Jacob Feige interviews artist Hadassa Goldvicht
through October 23
Hadassa Goldvicht, an Israeli artist living in New York, makes art that concerns a state of not-knowing, forgetting, or searching and still not knowing. At first glance her work seems to require insight into the artist’s life to be fully understood, and there are particular rituals, both personal and societal, that she enacts in her videos and performances. But to say that these actions, often related to her upbringing in Israel, are the subject of the work, is not a satisfying explanation. In her 2008 video My Soul as a Rattle, the artist can be seen marching in circles on a grassy lawn, first counterclockwise, then clockwise. Whether this relates to some particular ritual is unknown to me, but there is clearly an exhausting, repetitious search for something. As I gradually understood over the course of my weeklong back-and-forth conversation with the artist, the effects of ritual and repetition on everyday meaning are central to her work.
Goldvicht’s installation will continue to evolve for the duration of the exhibition. On the final evening of the exhibition, Sunday, October 23, 2011, she will perform at the gallery.
Jacob Feige: Politically charged topics surround your work, especially the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But looking at the first version of your installation at Marginal Utility, it also strikes me as intensely personal—even secretive and cryptic. Are politics and religion a context for your work, or are they an essential part of it?
Hadassa Goldvicht: There is a sense that politics—specifically the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—are sometimes used by artists in their work because political art of a certain kind is the right art to make.
My work is political in the sense that it revolves around the way our bodies contain meaning and reflect our culture, our parents, and our history. It’s all there in our gestures, in the tunes we hum when we wash the dishes, in the songs we sing without thinking of the words.
Foucault speaks about the way culture is engraved in us through our bodies—but can it work the other way around too? When I make work, I look at myself and the people around me and think, if I can change just one gesture or word I inherited from my mother, or part of a song I learned to sing over and over again when I was young, if I change just the physical aspect, would it change the essence or the root of it all too? Is it possible to relearn how to say a word so it will be charged with everything it truly holds?
The work in the first version of my installation Songs for the Peacemaker is a comment on the way we use some words so many times that they lose all meaning. The translation of the translation of the translation of the word “Peace” or “Prayer” has no meaning at all, but this lack of meaning contains a kind of yearning for the original essence of the word.
JF: Does it ever bother you when something that is personal, or even personally political, is interpreted through the lens of a broad, news-oriented topic, for the sake of being easily discussed? Can there be a distinction between personal and global politics for you?
HG: Very rarely are people careful enough to not flatten reality into a one liner. But I like your definition of “personally political.” Life is very political, and we carry a responsibility in our bodies and actions. I feel like it’s an obligation to make work that is personally political, that is exact, to not create an inflation in which all actions or words lose meaning.
JF: You mentioned that your working process for the show at Marginal Utility has been different from other exhibitions. What has that process has been?
HG: This is the second time I’ve exhibited at Marginal Utility. For both shows, David Dempewolf and Yuka Yokoyama, who run the space, very generously gave me the opportunity to deal with subjects that are most difficult for me in my practice, treating the show as a kind of ongoing controlled experiment.
I learned a lot about my work from the responses I got at my previous opening at Marginal Utility, which were very real and unmasked, very different than any responses I had anywhere else. The art scene in Philadelphia really offers something different.
Janine Antoni once said something that is a kind of an 11th Commandment for me: when you make work and get extremely specific and personal, that’s when the work opens up and becomes universal again. As an artist making work that is very personal, that’s the point I always try to reach.
I really believe art changes the world. I believe that when you make work, a kind of energy is created. And when you are done, everything you wish for the piece to be, everything you wish for it to mend in your life and in the lives of the people around you, suddenly takes form. There is a lot of power in that energy, which is why I try to be very careful and exact with my work, so the energy it contains will go to the right direction, thinking of art almost as a form of prayer.
There is something really scary in thinking of art on these terms, because it feels like playing with gunpowder. The materials I work with in my videos and installation are and very much a reflection of my encounters and struggles in real life. Showing at Marginal Utility is a huge gift for me because it’s the only time in my practice when someone has helped me handle the gunpowder.
JF: The sense of meaning being lost through ritual is so strong in the work for Songs for the Peacemaker. Do you think that new meanings come out of that loss in your work? Are there experiences that you’ve had that led to this interest?
HG: It’s not that meaning is lost through ritual; it’s just that meaning constantly changes and becomes lost, then needs to be found.
I grew up painting and writing poetry. When I began going back and forth between writing and making art, I realized that suddenly, with my great need to be exact, I could no longer write anything. No word or letter was exact enough. If we take ourselves too seriously it’s strange how our feelings, lives, actions, loves and beliefs become bound into a very physical container—the body. One of the ways out of this container is to make artwork, but that is very physical too. At some point I stopped painting or using text in my work because there was something almost offensive to me in the gap between what I wanted to say and the limitation of lines and language.
For a few years I tried to re-teach myself how to read and write in my work. I thought that if I re-learn the alphabet I might be more exact in my use of language this time around. Slowly language started coming back to my work, but mostly it was words or sentences used by other people, which seemed to be more exact than mine.
Re-teaching myself how to read and write became part of my practice—attempting to go back to different experiences or memories to try and remember what the meaning there once was, and what it means now. In all of my work there is a kind of failure. The meaning is never found in the way I expect it; it’s more about the struggle for it.
JF: What is this exactness that you speak of in your work?
HG: The exactness I speak about is in the intent.
I grew up in Jerusalem where everything has substantial, endless, historical meaning. In Judaism there is intense attention to detail. Anything, from which shoe you put on first, to the first few steps you make in the morning, is believed to have spiritual meaning and implications. I don’t mean that in the crime-equals-punishment kind of way, but in the way that all things are very charged.
I think of my work in these same terms and I live life in these terms. I intend my work as a prayer and need to get it just right, or at least do my best to do so. I really do believe that there are spiritual and actual meanings and implications to every action we do in life, and in art. These ideas come from the Hassidic way of thought, in which the belief is that it’s important to intend every action—every line we place on a canvas—as a kind of prayer, very specific and exact.
The understanding that everything we do carries implications, like that danger of playing with gunpowder—but also the possibility to create real change, spiritual or actual—obligates us to get it right. Becuase if we manage to really make our intent and actions exact, there is a chance to mend the ruptures in our lives, to maybe make life a little better.
Jacob Feige is an artist and teacher. His work is on view at Lombard Freid Projects, New York, Oct 21-Nov 21, 2011.