Israeli Artist Sigalit Landau Draws a Not-so-magic Circle

Landau's new solo show, a video and a set of reliefs, evokes boredom and embarrassment, raising many questions about the messages she is trying to convey.

Yotam Frum

The new video installation by the veteran artist Sigalit Landau, “Rite of Passage” (12:27 minutes) – presented on the ground floor of the Hezi Cohen Gallery in Tel Aviv – consists of one scene, simple and merry. It’s Landau’s take on choreography for “The Rite of Spring”: children scampering in a circle around a high pole. Ribbons are attached to the top of the pole, which is also garnished with flowers. As they run, the children intertwine the ribbons, wrapping them around the pole, which thus becomes a thick, high rope, a totem pole stretching above the children’s circular progress, like a human merry-go-round. The ribbons are batik-dyed, as are the children’s T-shirts, which become a type of uniform in different colors.

For the most part, the camera is situated at the top of the pole, shooting the children’s dizzy circling from above, but from time to time they are seen at ground level, from the side. Afterward, the whole scene is played out in reverse: the children run backward, the ribbons unravel from the pole. And that’s it. The children of the world (at least those who are in the same class as Landau’s daughter) skip along in circles.

The circle is a familiar motif in Landau’s work. A crown of thorns becomes a hula hoop on her undulating hips, a wall is painted in a radial movement like a clock over the course of a day, a cement mixer acts as a candy floss machine, cyclical time and the closed circles of recycling, the well-known spiral of watermelons at the Dead Sea – all these and more create the overarching theme of the magic circle in her work.

“A group of children on the verge of adolescence unwittingly dance the steps of an ancient pagan ritual. The ground – terra incognita, the time circular, the dance cyclical,” Rona Cohen writes in the accompanying text. In her view, Landau is here positing a ritual form of her own, in contrast to Freud’s “Totem and Taboo,” which involves a ritual of death in a woman’s sacrifice. Landau, instead, derives her materials, colors and ceremonies from the maypole, a German medieval pagan rite that persists in our time as folklore. According to Cohen, “The passage from the first Rite of Spring to the second suggests the passage from a sacrificed woman to woman as taboo. It is a passage from the regulation of sexuality through the ritual of appealing to a superior power, to a mutual constitution of the oedipal taboo on incest.”

However, the disparity between the textual presumptions and what’s on view is simply too great. In practice, the children look like a protracted commercial for a mortgage bank, or a souvenir clip made for proud parents at the end of summer camp. Some people might ask, after watching 12 minutes of this organized activity scene, “What, it’s over already?” But I’m not one of them: I was not captivated by the head-spinning, jubilant running, which does not transcend its plain visual concreteness.

The boredom leads to thoughts about the hippie-like sentiment in Landau’s work (the harnessing of batik to a pagan display, a merry happening) and about the New Age features that crop up when rites, myths and tribalism are evoked. More particularly, about the enchantment of the herd – quantity that is supposed to engender quality, uniformity and mass identity (in the activity and the uniforms), the hypnotic rhythm, the peculiar repetitive stadium-like running, the construction of the concept of “community” as an entity that is multi-tentacled but also entirely homogeneous. There’s a disturbing semi-fascistic element in the dance of the children as one body, as a bloc, without anything going wrong.

Hesitant and experimental

The seven figurative reliefs on view in the gallery’s upper space under the title “Unstaged / A Play Not Played,” are very different: They are all about things going wrong. They are interesting precisely because they are not based on a formula that has been tried successfully and reprised repeatedly. There is something new – hesitant and experimental – about them. The aesthetic is not yet fully formed; it lacks the hermetically sealed character of Landau’s work.

The reliefs have been given impassioned literary titles, such as “Daughter Slaughter (Sabres–Clonex)” and “Dreamer (On the Hills of Gilead)”, which are handwritten in pencil on the wall. The general style is childlike: drawings with paste-on items that recall works that children bring home from preschool and are duly posted on the refrigerator with magnets for a time. In the gallery they are exhibited in thick frames that resemble window frames, through which a theatrical, colorful “outside” is visible. There are dry leaves and twigs, candies and dolls, seashells and grains, sand and clay, watermelon seeds, even small watermelons, all of them pasted and painted like an awkward exercise. They bring to mind unpleasant souvenirs in hobby shops, exhibits in the lobbies of cultural centers in outlying towns, or products for purchase on the Internet. But the thematic mix is blatant and dangerous: mise-en-scenes of abandonment by men, betrayal, anger and collapse, crisis, disaster, deficiency or harm.

A closer perusal of the details shows an odd yoking together of the iconic actress Hanna Rovina – who is identified with the role of Leah in the play “The Dybbuk” – with the biblical Jephthah’s daughter, of Landau herself and the watermelons identified with her, together with references to the artists Reuven Rubin, Batya Uziel and Marc Chagall, all in a mixture of an Eastern European shtetl and pre-1948 Mandate Palestine. Is this nostalgia for a colonial atmosphere, for the hysterical attacks it summons up for its lost women? Fear of pogroms and of losing control? A work of contemporary depression that is looking back in anger? It’s not clear.

The choice of “semi-fictional scenes taken from the tragic life stories of two victimized women from different periods in history,” in the words of the gallery’s press release, relates to feminine tragedy, or femininity as tragedy. Femininity as a tale of betrayal and abandonment, of being the sacrificial victim and of birthing a civilization from the rite of the sacrifice. But what does Landau want to tell us about Rovina-Leah and about Jephthah’s daughter that we don’t know? Are they putting forward what the philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler calls “Antigone’s claim,” which establishes kinship relations that do not necessarily involve the daughter’s sacrifice? In other words, do their obedience and silence add up to an articulation of refusal in Landau’s version? One that resists transformation into a practical legend about the daughter who is sacrificed on the altar of her father’s vow? Are they calling the received order into question and cobbling together an orphan world, without a father? Not yet, but perhaps the present artistic sub-language bears the potential to relate what eludes the oedipal mechanism, to create it.

Will Landau be able to invent a new hybrid language dealing with disorder, as she did often in her earlier works? It’s still difficult to say yes, and part of the difficulty lies in the reactionary character of the content. In the meantime, it’s difficult to say anything of principle about these seven reliefs, other than to note the basic embarrassment they arouse. There’s a need to talk about embarrassment itself, to raise it for discussion. Is it (still) an essential quality for art? Is it only a type of snobbery (we are not willing to accept a level like this of amateurism, still less from Sigalit Landau)? Is it (still) essential for the relations between artist and viewer, with a potential to germinate new forms and languages, new feelings toward art?

Or is it the case that artist and viewer have long since ceased to maintain dangerous relations, these having been overcome by the interaction between artist and potential client? In which case, is a different discussion called for, about mannerism, in the framework of which it is precisely the innocent viewer who becomes the sacrifice?

Solo exhibition by Sigalit Landau, Hezi Cohen Gallery, 54 Wolfson Street, Tel Aviv, tel. (03) 639-8788. Fri. 10-14, Sat. 11-14, Mon.-Thurs. 10:30–19. Until Oct. 24