The Arts : Making Circles
Long after the spiral of 500 watermelons unfurl on an azure salt sea and fade into a thin green line, the unwinding images in Sigalit
Landau’s video artwork DeadSee remain in your mind’s eye—much like a persistent bright spot from the flash of a camera. Landau herself floats trapped, naked and still within the eddy, her arm outstretched toward a small cluster of cut-open, red fruit standing out against their whole, green neighbors.
The piece is one of three separate videos depicting circular motion in “Cycle Spun,” a miniretrospective of multimedia artist Landau’s work, on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (www.moma.org; 212-708-9400) through July 28. “Cycle Spun” is part of MOMA’s ongoing, numbered “Projects” series showcasing new art and artists (Landau is “Projects 87”).
While the videos have been displayed independently in other installations, together they function as a “triptych of moving images,” says Klaus Biesenbach, MOMA’s chief curator in the media department. The gallery is lit by Landau’s Barbed Salt Lamps, salt-encrusted barbed-wire chandeliers; the wires were submerged in Israel’s Dead Sea for a month and dried in the desert sun before emerging as crystalline masterpieces.
The MOMA exhibit introduces American audiences to the 39-year-old Israeli whose elaborate, provocative and multilayered projects have won international acclaim. Landau has transformed galleries into landscapes featuring papier-mâché sculptures that border on the grotesque; everyday objects from bicycles to stoves to jam jars; and simple elements such as salt and sugar.
Polarities preoccupy landau, as do refractions of time and space; cycles, wounds and borders; nature and society. Although critics have written extensively about her art, visitors react viscerally to her installations.
“It’s a direct art,” Landau says. “There’s always a conceptual layer, a sensual layer and a formal layer, with angles going in all directions.”
Many of those angles reflect her Israeli and Jewish identities. Her Viennese grandmother lost family in the Holocaust; she was able to flee to London. Landau’s mother immigrated to Israel from London at the age of 22 and her father emigrated from Czernowitz (Ukraine, later Romania) in 1950. Landau grew up in Jerusalem and graduated from the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in 1994; she now lives in Tel Aviv but has lived in Berlin, New York, London and Paris to create her site-specific installations.
In Barbed Hula (2000), the earliest piece in the MOMA video triptych, Landau distorts the simple plastic circular toy, which has come to represent childhood, sensuality and Americana. She films herself spinning an actual circle of barbed wire around her bare torso at sunrise on a Tel Aviv beach. The film is only about two minutes long, but the end and beginning are almost seamless and the methodical revolutions seem endless, in rhythmic parallel to the waves behind her. The barbed wire—which evokes the Holocaust and human borders—faces outward, so it’s the weight of the hulathat grazes and marks her skin: In this personal and political belly dance, Landau escapes further pain only by continuing the rotations with increasing velocity.
“Barbed Hula may be seen at first glance as a masochistic work, self-mutilation, the testing of one’s physical threshold,” says Biesenbach, “but it articulates many more ideas about territories…and tradition and history.” Her images, he says, are succinct, palpable and “startlingly beautiful.”
A catalog of her work, titled Sigalit Landau, was produced by the KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin, which exhibited Landau’s installation “The Dining Hall” in 2007. In it, curator Gabriele Horn writes that the same adjectives describe Jerusalem as well as Landau’s work: “substantial, urgent, energetic and meandering.” However, Landau herself resists labels.
“My identity is such a complex and diverse one that it’s not for me to say this is equated with that,” she explains. “The connections are there but you have to leave space for people to look at the pieces for themselves….”
Visitors to “Projects 87” may find themselves hypnotized by the intimate space filled with intense, almost tactile emotion.
“Sigalit gets completely involved in her videos,” says Rivka Saker, chair of Sotheby’s Israel and the founder and chair of Artis, a nonprofit organization that provides international exposure and support for contemporary Israeli artists. “This carries over to her audience. You live with her through the experience, when she exposes herself to the hula or floats in the Dead Sea for hours, bare and sunburned. All of her—emotions, everything—gets into her work, and we feel it when we stand in the room.” Israeli artists in general are receiving greater international attention, says Saker, but Landau, whom she calls a versatile and leading talent, does not follow any trends.
Landau is often the human model in her art. As Barbed Hula andDeadSee demonstrate, her originality also poses incredible physical challenges. “I’m so specific about what I want and need in each piece that so far it has been better if I perform myself,” she explains. A former dancer, her intimacy with movement, form and performance is evident. Her ideas also stem from her creativity and patient experimentation—threading 500 watermelons with cord, for instance. “I invent systems and solutions, shortcuts, long cuts, spells and magic, so all my art turns out to be a kind of a low-key performance,” she says.
Her nude body emphasizes essence, stripped of excess such as design and convention. That simplicity extends to the other basic but powerful elements she uses, including salt, sugar, paper—a far cry from “modernist red, yellow and blue squares,” notes Landau. They tell a story: The salt lamps connect to her videos of wounded watermelons and lacerated skin. The lamps represent the proverbial salt on the wounds that are concealed and camouflaged by nature.
She is also fascinated by the sea’s ability to create architectural forms in such a greedy and sterile way. “The sea takes over whatever objects it gets and disguises them to death,” she says. “It neutralizes everything, whitens and petrifies it like snow, preserves it and mummifies it.”
Landau discovered this process—she calls it “catalyzed archaeology”—during research for “The Endless Solution,” an installation of sculpture and video (including DeadSee) shown in 2005 at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. It deals with the Holocaust and “21st-century Babylonization,” which, she explains, is the hubris of globalization.
Landau’s connection to the Dead Sea extends back to childhood. She recalls family vacations to the area and her father pouring out an “endless stream of knowledge regarding histories of lunacy—Sodom; fanaticism, Masada; purism, the Essene sect; imperialism, early salt industry; and idealism, Beit Ha’Arava [a kibbutz established in 1939 by East European refugees from Nazism]…and all the rage that took place in this bottom of the world…scorched by history but lacking present-day life….” The Dead Sea represents the opposite of the modern Israeli, she adds, who wants to be “detoxed from history and politics.”
Many of landau’s works operate on a vast landscape. In a previous exploration of mummification—in ice—Somnambulin/Bauchaus (2000, meaning Sleepwalker/Belly House), Landau transformed a concrete-mixing truck into a traveling music box that played music like an ice cream van. As the truck traveled through towns in England and Germany, she distributed ice pops in the shape of the Little Matchstick Girl. Inspired by a newspaper account of a little girl who had frozen to death hundreds of years ago and was discovered at a building site in Germany, Landau provided a back story distributed with each tiny frozen “corpse.”
“Archaeological analysis of the small corpse,” the story read, “provided scientific proof that the Little Matchstick Girl from Hans Christian Andersen’s tale truly did exist. The child, who was nicknamed Orla [foreskin in Hebrew, something cast away], aged about five, must have been trying to keep herself warm by lighting the matches that she was supposed to sell.” The project was an exercise in contrasts, a study of survival and the loss of love, Landau notes, in which she tried to bring the child back to life by feeding her to the living. When Artis brought her to New York to perform Somnambulin/Bauchaus at an armory in 2004, she substituted a bicycle for the truck.
Two months before 9/11, Landau installed a sugar-spewing giant cotton candy machine in “Thread Waxing Space” (2001), both the name of the exhibit and the place where it was exhibited, a factory-turned-performance space and gallery in New York. Sugar and salt comprise “two poles of the ‘tongue’ in Landau’s work: the sweet zest for life, love, sexuality, childhood and happiness; and the elemental destruction and decomposition,” writes Gideon Ofrat, a leading Israeli art historian and independent curator, in the Sigalit Landau catalog. He calls DeadSee an “ambivalent womb-like image of prenatality and death” in which the watermelon spiral (sweetness) and seawater (salt) come together in a “paradoxical unity of apocalypse and redemption.”
In fact, Landau found that watermelons grown in the Dead Sea region are extremely sweet because they are watered by salty desert wells: The fruit compensates by losing water and becoming sweeter.
Watermelons recur symbolically in her work. She exploits their red flesh in “The Dining Hall,” a surreal, multiroom and multipiece re-creation of a home that uses food and hunger to excavate “truths about culture and contemporary food habits, nurturing and needs,” she says. It concretizes the divide between East and West as well as the standardizing and “cannibalizing” effects of globalization. At a table seating 12, perhaps evoking the Last Supper, a dozen watermelons are served up like chunks of meat on a surface of white salt.
The installation chronicles the declining collective Zionist vision (the kibbutz). A dishwashing machine at the entrance, a hulking mechanical ghost empty of dishes, was purchased from a kibbutz selling its dining hall, the most intimate yet public of places.
Landau plunges into this “collective ‘digestive system,’ to grope its inner membranes and folds, and draw out isolated sounds…traces, crumbs and leftovers,” writes independent curator Tali Tamir inSigalit Landau. The piece is accompanied by a soundtrack of dishes clanging against each other, excerpts of pioneer songs and specially composed music and sounds for breakfast, lunch and dinner. In a mundane, 1960s working-class kitchen, a fridge, stove and cupboards represent private, ready-made space.
Turning on the gas valves on the stove causes the voices of four women from Sefardic and Ashkenazic backgrounds to rise and tell their life stories “as if they had been absorbed into the stove over thousands of hours of cooking and baking,” adds Tamir. A television screen in a living room next door flashes written excerpts of an interview with Avraham Burg, former Knesset member and former Jewish Agency head, discussing his radical view of the end of Zionism and abrogating the Law of Return and the future of the State of Israel.
In the backyard, Landau creates a surreal “meat valley,” an exaggerated capitalist city filled with figures made from Israeli newspapers reporting stories of terror and war (she calls the figures “crusaders”). With their skin burned and exposed, they climb ladders, raise knives and charge at towers of scorched meat. Some have fallen to the ground, their heads stuck in large pots; some throw electric heating bars that form the word “love” in blue light. They are “shamans of the metropolis that has digested all cultures in its bowels,” writes Tamir. At the end of the exhibit, Landau has affixed a copy of a crematorium door, which “makes you read in reverse the whole experience and trail of the show,” Landau says.
With Landau’s international reputation growing, it is no surprise that The Israel Museum in Jerusalem will include three pieces from “The Dining Hall” in an installation called “Real Time” as part of “Sixty Years of Art in Israel,” on exhibit through August 30.
“[One] sculpture recalls Brancusi’s Endless Column (1938) and its groundbreaking three-dimensional exploration of the sublime,” writes The Israel Museum’s curator of Israeli art, Amitai Mendelsohn, in a catalog essay. “Another, in the form of a flower, is reminiscent of the form of an atomic mushroom. The possibility of transcendence and the beauty of the flower become intermingled with the…threat of destruction.”
A recent editorial in the newspaper Ha’aretz describes the work of contemporary Israeli artists as reflections of internal journeys as well as their country’s reality. In fact, Landau’s 2006 solo exhibition at the Alon Segev Gallery in Tel Aviv, which drew 14,000 people, was called “The Country” (“Ha’aretz” in Hebrew). It featured three laborers, skeletons with exposed muscles attached, carrying sacks of red fruit they had harvested from roots—instead of tree branches. Both figures and fruit were made from newspapers dating from the start of the second intifada.
“The news is the life,” says Saker. “The land is the life. It’s part of her and part of her work.”
Mendelsohn discusses Landau’s place in the country’s art history in the “Sixty Years” catalog essay. “‘The Country’ was hailed as one of the most powerful installations in the annals of Israeli art,” he writes, drawing spectators into a “sick distortion of the idyllic images of the early Zionist period…of citrus groves and pioneers laden with luscious fruit…the complete antithesis of toxic, blood-soaked fruit in ‘The Country’….”
Among the artists Landau admires are modernist Louise Bourgeois, minimalist Eva Hesse and conceptualist Jenny Holzer. “There are not many Israeli women artists,” she says, “but whomever there is I follow. There are no trends or styles or movements anymore. I define my challenges and territory as I go along.”
Anti-chauvinist, feminist instincts also inform her work, she says. After the birth of her daughter, Imree, a year and a half ago, she would have liked to take a break from the demanding installation process to focus on smaller pieces, but she has three more installations in Israel and Germany this year as well as a new commission in marble for the Tel Aviv Museum.
As visitors to MOMA watch the 16-minute loop of the third video in “Cycle Spun,” titled Day Done, they absorb a more hopeful vision—probably connected to Imree’s birth. Day Done, the most recent of the videos in the triptych, reinterprets an ancient Jewish custom, “zekher l’hurban,” in which an isolated area of a newly built house is intentionally left unpainted or unfinished to symbolize the remembrance of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.
The meditative film, accompanied by a recording of street sounds and low-pitched vibrations, follows a woman (Landau) as she leans out of the window of her dilapidated beige Tel Aviv home and paints black strokes around the windowsill. As night falls, a man replaces the woman and with a longer roller in a counterclockwise direction whitens the same space until dawn lightens the sky—then the woman appears again.
In Day Done, Landau comes full circle in her artistic visions, prompting us to remember our own responsibility in repairing the world.