Yehudit Sasportas on Inspirations, Identity, and the German Swamp That Inspired Nearly a Decade of Her Art

“For years, I focused my attention not on what people were saying, but rather on what they were not saying,” says Yehudit Sasportas. The Israeli artist, who splits her time between Tel Aviv and Berlin, recalls that from an early age, she was drawn to the communicative power of the image. “I think that there was definitely a certain stage when I became interested in the image or sign and one’s ability to express oneself as a human being in ways other than through the conventional tools of language,” she explains. And it was the image of a swamp in Germany—on the page of a periodical that caught her on a train ride many years ago—that has inspired some nine years of creativity, contemplation, and artistic output.

While for many the idea of the swamp conjures visions of stagnant water and haunting forest devoid of human life, Sasportas reveals it to be a hotbed of energy and life. It has become a site of investigation, inquiry, and pilgrimage for the artist. She’s been visiting one particular site in Germany for years, taking pieces of the swamp with her each time, physically and metaphorically channeling its essence and spirit into her art. A selection of these works, as well as her dynamic film The Light workers (2010), features in the artist’s current exhibition “Vertical swamps,” at Galleri Bo Bjerggaard in Copenhagen.

Each work—from explosive ink paintings and engravings to the enveloping film—communicates Sasportas’s deep connection to the swamp, and her ability as an artist to concentrate on a single subject and present it to viewers in a new light, in original, deeply emotional, and dynamic images. She represents not only the visual environment of the swamp, but the sounds and physical materials that comprise it. On the occasion of “Vertical swamps,” we caught up with the artists to learn about her inspirations, her life between Berlin and Tel Aviv, and her time spent in the swamp.

  • Installation view of “Yehudit Sasportas: Vertical swamps” at Galleri Bo Bjerggaard, Copenhagen. Courtesy of Galleri Bo Bjerggaard and the artist.

Casey Lesser: Your works have been described as maps of mental data outlines and mind landscapes. What kinds of thoughts or emotions go into your work? Are there particular places, people or experiences that inspired these new works?

Yehudit Sasportas: For years, I was dealing with autobiographical material and the core of my family—their mental spaces and their unspoken subconscious fields—as the philosophical and energetic base of my work. I was deeply interested in private and subjective information and how this information moves slowly into the public sphere through art—becoming a drawing, an object, a sound piece, or a sculpture—as well as by the very fact that it is located in a public space. I started communicating and transforming personal information into coded information that many people that I don’t know might have an interest in. For years I practiced the ability to contemplate or to observe—to witness without participating.

For 18 years, I recorded my family without them even knowing that I was doing so. I was listening with the intention of creating a kind of parallel life to my own, thinking about the possibility of accessing information that was recorded in the past but is heard in the present moment. I focused my attention on going deeply into the recordings of my father, my sister, and my mom and the dialogue among them, and then introducing this information into the visual aspect of the seismograph provided by the computer. I then related to these seismographs and brought them into my own drawings. Being highly inspired by my family, I was always interested in how to take their story and work with this coded information so that it becomes relevant to many other people that don’t know them and my specific story.

CL: Can you tell us about your process?

YS: I have different ways of working. I do installations that consist of drawings, films, sculptures, and sound works. For each medium, I have different techniques. The drawings, for example, are divided into five or six different methods of work. Some of my drawings I do through intuition; some are from the way that I remember the subject that I am relating to; some drawings I do when I close my eyes and focus on the threshold of a moment and the way that the brain starts forgetting information and diving into a very different space. I’ve realized that it’s very interesting to look at the quality of the drawings while my brain starts forgetting information, and I move more into abstract spaces. Other drawings correspond with importing nature from outside to inside, like filming or recording nature and bringing these recordings into my studio and relating to this information through drawings. I am interested in activating different parts of the brain through drawing and then trying to see the different languages and codes of expressions.

For my sculpture, I normally have three to six tables in my studio that are three-dimensional models representing philosophical principles. For example, The Magnetic Shaky Table is a table that I’ve had for the last seven years. On top of it I placed different objects that I brought from the swamp, one of my main areas of work in Germany. Over time, I added pieces of magnets into these elements, creating a magnetic field in which different objects were balanced by heavier, surrounding magnets. This created a kind of strange still-life that was constantly moving. I had a camera on my ceiling that filmed this table during the night only, and this strange movement never stopped. This inspired one of my films, The Magnetic Shaky Table (2015), which was edited from seven years of night recordings.

Then I have my films, which are very different because most of them consist of many, many drawings that I did manually, scanned then produced them with the aid of an animation program. It's very important to understand that the films consist of all these drawings and not a specific location. The Light workers is a film that consists of 158 drawings and the film itself embodies all of these drawings.

A: How do the new works in the show relate to the themes you have dealt with in past works, such as The Light workers?

YS: The current show at Bo Bjerggaard in Denmark consists of two parts: the films and drawings and the three-dimensional drawings. All of them are connected to my themes; it’s just another step further. The main idea of The Light workers film is to try to slow down time and to minimize the space in between the particles of this forest. The forest is very recognizable in the first part of the film, and slowly, slowly we start losing the concrete forest as it starts disappearing. I’m very much interested in how one dimension penetrates another, like one time zone penetrating another time zone. This is a strange kind of feeling, like something has just penetrated your reality and something starts slowing down; I try to visualize this through this forest, which functions as kind of a cover story, but I try to use the forest as an energetic location, as a landscape of life or as a platform for human activity. The slowed rhythm of the forest’s breathing seems to synchronize increasingly with one's own breathing as an observer.

The idea behind the current theme is stopping and putting a very strong focus on something, up to the point that the object that you are contemplating starts contemplating you, and after a while it starts sucking you in. I myself had this very experience over the last eight or nine years while I was staying at a very specific place in Germany, a swamp, a very bizarre place that I felt attracted to. I used to go there once a month, contemplating an area in this swamp. It didn't matter if it was winter, summer, autumn, or spring, I went for years to the same place. I think the experience that I had there, as well as being away from my culture, allowed me to dive into dimensions that I don't normally encounter when I'm so consumed by my normal life activities, as I am in Tel Aviv.

I dealt with the same theme in the very early sculptures I created in my early 20s. I was contemplating objects in the domestic environment and wondered how you can start meditating with objects and transforming the concrete space of the object, the solidity of the object, into something else, just by putting a very strong focus on it. So The Light workers film is a continuation of my interest in dismantling structure and narrative around a concrete form or object.

A: You split your time between Berlin and Tel Aviv. How do these differing environments affect your art?

YS: This is kind of the story of my life: trying to be in two different places at the same time. There is always one empty space, and one space where you are. I was connected to two different places but actually staying only at one place, and relating and corresponding with the other place simultaneously. I can say that these two very, very different environments had a huge impact on my work in a very, very positive way.

Living many years in a place that is not your natural culture—not your mother tongue, not your climate, among many different things that don't feel natural—contributes to this quality of alienation that I have become more and more fascinated by. I was interested in how to find yourself in a place where you feel like a stranger and how to develop a deeper sensitivity through that experience. For example, when you read in your own language you're immediately sucked into the content because you are familiar with the words, but when it is another language you become much more sensitive to details. Language is just one example, but this can apply to many different areas of culture. This is one of the biggest gifts that you can have as an artist - the ability to dive into areas that almost make you feel alienated from yourself. I think it’s one of the most important issues to de-center your space, your place, to move to a perspective that is a bit different from the one that you're used to, to feel yourself with different habits and to feel the vulnerability that your system goes through when you don't feel at home. 

CL: The new show is titled “Vertical Swamps” and the swamp is a recurring element in your works. Why do you choose to portray the swamp?

YS: The first encounter that I had with swamps was through Martin Heidegger’s writing, and the way that he described these bizarre areas—clearings, swamps—that exist outside of our normal human activity in big cities or in nature. But it's more than that: there are certain areas where we don't want to be; they give us an uncomfortable feeling; they are menacing. My attraction began from a philosophical aspect and later on it was a very simple image of an interesting location in Germany that attracted my attention due to a very disturbing ecological problem that was taking place there; they were trying to dry this place out but it refused to dry. It is standing water, and it seems like a dead place, but actually it's the most alive place that I have ever experienced because many things are happening there in a different way than we are used to. It’s a different way of producing life—not the conventional, classical, positive form but nevertheless, not so different. I was interested in the swamp as something that is excluded from the whole; it feels like an unintegrated part of culture that is being rejected.

The swamp for me is just a beautiful metaphor for things that exist in our subconscious and constantly ask to be integrated and participate in our reality. Usually it appears as an uncomfortable experience that creates tension and evokes resistance or denial and I was attracted to this. The swamp is one of the most beautiful places that I have visited. I'm interested not in the visual aspects of the swamp, but in the energy of the place. This is a strong energy, energy of a different time that exists in the present moment, so I wanted to go to this area and stay there for a while, and then to bring some philosophical, conceptual, or even physical materials into my studio and start analyzing, working. So the swamp has had a huge role in my work metaphorically, philosophically, conceptually, emotionally and so on.

—Casey Lesser

Vertical swamps” is on view at Galleri Bo Bjerggaard, Copenhagen, Jan. 21–Mar, 19, 2016.

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