Taking place for the third time, the Jerusalem Biennale for Contemporary Jewish Art is dedicated to exploring the meeting point of contemporary art and Jewish content. It provides a platform for professional artists who make reference to Jewish thought, spirit, tradition or experience to exhibit their work in Jerusalem. Rather than attempting to define current Jewish art, the project aims to discover and stimulate a multitude of creative responses. The present Biennale, taking place in several Jerusalem locations, is showcasing works of artists from Israel, the USA, Russia and India.
On October 8th 2017, this writer attended the opening of Ethan Dor-Shav’s “Who by Water, Who by Fire” at the Austrian Hospice of the Holy Family, Via Dolorosa, East Jerusalem. Addressing those present, curator of the Dor-Shav exhibition Vera Pilpoul spoke of the Biennale as making Jerusalem a centre of Jewish art and bypassing the complex issues confronting Israelis on a daily basis. The person behind the Biennale initiative and one of its curators is Ram Ozeri, who was present at the event.
In his opening words of welcome, Markus Stephan Bugnar, rector of the Austrian Hospice since 2004, spoke of his long acquaintance and dialogue with Dor-Shav and that this event, taking place for the first time in the historical East Jerusalem venue, had opened a new and meaningful chapter in the history of cooperation with the Austrian Hospice. The rector stressed that no opportunity to cooperate with a Jewish artist should be lost and that reaching Paradise will mean that differences between people will no longer exist. He spoke of connections, of the impactful events represented in the two works and how Dor-Shav has put them into our daily lives.
Created in soft pastel on paper by New York-born Ethan Dor-Shav, two large works stand back to back in the Salon of the Austrian Hospice. The Expressionist works, employing bold gestures of shape, energy and colour, represent two dramatic biblical narratives that focus on the cosmic boundaries of human experience, “the highest and lowest limits of human existence”, in Dor-Shav’s own words. We see Elijah in a flaming storm and surrounded by blazing horses as he ascends to heaven (the outer limit of the metaphysical world of light.) The second work takes the viewer in the inverse cosmic direction, showing Jonah amidst a violent storm descending into the depths of the sea (the periphery of the underworld) where he is to be swallowed by an ancient sea monster. The artist sees the latter as a sign of allowing chaos take a hold on us. Ethan Dor-Shav’s work offers a more contemporary approach to biblical allegories, his mystical, philosophical interpretations dealing with figures who emerge as heroes in all three monotheistic religions.
Born in New York, Ethan Dor-Shav lives in Israel. He studied Philosophy of Science, engaged in advertising and marketing, was an associate fellow at the Shalem Center (Jerusalem), his field being biblical philosophy - concepts of the cosmos, the soul and the afterlife. His close affinity to the movement- and dance world has seen him working on paintings in dance studios. In addition to his long-standing dialogue with Father Markus St. Bugnar, the artist sees a connection with the Austrian Hospice in the fact that he is from an Austrian Jewish family and that his grandparents dreamed of being in Jerusalem. “Who by Water, Who by Fire” comes from the most solemn and soul-searching text recited by Jews on New Year and Day of Atonement: “On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: who will live and who will die, who by fire, who by water … who by earthquake, who by plague…” Ethan Dor-Shav’s art does not soft-pedal these issues: it makes a clear, powerful statement. “Life, for me, is an attempt to synthesize between extremes, without diminishing the power of either”, he writes.
Photos: Ethan Dor-Shav