Radical Movements: A Conversation with Tamar Ettun
by Andreana Donahue
I recently spoke with Brooklyn-based artist and educator Tamar Ettun about her influences, creative process, and her current solo exhibition at the UNLV Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art. Jubilation Inflation ambitiously brings together an expansive body of work informed by ritual, trauma, and the connection between bodies and objects produced over the past five years - durational performance, video, and sculptural works that are also rooted in a sense of humor and play. Assertive, interactive inflatables cohabitate with more intimate sculptures and lyrical short stories that warrant a slow, satisfying read. Jubilation Inflation continues at the Barrick on the campus of University of Nevada, Las Vegas through December 15th.
Andreana Donahue: In what ways did growing up in Jerusalem shape your desire to pursue art-making?
Tamar Ettun: I grew up in an Orthodox family, my parents had five children by the time they were thirty. My dad was studying to become a rabbi and my mom took care of us. I never imagined I could be an artist, but I was always a maker. I always had things in my hands. As a child I went to the afternoon classes at the Israel Museum. I was the only religious girl there; I was dressed differently and we didn’t have a TV so I didn’t know what the other kids were talking about, but this experience was empowering and opened up a whole other world of things that didn't need to obey the rules of religion. Things that are colorful and textural, that are soft and wet. I could change them by touching them.
My grandma, an ultra Orthodox woman, is a painter which is very radical. It wasn’t something that was fully allowed, and she rarely had opportunities to show her work. In some ways I felt like her painterly qualities weren’t valued in an environment that deals with ethics and the divine. But I know she’s a total badass and that this work is valuable, especially in the context where it’s produced. I see her work as a subtle way of political resistance that doesn’t announce itself, or is even aware of its radicalness, and is unresolved in the best way possible. I’m very interested in this awkwardness. In the themes I’m dealing with today I often go back to that experience.
AD: While at the Bezalel Academy of Art you took extensive walks between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv; along Route 1 you collected small, abandoned objects that could be carried back to the studio for sculptures. How has your process of incorporating both found and handmade objects into your work evolved since then and what is your current criteria for selecting materials?
TE: When I did these long walks, what I chose to collect were small, light things that could fit in my hands because I would spend twelve hours walking. I had a small backpack with me that was mostly full of water, so I couldn’t carry a lot. I was attracted to objects that were left behind after car accidents. Right now I’m not working much with found objects. I work with a lot of fabrics, dyeing them with pigments. Also, recently I started using electronics. It’s a big shift from being a hunter and collecting, to having more control over the final result - like trying to get this one shade of color, over and over for a long time. It’s a very different way of making.
AD: What initially drew you to working with these fabrics?
TE: I started working with the inflatables because of my experience serving in the Israeli army for two years and I wanted to find a similar material that contained some kind of tension or a symbolic meaning. I then started to work with hot-air balloon and parachute material, which was really interesting for me, and it kept going. Narciso Rodriguez made us costumes for a performance and I’ve collaborated with fashion designers ABScreenwear and Ella Dagan, which made me think about garments and how garments cover and expose the body. There was an organic evolution into working with fabrics and soft sculpture.
AD: I know that compiling a reference archive is important to you when initiating a new project in the studio. Can you elaborate on this and the creative process that follows?
TE: I start a new piece by collecting references from literature, philosophy, psychology, objects, materials, images, gestures, flavors, and recipes. Maybe that's where hunting found objects, or pre-existing ideas still plays a part in my practice. After I have a rich archive I abandon it and start fresh, with the muscle memory of the research.
Right now I’m working on the next performance piece which is the very final chapter of the color project. This chapter is going to take a darker tone than the previous ones, thinking about “Rapture-Rupture.” It’ll take place in a beach-like setting, with lifeguards’ chairs, whistles, and a large-scale fabric installation.
AD: When and how did writing become an aspect of your work? Can you talk about the connection between the short stories and your poetic visual language?
TE: I started writing when I started giving artist talks because I felt that my talks, which discuss universal themes like empathy, communication, and relationships between emotions and colors felt too abstract. I wanted to bring it back to a personal experience that is specific and draws from a rich cultural background. In my work with The Moving Company as a social project and as an educator, it’s very interesting for me to think about a common ground or shared vocabulary of emotions. In the stories, it gives me a way of directing a more specific read of the sculptures and performances.
AD: Are there any writers who have particularly had an impact on you?
TE: Yes. I’m interested in Magical Realism. Bashevis Singer has been influential on me and Etgar Keret, an Israeli author, who writes violent, and funny, magical short stories. I love reading artists’ writings, like Louise Bourgeois. I’ve been teaching a class about paranormal creative processes at The New School this semester so I’m reading a lot about spirituality, mysticism, and Kabbalah.
AD: For The Moving Company performances you assign repetitive, absurd tasks to the movers, yet there is still element of improvisation. How does spontaneity, as well as the prevalence of awkward, suspended, and supportive gestures inform your work?
TE: With the performances, I create situations where the performer can respond. That’s where the improvisation comes from. It’s important to me that the performer I’m collaborating with will bring in their own movement, language, and physical history, so they’re not trying to learn something new that they impose on their bodies, but that it actually reveals something that’s inherent to them and unique to where they grew up and how they learned to move in the world.
The structure is fixed and usually the performances start like a sculpture, a composition. For every performance we work with performers who create a similar shape, but after the initial structure is created, the way they interpret the task when they’re moving is personal. I’m very interested in this personal interpretation, so it was a real pleasure to work with the students from the UNLV Dance Department, who were very open, susceptible, curious, and also professional and physically capable. They grasped the instructions quickly, and it was interesting to see how they, after learning the piece in only five days, adapted it to this particular scene. How they think about being trapped in a bubble and move when they’re on the grass at UNLV on a Friday night. What is there about this time and location that makes it unique and different than if it’s a mover who is performing it in Times Square?
AD: There seem to be specific gestures not only in your performances, but also throughout the sculptural work - such as two hands supporting a banana or soft sculpture cradling an orange.
TE: The gestures embody movement even though the sculptures are traditionally meant to be fixed or still. These moments of support are capturing a gesture that would be brief, making it last. Or including lights with motion sensors that turn on and off - these things are brought into a sculpture to resist its stillness and suggest movement.
AD: You’ve said that the objects used in performances have a different status than sculptures. Can you explain the hierarchy you’ve established in this regard?
TE: I differentiate between props used for performances that are durable and replaceable, and a sculptural piece which takes many months to create. There may be parts of them that are readymades and the readymades are replaceable, but the pieces themselves have a different importance for me. When we shipped the work for this exhibition, there were two separate shipments, one of the sculptures, which is packed and moved as fine art and there was another shipment just for the materials of the performance, which was without the extra insurance. When the museum received everything they opened the performance materials wearing special gloves and sent pictures of scratches and damages for the hula hoops, chair, and other props to ask if this was ok. Which was funny because we’ve been using them throughout the performances and they’re meant to be used, but the same scratch on a sculpture would actually be a big deal. There is a different care and relationship with these materials.
AD: Throughout your work I’ve noticed a recurrence of found objects, parachutes or hot-air balloons for instance, that fail to meet their potential. How would you describe the nature of your relationship with failure? And humor?
TE: I’m interested in thinking about purpose in regards to the formal qualities of objects. If you know something is a chair, then what else can you do with this object? If a chair is very weak and can’t support the weight of a human, then it’s function is not possible anymore. But then maybe there is something else you can do with the same shape that doesn’t require holding that much weight, for example. That’s where humor comes in, because you have more freedom to think about objects without labelling; if you don’t think about purpose in a linear or familiar way, there are different possibilities. When there is a clear expectation of what you want from an object and this expectation fails, then what do you do? That’s always an interesting question for me, kind of like a plan B.
AD: Can you talk about your ongoing interest in hot-air balloons? What is their relationship to parachutes?
TE: That’s actually interesting in the context of purpose and failing. After I graduated from Yale I travelled around the US and researched hot-air balloons and balloonists. I was interested in people that make their own balloons, not for commercial purposes. I interviewed and flew and chased them. Most simply, hot-air balloons have the same shape as parachutes, but they go up - a simple reversed operational change in the movement direction. I was curious why people who have day jobs that are not about ballooning are interested in this sport. What kind of need does that fill? Hot-air ballooning is a random sport that doesn’t progress humanity in any way; we already have planes and there are much more effective ways to fly. One reason I found is that hot-air ballooning is a communal sport, you need a group of people to do it. There are a lot of ritualistic aspects to it. People wake up very early in the morning, they assign roles, and open a bottle of champagne at five in the morning after the first flight. There is a lot of social interaction that happens around this object which is not related to the original purpose of a hot-air balloon, which is to fly. I saw it in the same way as the purposes of objects and fulfilling them - the purpose of this hot-air balloon wasn’t to fly, it really didn’t matter, it was about doing something - anything, together.
AD: Works that were shown separately in the previous exhibitions Alula In Blue, The Yellow Who Wants, and Eat a Pink Owl, and your latest series (related to orange/joy) now share the same space in Jubilation Inflation. Could you speak a bit about this most recent work?
TE: One of the things I’m most excited about in this show is that these works I’ve been creating for five years now exist in one space. All of the inflatables, which I’ve been making one each year, have never been next to each other, so seeing them all together creates a different effect. I’ve been developing this body of work organically for the past five years and each time I added another element. This is the first time I was able to install it as a more cohesive visual experience. I’m very grateful to the Barrick for enabling me do that in such a beautiful space and show all the work together.
The newest works are soft sculptures from the orange year, which also have technological components. They were based on people in my life and have the names of my sister or close friends. A lot of the previous work was about relationships and the other emotions that are directed externally, like understanding the body by its contour. This year I wanted to separate the self and consider an emotion that is not dependent, but independent. And sculptures that are self-sufficient, and embody movement. The object you mentioned from the blue year, the two hands holding a banana, was about the support of the banana by two objects. Or the photograph with the tomatoes between our legs was about pressure that keeps an object in place, pressure from both sides. The new orange pieces are singular and I see them as in a state of transformation.
AD: You seem to be willing to allow all of your work to have an ongoing, living narrative rather than a fixed one. Is that accurate? One example that comes to mind is Screwed Pink Helmet. For this exhibition, the sculpture sits on a pedestal and viewer interaction is now encouraged, whereas previously it rested on the floor in Eat a Pink Owl.
TE: Yes, it’s very important for me to keep the work flexible, responding to each space as it exists in a new way each time. For example, The Hugger, which is meant to hug a column in its original installation, is here on the wall of the small center gallery and is spread between the inside and the outside, so the legs are on the inside of the gallery and the arms and the rest of the body are on the outside. It’s the same for me as thinking about humans and how we need to adapt to a new environment; I want the sculptures to be site-specific and take the liberty to install them in different ways. The inflatables are completely shaped by their environments. In a smaller gallery they can get squished between walls or into a corner. The blue inflatable was installed this summer at Art Omi sculpture park, outdoors in an open space, blowing in the wind and anchored by weights. Here at the Barrick, they are placed one next to each other and the pink inflatable is squished in the entrance to the center gallery, so the audience can’t enter. It has an aggressive nature.
AD: Can you talk about your decision to include video works by Alika Cooper, Cheryl Donegan, Trulee Hall, Joan Jonas, and Jen Liu in this exhibition? Why do you gravitate toward these particular works and how have these artists influenced you?
TE: I wanted to use this stage to bring other works I love. I’m not a curator so the collection has the logic of an artist selection. Joan Jonas' Reanimation - epic and complex yet so simple, playful and moving, which touches upon questions of spirituality, theology and individualism. Cheryl Donegan's Cheryl, a piece I keep coming back to over the past ten years: a desperate enthusiastic motivational speaker which in addition to its critical examination of consumer culture, always makes me think about the ridiculous process of making art. Alika Cooper's Chthonic/Ivy, which she shot when we were at the Marble House residency together. Starring choreographer Ivy Baldwin, this piece captures Alika's painterly sensitivity with this eerie feeling of uncomfortableness and danger. Jen Liu's Pink Slime Caesar Shift: a political, thought-provoking piece about labor conditions which is full with absurd, imagination and beauty. And last, the playful and lively Trulee Hall, The Blue Fertile: six pregnant ladies ritual/dance painted in blue holding golden eggs, kinda says it all.
I’m especially interested in these works in the context of the #metoo era, when shame is transformed into power (the good kind of power). While everything hurts and triggers, it feels like a new vocabulary which is more fitting to discussing trauma is being developed. I see these works - made by women with women's’ bodies/voices - separately and together, as encompassing an inherent, yet subtle, resistance to social structures that allow assault and abuse. These videos deal with the vulnerability of women’s bodies with humor, playfulness and optimism, they aren’t didactic (though sometimes we need didactic, yeah) and they don’t water it down to make it easy. They exist in the multi-layered, dense, ambiguous experience, are gutsy without being flashy, and despite them “staying with the trouble” and dealing with pain, they are uplifting. And, I find they all have this child-like, almost naive, conviction in art and deep commitment to the creative process.
Often as artists become more prominent, preparing for upcoming exhibitions in the studio can become a deadline-oriented process and inevitably alter the nature of the work. Do you find yourself confronted with this issue?
TE: Deadlines can also be helpful with procrastinating, they force you to focus all your energy and resources on one project. I see my students respond to deadlines on the assignments - it’s amazing to see how an idea can mature into existence in a few weeks. My projects always take many years, I marinate on an idea and objects for a long time. I have moments of pause and this is how I think about exhibitions. After an object is with me, sometimes even for a few years in the studio, it changes shape; there is a moment of stillness when it performs and then it goes to an exhibition. After that it can come back to the studio and become something else sometimes. For example, the photographs that are in the exhibition, some of them were printed and shown in the past in different contexts. Here, when I finished the entire project, I thought of them as one series and reprinted them together and they’re shown leaning on decorative potatoes. The audio wall in the exhibition contains all of the sound pieces that we worked on with the performances and videos. Each was presented on its own in the previous years. In that sense, exhibitions function as an organizing mechanism for things that are flowy and in state of change. I saw Arlene Shechet speak about time in her work; she said she made works for the amount of time she had, so the sculpture became a sort of timekeeper. I like that.
You’ve attended many residencies, including The Watermill Center, MacDowell Colony, and Caldera Arts Center. How do you typically approach your time as an artist-in-residence and in what ways have these experiences impacted your practice?
TE: Residencies are very important for my creative practice. I usually go with one project I’m working on and want to develop, or things that I can’t make in my studio. For example, at the Marble House Project I sewed the orange inflatable and sewed the blue one at the Fountainhead Residency. Sometimes in order to have this big object and inflate them or an extensive rehearsal process like the one we did at The Watermill Center, having a residency is necessary.
Also an important part of residencies has been experiencing the space and the other artists, working near other people that I wouldn’t work next to otherwise and learning from them, having conversations about art and making. And especially working with interdisciplinary artists, like the poet Rose McLarney who I met at MacDowell. Years later she sent me a poem she wrote about my work, which we wrote on the main wall in the gallery and used for the name of this exhibition. Sometimes it feels like a lot of us are dealing with the same questions but the form is different. Seeing what problems other artists are dealing with in their work and how they solve these problems is one of the best parts of residencies. Seeing someone’s work in an intimate way (not in a museum show or gallery) and spending a lot of time with it is not possible to do otherwise. And of course, friendships!
AD: Do you have any upcoming projects, residencies, exhibitions, or other news you’d like to share?
TE: I just got back in the studio and I’m very excited to start developing the final performance of this project, that will premier at Pioneer Works in the beginning of the summer. I’ve never worked with text in one of the performances, so this will be the first time that the movers will speak the short stories that I write. My previous studio was an abandoned pool four stories below Times Square; I was thinking a lot about water over the last two years because the space I was working in was previously all water, while also dealing with a lot of flooding, mold, and other problems you have when things are wet, and I ended up taking that as a formal theme for the next piece.
I’m also starting a multidisciplinary educational project with poet Pamela Hart at Katonah Museum in which we’ll create poetry and choreography with kids from Yonkers in response to the exhibitions.
Tamar Ettun is a sculptor and a performance artist based in Brooklyn, New York. She has had exhibitions and performances at The UNLV Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art, Art Omi Sculpture Garden, The Watermill Center, e-flux, Sculpture Center, Knockdown Center, Madison Square Park, Bryant Park, Socrates Sculpture Park, Indianapolis Museum of Art, The Jewish Museum, Uppsala Art Museum, Fridman Gallery, Braverman Gallery, PERFORMA 09, 11 and 13, among others.
She has received awards and fellowships from The Pollock Krasner Foundation, Franklin Furnace, MacDowell Fellowship, Marble House Project, RECESS, The Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Art Production Fund and Iaspis. Ettun founded The Moving Company, an artist's collective creating performances in public spaces and a social engagement project with Brooklyn teens hosted by The Brooklyn Museum. Ettun received her MFA from Yale University in 2010 where she was awarded the Alice English Kimball Fellowship. She studied at Cooper Union in 2007, while earning her BFA from Bezalel Academy, Jerusalem. She teaches at Columbia University School of the Arts, Lehman College, and The New School Parsons School of Design. ORANGE, the final performance of the tetralogy will premiere at Pioneer Works in 2019.
Andreana Donahue a multimedia installation artist, writer, and artist advocate. She has organized and exhibited in group and solo exhibitions in Alaska, Chicago, Iceland, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, and Nevada. Her project-based practice spans diverse media and concepts, yet reflects an ongoing relationship with the transformation of found materials through labor-intensive, analog processes; recent work reflects a deep engagement with abstraction, the history of quilting, and a re-imagining of its utilitarian traditions. Artist residencies include The Icelandic Textile Center, SIM in Reykjavik, The Weaving Mill in Chicago, Wagon Station Encampment at A-Z West, 100 West Corsicana in Texas, and the Vermont Studio Center. Donahue is the recipient of an Arts Writers Grant (2018) from The Andy Warhol Foundation/Creative Capital, Nevada Arts Council Fellowship (2018), among other grants and awards. In addition to her studio practice, Donahue co-founded the interdisciplinary endeavor Disparate Minds with collaborator Tim Ortiz; their ongoing advocacy efforts include curatorial projects, exhibition reviews, essays, interviews, and lectures dedicated to discussing the work and creative processes of marginalized contemporary artists with disabilities.