Samy D and Ronen Sharabani
April 1st - June 7th
Hachava Gallery, Holon, Israel
A conversation between Samy D, Ronen Sharabani, and Noam Segal
Noam This exhibition is a first collaboration between you, which hopefully will lead to more such work. You first met as neighbors, in adjacent studios, and from there the collaboration was born. For Samy, this is a first collaborative exhibition, while for Ronen it is the second. Some of the objects in the exhibition were actually created by both of you. This shared process of losing your personal sense of authority, which comes about when you surrender yourself to the collaboration, is actually reflected in the exhibition itself. To a certain degree, the image of the child as an optimistic figure, creatively autonomous and independent, somehow gets flattened after a certain process of socialization, of maturing and belonging to the group. You describe a process of losing one’s individuality. But it’s actually not a loss of individuality, but rather more like the deceit hidden behind the possibility of consolidating one’s individuality, isn’t it?
Ronen In our collaborative work we penetrate into each other’s private space – the studio. This naturally begets an internal politics. So the issue of deceit, or visibility, does arise, as well as the question of how you negotiate with yourself and your partner.
Society has a vested interest in individualism, since as a system it wishes to preserve a feeling of freedom. Sometimes it’s deceitful. In collaborative work there’s something that’s different; even if Samy isn’t there it feels like there’s constant mutual influence and correlation. He’s present. None of the items that are created is just his or mine, and things can find their way in ‘deceitfully,’ or cunningly, and only in hindsight I’ll notice them. It happened to me also in the last collaborative project in which I took part. It was site-specific, and in the end when we erected the work in its assigned space I saw it for the first time. When it was on exhibition it wasn’t mine, it took on a life of its own. I think that the same is going to happen here too. Even when I think about my ‘own’ works in the exhibition, I’m constantly in self-reflective mode, there are interruptions, interventions, by Samy’s work and our dialogue. The thing about deceit is that it streams in on frequencies which you can’t directly grasp – which is neither good nor bad, but just the way our personality is formed, by external agents, who play with me in a way I can’t even sense.
Samy Even though I was always perceived as an individualist, I realize I’m not one. I realize I’m part of the environment, my own environment, which I create, which I enter. Sure, you can see it in relationships. Of course there’s deceit here, because you let an idea trickle into you even if you don’t necessarily want it.
I’m more of an extrovert than Ronen, and some works of mine in the past were pure provocations, like taking an image of female exploitation and transferring it onto men. It was based on my desire to shift attention to male exploitation, which still exists today in a significant way, in my opinion. In hindsight I realized it was pure provocation. In our collaborative work too there’s a great deal of provocation, which appears in the way the charred children stir up holocaust connotations – that’s provocative.
Ronen Here, you see, this is exactly that socialization, you don’t mean to provoke and you adopt meanings that society forces on you. Imagine you’re a child, all these meanings sink into your consciousness deceitfully, covertly, they constitute and structure the lens through which you see the world. Social norms control you, and you’re not even aware of it. As an adolescent you think you’re aware of everything, and only when you mature and become an adult you realize how things trickle in cunningly, how many things and agents exist of which you’re not even aware, alongside those of which you are aware.
Noam: Let’s talk a little about the works in the exhibition – totems, prayer wheels, and dancing circles are all related to faith. Next to these are motifs related to the golden calf and the binding of Isaac. It seems like the exhibition sets out to study these mechanisms of faith, as structures within which we work, almost despite ourselves. In the social context too you present a few ‘socialization sites’ – musical chairs, the sandbox, tables and chairs and the choreography which they demand of us. A first, superficial impression, would be that there’s a suggestion here to contrast between ‘religious’ and ‘social’ structures; but actually, you present both structures as identical. In the sense that both impose on us a certain order, and subject us to a certain form of behavior. Is there criticism here, or just a presentation of things as you see them?
And before that, I can’t help asking, are you religious, or conscious atheists?
Samy I come from a very atheist family, but at 6 I suddenly became kind of religious, I started keeping kosher and wearing a kippa and demanded that my mother do the same. I also prayed, without knowing how it’s done in Judaism. A month later it passed, and I became Christian. I start genuflecting and asking for a Christmas tree. My mother was dumbfounded.
Today, as an atheist, I don’t think there’s a strict separation between things in terms of religious or social structures; there are rituals and ceremonies in all our daily activities. There are certain mechanisms that make you feel like an actor, or like a pawn in somebody else’s game. But I come into this playing field in a very conscious way, knowing who I am and what I am. The same is true for social structures; even in academia, for example, you’re a player, you have your part, but it doesn’t mean that you identify yourself with or believe in this system.
Ronen Rituals and ceremonies are certainly prevalent outside religion as well. It’s an inescapable part of our life. I have faith, and am very connected to the Jewish tradition. A ritual for me just means generating definitions that break out of your practical conceptual tools. That is, it’s a way in which you generate your own conceptual tools. I’ll explain. Take, for example, “Thou shalt not take then name of the Lord thy God in vain”. When we deliberately refrain from invoking God’s name, we generate a separate sphere of consciousness and awareness for a very specific thing, we create something. I think the whole thing about the ritual is that it gives birth to something. That space, between your fear of being just a cog in a system that defines you and your desire to take part in something greater than you – that’s where individuality is hatched. In our discourse it’s very common to talk about ritual and religion. The relations between religion and the state make everything very loaded and strident. Clearly the two worlds intersect and we often don’t notice that we’re in two parallel rituals. Our collaboration in this exhibition traverses these dichotomies. Rather than parallel, they’re congruent. Reality, which we grasp as such, is a requirement to play the game, and it is our first daily trial.
Noam How does critical thought square itself with your faith?
Ronen Yeshayahu Leibowitz explains why the Jewish people didn’t originally have a king. The people demanded a king, but God didn’t want them to have one. The reason is that any form of politics corrupts, any framework of control has the potential for corruption and loss of control.
On the personal level, I’m at the point today where I’m aware of the tension between being part of any schema of control or self-control and searching to consolidate an individualism founded on the values of freedom and justice. Leibowitz talks about a state which is nothing but a managing instrument, and mustn’t be anything else, because it would lead to corruption.
I like to draw a parallel to the experience of the Jewish people when they “saw the voices”.1 Their senses were all confused, they were in an ecstatic state, yet each one saw it differently. There’s also the risk of getting hooked on the ecstatic state, which can blind you. The secret is to identify the moment where you become part of a whirlwind of motion in which you no longer believe.
Tradition can be a very silly thing, a preservation of obsolete structures. I struggle with this question all the time. Once, in Kibbutz Ein Shemer, I met a blacksmith. He was busy flattening nails. All the other workers and smiths told him there’s only one way to flatten a nail, and it’s a complicated process that involves five steps. The blacksmith decided he was going to find a different way and so he did, he perfected his own technique to flatten nails, while of course betraying the tradition.
So he improved the process, but the nail is no longer the same nail. It’s a different object, with a different balance. A tradition evolves along an extent of time longer than any individual’s timespan. It’s something much greater than any of us. When I observe a ritual which I believe has existed for 2000-3000 years, it connects me to something greater than me, and that’s very significant for me.
Noam Could you talk about the esthetic decisions you made in the exhibition? There’s a combination of concrete and platinum coating, and sand and gilded colors; would it be correct to say they match the blending of worlds you’re trying to present?
Samy The choice to work with platinum rather than gold (in contrast to the way in which I usually use gold) was because of its different qualities. Platinum reflects coldness, it reflects the person, it’s like a mirror, and because of the reflections it generates, it distorts the viewer’s form. By contrast, gold is very warm, and produces a barrier between the reality in which we exist and the reflections. Gold suggests self-conceit and exaggeration, qualities which I wanted to avoid. It was very important for me to take the gold out of ‘The Golden Age’. In this way, the name of the exhibition annexes completely different layers, free of background noises and conceptually sharpened.
In other works in the exhibition we use burnt bronze, which produces a look of charred figures, alluding to the ruins of Pompeii. Our idea was to make the thing’s shell present, the product of the inertial force of motion, which leaves us in place and prevents us from advancing.
The decision to work with concrete came from the familiar grid pattern of Israeli cemeteries, which prepare graves for burial. The grids create a map of upper and lower worlds. The horns, I thought, were everything that happens above. The grave is a lower world, and the horns belong to the upper world. The idea was to externalize the dichotomy of upper and lower, of aggression and the nature of power struggles.
Since each reflective experience is different, self-reflection is also different. Platinum blurs the object itself, which becomes almost unrecognizable at first glance. The charred figures also take on a pixeled quality, where the farther you go away from them, the clearer the picture becomes. That’s how I’d like the material to affect the viewer.
Regarding video, as a medium, sometimes it functions to displace a situation, to film reality in a definite way. But by screening it onto the columns at the entrance exhibit, we were trying to convert material reality into a kind of spiritual (but not ghostly) entity. To make the uncommon possible. The screenings onto the sandbox point to that same spirit of memory; I believe that our entire relation to the world, as adults, comes through our memory, for better and worse.
Ronen Experiences which I had as a child have now become memories of experiences I had as a child, and it changes the experiences themselves – that’s the problem with memory. A child still doesn’t have mental baggage, everything is still an experience that can be sculpted, and when we observe a memory there’s a spirit of the memory and the processed memory – our impressions of the original memory function as a part of a more complicated, accumulating, heavy array.
From a material standpoint as well, if you think about concrete, which was a basic, skeletal, constructive material, which originated in a sense of absence – well, today it has become esthetics. Concrete, as a basis, was important for us. It becomes another manifestation of our subject, of the inertia of things.
1 “And the entire nation saw the voices, and the flames, and the sound of the shofar and the mountain all in smoke, and the nation saw and shook and stood at a distance” (Deuteronomy 20:14).