A couple days after the end Rosh Hashanah, a sales agent led a group of Americans out onto the balcony of a still-under-construction apartment in the Boutique HaNevi’im building, one of the many luxury housing complexes that have risen out of the Jerusalem skyline in recent years. The group of potential buyers admired a view that stretched from the glittering gold Dome of the Rock mosque on the Temple Mount to the Damascus Gate and towers of Hebrew University on the ridge of Mount Scopus.
Meanwhile, in the apartment’s living room, artist Sam Griffin worked quietly on a large grey-and-white oil painting depicting a construction worker looking out a window at the same view. He was painting a picture of a construction worker to draw attention to those who will likely never live in such high-end housing. “The workers here are like ghosts,” said the London-born Griffin. “No one pays attention to them. Working up here really made me think about what all these luxury apartments mean, and my painting is a reaction to that.”
Griffin is one of a dozen contemporary artists who are spending the two weeks before Sukkot creating works inspired by the views from the complex’s balconies and rooftops. Azorim, the company building the complex reached out to the Jerusalem Biennale for Contemporary Jewish Art, and initially offered the lobby of its building as an art gallery, as a way to be more involved in the local community, said Ram Ozeri, founder and director of the biennale, which will take place for the third time in 2017. But after more discussion, Ozeri, Azorim officials, and a local art gallery came up with the idea of having the artists actually work on the property; the three parties together are sponsoring the project as a way to promote the upcoming biennale.
During Sukkot, whose Biblical roots emphasize pilgrimage to Jerusalem not only for the Jewish people, but for all the nations of the world, the diverse set of paintings, sculptures and multimedia works created here will be on public display on the building’s rooftop in an event reflective of the city’s growing contemporary art scene.
“The view from up here is so classic that it has the potential to be kitschy, but with these artists that’s not what happened,” Ozeri said. Unique pieces have emerged, imbued with strong and mixed feelings about the city.
Among the works are a series of four abstract paintings by New Jersey-born Yoram Ra’anan that depict the views of the city at different times of day and night. He first took hundreds of digital photos of the view, then from those created paintings on canvas, which are actually done on top of older, unrelated paintings.
“I wanted to give a sense of the spiritual energy, where heaven meets earth,” Ra’anan told me as he stood next to his paintings inside another yet-to-be occupied apartment.
Out on the balcony, Debbie Kampel put the finishing touches on a colorful scene focused on the traffic circle outside the Old City’s Damascus Gate, site of a recent spate of terrorist attacks.
“It’s not a scene that everyone recognizes,” said Kampel, who was born in South Africa. “But I was trying to show dreams meeting reality. You have this holy city, yet you have the day-to-day life of loud buses and people screaming at each other.”
Nearby, Leah Silver and Hovav Landoy, who both grew up in Jerusalem, have built a large structure from the colorful straws and connectors of a popular children’s building toy, depicting the cluttered and layered nature of the city. The installation also includes a recording of sounds from Jerusalem’s streets played over Silver singing a Biblical hymn of yearning for the city. “The view from up here is so complicated,” Silver said. “We are still working on it, but we hope to create something that really looks like it’s been ripped out of the scenery.”
Sara Toth Stub is a Jerusalem-based American journalist who has written for The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones Newswires, Associated Press, and other publications.