Noam Edry Interview Series 2011 Part 1 – A constant battle for the freedom of speech in a web of taboos and envy 23rd July 2011
Your recent MFA graduation show titled ‘Conversation Pieces: Scenes of Unfashionable Life’ at Goldsmiths was incredible to experience in all its complexity. It was a perfectly organized chaos and a feast of paradoxes, which seems to apply to your work in general, correct me if I am wrong. It was unclear for the visitor where the exhibition actually started, with a coffee stand outside, a security guard at the entrance and all sorts of noise.
We kept the Coffee Stand open every single day. It was supposed to be from 12 to 3, but since I had so many Israeli and Jewish volunteers coming, it was sometimes open from 10 sharp to 7. People just stayed on because they enjoyed it so much and they believed in it. Spectators would come to the show and not realize that the Coffee Stand was a part of my show. It looked so run down, messy and minimalist, with all these people wearing my t-shirts saying ”I come from the most hated place on earth”.
Photo: Noam Edry’s father at the MFA Graduation show at Goldsmiths
People thought it was an official bar. They walked into the show with a little glass of coffee that smelled like some kind of perfume, because it had cardamom in it. Already they were taking part in the work. Then they saw people getting a massage and the massage was real, the therapist was real. I told her “It’s your thing; your platform and you can also promote yourself. You’re a real person and it might do you some good as well.” So, they became a part of the work without realizing it and people asked “What is she going to speak to me about?” And I said, “What would you speak to your therapist about?” Eventually they were having conversations about their life, where they come from, their kids, etc. After five days people were talking about sex, bowel movements, their most intimate problems, aches and pains and they would come back to consult with her. I had people coming back the following day, and the day after; “Can you just check up on my ear, my left shoulder?” It became a proper little clinic. They completely forgot they were in an art show; maybe the noise and art in the background gave them a sense of privacy. Some people sat on the chair and said “At first we were totally overwhelmed by everything, the noise level, the work, the richness of it, we couldn’t pick anything out, but as we were getting a massage we relaxed; we went into a different time zone and we suddenly zoned in on one work and decided selectively to take it in. We realized what you were doing; you brought our guard down. Then we were totally ready for your work.”
It also says something about our culture here, doesn’t it? People are able to listen to bombs exploding; to be in the middle of war scenery and just lay down for a massage.
It is really the only thing you can do, but also it is a result of being bombarded with images on a daily basis in the press. These images have no hierarchy, so it is like in the show where you have cheerleaders or the TrannyGranny (works from the show). I took the images from the morning pages, usually from the Metro and Evening Standard, the free papers that everyone reads when they have nothing else to do on their morning commute, and I manipulated them. Because I travel one hour to school every day, I read these papers and you can see bombings in Gaza or Israel doing this or that, alongside sexual content; on the same page. It is entertainment now and read on a very superficial level. Some people feel more or less about it, but it remains on a superficial level. You don’t really experience it.
I agree, and it is like you say, it has become entertainment.
Not for the people that come from there though. I want to explain that; the gap. It is all about the gap. The image I started with is one of a hole, a crater from an explosion. I found it on Google, because I search for images on the internet a lot to see what would come up on British search engines.
So it started with the image of a gap?
I actually don’t really why I initially became obsessed with these images. I think it was because I went to Israel after the Christmas break and saw it with fresh eyes, in January this year. I had a non-Jewish boyfriend then and I took him to Israel. I was hosting him, so I tried to see Israel from his perspective. I kept thinking “What does he see?” And I also realized how beautiful this unfinished scenery is, because in Israel you have loads of Arabic villages and cities and even just tin houses. There are many different sectors of the society and they all build their houses in different ways. Compared to the Jewish houses, which are all very well built and very regular, quite symmetrical, uniformed and finished, you see unfinished Arabic houses on top of each other with no network or structure. They build them themselves because a lot of them are construction workers, with access to materials and know-how. A lot of them don’t get license to build from the councils, so they just build it. They also live on top of each other; a man never leaves the house. He brings his wife to the house and as the family starts growing it gets very crowded. You see cement, unfinished houses with no roofs and you could say it is very ugly or you could say it is very beautiful. I think it is very beautiful; there is something really interesting in this lack of estheticism. I fell in love with this. It is so different to what I see here in London and I was wondering how I could bring that back. So I started looking for photographs of that. I arrived at these demolitions and I found one image which was controversial; it appeared twice on a Google image search. Once it said ”Palestinian house demolished by Israeli rockets” and on another search it said ”Israeli house hit by Arab rocket” or ”Jewish settlers’ home hit by rocket from Gaza”; something like that. It was the same image and I just thought ”Isn’t it amazing how each side wants to be the victim and each side wants it to be their tragedy?”
I took that image and I made a painting of the big crater which I then duplicated a few months later, when I realized I had to make the other side as well. When duplicated by hand it will be clumsy, it will be very human; it will never be perfect or identical. So you could always say it is not really the same on both sides; or is it?
Photo: Alicja Rogalska, All rights reserved
I was going to paint it highly realistically, but I stopped at a very early stage and people started coming into my studio saying “Oh this is so interesting, I can see this guy falling into the hole and this guy talking on his mobile phone and wow there is a child here…” They could see things in the painting; I didn’t actually need to paint it. They were imagining things that were actually more real to them than anything I could ever paint. So I left it there, unfinished. And I thought that if I’m depicting reality I need to have human presence, someone needs to stand there and stare into a hole, almost like an extension of a painting. But I couldn’t have someone standing in my gallery staring into nowhere for the entire show. It is just not possible. And then the idea of Peeping came, this event, I call it Peeping. Where I bring people for one minute of silence to stare into a hole and it becomes real to them. Some people said that when the woman came screaming, she ran straight through the hole; “It ruined everything for me”. I said that’s the beauty, it shows how amazing your imagination is! I didn’t choreograph her. I wanted it to be real, spontaneous. Also, life in Israel is very hectic. People speak on phones at awkward times; they even answer their phone at funerals. There is no limit to… I can’t describe it. But anything could be an emergency, so people always answer their phone. It is also a part of the Israeli rudeness, the upfrontness. In my exam I answered my phone; I said I would give them the real experience. The volunteers were talking to each other in Hebrew and the examiners thought they were interrupting, but we weren’t acting.
The sound I had at the entrance of the exhibition were real voices from the Israeli markets, people screaming ”Come and get it come and get it” and trying to convince people to buy their vegetables.
From there it went on to somebody’s house being bombed, not far from my house. And the voices were people screaming because of a rocket and this blended into a group of people playing accordion and singing a folk song which is a part of our culture. And all these things are random, they have no real order, they could happen at any time and intercept each other; a real reflection of what life is like there.
You did it so well. I am still not over it. I have been to tons of exhibitions in London and what I have been looking for I really found at your exhibition. It is so entirely out of the box.
I have so many ideas, I feel like this is the beginning of something. I have always done everything. I am a painter since I can remember, but from painting everything else comes. And as I mentioned before, the urgency in an unfinished painting really communicates that there is no time, we could die at any minute. The urgency and vibrancy, the multi-facetted Israeli culture which has everything; laughter, tears, hysteria, relaxation, joy; it is all there. So how do I capture it? I don’t have time, so the paintings became less and less detailed, and more and more sketchy. The charcoal was the quickest way and in the end it went from the canvases onto the walls. So it starts from painting. But around it I have video, I perform, because I am also an actress and I need to use that tool and everything has the same hierarchy for me. It is the first show where I have really managed to combine them all in a very, I think, organic way. It wasn’t forced and there is more where that came from. I will work more with people, real people not actors. Real people that I have no control over and I tell each one of them “You have to be yourself”. With my volunteers at the Coffee Stand the original idea was to have a conversation over a cup of coffee, because there is never a conversation in politics. It is just from one side to the other, accusations towards one other; a way of silencing people. Here I wanted it to be relaxed, hospitable, and to generate conversations from what is in the coffee to the Politics of the Middle East. My volunteers kept saying “I do not represent the artist, I represent myself. I am not representing the State of Israel, I am representing myself.” It is all about individuals.
Did they get into discussions with the visitors?
Yes, we had many many discussions. Some were very casual, but there were confrontations as well. People that were very anti-Israeli accused the volunteers of lying to them. But many people walked away changed, because they realized that they had never actually spoken to an Israeli; a real one. They’d never actually been to Israel, so they heard facts they had never heard about and it stopped being about labels and slogans, and it came to be about an individual.
Photo: Anna Stephens, All rights reserved
The most exciting incident was when a man started crying after the performance; the event, the hole-incident. I think it was on Saturday or Sunday. This man had been to the exhibition for about 40 minutes, looking at all the videos and all the material as well as filming. He was about to leave when I turned everything off and started the minute’s silence and after the minute’s silence he stayed stuck in his place.
My father approached him and the man had tears in his eyes and he just said “I don’t know what to think, I feel it here, here (pointing at the heart). It feels heavy. I was actually approached by the Israel boycotters to give a donation to Gaza and I thought it would be received by the people of Gaza and then I realized that it wasn’t going to be used for humanitarian reasons, it wasn’t going to bring supplies to people who need them; I was being used. But now that I have seen your daughter’s exhibition”, he said to my father, “I realize maybe I cannot be human 2000 miles away. I can only be human to people standing right in front of me, because you have made me so moved. I see that you are human and you suffer just as much and you have your own side of the story. And now I don’t know which side to pick.” My father looked at him and said “Why pick a side? Why do you have to pick a side? Just be human, cultivate your friendships. Speaking of sides; that’s the problem.” So that was very moving. It made me feel like I’d done something meaningful and worthwhile, because that’s what it’s all about for me. To see people getting affected and moved by what I’ve done.
I have received so much feedback, people even cued up outside the show to say “We thought we were really stupid. We don’t usually understand contemporary art. Then we come to your show and we feel like we understand. We might not understand everything, but we feel like we can grasp onto something. There is a way in for us as an audience. We don’t understand so much about art, but we are affected. This is overwhelming; thank you.” I love that.
In your video Mitzvah Tantz from 2005, we see a Jewish ceremony intersected with video footage of your belly-dance followed by flashes of an Arabic belly dancer towards the end. Mitzvah Tantz means ‘mitzvah dance’ or ‘commandment dance’ and this is the tradition of the men dancing before the bride on the wedding night, after the wedding has taken place.
There is an air of you struggling towards something, your mind appears to be slightly bothered and interfering with the movement of your body as your eyes stare thoughtfully into space, possibly watching the video while you are dancing. You are lightly dressed in a plain white belly dancing outfit that is designed to evoke desire and passion and to allow the body to move freely without restriction. You have merged the wedding dress with a traditional belly dancing outfit.
How did you learn belly dancing, did you teach yourself or did you study?
Well I knew for a long time that I wanted to learn belly dancing and I don’t know what comes first; my art or my life? Because many times I combine my passions in my art and it is like an excuse to learn something or to go through an experience. I tell myself that it is for the art. For a long time I wanted to make work about belly dancing, but it took me years to feel like I was ready. Belly dancing is very provocative and very erotic. You have to be a woman, you cannot be a girl and I just didn’t feel like I was ready. And then in 2005 for my final year of the BA at Bezalel Academy in Jerusalem, I was determined I would do it. I studied in various studios, under several teachers, but I studied mainly in Jerusalem at a Centre for Dance called Arabesque. After I made this piece in 2005 I became a belly dancer dancing professionally. I was even on TV with it and I taught it as well. I have the funniest stories of ending up dancing on bars, almost falling over all the bottles. One night I was dancing in front of my art teachers by mistake, but they didn’t recognize me. I fell off the bar and landed straight near their table saying ‘”Hi!” They couldn’t believe their eyes! I also made my own costumes, because I didn’t have money to buy professional ones.
Photo: Stills from Mitzvah Tanz, 2005, All rights reserved
When I became a teacher I developed a certain way of teaching combining contemporary dance with belly dancing and Tantra. It is all about freeing your pelvis; your inner woman and your passions. You really have to be freed and I used to be very tight, very in control all the time and I only let myself go when I made art. So it was very hard for me. Eventually, for the video Mitzvah Tantz, I recorded myself learning. What I show in the video is the process of learning; it is not a great amazing sexy dancer. It is a child learning to walk. It is the clumsy awkward movement; it is the body not doing what the mind wants it to do. It is the lack of control and too much control. I would take out the camera from school, position it in front of me in my room and practice, wearing provisory outfits, like a scarf wrapped around me. When I looked back at it, all those moments when my body didn’t do what I wanted it to do; I loved those specifically. I concentrated only on two movements out of the entire dictionary of dance and I repeated them throughout that whole film.
In Mitzvah Tantz, and with my painting at the time, I wanted to show the moment when a woman stops being innocent, when a woman sees that she is being looked at for the first time. The first time a woman realizes that she has a man’s gaze on her and she blushes. The first time a woman exposes herself to a man. I thought “Where is this innocence?” It is kind of lost in Western Society, because in Western Society girls as young as four wear make-up now, so where am I going to find this moment? And I looked for a Moroccan engagement ceremony, because I am also half Moroccan and half European from the other side. Traditionally the brides are young virgins and given away by their fathers to a man that they never really had that much contact with and that night they lose their innocence. However, I wasn’t able to find a recording of that, which lead me to the Hassidic Mitzvah Tantz. That is the moment when the bride is given off by her father or uncle or a male figure in their society to her fiancé. He can’t touch her; he is not even allowed to touch her hands. Only by the use of his belt of the suit is he allowed to physically connect to her. It is a moment when they are meant to contemplate, a few minutes of utter silence and then ecstasy, and they believe that the spirits of the bride’s ancestors descend upon her to bless her for her new life. I looked at it and I saw a woman more naked than me as a belly dancer. I saw a woman covered from head to toe, but more naked than I could ever be, because she is placed in the middle of all these men and it is totally unnatural to her. She comes from a society where she is secluded, where women and men are separated. She doesn’t even look at men and suddenly she has to stand as the center of attention of all these men and all she can do is rock backwards and forwards. She is not allowed to sing or to dance; she has to remain very controlled.
Eventually I thought that at the end of the day, we are very similar. I am a woman who was raised in a Western way, but we’re both Jewish and there is something universal about womanhood where we’re all kind of thrown into it. Nobody really prepares us for the encounter with the opposite sex and how we will be violated in a way, you know, penetrated. We need to expose ourselves. The first time that happens, I read it as traumatic. I wanted to show that. It was like a dialogue between me and her, which is why I placed us parallel to each other. The material that intercepts is autobiographical. A lot of it comes from my sister’s dance troupe, where she danced as a kid. They used to perform Jewish folklore and traditional dance. There are also glimpses my cousin’s religious wedding; it flashes past as she is unveiling herself. It is all about unveiling. There are only girls; there is no man in this video. For me it was about reaching a centre, equilibrium. It’s like the ancient form of ecstasy in tribal dance; the moment of ecstasy, when you reach it, is calm; you reach peace. It is an inner ecstasy. It is about “I understand now, I have had the epiphany.”
Between the years 2003-2004 you studied at Ecole National Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de Paris, as an exchange student in conjunction with your BA Fine Art at Bezalel Academy of Art & Design Jerusalem. ENSB-A is the distinguished National School of Fine Arts in Paris where Degas, Ingres, Monet, Delacroix and many more graduated. The following year, 2005, you produced a dark series of paintings titled ‘Madonnas and She-Devils’ towards your BA graduation. I find that this series echoes what you where expressing in your first year, 2003, but in a refined and intensified manner. And in 2008 you produced some seriously skilled paintings. How did you experience your year as a student in Paris?
I got accepted to do an exchange study program from Bezalel Academy in Jerusalem. They gave me a scholarship and told me I could go wherever I wanted. Originally I wanted to go to Finland, because I have many friends there. But the Academy said that officially they are not going to consider me because I am Israeli.
Yeah. And I was extremely shocked, but thought “OK, it is all for the best. If I can go anywhere I will go to Paris”, because I wanted to study traditional Old Master Painting so badly. I needed the tools and I have always wanted to live in Paris. I studied painting techniques, funnily enough, with an Israeli teacher who had been teaching there for 40 years.
In Paris we have friends, so I ended up living next door to them in one of their flats. I was already speaking French, but in Paris I became really fluent. I worked there part-time as well, as a marketing assistant. It was just amazing to go to a school where I worked with pigments from artists like Louis Pasteur; that he had actually left there. I studied at the same institution where all the great artists had studied and learnt glazing techniques, mixing pigments; how to make everything from scratch; from watercolors to chalks and emulsions. It was just amazing. I learnt how to do glass painting, to make stained glass. And then I came back to Israel with one more year until my end of year exhibition, my BA Graduation Show. I came back with a kind of new set of tools which I wasn’t that proficient with yet and I spent a whole year trying to master these new techniques and to make them invisible; a tool that I could use freely to express myself, but I was constantly interrupted. . To them it was horrendous. Why would a 22 year old girl paint like this? It seemed so easy for me and they were enraged by it. I was painting young virgins, me and my sister, as these young virgins in mid- dance. I was using the folklore dancing of our Kibbutz. It spoke of the agriculture of Israel and the founding of Israeli culture, which was founded on a bit of Arabic culture mixed with European culture; it was a mishmash of everything. To them it also spoke about colonialism and about the Jewish settlement in Palestine and about the occupation. It was political and very sexual. It basically didn’t go down too well.
Were they intimidated by you?
I think so, because there were incredibly strong reactions from tutors and respected artists. I am talking of one of these artists phoning the Head of Department at midnight to scream at him “How can you let this girl do what she wants? This is abhorrent!” Another teacher came into my studio determined “to save me” from artistic suicide. They were elbowing students at my critiques, they were yelling at me and I have recorded it all. It was unbelievable; I was just standing there smiling. One teacher said “But you have painted yourself as a whore! Not as a virgin! Not as a Madonna! Do you realize how erotic these paintings are?” And I just smiled, you know, I didn’t give all the answers away, but I was too young to deal with this kind of critique from artists who considered themselves the artists of the nation of the day. Suddenly a young girl came and stole everything, by painting so easily and proficiently. You know it wasn’t about the technique, the technique was secondary to what I was doing and it was such an eyesore to them. I had the Head of Department patting me on the back saying “Make it bigger! Make it more in their face!” There I was, caught in the middle and I was really boycotted at the end, just like I found myself being boycotted here. I wanted to study in London, but there was also an option of studying a Masters in Bezalel. They would not accept me. Years later they came to my solo show where I showed the series with the Sheepdog (painting). The same teachers came and said you are phenomenal, you are virtuoso; you are an amazing painter. They gave me warm recommendations, but I had already been accepted to Goldsmiths. Now they were shaking my hand and sending me kisses, but when I was 22 I felt crucified in that school. I was so hurt, because I had made something very exposing, real and authentic. I had put myself out there.
Photo: Noam Edry (The Pigman, 2003), All rights reserved
Before I went to Paris I was making work that was slightly more kind of punchy, funny ‘haha’, even ironic in a way. I knew how to manipulate my audience, it was easy for me. I went to Paris and I had an inner change, I really did. I discovered things about myself; it was kind of a mystical experience for me. And when I came back I couldn’t paint these baroque, grotesque things that I had made before. I couldn’t use gold anymore or talk about decadence. I had to peel the layers and talk about something a lot more simple, inner and pure. And I got Shit for that. So after finishing my BA I couldn’t paint for years. I would try painting and I felt like a four year old child, everything came out like scribbles. I didn’t want to go to any art openings and I didn’t want to see these people. So I studied acting, I turned to dance and I became an actress as well as a dance instructor. I made the film with Yosi Ohayon, an amazing script that I will talk about. One day an artist friend called me and said “I need your help, you are the only one who knows about this pigment stuff and I need to learn how to mix.” I went there, put on an apron and started mixing in his studio and mid-way I said “Yoni, I am so sorry but I really have to go now” and I ran to my studio, which was a tiny balcony in my room, where I had locked everything up.
Photo: Noam Edry (Sheepdog, 2008), All rights reserved
That moment I brought it all out. I started painting and I haven’t stopped ever since. It was a really tough time, but it all just poured out of me after that. I no longer had all the voices in my head of my teachers saying “Do this, do that. Don’t do this, don’t do that”.
I think that coming to Goldsmiths I was a lot stronger, I needed that strength. I got the same kind of controversy. I had people coming in to my studio every day commenting about my painting, I got ten people telling me how to finish the paintings and what to paint and what to leave out. My teachers heavily criticized me, especially the painting teachers; they wanted me to universalize my work, to make it less specific, to thin the paint. Even while setting up the show it was hell; although I worked in a secluded area. I kept getting visitors, uninvited colleagues of mine, who had to see what I was doing; telling me “Take down this painting” “Don’t paint like this” ”This one is too much.” I just had to tell them “Please, I need my space. Leave me alone. Good-bye.” At first I rolled up all the paintings and put them away. I phoned my parents in Israel and I said “I have lost myself, I think I am going mad. I don’t know what to do.” My father had to take the phone and literally yell at me “PUT YOUR PAINTINGS BACK ON THE WALL! Do what you planned! Where is Noam? You have had this show in your head for a year now! You know what to do – Do it!” But again it was a question of combating all these people and I asked my friends if they got the same kind of nosing around and they said that nobody came to their studio to interfere. How is it that I attract so much attention before the work is even born?
Because you break conventions and you do your own thing.
Yeah, so it is very hard to always be very strong, but I try to do it, and to have a lot of courage and faith. It is not that I am doing the right thing; I am doing the only thing I can do. There is no other way I can do my work. I cannot think about what will happen and who will see it and what will they think? I can only do what my heart says, because if I lie; I cannot lie. The work will not let me lie. I think it is beyond me, really; beyond me as a person and as an artist.
Photo: Dr Andrew Renton, Head of MA curating at Goldsmiths and Noam Edry, Anna Stephens, All rights reserved
[More on Noam Edry]
Interview Series 2011
Feature on Childhood