Jerusalem Design Week 2019


8 July 2019

Pushing aside a black curtain and entering a small, darkened room, visitors are confronted by a philosopher’s stone presented under a spotlight, a glittering cascade of sand trickling down its side. Two smaller siblings appear on either side, courtesy of some clever mirror trickery. A voice intones, “I cannot tell you any spiritual truth that you don’t know already, all I can do is remind you of what you have forgotten.” Or another similar aphorism.

The Siri Zen Master installation by Varburg 4 (Amit Portman, Liane Rosenthal and Alon Sarid) is “a technological Zen garden that seeks to reflect these questions into space, and ponders on the tension or perhaps the natural combination of technology and spirit, of the distorted image of East and that of the West”. Perhaps it succeeds in this aim; perhaps it doesn’t. It’s certainly entertaining. And rather beautiful. And it causes a brief moment of slightly nervous reflection on whether we should know if its statements are old and wise, or new and banal. Is the Siri Zen Master design? Well, it could be categorised as part of a design discourse on the implications of virtual assistants, and our increasing reliance on technology for practical and perhaps spiritual guidance. Or is it art? Well, pretty much ditto.

Throughout its programming, Jerusalem Design Week [JDW] teeters in this manner between categories – on its opening night in June, the observation that it is “barely a design week” was overheard more than once. It is far closer, in form and feel, to an art biennial, albeit an annual one. As with Siri Zen Master, the week embraces the art biennial’s conceptual and research-based priorities, while also mimicking its formalised language and presentational tropes. It largely eschews the quasi-commercial product displays and the “what is design” or “design can save the world” finger-wagging of the traditional design week. Aided and abetted by an impressive concentration of diverse activities and a feeling of barely contained chaos – much of which derives from its artistic bent – Jerusalem Design Week has a sense of energy and engagement that is often absent from events with similar design-related monikers.

So that’s one good thing. But the event has some other major assets. First is its location, Hansen House, on the southern edge of Jerusalem’s city centre. Almost all JDW projects are crammed into this one beguiling venue, an attractive 19th-century leprosy hospital, with rambling gardens and outhouses, designed by the German-born architect Conrad Schick in the 1880s. In the early 2000s the complex was converted into a cultural centre with a theatrical, exhibition, events and residency spaces, and today it houses institutions working in film, education, and journalism.

JDW also has the enormous advantage of being free. Generous public funding makes it an open, buoyant occasion in a way that a commercial operation such as the London Design Biennial – which charges £19.50 per entry – could never be. This reliance on the public purse requires accountability in terms of accessible presentation, and of visitor numbers and demographics, but has not dissuaded the curatorial team of Chen Gazit, Ran Wolf, Anat Safran and Tal Erez from pursuing an “if it’s good, they will come” approach. Their priority, as Erez is keen to emphasise, has been to achieve a balance between content, form and experience to create wide appeal, rather than concentrating on linear display: “When the three come together,” says Erez, “you get a project that is absolutely good for everyone.”

Aided by the aforementioned generous public backing and strong visitor numbers since its inauguration in 2011, JDW has been liberated from the pressures of accommodating the needs of commercial exhibitors or sponsors – its curators are free to be curators. As such, one of their major concerns – in a design scene largely bereft of alternative funding or outlets, commercial or otherwise – has been the mentoring of young Israeli designers. Many project teams and exhibits featured in the week have been commissioned or chosen through an open call. “There is no public money for design in Israel except for this one event,” says Erez. “If you graduate as a designer, and you want to get some funds or commissions, the opportunity doesn’t exist – there aren’t even that many design studios in relation to the number of graduates – so it’s a priority to give designers a good, solid opportunity to do something new.”

This year, the subject allotted to participants is a rather hoary one – “East”. According to the JDW manifesto, the event does “not look TO the East, but AT the ‘East’ – as a term, a direction, an absolute point of reference, and the set of relative relationships it generates globally.” When asked to further explain the choice of theme, Erez points to Jerusalem’s role as pivot between East and West. “We were excited to look at the different scales and places where ‘East’ takes place – the city scale, the continental, the global, and so on,” he says. “It always represents something. Most often, it’s the Other, it’s a mystery, it’s a threat – we encounter that with the Eastern Bloc, or East Berlin, or East Jerusalem. And it acts as a kind of membrane, a kind of transformation, with a pendulum going from East to West and back, resulting in all these potential cultural in-betweens, which can flourish on any scale from the personal to the seemingly absolute.”

Across the East, the absorbing exhibition Erez co-curated with artistic director Anat Safran, makes up a sizeable portion of JDW, and has the job of actualising some of these concepts. In practice, there seems to have been something of a tendency to throw projects into the mixer and see what sticks. Fortunately, much of it does, although whether or not this adds up to a coherent whole is debatable. It is no surprise that old hands provide the most adhesive content. Antwerp-based Unfold Design Studio revisits its decade-old open-source software for 3D-printing ceramics, creating a seemingly unassuming display of teapots, which kicks off with three historic examples. These chart the journey of tea and its brewing vessels, from east to west – the diminutive Chinese Yixing teapot; a glazed descendant from the Netherlands; and the British Brown Betty. These precedents were given as inspiration to the community of makers that has now emerged around Unfold’s original software. The Suffolk-based ceramicist Jonathan Keep offered the first interpretation of a teapot, then passed his particular take on the typology westward to the next ceramicist to spark their creativity. This process travelled around the world twice, with increasingly unbridled results, before culminating with Unfold’s own contribution. In a similar vein, Istanbul’s Ambiguous Standards Institute provides a modest, intelligent exploration of the political and cultural implications of – and invisible non-geographical networks around – the 14 commonly available types of power plug, courtesy of a crate that allows each to be thrust into the appropriate socket, lighting up all the nations employing that particular standard on a world map above. 

Unfold Design Studio's display for Across the East revolves around on the history of the teapot. IMAGE Dor Kedmi.

Whether in Across the East or beyond, JDW’s international collaborations prove engaging, focusing on places that are seen, from diverse perspectives, to have a quality of “Eastness”, and thus cast further light on the term’s geographical, political and cultural relativity. Bucharest-based journal Kajet offers an interactive video installation that employs the viewer’s “ludic instincts” (i.e. willingness to move around in front of a screen) as a means to highlight intersections between archival and recent footage of Eastern European locations, while New Delhi-based creative agency INDIANAMA contributes a series of posters reimagining India’s often generic travel imagery. There is a strong display of products from Taiwan’s contemporary craft-design scene (another East-West juxtaposition, if a slightly strained one) curated by Ben Chiu, director of Taiwan Designers’ Week. And there are a number of collaborations with Japanese cultural bodies, including Design Art Tokyo, which presents two interactive installations from Shoto Hayakawa. Both explore conflicts between conformity and individualism, asking the viewer to participate in situations that require them to either match the actions of others or pursue their own path – whether as a stick figure engaged in calisthenics (Same as Everyone) or deliberating at a dinner (Meet Up at 9PM). 

For better or worse, these efforts are blown away – at least in sensory terms – by a flashy mini-exhibition, Club All: Maximalism and Hyperreality in Modern China, curated by the Shanghai-based independent curator Hadaz Zucker. Club All takes the form of an energetic, immersive, multi-room club, drawing on queer culture and highlighting the role of Shanghai’s clubbing scene in its artistic production. It is certainly important to highlight the continued vitality of underground artistic production in China, and the exhibition’s highlight is a room designated as its “dance floor”. Plastered across the walls are two exuberant films – or more aptly pop operas – and two shorter video pieces. Plastered across the floor are garish posters advertising underground parties, with a cluster of headphones in one corner. All are the creation of the current golden child of the Chinese art scene – and CSM and Chelsea College of Art and Design graduate – Tianzhuo Chen. The result is a high-intensity assault of sound and imagery that reflects on the anxiety-ridden state of China’s urban youth, and encompasses everything from bondage-inclined, quasi-religious dance performances (with giant inflatables), to a mash-up of folkloric beasts and corporate kitsch, complete with dancing morticians, crawling Justin Bieber fans, machine guns and BMWs.

Club All: Maximalism and Hyperreality in Modern China is curated by the Shanghai-based independent curator Hadaz Zucker. IMAGE Dor Kedmi.

Outside, Hansen House is subject to a bold intervention courtesy of HQ Architects. The main facade is concealed behind a substantial scaffolding framework, on which a bold pink staircase rises, echoing Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers’ Pompidou escalator. This creates an attractive new route up and over the Hansen’s terracotta roofs, doglegging to provide a wide platform that offers views over Jerusalem, before twisting back down into the building’s central courtyard. The scaffolding shortcuts the problematic circulation inherent in the hospital floorplan, while ensuring that Hansen House’s top storey – often neglected by visitors – is placed firmly on the itinerary. The architects also claim that their structure “‘rotates’ the building in a 90-degree angle, against its natural Northern orientation”. This response to JDW’s Eastern theme should, they propose somewhat optimistically, ensure that “early comers[…] will catch the first rays of sunrise over Jerusalem”.

Around and about, Hansen House’s layered, labyrinthine gardens give shelter to an array of projects, performances, bars and installations that tally with the event’s overall theme. The highlight is a series of slim, inscrutable white columns that rise to random heights just by the main gates. Designed by Idan Sidi and Gal Sharir, each offers a tiny eyehole to the visitor, allowing a view into its mirrored interior. Every column is unique, with a collection of tiny geometric forms inside that are inspired by the folklore around a local plant and laid out in imitation of a French formal garden. Stretching into reflected infinity, this tiny vista gives the viewer a moment of solitude in a miniature Garden of Eden – located, according to myth, in the East – joined only by the reflection of their own providential eye.

Idan Sidi and Gal Sharir's Little Private Gardens. IMAGE Dor Kedmi.

There are missteps. The commendable desire to foster young talent occasionally gives the impression of a graduation show rather than an international showcase. A few experienced hands stumble also – the usually reliable team of Alice Wong and Aryan Javaherian provide The Imagination of Human, a piece of “investigative research” looking at “the depiction of the ‘Asian’ in Western popular culture”, from model minorities to gender stereotypes. The field of American Orientalism studies, whether towards Asians or Asian/Americans, has flourished and grown in sophistication over recent decades, and it is hard to locate anything particularly innovative in The Imagination of Human’s strident collage of animation and found footage, which feels more cultural artefact than critique. And a promising exhibition devoted to re-conceiving Tel Aviv’s Near East Fair of 1932 – an early attempt to position the city as a gateway to trade between Asia and Europe, and a de facto capital for the Middle East – sadly fails to rise to the ambitions of its “backward speculative design” with a series of laboured installations.

Although Safran’s artistic direction wishes to draw wry parallels between Hansen House’s original embrace of outcasts from all communities and the event’s curatorial ambitions to embrace Jerusalem’s heterogeneity, this is easier said than done. Since 2017, the Matchmaker Project has run in conjunction with JDW to pair designers with small businesses and craftspeople, and to build up a database that the design community can use to locate potential collaborators in Jerusalem and beyond. This year, to match JDW’s theme, eight designers, artists and architects from East Jerusalem were matched with eight craftspeople or small-scale manufacturers from across the West Bank and, in particular, Hebron. The results were intelligent and uplifting. Platters created by design student Abdu Julani and Tamimi Ceramics collaged traditional geometries with provocative political, religious and literary photography; artist Muhammad Mahlwas collaborated with artisan Ziad Al Dabba to create unexpected rocking horses in bamboo and rattan inspired by bedtime stories. Difficulties encountered by the project’s Israeli founder Daniel Nahmias when attempting to forge initial contacts in the West Bank resulted in a friend, Palestinian architect Tareq Nassar, joining as co-curator to facilitate the process. “When we started reaching out, we soon understood that, in the context of the conflict, people were not eager to work with Israelis – we needed a Palestinian partner to act as a kind of buffer,” recounts Nahmias. “I learned to my surprise, despite my many Palestinian friends and contacts, how little I knew about the language, the culture of the West Bank; what is OK to say, what is not. But working with Tareq, who has the cultural sensitivity and skills, it all became possible. Matchmaker is not a political undertaking: the main agenda is design, discussing and delivery projects, but it is by doing this that you start to bridge the gaps.”

As Matchmaker shows, there are considerable distances, physical and psychological, still to be travelled for Jerusalem’s design scene – the lack of voice given to craft producers in its accompanying videos, for instance, suggests that entrenched mindsets will take some shifting. A similar tonal misstep occurs in The Common Thread, a striking project from mathematician Itay Blumenthal and designer Amir Zobe. Their bespoke algorithm controls an adapted CNC machine that stretches a single piece of thread around 471 metal pegs, creating a series of extraordinary circular portraits of Hansen House’s East Jerusalem-based janitors and security guards. The subjects are featured in a rather clumsy video, in which they describe Hansen House as a second home and marvel at their portraits, while The Common Thread’s creators work on computer code and ponder the implications of their creation. That the subjects are all male goes unmentioned. As with Matchmaker, the intent is unimpeachable – to draw attention to the proximity of another Jerusalem, only minutes away yet all but unknown. Unfortunately, the presentation brings 19th-century country-house staff portraits to mind.

The Common Thread, a project from mathematician Itay Blumenthal and designer Amir Zobe. IMAGE Dor Kedmi.

Similarly disappointing, the other nations of the Middle East are absent in JDW, despite falling firmly, even explicitly, into the category of places with a quality of “Eastness” that the curatorial team endeavour to explore. This omission could well be related to muffled curatorial grumbling around the unwillingness of various cultural bodies to get involved, but such a conspicuous void should have been openly addressed. The failure to do so contributes to a lingering sense of conversations held in parallel, of issues not quite addressed and perhaps not quite recognised. A few tweaks, some self-awareness, a little nuance, and occasional honesty would have gone a long way. But this is Jerusalem – such complexities are at the city’s heart. And one of the few projects outside Hansen House – the room-sized installation Middle Middle East at the nearby Museum of Islamic Art by Oded Ben Yehuda – does provide some of this honesty. Plastered across its four walls, and in three languages, is a series of statements – for instance Ariel Sharon’s “There is no partner” and Yitzhak Shamir’s “The sea is the same sea, and the Arabs are the same Arabs” – that are lodged in the Israeli consciousness, and entwined in its sense of nationhood. Yehuda hopes to purge their defiant anger in pursuit of the somewhat whimsical aim of allowing Israel to join with its neighbours in the creation of a new state – the Middle, Middle East – represented by the transnational collection of cactuses on the room’s floor.

On almost all levels, JDW was a vitalising, impressive and sometimes thought-provoking success. Despite occasional amateurism and the unexpected lapses, it was considerably more enjoyable, more considered and, most importantly, more crowded, than many, many international fairs confident in their repute, audience and efficacy. Whatever the specific cultural or commercial ambitions of your offering in the design-event sector, I can guarantee that you would benefit from visiting Hansen House and considering why your particular pageant seems so drab in comparison.