My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.
Souvenirs, live doves, and storming in with only your dreams.
As part of an ongoing series hosted by Independent Curators International (ICI), I invite artists to discuss their work in an intimate environment. These talks are a continuation of a larger series of conversations and panels I’ve been initiating with artists from around the globe. Here in New York, the talks focus on Israeli art and artists. These particular conversations aim to explore the artists’ work in relation to place and time. While considering their origins and background, these artists react and examine possibilities of reshaping political, religious, and social structures. The series of articles began with the study of Ohad Meromi’s practice and was followed by revisiting Tamar Ettun’s works, as well as proposing a theoretical curatorial vision of the artists’ works as a whole.
This conversation was arranged in conjunction with the launch of Levy’s new artist’s book World Order, which was produced for her 2012 solo show at The Center of Contemporary Arts in Tel Aviv, and in affiliation with Braverman Gallery and Sternthal Books. The talk took place at the ICI Hub on March 14, 2013 and focused on Levy’s fascination with dreams, her interest in the manmade, and her exploration of nature. It starts with a short story of our first encounter.
Naomi Lev Dana and I met in a dark room at the back of a dark bar, where a dark lecture took place by a wonderful (dark) artist … (laughter). The lecture was given by Peter Fend. When it ended Dana and I simultaneously stormed to Fend’s table to look up close at some of his drawings, while everyone else was chatting in the background. We didn’t know each other at the time, so we introduced ourselves. And funny enough, this brings us to how Dana Levy works: she storms into places.
Let’s start by talking about The Fountain (2011).
Dana Levy This work is based on a dream I had. In the dream, a tree was being pulled out of a body of water. After waking up, I went around thinking: “I have to make this video.” I just knew I had to create it, but, of course, it seemed completely impossible—where in the world would I get a crane and a body of water in New York City? Eventually, I got invited to I-Park Residency in Connecticut. In my application, I wrote a proposal based on that dream, thinking this idea was not realistic. However, they replied: “Sure, come. We have a crane, we have a pond, we have a tree.”
NL What is the idea behind it?
DL Since it was based on a dream, it can have more than one interpretation. One interpretation could be about the cycle of life, how we start in water and end in heaven, or something like that. I find it interesting—the relationship between man and nature and how man is always trying to go against nature. Like going against gravity; a tree cannot fly in the sky, you need a crane for that, so the crane is a very important part of the piece. That is a recurring theme in my work—the relationship between man and nature.
NL Can we go a little back to your previous works? They are a little bit different from this one.
DL My earlier works were much more documentary based. This was when I was living in Israel. Naturally, I was influenced by the political situation there. But even when I was living in Israel, I began to slowly step away from that because I felt I had more to say in a poetic and symbolic way rather than in documentary style. I felt that was my strength.
NL Before The Fountain you had another work that had to do with a tree.
DL Yes, Disengagement, in 2005. When the disengagement from Gaza was happening I was at a residency in Austria at Hotel Pupik. The video is about a tree house that is being built that then eventually disappears. This was the first time I responded to something very real and political, but with just a symbolic image. I am the kind of person that responds to the place that I am in. Lately, the environment interests me more than politics, but that is also political.
NL Let’s play the next film, The Abandoning (2010). This is a cool story.
DL This is an installation view from a show at Nicelle Beauchene Gallery in 2010. I came across this house in the West Village that had this amazing vegetation coming out of the windows. I returned there several times, and began to photograph and animate the vegetation. Then I thought it needed to be a two-screen installation, and I wanted to get the interior of the house. I Googled it, and I found out the house was for sale, so I pretended to be a buyer, telling the realtor that I have to document it for a potential buyer, and photographed the interior.
It’s a three-story townhouse that belonged to a City gardener and still had a working water system, even though the owner had died months earlier. All these plants were still growing rapidly. There were vines hanging from the ceiling and flowing out the windows—the vegetation was definitely taking over. I thought it was interesting. Sometimes man controls nature, sometimes nature takes over the manmade.
NL It is almost like an explosion of nature in the middle of the city. It is unbelievable that those plants grew so wild.
DL Yes, and I exaggerated it a bit … (laughter). This was my first year in New York. I was constantly looking for nature, and I would go hang out in the Botanical Gardens. I was just overwhelmed by all this urbanism. I was looking for nature everywhere.
NL Let’s go back some more, to 2008, to Silent Among Us. Tell us about the video and why you chose that title.
DL I brought one hundred live doves to fly around Beit Sturman Natural History Museum in Israel, which has a lot of taxidermy birds. I called it Silent Among Us because for me it was about how death, and history is very present in daily life in Israel. Death, as well as history, and the Bible are the foundation, or the excuse, for the country’s existence. The title Silent Among Us pays homage to this silent presence.
NL How did you bring the doves into the museum?
DL This was another weird project because I got the idea after going to La Specola Museum in Florence. I love natural history museums, especially when they are old and run down. I kept thinking I would love to bring live animals there because at the time I was photographing a lot of empty and abandoned houses for a series of works called Habitat (2008). I really wanted to introduce life into them, but, then again, I never thought any museum would allow me to do that. But I learned over the years that, if you have an idea, you can make it happen. Things can easily fall into place, if you do not give up. Then I heard that curator Yuval Kedar was organizing an exhibition in a natural history museum, a small one in the north of Israel. I immediately told him about my idea, and he helped me make it happen as a part of the show. The head of Kibbutz Ein Harod, where the museum is located, was the one who said that he liked this idea, so we did it!
After this work I created the video The Wake, 2011. I really wanted to do something similar with butterflies. I wanted to bring butterflies into the entomology department and bring them to life. I searched online for images of museums with butterfly collections. Finally I found the Invertebrate Zoology department of the Carnegie Natural History Museum in Pittsburg. I called the entomologist Dr. John Rawlins and told him I wanted to bring a hundred live butterflies into the department. He is a quite opened minded and eccentric, and he asked me: “Why do you want to do that?” I replied, “Why do poets write poems?” He liked that answer, so he let me realize my vision.
NL In your book, World Order, there is an essay by Berta Sichel, who was the Curator at Museo Reina Sofia. She quotes W. J. T. Mitchell: “The human species is among the youngest and most fragile life forms on planet earth.” She suggests that we are an endangered species. I was wondering if this thought occurred to you. Obviously, there are a lot of ecological issues in how we are treating our environment, et cetera, but also in how we are treating ourselves/each other.
DL Yes. Often, as in Silent Among Us, I use animals as stand-ins for man. I shot The Wakebefore the Arab Spring. I was working on the sound and finishing it off just as the Arab Spring started, and then I saw that the film very much relates to the concurrent riots. It is about revolution, rebelling against order—an awakening from slumber that we saw happening all around the world.
NL Is that why you called it The Wake?
DL The Wake, for both “becoming awake” and a “wake” (ceremony).
NL This does not translate into Hebrew.
DL No. That is why the title is in English (laughter). These three works actually create a triptych. The third film in the series, and the most recent one, is Dead World Order (2012).
NL For me, that film is a little bit more dramatic and on the spooky side. Tell us a little what this film is about and where it was filmed.
DL Dead World Order was filmed during a residency in Le Havre, France. I spent three months there. The city was majorly bombed in 1944. This museum, Maison de la L’Armateur, which means, “Home of The Ship Owner,” was one of the few buildings that remained intact after the bombings while most of the city was rebuilt. I was intrigued by this museum because I love old historical museums. I really wanted to film in it. The curator, Elisabeth Leprêtre, had the keys and showed me around. While I was filming, I noticed how she was handling each object. She would go back and forth, moving a plate around for an hour, then arranging things and finding the perfect spot for them. I found her relationship with each object fascinating, and so I slowly moved the camera to her. She was a total “natural” in front of it.
NL Can we talk about objects? There usually aren’t people in your work, and here the curator behaves like an object.
DL Yes. What was interesting for me was that this place was kind of like a time capsule. She was holding on to something; holding on to the past. The world has moved on from a place like this, which has all these artifacts of the French bourgeoisie and portraits of slave owners.
NL Did she collect all of the artifacts? Was it empty when she got there?
DL It was empty, and her job was to make it into a typical home of a very wealthy ship owner from past centuries, so she went around France collecting these objects. Back in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, traveling around the world was such a difficult thing. It was a form of power to show where people traveled, but the world is no longer like that. There is no longer colonialism like this, but it is as if she is holding onto the past. Also, the way she looks and dresses, it is like she could be from another century.
NL Right. She is frozen too.
DL Yes. I mean she is actually very liberal and very contemporary, yet she is very connected to her French heritage and past traditions.
NL Yes, when we started discussing Dead World Order I called it “spooky.” The reason I said that was because of the soundtrack, and the reference it makes to Hitchock’s Veritgo.
DL Yes. The soundtrack is actually from Psycho. When I was in Le Havre I happened to watch Vertigo. I had already started shooting this woman in the museum not knowing at all where it was leading to. I just kept filming her. When I saw Vertigo I suddenly remembered Madeleine’s hair, and then I noticed the curator’s bun … it connected those two things for me. So I wanted to introduce the soundtrack to add some tension, and then it started to make sense for me. I find that my films always build up tension that doesn’t really go anywhere.
NL You also shot The Refuge (2012) while in Le Havre.
DL This is a two-screen installation. I read an article in The Guardian about these caves below Caen, which are about an hour away from Le Havre. They were filled with artifacts from people who hid there during the 1944 bombings. I found the historian mentioned in the article, who knew about these caves, and contacted him when I came to Le Havre. I asked him if I could visit the caves. They are old mining caves that are usually locked, and nobody is allowed to walk in. We spent a few hours there with a flashlight and he showed me various objects that were still there: a tin cigarette box, bottles, plates, medicine cases, some shoes, very mundane things that had been down there for around seventy years. For me it was thrilling because it was like a museum, but everything was still in its place from when last used. I was there twice for five hours at a time, and it was horrible to be down there.
NL I want to point out that this is near the museum, and it is actually amazing because they rebuilt this whole museum to show the riches and show how glamorous everything was, while right nearby there was this humane historical story in the caves. Very beautiful.
DL Yes. He told me he tried to interest museums around, but nobody was interested. Maybe it needs some more time. I just found it interesting how everyday objects become significant because of their history and because of the story. I am interested in how objects become something else just by the memory that is injected into them.
NL What about Confiscated Souvenirs (2012)? You shot those images in France, too, right?
DL I shot this series in the storage rooms, where customs keep these confiscated artifacts. The artifacts were not allowed in the country because of the Washington Convention, which does not allow the trading of endangered species. It is horrifying because they actually kill these animals, especially for souvenirs.
I then went to Florida and found a store filled with the same kind of objects. There, they have price stickers on them: $34.99, or something like that. When I was photographing in the store they suddenly got very scared and told me to stop. They were aware that there is something not completely right, or legal, about selling these souvenirs. I later read online that some of these stores closed down because it was illegal.
NL There is a transition from what we have seen earlier, a dream-like state of the tree, through the butterflies and the doves, to a harsh reality of The Refuge. And then Confiscated Souvenirsis another angle of the manmade horror, as well as the fantasy. Although these articles appear colorful and exotic, as they are made to seduce buyers to pay for such items, it is pretty heartbreaking when you look at what this means in terms of violence toward animals—which, again, stands easily for man. An example here are the turtles’ shells that are painted on with images of exotic islands.
DL Yes. There is something surreal about these works.
NL We titled this talk Belonging/s. For one obvious reason—the need to possess, to have …
DL … and to belong somewhere. A lot of my work is about questioning the sense of belonging: Where is home? Home is something temporary or something that is uprooted. I am interested in the home as a temporary place. Then, there is the notion of belongings, “stuff,” all these things. I am interested in items and how they are charged, and what they are charged with: With what kind of memories? What do they mean? Where did they come from? And who suffered for that?
NL So in relation to Israel, I believe you said that it is very common for Israelis of our generation to have difficulties in finding their “home” because of the political situation, so they have a hard time settling in one place, mentally or physically.
DL Yes. I mean it is a new country, and its borders are constantly changing. It is weird that way. For example, the Golan Heights, which has been a part of Israel since 1967, is a very strange, eerie place that feels like it has not been completely inhabited after it was occupied. It feels like a cemetery. There are these Syrian mosques and buildings, and it’s unknown what will be done with them, whether we were meant to give them back or not. You see a lot of overgrown vegetation in those places, kind of like in The Abandoning.
Dana Levy’s solo project (part of 6 Artists 6 Projects) Literature of Storms is now on view at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, curated by Noam Gal. Her video Everglades is in Enchanted Space, a three-person exhibition at Fridman Gallery in NY, curated by Barbara London.Her work Emerging from The Swamp is in a group show titled An Other Land … And In The Other, Our Own, at Prosjektrom Normanns, curated by Ian Cofre. And The Wake is in a group show titled Recurrence: Rituals, Place and History at the Nicosia Art Centre, Cyprus, curated by Drorit Gur Arie.
Naomi Lev is a curator and critic who lives and works in New York. Lev specializes in collaborative art events that connect artists, curators, and scholars from around the globe. In January 2013, she initiated and curated a conversation and performance with artist Jonathan Meese at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, and in 2011 she initiated and artistically directed the arrival of Vito Acconci to Israel for a series of talks and panel discussions about art and architecture. Lev has worked as Assistant Curator, Locum for the executive curator, at MoBY-Museums of Bat Yam, and managed Florentin 45 gallery in Tel Aviv. She has curated numerous shows in NYC, and is currently a Contributing Editor for Creative Time Reports and a contributing writer for Artforum.com, writing regularly about Middle East art and artists, and has also contributed reviews for Art in America and Artcritical.com, among other publications.
My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.