Looking for a Different Wow

Artist Sigalit Landau's return to the Venice Biennale, 14 years after her first appearance, has been compared to a criminal revisiting the scene of a crime. Perhaps that stands to reason for the daughter of two criminologists.

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The Israeli pavilion at the art Biennale in Venice, which opens on June 4, still looked like a construction site a month ago. Industrial-sized nylon sheets protected part of its sections. A hole was dug into the wall of another section, machine and installation parts were piled up waiting to be used, walls were coming down and new ones erected in their place. At the site, which is a beautiful white modern structure, a Venetian plumber, six French workers, a local official inspecting the pavilion on behalf of the Foreign Ministry, and four members of the Israeli team were toiling. Leading the group, high-handedly, was artist Sigalit Landau.

For Landau it is a second presentation at the Biennale. The first was in 1997, in a joint exposition with Yossi Berger and Miriam Cabessa. Then it was a nightmare for Landau but today it is almost fun. "Really," she says, "I know where the difficulties are and I have been able to anticipate them better, also because [I am] more ready."

Sigalit Landau.Credit: Uri Gershuni

Israeli curator Ilan Wizgan considers Landau a "criminal who returns to the crime scene to find what she perhaps missed as a young artist." Wizgan is preparing the Israeli pavilion along with French curator Jean de Loisy. It is the first time that an international curator has participated in organizing the Israeli pavilion. "This is a common thing in most pavilions," Landau notes.

The title of her exhibition is "One Man's Floor Is Another Man's Feelings" (the word "feelings" substituting for "ceiling" ). All the works are new and they include two video works, an art installation that combines video, sound and an object, several sculptures that will be placed in unexpected places, and a sculpture that will be incorporated into ready-made objects.

Landau is now 41, and nearly 20 years have passed since her breakthrough in the world of art. Her body, which appears in several of her video works, is small but at the same time strong and athletic. Her hair, which has gone through many changes, is now short and wild, and its edges are dyed in various shades of blonde, brown and red. Even though she is accompanied by a team of assistants at the pavilion, she can't stop touching the material herself, as the soil in her fingers shows.

To an unprecedented extent, Landau's individual personality and her artistic persona are at the heart of the artistic and media discourse. Her exhibition "The Country," which showed at the Alon Segev Gallery in Tel Aviv for two months in 2002, drew more than 15,000 visitors. "It was an unprecedented number. Buses came from around the country," recalls Segev (who ceased representing Landau in 2007, but notes they have maintained a good relationship ). Her 2005 exhibition at Tel Aviv's Helena Rubinstein Pavilion, "The Endless Solution," also attracted a mass of visitors who came in organized groups from their workplaces, the media reported.

The packed artistic installation that she presented at the Alon Segev Gallery was taken apart and divided into small sections, each of which was sold separately. Segev: "Buying a papier-mache was not obvious, neither then and perhaps not now. I was happy to see that already then people recognized Landau's potential and left nothing."

Landau was born and raised in Jerusalem, the daughter of two criminologists. Her mother came from a Viennese family that had migrated to London, and her father is a Romanian-born Holocaust survivor. Every year they would send her to London for two months, to be with her grandmother. "I remember being 8 years old - it was a highly influential age - going to school in a uniform dress, seeing and experiencing Christmas," she recalls. "My mother was compulsive about art, more than about other matters, and she used to drag me to galleries. Every time she came to London, she flourished. It filled her batteries."

Landau danced until age 17 but had to quit because of a medical problem. Four and a half years ago she gave birth to a daughter, but later parted with the girl's father, who continues to share parental responsibilities.

Two years after she graduated from Jerusalem's Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in 1994, she won recognition abroad. She had two big solo exhibitions at the Kunst-Werke Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The Kamel Mennour Gallery in Paris has been representing her for the past three years (she also works now with the Givon Art Gallery in Tel Aviv ). She has won prizes from the America-Israel Cultural Foundation (in 1994 and 2002 ), the Young Artists Award from Israel's Education and Culture Ministry (2001 ), the Gottesdiener Foundation award (2004 ) and a prize for sculpture from the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.

A prominent artist who declined to be identified said that "a hysterical attitude that is out of proportion to the quality of her work" has been created around her. Artist Nahum Tevet, one of Landau's teachers, remembers her as an outstanding student. "She was a character. Her totality stood out at school. She used to wear work clothes, did as she pleased and spent all her time in the workshop. She was very original.

"The generation of creators of artistic installations obviously followed the teachers who had taught at that time or who were their models," Tevet notes. "She has some excellent works, such as the 'Barbed Hula' and other excellent images that justify the assessment of her, but I take exception to the figures she creates and the papier-maches." Tevet adds that "the redundancy is sometimes harmful. Her totality is overwhelming and sometimes superfluous." Sometimes art critics, too, took exception to the profusion of her creations.

A meeting with Landau takes place in a Venice cafe near the Israeli pavilion's location, one afternoon on a warm sunny day. She arrives accompanied by Eyal Segal, an assistant who has worked for her for several years; a producer who helped her with the new video works; and a film crew of two women that is documenting the artist erecting the exhibition. Landau herself initiated the filming, thinking the material might be useful at a later date. The camera accompanies her permanently while the exhibition is being prepared; sometimes the camera's presence isn't felt but at other times, when the situation is stressful, it seems the camera is a burden on her. She's not the only one who considers this documentation useful. American cable network HBO sent a team to document Landau in her studio in southern Tel Aviv and while she prepares for the Venice exhibition. The chapter about her will be part of a documentary series surveying, among others, the works of Michal Rovner, Micha Ullman and Barry Frydlender.

For the current exhibition, Landau dug a hole in the bottom floor of the pavilion toward the structure's foundations. "This space, locked between the lower tier and the pavilion's middle tier, was discovered by Landau herself 14 years ago," writes Wizgan, in the text that accompanies the exhibition. "Then, too, she bore a hole in that wall and presented a work in the space behind it. In an autobiographical and archaeological move, she returns to that act and to that space and exposes it again."

The digging, a stubborn trek in the search for another space, was a theme that emerged in Landau's early works, including "Many Scratched Doors," her final exhibit at Bezalel in 1994. It was presented in various versions, among others at that year's first Art Focus exhibit in Tel Aviv. That work showed 14 old doors leaning on each other, and she dug through them with steel claws. "By digging I scratched the doors in order to get out - or perhaps enter, it is not clear - in any way, the way a dog scratches an entrance door," Landau wrote at that time in the Hebrew art magazine Studio.

That first Art Focus was presented in the Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv, where Landau used the abandoned spaces on the fifth floor. Creating that exhibit also started with a hole. "Whoever built that floor did not like people and did not care for them," she stated at that time. "When I walked around the station I saw a hole in the wall and through it I entered an area which workers, or homeless people, created for themselves, probably when the building was built."

She worked with the existing space and the remnants of life in it - such as used condoms, syringes, stinking, abandoned clothes, a broken transistor and pornographic pictures. She used these to create a space with new, disturbing objects. She even lived there for a month, to keep an eye on her works but primarily to turn the political act into something practical, physical.

Landau herself concluded at that time, "I finally created something that after all gives a sense of a home. Every threshold is also a place and one can stay there: The threshold of pain, the threshold of capability, the doorstep of a home, waiting. There is a feeling that I settle in these places, don't pass by them."

That feeling is also present in the pavilion in Venice. "The first thing I do," Landau says, "is make it my home." Recently, during an early visit to Venice, she observed that the structure that architect Ya'akov Rechter designed many years ago looked like the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion building in Tel Aviv that he also planned (and where she held her "The Endless Solution" exhibit in 2005). "In an associative way it was clear to me that the pavilion in Venice is sort of a sketch of the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion, where I know, in depth, every millimeter," she says. "When you enter you are hit. It's the same mess. A chaos. The key player in both places is the staircase and everything else is tiers and hierarchies. It is like a whipped cream cake, but of architecture," she laughs.

Landau went to architect Amnon Rechter and studied his father's archives, familiarized herself with an Italian proposal that had preceded Ya'akov's and with the stages of planning and construction that he supervised. In this context, Wizgan writes in the exhibit's text that "the historical period in which the pavilion was planned and built corresponds with the period to which Landau alludes in her works, in recent years, when the Israeli national home was shaped by political, demographic, ethnic, social and architectural aspects."

The pavilion in Venice indeed represents the State of Israel but in Landau's eyes "this pavilion does generally not make anyone love it and invest in it. It is something that represents nothing. I am coping with the fact that the exhibit at the Biennale is something between an exhibit at home base and one seen by the entire world of culture. I am looking for anchors to mediate or perhaps ask questions about the place, which is in between the local and the universal."

The exhibit itself engages with "a community, a society or a culture that shares something with the neighboring community, like land and water," Landau said at a press conference a few months ago. "That's the way it is at the Dead Sea. Even this unique phenomenon we share with our neighbors." In other words, there is a system of dependence that requires cooperation and leaning on one another.

Landau started working at the Dead Sea and with objects from it in 2003. "I had a kind of a eureka moment," she says excitedly, when asked whether one can expect her new exhibition to focus on it, too. "I don't handle the Dead Sea in the same way. I try not to enter it but go behind it to the other side, to what exists behind the sea, to the border with Jordan, to see the sea at a place where it is a valley, or a joint valley."

These days the Dead Sea is competing with 27 other sites around the world in the final stage of a competition to be recognized as one of the seven wonders of nature. Landau too joined the struggle. "The Dead Sea has been my partner for years and now I have an opportunity to be its Jordan. It seems to me right and natural to give the sea something from me," she is quoted in the campaign. She is in close touch with industrial plants on the Israeli and the Jordanian sides. "I included the subject in one of the works as something that would change the balance of power there, that could ecologically improve the place," she says.

Landau belongs to a generation of artists that was represented at the 1990s-themed exhibit at the Herzliya Museum marking Israel's 60th anniversary. Its title could not be more accurate in reflecting the spirit that characterized that generation: "Eventually We'll Die: Young Art in Israel in the Nineties."

Sarit Shapira, who was one of the first curators to accompany Landau, thinks the best artists of that generation alluded to the political discourse, "but expanded upon it through vision, through imagination. They showed the way to turn the vision into a tool in the service of the political that is also seen through the artistic. That imagination is not bound or governed by the political."

I ask Landau if she means, in the current show, to comment on an event in the political sphere.

"I react to the absence of a discourse," the artist responds. "There is something in the exhibition that is connected with talk. I wanted to work at this situation of negotiations. I present a table and chairs and am actually inviting negotiations and coping with the inability to talk. Why don't they improve and teach an ability to talk and communicate the way they oil war machines? It has to do with our time, which is a time of silence, hesitation, fixation and waiting."

In your Alon Segev Gallery exhibition, you dealt with the horrors of the intifada. At the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion you presented lost, bare-skinned and bloodied figures. Is it true to say that since then you've abandoned political activity?

"At Helena Rubinstein, I dared do a personal exhibition and this is what people did not understand so well. My mother died in September [2004] and in December I signed a contract and a budget framework. It was personal, family. Every year someone in the family disappeared. Grandfather, grandmother, an uncle who committed suicide, and mother. They disappeared. I gathered a sort of tribe for myself. In general I think I am very sociological, perhaps not so political, I don't like slogans."

At the press conference a few months ago and in interviews, you created the impression that you were evading and had even been deterred from making a political statement.

"An art that requires reading a text in a certain way, understanding cultural references, turns out to be a very didactic art. Hans Haacke, who taught me a lot at Cooper Union [School of Art] in New York, is that way to a certain extent. Dryness has a price, you see a person whose plug on the libido does not let him burst out. Things go through so many sublimations with him that you cannot say it is personal. And don't forget that the political exhibition at Alon Segev was similarly expressive. I perfectly understood the [art critic] Philip Leider who called it 'Guernica.'"

In the past Landau appeared, personally, in her works but that is not so in her new exhibit. "Performers replace me," she says. "I have no more time to train the body. It is not so much the age as it is this project's demands. Nor is it a matter of principle. The last time I appeared in front of a camera was, indeed, before my daughter was born. If I had had two years to prepare, perhaps I would do it myself. I was quite envious of the performers."

Does the art force you to make concessions?

"There is a price. And what a price it is. Until I get up in the morning and ask myself 'How am I?' and not whether so and so brought me this and that part; until I get up in the morning and put myself and not my art first. But apparently I am on a mission. I have no alternative. If I had had another attractive thing to do, I would have done it. Perhaps tomorrow I will open a school so that my daughter will have somewhere to study, maybe I'll do something more social. Perhaps it will suddenly be important to teach and be with young people."

Her attitude toward the exhibit is down to earth, she says, and links it to the fact that she is a mother. "There is a move in my world to the real, less to the invented and the fictional. There is a subject and a predicate. Perhaps it has to do with giving birth, raising a child, regularity. Take her every day at four from the kindergarten, something real, with real needs and a daily routine.

"The fact that I did not create a family but did create [a child] surprised many people," she adds. "I fled from my family, not that I had the time and energy to cope with the entanglements and pathologies of my family. So I did not create another family, but a place in which I could give and feel something human."

As for womanhood and motherhood she says: "I couldn't relate to it until I was a mother; even during the pregnancy I did not quite understand the women's thing. My goal was, apparently subconsciously, not to get to places to which my mother got in her lifetime. After I became a mother I understood, better, the challenge of being a woman and remaining an artist. And also the huge power that women can give one another by doing that. And I am for women in general, which is not easy to find. In every place there are female curators and the manager is a male. It is this dynamic, always.

"As a rule I find it more difficult to work with women. It is difficult for women to work the way I do," Landau admits. The team of French workers includes a woman, and for all of them her presence is natural. "There aren't many examples like Carla," Landau says of her assistant. "She is physically strong but when she becomes pregnant she will weaken. That's the way it works."

Up until her exhibition at the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion, Landau never had a permanent studio and kept moving between Amsterdam, Berlin and New York. Upon returning to Israel in the mid-2000s, she rented - for the first time - a studio, though that too moved from time to time. Sometimes she lived there too. But "since I prepared for childbirth I do not even live in a neighborhood of studios." During the past three years she has been living on Bialik Street in central Tel Aviv.

Will the effect at the Biennale now be one of 'wow'? Do you want to create something of this sort?

"I haven't thought of the wow. Perhaps that's my second nature. Now there is something about being exact and enjoyable. The enjoyable is new. Not that I am not suffering and that I did not want to die today of fatigue. You always want the wow. What is wow? Maybe I want a different wow. I want an experience. I know that I am playing with people who know the space very well and they ask themselves, 'What is she going to do with the pavilion?'"

In what way is work today different from what it was like in the past?

"I am not that heroic. I enjoy being helped. That there is another soul, that all the expressiveness has an impact. I sometimes felt there was no impact, that I was very much alone. I developed my own language and did not quite have someone for whom I could present it in Israel. I was used to being alone. Even now, when the pressure has peaked, I tell Jean [de Loisy, the curator], 'Don't come' and he tells me 'How come?' in such a fatherly tone and checks whether there is a flight that day. If you are not ready to accept this kind of warmth, you feel paranoid."

And what happens after you've performed in all of the most prestigious artistic arenas?

"I don't really know. I am always looking for trouble. I always get up in the morning and always work. I do not know how to rest and recharge. I have never rested. I would like to do so, theoretically. People like me who have a moment immediately invent some sort of an Everest. I really hope that motherhood will be more and more."

If there were no budgetary or bureaucratic constraints, what would be your most ambitious project? The great fantasy?

"Building a bridge of salt. A bridge that would facilitate movement between the two sides of the Dead Sea."