From New York to Ramle – modern art in an ancient setting puts Israeli city on the map

For New York-based sculptor, artist and author Daniel Rothbart, the subterranean Pool of Arches was the perfect location for his latest art installation, 'RamleAnthroposcene'

RAMLE, Israel – The mixed Jewish-Arab city of Ramle, which sits about halfway between the bustling metropolises of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, is not the most obvious place for an international art exhibition.

Yet for New York-based sculptor, artist and author Daniel Rothbart, whose multidisciplinary compositions aim to draw attention to the human role in the global environmental crisis, the city’s subterranean Pool of Arches was the perfect location for his latest installation.

Rothbart, who has installed his surreal, floating works of art in water sites around the world, including in the Hudson River, told Jewish Insider that he discovered the ancient underground reservoir quite by accident and knew immediately he had found a place for his artwork.

“It was COVID-19, and everything was shut down, who knew what was going on with the world — but in my mind, I wanted to go to Israel,” Rothbart, an author of three books, including Jewish Metaphysics as Generative Principle in American Art, told JI in an interview last month on the eve of the opening of his ‘RamleAnthroposcene’ exhibition.

“I remembered my first work trip to Israel in 2003 and how much I loved it,” continued the artist. “I thought it was a fascinating place to work and it was one of those places I always wanted to return to.”

Stuck at home, Rothbart began reaching out to people from the art world in Israel whom he’d met on his previous trip to the country and was connected with Smadar Sheffi, a well-known curator. Rothbart Googled Sheffi and discovered that she was the founder and chief curator at the Contemporary Art Center in Ramle.

Rothbart’s installation in Ramle (Photo by: Ron Peled)

“I’d never heard of Ramle,” exclaimed Rothbart, adding that his research led him to a website depicting the Pool of Arches. “It was love at first sight, such a perfect venue for my floating sculptures, completely unique and unlike any other space, except for maybe in Istanbul, which has a similar [underground water] system.”

“I felt it was gorgeous,” he continued. “A kind of timeless environment with this medieval cistern that you traverse in a rowboat, and it just seemed ideal for my sculptures. I could see them framed under these Gothic arches and it just seemed perfect.”

Through a series of Zoom calls and messages, Rothbart quickly convinced Sheffi, who founded Ramle’s modern art center in 2019, that the 1,200-year-old pools, which today serve as a tourist site, should become his next canvas.

“At that stage, it was all aspiration,” recalled Rothbart. “We didn’t know if the world was going to get back to normal and we didn’t have any money either, so I wrote a grant proposal to the New York State Council on the Arts, and this is where it all gets pretty strange.”

Rothbart’s proposal was mysteriously accepted by the council, even though projects outside of New York are not typically funded.

Fast-forward to late last month, when Rothbart arrived in Israel, along with several gigantic containers holding the carefully crafted metal pieces and glass rounds ready for installation inside the turquoise waters that form the underground pool.

Working in the water, beneath the 36 stone arches that lend the place its name, Rothbart assembled his sculptures, which are anchored with weights but move freely with the water’s light ripples. The contemporary shapes of his works, which are located in two corners of the underground reservoir and strung up from above, form a kind of mystical marriage with the historic style of the medieval site, which was built some 1,233 years ago by the region’s Muslim rulers.  

Rothbart explained that his sculptures are about life and are meant to reflect the relationship of humans to the ecosystem.

“For me, the sculptures call to mind these ancient, prehistoric animals or sea creatures that might have existed when Israel was covered with ocean water millions of years ago, or insects or something that is not human,” he continued.

“So maybe it brings together something from the distant past and something that could tragically represent our future if we’re not very careful in terms of how we steward our precious water resources and our relationship with the environment,” Rothbart added.

Sheffi told JI that Rothbart’s work was a perfect fit for Ramle, a city that was founded in the early eighth century during the Umayyad Caliphate and today has a modest population of about 76,000, three quarters of which is Jewish, one-quarter Arab.

“[Rothbart’s work] is very good art, and we are a center for contemporary art with the highest standards,” Sheffi, whose center also oversees the site-specific work at the Pool of Arches, told JI. “The way Daniel addresses the history and our current ecosystem in his ‘Anthropocene’ artwork offers visitors a very spiritual experience.”

Rothbart’s exhibition, which runs through Dec. 15 and also includes specially composed poetry, as well as video images projected on the ancient walls of the underground site, will eventually make its way back to New York, where he will give a presention both at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan on the Upper West Side and also at WhiteBox, a progressive contemporary arts space.

Asked his impressions of Ramle, an often rough city in middle Israel, after coming from New York, which is widely considered the art capital of the world, Rothbart, said the city’s colorful population and rich history is inspiring.

“A walk on the street here is so colorful and fascinating, there are all these different cultures,” Rothbart, a Fulbright scholar who spent a few years working in Italy, said. “It’s also a city where it seems like people generally get along even though it’s a mixed city.”

“I lived in Naples, Italy, in the early ’90s, when it was a pretty rough-and-tumble city, and Ramle is even more exotic,” he added. “There are Arabs and people from every corner of the Jewish world and then there are these wonderful sites – the White Mosque, which was once one of the most important mosques in the area, Smadar’s museum and the Pool of the Arches.”

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