Five years ago the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, founded in 1988 by the Israeli government, and the architect, Eliav Nachlieli, asked the British-Israeli artist Jeremy Langford to create eight glass sculptures for the new visitor's center at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. They depict the history and development of the Jewish people from their beginnings at the time of the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, up to the return to Israel in the present day.
The Western Wall is the last remnant from the second Temple of king Herod in Jerusalem. The project architect Eliav Nachlieli – one of his endeavors at the moment is redesigning the Israel Diamond museum, to be completed by late 2006 – describes the project as a "spiritual museum experience, composed entirely of sculpture in music, rays of light, smoke, and glass."
The project, called The Chain of Generation Center, takes us on a spiritual journey linking the visitor to the cultural and historical roots that are common to each of us and to our ancestors.
The inspiration for the center's unique concept came from a story written by Moshe Amirav, one of the paratroopers who participated in the battle for Jerusalem in 1967. It is a story about a simple Jew from Vilna whose life's wish and entire being focused on the holy city of Jerusalem, even as he was being led to a concentration camp in Poland.
One of his students, who survived the Holocaust, meets the paratrooper – narrator on the eve prior to the battle to liberate Jerusalem in 1967. He tells the paratrooper about his rabbi, a lover of Jerusalem and ask him to remember, as he leaves for the battle, that he is not alone when fighting for Jerusalem's liberation – but the Jews throughout the generations and the Diasporas are storming forward with him.
During the battle for Jerusalem, the paratrooper tells us, he suddenly feels as though he is a shaliach tzibur, a messenger standing in front an audience of hundreds of generations that preceded him, and that he is fighting in their name and on their behalf.
Visitors to the center hear this story at the last station of the tour, in the Hall of Light.
Patron for the glass installation in the extensive system of ancient tunnels in the Temple Mount in Jerusalem was Mort Zuckerman from New York (a real estate titan and amongst other things owner of The Daily News, the paper with the biggest circulation in New York, as well as US News and World Report).
He, the Israeli Government, and the Western Wall Heritage Foundation cooperated and bore the expenses.
For NEW GLASS, Uta Klotz interviewed Jeremy Langford about the specific situation of working at this outstanding site, the ancient tunnel system within the Temple Mount.
Jeremy Langford: The artwork was to be created at Judaism's nost holy site – the Western Wall in Jerusalem, right next to Temple Mount where today sits the Al'aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site of Islam (after Mecca and Medina) and close to many of the holy sites of Christianity. This is the site of King Herod's Temple, built on the ruins of the First Temple of King Solomon. This was the site of the binding of Isaac and numerous other biblical events.
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. There is a great Kabalistic significance to the Hebrew alphabet. Each letter has its own intrinsic structure – a sacred geometry representing complex energy patterns and manifestations of Spiritual dimensions.
U.K: Did a Specific (architectural) conception exist?
Jeremy Langford: Very much so. The brief I received was to show the history of the Jewish people from Biblical times up to the present day. I created a series of eight sculptures (soon to be nine, last week they commissioned another one) that depicted this but, as far as I was concerned, had a far wider scope.
I saw the underlying theme as a metaphor for the whole state of man. In the same way the Jews have survived for thousands of years despite persecutions, pogroms and so much suffering so too can anyone succeed and indeed thrive, even under the most adverse circumstances.
I see this presentation showing hope for all man-kind. With the right mindset, perseverance and not giving in to external circumstances anything is possible and anyone can succeed. Both individual and society.
U.K: Which role did glass play in this project?
Jeremy Langford: Glass was used here as a medium that could make its own statement, while complementing the architecture and archeology of the site. Glass transmits and reflects light. In most art forms, one works with reflected light. When I was faced with the choice of using translucent light transmitting glass or opaque glass, the decision was clear to me. The material must transmit light – accentuating the essence of the site and these sculptures.
U.K: Did you consider specific conditions?
Jeremy Langford: 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 of 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.
U.K: Did you experience specific problems when erecting the work of art?
Jeremy Langford: Many. The archeologists and the engineers were the main ( I am sorry to say) 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 changes everything. I had to entirely redesign the base of the sculpture and the way it was situated. The engineers created a floor of steel griders 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 to see the history below.
U.K: With whom did you cooperate?
Jeremy Langford: Cooperation was with many different groups. Firstly the Religious authorities – in order not to offend anyone's religious sensibilities. This site is in a very important position in the Old City of Jerusalem – close to many very important religious places to all three monotheistic faiths.
You can see what is happening around the world now because of a cartoon in Denmark. Try to imagine what could happen if I did something 'wrong' here, at the center of it all! Moreover there was much cooperation with archeologists and engineers, the project architect and – very important – the very talented lighting consultant.
U.K: Did you execute any comparable work?
Jeremy Langford: I work in many different glass making techniques but specialize in monumental glass sculpture. I have created many glass sculptures but nothing on this scale before – neither with the sheer physical scale nor in the importance of the site.
I created last year a series of sculpted glass walls, 9 meters high, in a private residence in Jerusalem and a series af glass sculptures in a very interesting private house in the USA. I have created quite a few functional pieces using this technique – tables, doors and screens. Even a few cast bronze and sculpted glass armchairs.