Jewish Journal

Kibbutznik’s history becomes performance art

by Jonathan Maseng

Posted on Nov. 22, 2013 at 4:38 pm

Learning to Imitate in Absentia, 2011 (installation view, Kunsthalle Basel). Photo by Eva Flury and courtesy of the artist and Kunsthalle Basel

Learning to Imitate in Absentia, 2011 (installation view, Kunsthalle Basel). Photo by Eva Flury and courtesy of the artist and Kunsthalle Basel

Yael Davids was frustrated. After more than a week of trying to set up a time to talk from her home base in Amsterdam, she was finally on Skype, but there was a problem. “I want to see you!” she said, somewhat defeated, as she realized that her video connection just wasn’t going to cooperate, so she’d have to use just words to tell her story. For an artist who’s been feverishly working to turn her own story into something more than just words, this is a unique challenge. When Davids performs at the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater (REDCAT) on Dec. 6 and 8, the Israeli-born artist will bring a new version of her narrative performance piece that has captivated audiences in Europe and South America.

“I hardly ever start carte blanche,” Davids said, describing how she sets about creating her work. “In principle, I like the idea of molding and remolding, readjusting.”

The work is a combination of performance and a sculptural installation that will be on view at REDCAT for a month. For the opening, she will swing from a rope, interact with huge hanging sheets of glass and read text from a script that she has tailored for each performance site. Vestiges of the performance will remain on view in the gallery.

She describes herself as something of a historical detective, looking back over her own life to create something new and beautiful for her audience. “I’m trying to find a way to configure words in space ... because I’d say words are also quite sculptural for me,” she said. “It really starts from personal testimonies into historical.”

Davids was born in 1968, and raised on Kibbutz Tzuba, just west of Jerusalem, and the kibbutz figures prominently in her current work. “My work is very personal, and I do talk about myself. … It’s my history on the kibbutz,” she explained.  

As the story goes, when Davids was growing up, Kibbutz Tzuba was a beautiful place full of “totally utopian ideals,” but it was forced to face a different reality when its economic situation became dire. Today, it survives by producing glass in three varieties — automotive, architectural and armored, including a very special kind of bulletproof glass. To Davids, this is something of a tragedy, “how a kibbutz with a very leftish background, in order to survive, has to supply this glass.”

According to Davids, the armored glass is sold to the American military, as well as to settlers living in the West Bank. It’s a paradox that both saddens and excites Davids, because while the use of the glass produced in her childhood home hurts her personally, the story makes for great art. “The kibbutz presents the glass as a weapon,” she said. “For me, it has to do a lot with Israel, and where Israel is now, today. Nowadays, everybody can see that Israel is a very aggressive country,” she said.

For her piece, Davids suspends huge sheets of glass above the space, an act she admits is “not without risk. The risk is there that they will break,” she said, “and I actually ...  wouldn’t mind if they’d break.”  

Davids’ performances also are reliant upon a good audience. “I need the audience in order to lift myself as a performer,” she said. “If I can inspire people, I’d love it. This is the best.”

Her work is undeniably influenced by Judaism, and particularly by her Israeli heritage, though it’s a heritage she’s struggled with. “Israel is a country that continuously manipulates its narrative,” she said, then quickly revised her thought. “I don’t know if I would say manipulates, but reinvents its narratives, and erases, erases a lot of things. Like the Palestinians.”

And while some of Davids’ politics might cause controversy in some circles, she still cares deeply for Israel: “I must say that I would love to go back to Israel if I could. ... Holland will never be my home. I will always feel like a foreigner here — the mentality of the people, the weather, but mainly the mentality.  

“But,” she added, “financially, I don’t think I could make it in Israel.”

In that sense, Davids is a little like the kibbutz she grew up on, forced to make choices based on financial realities, though she’s opted to make art, not armored glass. As she put it, she would rather make her glass into art. “Politically, I think there’s something really wrong there. And maybe it sounds very arrogant, what I say. Maybe the work has to be done from there.”

Davids said no one has yet gotten angry at her for her views on the current state of Israeli politics, but as she confided, “My sister told me, lucky you never did it [the performance] in Israel; they’d never let you do it.” 

Yet, Davids feels her attachment to her Jewish roots goes even deeper than just to modern Israel. After a brief discussion on kabbalistic interpretations of the world literally being formed from words, Davids was quick to exclaim, “I’m totally excited by words! They have the power to bring life. It’s not that they document life, they bring life.”

The whole idea of roots began to disturb Davids during a recent six-month residency in Rio de Janeiro, where even the landscape offered her a different way to see the world. 

“Israel is literally very dry and arid ... it’s very reduced.  It’s reduced to the Jewish people,” she said. “In Rio, you see life that has nothing to do with roots. You see the freedom of not relating to the ground.”

But Davids’ strong link to her homeland, despite her problems with it, is why her struggle with her Israeli identity creeps so strongly into her work.  

“I cannot run away from the responsibility,” she said, adding, “Now, I could run away, maybe that’s why I’m not living there.”

Yael Davids’ exhibition at REDCAT opens Dec. 6, with a performance at 6:30 p.m., repeated on Dec. 8 at 4:30 p.m. The exhibition continues through Dec. 22. For more information, visit redcat.org.

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