The Tel Aviv Museum of Art
March – August 2010
In their sound installations from the 1970s, Philip Glass and fellow musicians used to sit in the middle of a given gallery, surrounded by scores of people who were either seated or sprawled on the floor around them, while four loudspeakers—one in each corner of the space—transmitted the sound of their music. In this manner, both the musicians and the audience were immersed in the music which surrounded them from all corners of the space, making them equal partners in its creation, so to speak. In so doing, Glass and his contemporaries wanted to defy the accepted hierarchy between interior and exterior, and introduce a new model of relationship that undermines the normative model which separates stage from audience, artist from viewer, active from passive.
Naama Tsabar's early sound works, such as Composition 24 (Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art, 2006; "Art Focus," Jerusalem, 2008) took this element to the extreme, proposing a new, independent model of relationship. In these performative works, a group of musicians stands on an organized set of amplifiers; each musician stands on a single amplifier and plays a different musical element. The overall array of sounds, which combines guitars and singing, splits and swirls between the various musicians; it changes over the course of time, but equally—with the viewer's movement in the space. Beyond the uniqueness of the sound construction in these pieces, these are sophisticated performance works where the musicians, the audience, and the artist are all active participants.
As opposed to these near-interactive works, Encore (Dvir Gallery, 2007; Art Basel, 2007) presented a full stage, complete with a drum set, a guitar, loudspeakers and amplifiers, wrapped entirely in black gaffer tape—a "backstage" material associated with the labor part of the show behind the scenes—and suspended by metal chains above the floor. The presence of the musical instruments and stage props in the work is clear and manifest, but the ability to use them is blocked. The surplus of black, isolating and sealing material is all-encompassing, generating a hovering object, at once familiar and threatening, tangible and elusive. It is a striking and suffocated, representative and dark object which subverts the ability to contain it within a given frame of meaning; an object which, ultimately, remains impenetrable to the gaze.
It seems that in the current exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, too, Tsabar strives to continue her inquiry into the essence of the relationship between different fields of action and meaning, to create inner spaces while invading or deviating from the existing ones, thereby challenging accepted, differentiated boundaries. The entrance to the exhibition space is nearly blocked by a "sound wall" made of domestic loudspeakers installed one atop the other, preventing the viewer's gaze from gliding into the depth of the space. Passing the sound wall, one discovers that it is, in fact, a type of independent musical instrument whose rear part is exposed, holding various strings and cords, while from its front part feedback emanates, feedback which is generated from its own body. Subsequently one comes across another wall, which plays a similar sound that is not necessarily musically structured or melodically coherent. At the same time, the viewer realizes that a very specific, familiar yet incomprehensible smell is hanging in the air. The faint familiarity of the odor, on the one hand, and its foreignness in the context of the museum space, on the other, causes certain disorientation, which accompanies the viewer as she moves on into the space.
On the black wall extending before the viewer after she passes the sound wall, heavy, bright wooden shelves are lined, holding upside-down bottles, some of them fallen, others just hanging on. These are half-empty bottles of alcoholic drinks, with coiled white sheets inserted in their mouths, obscurely tying and connecting their ends. The installation is inspired by a sense of trickling fluids, but also of boundaries and borders. The invisible is highlighted; the intimate and hidden are exposed.
The work entitled Sweat (2010) conveys a toxic feeling. It is underlain by a seductive, lustrous, stimulating dimension, but also a forbidden, dirty facet, both immersed in a sense of violence as well as self- and general destruction. It brings together rigid structural elements, such as the shelves, and soft amorphous elements, such as the wound sheets. As the fluids are being absorbed, however, the rigidity of the shelves is gradually cracked and softened, while the softness of the sheets becomes turbid, stained, and hardened. The work intertwines refinement and superfluity, delicacy and bluntness, order and lack of control. The tradition of minimalist sculpture is highly present in it, but at the same time, it also embeds inseparably blended specific and personal contents which undermine the rigidity of its frame, such as nightlife, with their music, drinking, and radicalized intimacy.
The combination of the glass bottles and the alcohol contained in them calls to mind improvised Molotov cocktails whose production is prompted by ideological and moral strengths, but by hands which are not always skilled. The temporal dimension involved in the work reinforces the element of threat inherent in it. In the first stage, the physical balance of liquid indeed halts the absorption of fluids in the work, but in the second stage, the process continues into the realms of the contingent and unknown, since there is no telling if and when the entire work might collapse due to the change in the shelves' state of aggregation.
Moreover, the sheets inserted in the bottles' mouths, the way in which they penetrate the firm, pierced wooden shelves, the process of absorption and osmosis they generate, and the shelves' swelling as a result of the accumulation of fluid—all these may conjure up certain aspects of the physiology of the female body, during the menstrual cycle or during sexual intercourse. This gendered aspect, implied in Sweat, emerges more explicitly and decisively in the video piece Untitled/Babies (2009) projected on the opposite, slightly slanted wall. The work features a band of young women performing a song by the British band Pulp1 on a stage situated in an emptied, light-bathed industrial space.
The band's lead vocalist, the artist herself, sings in a low, throaty voice, which later evolves into a broad vocal range. Conveyed in the first person, the song recounts a deep yearning for a woman. As the song develops, the artist takes the guitar off her shoulder and begins to bang it against the stage floor. What appears initially as an imitation of a hackneyed male rock'n'roll gesture, becomes, as the scene continues, an ostensibly unrestrained assault, only to eventually crystallize into a powerful independent act, with a separate, inner logic, which opens a conceptual gap in the performance's structure. The artist strikes and beats, pounds and hits, tires but goes on, until the stage's wooden floor begins to crack. The guitar, which is cast from a clearly durable material, remains intact, while the stage breaks into pieces and entirely disintegrates around her. In the background, the band members continue playing, gradually increasing their speed, until the artist finally collapses exhausted amidst the fragments of the floor, the guitar by her side.
In this act, which generates a type of unexpected ex-territory, a possibility of suspension, the work shifts from the field of rock performance, to which it initially seemed to belong, to the field of body art. In this it is closer to the self-destructive performances by artists such as Marina Abramovi?, Vito Acconci, and Chris Burden,2 who often chose to perform a given action to the point of total exhaustion, more than to the work of artists such as Jarvis Cocker, Pulp's lead singer. The work process turns out to be based on duration rather than a climax, a process conditioned by internal decision rather than an external element.
Tsabar's later works thus propose a different type of interrelations with the audience. She frequently uses familiar signifiers extracted from specific fields of action and discourse, but her works divert or expand their range of meanings, thereby jolting the viewer upon encountering them. Each of the works in the exhibition constitutes a closed world, an autonomous, autarchic, self-contained and self-supporting system. The sound walls emanate feedback from within; the bottles sustain osmosis among themselves; the video piece, which initially resembles a documentation of a performance to an audience, turns out to be an internal, private, somewhat therapeutic act, entirely independent of an external factor. The indifference of these systems to the viewer's presence, her movement in the space or her response to them gives rise to closed heterotopian spaces,3 which the viewer cans probe, but not penetrate; spaces where a type of internal superfluity—of matter, energy, action—takes place; superfluity which reaches borderline states, yet remains contained within its own frame, if only by a thread.
1. The song was released as a single by Gift Records in 1992, and was subsequently included in the band's successful album, Intro, which came out in 1993.
2. E.g. Chris Burden's Five-Day Locker Piece (1971) or Through the Night Softly (1973); Vito Acconci's Seedbed (1972); or Marinas Abramovi?'s Rhythm 10 (1973).
3. For an elaborate discussion on the notion of "heterotopia," see: Michel Foucault, Of Other Spaces (1967), Heterotopias, trans. Jay Miskowiec from the French original ("Des Espace Autres," Architecture/Mouvement/Continuité, October 1984), http://foucault.info/documents/heteroTopia/foucault.heteroTopia.en.html.
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