The exhibition Heavens and Earth began with a children’s book. The book “Michael and the Monster of Jerusalem” by Meir Shalev, illustrated by Emanuele Luzzati, was published in 1989 by the Tower of David Museum, which opened that year. The story starts with the adventures of Michael, a boy from Jerusalem, who exits his home one night, and mischievously leaves strange footprints in the snow covering the city. The monster-like footprints cause a great commotion, and city residents search for the monster living amongst them. The next night, Michael meets the Shneiorir - the monster of Jerusalem, who is made entirely of stone panels and feeds off of pine trees and pinecones. The Shneiorir asks Michael to confess his deeds, so the city’s people will stop searching for him, and his life will be able to continue peacefully, as it had for the past 7500 years he lived in the city.
Daniel Paley, Michal Sophia Tobiass and Shirel Safra, whose works are presented in the exhibition, are Jerusalem natives who as adults chose not to live there anymore. Inspired by the book, the artists were asked to return to a place, story, experience or local event from their childhood in the city, which for them constitutes the “monster” of Jerusalem – and to observe it anew. Within the working process in preparation for the exhibition, and it remains unclear whether this was a mere coincidence, it appeared as if all the works found inspiration in stones: whether as a raw material, a narrative element, an object or as a location, which bears a significant personal memory.
Michal Sophia Tobiass’ work, Untitled (Ein Yael), extends over all the gallery’s walls. Tobiass has drilled dozens of holes of differing sizes into the walls, in an act that is part drawing, part sculpture, over the surface of the entire gallery space. At first glance, the pattern of holes appears random, and elicits thoughts about the historical marks and scars dispersed among the urban, geographical and demographic fabric alike. The perforated space of the walls is indeed connected to the city’s complex history, yet not just in a capricious or metaphorical way: this is a precise, calculated arrangement. On September 4, 1997, at three ten in the afternoon, Tobiass’ childhood friend, Yael Botvin, fourteen years old, was killed in the triple terrorist attack on the Ben Yehuda Promenade, along with four other casualties. The hole drawing on the gallery walls seeks out the pattern of stars in the sky, precisely as they shined at that place and time.
Daniel Paley’s work, Self-Portrait in the Judean Hills, presents a series of several scales positioned on the gallery floor. They are made of local materials: tree branches, rocks and stones taken from the hills of Jerusalem and handbuilt clay plates. Despite their heavy, grounded materiality, the scales have the ability to move, and the gentlest touch can spin them around on their axes, as if they were a compass swaying in front of Tobiass’ map of stars on the walls, or rock them up and down, between the heavens and the earth.
For Paley, an engagement with how scales operate was born out of an engagement with the social, religious and economic polarization that characterizes the city. Yet the scales stand at the midpoint between the multiple extremities: between the act of taking from nature and studying and preserving it, between natural material and the work of human hands, between durable and degradable materiality.
Shirel Safra’s work, Small Steps Upwards, which is sewn like a winding rope ladder, draws inspiration from Ezra Orion’s sculpture, Ma’a lot, better known as Jacob’s Ladder, installed on Herzog St. in the city. Growing up in the surrounding neighborhood, Safra used to hang out with his friends near the sculpture. Climbing up the sculpture was a popular and notorious “dare”. Sometimes this dare ended with a call to the fire department, who were brought to the scene to rescue a youth who succeeded in reaching the sculpture’s heights – but got stuck between the heavens and the earth, and couldn’t get back down.
Safra’s ladder is sewn from used socks – socks that were worn, walked in, and made significant strides in this world. For Safra, both the socks and the ladder constitute a personal symbolic mesh that relates to Safra’s departure from the city: As the descendant of a family that has been in Jerusalem for eight generations, leaving the city was a complex and highly meaningful decision for him. Safra was just like Jacob, who left his home and dreamt on his journey about a ladder which angels ascend and descend: The climbing competitions on Orion’s sculpture elicited in Safra multiple dreams about falling from heights, which over the years were replaced by dreams about the possibility of flying - of controlling the fall and directing it according to his will. The socks on our feet, like the ladder which links the upper and lower realms, represent for him the possibility of going from one place to another, of moving away from the familiar and climbing towards the unknown.
Like Paley’s scales, Safra’s ladder also becomes an element that links the land and the starry firmament. The stone piles that carry Paley’s scales are transformed, in turn, into the stones that served Jacob as a pillow when he dreamt about the ladder. Tobiass’ map of stars covers all of these all around, laying a pained sky above the brittle, unsteady ground. It would appear that any process that occurs on the earth, also has a place in the heavens – both in the physical and metaphysical sense. In its own way, each of the works offers a softened and accepting perspective on the monsters of the past. Together they strive, perhaps, to offer us the potential to heal and recover.
Later in Shalev’s story, Michael and the Shneiorir continue to meet over several nights, during which the monster unfolds the local history before the curious boy, including the multitude of conquests, struggles and different names given to the city. Before they part, the Shneiorir gives Michael a small stone. Michael is insulted by the small and common gesture, yet the Shneiorir explains with a smile: “There are no common stones in Jerusalem”.