Behind 'Barbed Hula': An Interview with Sigalit Landau

Sigalit Landau grew up in Jerusalem in 1969, in an era marked by intense moments of political and societal upheaval as well as innumerable advances in technology. In her work, the artist explores the surfaces of collective and individual memory through digital platforms and immersive performance spaces. Landau’s website proclaims that despite years of addressing her personal and political history, “the bruises are still open; the pain doesn't seem to ease.” This is evidenced in such challenging works as Barbed Hula (2000), a short video where the artist is filmed nude, hula hooping on the beach with a loop of barbed wire revolving around her midsection. Only her torso is visible; around twenty seconds in, the camera closes in on her stomach, where we see the bruises from the barbs in full display. At one point, a woman passes by in a black bathing suit, seemingly oblivious to the gruesome scene happening a few feet away.

We wanted to find out more about the making of Barbed Hula, so we asked the artist to deconstruct the piece for us.

Christie’s: What was happening in your life at the time you created this work?

Sigalit Landau: I was, at the time of planning and making this work, quite lost, living in Berlin, sleeping at an artist residency in the cellar of a contemporary art collection in the Mitte. I was expected to make “objects” but was not able to. I had never made video art [only short films for the Israeli Defense Force] and needed help from far away friends in Tel Aviv with the production and shooting of this idea. I shot myself dancing at the end of a short and “fruitless” visit to Israel in 1998. Due to a lack of funds, I edited this work more than a year after I had shot it; by then I was baking bread in a restaurant in east London.

In 1998, I felt that — after making my debut “appearance” at Documenta X [exhibition in Germany] the year before with a well-received work, Resident Alien — I could look only to my body, and [that] it alone would guide me to a new and independent creative and spiritual “international” home. My Body was the only thing I felt that I (sometimes) had. The home I wished to establish was one containing subjectivity, not members and memories of my objective, factual upbringing — of places, family, political conflicts, history and circumstances. This is why the [original] working title for Barbed Hula was Nest.

Migration, nomadism, homelessness, shifting borders, and identities were central terms in the discourses of the art world and in the “ambiance” of the nineties … But, although [I was] an archaic-globalized Jew, my direction was less clear to me then it should have been.

When I completed this short video, [no one was] interested in showing it. It seemed daring. The first public screenings of Barbed Hula were in the Vienna Kunsthalle and in Magasin3, in Stockholm, where the works’ first edition -- 1/18 -- was purchased for $300.

 

What were your influences for this piece? You've stated that "This belly dance is a personal and senso-political act concerning invisible sub-skin borders, surrounding the body and identity actively and endlessly." Could you elaborate?

Film:

Sweet Movie, 1974 avant-garde art house comedy-drama film by the Yugoslavian director, Dušan Makaveje

Come and See, 1985 Soviet war drama directed by Elem Klimov about the Nazi German occupation of the Byelorussian SSR.

Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin, translated literally as The Heavens over Berlin) is a 1987 Franco-German romantic fantasy film, directed by Wim Wenders

An immediate influence by proximity was the brilliant choreographer Sasha Waltz, who started her outstanding career next door to me, showing at Sophien Salle, a small venue in Berlin.

 

Music:

“The Ballad Of Mauthausen / Six Songs,” by Mikis Theodorakis and Maria Farandouri (And also much happier songs which they created together and sent across the Mediterranean)

Art:

Rebecca Horn, Anne Hamilton, Katharina Fritsch, the Kabakovs’, Janis Kounelis Christian Boltansky, Anslem Kiefer, Frantz West, Tomas Schute, Yonathan Messe Daniel Richter, Rachel Whitread.

I was envious, engaged and enraged with “feel good” art [e.g., Angela Bullocks and Liam Gillick]. 

[Gustav] Courbet was not an Influence and has nothing to do with Barbed Hula despite the sharing of the ‘focal point’ and composition.

Readings:

I think those days I was reading Aharon Appelfeld, Paul Celan, George Bataille, Giorgio Agamben, [and] Guy Debord.

Events:  

The first Gulf War, in 1991; the finding of Ötzi the Iceman, in 1991. 

 

Julia Kristeva writes in Powers of Horror "abjection is above all ambiguity." Do you agree? Does this piece concern abjection, or do you see it differently?

I am not an abject artist and my art is not dealing with the abject, but with yearning, calling, stories, and desire… There is no blood or bleeding, nor any other body fluids or substances in the work… I use my own body, which is not harmed due to the fact that the barbs were purposely and visibly turned to face the camera. I have explained this in every possible text and interview [I’ve done] about the piece and about my art-life evolution. Meanings don’t collapse, buildings and people and relationships do. Barbed Hula is an act of love and desire, insisting to be.

My parents were both born in 1940 in neighboring central and eastern European cities, in the same area as Julia Kristeva [Vienna, Bukovina], which meant they received the “gift of life” in the wrong time, at the wrong place. One of my parents escaped the camps but not the torment; the other had to survive a Ukrainian version of the Nazi camps and then immigrated as an orphan to the young state of Israel. Abject is Abject. Auschwitz is Auschwitz. Desire is life. Death is not ambiguous.

 

What would people see in this work today that they might not have seen when it was created in 2001?

“A Klee painting of 1921 named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.” --Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History: Theses on the Philosophy of History, 1940}. 

24 Then the Lord rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah—from the Lord out of the heavens. 25 Thus he overthrew those cities and the entire plain, destroying all those living in the cities—and also the vegetation in the land. 26 But Lot’s wife looked back, and she became a pillar of salt.” --Genesis 19

I remember that while living and working in Europe, I followed how Berlin and Bonn were getting ready [for] the new millennium of globalization. I witnessed the new branding of Berlin, and the comfort that came with the "summarizing" of the 20th century over there. I probably was in disagreement with myself — about whether I should leave behind Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, my tales, tails, experiments and trails… I chose temporary homelessness, “loss of place,” and to live [away from] my loved ones (who were supposed to protect me but could and would never do so).

I was both the “Angelus Novus” and the defiant wife of Lot, caught on both ends of history’s debris, gazing in two wrong directions at the borders, both petrified and surfing the wind as the rising gods of corporate architecture, fashion, and media periodically distracted all of us. My ongoing concerns (since childhood) were and still are: compassion [and] building bridges, even if they are islands at first.

Christie's First Open: New Media runs until October 4, 2013. Click here to see more from the online-only auction.


(Image courtesy of the artist and Christie's. Interview by Kathleen Massara.)