primarily funded by the von Holtzbrinck family of Germany, Etgar says the museum is sorely lacking in Jewish supporters and visitors.

“I feel sort of personally offended by that,” he says. Implying that Museum on the Seam is viewed by some as anti-Israel, in addition to left wing due to its openness to presenting the work of Arab artists, Etgar adds in defense of the institution that, “I think this museum has a completely Jewish agenda. It is not going against the country in order to have a better life (in Israel).”

Etgar wishes the museum would be higher on the list of must-sees for Jewish tourists to Jerusalem. He says they come for the religious sites, naturally, but would like them also to recognize the museum’s efforts to “make a sort of normal living around here,” not felt in the current state.

The museum was founded in 2005. From 1948-1967, its building was an army outpost (the Turjeman Post) situated on the border between Israel and Jordan, alongside the Mandlebaum gate that connected the divided city. The bullet holes on the building’s façade serve a reminder of the battles fought in this place and the uneasy circumstances in which the ultra-Orthodox and Palestinian residents at that end of the city live. In whose hands east Jerusalem will fall, who will dominate this city ties into the exhibit’s question regarding dominance. One artist of the museum offers a suggestion. In neon lights at the entrance flashes the phrase, “Olive trees will be our borders,” in Hebrew, Arabic and on the bottom English. Israeli artist Dani Karavan created the 100x460 cm. neon installation in 2009. “Maybe the world would conceive of a middle ground for those who live side by side,” Edgar writes in Westend’s introduction, “and want to live side by side, as equals.”

Posted on November 20, 2011 and filed under Arts.