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Canadian artist explores healing through a giant egg

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Alana Ruben's giant egg
Alana Ruben's giant egg

JERUSALEM – When the people of Israel needed healing, Canadian performance artist Alana Ruben Free offered it in the form of a giant egg, exploring motherhood as part of the second Jerusalem Biennale.

The 8-foot-tall (2.5 metre) aluminum egg weighs half a metric ton (1,100 pounds), and can seat three or four people comfortably along the curved bench inside.  Part of Free’s performance piece entitled “Presence=Present,” it stood in the Hechal Shlomo gallery at the heart of an exhibit called “The Art of Motherhood.” Free created the egg in collaboration with Israeli sculptor David Gerstein.

In “Presence=Present,” the viewer is also the performer. Visitors viewed the egg from the outside, then entered it to sit inside for a two-minute period, alone or with a loved one.

Free offered a text to say aloud, which reads, “I love you / I trust you / I respect you / I appreciate your presence in my life.” Silence or other words could be substituted. 

The idea for the experience “germinated,” Free told The CJN, for more than a decade, during which she explored themes of motherhood in other creative ways. 

Free was born in Fredericton, N.B., and earned a degree in business from Western University, where she was a Rhodes Scholar finalist, and a master’s degree in Jewish Studies from Touro College in New York. She helped found the Mom Egg literary journal and presented a number of plays and performance art pieces all over North America before making aliyah two years ago.

In “Presence=Present,” Free envisioned an escape from a “technologically complex world, with continual distractions, [and where] alienation and loneliness are common conditions.”

“I was contemplating what [would be] the best way to give my audience the experience of love. I was thinking about public meditative spaces, how to create a sacred space in the public.”

Around 500 people entered the egg during the Biennale, including her own 20-year-old son, and, at the closing event on Nov. 4, her parents, Allen and Rhona Ruben of Toronto.  She entered the egg with each one in turn.

Visitor numbers were lower than expected due to ongoing violence and stabbings in Jerusalem. However, Free called the experience’s healing potential ideal and well-timed. “I have well over 200 testimonials of people who have been in the egg.” One wrote, “I felt myself pure and new, returning to the womb.”  Another, “During this time of terrible violent acts by our enemies, it gave me a sense of peace.”

“It’s very beautiful… to be a witness to so much love,” said Free, saying one couple from Vancouver Island spontaneously decided to redo their marriage vows inside the egg. 

The Biennale (pronounced “bee-en-ah-LAY”) concept began in Venice in 1895, and has grown to more than 200 events all over the world, including Montreal and Vancouver.

Galleries all over the city showcased nearly 200 artists who explored sacred texts, relationships between Diaspora and Israeli Jews, and the city of Jerusalem itself.

Ram Ozeri, founder of the Jerusalem Biennale, called Free’s piece, “one of the most important and brilliant art pieces we had… It’s a very updated medium, unconventional; it’s an installation and a performance coming together.”

He was surprised, entering the egg with his wife and son.  “From the outside, it looks like one thing … But there’s something so unique, when you sit there inside an art piece.  You feel so intimate, and so close to someone that you care about.”

While most artists did not remain with their pieces during the entire Biennale, Free spent almost every day introducing and guiding visitors from all over the world. “Something shifts when you enter it,” she said.  “It’s a bit of a magical space.  It opens people’s hearts; it opens their imagination.”