Chinua Achebe says that the English language, when altered, can be used to bear the burden of his African experience. I extrapolate from that and try to put it into painting.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby
A live conversation about performance, adventure, and objects.
Home of the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Company
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 will continue by revisiting Tamar Ettun’s and Dana Levy’s works, as well as proposing a theoretical curatorial vision of the artists’ works as a whole.
On the occasion of Ettun’s participation in the exhibition DO IT curated by Hans-Ulrich Obrist at Socrates Sculpture Park in New York in affiliation with ICI, we arranged a conversation to discuss the evolution of her work. The talk took place at the ICI Hub on June 27, 2013 and focused on three major projects: Road Number One, a 2008 pilgrimage; Empty is Also, a 2009 collaboration with dancer Emily Coates commissioned by Performa 09; and the three-part performance and installation piece One Thing Leads to Another, 2011–13. The conversation concluded with an interactive performance led by Ettun utilizing musical instruments she created from found materials. It began with a screening of the six-minute video “Standing Prayer” from 2008.
Naomi Lev You started walking from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv when you were a student at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem. The place where art exists mostly in Israel is in Tel Aviv. Since Jerusalem is a holy city, people are said to go “up” to Jerusalem (in Hebrew, la’a lot, meaning “to go up”) both spiritually and physically. You did the opposite. You went from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, where most of the galleries and artists live. What was the walk like?
Tamar Ettun I recreated the Jewish pilgrimage ritual of walking up to Jerusalem in the opposite direction. I walked once a month for three-and-a-half years down Route 1, the highway that connects Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. In the days of the Temple, Jews would come from all over the country to celebrate the three main holidays in Jerusalem. I grew up in an Orthodox family in Jerusalem, while Tel Aviv is the center of the arts and culture in Israel. I wanted to connect these two worlds and I used the structure of a religious ritual as a way to create art. Each walk was about seventy-kilometers long and toward the end of the project I created Standing Prayer. In the video I perform movements of the traditional Jewish standing prayer, while my body is inverted on construction sites and poles along the road and I’m looking at the sky.
NL What is the music that accompanies the video?
TE It’s called a nigun, a repetitive and improvised Hasidic melody. Its origins are from Eastern Europe and it was adapted into Jewish religious music. The music in the video starts with one person singing and later becomes a group of people singing together, as a community. This is the purpose of a religious ritual: to bring the one into the community.
NL Why did you choose this particular prayer?
TE The standing prayer is one of the core prayers in Judaism; it’s practiced three times a day—morning, noon, and evening—every day. It has a specific choreography, with steps, bowing, and bending, that I could use in a different setting. I am interested in religious devotion, and how to extract gestures or systems from Judaism. The system in this project was walking down Route 1 once a month, photographing roadkill along the way, and collecting found objects. I mostly found remains from car accidents and later created a series of miniature sculptures using these items.
NL It takes a lot of guts to just get on the highway and start walking. It’s a very busy and dangerous road, and then taking close-up shots of those dead animals … We talked about the formal aspect of how roadkill kind of look like these miniature sculptures. I’m wondering whether that’s something you thought about in advance?
TE The entire project was pretty intuitive. I woke up one morning and just started walking, and twelve hours later I was in Tel Aviv. The first time I walked that path, I was amazed to find out that in these deserted yet public parts of the country the roadkill isn’t cleaned up. This allowed me to follow the decomposition process of the animals’ bodies. I came across dogs, cats, and birds. Sometimes I saw a fox or a wild animal. There was this one dog with a collar I saw on my first walk; by the time I finished the project there were only bones left but his collar was still there. I wanted to recreate the animals using the materials I found along the way. I couldn’t carry large heavy objects on these long walks, so I collected things that were about the size of my hands. Later I built these small sculptures using the images I took of the roadkill. When I moved to the US, one of my first projects to walk from New Haven to New York in November 2008. It was a very different experience and the materials I found were much less tense.
NL How did these ritual walks and repetitive movements evolve into dance and performance as in Empty is Also?
TE When I was an MFA student at Yale I took a dance class with Emily Coates, a dancer who performs with Yvonne Rainer, whose work is very important to me. When the founder and director of Performa RoseLee Goldberg suggested that we do a project together, we decided to approach it as a conflict between sculpture and dance, where sculpture is going to be disposable or fall apart, and the dance would repeat and continue, inverting preconceived notions of the two disciplines. For this project I built a large-scale installation that Emily took apart during the three-hour performance. We had a timer set up randomly. Whenever it rang, I would join her and we rebuilt the installation to its original form. Then she started taking it apart again. We had moments when Emily would stay in a pose for a while, which we called “sculpture time.”
NL Your performers always have tasks.
TE In this piece it was less present. There weren’t specific instruction on how she should interact with the installation, except for performing a few well-known dances like Rainer’s Trio A on the inclined installation, which made them physically much harder to perform and much more awkward.
NL Let’s talk a little bit about the title, and about time. In Empty is Also, the sculpture is formed from mundane materials, which are then separated and become something else, making the sculpture lose its form and value, in a sense. You said that the title is intuitive but it also relates to what’s being done—a reconstruction of the installation. In terms of time, I find it very interesting that the performances and sculptures are always reliant on time. There are cycles, duration. But there is an “anti-time” during the performance as well. There is no emphasis on time at all in terms of the content of the task. It’s mostly about the body and the object and how the body relates to the object. There is nothing linear.
TE That’s true, it isn’t linear but there is a lot of emphasis on time because my pieces are usually durational. Empty is Also, for example, lasts three hours. Even though I see my performances as sculpture pieces where there is very little change in structure, the body of the performer gets exhausted throughout the piece, and that’s where the change actually appears. The duration of time is experienced as physical exhaustion. In this dance piece, I represent time in material form.
NL The performance is dynamic because you never end it as you started it, even if you are “doing” the same thing. Each performance and time period is different. Does that relate to Judaism or to practice?
TE Is time related to Judaism?
NL Well, the lack of time. There are these prayers that happen three times a day, and they happen in very specific time periods, but they are not time efficient, or they are not measured in time, they are content.
TE I never thought about it in this sense, and it is a lot to unpack. I guess time in Judaism is sacred, but my projects are not sacred at all. I can connect the notion of time in my pieces to the concept of time in rituals in the sense that a ritual is repetitive and therefore becomes still, like a fixed point in time, like a sculpture. If a ritual—either religious, personal, or cultural—is being performed multiple times on an ongoing basis, like you say, then time stops. I am interested in the inversion between sculpture and performance, and through a set of repetitions in time the performance becomes still.
NL Let’s go a little bit back and talk about your influences. You studied with Etti Abergel for many years, an Israeli artist who works a lot with casting materials. And later on you studied with Jessica Stockholder whose influences can be seen in your choice of materials and color palette. How did they find their way into your life and your work?
TE Abergel tutored me when she was a young artist and I was in high school. I would go to her studio every week for three hours, and we kept in touch through the years. She uses a lot of plaster and simple materials from her childhood to create immersive installations that reflect on her identity as a Moroccan woman in Israel, and yet always remains extremely personal and intimate.
NL Speaking of Jessica and color, we will see how the colors become more and more dominant in your work. Here we have a lot of red, but the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv project, for example, was mostly the gray of the concrete and of the road.
TE There is a very strong sun in Israel, and the colors in the public spaces are faded, the orange traffic barrels and cones that are everywhere in the States don’t exist in Israel. The addition of color in my work has a lot to do with the way color functions in the public space in New York. Studying with Jessica Stockholder and her painterly approach to color had a big impact as well.
NL At the 2011 Herzliya Biennal you presented a work titled Iksa’s Odyssey. What is Iksa?
TE Iksa is a slang word in Hebrew for “disgusting.” I was looking for a shopping cart to use in my project but couldn’t find one in Tel Aviv. One day my friend texted me that he found a cart in the trash but its really disgusting; it was smelly and sticky and full of garbage. The cart was all the way up in the north and we needed to bring it to Jaffa, which is south of Tel Aviv, and it took us three smelly hours to walk back to Jaffa, we named the cart Iksa … it’s a very simple name—the odyssey, the journey, of Iksa the cart!
NL You also use a parachute in that project.
TE In Israel, there is an obligatory draft for both men and women. In the army, I was in a paratrooper unit, though I always feel a bit embarrassed to say that because I wasn’t a fighter; I didn’t jump out of planes and rescue people under fire, yet my service had a strong effect on me: as a woman serving in an all-male unit, and as a human being in intense circumstances. It was complicated. Women who serve in the army face a whole other set of complications regarding their bodies and their role in the system. A female soldier’s body can be vulnerable and exposed in a different way than a man’s body, and since most women don’t participate in combat, they are considered of lower status and their bodies exist in a liminal space.
When I moved here I thought of a form or a symbol that could be translated to the language of materials in the US, and the first piece I made was transforming a parachute into a hot air balloon. I thought about movement, about how a parachute goes down and a hot air balloon goes up, how they have the same form but very different connotations. After working with hot air balloons in the States for a while, with Iksa’s Odyssey at the Herzliya Biennial I had the opportunity to go back to Israel and build an installation from local materials. I got this used army parachute and created a cement/shopping cart arrangement for the base and projected a video on it that I shot in Vermont during my journey around the US. I received a travel grant when I graduated form Yale that enabled me to travel with balloonists for forty days from New Haven to San Francisco in order to research hot air balloons. In the video I’m walking in a field while holding a hot air balloon above my head.
NL And this led to the trilogy One Thing Leads to Another. The first part was in Performa 11 and was presented at Recess in Red Hook.
TE The title is taken from Rainer. She was describing one of Simone Forti’s works performed at Yoko Ono’s studio in the ’70s. I was reading about this piece that had five sculptures that were manipulated by dancers, and I thought about this blur of mediums and the organic flow Forti’s piece seemed to have.
Each dancer, performer, or musician had an object that they were working with. In the photo there are ice skates cast in cement. During my trip Philipp Bryant, a balloonist in Texas, gave me a dead hot air balloon; we shipped it to New York and inflated it inside Recess. I built an installation inside the half-inflated hot air balloon and worked with eight performers, some of which are trained dancers. Each performer had a specific task they were doing while moving the installation. For example, I hired a mover from Craigslist whose role was to move a very large piece of clay through the space. The piece started as a square and slowly, since it was a three-hour performance, it changed its form into a sphere, much like rolling a piece of clay between your hands to make a ball, though larger and heavier.
Every forty-five minutes a strong sound came on and we moved the entire installation ninety degrees and the audience moved accordingly. The same performance happened over and over four times until we created a circle. I was thinking of Accumulation by Trisha Brown while creating this looped circle.
NL I was there, and it was pretty amazing. It was a kind of a David Lynch–like scene, very bizarre, very awkward. A weird cabaret of broken limbs, and people trying to get to places while struggling physically to fulfill their tasks. Through their tasks they were playing with each other and the objects that you created. It was originally based on the Odyssey right? A story of a journey home after the war. There is labor and determination in the tasks and obstacles, and also heroism, because your performers are kind of broken heroes. I’m curious to know what you think about heroism.
TE I’m interested in a physical struggle, in nonsense heroism. Or, what happens to the term “heroism” when you perform tasks that are extremely challenging but have no clear logical meaning? The tension between the attempt to continue, the devotion, and exhaustion together with the humorous decline is what keeps the piece alive.
NLIn the Odyssey there is an element of disguise, and in your work I find this element as well. The performers and yourself are going through such physical endurance to complete these tasks. For example, one of the performers, a skinny and seemingly fragile person walking in the cement ice skates, which are extremely heavy. I feel you’re stripping your performers down rather than putting masks on them, which is interesting because the whole scenario is very theatrical, very dramatic, but eventually it really comes down to the physical element and to the object. Do you want to say more about that relationship, with the body and the object as well as the hierarchy or the lack of hierarchy?
TE After the first time we performed it in Performa, I continued to develop this series of works in Socrates Sculpture Park. I built a fixed cement sculpture that weighs one-and-a-half tons, and which literally grounded the hot air balloon. We performed inside the balloon. The piece became more minimal, there were fewer dancers, and each dancer had a very specific task and an object related to balance. I was balancing a long vertical pipe on my head, another dancer was assigned five cement lumps and could only walk on them without touching the floor, therefore she needed to carry them slowly throughout the balloon. The musicians blew air into PVC pipes, using them as flutes. Both the dance and the music were improvised within a structure. I created a map of how the performers will move in the space and meet each other.
NL What is the role of collaboration with the performers and the relationship with the audience in these works? The audience could walk in and out of the performance and it was quite open.
TE The process of developing the piece with the performers is collaborative, especially when I’m working with people from other disciplines. I’m fascinated by the exchange of information. It’s a little different with the audience because they enter a world that is already set. With the balloon pieces the audience entered the balloon, and so their body is affected. In other pieces I have tasks for the audience to perform as well.
During my balloon travels, one of the things I was struck by is how arbitrary the landing spot for a hot air balloon is. An enormous colorful balloon would land at 6:00 or 7:00 AM at someone’s back yard, like an uninvited guest. Most people are excited about it, some people feel invaded and cranky. I like the unpredictable quality that happens from interacting either with the audience or with the performers I work with. For my next project I’m forming The Moving Company, a group of dancers and actors who will collaborate with me on developing the vocabulary for my performances. We will meet on a weekly basis and break down the concepts of stillness, trauma, and play I’m interested in. Viewing or participating in an art piece isn’t exactly like having a hot air balloon land in your backyard…but there is some sort of push-pull with the audience and the performers in my pieces in the way ideas are being exchanged and formed through interaction.
Tamar Ettun is currently a resident at Triangle, in Brooklyn. Her work can be seen at the open rehearsals at the Watermill Center on January 2–17 and March 13–27. She’ll be performing, with Molly Lowe, at Andrea Meislin Gallery in New York on Thursday, January 22, at 6:30PM.
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 is currently a Regional 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.
Chinua Achebe says that the English language, when altered, can be used to bear the burden of his African experience. I extrapolate from that and try to put it into painting.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby