CLOUD hatching from her crate beneath the Tower of David in downtown Jerusalem.
It is with growing pain that we watch the latest news unfold in Israel and Gaza. One month ago today we were in Jerusalem, befriending local children, meeting Rabbis, Priests, and Palestinian poets, having conversations about Mecca while drinking cardamom coffee in the kitchen of our Islamic friends, and learning again about the intimacy of presence, the irreplaceable value of experiencing a place firsthand.
From Canada, it’s far too easy to regard the Middle East as a distant entity rife with daily violence and complex struggles for power and freedom. Ancient people developed these spaces and cultures, rising and falling, creating a history so multifaceted and deeply layered that solutions are rarely simple. Within this framework, passions are fiery and sometimes terrifying. But there are also moments of calm, beauty, and brilliance, too often neglected by international media.
During the present turmoil, we are thinking frequently of our international neighbours, and sending our deepest wishes for communication, openness, stability, and peace. We can speak only to our own experiences in Jerusalem, which were brief but rich and fascinating, characterized by the overwhelming generosity of the people we met along the way.
Squeezing CLOUD up a flight of stairs.
Aesthetically, Jerusalem is built from a pale stone, regulated by the government as the primary facade material for all architecture in the city. This regulation creates a certain uniformity, allowing breathing room for architectural forms – both ancient, and new. The site selected for CLOUD by Lights in Jerusalem was a small plaza located in the Armenian Quarter, serving as a corridor from the Tower of David towards the Jewish Quarter of the city.
We shared the space with a Mosque, a tailor shop, several apartments, a medley of kids, and a set of community couches (occupied at different moments by almost everyone in the neighbourhood). The soundscape was thick and gorgeous, a medley of Hebrew and Arabic, balanced by daily calls to prayer from the Mosque, distant traffic, and bird songs.
At times we felt CLOUD was cramped within this space – especially when the sculpture was being squeezed up a narrow stairway that served as the only entrance to the plaza. But this corridor also came with frequent viewership from passersby, and many conversations with people from surrounding communities, most of whom were overwhelmingly supportive.
We were surprised by the number of children who came to visit us while we worked, until someone told us that the plaza is where they usually play soccer, and we were occupying their game space. We felt guilty for this intrusion, but none of them seemed too bothered – we were just another oddity and source of entertainment for them. (Although we’re grateful that no one used CLOUD as a goal post when we left the country…)
Of course, we can’t romanticize our experiences too much. On our first day, I was told by a Rabbi that “Israeli’s are extreme about all their beliefs – they passionately love, and they passionately hate.”Perhaps because Jerusalem is so ancient, and certainly because of political and religious instability, many local people are firm traditionalists. They believe their holy city should remain untouched, and this conviction applies also to temporary public art.
At one point, we were approached by a local shopkeeper who confronted us about the sculpture: “You think this is beautiful? It is ugly. It is a scratch on the face of the city.” While we reassured him that the work was temporary and that he should bring his concerns to the Festival, within moments it became clear that our visitor equated the sculpture (and us) with signs of occupation. Though the conversation was aggressive, it was one of the most important in establishing an understanding of the place we were visiting. When he left, the shopkeeper yelled “I curse this sculpture! It will be here for no more than one week!”
Perhaps his curse worked or maybe he inadvertently read a program guide, but the Light Festival ended just over one week later, and CLOUD was packed into a box and shipped towards Portugal.