Barry Schwabsky Interview of Tamar Ettun
Catalog: EAT A PINK OWL: Tamar Ettun
Essays: Wendy Vowel and Barry Schwabsky Photography: Matt Grubb
Aditional photography Charlie Rubin (pp. 6, 7, 12) and Anastasiia Chorna Shama (p. 15) Design: Naroa Lizar
Fridman Gallery Founder/Director: Iliya Fridman Associate Director: Lindsay Jarvis Design Director: Naroa Lizar Associate: Andrea Klabanova
Barry Schwabsky: As someone who was born in Jerusalem and educated both there and in the U.S. and now living in Brooklyn, to what extent do you find artistic practice independent of nationality, religious background, and other identities?
Tamar Ettun: With the Mauve Bird project, it's about figuring out a common ground that is not about what separates people, which could be identity. When I was living in Israel, having just stopped being Orthodox, a big part of the work was about this transition. I did these walks from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, and dealing with these cultural, religious questions was the work.
[S]: Is that because the two cities somehow represented for you a secular city and a religious city?
[E]: Yes, I grew up in Jerusalem, which is a very religious city, and Tel Aviv, was where art was happening. The art school was also in Jerusalem, but in order to be educated and see galleries and museums, I had to go to Tel Aviv. It felt like the language was very different: not literal language, but the cultural decoding. In ancient times, Jews from all over the world would walk up to the temple in Jerusalem three times a year, so I did the opposite, I walked in the opposite direction, like an inverted pilgrimage. The walk was about 60 kilometers, I did it once a month on Shabbat for three and a half years.
[S]: I see.
[E]: After I moved here, and started working with The Moving Company which is very diverse, mostly immigrants from a different places in the world, I was looking for a shared form of communication; talking and connecting was through emotions and colors. Giving room to express individual cultural experiences, while thinking of a common ground, and a community that can be inclusive. Maybe it sounds very naive.
[S]: Or maybe we need more naivete. What exactly is The Moving Company, and how did it, come about?
[E]: The Moving Company started four years ago, when I was at a residency at the Abrons Art Center: in addition to getting a studio as a sculptor, I could use the rehearsal spaces. I'd been wanting to research movement in a deeper way for a long time, so I reached out to people I knew and asked who would want to play with me once a week and think about movement and stillness.
A few people responded and it started as a study group, whoever was committed. After we'd worked together for almost a year, a performance organically emerged. Since then, it became more official, and now the work has a few sides. One is our kind of study of the body, movement and emotions. Another is the social project that we started this year, working with teens in Crown Heights, that added a new layer that is really meaningful. The last one is the performances I direct, which come up from the material we work on as a group. Some of the Movers are professional dancers, choreographers, artists, singers, actors – it's all very organic, but everyone is genuinely committed to researching these ideas, and the work is shaped by their body history, muscle memory, their unique movement imprint.
[S]: So when you started that four years ago, had you already been working as an artist with movement and performance, or was it something that was, more or less, new to your practice?
[E]: I have been working with movement since I started working as an artist in different ways. When I was at Yale, I collaborated with Emily Coates, who was my professor at the dance department, and is one of Yvonne Rainer's dancers, on a sculpture performance piece for the Performa Biennial. She did the dance and I did the sculpture. Before that, I was making videos for a long time, but making live performances was a change, yes.
[S]: It sounds like your work has been cross- disciplinary from the beginning. You are not a sculptor who branched out into movement.
[S]: But it's interesting to me that with The Moving Company, the idea of having a presentable, performable result is only one dimension of the endeavor, and that there are a lot of other aspects of it that the audience, the art public, doesn't necessarily see.
[E]: Right. Everything feeds the end performance, but there's a lot of focus on the process. I guess in the same way a sculptor would spend weeks in a library and research different materials and then come up with a piece, that effort isn't visible in the physical thing that is in front of your eyes. The research and the process with The Moving Company informs the final piece, and I believe you can sense it as an audience. Especially because the choreography comes from within, from the Movers, and is not imposed. The ongoing meetings inform the movement. This year we met with a neuroscientist who talked about empathy, and we have been meeting with a lot of different people. Some of them are present in a more direct way. Like the teens we've been working with. At the end, we had writers interviewing them asking them questions regarding aggression, and made a zine. These stories are part of the performance - the performers came up to the audience and told them secretly, whispered in their ears. So even though you don't know about the teens' contribution, it is layered into the work and is present in a very literal way.
[S]: I like the fact that the secret is not revealed, but you know that it is there.
[E]: Yes, you remember in Yellow, we researched Desire, and collected texts and poems that we whispered to the audience (and you gave us a few!), this time it was the teens' personal stories.
[S]: Could the pieces that you do with The Moving Company be potentially represented in different spaces and different situations with different performers, or are they specific to a given situation? And if they are redoable, would the new performers be trying to redo what the original performers did or would they be giving new input? In other words, is it an open form or a more or less finished form?
[E]: Yes, it is definitely possible to remake the pieces with other performers. Last year, we did Yellow in Bryant Park, and then we did it in Uppsala, Sweden. Two Movers came with me and we worked with five additional Swedish dancers. I make objects that limit the body's movement, and there is a map which is the structure of time and space of where people are going, how they will interact and when they meet – a formal composition of colors and shapes.
[S]: I see.
[E]: The way the Movers interpret their own movement with the object is unique. In Sweden, before rehearsals, we did a workshop talking about Desire and introducing the new Movers to the vocabulary of The Moving Company. It's not technical – move your right leg to the left for 15 seconds – but a series of physical states: this year we have been talking about readiness to attack, something that looks calm on the outside, but has the potential to snap.
[S]: So do the performers have a very wide latitude to interpret those ideas or do you direct them towards a certain interpretation?
[E]: I see the Movers as collaborators. They are free in their interpretations, and I guide the way they fit together. Sometimes I have specific images I want to create, and then we workshop them together.
[S]: What about the colors you have been using as keys to the particular pieces. For example, this
time it's pink. The moment I think of pink I think of a gender stereotype: blue for boys, pink for girls. Is that part of the content of the work or is it something that the work, uh, overtrumps?
[E]: Pink used to be a boys' color before WWII, and blue was a girls' color, which was considered more delicate and pretty. During the War, pink triangle badges were used to identify gay men. When the war ended, women embraced pink, but it's not completely clear why. Perhaps because the men who returned from the War were crushed and traumatized, and women needed to find an energetic color that allowed them to take a more active role in society, and the queer association with the pink triangles opened that door. Throughout the years, it became more and more culturally associated with submission. In this work, I think about aggression as having two sides: as a natural urge, it has assertiveness and power, but at the same time, it can be violent and harmful.
[S]: I didn't know about that switch in gender coding for pink and blue!
[E]: As I was working on Pink this year, it was interesting to discover how far apart shades of pink could be read. In Blue or Yellow, the shades still felt very much connected. Pink feels volatile,
manipulative, unpredictable. Pale pink, rose gold and bright magenta have very different reads to them, and are still under the same name.
[S]: I see. But all colors are like that, the name seems to confer unity on the various shades, but in fact, different blues are very different. William Gass wrote a book about that, for instance—On Being Blue. So, there's a difference between the experience of the color and the name.
[E]: Definitely, there are subtleties for all colors. I think pink is more extreme than other colors, but yeah, maybe, that's my personal opinion.
[S]: Well, having worked on it so much, you probably have much more experience with the color's effects than I do, so I am sure you are right.
[E]: Which connects to the idea of submissiveness, and gender, through biology.
[S]: The colors you've done previously are yellow and blue, now pink, and orange is still to come, right?
[E]: Orange and Joy will start in November.
[S]: Joy, that's a good one to end on. In the title of the series, Mauve Bird with Yellow Teeth Red Feather Green Feet and a Rose Belly, some of the colors are actually in the title, then there are other colors, like mauve, that don't have particular works connected with them. Why is that?
[E]: I guess mauve could be included in Pink. The title is from a poem by Maria Laina, a Greek poet. I took the last line of the poem "is not a Mauve bird", because she has all these colors within her. But I thought the bird could call herself Mauve if she chooses to.
[S]: What's the relation between a gallery presentation of your work, and the performative presentation of it? How do they relate to each other?
[E]: Another thing I discovered, as I was researching Pink, was the Baker-Miller Pink that has a physical calming effect on the body. It's the only color that has been discovered to have such sensation. Tests shows that it lowers violence; they paint prisons in that color, and they say that after 15 minutes the heart rate lowers. It was interesting to find out there is a biological effect that comes from the color pink, but only from one specific shade of pink, not all pinks.
[S]: I'll have to look up that shade, that's fascinating.
[E]: Yeah, Weight Watchers' logo uses that shade of pink because it was discovered to suppress appetite.
[E]: The works in the gallery are part of my practice as a solo artist. The performance work with The Moving Company is usually done in public spaces to mixed audiences, and that is a very important part of the work. On the sculptures I work alone, sometimes I cast the Movers, and the ideas behind them come from the same research and movement exercises done with The Moving Company. It's a different manifestation of the same concepts. The performance work has a lot more compromises, as I am working with a lot of other people, and the hope is to have them included in the making of the work. When I make sculptures, my collaborators are the materials. Now I am making seven sculptures and I am thinking of the seven Movers with whom I've been working this year.
[S]: I see. In a sense, portraits?
[E]: Loosely. They don't look like them, but they embody their essence. Only two of the sculptures have a face, and they don't look at each other. Each character is in her own world, but their placement, their materials, and the shared pink, suggest they are a group. This is very similar to how the performers work: each Mover has a task and an object, and is physically trapped while attempting to fulfill her task. There are moments when they interact, but mostly, it's solo, multiple solos.
[S]: So it sounds like the two sides of the work are independent, but there's a communication between them.
[S]: And can you imagine ever opening up that division, having performance aspects in a gallery show, or do you feel there is a kind of necessity behind this distinction for you.
[E]: I am starting with this show – there will be an ongoing performative element, where I am going to wrap one of the pieces with more thread throughout the show and do some subtle interventions. The Moving Company is going to do the Pink performance outside the gallery. In the past, the audience could
go inside these giant inflatables and feel more connected to the performances, because the inflatables are not precious and have a direct physical relationship to the body. Performance and sculpture keep flowing back and forth.
[E]: When I create a performance, which is meant to be viewed by a diverse audience in public spaces, it's very different, and the way that I make objects in a gallery setting takes a different kind of setup.
[S]: Yes. It's interesting how self-selected, an art gallery's audience is, compared to other venues. I think the art world would like to congratulate itself for its openness and diversity and so on, but more diversity can be found elsewhere.
[E]: As an artist you are required to answer different questions about the creation of the work. Working with teens this year and having to defend the work on a weekly basis was very interesting. They weren't necessarily interested in art. The hope is that the teens who stay to watch the performances will read the work as personally as someone educated in the art world and knows all the references, that there will be both levels which are valid and meaningful.
[S]: Is it harder to address people who know a lot about art, or those who know less about art?
[E]: That's a tough question. The hope, of course is to address both audiences. I grew up very far away from the art world in Orthodox Jerusalem. I did not have a lot of access, but there were a few public art pieces that were incredibly meaningful to me as a kid: a James Turrell at the Israel Museum, Niki De Saint Phalle's golem and a big red Calder piece. I had no idea who they were and what role they played in the art world, but they changed my life. When I grew up, I've been very lucky go through a lot of art education, and receive scholarships that enabled me to study at the very best art institutions. I feel privileged to be able to have access to this world. At some point I realized that the work becomes self-referential, and it became important for me to connect to someone who didn't have all this education, and wasn't able to go to these schools.
[S]: I think that color communicates with people most directly, most viscerally. Maybe that accounts for your interest in highlighting that in recent years.
[E]: Yeah, and I think it goes back to your first question about identity, and a kind of broader sense of community.