Material Girl

Sigalit Landau, hailed as one of Israel's most promising artists, is putting the finishing touches on a major new installation that will open next week at a gallery in Tel Aviv. For this peripatetic, intensely creative, almost obsessional young creator, everything is material for art, from a roomful of cotton candy to the magazine you are holding right now

Dakia Karpel
Dalia Karpel
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Dakia Karpel
Dalia Karpel

In 1997, the artist Sigalit Landau left Israel and followed her exhibitions to Berlin, England and New York. When she returned, four years later, she found in her parents' home a meter-high pile of Ha'aretz newspapers, stacked by her mother. The perusal of the pages documenting the Israeli time that had elapsed without her - "in a pile that expressed the terrible time that had gone by since the start of the intifada," in her words - engendered a conceptual decision to translate time into volume, to infuse history with matter. "You read the masses of information every day and see the loops of the situation in Israel, small loops of hope and despair: for me, that mass intersected with fruits that grow out of the body, growths of a sort. I'm healthy but that's what engages me, age 30-plus, who knows."

She smeared the papers with a mixture of red paint as blood and a few types of glue, and then squeezed them. For about two years she spent most of her waking hours in her studio, located on Ha'aliya Street in south Tel Aviv, and produced fruits. "I would take a page, read it and cover it with the blood mix, take another page and cover it, too, and then squeeze. The project grew and grew, creating round shapes all the time because of the mechanical actions of the squeezer. In the sun, the product took on a life of its own and became light and very strong. Like a fruit. A fruit that has an archive imprisoned with it, a kind of archive of wounds. A sealed scab, bladders of current events, whatever you like."

In the course of two years she produced about 600 fruits and attached huge wooden roots to them. On September 5, Landau's new exhibition will open at the Alon Segev Gallery in Tel Aviv. Each of the astonishing fruits in the immense grove Landau has created in the gallery bears within it not only the contents of a particular day but also the date and a headline. By the fruits are three figures, which she welded herself, that have no names, only functions - picker, porter, writer - all made out of copies of Ha'aretz Magazine. Yes, she confirms, "your articles and those of the other writers in the magazine are today the body organs of the figures in the exhibition."

At Landau's request, this article will not reveal the details of the plot of the installation she has put together at the gallery, so as not to ruin the surprise for the visitors. For the same reason, she asked that no photograph of the installation be published. What can be said is that she has created two environments, or "two places," as she puts it, one representing an open space typical of Tel Aviv in which the figure of the writer is installed, the other a subterranean grove where the fruits, the picker and the porter are placed a paradisical garden, perhaps. "I am interested in the connection between the places and in the reciprocal relations between the two radically different, polar environments. The writer monitors the passage of the days and the production and picking of the fruit, and the notebook at his feet documents the day's headlines. You can take a fruit from the pile, check the date on it and find out in the notebook exactly what happened that day."

As she read the newspapers in one fell swoop, it was easier for her to discover that the Israeli reality "works in loops," as she describes it. "We eat what we have cooked and it is as cyclical as the body's metabolism. The headlines are the same, month in and month out." In this closed circular reality of despair, only art makes it possible for her to find any sort of balance, she says. "Among other causes, the installation stems from a kind of despair at activity within this reality: the feeling of powerlessness, of not being able to influence. It's as though I have to try to balance what's happening in the country, to fashion a slightly different order. To house the facts in the inner rooms in order to translate the situation of the world into the language of art. But there are probably also bodily reasons."

Are bodily reasons a type of mania?

"Insanity doesn't have a long life. You don't survive 10 years in the art world in a situation of insanity. I also thought sometimes that it is madness and that something within me would be calmed, but it is only becoming more intense. The totality, the intensiveness, the fact that I was able to fashion the fruits day after day. I am an artist, and in most artists things are based on some sort of obsession, but it seems to me to be a type of nature, to want to create, to want to communicate. It's important for me not to lose touch with the audience. My projects always have a side to them that can be explained straightforwardly. The goal of my artistic work is not to make people laugh or make them sad, but to tell a story and to experience something in the body. In a word: transformation."

A sense of newness

Sigalit Landau, 33, Jerusalem-born, is a frenetic woman who seems never to be still or at rest, perhaps because of the surging power and charm of her personality, as in her art. There is a near-consensus in the art world that Landau is the most promising Israeli artist working today, that she is the real thing and will go far. Part of the myth that has already collected around her has to do with the totality and the extremeness, a wild, intensive pace that is liable to destroy her from within. It's easy to understand where this springs from. Two years ago, for example, in "Barbed Hula," Landau did what she calls "an act of trance and desensitization" in the form of a dance performance at sunrise on the beach at Tel Aviv, in which she swung a barbed-wire hula hoop around her near-nude body.

Her voice is soft and sweet but her speech is a torrent of fragments, punctuated by bursts of English words and terms - she learned the language as a girl when she spent much time abroad. "Because of the English, I stuttered in Hebrew until the age of seven. I don't speak clearly and I don't think clearly. I think in general terms. My studio can also be an awful mess. But more things happen to messy people, and an artist is a person who can see coincidences: things that happen by mistake."

She is a total artist, speaking of her work in nearly religious language. She rushed around the Alon Segev Gallery last week wearing two undershirts one on top of the other, shorts and black legwarmers covering her knees; her fingernails were blacker than black and her palms were swollen from hard physical work; her hair was tossed back carelessly and her face was free of make-up. Even when she finally sat down and stopped pulling photographs out of rustling nylon bags or nervously looking through albums, she didn't stop fingering and rubbing things. She even turned used chewing gum into sculpted shapes. Everything is physical with her, everything is matter.

Her career took off suddenly. In 1994, even before she had completed her studies at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem, she created an installation as part of an ArtFocus group exhibition entitled "Transit," (curator: Sarit Shapira) in vacant shops at the Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv, which immediately established a presence for her in the consciousness of the Israeli art community. She found an abandoned space, with a hole in the wall instead of a door, which had been used as a place to sleep by foreign workers and Palestinians. She placed 14 doors at the site and with the use of iron wedges sculpted a kind of internal space, or tunnel, in which she placed a rotting mattress that had been partially eaten by mice and fermenting red grapes. She also made use of workers' clothes that were lying around on the floor and built a tent out of nylon that was supported by eucalyptus logs in the form of penises. These various works were entitled "Fourteen Scratched Doors," "Tent" and "Compressed Household." Landau, whose head was shaven at the time, lived and slept in the doorless installation for a month, most of the time alone. She wasn't there on the last night and part of the project was stolen.

A year later, in 1995, she was invited to exhibit at the Israel Museum as part of the "Joint" series of young Israeli artists, together with Guy Bar Amotz (curators: Yigal Tsalmona and Sarit Shapira). Her installation was entitled "Temple Mount." A wall of soft-drink bottles marked the entry into the hall, which was filled with refuse, at the center of which Landau placed a block in the shape of the "foundation stone" in the Dome of the Rock, in which she grew cultures of fungus (under the close supervision of the museum's scientist, who ensured that the fungus would not harm the museum; the discussion with him was preserved on a video film that accompanied the installation). A "shattered pupil / membrane - as after an Intifada stone-throwing incident," as Landau notes on her well-ordered but mischievous Website (, made of blue glass, hung from the ceiling, and visitors were invited to hurl gravel at it, as though they were children of the intifada in action. The video film shows her in a refuse bin wearing a nylon suit and a gas mask, traveling in a garbage truck to the earthfill in the Palestinian village of Al-Azzariyeh, adjacent to Jerusalem.

From the very outset, it has been clear that your subjects are related to refugees and outcasts, to wanderings and a lack of roots, to homelessness. Do you feel that you are a refugee?

"Sometimes I wake up in Tel Aviv as though I am in some kind of No Logo place. I know something about being a refugee. That is where my makeup comes from. I have lived in many places and in many of them I didn't feel attached. When I was a girl, we went a lot to London and the United States, and Tel Aviv wasn't an issue. It took me years to understand what Tel Aviv is. I feel a constant sense of newness toward the place.

"I have lived for years in south Tel Aviv and I see the foreign workers, who don't look me in the eye. I photograph the notes they leave behind in telephone booths after they speak longingly with the other place, with home. The surrealist movement called this automatic writing, and I am collecting that."

By 1996 she was already exhibiting abroad, in Rotterdam, and Dublin. Since then she has moved from place to place, being part of the movement and part of the place, being the narrator and lead actress of her works. That was the case when she rode in the garbage truck in Jerusalem or when, after the bus station project, she built a container in which she, too, lived, of course. This work, entitled "Resident Alien I," consisted of a cargo container that held an obstacle course in the form of "a landscape resembling the Judean dessert" [sic], and visitors ultimately found themselves "in the white light between the two leg places of an eastern toilet hole."

The container, with Landau in it, traveled in 1997 to Kassel, Germany, for the "Documenta" show, the most important event in contemporary art, and, as "Resident Alien II" - evoking the often fatal attempts of Third World workers to reach the West via containers - to the Venice Biennale. Since then she has been following her exhibitions: Berlin, London, Edinburgh, Exeter, Heidelberg, Herzliya, Saitama (Japan), Paris, New York, Birmingham and Tel Aviv.

How do you explain the dimensions of your projects? Your new installation, for example, is actually on the scale of a museum exhibit and not a gallery piece.

"I have had those dimensions from the beginning. I went to have my kidneys examined and I discovered that my bladder is twice or three times the size of a normal one. Why? Just like that, there is a person who has a large organ. Large works, small works - there is nothing deliberate. It's just not the same thing to make a representation of something through a painting, which is flat and does not mix, certainly as compared to all the notions and all the layers that are mixed into my projects. It is always clear to me that you have to give the maximality, and the optimum is the maximum. There are no boundaries. At the end of a long day of work I can say that maybe it would be better to relax a little, but why stop in the stage of emergence, or while the ground is being fertilized or when the crops are being harvested? You don't stop in mid-process."

Dead girl, erotic sugar

One of her most memorable projects is the acoustic cement mixer. The project, done in 2000, in which she transformed a "truck-mounted concrete mixer into a large traveling, performing music box," was called "Bauchhaus" (stomach-house in German, derived from "Bauhaus"). Landau took the truck to Germany and England, with the artist relating Andersen's story of the little match girl, though her version had a different ending, in which the girl's body is discovered. "In my fairy tale I claimed that in 1998 workers at a construction site in the center of Berlin discovered a dead girl who was well preserved because she had frozen, and next to her they found the burnt matches."

Landau says she was always appalled by the story about the little girl who sold matches and was afraid to return home without having sold them, so she lit match after match, each time fantasizing a different scene about a warm, loving house with food, until she finally freezes. "This is contrary to the male heroes of fairy tales and legends, who are confronted with a challenge they have to meet and who somehow don't get so entangled in events."

How did all that come through in the work?

"The girl was a homeless person and the singing cement mixer is the potential of home. People on the street saw a musical cement mixer and also heard something and received something. They received Popsicles in the shape of the frozen girl together with an explanatory text about my legend in which the body is found in 1998 and so forth. It was all couched in factual language and the Popsicle stick was the stick a doctor uses to check your threat. The Popsicle in the shape of the frozen girl was very tasty, and people brought her back to life by eating the energy and sugar of the Popsicle. It's somewhat cannibalistic and also somewhat generous, as I melt Popsicles in people's stomachs."

Are you and the girl alike?

"We are opposites. The match seller did not disseminate her story and didn't warm herself with the matches, either. I certainly would have burned something instead of having visions."

Landau produces and directs the video films that accompany her installations. In one of them, "On the Ruins of Love," she is seen doing an erotic dance against the background of the song "The Ruins of Love" performed by the great Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum in a hall that gradually fills with fibers of cotton candy blown from a machine that never stops working. The film actually documents a solo show she had in 2001 at the Thread Waxing Space gallery in SoHo, Manhattan, which drew critical praise. "Joseph Beuys had fat, Matthew Barney has Vaseline. Sigalit Landau, an ambitious multimedia artist from Israel, is laying claim to sugar, granular and spun," Roberta Smith noted in The New York Times.

The pure form of things

She feels she was born an artist. "We don't always know everything and there aren't always circumstances. I was born in a hard Caesarean section - 39 hours. My mother almost died. Lightning and thunder. I was born in Jerusalem, a too-modest entry into the atmosphere. Other than that, I don't really know. I drew from a young age, I was a professional dancer, and when we were in London, the Royal Ballet suggested that I start training with them."

Her parents, Simcha and Maya Landau, are criminologists. Her mother, who left the profession to take up scientific editing at home, comes from a radical Communist family from Vienna, who moved to London during World War II. "They were universal atheistic Communists. My grandfather, Jason Sontag, had a Jewish periodical in England, the Jewish Quarterly, which still exists and was in its time a platform for Israeli writers." She recalls going as a little girl to the polling booth with her father, who was from Romania, to ensure that there were enough ballots of left-wing parties. They also took part in social-protest demonstrations of the (Israeli) Black Panthers in the 1970s. Sigalit has a brother, Daniel, 29, a musician and artist who lives in Holland, and a sister, Ayelet, 24, who is doing a master's degree in psychology.

What is your attitude toward your family?

"Okay. Living. Everyone is an exception and things creak in every direction. There are anomalies. There is creaking and there is a lot of love. They supported me in art when they understood that I was serious. I was always very sensitive and very mature. I don't think it was such an easy journey to grow up the way I did, with all the traveling. It was hard for my parents to see a child who was an artist, who relatively feels more pain. It was hard for me. Here and there. I was like some new immigrant. The children in my class sometimes accepted me. I was always busy with something and was an excellent student. But I had friends who are friends to this day."

At the age of eight, with four years of classical dance behind her, she was already living on the tips of her toes. She attended elementary school in Jerusalem but also in Philadelphia and Boston, and went to the Rubin Academy of Music high school in Jerusalem. She had to give up dancing at the age of 17 because of rheumatism; fortunately for her, she had been drawing and sculpting all along. She was drafted in 1987 and was sent to the film unit of the chief education officer after declaring (falsely) that she knew how to edit films.

During her service she produced and edited "intifada films" for soldiers who were being transferred from Lebanon to the Gaza Strip in order to do battle against the stone-throwing children. "This was in the period when [then defense minister Yitzhak] Rabin said to break their bones, and films were needed to make it easier for the soldiers to acclimatize in Gaza. They interviewed soldiers who experienced serious traumas and showed the footage to new soldiers so they would learn from the foul-ups, which we took from footage of foreign stations. When I got out of the army I didn't want to hear any more about screenplays or lenses or equipment that got broken in the middle of the night. I didn't want people. I wanted to learn the pure form of things."

Landau's army years were the period in which she got to know Tel Aviv. For the first time she lived away from home and out of Jerusalem, and there was no end to the new things she discovered. "I was missing a few tools in order to know what exactly I found. It had to do with a kind of Israeli identity that I discovered existed there, which seemed to me to be based on a few pretty false assumptions - it was a type of ugliness, which today I think is the most beautiful thing in the world."

What was the new identity made of?

"Just simply growing up at the age of 18, alone in the city. It was 1987, Sheinkin [the trendy street] and all the clubs, it was a kind of two years when I didn't sleep at all. I edited during the day and partied at night. Drugs and alcohol. Yes, a bit of everything. I am on quantities of homeopathy, I have a very delicate system. I don't need an overdose to make me feel."

From the army she went directly into art studies at Bezalel. If she could choose today, she would study architecture, which would certainly have pleased her father, who every so often invites her to a cafeteria at Hebrew University of Jerusalem and asks her with a serious look, "What are you doing to make a living?"

And what are you doing?

"It's not clear. I live from a few sales and from some of my projects, in which a sum of money is allocated to me. There is no connection between the amount of work I do and what I get for it. It's ridiculous, but I have been living from art for two years now and I am not supported by my parents or by anyone else. No one could have lived from the amount of money that I did. But in this condition, with no children, no special debts and no property, I can do it. I don't know how much money I live from during a month, maybe NIS 3,000, maybe more. Now my account has a minus because I am at the end of a huge project, which I am financing in part. Thousands of shekels go every day. I don't buy clothes, though I will be happy to buy when I grow up. I was bald for a year and now I am letting my hair grow. I can put hand cream on my face and my hair."

Why do you give the impression of being the bad, rebellious girl?

"You saw my work. I did art, I didn't do harm to anyone. I didn't scratch the door of anyone who didn't love me. There is something defiant in me. The works are defiant, true, they don't create a relaxed atmosphere. It all comes from places of difficulty and hurt. You can't be so productive and love what you are doing so much without destroying. I try not to destroy and not to be sealed up, so it was important for me to come back to work in Israel."

Do you like the local materials?

"If you like materials, you will like the materials of this place. Tel Aviv is a city of transformations. The materials here are the continuation of the body. There are cities that have their kishkes more outside, and some with less. In Europe it's a lot less.

"What is my attitude toward the place? That is a gigantic question. I have the feeling that people here will wander on rather than watch it being destroyed. Our nation seems to be better at wandering than other nations, and that's an asset. I have a plan to move Tel Aviv to someplace in Canada. Bauhaus City.

"Some people try to irritate me and say that no culture has been created here, that it's a subculture and a copy. Not so. There are creative artists here and there is a different warmth of people who are very likable and have a lot of talent. I am on the side that builds. I can't be on the side that bemoans, but I work while bemoaning. Maybe we have five minutes or fifty minutes, who knows. I'm from a dynasty of leftists, and what we did and what we said and all the demonstrations we held were apparently not enough."

What is your connection to Israeli art?

"My connection to Israeli art is that I work here and exhibit. I admired Aviva Uri and I liked learning about the Canaanite movement, and I loved Arie Aroch, whom everyone loves, and Tsibi Geva. I didn't separate between Israeli art and world art. It is very important that I didn't make the distinction of there is Israel art / there is no Israeli art. I also don't have inferiority feelings of here and there. I don't have a need to justify myself. I have no doubt that people expect me to become involved with my Israeliness, and I do that when I exhibit in another country. My next exhibition will be in January 2003 in Vienna."

The driving force

What else is there in a life in which art is the be-all and end-all?

"There's not much room for other things, but I have needs. I have a connection with Arik, which has gone on for four years already [Arik Lavie, an Israeli designer of repute, who lives in Paris], there is music and literature, and my senses are always working. It's urgent for me only to work and create. I take great pleasure from intensiveness and it's hard for me to leave the studio. I don't feel tired or hungry if I didn't eat, even if it's two in the morning. I also feel the paranoia and the anxiety like anyone else, but it's still important for me that I am searching, and healthier for me to remember what I am searching for and not what I have lost.

"I'm even diligent about taking care of myself. I am at the height of my powers. I eat humus for breakfast and put two teaspoons of sugar in the tea. I make sure I don't get thin, but maybe I do get thin, because I use up a lot of energy. I will apparently be a skinny old woman. And I don't have children yet but I will. I want to be a mother. I have what to do in the next five years - I want more and more projects, not something nymphomaniac but in order to understand and hone things, and to create."

And what about love?

"I am a disaster at love, but I haven't given up yet. I had it really wonderful from age 15 to 27, but now it's a disaster. The distance from Arik is very hard. Love always takes energy, whether it exists or not. If you don't have love, you search for it, and I will always be on a search. Love is what drives me. Without it, it's hard for me to work. Maybe this is just a story I tell, but I am very much engaged in it.

"I am always in love, loving, falling in love. I was in love from the age of five already. I am constantly in a state of relating to and being charmed. That's what moves you forward. Those are the magnets, and it has to do with childhood and it has to do with memory and it is the blender and the driving force." n