Exhibit in London explores hybrid Israeli culture
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Exhibit in London explores hybrid Israeli culture

Well-known Tel Aviv artist Sigalit Landau films the making of the Arab sweet knafeh as an allegory for shared traditions

Sigalit Landau, 'Knafeh,' 2014. Still from video, 16.20 min. (Courtesy the artist and Marlbrough Contemporary)
Sigalit Landau, 'Knafeh,' 2014. Still from video, 16.20 min. (Courtesy the artist and Marlbrough Contemporary)

LONDON — “I want to let the art talk,” says contemporary Israeli artist, Sigalit Landau, whose first solo UK show has opened in Marlborough Contemporary, one of London’s trendy Mayfair galleries.

Landau’s work is known for addressing the complexities of its location and its attempts to build bridges between divided cultures. She has twice achieved the accolade of representing her country at the Venice Biennale, in 1997 and 2011. Examples of her work can be found in many major collections including MoMA and Centre Pompidou.

This small, current exhibition called “Knafeh,” (the name of a popular Middle Eastern dessert made of warm sweet cheese) refers to Landau’s new video work, which is presented here for the first time. It shows the traditional art of making knafeh, which itself is emblematic of shared, regional culinary traditions. The film explores Landau’s continued engagement and commitment to cultural hybridity.

Video is only one medium in Landau’s versatile and eclectic artistic oeuvre in which boundaries and borders, motherhood, land and the body are all reoccurring themes

But video is only one medium in Landau’s versatile and eclectic artistic oeuvre in which boundaries and borders, motherhood, land and the body are all reoccurring themes. The exhibition also displays sensual marble sculptures formed from nursing cushions, photography, as well as sand and salt works. The importance of place is shown by Landau’s specific use of local materials, for example Israeli sand or Dead Sea water and salt.

Landau says she derives stimulation from her environment and this is felt most profoundly in her salt works; items that have gone through the salt crystallization process, a technique whereby Landau literally immerses objects in the Dead Sea and then leaves them to crystallize.

Israeli artist Sigalit Landau (Eldad Karin)
Israeli artist Sigalit Landau (Eldad Karin)

She says that she goes to the Dead Sea in August, when the water is “burning,” and explains that when all the parameters are right — the correct temperature and the right area of the sea — it is surprising how little time it takes for a big crystal to form.

Some objects she uses in her art, a flag for example, are sourced and tested by Landau. Others are self-made, such as the haunting, evocative, suspended rope nooses on display in this exhibition. These “live” objects were still dripping water at the time of viewing in London, still acclimatizing to their new environment.

Also on show is the “The Crystal Dreamcatcher, 2014,” which she describes as “very folkloristic, a symbol for taking away the bad.” In contrast with the nooses, it is an exquisite, intricate exhibit, whose shape and scale echo that of the on-screen knafeh.

Sigalit Landau, 'Erasing #5,' 2011. Inkjet print, 67 x 120 cm. (Photo: Yotam From. Courtesy the artist and Marlbrough Contemporary)
Sigalit Landau, ‘Erasing #5,’ 2011. Inkjet print, 67 x 120 cm. (Photo: Yotam From. Courtesy the artist and Marlbrough Contemporary)

Although Landau now lives and works in Tel Aviv, she was born and grew up in Jerusalem. She says her childhood was full of ideals and optimism. The sweetmeat knafeh “is something to do with childhood bliss and the ideology of my youth.”

She mentions visiting Jaffar Sweets, an institution by the Old City’s Damascus Gate known for its knafeh. But with sadness she says she feels it’s too risky to go to east Jerusalem now.

Crucially for Landau, the dessert represents a culinary bridge between divided communities, between east and west. Her 16 minute video — a reflection of the real time it takes to make the knafeh — was made using 4K resolution, an ultra high definition technology four times the resolution of HD which results in a sharper, clearer picture.

Sigalit Landau, 'Hope,' 2013. Rope suspended in Dead Sea water, 85 x 30 x 18 cm. (Photo: Yotam From. Courtesy the artist and Marlbrough Contemporary.)
Sigalit Landau, ‘Hope,’ 2013. Rope suspended in Dead Sea water, 85 x 30 x 18 cm. (Photo: Yotam From. Courtesy the artist and Marlbrough Contemporary.)

As it was technically difficult to film in his bakery in Acre, the knafeh maker and all of his equipment were brought in to Landau’s studio. Filming took place over the summer during the recent Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Gaza. What begins as a mesmerizing watch becomes slightly eerie and uncomfortable when the sound of a siren is heard. She explains that while filming, the siren had gone off and “so we took the [sound] of the siren that had come in through our window.”

Interestingly Landau uses overhead shots in her video and all her photographs, a technique, she explains, that avoids horizons.

“Looking at a horizon you’ll see a border, you’ll have information,” she says.

Her preoccupation with borders is shown in her photo series, “Azkelon (2011),” shot on the border between Ashkelon and Gaza and depicts young men playing the international game called “Knives,” also referred to as “Countries.” Wherever the knife falls a new line is drawn in the sand. This constant changing and redrawing of lines has obvious political undertones.

Landau’s next project is an ambitious installation concept involving the creation of a crystallized bridge of salt crystals over metal, across a part of the Dead Sea, between Israel and Jordan, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the peace agreement between the two countries.

The project has not yet been given the full go ahead.

Sigalit Landau’s ‘Knafeh’ is showing at the Marlborough Contemporary in London through November 1.

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