For the Italian writer Italo Calvino, the city ‘does not tell its past, but contains it like lines of a hand’. Few cities contain more lines on their metaphorical hands than Jerusalem, which is approximately 6,500 years old, has been occupied by multiple civilisations, including the Persian, Roman, Ottoman, and British empires, and is holy to Jews, to Christians and to Muslims. Small surprise, then, that it is home to no less than 60 museums and to 2,000 working archaeological sites. To walk the streets is to walk through some of the world’s most ancient texts.
Which is not say that Calvino’s lines speak only of the past. If Jerusalem is the most extraordinary of living museums, then that’s only half the story, for to take the metaphor a step further, there is much even in this most historical of cities that speaks not just of today but also of the future: venture capitalism has found it most amenable; it’s known for its nurturing of the tech start -up; it has proved a sweet spot for many a well-known brand; and long residencies suggest a city full of hope. Outside the walls of the Old City lies a modern cosmopolitan city, one that tells stories of much younger settlings, of people from all over the world, come to the land of milk and honey.
And yet, at the same time, Jerusalem sits at the centre of a long and seemingly unresolvable conflict between Palestine and Israel, one so intractable as to leave the world utterly baffled as to what to do: both countries claim Jerusalem as their own and no can decide who’s right, though it is Palestine that suffers: the Gaza is one of the most overpopulated and impoverished lands in the world. Meanwhile, Israel is surrounded by enemy states, on permanent high alert.
Some, though by no means all, of this rich and complicated time was apparent the moment I stepped, last month, out my hotel in search of several forgotten items: sunglasses, hat, sun cream, and a belt. The first three had everything to do with saving me from a 34-degree heat; the last would save me the embarrassment of my shorts falling down the moment I needed to use both hands for anything else than hold them up.
A quick Google of where to go had sent me in the direction of the Old City Market. I set off for a 20-minute walk, my shorts hanging low. The occasional towering historical building marked the skyline. Everyday shops and supermarkets shared space with high street brands – Footlocker, Tommy Hilfiger, and so on. Ultra-orthodox Jews passed me by. Soldiers stood in pairs on street corners. A group of children played football in the street, one wearing a T-shirt sporting an AK 47.
The market, when I found it, was everything I’d hoped for – noisy, full, chaotic, prepared to strip me of every shekel I had. I left following an hour’s worth of beautiful haggling, everyone a winner.
Given this city of deep time and deep uncertainty, it’s both strange and strangely appropriate that the theme for this year’s Jerusalem Design Week, which I was lucky enough attend, was For Now. Held last month, at Hansen House, it invited local and international designers to create works that ‘explored both the ephemerality of design’ as well as, its curators Tal Erez and Anat Safran told us, ‘the design of ephemerality’.
An increasingly unpredictable future and an increasingly unbelievable past have conspired to create the ever-narrowing slice of time we call the present, and it is the task of design, argues For Now, to address, shed light on, or show a way into at least the ‘short future’ and the ‘short past’. It is to design, in other words, that we must turn for the truth of things. Design is not Fox News or Facebook. It’s not a politician. It’s not bullshit.
You may or may not take this with a large pinch of salt. Personally, I love it, and I loved the exhibition. Both Hansen House itself and its grounds are beautiful, and the event has traditionally had a decidedly party-like atmosphere about it, especially on the opening and closing nights, and For Now was no different: during my short stay I went to the opening party, which featured a band (and their excellent screaming frontman) on the house’s balcony; and ate lunch at the venue’s restaurant and dinner with the curators at a restaurant called Satya.
In between all this I spent most of my time meeting the designers and being introduced to their works, which were installed either outside, in the garden, or in the house’s internal courtyard, or in one of its many rooms.
All in all, there were 150 exhibitions, projects or installations at For Now, all inspired not just by the show’s theme, but also by the curator’s claim, reasonably unusually for a design event, to ‘promote design not from a commercial point of view, but from a social-positive perspective’ – more at the art-theory-conceptional end of the design spectrum then, though there was plenty of work exploring new and old technologies.
I must be honest: I’m not sure I managed to get to see all 150; however, I did see quite a few, and enjoyed meeting the designers. My absolute favourites: Tidhar Zagagi’s Pixel Shoe, Adar Neder Mallel and Tamar Levinger’s Rapid Motion, and Assaf Cohen et al’s OOO.
Already something of a legend, Israeli industrial designer Zagagi has developed a method using PU foam to cast shoes on specially supplied socks. (Unfortunately, I am possibly the only one of the 5,500 visitors who attended For Now whose feet were too big to fit Zagagi’s shoe-cast. I have registered a formal complaint with Mr Zagagi).
I liked Mallel and Levinger’s Rapid Motion for entirely different reasons: inspired by the practice of hormesis (micro-dosing toxins to build up immunity etc.), it’s a fake sauna bathed in the kind of red light few of us admit to being familiar with. Once in and settled, you’re required to sit and stare into a stranger’s eyes and follow discomforting instructions by way of a handy pair of headphones. While there is no actual heat in the sauna, you leave feeling hot.
Finally, while the thinking behind OOO from Cohen and colleagues Shai Dror, Yonatan Dahan and Yosef Mashiach speaks of ‘a mechanism that generates perishable objects and samples bits of time from their short lives’, I imagined it more as a short and rotund god sat in a room lit in rainbow colours blowing smoke rings out through the open door. It was a special moment.
I could have stayed a week longer. Time, however, was not on my side, and in more ways than even Calvino could have imagined. A very early morning taxi to Ben Gurion International Airport ended in a two-hour delayed flight, which meant missing my connection in Athens, which meant missing the first day of my uncle’s stag, which meant missing – and here time was once again my good friend – his climbing into nothing but a gold mankini. Time’s a funny thing.