A visual memoir

Jerusalem-based artist Etti Abergel's work connects various aspects of her identity: high and low, East and West, religious and secular.

Etti Abergel 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Etti Abergel 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
For Etti Abergel, a Jerusalem-based installation artist, each exhibition is a chapter in a lifelong autobiography. Like Marcel in Proust's In Search of Lost Time, Abergel sifts through images in her past and picks out significance memories which she wants to reexamine. As a visual artist, she latches on to objects that symbolize these memories, building a visual language that binds and combines these symbols in a physical space. "I try to give body to abstract memory, to recreate the internal experience," says Abergel, who represented Israel in the 2003 Venice Biennale. "To restore the essence of the moment of feeling." This "moment of feeling" can be considered a traumatic moment, but it can also be understood as the source of creativity. "Like a present and a punishment at the same time," she says. Abergel, 48, was born in Kiryat Tivon, where she grew up in the Geffen neighborhood. "As a child from a Mizrahi family, it was an archetypically large family that included the whole neighborhood." She describes the population as being made up mostly of Jews from North Africa and Holocaust survivors, "proletarians, workers with integrity - very Zionist, though socialist in essence." She says people largely appreciated the Arab way of life, and had little hate for them. Her parents immigrated from Morocco, where her father had been an agricultural worker. Here, he was able to use this experience to hold down a job and support their family. "My father was very modest," she comments, "almost Bolshevik in his work ethic." On her mother's side, she came from a family of jewelry makers, and her grandmother was a weaver. "They weren't educated in rational Western art, but we had a very sensual Jewish tradition. There was a hierarchical kind of aesthetics, which included cakes, tables, maps, flowers, tapestry," she remembers. "The table was always carefully organized and decorated, the Havdala included herbs, smells, red flowers. We didn't have much, but each detail was almost glamorous. I call it lost baroque." Abergel explains that she never rebelled against her family, but that she always needed her creative freedom and independence. After her army service, she immediately enrolled at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design. "As the child of immigrants, you can't rebel," she says. "My family keeps saying that I should quit, that I've lost my life. And I agree with them. But I still continue. I struggle for my creation - internally, economically, and as a woman." Though she now knows that she's a strong woman, she didn't understand this when she began her art studies. She had stepped out of the Mizrahi culture of her upbringing into the Western art world, where she felt like a stranger, and that period was fraught with great emotional difficulty. After her studies, she spent 12 years working at home without exhibiting anywhere. She began to study voice, and taught art "everywhere in the city where you can say the word art." It was hard for her to take her own art practice out of the house into the world, and one of the important steps toward that was going through a Jungian psychoanalysis process. "I had to find a solid place within myself for where I could work and enter the world," she says. In 1996, she made this reentry by enrolling in Bezalel's post-graduate program. She began to get a sense of the art world's structure, and soon after began to exhibit her work. Another 12 years have passed in which, every six or eight months, Abergel has presented a new chapter in her visual autobiographical diary. Speaking about her artwork, Abergel says her practice is rooted in a desire to a language in which to understand the space between high/low, East/West, religious/secular. She adds that "art functions as a bridge for me between these fragments of identity." For her, the stage provided her by an installation is a temporary home, a situation to which she can bring her recent contemplations, thoughts, ideas. "It's a stage in the existential sense," she clarifies, "and also the stage between past and future." She's interested in the unknown visual presence of trauma. "I'm an artist, so plasticity is the basis of my language." She builds a model of the installation in her studio, then deconstructs everything and builds it again in the exhibit space. She works in real time - she calls it "a dangerous medium" - and aims for a transformation that's based in strict method but also has the improvisation of jazz music. "At the Venice Biennale, I had 21 working days in the space. I lived there, adapted myself to it, tried to build a place. I work until someone comes in and tells me the moment has come for the viewers to come in." Abergel's objects, like her thinking, are simultaneously concrete and metaphysical. She's preoccupied with the abstraction of an idea or memory, but she's equally engaged by the object that symbolizes this memory. The objects she uses in her installations look like ready-mades, but in fact Abergel spends hours upon hours either finding the right ones, as in the case of the empty water bottles, or making them by hand, as in the case of the pillows which consist of one of her recurring motifs. But the process starts long before the studio, with drawings in her diaries and notebooks. "I have a lot of notebooks," she explains, "and I don't mix the studio, which is my laboratory for material experimentation, with my drawing space, which is my home, where I'm more passive." When she returns to the studio, she works within an analytical, strict structure, and every moment of plastic creation takes all of her energy. "This is partly in contradiction to my spirit, which is more impressionistic and impractical. Sculpture forces me to act." The installation Abergel is currently preparing for her exhibit at the Barbur Gallery in Jerusalem's Nahlaot section is related to her grandfather, who worked on the railway until he was hurt in an accident. He used his worker's compensation payments to buy a film projector and screened movies for the neighborhood in his yard. A kind of restoration of this domestic cinema, her title for the project is Titina, after the song that Charlie Chaplin sings in Modern Times. "The exhibition uses my grandfather's experience to talk about the power of art in moments of crisis," says Abergel. "My grandfather died almost 10 years ago, and I'm using this childhood atmosphere of a domestic Cinema Paradiso as a combination of memory and contemporary motifs that I always combine, a mixture of imagination and real facts, which in this case was written by life before I became an artist. In a way, life created the situation in advance." She began to think about it when she saw the gallery's ceiling, which is open and unfinished, exposing the roof panels and wooden trusses. "I'm probably going to screen Charlie Chaplin films there, especially the proletarian scenes - those downbeat carpenters and loser workers." She's also working with a blacksmith on metallic objects that she has created models for and which he will build. She thinks of it as a parody of lost socialism, and will create objects made with the blue textile of workers' uniforms and the color of the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement. "It's not that I'm not longing for those days," she says. "The restoration is about touching this lost moment." Abergel has yet to find her place within the local art scene. Despite being born here and going through Bezalel, she doesn't feel that her artistic language is connected to the place. "As an oriental person, I'm too Western. As a Western artist, I'm too oriental. In the world of today, I'm too devoted to the past." It's hard for the art world to define her, she says, because there's no box to easily put her in. To aid in understanding the scope her work - for herself as much as for the Israeli art scene - Abergel will present the publication of a book together with her next installation at Barbur. "It's an installation diary," she explains, "which combines material from the last 12 years, summarizing what I've done and contextualizing it through written texts." The book, small and thick like a block, is designed in such a way as to also function as a sculptural statement. "I no longer suffer from this [lack of understanding in the art world]," she states. "I do my duty, give my voice and don't know when it'll come back. This is something I learned from my voice teacher." Abergel continues to mix her two heritages - that of the Mizrahi background and of Western art - using the structure of the history of art to install her own autobiographical story. She says that from her neighborhood, she was the only one who thought about art more than survival skills, and she doesn't feel that her mission is to find her place within the mainstream. Rather, she prefers to maintain her place on the border between acceptance and otherness. "Living and working in Jerusalem helps protect this otherness," she says. "It's like my monastery, like my cockpit. Its isolation from the art market makes it a good place to have a studio. I don't need the center [of the country]. My center is inside." Another important element of her life is her teaching art, which she does at the the Kerem Institute for Teacher Training for Humanistic-Jewish Education, the Israel Center for Excellence in Education and the textile department of the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design. "I believe in the Sufi way: One hand receives while the other one gives. Teaching allows me to work with others, to share my understanding." It also helps her forge a balance between her art and life. "I could spend my whole life in the studio, so teaching saves me form my totality. And it also comforts me, because I'm not just earning a salary, I'm also enlarging my mission." After the sudden exposure of the Venice Biennale in 2003 and several ensuing exhibits here and abroad, Abergel again retreated inward, showing consistently but at smaller venues. "It was frightening," she remembers. "It's hard to pass from oblivion to center stage in a single step. I returned to my world to build it in a more solid way." But she admits that she misses big stage. "Somehow, it's easier for me to work on a large scale." It's all part of her paradoxical nature. "I need a stage to express myself - structure, concepts, knowledge, relation to the art world, to critical discourse, to the spirit of the time. But I'm an individualist, isolated, I work intimately, and the essence of all of it is emotional expression." Abergel's exhibit, Titina, runs through mid-March at Barbur Gallery, 12 Rehov Shirizli, Nahlaot, www.barbur.org.