The act of creation is the most primordial of beasts. But where does it all start? It can be thrilling to see a musician on stage who appears to be a “mere” conduit for the sounds they are ostensibly producing, rather than having a hands-on say in what comes out. I have had the rare pleasure of witnessing that myself on a couple of occasions over the years. The $64,000 dollar question is, does the same laissez-faire mindset apply to the plastic arts? When, for example, a painter applies brush to canvas, who/what guides their movements across the cloth? Do they have to connect with “a higher source,” or their deep inner feelings and thoughts, and just go with the flow, to produce a genuine work of art? Or is it a more interventionist affair?That question can certainly be posed with regard to Sigalit Landau’s monumental Sea Stains and Salt Years body of work. Last Friday, Landau was the focus of avid attention at an event which took place at Mishkenot Sha’ananim in Jerusalem to mark the release of her Salt Years book, which features stunning images taken by photographer Yotam From. The Salt Years book was lavishly produced with the help of Michael Gordon, who took care of graphic design and visual editing, and editor David Goss, with Einat Adi responsible for substantive editing. The half-day conference featured talks by some of the luminaries of the local arts field. Senior Curator and head of the Department of Israeli Art of the Israel Museum, Amitai Mendelsohn, Director and Chief Curator of the Negev Museum of Art, Dalia Manor, and South African-born artist David Goss, who edited the new book, all took the stage to illuminate the packed auditorium audience about Landau’s oeuvre to date. Landau was the last up to the lectern and she shared with us some of the ins and outs of the long evolutionary process of what became something of a mammoth venture. The launch program also incorporated an exhibition, in the Dwek Gallery, of some of the works, and drafts, included in the book put out by Berlin-based publishers Hatje Cantz Verlag.Landau has an enduring love affair with the lowest spot on the face of the Earth. It all began back in the ‘70s when the then-infant Landau went there on family holiday. That long bond patently comes across in a fetching snapshot from 1977 in the book, with an upstanding smiley 8-year-old Landau, flanked by her mother, Maya, brother, Daniel, and an aunt and couple of cousins.The 50-year-old Jerusalem-born sculptor, painter, video and installation artist, who is feted and exhibited across the globe – the full Salt Years series is currently on display at Museum der Moderne Salzburg, in Austria, until November and parts were shown at the 2011 Venice Biennale – took a step back from her regular energized derring-do and, to a great extent, allowed time and the elements to do their thing.Part of the exhibition comprises a motley array of objects – some mundane and some with more artistic baggage – which were immersed in the world’s saltiest natural body of water and left there to stew for months on end. Landau, in the meantime, went about her other business while the said artifacts sat quietly underwater, slowly but surely accruing layer upon layer of briny crystals, and being transformed into objects of seductive beauty.“There is the aspect of the unknown,” the artist notes, explaining that, in fact, the Salt Years is a finely calibrated balancing act, between the actively crafted and the naturally formed. “There are things that I learned, that I do here, but it is a situation of loss of control – the process takes over the object, or substance, and reinvents it.” Landau went for a wildly expansive stretch of items, taking in fishing nets, tablecloths, a crib, a bicycle, a jerry-can, some rugs, dresses worn by legendary Israel actress Hanna Rovina in the 1922 Hebrew version of the Dybbuk, and watermelons. You might call them “conceptual readymades.”
The spread of refashioned items includes a pair of old boots which took on a fairy-like appearance, with their frosted veneer. They were subsequently relocated to a frozen lake near Gdansk, Poland, and sat on the ice until the salty footwear coating finally got the better of the solid frigid surface of the lake and sank into the water, leaving behind a pair of evocative gaps in the wintry sheeting.That was just about as extreme a geographic and meteorological transition as one could imagine. But Salt Years is replete with contrasts, conceptual and physical checks and balances, and oxymoronic complements galore. There is the unparalleled display of azure of the Dead Sea, tinged with turquoise and other chromatic nuances of blue, which are dramatically offset by the desert shades that run through the brown end of the color gamut. THE LACK of perceived signs of life in the aptly named Dead Sea also comes into the artistic purview. “It is a place that can be ex-territorial and can behave differently,” says the artist. “On the other hand, it accommodates all the dreams and wishes you can think of. It is a place that can reference healing but there is also an ecological tragedy taking place there.” Landau also noted, in her Mishkenot Sha’ananim address, that the level of the Dead Sea is now, shockingly, a full 40 meters lower than it was when she frequented the place as a kid.Sadly diminishing water content notwithstanding, Landau feels there is a lasting special feel to the desert spot. “You have there the history of art, of Christianity, of Judaism, and prehistory. The sea also sits in the Great African Rift Valley, where you can feel the continents shifting.”The Dead Sea, of course, is shared by Israel and Jordan, and Salt Years also takes that geographic juxtaposition into account, although the inference is of a more political nature. “I talk about the unavoidable cooperation between us about the Dead Sea,” Landau states. “When I was by the sea I looked up and saw Jordan. I wondered where the bridge between is, where we are separated and where we are joined.”The artist’s answer to that was to create a giant raft of watermelons, attached in a spiral shape, while she floated naked between them. She was struck by the yin-yang bond between the extreme saltiness of the sea and the sweetness of the watery fruit. The richly-colored innards also came into play as Landau considered her womanhood. “A watermelon is very much an organ which will relate, somehow, [to] your head, your mouth but basically, I think for me, my womb.” That involves troubled, delicate, interplay, that addresses beauty and pain in equal parts. “So – womb, womb, womb, but also – wound, wound, wound,” Landau posits, who engaged in ballet at a young age, and is clearly adept at choreographing her video work.
Having such a deep ongoing knowledge of the Dead Sea also allowed Landau to let her guard down, and let herself be guided by the natural elements around her. “It’s very important to see how real these pieces are, and how I turn them into my language, and not take them too verbally. You talk about art forever, but you can try and make your own personal statement in the space. My work in the [Salzburg] museum is very, very intuitive.”Marijana Schneider, who curated the large scale Landau showing at the Museum der Moderne in Salzburg, feels that the Israeli artist conveys a manifold message with the exhibition. “With these works, Landau addresses questions of female identity and bodily experience as well as the political situation in Israel and the man-made disaster and consequential threat to the Dead Sea itself,” says Schneider.The Austrian curator – Landau has roots in Vienna – feels the Israeli manages to portray her own inner world and emotions while examining wider, contentious issues. “Her site-specific work, in a variety of mediums, relates to private and collective memory, archaic and utopic myths, and to present-day issues of the human condition,” Schneider says. “Using a diverse range of materials, while interacting with the human body, Landau weaves the social with the intimate, the historical with the private, the local with narratives of epic scale.”For more information about the exhibition at Mishkenot Sha’ananim: http://mishkenot.org.il/en/For more information about the Museum der Moderne exhibition: www.museumdermoderne.at/en/