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The Chosen Ones: An Interview With Nissim Ben Aderet

The Tel Aviv-based artist on ‘action painting,’ being naked, and the beauty of concluding Yom Kippur at the beach

Periel Aschenbrand
March 03, 2017

In 2008, contemporary artist Nissim Ben Aderet left his big, fancy job as a visual communication director at one of the biggest fashion brands in Israel to pursue art full time. Within a year, the Tel Aviv native’s work was included as part of the first International Art Biennale in Israel. Since then, his art has exhibited all over the globe.

Ben Aderet’s unique technique has been referred to as “action painting,” in which he creates large format paintings and drawings out of a single line that extend beyond the canvas and onto his body; to become a part of the canvas. Start to finish—in one action—his brush touches the canvas and out of one line, an entire world is borne. In so doing, he blurs the line between performance art and art itself, which begs the question: Where does it begin, and where does it end? His new project tackles this question head-on.

Periel Aschenbrand: Let me start by asking you about your new project, which is so insane and incredible that it is, actually and literally, like watching art come to life.

Nissim Ben Aderet: It was a kind of surprise for me.

(Photo: Miri Davidovitz)
(Photo: Miri Davidovitz)

PA: Why is it a kind of surprise for you?

NBA: Because it was very intimate for me—to take off my clothes and then show that to everybody. It was a challenge, but it was something I really wanted to do. Also, I’ve been running a lot at the beach, so I figured it was about time I show off my body.

PA: You look pretty damn good, I’ll give you that. So this was something you wanted to do for a while?

NBA: It’s been my dream—to go inside my lines and to become part of the canvas. When I draw, it’s like I disappear and I don’t see myself, I only see the lines.

PA: That’s a very interesting thing to say because watching you draw is such an intense and captivating experience, that I’m not surprised to hear you say that—you do kind of become part of the canvas. I wonder, is it meditative? I know you’ve done yoga forever.

NBA: I stopped after 12 years of practicing Iyengar, because I understood it made me handicapped.

PA: Oh my god. Really? How? Please tell me, I love hearing terrible stories about yoga.

NBA: It almost broke my back. Then I stopped and after three months, suddenly I can walk straight… And I started running. Like a lunatic.

PA: So this project was your idea?

NBA: It was my vision. But it was after I met Miri Davidovitz, the photographer, that I felt she brought me to a place where I could do it. It’s not just that I love her work, but she gave me the confidence I needed. She was interested in doing something that leaned toward fashion, and I was interested in “becoming the canvas,” and so we met in the middle.

PA: And can you walk me through the actual shoot? Where did it take place?

NBA: In my studio [in Tel Aviv]. We barely spoke during the shoot. We just picked a day and got to the studio and understood we were going to do it. I didn’t know I was going to be naked in the end. It was something that organically happened in the process. So half a day I walked around with my bool bool hanging out.

(Miri Davidovitz)
(Miri Davidovitz)

PA: How many people were on set?

NBA: Me and Popi, my dog. The second I drew on myself, I got a feeling like I was in a spiritual holy ceremony. Suddenly I felt African. Tribal.

PA: You are African, aren’t you? Where are your parents from?

NBA: Turkey.

PA: Close enough. How long the entire project take?

NBA: Six hours.

(Miri Davidovitz)
(Miri Davidovitz)

PA: You didn’t eat?

NBA: Dark Chocolate.

PA: That’s it?

NBA: I ate a banana before we started.

PA: How long did the ink take to get off?

NBA: I think I still have it on me. I had to walk home like that!

PA: Who picked the clothes?

NBA: The designer, Eliran Nargassi, who is wonderful. I didn’t know what it was going to be beforehand, just that it would be monochromatic. I didn’t even have a mirror. I just saw it and he came to dress me.

PA: So he was on set too?

(Miri Davidovitz)
(Miri Davidovitz)

NBA: By the time I took my bool bool out, he was gone.

PA: Too bad, he looks cute. Can you talk to me a little about your work, in more general terms?

NBA: First of all, I draw lines. It is the line that is interesting to me. I love the intersections. When a line meets another line, I love what comes out of this. I draw a single line that creates a connection between people. And animals. And objects.

PA: Basically, you create an entire world out of one line?

NBA: Yes. I draw a single line, and in one motion I form the sketch. The figures move in empty space and create endless motion among themselves.

PA: This is kind of a ridiculous question, but how many hours does it take to make a piece, on average?

(Miri Davidovitz)
(Miri Davidovitz)

NBA: You know when you call a girlfriend on the phone and it can either be a really short call or a really long call?

PA: Yeah.

NBA: But you can never know beforehand how long the call will be?

PA: Right. That’s perfect. And have your parents seen this?

NBA: Not yet. I was just thinking about this in the shower. I wonder what they will think? I think they will like it. My mother will definitely like it. On the other hand, she’ll definitely tell me I need a haircut.

PA: Ha ha ha! Do they understand what you do?

NBA: I think they understand what I do. They want to understand what I do. They’re definitely very supportive. I think they’ll understand it better when I’m able to buy a house from it.

PA: They sound like the quintessential Jewish parents. May I ask you a personal question?

(Miri Davidovitz)
(Miri Davidovitz)

NBA: Sure.

PA: Do you hate color?

NBA: No.

PA: So why do you never use any?

NBA: When you’re writing, you don’t switch color in the middle, right? Like, now I’m talking about a woman, I’m going to switch to pink, you don’t do that, right?

PA: Right.

NBA: So, it’s like that. And in my imagination, I can color it in any color I want.

(Miri Davidovitz)
(Miri Davidovitz)

PA: But you see it in black and white.

NBA: Yes, but if I want, I color it.

PA: In your imagination.

NBA: Yes, and when do it your imagination, you can change color whenever you want. And so for this reason, I’m interested in making a coloring book one day. And it will be interesting to see people’s interpretations because the distinctions aren’t clear in the original drawings.

PA: What do you draw?

NBA: That’s a good question. It’s what I ask myself.

(Miri Davidovitz)
(Miri Davidovitz)

PA: You never know what I’m going to draw before you draw it? Do you have an idea when you start?

NBA: No, I have a mood. I put a canvas on the wall and then I think for three days and then I go to the studio and I start. And it happens, suddenly, the urge.

PA: Do you ever stop in the middle and go back?

NBA: If I have to go to the bathroom or maybe if someone knocks on the door.

PA: So you’ll never stop for like, a week?

NBA: A week?!

PA: A week.

NBA: Absolutely not. Never. Maximum one hour. How long can you leave a banana outside in the summer?

PA: Would it be accurate to say that each drawing is one story?

NBA: Yes. But the story depends on who is reading it.

(Miri Davidovitz)
(Miri Davidovitz)

PA: And for you, do you know the story? Or do you discover it afterwards?

NBA: I discover it afterwards. A lot of the stories aren’t mine anymore. I can tell you that each drawing is the same story but the story changes perspective in each one.

PA: So what’s the story about?

NBA: Harmony.

PA: That’s really so beautiful. What’s your favorite drink?

NBA: I don’t know. It depends when. In the morning? At night?

PA: Both.

(Miri Davidovitz)
(Miri Davidovitz)

NBA: In the morning, I make a shake. In the evening, really cold beer, red wine, good whiskey. And I really like water.

PA: How do you eat your eggs?

NBA: Sunnyside up.

PA: How do you drink your coffee?

NBA: Black. No sugar. Bitter.

PA: What’s your favorite Jewish holiday?

NBA: Yom Kippur.

(Miri Davidovitz)
(Miri Davidovitz)

PA: Why?

NBA: I was born on Yom Kippur. And also, it’s an opportunity to get very quiet inside.

PA: Do you draw on Yom Kippur?

NBA: No. I don’t do anything. And at the end of the day, I go to the beach. It’s a spiritual day for me, it’s very important.

PA: Did you grow up religious?

NBA: No. We celebrated Shabbat, we ate matzo on Pesach and we fasted on Yom Kippur. It’s like ABC.

PA: Why? Because you’re Israeli.

(Miri Davidovitz)
(Miri Davidovitz)

NBA: Yes. That’s the education. That’s the tradition. It connects you, it’s like roots. It’s like a frame for the way you live. And it connects people, too.

PA: I like the way you put that. Did you have a bar mitzvah?

NBA: Yes.

PA: What did you wear?

NBA: Probably black pants and white shirt.

PA: What shampoo do you use?

(Miri Davidovitz)
(Miri Davidovitz)

NBA: This is new for me, because until very recently, I had a shaved head, so it’s only in the past few months. Now I rub castor oil on my hair and after I use Kamilotract.

PA: Gefilte fish or lox?

NBA: These are not tastes you should put in your mouth. I’ve never tasted lox.

PA: And gefilte fish?

NBA: My parents neighbor makes a really good one. The only way I can eat it is with a ton of horseradish.

PA: Favorite pair of shoes?

NBA: My Golden Goose sneakers that I bought in NY.

PA: Five things in your bag right now?

NBA: Dog poop bags, a marker so I can graffiti in public bathrooms, cigarettes, wallet, lighter. And crumbs.

Periel Aschenbrand, a comedian at heart, is the author of On My Kneesand The Only Bush I Trust Is My Own.