New art. Not old, used art.

Interview with SWAP artist Efrat Klipshtien

Installation view of Red Winged Black Bird (detail), 2009 by Efrat Klipshtien

A few days after the opening of her SPACES installation, Red Winged Black Bird, SWAP artist Efrat Klipshtien talked with arts writer Eleanor LeBeau. Klipshtien works as a graphic designer and tour guide at Israel Zoo and Safari in Tel Aviv;her artwork is based on plants, animals and geography. Red Winged Black Bird is a magical environment that conflates plant and animal life, and is simultaneously lunar, earthly and aquatic. Black, glossy cone-shaped sculptures that sprout from the gallery floor suggest termite hills, stalagmites, coral—or even mold colonies, as viewed under a microscope. Etchings on green metallic paper of seaweed-like plants with long, feathery tendrils loop and sway in an underwater current, or are they an undiscovered fern species reaching for the sun’s rays? The terms (and binaries) we use to define things in the natural world collapse in Red Winged Black Bird, where everything is emergent and indeterminate.

On April 11 you introduced yourself to the community with a lecture about your work and a performance. Please tell me about the performance.

The dance performance was connected to my lecture and was about changing the moment or the situation from everyday [life] to an atmosphere of magic, music and dances. There were eight to 10 dancers from Viva Club [the Viva Dance! Studio in Cleveland] and I think from other clubs in the area. They were part of the audience; they sat and listened to the lecture like everybody else. When I finished my lecture, an Announcer stood up—he was also part of the audience—and said, “Thank you for coming…Now we will start the Ballroom…” He was the change between the lecture and the ballroom [the beginning of the performance]. And when he did it, a band at the back of the stage started playing swing music. The dancers [in the audience] stood up and moved to a big dance stage and started dancing. All the other people were surprised because they didn’t expect anything and they wanted to go home. So, in the beginning the audience just watched the dancers. The lights were changed from stark fluorescent to a warm light. When the first dance finished, the dancers invited people in the audience to dance. Everyone started dancing. It was magic.

So the audience became participants. How many people were in the “real” audience?

About sixty. When people arrived for the lecture, we took their names. After the Announcer gave his statement, the band started to play and the dancers started to dance, and he started calling the names [of each person in the audience]; it took him something like fifteen minutes to read all the names loudly, clearly and slowly. When he finished saying the names of all the visitors, the fact that they were in the space—this is what makes the magic. When he finished reading the names, the performance was finished. The music stopped; the stark lights came back on back on; the band left the stage; and the dancers changed their shoes. He [the Announcer] gave the time; he was the rhythm.

Tell me about Red Winged Black Bird.

Red-winged blackbirds were one of the first birds I noticed here in the area. When I asked someone the name, it sounded like “Red Winged Black Bird.” I didn’t know there was a hyphen [in red-winged], and I didn’t know “blackbird was one word.” So it [the bird’s name] sounded like a poem, like haiku. It set a scene for me. And when I worked on my exhibition, to me the poem fit the atmosphere of my space.

How did the installation evolve?

Usually the things that interest me, or move me, are the materials that I am working with. They like to lead me to a sculpture or an installation. I try to listen to them, to go with them, and not try to fight them. So I was working with plaster and made the black sculptures and the green ones, and when they stood in the studio, in this environment, they reminded me of nature. It doesn’t matter what the material is, I’m always making nature, or I am talking about nature.

How did you decide what materials you would use for your SPACES project?

I started working with the same materials here that I was working with at my house for the last three or four months. I’ve wanted to learn more about plaster and stretch the material. I had a bigger studio here and wanted to experiment.

How did the black and green sculptures in your installation emerge?

[Gently laughs.] I really don’t know. I just know sometimes I have the figure or the shape in my mind and I look for the material to make it come true in a way that will interest me. I work with the plaster, and I discovered that I can work with it in a different way. I discovered that I can push plaster and use it as a soft material that you can capture, because usually plaster is used for very functional things like building houses. So here I took plaster to the poetic side of things.

How did you achieve the icing-like effects on the green sculptures?

I added glue to the plaster and it became more flexible, and I pushed the plaster through the pastry bags you use for decorating cakes. I had to be really patient, and it took a lot of time-one drop next to each other.

How did you make the squiggly red forms that seem to be emerging from, or boring into, the green sculptures?

Those are glass. I made them in Israel and brought them with me. I made them by working with glass in the same way [that I worked with the plaster on the green sculptures]. I didn’t know what I was going to do with the red glass when I brought it, but I wanted to bring a few things with me from my studio in Israel.

Can you talk about the etchings mounted on the walls?

The paper has a [top] layer of green metal material. I discovered that if you are very, very careful, and scrape very gently, there’s a silver layer under the green layer, and under the silver layer is white paper. So if you use a very sharp knife, you can use the green or the silver or the white layers [in the etching]. I played with it for fun.

How would you describe Red Winged Black Bird?

[Pauses.] As a creation of a landscape, or nature, or a garden. Those associations, I think, can describe this exhibition.

What else?

I used available glamour. Like shiny black paint [for the cone-shaped sculptures] and metal green [for the etchings] and aluminum foil [for the branch-like sculptures]. This simple glamour—it’s not cheap glamour. I’m not using the right words in English, you must forgive me. If you would speak in Hebrew, it [our conversation] would be more sophisticated, my ideas would be sharper, because it is hard to discuss these concepts in English.

I understand. It must be a challenge to discuss abstract concepts in a second language.

It’s interesting, because the first association you have with glamour isn’t nature. Nature has glamour, but most of it is connected to animals, not flowers and trees. Like in the sea there are shiny things, but not silver shiny. The peacock is shiny, but he does not have silver in his tail. He is shiny but not like aluminum foil. I bring the connection between materials that are shiny in an artificial way and nature. These shiny materials are connected with dream or fantasy—this is the connection. In the work, I never used wood or anything real from nature. I don’t use very complicate materials in my work. I use things that you can find everyday—paper, plaster, aluminum foil, paper clips, the kind of modeling clay that kids use. My point is to find the glamour and magic in everything—in the things we use everyday.

Is your SPACES installation a response in any way to your experience in Cleveland?

No, I don’t think so. I started working on it a very short time after I arrived [on March 30]. I don’t think this exhibition is reacting to the area, except maybe the materials. I used local materials, like the roofing tiles for the floor [of the installation]. We don’t have those materials in Israel. I liked it because it looked like asphalt, like a street. It has a texture and it’s something you want to touch. At first people wonder what it is. I like the enigma of it. But this visit and working here will do something to my art, maybe it’s starting to do something, but it takes time.

Let’s talk about the work you’ve exhibited in Israel.

I like to work with ready-made objects. Sometimes I change the objects a bit, like in Handle with Care (2004) [see Efrat’s bio page on SPACES’  Web site]. It’s a huge net made from paperclips. It was an installation for the Yanko Dada Museum in Israel. Again, it’s very shiny. Simple glamour. If you use one paperclip, it’s nothing. But I used more than 60,000 paperclips to make the net.

How long did it take you to make it?

Actually, I wasn’t working by myself. I always use a lot of people around to help me make things. Most of the objects that I make are built from a lot of pieces connected together, like all the people around me, working together with me.

Did you have help with the branch-like net made out of aluminum foil in your installation here?

Yes, I had a lot of help here. Usually I don’t like to use paid studio assistants. Most of the time I ask for help from my friends or family. I have a big open house or a party for 24 hours. Everyone can stop in anytime they want; there’s food, drink, music [shows pictures of people making the paperclip net.] Very happy mood. And they can work with a lot of people around them. I’ve been doing this art for four or five years, so everyone knows everyone and they can joke…So the paperclip net was used in this installation

[shows an image of Handle with Care (2004)] and you see three tripods under the nets with alt recorders mounted on top of them. It looks like microphones, or maybe guns—you know in Israel, everybody sees guns everywhere—or telescopes. You think about sound, when you look at them, but there was no noise in the exhibition.

You’ve also worked with large truck tires, also ready-mades, and transformed them in some way.

Yes, I’ve used tires in several works. Here’s Untitled (2006) [large truck tires stacked vertically, like a totem]. You can see how the tires themselves are shiny. And in the treads I put blue modeling clay, so you can see the beautiful different designs in the tire treads. These are things of beauty, of glamour, that we never see, that our eyes never stop to look at. And those smooth, worn areas of the tires tell a story. I like that, too.

You’ve transformed tires into aesthetic objects, but are they also intended to signify political conflict or guerilla resistance?

That’s [the tire burning in Israel] the seventies and eighties. Now they bomb buses. To do art in Israel, you never do art with any connection to the political situation. You just can’t do it because you live it. I don’t think of myself as a political artist. Maybe I react to the political situation, but it isn’t conscious.

Why can’t you do art related to the political situation in Israel?

I’m not saying that I can’t do it. Maybe I do sometimes. I’m sure it must be in my work in some way.  But if you’re an artist, you can’t do art [about a relationship] when you’re right in a relationship and living the situation every day.

You have BAs in psychology and geography, and an MFA in Industrial Design. Tell me about your journey from there to here.

Sometimes you find very quickly what you want to do in life, and sometimes you need a lot of options; you need to touch everything. It’s been an interesting journey with beautiful treasures and a lot of fun along the way, but every step was to get closer to the right thing for me. I got a very big scholarship to get my MFA, so I thought I’d do something fun while I was there [in school]. I took sculpture and drawing classes, and after a month, I was in love. It is a big passion. I finished by MFA in ID but it wasn’t the real thing for me.

From an early age I always had a passion to draw and to make sculpture; I worked with ceramics, with clay and a wheel. It was in the air all the time. Sometimes you really need to do some things [in order] to see that the things you really want to do are right under your nose. ID was enjoyable but it wasn’t enough. For my thesis, I developed a low-tech game for children that taught them how to use a map. They need to use their bodies to understand the cardinal directions and the directions right and left. Most children get confused. It’s a creative game  that incorporates psychology, geography and design. In my MFA installation, I dealt with wayfinding, which is a huge subject. For example, how do we find our way into a garden. And maybe my performance are like that: “What will be the distances between the people if they will stand close to the dancers, or the guide, or the performers. Those are the things that interest me.

Tell me about the performances that you choreograph and script in Israel?

I’m doing a family of performances that are tours of nature or sites, like the tours I did when I was in the [Israeli] Army [In Israel, all 18-year-olds must enter the army and  serve three years.] A friend of mine is the tour guide for these performances. I’m using the prototype of the Israeli guide: They are very tall and very beautiful. I don’t know what the rangers look like—here maybe they are all men—but in Israel, usually they are always women. The tour guided are at various sites throughout Israel. I have to learn about each site in order to write the performance script, and I use the information that interests me. It could be ironic or political. Sometimes people don’t think about a place, but if you connect the information for them, to get them to think, not just telling them the facts about a place…In this performance [shows a digital photo of a woman in an official-looking green military shirt and skirt], the tour was at a big [electricity-generating] power station  in Tel Aviv. The guide talked about the connection between men and power—as in we do not have a lot of women in our government. She also talked about how the power station was built by men. She was very ironic. If you went with her to the end of the tour, you’d understand that she was talking about two types of power.

Are the spectators told these “tours” are performances?

No, they don’t know it in the beginning. They follow along because the see a guide and they want to learn more. Every performance has a different theme, but we always use just feminine terms in every performance. In Hebrew, we use different terms to address men and women. And I think there’s a problem in Hebrew, because the grammar dictates that if there’s a group with ten women and one man, you need to speak in male terms. If you are a child in kindergarten with boys and girls, the teacher will speak as if all the students are boys. That really builds perceptions, and the girls are not really aware of it, but they begin to feel like they are always underdogs. The people speak as if the girls are not there, and that’s very problematic.

In these performances, the guide always speaks as if only women are in the group. Men can get very embarrassed, because the men in Israel are very macho. The  tour guide makes the men feel like they are invisible. You know what is really interesting? For the guides, this is the hardest thing to do.

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July 2009



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