Noam Edry – From sharp-edged politics to an S&M club and back again

Noam Edry Interview Series 2011 Part 2 – From sharp-edged politics to an S&M club and back again, 23rd July 2011

A big date (the brown fruit from the date palm) could be seen abandoned in the middle of your gallery at Goldsmiths during yourrecent MFA Graduation Show titled ‘Conversation Pieces: Scenes of Unfashionable Life’. During the Peeping Event, the one minute’s silence, the performer threw herself into the date, where she lay with her legs spread open while the audience held their breath; shocked by the performance. I have been told that there is a history to this enormous date? 

 

Originally the date was created for a performance, called SAVE THE DATE. I made this costume which transformed me into a massive date, because I was talking about boycotting; about boycotting food coming from Israel as a symbol of both academic and cultural boycott of Israelis. I was refused admission to The Finnish Academy of Fine Arts because I was Israeli; that’s an academic and cultural boycott. It is a shame because Art is the way forward towards very amazing things, away from violence, prejudice and so forth. My work SAVE THE DATE was about that.

In the performance I spoke in Arabic and Hebrew. I wanted to give them the experience of facing ‘the Big Other’; being confronted with their own stereotypes and prejudices about people coming from the Middle-East, because they know very well that I am half British and speak fluent English with not such a bad accent. There I was talking like an Israeli, who not know how to speak, like dis. And I spoke in Hebrew, eh, in the middle (talking with a heavy accent). I was also asking questions in Arabic, for example “Shu is mick? What is your name?” (Speaking in Arabic) They were terrified. To me it was about showing a foreigner; how a foreigner feels in their country.

The Date came about, because I had a seminar and I had to present something and I wanted to do a performance. I wanted to sit in front of my colleagues and tell them ‘This is where I come from. This is my story’, because I never managed to. They would always start a political argument with me and I would get defensive, because I felt pushed against a wall. With this performance opportunity I would have a stage for half an hour and I wanted to just talk to them; face to face. The wonderful boyfriend that I had at the time said ‘Oh, that sounds like a terrible idea, who wants to hear your story?’ Instead I decided to dress up as a boycotted Israeli Date while telling my story. That became very controversial, because the second time I performed it in front of an audience in Korea over a webcam, and I needed a live London audience for the buzz and the adrenaline. It got boycotted; maybe three students came from both first and second years of the MFA. The rest of the audience were friends I had invited from outside of Goldsmiths.

I had publicized it so heavily and couldn’t understand what I had done wrong. Two weeks later a friend came round, who had seen the first performance, and told me ‘I was down at the pub and they are still talking about your work. They said they all boycotted it, because you are Israeli and they thought it would be some Zionist propaganda. I tried to explain to them that it is about freedom of speech and tolerance, but they didn’t believe me.’ The posters I had designed for this event had a green and red background, mimicking the anti-Israel propaganda posters. What does it mean to be pro-Palestinian? I am pro-Palestinian, I want a Palestinian state; most Israelis are. I am for a two state solution, not for a no-Israel solution. When I see these propaganda posters everywhere that really demonize my country, I don’t believe that these people are pro anything; since they totally trample on an entire country. It was neither pro nor against, but it fell into the pit of the phenomenon it was trying to raise awareness to. That’s the story.

Photo: Noam Edry, All rights reserved

Photo: Noam Edry, All rights reserved

For my end of year show, I felt I couldn’t perform as the Date because I had to orchestrate so many other events around me; I needed someone else to do it. Save the Date became Date Rape when it was performed during my MFA Graduation Show, because it had both a feminist slant, a sexist slant, while still talking about raping someone; basically silencing someone using force. I was talking about a date, but the date was human and it was about a person who was being forced into a situation. Many times I felt like I was pushed against the wall when people accused me or labeled me because I came from Israel. So I had to have a performer and artist Hannah Jones, who performed it eventually, saw me in my first SAVE THE DATE Performance and she was so impressed that she came to speak to me about it. It was a 15 minute performance and she said “How did you keep the audience at the edge of their seats? For 15 minutes you grabbed their attention. I want to know how you did it.” And we became friends.

When I realized that I needed a lady to run around the Baths Building and outside the exhibition every now and then in a screaming fit wearing a brown body suit, I decided to approach her. I had seen her perform her own works and thought she would be perfect for the part. She is a musician and singer who does really bizarre things with her voice. I saw her last performance two weeks ago. She goes into a box with a wig and sings and then leaves the box, leaving the wig inside. She comes out with tights over her hair, in a way she is naked. You see her without her wig on; it is quite horrific to see a woman like that. The voice carries on singing from inside the box; she just sits there with her bathroom robe and her slippers, with stockings on her head listening to her own voice singing. It’s about stage fright and control and separation, a relationship between performer and spectator. I was fascinated by her work and she was given complete freedom. I only explained the frame of mind to her, just like I do with everyone I work with. I simply want them to express themselves.

On the Opening Night of the show Hannah was so convincing that she was chased all the way into my exhibition by two Goldsmiths security guards, who thought that something had happened to one of the spectators. “Date Rape” never had a fixed route or form, as long as she eventually ended up in my space and lay inside the Date. Sometimes she would even fall asleep inside it. On the last day of the show, she lay in there for so long that people thought she was a sculpture, only then she would twitch in her sleep and frighten the visitors.

Photo: Anna Stephens, All rights reserved

You had a very big group of volunteers at your graduation show, which really added to the overwhelming scenery. Personally I had the feeling of them belonging in the space; the Coffee Stand in front of the entrance had the air of somebody’s kitchen and they were all so involved and comfortable in the space. How did you manage to convince all these people to participate in your show?

People around, some of the other artists, could not believe that I had all these volunteers working for me. I said “Of course they are here to volunteer, it’s because they believe in this. It’s about belief and ideology. The ideology I am presenting is about being read as a human being on a universal level; before using countries, labels, nationalities and putting people in a box. Everyone who came here believes in the freedom to be a human being.” They felt it was like a mission for them. My volunteers were walking around the show because I told them to take a break, walk around; see some art. I want you to see where you are actually placed. They were wearing the T-shirts that I had designed for them. Apparently one day a fellow artist exhibiting at Goldsmiths stopped them and asked “How much is she paying you to wear the T-shirt?” I was hurt, because they didn’t come to ask me if I had paid my volunteers, but they just could not believe it. Most of the people involved in my work even came to thank me for the opportunity to express themselves in this platform. Everyone saw it as a privilege, which is very encouraging for me, very rewarding.

In your video installation ‘If You Go Away’ from 2008 based on graceful dance executed by you and a young girl, we witness the battle between young and adult, one dressed in black and one dressed in white; you exchange the colors of your dresses throughout the video. Innocence meets rapture; it is a classic theme. This is a much more successful production than ‘Black Swan’ from 2010, which can easily be compared with your description of your video, I quote, “It is an account of dissociative identity: multiple dream identities or alter-egos are assumed in order to protect the soul while the body undergoes a trauma. Three distinct identities compete for domination, while a fourth inner-voice tries reassembling them back to form a whole.” (excerpt from synopsis) The notion of this sort of separated or multifaceted identity can also be seen in your painting Sheepdog from 2008, which I by the way need to get my hands on if it is not too late. You are the writer, director and producer as well as the dancer and the choreographer. How do you manage?  

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Photo: Noam Edry, All rights reserved

This work has never been exhibited. It is a work that nearly killed me. It was like a baby that took years to give birth to.

I was into contemporary dance and I studied ballet. I studied it as a tool, because I don’t want to become a dancer. I want to use dance as a language in my art. So, from funding these dance lessons which I somehow managed with the help of my parents, and doing all these weird jobs just to make sure that I could take my dancing lessons; to designing the costumes and making some of them myself, finding the people to film and finding the little girl, Karin Schneider, who is now a young lady; It almost cost me my health I think. At one point I was managing a set of fourteen people, most of them half volunteers and some of them paid something symbolic just to be there, with a location that was given to us free of charge for about a week. It was a massive theatre with a thousand seats that was placed at our disposal. It was in the North of Israel and I was living in Tel-Aviv at the time and this work was filmed on three different locations. The other two places were an S&M club that gave us complete access because they got so involved in my work and really believed in it and in my old nursery school, the kindergarten on my Kibbutz. We turned it into a Mikveh, which is a sacred Jewish bath.

So there were three locations and fourteen people. I had a make-up artist, but I was doing most of the make-up myself, including the little girl’s, and we changed costumes four times a day, as well as changing the make-up. I choreographed it myself, even though I had worked with several choreographers in the beginning. After that was over, for a few months I was totally shattered.

It took me another year and a half before I started editing it, because my painting took off. I had several exhibitions and commissions as well. As a result of this, I started painting really intensively and couldn’t do the editing and I didn’t know how to edit a piece that was so personal; I was in almost every single shot. I had edited all my stuff until then, and this one I was so emotionally involved with. It was such a raw and personal piece that I had to find an editor and this work was, in the end, all done by women. Most of the people on board were women. The men could not handle it; emotionally it was too complex. They didn’t even understand it because they were dazzled by the sexual aspect and the visual aesthetics. They couldn’t work with me; there was too much tension for them. I ended up firing all of them and bringing women on the scene. It went on for years until I managed to make it into a work and it’s a three screen installation which is supposed to engulf the viewer and on top of that it is a one screen film.

 

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Photo: Reut Kersz, All rights reserved

I basically finished ‘If You Go Away’ one day before I came to London. Instead of packing my flat I was editing and I just took it on a hard-drive here to London and it has been lying on a shelf up to now. Because the moment I came here I had to start my Masters Degree and make a switch in my head. I was dealing in my art with being in Britain, not with this inner dialogue of all those elements within me. It’s like a virgin piece, but already on my website and I feel that it is too exposing. Before I have done anything with it, it’s there. That’s the story of ‘If You Go Away’. Again it was originally about the first interaction between a woman and a man. It’s the junction between the feminine world and the male world and how dramatic it is. But eventually there is no man in it, it’s more about longing, desire, childhood and womanhood and the artist who is isolated, because the main character is always very isolated and it is very staged. It’s about always being staged. The camera, as the spectator, is being very intrusive. One of the characters who is the Dominatrix wants the attention, whereas the other characters suffer from it terribly. It eventually kills them. So I don’t know what it’s about. I can’t even say. Is it about male / female encounter? Is it about love? Loss? Art?

It’s about everything; universal and open for interpretation in accordance with your other works. 

It’s a piece that is totally unresolved for me. It is a sensitive piece for me because I don’t know how I feel about it.

Are you ready to exhibit ‘If You Go Away’ in London?

I think I would need to exhibit it. I think it could be amazing because it also has a series of loops. Every single character has tiny excerpts, sometimes it is a one second image that is being stretched, sometimes it is a five second loop or a thirty second loop, but it is a moment. Every character has about four or five of these moments, resulting in another 20 videos that are supposed to be installed in a gallery space and projected in different ways. The viewer will walk into the world where the dominatrix is swinging eternally. You see a close up of her crotch and a very dark facial feature and then you see her in another place, losing her balance. You see the girl shaking the white figure, forever, the hair moving back and forth and the Catwoman, this weird in-between character, constantly positioning herself in front of the camera; never finding her spot. All these loops, they exist; all engulfing. I feel that the viewer always has to been involved in the work.

 

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Photo: Noam Edry, All rights reserved

Let’s go back to your recent MFA Graduation Show titled ‘Conversation Pieces: Scenes of Unfashionable Life’ at Goldsmiths. Did you plan for the paintings, videos and performances to manifest as a whole, or do you work more intuitively and spontaneously? 

I started with painting and it wasn’t that simple. When I started the second year I was still making work about British culture. The entire first year was spent on the project “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”, which you got your hands on somehow.

Yes, in December 2010 you released a series of videos on Youtube under the title ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’, with the mission to meet with the Queen, eat her scones, smell her and to ask her if she loves you. We see you practicing the Queen’s Received Pronunciation, prompting policemen guarding the Birthday Parade for creative advice etc.; the videos are pretty much unedited and direct in comparison with your earlier video works. These works would probably function well together in a Borat style film. 

 

 

I was making work about coming to terms with being half British, half Israeli and never fitting in anywhere. I wanted to fit in, to be not just British but English. My character, which is basically my alter-ego, wants to be a part of this exclusive circle called Englishness. Because she knows that being naturalized is not enough. She still has an Israeli accent which is very identifiable as something foreign. Nobody can put a finger on it, but the first question she is always asked is “Where are you from?” which alienates her. She comes from a little socialist settlement in Israel, where as a child she didn’t even have her own clothes and now she’s in London where real-life princesses live. She wants a part of that as well. She also realizes that she is Jewish, so she could never really be anything but a Jewish princess; she could never be British Royalty. “Why not?” And it is all these questions.

At the same time; the more she tries the more she gets rejected. She also knows that the Queen as a mythological figure is just an ordinary granny at the end of the day and why should she not be accessible? Because in Israel you can meet the President, the Prime minister, greeting the people: “Hi, how are you doing?” It is so informal in this small country where everyone knows where you live and everyone is related or knows each other at least by a fifth degree of separation. We have the Israeli President coming over to our Kibbutz every now and then, because that’s how it works. This whole idea of a celebrity figure that is completely inaccessible is obscene to this alter-ego.

In ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ my alter-ego sets on this journey, but realizes that not only will she never be an English Rose; she mustn’t be an English Rose; because her strength, uniqueness, power and singularity is in the fact that she is Israeli. With a certain set of very deep-rooted values, she is an underdog, like any Londoner is. London is about alienation; about being a foreigner in a capital city. Not belonging. There is no more Englishness, nobody really is English. The Queen is half German, her husband is Greek; what does an English person even look like? This is an island that was conquered by several tribes. Nothing really is authentic. Every culture has been invented. So she should stick to her own roots; because that’s who she is. The character starts clinging to that Israeliness and attempts to bribe a policeman with peace in the Middle-East in return for entering the Birthday Parade, stressing that she is half Israeli half British and she has to come to terms with that dual existence. Anyone can be exclusive; it’s about excluding someone. In her naive way she is highlighting serious issues like class differences and poverty. I have a video where I rehearse for the Royal Tea in my pink slippers, Primark track suit and a Sainsbury’s Basics scone.

 

For that entire year that I was trying to meet the Queen for a private audience, I also collected doors and windows and furniture from squats and evicted squats and rubbish dumps in South-East London; the poorest areas. With this material I built an entire chair that mimicked the Coronation Chair in Westminster Abbey, but it was a chair that came from people’s private moments and memories from their homes, from their less than working class homes, and it showed  a different kind of London. So the work came to communicate the underdog, the class system, an absence, a lack; wanting something. What does it mean to want the Queen to love you? Doesn’t everyone want the love of the Monarch? It is about being the little man. The police video Trooping is also about terrorism and this whole age of CCTV and feeling that threat. So it spoke about all these political issues as well, through the naivety of my character. I know that naivety is very questionable, because I sound like I know what I am talking about and people have asked me “Is this real? Are you acting?” It’s a bit Seinfeld, you called it Borat. Yes, this kind of playing it naive; but knowingly.

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[More on Noam Edry]

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Interview Series 2011

Part 1 – A constant battle for the freedom of speech in a web of taboos and envy

Part 2 – From sharp-edged politics to an S&M club and back again

Part 3 – “I Am the Terrorist”

Feature on Childhood

Born a War Painter

Reviews

Museum of Art, Ein Harod, Israel, 2012

Goldsmiths MFA 2011