A new sculptural installation at Jerusalem’s Western Wall offers a dramatic, metaphorical journey through Jewish history By Mel Byars
The 28- MILE TRIP TO JERUSSALEM from Ben Gurion Airport, Israel’s main point of entry requires a steep ascent on a bustling highway. It’s fitting approach. For the world’s three great monotheistic religions- Judaism, Christianity and Islam- Jerusalem is the city of ascent. It was here that Jesus rose from the dead, here that Muhammad flew on his Night Journey to Heaven, and it is in Jerusalem that, in the words of Psalm 135, “the Lord out of Zion… dwelleth.”
Arrival in the western part of town, where most of the modern, flat-façade buildings are constructed in a indigenous beige stone, gives little indication that this one of the most revered
Ancient cities in the word-and one of the most disputed. Over millennia, Jerusalem has been besieged more than 50 times, conquered 36 times and destroyed 10 times. It is no less embattled today. With Israel declaring Jerusalem its “undivided and eternal capital” and the Palestinians demanding their own capital here, the fate of the place is one of the stumbling blocks to resolving the region’s ongoing conflict.
And no part of Jerusalem is more contentious, or more over loaded with the symbolism or nationhood and identity than the temple Mount (as it is known to the Jews).The Noble Sanctuary with its Dome of the Rock, one of Islam’s thee holiest locations, sits atop the Western Wall, the only extant ruin of the Second Temple, Judaism most venerated site and for two millennia, the focus of Jewish memory and desire.
The Wall is essentially today’s dividing line between the Muslim and the Jewish parts of Jerusalem. Split by the UN in 1948 and subsequently ruled by Jordan, Jerusalem was reunited as the capital of Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War.
The Wall is on the spot where King Solomon built the First Temple on Mount Moriah about 3,000 years ago. It was razed by Babylonia’s Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C, during his conquest of the city. Then, in the 1st century B.C The Rome appointed King Herod Rebuilt the Temple, which was twice the size of Solomon’s. Its western wall included the Jewish area of prayer. The Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in A.D.
This past December the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, established by Israel in 1988 to oversee the site, inaugurated a new visitors’ center (the gift of ingeborg and Ira Rennert) and the Abigail Jane Zuckerman Education Center.
Named for daughter of American real estate developer and publisher Mortimer B. Zuckerman who funded the project and his former wife, art historian Maria Prather, the Education Center is as notable for its design and its art, especially the dramatic glass sculptures, as for its affirmation of Jewish identity and continuity.
The presentation- known as the “Chain of Generations” – provides visitors with a sense of walking through history in three dimensions, metaphorically re-experiencing it. The project, which was 18 years in the planning, winds down into millennia- old catacombs, where there are aesthetically striking, emotionally provocative glass assemblages by Jeremy Langford, a 50-year- old sculptor who immigrated to Israel from England when he was 16. Arranged in eight of the nine chambers (or plateaus) of installation, the sculptures document the history of the Jews, from the Patriarchs to the present.
Visitors descend and then ascend through the narrow confines of ancient stone walls, passing over wood-plank ramps within the space, which was conceived by exhibition designer Eliav Nachlieli. The third member of the artistic team is 50- year-old Tel Aviv designer Avi Yona “Bambi” Bueno, whose lighting imbues Langford’s green – tined, glass- plate blocks with a mysterious, almost shimmering quality; some are shrouded in artificial smoke to heighten their theartrical effect. One of the nine settings is Bueno’s own creation- 12 Plexiglas poles, evoking the long chain of Jewish history.
The highlight of the project is Langford’s Yearning, a 30 – foot, 15 ton carved column of sandwiched glass plates that is suspended by cables from the 56- foot-high ceiling of a chamber, which was originally on the same level as a 2,000- year-old Roman Latrine. When archeologists, headed by Abraham Solomon, where excavating the space to accommodate the column, they discovered a fully preserved ritual bath from the Second Temple period. Then, while preparing steel girders for the sculpture’s support, they made an extremely rare find; a portion of a First Temple- period wall.
Describing the compression of history, Langford observes, “There is a 21st-century sculpture, a ceiling from the Crusader period and a wall from Mameluke times. Below the sculpture sits the ancient purification bath, while next to it is one of the preserved walls from Solomon’s Temple”.
Like yearning most of Langford’s eight ensembles are sandwiches of plate glass-in fact, 150 tons
of it. Some are tall columns, and one is a collection of small blocks strewn in the dirt, representing the stones of the demolished Temple.
Down the ramp from the sculptures representing the Patriachs is The Destruction Wall, a five-foot- tall allegory that has the appearance of black marble but is actually glass, a material that in itself has historical resonance. The 1st- century Roman historian Pliny claimed that the Phoenicians accidentally discovered how to make glass about 7,000 years ago in the region of Syria, which today borders on not-quite- 60 year- old Israel.
“People see glass as something cold, brittle, unwelcoming and dangerous,” Langford explains.”
Quite the opposite is true. Glass is very elastic, very versatile, very friendly, if only you take the time to get to know it.”
The sculptural groups begin with the appearance of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the 12 tribes; and the building of Jerusalem. The first area sets the tone with caved-glass columns, inscribed in Hebrew and featuring biblical texts and the names of the leaders of Exodus. “There is great Kabalistic significance in the Hebrew alphabet,” Says Langford.
“Each letter has its own intrinsic structure- a sacred geometry representing complex energy pattern and manifestations of the spiritual.”
The columns, representing the process of building, destruction and rebuilding- the history of the Jewish people itself-extends at last to a final long, sculpted-glass wall, behind which are images of fallen Israeli soldiers. The visitor then ascends into the plaza of the Western Wall itself. This journey, says Langford, “is a returning to self, to restoration.” In a word, to Israel itself.