Art & archaeology meet below the ground of Jerusalem's Old City

The mobile exhibition in its ancient space.
(photo credit: ERIC SULTAN)

An innovative exhibition of the pottery of Nicole Kornberg Jacobovici in Jerusalem

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Climbing down five meters below ground level is perhaps a novel experience for viewing an art exhibition. Nevertheless, that’s what was needed to reach a unique show of ceramics by Canadian-Israeli ceramicist Nicole Kornberg Jacobovici. Her exhibition, called “Arteology: The Power of the Ancients in Contemporary Forms,” took place recently in a newly discovered underground space near the southern side of Jerusalem’s Western Wall, within the Davidson Archaeological Museum. The archaeologist who carried out the dig, Yuval Baruch, explained that the cavernous space was part of the complex water system that brought water to Solomon’s Temple some 2,700 years ago. 

The title “Arteology” is a neologism which defines how the artist combines ancient concepts with modern ceramic designs. 

“I am very influenced by motifs used in ancient cultures,” Jacobovici explained. “The area around the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean produced some wonderful ceramics from clay and stoneware, which inspires me in my work. These civilizations – Mycenaean, Etruscan, Egyptian and ancient Israeli – produced vessels that were both aesthetic and usable.” 

Aesthetic and usable ancient pottery

In her introductory remarks about the exhibition, the curator, Prof. Irit Ziffer, observed: “In the Book of Genesis, we are told that man was made out of clay. God took clay and made a figurine out of it – which was then animated by the breath of God.” 

This observation was echoed in Jacobovici’s later comment: “Clay has an energy; some people say that it has a spirit of its own.”

Jacobovici examining her new gallery space. (credit: ERIC SULTAN)

Ziffer continued her talk by saying that works from clay constitute the oldest material for human beings to mold into shapes. 

“First as figurines, such as for idols,” she said. “Then, when they discovered that it could be put into fire at high temperatures and made into a stone-hard, water-proof material, men began to use clay as containers for liquids and to store grains and so on. Because clay was so available, it was also used for the first scripts. Men wrote on clay and created cylinders of clay.” 

She then referred us to a cylinder made by Jacobovici. “The cylinder seal has a whole design so that when you roll it over clay, you get an endless impression. Moreover, you could make bricks to build a house from clay.” 

Jacobovici was drawn to these ancient tropes, but she also wanted to add something more contemporary.

“All my many pieces are inspired by ancient cultures,” she said, “but I’m taking it somewhere else. I’m trying to put a contemporary face on the pieces. All these ancient cultures – Mycenaean, Etruscan, Egyptian, ancient Israeli – were all the cultures around the Aegean with which we had contact with by living here.”

Jacobivici pointed to one of her works based on the story of Jonah: “This is partly biblical and partly Etruscan. I included a lot of organic forms – fish and waves and so forth.” Pointing to another work of hers – a cylinder seal which recalls the dreams of Joseph – she explains: “This is a very ancient form, which is sometimes used to tell stories. The forms on the cylinder depict the dreams of Joseph and his interpretations.” 

Another biblical reference is found in a blue vase on which are papyrus. “These refer to the story of Moses, who was placed in a basket of reeds and floated down the Nile and was rescued.” 

Placing this exhibition in an actual archaeological site is purposely different. “People would normally go to see contemporary art in a gallery,” said Jacobovici. “So it’s bringing life into an ancient space, an ancient place from the First Temple period. This allows you to experience the ceramics in a different way.”

One of the problems the artist faced was the cave-like space itself. “It’s a tricky space into which to put artwork. The idea behind placing the exhibit here was to give it an organic feel. That is why the works are suspended in space so you can move around them and view them. Thus you experience both the art and the archaeology simultaneously.”

Jacobovici commissioned Nitzan Rafaeli to design the structure to hold all the ceramics. He designed a Calder-like stand that allowed the viewer to see the works from all sides. 

In an adjacent cave, there was a display of raw, unglazed pots, which looked like they were in actual use by ancient people. 

Ziffer defined the significance of the artist’s work: “Nicole is a contemporary descendant of all these ancient potters, and her work is a contemporary take-off of them, inspired by the ancients. She doesn’t imitate the ancient potters, she has creativity of her own. She paints on the plates and carves into the glazure of the background. She experiments in various firing techniques that lend a certain type of texture to the plates. One result of her firing techniques is that she makes material and cultural connections between the two.”

Jacobovici was accompanied by her husband, Simcha, a media personality who is known, among other things, for his innovative TV series on archaeology. At his wife’s show, he observed: “I have seen many archaeological digs, but they are essentially dead sites, a tribute to the long gone past. But here, the archaeological site itself has come alive through Nicole’s ceramics.”

Although this exhibition was on display for only a couple of days in Jerusalem, there are plans to take it to key cities abroad.

“Our idea,” said Jacobovici, “is to display the ceramics elsewhere. We already have interest from Athens, Tokyo and Rome. A very important Italian art critic came especially from London to see the work. We have a photographer who has taken photos of this space here to be used as a background for an exhibition outside Israel. There are other places in the world where we could situate the exhibit in an ancient space. In Rome, for example, there are plenty of ancient caves or spaces that we could use.” 

The exhibition shows what can be done to utilize the past in a creative way, as well as link it to the contemporary world in a fashion that honors both the past and the present.  ■

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