Challenging our vision through art

Israeli artist Sigalit Landau has perplexed the critics with her unique style of video art, but to her, it is a limitless medium when trying to tackle reality.

Sigalit Landau 521 (photo credit: EYAL SEGAL)
Sigalit Landau 521
(photo credit: EYAL SEGAL)
IT TOOK ISRAELI ARTIST SIGALIT Landau a while – a decade in fact – for the art world to conclude that the videos she was producing should be considered art. With the video art market in its infancy and Jerusalem-born Landau’s particular kind of video art considered to be rebellious and iconoclastic, she encountered a mixture of cynicism and rejection. “You don’t expect us to show this in an art fair, do you?” one museum director asked, looking at her Barbed Hula work in 2000.
She persevered, however, insisting that we count as art her installation of huge metallic off-white water pipes, her videos of three young men playing a game called Countries, using knives to mark political borders, and the grisly Barbed Hula, showing a woman spinning a hula hoop made of barbed wire around her naked body.
“My mother said I was a very good painter, and that I should stop working with iron because it’s going to kill me and I should just paint, paint, paint,” she tells THE JERUSALEM REPORT. “Painting was nice, but I preferred to use tools and space. In the end, I am a very concrete person.”
Remember when visiting an art museum meant gazing at paintings? Today, the definition of what is art has expanded way beyond pointillist dots, 16th century portraits and frescoes. Art, as the 42-year-old Landau practices it, encompasses the video presentation of a naked woman embedded inside 500 watermelons connected to one another by an 820-foot metal wire, floating in the Dead Sea. And if Landau gets her way, art may include her proposed salt bridge spanning that same Dead Sea, linking Israel and Jordan and employing a bridge-building metaphor that is hard to miss.
Landau is one of Israel’s most successful and controversial purveyors of contemporary art, a segment of the art world that also includes names such as Jeff Koons and Cindy Sherman. In 2011, Landau represented Israel at the Venice Biennale, one of the art world’s major events.
On an afternoon in mid-June, the blond-haired, peppy, full-of-life Landau scampers about her warehouse of an art studio in south Tel Aviv, touching up a bronze sculpture here, meeting with graphic designers there, taking time out for a visitor who warily perches between fiery orange Bunsen burners and ear-piercing carpentry drills.
Landau is dressed in a bright orange T-shirt and a patterned skirt. It seems peculiar to watch a woman navigate between the Bunsen burners and the drills, since the ambiance suggests more a male-oriented shop class than an artist's studio. However, she appears completely at ease in the “shop class,” arguing that her kind of three-dimensional art has more to do with reality than conventional two-dimensional paintings. Her eagerness to show reality is what draws her to the pipes, the watermelons, and the barbed wire. “When you are doing painting, you are representing something even if it is abstract,” she observes. “You are dealing with representation in two dimensions.
You live in a bubble, using perceptions. I am more sensuous and of essence.”
Her thin, lithe dancer’s body, still very visible at age 42, was meant to help her as a child become a professional dancer. She began dancing at age four, but when a mild bout of rheumatic fever 11 years later forced her to abandon her dream, she happily fell under the sway of her architect mother Maya’s love of sculpture, becoming an in-house apprentice. At times Maya and Sigalit, forgetting the constraints of their home, built oversized objects. Once, when mother and daughter sculpted a piece in their Jerusalem kitchen, they had to remove the kitchen door to transport it elsewhere.
Trying to paint, Sigalit was repelled by the traditional art world dominated by painters. To her, Israeli painters seemed remote, pretentious and, worst of all, their work was abstract. With her mother ambivalent about which kind of art her daughter should pursue, Landau began leaning toward contemporary art.
With its seemingly limitless potential for dealing directly with reality, contemporary art seemed far more seductive to Landau. She loved that it was “multi-media, interdisciplinary, all those exotic names.”
She settled on sculpture and video art as her specialties, and has taken the art world by storm. She lived in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany at the start of her art career. “I felt I should live around art scenes.”
In 1994, she graduated from the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem. For the next ten years – until 2004 – she worked but did not sell anything. “I don’t know why my landlord didn’t kick me out.” And so she worked with cheap materials such as newspapers.
If she had had to buy oil paint she doubts that she would have made it as a painter.
By the end of the 1990s, she was creating video art. Barbed Hula was one of her first edgy, in-your-face works, showing a nude female body (her own) rolling on and around her belly a hula hoop made of barbed wire, harming her delicate female skin with each move. In the video we do not see Sigalit’s face.
She twists her body in synch with the sounds of ocean waves, shown in the background. Landau tells us that Barbed Hula refers to the sacrificial practices of the earliest religions. “The seashore is the only calm and natural border Israel has. This belly dance is a personal and senso-political act concerning invisible sub-skin borders, surrounding the body and identity actively and endlessly.”
Context and culture
Post 9/11, living in a world that seemed almost apocalyptic, Landau decided at the end of 2001 to move back to her home – Israel. Hoping to express her art within an Israeli context, she became a leading force in reshaping the Israeli art world.
“My real breakthrough was coming back to Israel and working with figures and the intifada story. Here the context is different. It’s very much my context. My audience is part of my culture.
“I walk this bridge between being relevant and clear. I chose to work here for the materials, the narrative, and for the uniqueness of this culture.” That culture, she says, is “eclectic, ancient, modern, a social experiment. As an immigrant-oriented nation it’s always a few steps ahead of others.”
Perhaps more to the point, Israel has become open to contemporary art.
“Today we see how many things are going on in art in Israel, things that were once ignored but now we are rewriting the history of art,” she says, with great pleasure in her voice.
Once back in Israel, her work became even edgier. In the fall of 2002, her exhibit The Country appeared in Tel Aviv, invoking, said art critics, a sense of calamity and impending doom. One critic called the installation – pieces of papier-mâché fruit scattered about, carried by tortured figures, and torn from the pages of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz – Israel’s Guernica – a reference to Pablo Picasso’s 1947 iconic painting.
Picasso’s work came in response to the 1937 German and Italian bombing of Guernica in Spain’s Basque Country, during the Spanish Civil War.
As with The Country, Guernica meant to convey war’s tragedy and human suffering. The Country was meant to conjure up a nightmarish vision of the world’s end as observed from a Tel Aviv rooftop. The blood-soaked “fruit,” evoking the bad news and violence wrought by the second Palestinian intifada of 2000 and 2001, was meant to contrast with the luscious fruit of an earlier idyllic Zionist pioneering period that symbolized promise.
A sexual kind of art
A few years later, Landau produced video art that was filled with less doom and gloom than past works. In 2005 she put together an 11-minute video artwork she called DeadSee, featuring her naked body among 500 watermelons – linked by a steel wire – which unravel on the Dead Sea. She wanted to show contrasts, the watermelons suggesting life, the body of water reflecting death, and she wanted to show contrasting colors: the green and sometimes red of the watermelons, the white of her body, and the blue of the Dead Sea.
The creation of her art, she acknowledges, is all very experimental, and not simple. “I’m not a genius. I work hard.”
As part of the preliminary work for DeadSee, she took 80 watermelons and made a raft. “It was clumsy, annoying, and the watermelons broke.”
Why did she put herself naked among the watermelons? “I hate to tell other people what to do with their bodies. So it might as well have been me. I couldn’t think of any clothes that would have been appropriate so I did it naked.”
Visitors to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, where DeadSee is on exhibit, find Landau’s 500 watermelon work projected from a video camera on to a floor: the watermelons unfold slowly and at one point Landau’s naked stretched-out body appears amid the fruit, resembling a fetus in a womb. A group of Rumanian neurologists touring the Museum refused to leave the exhibit until all 500 watermelons unraveled. To do the video, Landau arranged for a video photographer to stand on top of a crane next to the water in order to get an aerial view of the unraveling watermelons.
Her passion for video art is self-evident.
“If you look at my work, you see a very sexual kind of art because I am skilled at making videos. It is something I very easily mastered.” Sculpture, her other specialty, she points out, has many more layers, more complexity. ”In video art you are looking at one good shot. You need to formulate and clean it. When I sculpt, I need to make a very big mess.”
She is working these days on her most ambitious project, building a bridge made entirely of salt that will span the southern part of the 10-mile wide Dead Sea between Israel and Jordan. Her goal is to complete the bridge by 2014 to mark 20 years since the signing of the Israel- Jordan peace treaty. Her fixation with the Dead Sea is not unexpected: as a child living in French Hill in Jerusalem, she had, on clear days, a breathtaking view of that body of water.
She explained her kind of art in the Venice Biennale 2011 catalogue.
“My work is about building bridges. Unconsciously looking for new and vital materials to connect the past to the future, the West to the East, the private with the collective, the sub-existential to the uber-profound, found objects to the deepest epic narratives and mythologies, using scattered, broken words to define bric-a-brac and transform it into a soft heap of new dream-buds, to act beyond the uncertain horizon.”
Think of Sigalit Landau and one automatically focuses on the water pipe installations, the hula hoops and barbed wire, the watermelons and naked bodies, and, if all goes well, a bridge-building bridge. From such art she has become one of Israel’s most unusual, provocative, and important new-age artists.