Jerusalem has been a place of pilgrimage for thousands of years. “The Jerusalem Show,” however, did not try to turn the holy city into a modern day art mecca, but sought to enact a direct encounter with the city’s residents.
“The Jerusalem Syndrome” was the third installation of the yearly open-air art event organized by the al-Ma’mal Foundation for Contemporary Art, a nonprofit foundation that has connected the Palestinian art scene with the Palestinian diaspora and the international art world. Under conditions of military occupation and political oppression, the ten-day festival hoped to harness the socializing potential that contemporary art often possesses. It drew new lines for a civil society in the city that became an emblem of the conflict, characterized “by the concentration of diversity and its conflicts—spiritual, political and territorial at the same time,” as the curators state in their text. Titled after a mental phenomena documented since the Middle Ages, the Jerusalem Syndrome refers to a series of psychotic religious delusions triggered by visiting the city of Jerusalem. The enduring schizophrenia and paranoia within which the city is immersed—the walled city of Jerusalem, not more than one square kilometer in size, is equipped with a 1,000 surveillance cameras—is present in many of the works exhibited. Among the pieces that evoke this notion are those dealing with exorcism, such as Jumana Emil Abboud’s Seeing Ghosts (2009), an installation with furniture placed in the New Imperial Hotel; those reporting on mental psychosis and the city, such as Nathan Coley’s 2005 video Jerusalem Syndrome, in which an Israeli psychiatrist explains the mental phenomenon; and those that deal with regimes of containment and control, such as Ayreen Anastas and Rene Gabri’s ongoing video project What Everybody Knows (2006– ).
Curators Jack Persekian, director of al-Ma’mal and artistic director of the Sharjah Biennial, and Nina Möntmann, head of the department of art theory and the history of ideas at the Royal University College of Fine Arts in Stockholm, placed the works of some 30 artists in 13 venues in the Muslim, Christian and Armenian quarters of the Old City, with one venue outside the walled city in the Jerusalem Hotel. The Jewish quarter, being in many ways an outpost of Israeli rule inside the walled center, was excluded from the show. Among the venues one could explore, with the help of a map, were Gallery Anadiel, the Swedish Christian Study Center, a café, a restaurant, a bakery, a hotel, a pharmacy and a hospice. Inside the al-Ma’mal space, which hosted the largest portion of the show, a visitor could encounter Spanish-born artist Maider López’s Another Via (2009), an instructional postcard piece in Arabic and English that was distributed free of charge throughout the Old City. The piece presented a set of instructions to the viewer: turn left when you see someone dressed in red, when you see someone smoking, when you see something yellow. In a city where ancient landmarks and holy sites are literally piled on top of each other, López’s piece invites a series of engagements that suggest pursuing the pulse of Jerusalem’s population—adjusting movements based on interactions with people rather than on a map of prescribed sacred locations.
A suite of explicitly political posters by Ramallah-based artist Raouf Haj-Yahia entitled Bread Now! (2009) was spread around the city. Showing pita bread in an envelope ready to be sent to Gaza, a map of the Gaza Strip made with bread and a digitally rendered image of a blister pack containing pita instead of pills, the posters were inspired by the various locations in which they were hung—a pharmacy, a bakery and a restaurant. These works discreetly called attention to the three-year Gaza blockade that climaxed with the war that began in late 2008. “The Jerusalem Syndrome” engaged its host through poetry, documentary, activism and fiction. By actually insisting on random encounters
in the walled city, the Jerusalem Show succeeded in sketching a possibility for a humane, engaged path within this walled conflict.