Sharp and complex

Through her new exhibit, Yehudit Saspor tas aims to reveal the foreign or alien elements of those things that become overly familiar to us.

Yehudit Sasportas artist 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Yehudit Sasportas artist 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Visual artist Yehudit Sasportas – who recently opened her largest show in Israel in a decade, “Seven Winters,” at the Israel Museum – constantly works along two fronts at once. Whether in the drawings and animated videos she creates months at a time; exhibitions and installations she plans years in advance; intensely structured art courses she teaches year round; or the two studios and assistants, one in Tel Aviv and another in Berlin, she maintains at all times, her oscillation between subsequent pairs of poles is what gives her work a sense of balance and also imbues it with a simultaneous sense of vertigo.
“For most people, it’s difficult to be in a situation in which they can’t synchronize between what they feel and the image that is in front of them,” says Sasportas about the experience of viewing certain kinds of artworks. “The center of gravity of my work is this place of non-synchronization.”
She explains that artwork is exhibited within a cultural space largely governed by habit – galleries, museums, fairs – but that its function is to remind its viewers of those things that are foreign or alien to them, to wake them up by bringing to the fore the unfamiliar. She quotes Walter Benjamin in saying that culture needs habit in order not to go crazy, but that it can also develop an addiction to habit which overshadows the raw things themselves. Art, she says, makes it possible to reveal the foreign or alien elements of those things that become overly familiar to us.
To catalyze this quite abstract metaphysical sensation, Sasportas uses familiar objects and images: trees, swamps, tables, pianos, boats, oil barrels, the moon. In her words, she attempts to “synchronize the non-synchronized” – to embody abstract notions in concrete images – and thus to ground her ideas in objects, spaces and budgets. In this way, she aims to lead the viewer from a figurative mind-set, which looks at the shapes of recognizable objects, to an abstract mind-set, where objects lose their initial familiarity.
“The heart of the issue is to work in two ways,” she says. “First, to shave off the known and get to know the unknown.
But this is frightening. So, second, to dismantle the known by using tools you know: drawing, sculpture, space, scale, composition. The idea is to get to a zone where you no longer know what things are” – and yet you are surrounded by familiar objects and shapes that allow you to face this “frightening” unknown.
Sasportas quotes filmmaker David Lynch in saying that our tendency to “know” is violent. She adds that, through her work, she tries to reach a place where she can no longer attack things with her knowledge, bursting the illusion that understanding something necessarily means having knowledge. She calls this process “airing the consciousness out,” and the experience of her artwork an attempt to create a kind of “ventilator of consciousness.”
SASPORTAS IS the daughter of two master craftspeople – a carpenter and a seamstress – who learned their trade in Morocco, moved through several European capitals, and eventually arrived in Ashdod in the late 1960s. She was born in 1969, and from the age of six began helping her father in his carpentry business.
This experience would shape her artistic sensibility in two equally monumental ways. First, and most obviously, draftsmanship and woodwork became the two central skills with which her work is executed. The second, and perhaps less direct influence, is the existential awareness that she gained as her father’s helper.
“You bring a person a kitchen in pieces,” she explains, recalling her father’s delivery of cupboards around the then-burgeoning city. “You take the pieces down from the truck, put them on the street, and start bringing them up one by one. This is what interests me: this in-between moment.”
She describes both anxiety and wonder over a physical area where objects do not serve their purpose and are spread out in a way that isn’t functional. It developed in her what she calls an “intimacy with zones that are unfamiliar and unconcrete” – open zones without clear boundaries which she had to watch over as a kind of guard.
At the time, Ashdod had just begun to grow into a city, absorbing new Jewish immigrants from all over the world into hastily built modernist projects within several neighborhoods largely separated by sand dunes. Sasportas maintains that everything she does grew out of there, on many levels, especially in terms of what she calls “mental architecture.”
“On a small scale, I mean the disconnect between each area, the dunes, living next to the exit on the south of the city,” she explains. But on a larger scale, she refers to the inherent contradictions she saw everywhere she went. “From the outside, it looked like people lived in anonymous apartment blocks with no identity that took up the whole street. From the inside, you saw that every culture tried to compensate for the disconnection from its source through exaggeration.”
She describes each floor of the building as exhibiting the culture of a different country – India on the first floor, Georgia on the second, Russia on the third, Morocco on the fourth – as well as her fascination with the cultural facade of each group, with the obvious sense of missing the culture that was left behind. “It wasn’t about us being a global village,” she clarifies.
“It was about lack, about loss. These were people who didn’t undergo modernization in the country from which they came, and arrived in a super-modernist city.
There was a sensation of many different parts that didn’t undergo integration. And an outward anonymity which fueled an exaggerated identity.”
Sasportas grew up in a religious household but went to secular schools. The group of friends with which she went to high school were interested in music and poetry, and her thinking was influenced by these people who weren’t anything like her.
“We felt a kind of hunger in the best sense,” she says.
“Our lack of understanding turned into a foundation because of which we looked for things. The inability to make everything the same brought about a sense of complexity. The fact that we were separated by physical borders, by sand, created internal contradictions. These contradictions and ‘lacks’ turned into a motivation for movement” – between neighborhoods, and also between kinds of thinking. “Things that don’t connect, they create spaces.”
These spaces led to a non-synchronicity with her environment, and with so many perspectives, it became difficult to choose one way of life over another. At first, Sasportas filled this existential space with an observing eye, and by her late teens began working alongside her father in his carpentry shop, beginning what would become her art practice.
“If it was a question of creating, everything around me turned into something interesting,” she says. “You disconnect and this becomes the creative space.”
The quality of this creative space is also significant – and was initially questioned by her father, who, while putting together pieces of wood, observed his daughter taking pieces apart. This challenged the significance of the objects she was creating, and another criterion was introduced – Pardes, or Jewish exegesis – with its four levels of interpreting reality: the simple or literal meaning, the hinted or implicit meaning, the inquisitive or investigative meaning, and the secret or mystical meaning.
“The connection between the Jewish thinking I was brought up with and making art was that, as long as there is Pardes, I’m not creating an object of fetish.”
SASPORTAS EVENTUALLY went to study art at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, where she caught the attention of the legendary art critic and founder of ArtForum, Philip Leider. She was accepted for a year abroad at the Cooper Union School of Art in New York.
There, she underwent an educational experience that would guide her development for the next 20 years. “I learned how to produce an art object,” she explains, “and also how to talk about it.”
In New York, she came into contact with legendary artists and critics such as Hans Haacke, Mary Kelly and Rosalind Krauss, and witnessed the rise of Matthew Barney, one of the main artists ushering in the contemporary postmodern movement in the early 1990s. Sasportas recalls the buzz around his first solo show at the Barbara Gladstone Gallery, and her own meeting with his work.
“The meeting with Matthew Barney was very strong, like an open license to be alien, to make present the ‘other’ within the self,” she says. “It was a physical feeling.
I was unsettled but at the same time I wasn’t frightened.
It made me anxious – which also made me more present.
It was like meeting something without a filter, and for the first time I could recognize this thing in myself. I could identify it but I couldn’t articulate it. But it opened a space within me that stayed open.”
She adds that suddenly she didn’t feel the pressure to explain anything. She’d been given full license to use her third eye, to fully trust her senses and not only her perception – she could suddenly work with material that she couldn’t see. The meeting with his work showed her its disconnection from the matrix of everyday things, and that she was also disconnected. She was pulled not to what she understood but to what she could experienced, and became more attracted to those areas, wanting to research this otherness.
It was a crucial point for Sasportas because her tendency toward analysis, along with her hungry intellect, made her a strong candidate for the kind of highly conceptual and theoretical art that was being encouraged at the time.
At Cooper Union she sat in on lectures in the architecture department, went to hear French cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard lecture at Columbia University, and was invited by Kelly to join the independent study program at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
“I was very honored by the invitation to join,” she says, “but I realized that it wasn’t my club. Sharpening the mind was important, but being a critical thinker wasn’t for me. I understood that I had to choose between silence and art production or speech and thinking.”
She chose the former – but insists that this intersection is always there and still not a calm place for her.
THE CHOICE Sasportas made is bound up with her belief that visual art has the potential to connect its audience with the essence of human instinct. It is the temple of sensual thought and movement, she explains, the silent, intuitive, emotional part of being human. It is the engine of what she calls the cultural matrix or grid.
“Part of the significance of the cultural structure,” she says, “is to shave off the habits that act as crutches, and arrive at an authentic, cleaner self.”
She gives the example of a concrete sculpture by German artist Joseph Beuys, who often used the raw material in his works.
“When you see concrete in the form of a sidewalk every day,” she says, “you get used to the idea that concrete is sidewalk. But then you see a sculpture by Beuys and suddenly you see an ‘articulated form’ – the material as it appears in nature. Art brings the rawness of the material in nature into the cultural space.”
This, again, is what Sasportas calls an “airing out of the system” or a “ventilator of consciousness.” She adds that it is like cold air in the chest – a bubble of understanding.
For her, an artist works to bring this energy into the cultural space and to dismantle those structures that have become merely habit. A duality is set up between open space and structure. But the idea is not so much to annihilate the structure as to mediate the rebuilding of a structure that is more flexible.
“The more sophisticated a structure is,” she says, “the more open it is. In art, you find objects that at first seem very structured and stable, but the deeper you go, the more you see the flexibility. The challenge is to create a stable form that preserves movement.”
She believes that the cultural tendency or even need at the moment is for the intelligentsia to develop an ability to handle complexity, to maintain spaces that remain open for longer periods. At the same time, just like the sand bordering the different neighborhoods in Ashdod, she recognizes that boundaries help make complexity manageable, something of value rather than distracting or overwhelming.
She explains that to work as an international artist today, you need to work on two radically different frequencies. The first is a slow one, which stops time and respects the sacred space of creation. The second is within the space of action, where others exist, decisions are made and plans are executed. Her work in the studio is built on principles that are completely opposite from those according to which she functions outside the studio.
“Keeping up this split within the self has a price, it’s a kind of schizophrenia,” she admits. “I live in a delay with reality, it’s very violent, living with this constant pressure.”
SOMETIMES SASPORTAS needs to escape from the openness of contemporary life and spend a few hours in what she calls the “old school.” In Germany, where she has lived on and off for eight years, this often means taking a trip from bustling Berlin into areas in the former East Germany, especially the city of Leipzig. It was on just such a trip that she discovered a location that would inspire her work for years to come.
“I was on the train to Leipzig, to get a dose of ‘old school,’ when I saw an image in the newspaper across from me,” she recalls, referring to a trip she took in 2004, at the end of her first year in Germany. “At first I didn’t know what it was, I thought it was a picture of a bald head, and then I asked the person in the train to show me the newspaper.”
It turned out to be an aerial photograph of a swamp in northern Germany. Sasportas’s first instinct was to go visit the place but she soon found out that it was only reachable by canoe, and off-limits to the general public. Armed with false documents from the Weizmann Institute of Science, she claimed to be a researcher, and spent two years filming the swamp “undercover.” When she opened her first show of drawings based on the swamp, she invited the overseer – and for the following three years filmed under her true identity of an artist.
Almost the entirety of the current show in the Israel Museum is made up of drawings, animations, and sculptures based on images taken from this same swamp.
Sasportas’s method often involves projecting videos that she records of the swamp, for hours at a time, within the space of the studio – literally bringing nature into the cultural space.
From these images she creates her drawings on paper, wood panels and walls. These she sometimes records and animates, adding 3-D computer models, into video works that portray the flow between sight, sound, perception, emotion, navigation and other elements connected with the unconscious intuition.
“The different levels of consciousness are like different frequencies,” she says, explaining that they suggest the connection between the visible and the invisible.
This points to a very subtle use of objects in her work – which point not to symbolic meaning but to functional potential. Her four-meter-tall piano sculpture, for example, has less to do with the piano as a music-playing object, and more with its potential as a compositional instrument. This brings viewers to think about composition in general and then about creativity – which is where her work guides us in many different ways. It provides us with hints as to the state of being in which it was created – the spiritual, emotional, psychological, physical elements that go into an artwork – and thus to what Sasportas calls “the consciousness of creativity.”
This way, she tries to raise unprocessed consciousness to the surface. As such, she doesn’t intend to take apart the structure of reality, but rather to preserve its inherent flexibility. She maintains that there’s a difference between talking about such things and experiencing them – and suggests that the sanctity of the studio is what allows her to maintain a balance between the two.
“After 25 years of work,” she says, “I finally understood what it was that I always drifting toward: getting a sense of how the consciousness of creativity works.”