It’s virtually impossible to do historic and narrative justice within the scope of an art review to Sigalit Landau’s body of work, which spans over a quarter of a century, and to her new exhibition, “Green Scream,” as part of it.
Essentially, the task involves hovering above the abyss between two cliffs. On one side is Landau’s status as the most important Israeli artist of our generation, and on the other is an exhibition that doesn’t rise to the level of a Gesamtkunstwerk – a total, over-arching work of art of the type she has hammered out a number of times in the past.
Anyone who isn’t familiar with her work and visits this show, at the Har-El Gallery in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, after having read that Landau is at the top her league, won’t understand what I’m talking about, and justifiably so. It’s like your favorite band putting out a new album that forces you to say, “If you want to get to know this band, don’t start with this album.”
Sigalit Landau is the fox that emerges halfway through Lars von Trier’s film “Antichrist” and declares that chaos reigns. She is that fox because she has always stimulated discussion about and acted as a spokeswoman for things that cannot be articulated directly – like the missing link, whether fox-like or human, between what we generally call nature (which doesn’t speak in words) and culture (which originated in the word). She’s like a prophet who had a vision and is trying to guide us along using the richest language known to man, the one closest to epiphany – the language of art.
She is that fox because in most of her exhibitions, chaos reigns with respect to medium, material, organization, form, aesthetics and ideas. Even when Landau points a finger at a political, societal, psychological or environmental injustice, the result is never a lame, insulting placard, but rather a wild, jittery dance.
In my interpretation, Landau is neither a hippie nor a Marxist. She’s not a hippie because in her works, nature surpasses good and evil. It both gives life and destroys it; it is indifferent to the fate of any of the species that comprise it. She’s not a Marxist because in her works, culture is cyclical; it’s not an arrow of progress moving in a straight line from bad to good.
So what is she? She answers that herself, without a trace of humility or shame, like someone who’s simply stating a fact, in the text accompanying her current show: “a prophet of rage, salty and conductive, never transcribed.” Everything flits between her arms, which sculpt, carve, transport and draw lines in the sand.
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Landau conducts electricity between worlds to send a message. She is salty when she mixes herself physically, mentally and emotionally into the materials she works with, coming together with them in an aggressive process devoid of any agenda or desire – or, at least, no desire that can be voiced in human language.
Nevertheless, as a human partner in this process, she plays with language in the titles of her exhibitions (“Green Scream” is a play on “green screen”; the video installation in which she uses her own naked body to complete a spiralling chain of watermelons, perhaps the pinnacle of her oeuvre, is called “DeadSee”) in order to transcend its boundaries. One must have a deep respect for language (that is, for culture) to know how to use it to touch what lies beyond its reach and between its lines. Landau is conductive, crystalline, crowning, crystallizing, a salty queen.
I feel as if engaged in an artistic blood pact with Landau, a pact that’s reinforced every day (in normal times) as I make my way to Haaretz’s offices in south Tel Aviv and see the fading black sun she painted more than a decade ago on the side of a building at the corner of Salame Street and Har-Zion Boulevard (go to Google Maps and see it for yourselves). Over the past year, trees have sprouted from the wall on which the sun was painted, which is crazy, and that connects with “Green Scream.”
Nevertheless, I’m not a blind follower. I do not enjoy everything Landau has done, without exception.
This new show, “Green Scream,” is a natural outgrowth of her magnum opus, “The Endless Solution,” exhibited in 2005 at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art’s Helena Rubinstein Pavilion (curated by Mordechai Omer), and of her alternative Dead Sea enterprises, which were unveiled for the first time in full force there. “Green Scream” is a tribute, or response, to Israeli poet Natan Zach’s 2012 poem, “A Hymn to Green.”
Dialogues with men
Landau has a history of dialoguing with men. For instance, with the (physically) heavy monumentalism of Yaacov Dorchin’s sealed well sculptures, as expressed in her “Peacock Scratches on an Egg that Won’t Hatch” – a monolith of an egg, a Pandora’s Box or an alien, that weighs 400 kilograms and is inscribed with an invented cuneiform. And even more so with her hollow cast bronze sculpture “Shelter,” part of the “Caryatid” show at the Negev Museum of Art in 2012 (curated by Dalia Manor).
This time, the dialogue takes place between two sculptures made of the ordinary Israeli water meters found on the sides of buildings. One is positioned outside the gallery, in the sun; the other, inside. The water meters leak in every possible direction, but these wasteful drips are gathered into a metal pool at their base, and in the pool there is vegetation – new life. This two-part work appears to be a response (again, a wild and chaotic one) to Avital Geva’s imposing pedagogical greenhouses.
The essential difference between “The Endless Solution” and “Green Scream” is that the chaos of the former seems like a visit inside Landau’s head at the height of a feverish dream, while the chaos of the latter seems like the warehouse where her works are stored. Even though there is a common theme, looking at the space as a whole gives the impression of an exhibition of art for sale.
Some works are impressive when experienced in isolation from the whole: the sculptures of giant plant spores, reminiscent of the set on the old Israeli children’s TV series “Carousel” if we'd been watching it during a bad acid trip; swings made of chains, upon which clusters of organic and industrial waste replace the seats; the sculpture of a man fighting a dog; the sculpted face of a mythological hydra or Medusa, placed next to a photographic portrait of Landau herself with a forked tongue.
There are works that would have been effective if shown in a space holding a powerful, petrifying atmosphere – among them "My Corona," the curtain made of strings of sheep turds with greenish salt crystals shining in its center. This is a beautiful, shamanistic monolith, but given the way the exhibition space is organized, it’s neutered into a mere decorative element.
The section in the gallery exhibiting avocado plants in pots, with potsherds and jugs scattered among them – painted with powerful lines from Zach’s poem that echo Landau’s worldview (“Here all the green is spread out / it is abundant and restores the soul / but here is a wonder: You, too, have a part in it, even if only a small one / Come and shelter in it, for its existence is eternal ... because green is the one thing that will neither promise nor disappoint”) – looks like a modest bow to both the words and the plants, which she may view today as greater and more powerful than all her monumental gestures of the past.
And there are works that are not good, regardless of the problems created by the gallery space – figurines of green parakeets; a tapestry that winds around a pillar; the paintings and a piece of an uprooted road sign, tied in coils of barbed wire, a feeble and sad echo of Landau’s unforgettable “Barbed Hula” video from 20 years ago in which she spun a hula hoop of barbed wire.
There is not enough space here to go into all the reasons why what’s good is good and what isn’t, isn’t, but as noted above, the entire show has been forced to submit to the organization of the space, which crumbles from the royally chaotic to the randomly messy.
Does one poor exhibition hurt Landau’s stature in any way? Surely not, and I don’t say that just to soften my reservations with it. Another hero of mine, John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) has done some things in recent years that, to put it mildly, have not exactly transformed civilization as we know it, the way his music did. But he earned the right to kick back and not be on full volume all the time. He already changed me. And so did Sigalit Landau.
Sigalit Landau, “Green Scream,” Har-El Gallery, 8 Elisabeth Bergner Street, Tel Aviv/Jaffa. Sunday-Thursday: 10:30 A.M.-6 P.M.; Friday-Saturday: 11 A.M.-2 P.M. (through August 1)