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Italics – The Careful Choreography of Prayer

italicsBy Ami Spiro*

The layout of the Western Wall is hotly debated among different Jewish religious groups. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is shared – mostly in harmony – among the Greek Orthodox, the Armenian Orthodox, the Catholic Church and several other Christian groups. The Cave of the Patriarchs is strictly divided between the areas under Jewish control and the areas under Muslim control – except for a handful of days out of the year.

These religious sites, and several others across Israel, and their strict governing rules are the focus of a new several-story installation at the 16th International Architecture Exhibition in Venice, Italy.

The Israel pavilion at the exhibition opens this weekend and will remain there for six months, providing visitors an in-depth look at several of the holiest sites around Israel and how the status quo at them is carefully, painstakingly maintained.

“What we are trying to do is to examine these places – instead of examining them in a geopolitical context or in a religious context or even in their architectural style we are trying to understand how architecture is working as an agent in exploring the mechanism through which these places are functioning,” said curator Tania Coen-Uzzielli in a recent interview.

“These places that are contested are in conflict, but they have to function, because they are holy places and people have to arrive and pray and celebrate… we are dealing not with the holy places but with the status quo of the holy places.”

The exhibition, which has been in the works for a year, was curated by Coen-Uzzielli, Ifat Finkelman, Deborah Pinto Fdeda and Oren Sagiv. Their proposal was selected by the Culture and Sports Ministry from a pool of entrants to represent Israel at the exhibition, in which the country has participated since its launch in 1980. Israel has a permanent pavilion at the Venice Biennale, designed by famed Israeli architect Ze’ev Rechter. This year Israel appears at the festival alongside 62 other countries, including first-timers Lebanon, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

In Statu Quo, the name of this year’s Israeli exhibition, visitors are led through five holy structures and receive an explanation of how the status quo at each site affects its functionality. The sites are the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Western Wall, The Mughrabi Bridge, Rachel’s Tomb and the Cave of the Patriarchs.

The exhibit opens on a model of the church designed by German architect Conrad Schick, which he built in 1862. The model is color coded according to areas of control by different Christian denominations, based largely on an Ottoman edict, making the site “the first place where the status quo was established,” said Coen-Uzzielli.

Further inside, against the backdrop of a live feed of the Western Wall, visitors to the pavilion can view models of 10 different proposals for the Western Wall plaza.

The different models represent “two kinds of conflicts – one is the debate between the Orthodox and all the other streams of Judaism,” says Coen-Uzzielli, and “the other conflict is between the national and the religious parts: is this a national site or is this a religious place?” To that end, “no program, no project and no architectural proposal has been realized” at the Western Wall, she says, “because of these different conflicts that are not really negotiated.” The 10 models, selected from dozens of unrealized proposals, each represent a different agenda and manifesto.

Connecting the three floors of the exhibit is an animated video titled “The Ascent,” depicting travel over the Mughrabi Bridge.

“We don’t speak about the Temple Mount because we feel like it is too explosive, we don’t think we can even start to speak about it,” said Coen-Uzzielli. “But we can speak about the Temple Mount from the point of view of the Israeli coming to the Temple Mount.”

The bridge, built quickly and intended to be temporary, has remained in place for more than a decade because any attempts to change it have been met with controversy.

The exhibition also deals with Rachel’s Tomb and the way it has been effectively cut off from the rest of Bethlehem by concrete barriers, part of the West Bank security wall.

The final branch of the exhibit examines the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, a site effectively shared by Jews and Muslims to this day.

“After 1967 the tomb became kind of a shared place,” says Coen-Uzzielli. “For most of the year this [division between the sections] is sealed, and people are not allowed to go from one side to the other side,” she said. But for 20 days out of the year, 10 days for Muslims and 10 for Jews, “it becomes only a mosque or only a synagogue.”

This transformation is depicted in two films by artist Nira Pereg, one showing the switch to a completely Jewish holy site and the other its conversion to a Muslim holy site.

“In one night,” said Coen-Uzzielli, “like the set of a theater, it becomes something else entirely.”

*This article was published in The Jerusalem Post on May 23, 2018.