I entered the Old City through the Christian Quarter. The path leading to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was crowded with souvenir shops selling sun-stained postcards. The path was crowded, too, by idling tourists oblivious to the surrounding foot traffic. I resisted the urge to draw out my guidebook. A man whose tzitzit danced to the weight of his heavy stride had just rushed ahead of me. He’ll lead me to where I want to go. I was the ghost on his heels, the uninvited companion. The man not once sought the guidance of the directional placards affixed to the city’s ancient stone walls. Neither was he distracted by groups of young people speaking more languages than I could recognize. Nor by storefronts whose merchandise slowly changed from gaudy crosses to elegant Judaica. Nor by how franchises became the only purveyors of food and drink once we seamlessly crossed into the Jewish Quarter. Snapping myself back to attention, I realized I had lost my guide.
Left to guess the next steps in the man’s morning ritual, I started paying attention to the placards I had ignored before. They at last brought me to the Western Wall. Well, they brought me to the security station I would need to cross before getting to the Wall. Nerves and heat. A warm January morning. Black tights feeling too snug under a loose dress. With a wool coat draped across my left arm, I thumbed the pages of my passport. They went damp. The line was long. A seemingly eventful crossing was, ultimately, quite banal.
I couldn’t tell which of the men at the Wall was the one I had followed. I was standing too far back. And anyway, tzitzit dangled from the waist of nearly every man rocking forward and back. I teetered on tiptoe just behind the side of the divider that separated Jewish men from their female counterparts, a divider that also separated praying Jews from mere observers. There were far more people on my side chitchatting about lunch plans and souvenirs than caressing the limestone’s worn façade on the other. No one seemed fazed by the disjuncture. Looking toward the women’s side, I noticed a wooden walkway leading up to the Temple Mount. I stepped back into the anonymous crowd of tourists and brought out my guidebook, which assured me that the walkway is open to visitors except during political unrest and Muslim holidays. Indeed, I saw security officials pace back and forth on the narrow walkway overlaid with opaque material and cordoned off at ground level with boards mimicking the Separation Wall between Israel and the West Bank. But as I walked along this wall’s periphery, I couldn’t find a way into the walkway. Where was the entrance?
The elevated walkway would allow me to cross into the Muslim Quarter without exiting the Old City and entering through Damascus Gate, the gate reserved for Muslims, or so said my guidebook. I did not want to ask the patrol officers roaming the plaza, or the fund-raising rabbis who hoped I’d toss them a shekel or two. Scurrying between the two closest check points got me nowhere, except back to the Western Wall. A German couple I bumped into shared my dilemma. A half hour passed before I finally gave up. I reluctantly approached two attendants who were overseeing entrance and exit at the women’s side of the Wall. Surely they could answer my questions. “How do I get up there?” I asked, pointing toward the elusive walkway only a few yards away. Except for the tichel that covered their heads, not much distinguished me from them. Their brows furrowed. One of the women grabbed the ends of her scarf and tightened it at her nape, flattening the rogue hairs that didn’t stand a chance at rebellion. “Are you Jewish?”
* * *
Yael Bartana’s twenty-two-minute video installation, Inferno, is a visual and auditory masterpiece whose epic soundtrack would likely cajole even the most stoic viewer into an emotional frenzy. The film’s point of departure is the third Temple of Solomon (Templo de Salomão) built by the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God in São Paulo, Brazil and opened to the public in 2014. The neo-Pentecostal mega-church is a $300 million project modeled on the first temple in Jerusalem, whose destruction in the sixth century BCE is said to have inaugurated the Jewish diaspora.
Inferno not only visualizes the destruction of the Templo de Salomão but also the reverence for what remains. The film deploys what Bartana calls in her artist statement a “‘historical pre-enactment,’ a methodology that commingles fact and fiction, prophesy and history.” Call it an exercise in disorientation. I looked in awe and horror as the faithful salvaged melting relics while their delicate wreaths fell onto the temple’s burning floor. Carlos Marcio José da Silva, a.k.a. Márcia Pantera, perhaps Brazil’s most famous drag queen, features prominently in the destruction scenes. Her sharp brows and emblazoned eyes struck fear into my soul.
The film cuts to an aerial scene in which the Templo de Salomão implodes, leaving only a wall—the Wall?—that becomes the site of touristic pilgrimage. The camera then hovers over men lined up to first cram prayer notes into the stone’s narrow cracks and then don tallitot before rocking forward and back in unison. Judaica makes an appearance, but this time displayed on a shoddy cart rather than within a secure storefront window. And this time, too, the commodities for sale include menorah coconuts—young, green fruit inscribed with an ink menorah. The tourists/pilgrims hold the coconuts in their supple, sun-kissed hands. They look content. They are in São Paulo, after all.
* * *
I watched Inferno at Museum on the Seam—located on the border of East and West Jerusalem—where it is featured in an exhibition entitled “Thou Shalt Not.” Jewish artists from around the world engage in a critical, visual conversation about the Second Commandment, which is often interpreted as prohibiting idolatry and representations of the divine. But these artists do more than address the predictable tension between what might be called stasis and innovation. They situate their artwork in a concern for a deeply fraught world. Their conversation is three-dimensional. It is audible though not always vocal. It is, at times, incomprehensible. It is urgent. Its unpredictability subverts the tired tropes.
I entered the Old City the same day that I watched Inferno, bookends of roughly a five-hour span. I could recount the details in between, but I won’t.
The song that gives this essay its title is “Out of Time” by Blur. Here is what matters:
“And you’ve been so busy lately
that you haven’t found the time
To open up your mind
And watch the world spinning gently out of time
Feel the sunshine on your face
It’s in a computer now
Gone are the future, way out in space”