Sealed With Salt, Handled With Care

Through monumental art, Sigalit Landau hopes to change the Middle East.

When Israeli sculptor, video and installation artist Sigalit Landau burst onto the local art scene in 1994, she did so as she is prone to do: with a loud bang and quite a lot of controversy. Landau – then still a final-year student at Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design – presented a bizarre and unforgettable artwork at Tel Aviv’s grimy Central Bus Station, as part of the Art Focus I exhibition. The artist took over the abandoned fifth floor of the building, which has since been shut down, and resided there for a month. Using discarded objects she had found like used condoms, syringes and castaway clothes, Landau transformed the deserted public space into her own intimate playground. 

In the decades that lapsed, the Israeli artist has made this creative modus operandi her artistic trademark: whether she showcased her life-size installations at the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion for Contemporary Arts in Tel Aviv or at the Venice Biennale in Italy (where she represented the country twice), Landau managed to render each art space into an unrecognizable, alternative world. 

The multimedia creator places a strong emphasis on her own physical presence in her craft – which often raises questions about the body’s constraints and its role as a feminine vehicle of self-expression. One notable example for this type of work, which has drawn a comparison to the likes of Serbian performance artist Marina Abramovic, is the video “Barbed Hula.” Shot at sunrise on the beach in 2000, it depicts a naked Landau gyrating her hips in a belly dance. The twirling hoop that swung around the artist’s torso was made of barbed wire; as she turned, the wire stung her stomach, creating visible and bleeding wounds.

On a recent visit to her studio, situated in the south of Tel Aviv in an unlikely industrial spot that houses parking lots and auto repair shops, Landau agrees with me that “movement is the key” to understanding her visual language. “Movement is life and it encapsulates resistance and emotion,” she reflects. “My work has always been tactile and tangible. In art, through the body you leave your body. You transcend, and afterwards you’re exhausted. Then it’s just your will that keeps you going.” 

But Landau’s oeuvres are not just deeply personal. They are also highly political, and often spark dissension over the statements they carry. A particularly memorable exhibition she created in reaction to the complex reality in Israel was “The Country,” which Landau presented at Alon Segev Gallery in 2002 at the outset of the Second Intifada. In the show, which art critic Philip Leider called “the Israeli Guernica,” the artist used dozens of old copies of the Israeli daily Haaretz. Landau turned the newspapers into sculptures of pomegranate trees that she hung upside down from the ceiling. Viewers had to pass the metaphorical bleeding fruit of the land, made of articles describing literal and daily bloodshed, to enter the second room. There, Landau recreated a typical urban rooftop covered in enormous photographs of Tel Aviv cityscapes. On it were perched three human characters, their exposed flesh and tendons made of newspapers dyed red, their limbs stuck in desperate gestures.

The Silence of Salt 

Such poignant artworks that combined her reflections on herself and her surroundings secured Landau a prominent spot on the international stage, gaining her acclaim and shows in the United States and Europe. But while her art travelled the world, she was busy pining and returning to one specific place in her homeland – the Dead Sea. Considered the lowest point on earth, the saline lake is located along the border between Israel and Jordan, just an hour’s drive from Landau’s hometown of Jerusalem. 

Her fixation with this body of water, whose liquids are lethal and undrinkable, began with the first work she had shot there: the video DeadSee. In this work, which Landau exhibited in 2005 shortly after her mother passed away, the artist fashioned a 6-meter-long spiral raft that floated in the Dead Sea. The raft was comprised of a chord, which went through 500 watermelons, puncturing some of them to reveal their red insides. Tucked in an embryo-like position among the floating fruit was the naked artist herself. That’s when she fell under the Dead Sea’s spell: “I discovered things which were very gratifying intellectually and artistically. You can’t bring someone you love back to life but you can create a meeting point; I turned the Dead Sea into a place where I summoned some kind of unanswered energy,” Landau recalls. 

Over the course of the years, Landau revisited the site again and again, exploring its unique desert terrain and creating hundreds of works of art that corresponded with the rare geographical features of the lake. In 2017, Landau published an artist book in which she documented her various creative endeavors in the Dead Sea. The artist was joined by fellow creators and scientists who contributed essays in which they analyzed the symbiotic connection she had formed with the lake, or as Landau puts it: “So many of my experiences, failures and successes as an artist come from there. I’m there to stay. There’s something there that’s almost part of my body.”

With the print industry under constant threat of demise, Landau says she understood that producing the book would be a risk, but had “a yearning for the written word… salt can be very silent. Language can be a big enemy for me but that’s why I wanted to face it. You come to life when things are difficult.” 

One of the main practices Landau developed in the Dead Sea was the ritual of drenching different objects she brought there – ranging from a pair of shoes to a Jewish ultra-Orthodox wedding gown to tapestries – in the special water. After performing her own take on baptism, Landau photographs the items in order to document the changes they undergo as they come into contact with the salt. For her, the mineral encompasses many hidden meanings: “In the old world, treaties were signed with salt and newborns were sprinkled with salt. It was a blessing of fertility. But it could also be a punishment, people would sow the fields of their enemies with salt. Salt can be a killer and a poisoner.”

‘The sea understands the price I paid’

The 400 pages of the volume are not just a summary of the artist’s work there. They also bear a historic testimony to the man-made changes inflicted on the Dead Sea, as its natural pools are eroded and destroyed day by day due to construction. As Dr. David Goss, a painter, researcher and art lecturer wrote in the introduction to the book, the Dead Sea – as its name suggests – is symbolic of death: “The Dead Sea is a microcosm of contemporary vernacular reality: a self-destructing ecosystem doomed to an ominous end.” 

This pending doom hovering over her beloved lake concerns Landau, who says that she “was always dealing with death in my art in an allegorical way. But what is going on in the Dead Sea is no allegory.” 

For this reason, the artist set out a decade ago to accomplish an ambitious dream that she hopes will become a reality one day: the construction of Salt Bridge, a bypass in the Dead Sea that would serve as a meeting point for Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians residing in the area. The project, which requires the consent and support of the Israeli and Jordanian governments, is currently stuck due to bureaucratic, financial and diplomatic hurdles. “I keep feeding the fire of this dream and I get signals telling me not to give up,” Landau shares. “Last year we marked 25 years to the cold peace between Israel and Jordan. The ties are now much more strained and it’s getting worse. We have joint responsibility, and ecologically it can bring us all together because we would have to sustain this bridge together.”

Until her vision , Landau promises to keep going back to the Dead Sea and to take more diplomatic and creative steps. Looking around the walls of her studio, which are covered in large photographs of the salt sculptures, the artist muses out loud about the Biblical myth associated with the lake: the sudden death of the wife of Lot, who became a pillar of salt after she turned around to look back on the sinning city of Sodom as it was destructed. 

“Think about her turning as everything remains cyclical,” Landau offers. “That’s what the Dead Sea is for me – a home, yet an unsheltered one. But home is not a place for me as an artist, I take the idea of it with a grain of salt. It’s something I question every day. For half of my career my studio was my home. The sea understands the price I paid for staying an artist in a total way.”

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