The Western Wall Tunnels Visitors Center
General Overview of the Glass Sculptures
The Artist’s Perspective.
Five years ago The Western Wall Heritage Foundation , along with their architect, Eliav Nachleli asked me to create a series of monumental glass sculptures for the new visitor’s center at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. My task was to create eight glass sculptures representing the history and development of the Jewish people since their beginnings at the time of the Patriarchs-Abraham, Isaac and Jacob up to the present day return to Israel.
The task of designing and creating these sculptures was indeed a challenge. The responsibility was overwhelming. I was also aware of the potential minefield I was about to enter. I needed to exercise great sensitivity and discretion in order to avoid offending religious sensibilities in what is probably the world’s most potentially explosive site.
The Artwork was to be created at Judaism’s most holy site, right next to the Al’aqsa Mosque- the third holiest site of Islam (after Mecca and Medina) and close-by to many of the holy sites to 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. Many of the stories from the life of Jesus occurred here as well. Today on the mount sits the Al'aqsa Mosque and the Golden Dome of the Rock. Mohamed is reputed to have ascended to Heaven from this spot
I had to find an artistic language that would cut across all boundaries and that all could relate to. There is also the biblical prohibition against graven images and it would have angered many people in had I started drawing literal images of revered Biblical personages at Judaism’s holiest site. It was decided, therefore, to use an abstract form to be a symbol of figures from the biblical narrative. Non-figurative sculpture-something very close to my heart- is a language that can be read on many levels. This would have no definitive form that would offend someone’s internal images of Abraham or an important biblical figure for him.
All this was to me the ultimate artists dream-an amazing design challenge at one of the most important religious and cultural sites in the world. The result is 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 2000 years ago-King Herod was an amazing builder. It was truly an awesome experience to create such sculptures in these ancient catacombs.
I wanted to create my statement and imprint on this project, respecting the power of over 2000 years of art ,architecture and life on the site. The place buzzes with the energy of all that has gone on there. The place is alive-The archeologist Abraham Solomon, who carried out the excavations told me that when he returned home after a day excavating the Roman latrine his wife would complain to him of his smell. “2000 year old ‘organic matter ‘” was his explanation.
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 the 2000 year old Roman ritual bath underneath. While preparing this, an extremely rare find was unearthed- a wall from the period of King Solomon’s Temple! What we have now then is a room spanning a period of 3000 years. One views a 21st century sculpture, above one’s head is a ceiling from the Crusader period and walls from Mameluke times. Below the sculpture sits the 2000 year old perfectly preserved 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
I was given a series of rooms –the youngest of which dates back to Crusader times and the oldest with 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 express 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 and 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 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.
This historic site itself became a work of art.
Glass was used here as a medium that could make its own statement, while complimenting 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.
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 dead substance is transformed into one of the most beautiful and versatile materials known to man. Strong, but elastic, transparent, but with clear boundaries, glass glows and transmits light. The same message expressed in glass is the message of this exhibition. For me these sculptures portray the basic history of the Jewish People . They 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.
One of the techniques used to create these sculptures is the cold glass method of sculpting and stacking glass. I chose this technique from many possibilities because of its powerful aesthetic expression as well as its inherent symbolism. Layer upon layer of glass representing the layers of the long history of the Jewish people. This layering is representative too of the different civilizations, cultures and history inherent in the site.
The sculptures are constructed from tens of thousands of pieces of float glass that range in size from 160cm to a huge free-form sculpted column of over 9 meters in height weighing over 15 tons. The 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.
There were numerous engineering problems. Some of the ancient structures are very robust-particularly the Herodian buildings. The archeologists discovered engineering mistakes made by Mamuluke builders some 800 years ago which caused extensive headaches when we had to install the 15 ton ‘Yearning’ sculpture.
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.
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.