Published  02/10/2015

Tamar Ettun: ‘I am using the structure of a religious practice as a fold for my art-making’

Tamar Ettun: ‘I am using the structure of a religious practice as a fold for my art-making’

The young Israeli-American sculptor talks about her Orthodox background, her beginnings in art, integration of sculpture and performance, and how art relates to her personal history


Tamar Ettun is an Israeli-American artist working in sculpture, performance and video. Born in Jerusalem in 1982, she came to the United States in 2007 as a visiting student at Cooper Union and stayed to study at Yale’s Master of Fine Arts programme. Since 2009, she has been exhibiting sculpture and video and engaging in performance in New York and Israel. Central to her art is the attempt to integrate sculpture and performance to “find stillness in movement and movement in the still sculpture” to figure out “how they contradict and complement each other” (artist’s statement). In 2013, Ettun formed The Moving Company, a performing group with which she meets regularly to script and otherwise develop its public appearances. In her sculptures and performances, Ettun focuses on ritualistic aspects of art, and in the way her work can address the viewer’s psychological space in its relation to trauma as manifested in post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. The artist agreed to an interview with Studio International in relation to her current exhibition, Tamar Ettun: Alula in Blue, at the Fridman Gallery in New York.

Natasha Kurchanova: Tamar, thank you taking the time to speak to me. You describe yourself as a sculptor, but your work breaks boundaries between media: it is inherently multi- or rather inter-media. You do not make just sculpture, performance or video, but you intermingle media and invent new forms. So, my first question is about your training: what did you study and where?

Tamar Ettun: I was in the fine art department at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, studying the foundations: painting, sculpture, video and drawing. Then at Cooper Union in New York, I attended a study abroad programme. There, I started making videos because I did not have a studio or necessary materials and tools to make other work. And, finally, in 2008 I was accepted on to the Yale MFA programme to study sculpture.

NK: I find your personal history fascinating: with your Orthodox roots in Israel and what I see as your drive to bridge religion and art, or, rather, to find a way to use some of the religious devices – such as ritual and repetition – in art. I am thinking, in particular, of the story of your walk from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. It’s very powerful, and I wonder if you ever thought about it in symbolic terms, because Jerusalem is the religious capital of Israel and Tel Aviv is the artistic one.

TE: This walk began as a very straightforward act without any symbolic connotations. It was my first few months of art school, and everyone was talking about Tel Aviv, which is the centre of the art scene in Israel. I grew up in an Orthodox community in Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv seemed very far culturally from everything I knew. I wanted to bridge the gap between the two cities with my body to understand art and the city where people make it. That pertains to my first walk, which happened in March 2005. After that, I decided to repeat this walk every month, and it evolved into a three-and-a-half-year project. It takes the entire day – 12 hours – to walk from one city to the other. It is a meditative experience, because the road is very straight. The space between the cities is where things are left, forgotten and abandoned. During the first walk, I saw many dead animals along the road. No one looks at them or cleans them up, because they are not in anyone’s way, scattered along a road between two big cities. There were also a lot of remains of car accidents. I started collecting this material and carrying it with me, small pieces that could fit in my hands. When I came home, I began making small sculptures out of them based on the images of dead animals. Because the project lasted three and a half years, I could observe decomposition in the bodies of animals I found on the road.

As far as religion is concerned, I am using the structure of a religious practice as a fold to my art-making. In ancient times, people used to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem three times a year. Here, I used the system of pilgrimage and inverted it in order to comment on today’s culture. It was also part of my own personal journey. When I talk about religion, I do not mean politics or power, but rather an act of devotion, and a way to understand the world. Sometimes, this understanding comes through in my work.

Standing Prayer, excerpt from Tamar Ettun on Vimeo.

NK: I am thinking of your work Standing Prayer – this is where you clearly introduced a religious element, a prayer. It was personal for you, because you really prayed in that work, but at the same time it was part of a performance, because it was recorded and was meant to be shown to the public, to be shared with it. To me, that work made a very big leap from a private space of religion to the public space of art. The intermedia nature of your work also partakes of the sense of the transition from private to public. I am thinking in particular of the way you present your work as a sculpture but also as a performance. When I think of sculpture, its contemplation exists for me more in a private than public space, but performance is inherently collective; it is meant to interact with the audience and the viewer.

TE: It is interesting that you noticed the transition of private to public in my work. Standing Prayer has a sound track that starts with one person singing and ends with a group singing. I wanted that to symbolise a ritual, which brings one person into a community. I’ve been thinking about ritual and trauma, which are somewhat related, in regard to the relationship between sculpture and performance; both exist as fixed unchangeable powers in time. Ritual, a repetitive event that happens over and over in time, like celebrating a holiday, birthday, Memorial Day, with the physical action associated with it: lighting candles on the Sabbath, eating a turkey on Thanksgiving, etc. Even if you don’t celebrate your birthday, you know it’s still there, almost like a physical thing in space. I’ve been thinking about rituals in relation to a community, how they create a sense of community even when performed individually. I’m also thinking about trauma, an event that repeats in one’s mind in circles without coming to a resolution. The traumatic event may have happened only once, but haunts the individual and therefore exists for ever, fixed like a sculpture. Trauma then is opposed to ritual, because it isolates a person from the community and breaks her from the outside world, sometimes leading to creating personal rituals that don’t seem to make sense for the outside viewer, but have meaning seen from the point of view of this person. And the personalised ritual, performed alone, separates you from society instead of bringing you closer. So, your observation of performance as a communal space is insightful, because I am very much interested in building a communal space and a communal experience.

NK: Do you think about this kind of art in a therapeutic way?

TE: No. I am interested in psychological states of mind, and sometimes work with my own autobiography, but there’s no therapeutic agenda to the work. Art is not religion and there is no judgment in it – no right or wrong

Tamar Ettun | The Moving Company | March 22, 2015 from The Watermill Center on Vimeo.

NK: You mentioned the post-traumatic stress disorder. I am also familiar with your service in the Israeli army and your first-hand experience with people with this condition. Is your interest in PTSD related to your service in the army?

TE: My interest in the post-traumatic stress disorder is not directly related to my service in the Israeli army, although many people experience it there. My knowledge of it comes from the history of my family, which suffered multiple losses, while growing up in a country that has constant conflict. The sculpture/performances I make contain the potential of collapse and being rebuilt, changing, inflating, moving, which I see as related to the contradictory powers of destruction and creation in the world at large. I consider things I make in my performances to be objects, not sculptures. Among them, there are a lot of inflatables. I think about them differently in that context, they have a different status.

NK: So, what is the difference between objects and sculptures?

TE: Well, first of all, the objects in performance have to be durable, not fragile or precious. They have to be sturdy enough to use through multiple performances. They also move and change during the performance and people watch them from different points of view. I work on these objects with other people, members of The Moving Company, a performance group I created. I bring objects every week to The Moving Company, and we play with them. Every time after we meet, I change something in the object and then bring it back. The object is created from the interaction with the group, specifically to fit their bodies and their needs. The objects I use in performance are part of a rehearsal process for it.

NK: So, the process of working on objects in performance is also communal, while the sculpture is made only by you?

TE: Yes, this is correct.

NK: You said that you usually script your performances, but do you allow your performers any spontaneous interaction with audience? For example, I watched a video recording of A Mauve Bird with Yellow Teeth Red Feathers Green Feet and a Rose Belly PART BLUE, shown at the Watermill Center in March. There, your performers are interacting with the audience, engaging in conversations with people. I could not hear what they were saying and was curious as to whether these interactions were spontaneous.

TE: I write short stories, which the performers then recite when they seem to engage in conversation with audience members. In that particular performance, there were four colours and four pairs of performers. I assigned each pair a colour, a shape, a texture, a movement and a story. Each story had a colour, which was also a source for the movement. As part of the action, performers approached random members of the audience and told them their story. Different members of the audience heard different stories from different performers.

NK: It sounds as if the audience members did not have to respond to anything, just listen.

TE: Yes.

NK: What is your role in these performances?

TE: I usually am part of the performance, but I also direct the production. I do things that help the members of The Moving Company to fulfill their tasks.

NK: What struck me about your performances is that although you and your dancers have incredible technical capacity, as a whole it looks very klutzy. There is no gracefulness in it; it seems to be about falling apart, about discombobulation and dissonance … You seem to thrive in this sense of fragility and impermanence, accept it as given and don’t look for any kind of harmonic unity. Your work appears to be held together by a concept, a written script, rather than any kind of intuitive, “natural” attractions. For example, if I walk inside one of your balloons, I become instantly disoriented and feel as if I am about to lose my balance and fall down, although just a minute ago I was fine.

TE: Yes, I am interested in this sense of being off-balance. I am drawn to the moment of change – when things are in a state of transformation, transition, and in mutations, when the objects and the bodies blend into each other. I find beauty in that. Gracefulness is boring.

NK: Your frequent use of hot-air balloons appears to epitomise the mutant, changing objects that attract you. The surface of the balloon looks like a human skin, and there is also a clear distinction between its inside and the outside. Do you think about your balloons as a metaphor for the body? Also, they never fly; they largely rest on the ground, in a half-inflated amorphous shape.

TE: The hot-air balloons I have been working with in the past have all been dead; they could not fly. For this exhibition, I sewed a balloon myself for the first time. I designed it in such a way that it is a little too big for the space of the gallery: you can see that it touches the ceiling and is squeezed between the two columns. I like them because they allow me to use my work in a communal way, because I can invite people inside them, to be held by shape and surrounded by colour. As far as the body metaphor is concerned, I think of my balloons as big animals. The minute you inflate them, they come alive and begin moving in the space, often getting out of one’s control. They look imposing and threatening next to my fragile sculptures. This creates the sense of imbalance and awkwardness you mentioned. Their size also makes people anxious, because they look as if they might destroy everything else. I do think of a balloon’s surface as that of the skin, especially in parts where it touches something or wraps around something else. If I am inside it, this wrapped-up part gives me an idea of what’s outside. Because, when you go inside a balloon, you become completely separated from the world outside. It has its own lighting, colour and atmosphere. You are in a different space. I like the fact that people feel disoriented, trapped and held at the same time inside a balloon.

NK: You have mentioned in the past that, at Yale, you studied sculpture with Jessica Stockholder. Could you tell me in what way she may have influenced your work?

TE: Jessica certainly influenced my work significantly. I admire her for making courageous and accessible work. Specifically, I like her bold use of colour, the site-specific quality of the works, how she challenges the definition of sculpture and painting, and the serious and joyful play that seems to initiate the work. When I first moved from Israel, it meant a lot to me to see a woman creating these ambitious projects. The way she talks about art appeals to me. It is grounded, down-to-earth, focused on the basics – colours, materials, shapes. She connects this formal language to a larger cultural space. 

NK: You have said that Jessica taught you to pay attention to the use of colour. How do you use it in your work? What is its significance for you?

TE: With colour, I created my own vocabulary: each colour has its own story to tell, which I wrote down on index cards. Colours for me represent their own worlds, but they do not have a specific meaning – red does not “represent” anger, yellow does not “stand” for happiness. They have an emotional and aesthetic significance and they serve the purpose of separating things into groups.

NK: Could you tell me about this exhibition, Alula in Blue?

TE: Earlier this year I started a four-year project, A Mauve Bird with Yellow Teeth Red Feathers Green Feet and a Rose Belly. This exhibition belongs to the first part of the project, which is devoted to the colour blue. The performance at the Watermill Center earlier this year was the beginning of the blue part of the project. We also made a new video using the same elements as the performance, but it is made to read more as a narrative. Every year, I am going to make another part that has its own colour and season – next year is going to be “yellow,” and we are going to shoot it in the summer. So, I will do this until I have a finished piece with four performances, four videos, and the sculptures that are part of them. The sculptures in this show are a part of Performing Stillness, a larger body of work, in which I have been casting a lot of body parts, mostly hands, put together with other objects. This series is devoted to making sculptures that embody movement. They become performative in their desire to communicate with the audience through empathy that an audience member may feel encountering them. This is why I scale my objects to human size. I have been thinking more and more about empathy, trauma and post-trauma and how they affect the body. Hence the awkwardness and also isolation, which is the opposite of the communal religious experience. Last summer, I had a conversation with a psychiatrist, in which she told me about her research conducted on infants who were born on either side of the border between Israel and Gaza. It was fascinating to me to think that infants, who can not yet talk, express their reaction to trauma through their bodies, and how their PTSD is connected to their mothers’ reactions – the trauma, even though it’s isolating, is never isolated, always part of a family, a community. Which brings me to thinking about empathy, the ability to have empathy that becomes damaged sometimes from experiencing trauma; the affected person needs all her resources to deal with the traumatic event and has no room to see the other. The act of seeing another person is, in a way, a luxury: only a person who is not struggling for her life has the ability to communicate, yet empathy has the ability to break this loop of trauma and isolation. Recently, I’ve been interested in grouping my objects and performers so they create horizontal totems, where an object that is placed near another object remains standing because of it. Horizontal distribution of power, I’m interested in that sense – how two hands hold a banana, tomatoes are held between the performers’ legs, how our existence is enabled by the other.

NK: Thank you, Tamar, for this interview. It helped me see the work better.

Tamar Ettun: Alula in Blue, Fridman Gallery, New York City, 19 September – 24 October 2015. Mauve Bird with Yellow Teeth Red Feathers Green Feet and a Rose Belly PART BLUE will be performed at the Knockdown Center in Maspeth, New York, 7 and 8 November 2015.


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