As Israeli artists become increasingly prominent on the global art scene, and with their art frequently reflecting a high degree of social engagement, a question arises: How much does our understanding of Israel’s multilayered history and present-day conflicts influence our interpretation of their work?
Passions and tensions that are both broadly humanist and deeply rooted in Israeli reality figure prominently in the work of Sigalit Landau, an Israeli artist born in 1969 whose multipart video installation is on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City through July 28. I first met Landau in 2001, at Thread Waxing Space, a now-defunct nonprofit performance and visual arts gallery on Lower Broadway. I recall ascending a spiral ramp and witnessing a slight, blonde figure (the artist), naked or nearly so, making her way around an enormous crater filled with dunes of granulated sugar and spun webs of cotton candy in various stages of formation. A slightly sickening smell of burnt sugar filled the air, as a constantly whirring fan blew the thatched fibers around the crater, across Landau’s body, and into visitors’ eyes and hair. Who was this Lawrence-of-Arabia-style explorer, with her bulimic art, at once visceral and disquieting?
More questions arose when I encountered her Barbed Hula (2000), a two-minute video of the artist’s naked torso, spinning a hula hoop made of a ring of barbed wire on the shores of the Mediterranean. That work was included in Global Feminisms, a broadly international survey of recent feminist art at the Brooklyn Museum in 2007. Again, for both artist and viewer, Landau’s piece seemed to test the limits of endurance. And why, I wondered, in this global context, was Israel represented by an act of wounding?
Barbed Hula is one of three video installations at MoMA, each (like its predecessors) employing the motif of centrifugal motion. In DeadSee (2005), a cord connects five hundred green watermelons, which form a spiral raft on the buoyant, salt-rich waters of the Dead Sea. In their midst floats the naked body of the artist, her outstretched arm clutching a melon, one in a cluster that have been cut open, exposing their bright red flesh. Slowly, over the course of the video, the spiral unfurls, as melons and artist drift beyond the picture frame. And in Day Done (2007), the artist leans out the window of a ramshackle house in Tel Aviv, painting a black circle on the wall around the window frame. As night falls, she’s replaced by a man, who leans out and paints over the circle with white. Complementing the videos is a series of hanging sculptures, crafted of barbed wire, that were submerged in the Dead Sea, emerging with thick crusts of crystals.
I spoke with Landau on the phone from the home in Tel Aviv that she shares with her partner, the artist and industrial designer Eitan Sharif, and their infant daughter, Imree.
In some of your earlier works, you seemed to draw inspiration from Israel’s immigrant communities.
Yes, I have a natural tendency to detect shulayim, margins. There’s some kind centrifugal force that sends me always to the edges of cities or societies. Perhaps it’s because my parents were immigrants.
My mother was born in London, a year after her parents escaped from Vienna, and she came to Israel in the 1960s. My father’s family, they were German-speaking Jews from Czernowitz in Romania. As a baby he was taken with his parents to Mogilev concentration camp, where his mother fell ill. After the war, she made it to Israel and died. He grew up in an orphanage in Israel and was later reunited with his father.
So their stories helped shape your interest in the margins of culture.
Yes, and in history, in homelessness, in being a stranger. My parents were critical and always in opposition to whatever was going on here. They were revolutionaries, in my family, until more or less our generation. My brother and I are trying to survive amid things that are changing here. It’s a different time, which worries you in a different way, whether through corruption, or threats, or a feeling of apocalypse. It’s not a time of revolution, and I miss that.
A lot of your work involves what appears to be extreme discomfort. When I first saw Barbed Hula, for example, I found it almost impossible to look at. Though if you look closely, you see that the barbs are pointing away from the body.
There are examples of artists who create pain, just for the sake of it, because the work is about that. With me, the pain is part of the work, but what is actually going on is something else. Somebody is busy doing something. Why isn’t she dealing with the pain? That said, I would never take a barbed hula and make a performance with a live audience. It’s a performance for the camera.
At the museum the other day, you were talking about the sea in Barbed Hula being Israel’s only peaceful border, and that the work was also about the borders of the body.
The hula is also a game, a dance, and it’s also protecting me, because when I stopped doing the hula hoop, that’s when I got wounded. It has to do with the need to keep going, because when I stop, I have to jump out of the hoop so that the barbs don’t touch me.
When we first met, during your 2001 installation at Thread Waxing Space, I had the impression that you were living in Berlin and Tel Aviv.
I did my around-the-world tour, not in eighty days but in eight years. I left Israel and went to Berlin on a scholarship, then I went to live in London, then in Paris, then in New York for half a year. I was a student at Bezalel Academy and I went on an exchange program to Cooper Union, where I studied with Hans Haacke. So I traveled and came back to Israel, and basically, I’m making my art here.
With a work like DeadSee, for me the associations that come up are very much tied to Israel. There are others, art-historical ones—Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, of course, Ana Mendieta’s performances, or even the pictures of Karl Blossfeldt, formally speaking. But I was thinking, in terms of Israel, of the closely connected society, and that everyone has a tie to the wounded.
People ask me to explain, and more or less they like the work because it’s beautiful. So it’s interesting to hear someone who is close to my culture talk about it. There’s a cord, it’s going through all of [the watermelons], some are wounded, some are not, one minute they’re together, the next minute they’re apart. But you know, you’re invited to interpret, to be active in the reading of the work. And sometimes just stating the facts is easier than making the most of an iconography. Because it’s such an extreme place, the Dead Sea, it’s already like an idea.
What do you mean?
It’s so extreme, it’s like a text. Something that is so lifeless and so physical—
—is already a metaphor for something, already carries symbolic weight.
You’ve been working with the Dead Sea a lot in the past few years.
I’m attracted to it because of the history around it. Also the buoyancy, what it allows me to do physically—it’s like being on the moon, more or less. I made several pieces there with video, and with watermelons. The best kind of watermelons in Israel are grown around there. Because they’re an easy crop, and because when watered with salt water, they compensate by making themselves sweeter.
There actually is a fruit that symbolizes Israeliness, and that’s the sabra. It’s sweet, but prickly. To me it’s a very self-loving metaphor, for people who give themselves the permission to behave prickly, because they think that inside, they’re actually sweet. I don’t think I’d ever make a work with a sabra.
Making work in Israel, do you sometimes feel overwhelmed by the symbolism of the place?
Well, to the right of the Dead Sea there’s Masada, and on the left, Sdom, where Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt. I didn’t do a video about Sdom or Masada, or early Christianity, which was going on there. I didn’t even mention the special kibbutz that was founded there in the ’30s, by pioneers who managed to take the Jordan River and wash the land, and grow the most amazing tomatoes and raise fish on the Dead Sea’s northern shores. If you want to go deeply into narrative, you can. As you said, the place is dense and everything is symbolic. It’s annoying and exhausting to live inside ruins. But first of all, I grew up in Jerusalem, so anyplace is lighter than that.
Also, looking at this country on the news, people don’t realize how easy it is to have a regular day here. But I take guests around the country, and they also don’t realize how tiny it is. So it’s kind of a non-place. It’s a crystallized chunk of stories more than a place. Normally, except for the writers, artists who are successful leave.
I have work in a show which just opened at the Israel Museum, about ten years of Israeli art. Most of my friends from the ’90s don’t live here anymore. They came in to put up work, or they sent work with instruction. I keep leaving and coming back. But I’m based here. Not for artistic reasons but for human reasons.
Hard to separate them, isn’t it?
Leslie Camhi’s first-person essays and writings on art, photography, film, design, fashion, and women’s lives, have appeared in The New York Times, Vogue Magazine, and many other publications. Her translation from the French of Violaine Huisman’s award-winning debut novel, The Book of Mother, was published this month by Scribner. She’s on Twitter @CamhiLeslie and on Instagram @drlesliecamhi.