Sealed With Salt, Handled With Care

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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Whether you are walking in the streets of Tel Aviv or Los Angeles, you’ll spot Nir Peled’s bold black-and-white murals on the walls of the city. The Herzliya based artist, known as Pilpeled, started his decorated career over a decade ago.  The autodidact entered the art world through graphic design. In 2005, before the presence of social media, posters were the face of Tel Aviv nightlife. Advertisements of image and text were plastered all over the streets, promoting events in the happening music scene. Peled began designing posters for his friend’s bands and was quickly asked to make flyers for the city’s most exclusive nightclubs. Working in a fast-paced environment where he had to produce three new posters a week was challenging. However, it  created a strong foundation for his artistic practice. Without formal education, Peled calls this instructional period, his “schooling.”  Pilpeled began to take his drawings off posters and plaster them across walls of Tel Aviv. His hand-painted murals feature distinct portraits of figures either covering their faces or wearing masks. The black and white nature of his work, is just that, black and white. But, only in the literal sense. His thoughtful works, though they suggest unadulterated meaning, engage with a cerebrality of what it means to conceal and reveal. Is casting oneself in hues of only black and white an attempt to blend in or scream individuality?  The strokes in Pilpeled’s are textured, as if carved from linoleum. Peled’s recurring figures are of the third eye and a dog named, Comet. Surrounding his characters, he adds tribal elements, vases that look ancient, or bodies that are dancing, meditating, or holding hands. Since his early days drawing up until today, Peled’s inspiration stems from following other artists, comics, and graffiti. He is also greatly affected by architecture, photography, and music.

People started to recognize his name as he established a unique language and style. In 2008, Peled decided to open a brand selling merchandise such as shirts, shoes, hats, and socks. The online shop was accessible internationally while it boomed with popularity in Israel. The label hosted pop-up shops multiple times per year combining art, music, and fashion. Peled didn’t initially plan to stick to his iconic black-and-white technique. The process was a natural one, originally intended to produce silkscreen products in one color, which complement his vector-like drawings. 

With the global rise of his brand, Pilpeled was invited to exhibit and create works internationally. His first exhibition outside of Israel was in Poland. Following this, he began collaborating with large companies such as Absolut Vodka to design a vodka bottle, Coca-Cola for a campaign, and Puma. In 2018, Pilpeled wanted to focus on the art itself and he closed his brand. 

Today, the artist focuses on his studio practice, wall murals, and a bevy of collaborations. He also works on partnership projects with high tech offices and restaurants around the world. People are interested in having his work in lobbies and bars, WeWork in Tel Aviv, for example. His center of interest is his studio work. The artist has returned to painting large canvases. In 2018, he was invited to paint a mural at the Israel Museum in the exhibition “I to Eye Passing Encounters.” This was a breakthrough, bringing art from the streets to one of the world’s largest encyclopedic museums. Pilpeled recently exhibited in the Urban Nation Street Art Museum in Berlin in 2018. To be acknowledged by the prestigious museum and show work alongside artists he has admired for years, was an immense honor for Pilpeled. 

Now that Pilpeled is focusing on his studio practice, he is venturing into new mediums. Continuing with his theme of concealed eyes, most recently, the artist has made wood carvings of masks. This change marks a new and curious chapter in his career.  

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Men Who Can’t Sit on Horses, a solo exhibition by artist Tal R, features one singular painting, Natten (The Night). “I had the space (Magasin III Jaffa) in mind before I even started painting,” Tal R reveals. “How the painting would look from within the space and at night through the window from the street.”

Tal R explains that Magasin III Jaffa’s curator, David Neuman knew he had never produced work for a single piece show, and wanted to challenge him. “The process of creating only one piece was very educational for me. I brought works with me in my suitcase to try and convince him otherwise. But, more is less and I don’t need more to express the point.”

The artist recalls feeling like an outsider throughout different periods of his adolescence. “My name is Tal which means dew in Hebrew, but in the Scandinavian context, it means number.” During the artist’s childhood growing up in Denmark, classmates would ask him what his real name was. Living amidst a population where there weren’t many other Jewish people, also proved to be challenging. “Kids in general don’t like to be different from one another. But, as I got older, I realized, to be an outsider is to live in the valley while still watching yourself in that valley.” The artist digresses, “Tal in German means valley”. He continues, “As an artist, to exist both in the valley and as an observer is an advantage because it affords you a second set of eyes. You look at things twice.”

Influenced by the differing heritages he grew up with, Tal suggests that “all great work is made of things that can’t be combined”.  He continues, “As an artist, you will always reach a point where two different elements seem disjointed. From there you can either give up or spend time building a bridge between the two. That bridge, figuring out a way to translate what was in your thoughts, is what makes something art. The challenge is the process in which you figure out how to say what needs saying. Most importantly, getting lost is part of this process. Above every art school door it should say ‘Invest in losing something’.”

The artist discusses Natten:

“A 15 year old would be able to write something about the obvious scene. There are men in uniform trying to ride but for some reason, they keep falling off of their horses. Down the middle of the painting is a horizontal line, a lake. The horsemen attempt to cross the lake and are not able to.”

When questioned about what struggle the painting is meant to represent Tal explains that the topic is a mystery to him as well. He says that in terms of understanding the painting, his position is closer to the viewer than to that of the creator. “The idea that the artist is so clever that he or she can explain the art, is a common misconception,” Tal claims. The work underscores the universal feelings connected to falling off a horse, real or metaphorical. The question remains, what you do when you’ve fallen off. 

Natten (The Night), 2019, Oil on canvas. Photos by Noam Preisman

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Raymond Pettibon’s oeuvre is a speeding train car off its rails.

Touching upon both the universal and the personal, Pettibon’s works transport viewers to the fork in the road in their mind’s eye. The choices that need to be made either consciously or subconsciously. The thoughts that suspend sleep, the moments that exhilarate as well as frighten. The reminder that we are in charge of our destiny. For the first time in Israel, over 100 works by Raymond Pettibon will be on display at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art through April 2020. 

Since the 1990s, Pettibon has been known as a key figure for his critique of American culture and politics. The artist weaves his affinity for high and low brow culture – literature, history, popular culture, and sexuality – into drawings that feature thought provoking imagery and tounge-in-cheek phrases. The duality of text alongside imagery provides the viewer with an experience that pushes the viewer beyond a passive approach to engaging with art. Left with a deeper understanding of human behavior and circumstance, Pettibon crafts a portal for viewers to experience his art. Though the works represent specific instances and eras in America, the themes touched upon are universal and timeless. 

Irith Hadar, curator of the exhibition on Pettibon’s collection: “Clusters of motifs identified with his work (surfers, baseball players, and Charles Manson) and of the major themes it addresses (including capitalism, the American government, and the war in Iraq) are intertwined in the exhibition alongside a selection of drawings relating to art itself and engaging with the artist’s social status and human condition.”

No Title (The Paper Cut…), 2004. Gouache and ink on paper. Raymond Pettibon, private collection courtesy of David Zwirner. No Title (Is That Not…), 2011. Pen, ink, and acrylic on paper. Collection of Maurice Marciano, Los Angeles, Raymond Pettibon, courtesy of Regen Projects, Los Angeles. 

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The project goes beyond the removal of masks. It pushes participants to reveal what those masks actually are. The confrontation is extensive, identifying who we are, understanding our own masks and uncovering the illusions we have of ourselves.

Photos by Erez Bit. Details from Night Painting.

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“We weren’t completely sure what Ghostown was when we started it (and we still aren’t), but that’s part of what makes it special, it’s flexible and an ever-evolving concept,” says Unga, one of the collective’s founders. “We felt that we needed one entity for all the art projects we were working on, a place that could push our local scene as well as promote artists that we like from abroad. Our goal is to stay independent while showcasing local culture.”

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In less than a decade, Ghostown and Broken Fingaz have become widely recognized for their street art. Their evocative large-scale murals can be found painted across factories and abandoned buildings all over the world. The Walls Festival, produced by Ghostown, brought a roster of internationally renowned artists to Haifa to generate works in the city’s disenfranchised neighborhoods, using the streets as a forum for discussion and creative renewal. The line-up of artists included Alin Mor, Tant, Demsky, Forty5 Forty6, Leolyxxx and Keos.

The popularity of Ghostown and Broken Fingaz’s work has led to commercial success, hosting pop-up shops in East London and Los Angeles, collaborating on projects with WeWork, Penguin Books and MTV. The collective was most recently commissioned to produce music videos for U2 and Beck. No matter where the roving members of Ghostown land around the world, their home base will always be along the Mediterranean Sea. “People here [Haifa] are really doing this because they believe in the art. If you are looking for hype and status, you won’t survive, it’s painfully down to earth here,” Unga reveals. “You can travel the world and know that Haifa will always be there just the way you left it.”

Words by Andrew Wasserstein Photos by Broken Fingaz

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