Faith & Form

The Western Wall Glass Sculpture Project

At The Western Wall Chain of Generations Center

Old City,Jerusalem Israel.

General Overview of the Glass Sculptures

The Artist’s Perspective.

Jeremy Langford

In 2001, the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, along with its architect, Eliav Nachleli, commissioned me to create a series of monumental glass sculptures for the new visitor’s center at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. The artwork was to be created at Judaism’s holiest site, adjacent to the Al Aqsa Mosque – Islam’s third holiest shrine (after Mecca and Medina) - and close-by many of the sites sacred to Christianity. This was Mount Moriah, considered the literal and figurative bedrock of the great monotheistic faiths. This is where Isaac was bound by Abraham, where Jacob dreamed of a ladder joining heaven and earth, where Solomon built the First Temple, where the returning Jewish exiles from Babylon began the Second Temple that Herod completed. This is where Jesus walked and where Muslims believe Mohamed ascended to heaven. Virtually no other location on Earth holds such palpable religious, historical and cultural significance for so many people.

My charge was to create eight glass sculptures portraying the history of the Jewish people from its inception with Patriarchs - Abraham, Isaac and Jacob - until the present day return to Israel.

As an artist, the awesome responsibility of depicting this saga on this site at this time was both the ultimate dream and the ultimate challenge. At a site where so much converges, the potential for discord is never far from the surface. I had to find an artistic language that would cut across boundaries and to which as wide a range of cultures could relate to. I needed to exercise great sensitivity and discretion in order to avoid offending religious sensibilities, especially the Biblical prohibition against graven images that would have angered many Jews had literal images of revered Biblical personages been presented. It was decided, therefore, to use an abstract form in order to symbolize figures from the Biblical narrative. Non-figurative sculpture - something very close to my heart - is a language that can be read on many levels. While not disturbing someone’s internal image of an Abraham or other Biblical figure, the lack of definitive form could still convey meaning in a way that resonates.

I wanted to create my own artistic statement and imprint on this project, while respecting the preceding power of over 3000 years of art, architecture and life on the site. The place pulsates with the energy of all that has gone on there. The archeologist Abraham Solomon, who carried out the excavations, told me that when he returned home after a day excavating a Roman latrine his wife would complain to him of his smell. “2000 year old ‘organic matter ‘” was his explanation. From the sacred to the profane, the place is alive.

The result of my encounter was an incredible polarity of form, a juxtaposition of ancient architecture and 21st century art. I have worked all over the world, but this is the first time I have worked with architects from two millennia ago. What can I say? King Herod was truly an amazing builder. It was an overwhelming experience to create such sculptures in these ancient catacombs.

One of the most powerful sculptures is a nine meter high sculpted glass column weighing over 15 tons. The sculpture was to be placed in a 17 meter high room which had originally been discovered to be a Roman latrine. While excavating the site in order to lay concrete foundations to support the sculpture archeologists discovered a complete fully preserved ritual bath from the Second Temple – directly below the sculpture! It was immediately decided that the sculpture should be suspended on steel girders in order to preserve this 2000 year old Herodian era ritual bath While preparing this, an extremely rare find was unearthed - a wall from the period of King Solomon’s Temple! The result was a room spanning a period of 3000 years. One first views a 21st century sculpture, then looks above at a ceiling from the Crusader era and walls from the Mameluke period. Below the sculpture sits a 2000 year old perfectly intact purification bath, while next to that is situated one of the only preserved walls from the time of King Solomon’s Temple.

Language and Form

The Column

The project was situated in a series of subterranean chambers, of which the most recent dated back to Crusader times and the oldest featured remnants of 3000 years old structures. In these eight chambers I was to place each of the eight sculptures.

I felt that the sculptures must make their own statement and expressing the purpose for which they were created, while also rendering a feeling of belonging to the site. In order to attempt to achieve this somewhat unlikely harmony of ancient architecture and modern art, I related to the chambers on the site as a ‘canvas’ on which I would ‘paint’ the sculptures. My ‘painting’ medium was the glass column-the basic simple form used throughout the exhibit.

The column was to be the symbol of the figures from the biblical narrative and the Jewish people.

A column: straight with strong boundaries yet, at the same time, undefined.

A column: square, not round, not triangular. Four sides, four lines united in form.

A column for me is the development of line. Just as the line begins from a point and lengthens and thickens, so too the column in these sculptures is a basic building block of form and function. I have used it to ‘paint’ these sculptures on the canvas of the ancient structures I was given

Site and sculpture must work together. I, as the artist, am simply adding another layer on the canvas of this site. The whole structure of the site is an organic work of art being formed over thousands of years. In the modern world man has awareness of self. We as human beings can look objectively at who we are. The brain can examine and research the brain. The mind can think about itself and ponder who and what it is. We have self awareness and discrimination. I, as an artist can therefore stand on this site, look back over the eons and view a work in progress-The building, the destruction, the renovation, are now all part of one process.

A work of art in space and time the historic site itself became a work of art.

Glass

I used glass here as a medium that could make its own statement, while complimenting the architecture and archeology of the site. Glass transmits and reflects light and, in this case, accentuates the essence of the site while endowing these sculptures with deep meaning.

I have also a very deep relationship with glass. I find it a very spiritual medium and particularly fitting to the theme of these sculptures. The production of glass requires a process of heat and pressure. Sand –basically a lifeless substance is transformed into one of the most beautiful versatile and animated materials known to man. Strong yet elastic, transparent but with clear boundaries, glass glows and transmits light. The same message expressed in glass is the message of these sculptures. They portray the basic history of the Jewish People and can also be seen as a metaphor for transformation and hope. Glass allows a powerful expression of the ideas of the sculptures while blending into the ancient architecture and not overpowering it.

Technique and physical aspects of the sculptures.

Among the many techniques used to create these sculptures, the main method utilized is the cold glass method of sculpting and stacking glass. I chose this technique from many possibilities because of its potent aesthetic articulation as well as its inherent symbolism: layer upon layer of glass representing the layers of the long history of the Jewish people. This layering likewise speaks to the different civilizations, cultures and history which have consecutively converged upon the site

The sculptures are constructed from tens of thousands of pieces of specially treated glass that range in size from 160cm (5” 3””) to a huge free-form sculpted column of over 9 meters(30’) in height weighing over 15 metric tons. The overall combined weight of glass used to create the artwork is almost 150 tons.

I worked on the project for a period of over four years. There were many stages of design and redesign, coupled with arguments and highly sensitive coordination with archeologists, religious authorities, architects and engineers. As I stated previously-This project is an artist’s dream, but it also had a few small nightmares thrown in too.

I had to take into account many engineering problems working in a 3000 year old site. The buildings from the Roman period were very strong and sturdy but there were some later structures that caused major headaches.

One of the main obstacles was logistics. I had set up a cold work glass studio by the Western Wall and we worked as a team for eight months there. I felt like a conductor on a symphony orchestra. I had 25 workers there -15 artisans and the rest manual laborers. Some of the artisans worked on drilling, others on grinding and polishing, others on preparations for carving. Meanwhile there were other artisans in the tunnels installing different sculptures. The laborers had to get all the glass in by hand. The tunnels are very narrow and I could not use cranes or any sort of mechanical lifting devices. Over eighty tons of glass was hauled into these tunnels and installed piece by piece by hand! And there was I, running back and forth making sure everything was coming out as I had originally envisioned it.

The archeologists and the engineers were (I am sorry to say) a problem. Every centimeter of soil I needed to move for an installation had to be checked by them. If there was some major archeological discovery that would sometimes hold us up for months. One of the sculptures-called ’Yearning’ weighs 15 tons and is 9 meters high. I had requested that the engineers prepare a cast concrete foundation to support it. While excavating in order to prepare the foundation the archeologists discovered a perfectly intact ritual bath almost 2200 years old and a wall from the period of King Solomon's Temple-almost 3000 years old.

This changed everything.

I had to entirely redesign the base of the sculpture and the way it was situated. The engineers created a floor of steel girders for support and we installed a glass floor. I had the 15 ton, 9 meter high sculpture suspended in the air above the archeological discoveries. Now, one stands at the top of this 27 meter high ancient chamber and looks down to my sculpture and through the glass floor see the history below.

Eight Sculptures

A brief overview

The sculptures are designed to represent different scenes from the Biblical Narrative, from the early period of the Patriarchs through to the return of the Jews to Israel today.

The first room sets the tone with basic carved glass columns. The columns then go through a process of building, destruction and rebuilding, through to the final long sculpted glass wall that leads out to the Western Wall itself. The first sculpture sets up the language of the entire series – a straight glass column with the Hebrew lettering of “Jerusalem” carved into it. In the background are etched verses from the Biblical Book of Chronicles, enumerating the generations from the beginning of mankind. From here begins a process of building, development, destruction and suffering –and the process of returning to self, restoration. The sculptures start with the appearance of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the 12 tribes, the building of Jerusalem and a 9 meter column symbolizing the yearning to return to a spiritual state of fulfillment – the symbolic return to the land of Israel.

Hebrew lettering

All of the sculptures are carved with Hebrew lettering-names of individuals from each historic period from early Biblical times through the different time frames up to the present day.

Kabbalah – Jewish mysticism – assigns great significance to the Hebrew alphabet. Each letter has its own intrinsic structure, a sacred geometry representing complex energy patterns and manifestations of spiritual dimensions.

I have been commissioned to create one more sculpture for the site. After five years of work on the site I will complete it in the coming months. I say this with a prescience of nostalgia. My aspirations are to create monumental glass sculptures for important commission around the world-however large or prestigious they may be it will be hard to match the sheer energy and emotion of this project-art, sculpture, history, religion and current affairs-go match that!

Copyright © 2014 Jeremy Langford. All rights reserved
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