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Play Me A River

Let the river run,let all the dreamerswake the nation.Come, the New Jerusalem.—Carly Simon

    Three years after the 1967 Six-Day War, artist Joshua Neustein collaborated with artists Gerry Marx and Georgette Batlle on what had become the first conceptual work of art in Israel. Entitled “The Jerusalem River Project,” the process began in the late 1960s with many conversations about the new energy of reunited Jerusalem. Unlike most major cities, Jerusalem had been dry for centuries, collecting its water from surrounding rural springs through antiquated systems of aqueducts, pipelines, open-air pools and private cisterns. Neustein and his circle of friends, New Yorkers living in Jerusalem, responded to the folklore and memories of Palestinian and Israeli cultures, which had, for generations, been longing for a river or a sea for the parched city on the hills of the Judean desert. Ancient maps of Jerusalem pointed to an imaginary river, and in the Bible, prophecies described a river of holy water, with trees that brought forth new fruit every month and leaves that provided healing. 
   In 1970, Neustein, Batlle and Marx decided to run a miraculous river through Jerusalem. They envisioned it would be a river of sounds that would flow in a dry riverbed. The artists collected the sounds by travelling throughout Israel and tape-recording sounds of water flowing from real natural water sources.
   “When we dealt with the technology of creating sounds of water, we could have done it by frying eggs or boiling water, but we knew that it would be fake,” Neustein says. “There was a theatrical truth in our plans. We knew we had to drag the 35-pound tape-recorder to all the springs and waterfalls of Israel, to all the corners of the land, record the sounds and then mix and match to the topography of the terrain where the sounds were inserted. It was alchemy, but not fakery. Emphatic sounds of modernism and cusp of postmodernism, recorded sound, noise, silence, the fluid sounds of immersion and dripping and voices of viruses, aural activities in visual arts.”           
   Neustein located a dry mountain valley outside of Jerusalem, for he had intended that the recorded resonance would echo over the land. He had also found the convent of St. Claire Monastery and asked the resident nuns to provide the electricity needed for the installation. Initially the nuns had refused to involve the convent with an art project, but when the artist explained that the piece was about water flowing over the dry mountain valley, they had a change of heart and enthusiastically agreed to help. Neustein, Batlle and Marx connected an electrical cord to St. Claire Monastery and extended it for the length of two kilometers along the dry riverbed of Abu Tor, ending at the valley of Kidron. They attached Styrofoam cups at several designated points, which served as loudspeakers. Finally, when the tape was turned on, the poetry of nature sounded.  
   “Here was a situation so seductive as to draw water from a sound tape, like drawing blood from a stone,” Neustein recalls.
   A newly commissioned installation by Neustein is on view at Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto through January 3, 2010.  In “Margins,” the artist is forming a dialogue with the historical and cultural contexts of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are concurrently exhibited at the museum. Neustein embedded a beautiful crystal chandelier into the museum wall. Unraveling towards its brightness, transparent acrylic sheets are collapsed on the floor, bearing shimmering texts. Drawn out by light, handwriting becomes typography, coalescing words into crystallized form. The script escapes the page, crossing margins into the space where writing struggles to uncover the unwritten.
   And locally, in conjunction with Chicago’s Burnham Plan Centennial, Dr. David Solzman is going to discuss the changes that have defined the Chicago River in the 20th century. His examination starts with the river’s reversal in 1900 and concludes with its renaissance as wildlife returns and recreation rises. The free lecture will take place August 27, from noon to 1:00 p.m., at the McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum, located on the Riverwalk level of the Michigan Avenue bridge. The lecture will be followed by a book signing of Solzman’s The Chicago River: An Illustrated History and Guide to the River and Its Waterways.

Published: August 09, 2009
Issue: Fall 2009 Water Issue