Sigalit Landau, lecturing at SCAD Museum of Art for SCAD deFINE ART 2012. Photo by John McKinnon. Courtesy of SCAD
Israeli art star Sigalit Landau has been making groundbreaking work since graduating from the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem in 1994. A year later she was showing solo at the Israel Museum, which was quickly followed by inclusions in the 1997 Venice Biennale and Documenta X, in the same year. In 2001, Landau wowed New Yorkers with a giant cotton candy machine that engulfed nude models in gobs of whipped pink sugar at the experimental Thread Waxing Space and she returned in 2008 for a Museum of Modern Art show of videos and sculptures that warmly embraced the Dead Sea.
Triumphantly representing Israel at the 2012 Venice Biennale, the artist now offers a selection of works from her Israel Pavilion in Venice at the SCAD Museum of Art in Savannah, Georgia. Artspace blog editor Paul Laster recently sat down with Landau at the museum to discuss her life and times in art.
Once I made art I realized it was the only thing that I felt good doing. I started out as a dancer and entertainer. When I couldn’t dance anymore—couldn’t move—I began to work with clay and painting.
What was your first big break as an artist?
Right out of art school I was invited to be in a gallery group show and a year later I had a solo show at the Israel Museum, titled GRRRR, in 1995.
Where did you go to school?
I went to the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem. It was a very good school. You learned to talk and think—it was very cerebral. I went to Cooper Union on an exchange and learned that following my intuition was better.
Is that what first brought you to New York?
It brought me to New York in 1993-94, but it was Lia Gangitano at Thread Waxing Space that brought me to New York for my first exhibition in 2001. The project was explosive, at the height of freedom, and I was vowing to come back to New York; but it took much longer than I thought it would. My next New York solo was a Project show, organized by Klaus Beisenbach, at the Museum of Modern Art in 2008. He picked the show very carefully and I limited the amount of works that I wanted to be shown. I like showing in New York; but the Twin Towers came down a few months after the Thread Waxing show and a few months after the MoMA show opened came the financial crisis. I don’t know what will happen if I come back to New York. It’s time for me to be in a gallery there.
What are some of the different cities that you’ve inhabited and how has that influenced your work?
After surrendering Tel Aviv in 1998, I moved to Berlin, where I was the first artist in residence at the Hoffman Collection. Being in Berlin and feeling the weight of history and discovering how the art world works was very new to me. I was making video, but couldn’t get it shown. I was censored—punished—so I moved to London and started working in a bakery, but soon landed a big project with Artangel and became part of the British art scene. I couldn’t find the lo-tech stuff that I love in London so I moved to Birmingham and it had different problems. I was winning scholarships and connecting to the art scene, but something was calling me back home. Then came Paris, where there was a big love affair, but I had no studio. In 2002, even though there was the Intifada in Israel, my only thought was to return home and get a studio in order to process everything I had learned as a traveling artist.
How would you define your practice?
It’s very intuitive, yet carefully looking at the facts and believing what I know. Everything about me, and my art, is not a one liner because I’m coming from such a complex reality. That’s why I call myself a bridge-maker: the past, the future; the East, the West; the personal, the collective—these are the dialectic forces related to me work.
You’ve worked with sugar and salt. What’s you attraction to these materials and what metaphors do they imply to you?
They are powerful, essential, and similar. They deal with transformation, with the survival of the body, your mouth. Sugar has to do with love; salt has to do with tears. They’re compensational kind of things; they’re also poisonous; they’re ambiguous; they’re white; they’re found; they’re available; they’re like sand; they’re kitchen; they’re extremes; but I work with other materials, as well.
Yeah, you’ve also worked with fruits, especially watermelons. How have you used these symbols and what do they mean to you?
I actually started with grapes fermenting on a mattress in the garden—like menstruation blood—and moving to cherries, which refers to an army unit that leaves the mark of a quiet bullet. There’s the bleeding apple, where there’s Eve and a moment of truth or awakening and being expelled from Eden. And then there’s the watermelon, which has a pregnant feeling, but it’s red and not human; it’s not from my body. When I’m floating on a watermelon is the Dead Sea, it’s like a bird that’s trying to balance itself.
And the spiraling watermelons, what does that signify?
I wanted to make a raft, and I’ll still do that. I wanted to make a raft of life in a lifeless surrounding. I’m very lucky. I grew up in this metaphor. This terrible, poisonous, tantalizing Dead Sea, you can’t surround it. There are at least two countries. You can’t go around it, but you can go into it and a certain part of me, my art, is always there.
That raft didn’t get me anywhere; it didn’t even survive. Then it’s more about life, rather than something permanent. Now I want to bring flowers in pots and bring bees and I want to make honey in the middles of the sea—and while nobody cares that I have this fixation, it just might happen.
The Dead Sea has become an important element in your work, what does it symbolize?
It’s an extreme place. In some strange, perverse, biographical way for me it symbolizes the holocaust. It’s a rich valley, where the continents are moving and something unique and unexplainable is happening. It’s where my parents took me as a kid and my father was going over articles in entomology and my mother was making sure she got skin cancer by lying in the burning sun and we would go into the Dead Sea and your vagina would start burning after five minutes.
The Israeli Pavilion in the 2011 Venice Biennale brought together many metaphoric elements of your body of work. How did the installation summarize your work to date?
I think I managed to take this unit called the Israeli Pavilion with its three levels and all of its Bauhaus frivolities and define it, counter it, dance with it, and fall in love with the space. I changed the ceiling and the acoustics, which no one probably noticed. It was a process. I was fighting the department of foreign affairs. I had two good curators. After doing MoMA with Klaus, where I had a kind of shock therapy, I learned that there is a thing called a curator and they are sometimes right about things. I tend to bring corpses and they wanted to hide the corpses. They made me think twice, but I said I’m not going to think a third time.
How has your path to success been different from other artists?
It’s very different. I’m from a small place, but I knew that I couldn’t ignore it. When I was living and working in Paris, Berlin, and London, I said I’m an Israeli artist. When I come with my story, there’s honesty there. At some point I said I’m not going to deal with globalization because I have such a family story. It’s not going to work and I have to go back to where I belong. It’s a little bit more fertile and I think people will know what I’m talking about. I wasn’t going back to where I came from because that’s Jerusalem, which is too isolated, there’s no culture, and no dialogue at all.
I have so many big moments. I showed in Venice as a young artist. I was in Berlin at a big moment. I won lots of appreciation in London. While in London, I had two big shows in Israel. I had a show at Kunst-Werke in Berlin, which I did with a one-moth old baby, and that brought about the MoMA show. I’ve had good opportunities; I’m a woman; I’m Israeli; and maybe there’s a glass ceiling, but there’s plenty more to come.
Sigalit Landau’s One Man’s Floor Is Another Man’s Feelings remains on view at the SCAD Museum of Art In Savannah, Georgia through June 10. Work by the artist is available at Artspace.