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Salt-encrusted art from the Dead Sea lands at the Israel Museum

Sigalit Landau’s work over the last 20 years brings treasures, therapies and worries about the salty wonder to the museum’s galleries

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

  • The wall-sized projection "DeadSee", Landau's 2005 video is part of the 'The Burning Sea' at the Israel Museum through June 2023 (Courtesy Sigalit Landau)
    The wall-sized projection "DeadSee", Landau's 2005 video is part of the 'The Burning Sea' at the Israel Museum through June 2023 (Courtesy Sigalit Landau)
  • A boot submerged in the Dead Sea by artist Sigalit Landau, exhibited in 'The Burning Sea,' at the Israel Museum through June 2023 (Courtesy Yotam From)
    A boot submerged in the Dead Sea by artist Sigalit Landau, exhibited in 'The Burning Sea,' at the Israel Museum through June 2023 (Courtesy Yotam From)
  • Artist Sigalit Landau and her team submerging items in the Dead Sea as part of her artistic process. (Courtesy Shaxaf Haber)
    Artist Sigalit Landau and her team submerging items in the Dead Sea as part of her artistic process. (Courtesy Shaxaf Haber)
  • An embroidered work created for a group project by Sigalit Landau for 'The Burning Sea' at the Israel Museum through June 2023 (Courtesy Sigalit Landau)
    An embroidered work created for a group project by Sigalit Landau for 'The Burning Sea' at the Israel Museum through June 2023 (Courtesy Sigalit Landau)
  • Sigalit Landau's Barbed Salt Lamps at the Israel Museum exhibit 'The Burning Sea' through June 2023 (Courtesy Elie Posner)
    Sigalit Landau's Barbed Salt Lamps at the Israel Museum exhibit 'The Burning Sea' through June 2023 (Courtesy Elie Posner)

Tutus, African masks, fishing nets, barbed wire chandeliers and watermelons dipped in glistening layers of diamond-like Dead Sea salt have long formed the inspirational oeuvre of artist Sigalit Landau.

Landau’s work of the last two decades at the Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth, is at the core of “The Burning Sea,” her new exhibit curated by Amitai Mendelsohn at The Israel Museum, through June 17, 2023.

The exhibit is the largest for an Israeli artist in the last decade, said Mendelsohn, representing an opportunity for the museum, Israel’s largest, to show Landau’s Dead Sea project “in full glory,” he said.

Mendelsohn called the exhibit “a journey, a route of passage from the wonderfully magnificent and disastrous Dead Sea, metamorphosing objects and viewers in the course of the show.”

Despite Landau’s dedication and fascination with the salt lake bordered by Jordan to the east and Israel and the West Bank to the west — located 430.5 meters below sea level — as well as her hopeful plans to someday build a bridge from Israel to Jordan over the Dead Sea, she doesn’t see herself as a Dead Sea activist, but the salty lake is part of her life.

“It’s part of my lexicon, my palette,” said Landau, calling the sea her laboratory and her work in it “a partnership” with moments of solidarity and challenges.

Artist Sigalit Landau with one of her fishing nets, encrusted with objects and salt, in ‘The Burning Sea,’ at the Israel Museum through June 2023 (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Her fascination with the Dead Sea began when the Jerusalem-born Landau was a small child, brought to its warm, therapeutic waters by her English-born mother.

Landau began experimenting with its salty treasures some two years after her mother died in 2003.

“I kind of meet her there,” said Landau. “It’s a special place of stillness and desert.”

It was in 2005 that Landau first dipped her sandal in the sea, and then experimented with an abandoned bicycle, found on a Tel Aviv sidewalk and later dropped into the Dead Sea until it formed the now familiar crust of salt that surrounds many of Landau’s works.

The salt-encrusted bicycle isn’t on display in “The Burning Sea,” but the exhibit begins with other familiar works from Landau’s work, including the wall-sized projection “DeadSee” — Landau’s 2005 video displaying her exposed body floating in a spiral-shaped raft of 500 watermelons on the waters of the Dead Sea.

The red flesh of the exposed watermelons is exposed in the projection, harkening to a later moment in the exhibit, where a smaller gallery is centered by a Last Supper homage, a table filled with Dead Sea salt and a selection of watermelon slabs, each one decaying, softening and turning to a more rubbery, fleshy portion from the effects of the salt.

One wall of the watermelon room displays a video of watermelon pickers near Nazareth, engaging in a kind of dance as they work as a team, tossing the green melons from one set of hands to the next, and finally into the moving pickup truck.

The other wall shows “Standing on a Watermelon, 2005,” a 4:43 minute video in which Landau attempts to balance and remain vertical while standing on top of a large watermelon, in the salty waters of the Dead Sea.

Artist Sigalit Landau fingers salt-encrusted watermelon flesh in ‘The Burning Sea,’ at the Israel Museum through June 2023 (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

It’s a video of baptism and crucifixion, said Mendelsohn, as well as a play on balance, as the watermelon wants to pop up in the water in its dialogue of “sweet, life, salt and death,” added Landau.

Later on in the exhibit, there is more of the beauty of Landau’s salty, sparkling works, from her familiar Barbed Salt Lamps, a cluster of barbed-wire sculptures that glitter like diamonds and hover overhead like salty chandeliers, along with her salt-laden tutu and a set of stretchers that make some viewers think of wars and wounded, while others liken them to glistening Torah scrolls.

There is also Salt Crystal Bridal Gown (2014), a series of eight underwater photographs documenting the salt crystallization of a black dress worn by Hanna Rovina, the early 20th-century actress who played a young bride possessed by the spirit of her dead lover in the play “The Dybbuk.” The bridal dress is frozen white with salt crystals, in homage to biblical Lot’s wife, frozen into a pillar of salt.

Artist Sigalit Landau and team submerge stretchers into the Dead Sea, exhibited in ‘The Burning Sea,’ at the Israel Museum through June 2023 (Courtesy Shaxaf Haber)

Landau’s work is also about community — she speaks frequently about the team who works with her in the healing waters of the sea.

She also brings her work to others, including a new project embarked on during the lonely months of the pandemic when Landau worked with elderly women housebound at an assisted living facility.

The women embroidered tapestries that Landau and her team then submerged in the Dead Sea, bringing salty layers to embroidered versions of Van Gogh’s sunflowers, the Chagall windows, and snowy European village scenes.

The salt-framed tapestries are hung toward the end of the exhibit, accompanied by a video of Landau’s experience with the women and in which they talk about their life stories.

Landau is shown submerging the framed works in the sea, one booted foot keeping a firm hold on the cage of tapestries.

Sigalit Landau’s envisioned bridge stretching across the Dead Sea from Israel to Jordan, part of ‘The Burning Sea’ exhibit at the Israel Museum through June 2023 (Design and rendering: Architect Alexey Shamovsky, Kin Sky Studio)

And ultimately, there is environmental activism in the expansive exhibit, starting with Salt Bridge Summit, Landau’s attempt to help heal the Dead Sea with a bridge built over the lake, leading from Israel to the Jordanian side of the sea and a new series of video works offering other views and visions of the Dead Sea.

The concept is first presented in a gallery transformed into a conference room, where a roundtable of laptops shows a fictional conversation about the bridge, surrounded by Landau’s blueprints and photographs of the bridge that she hopes will be built one day.

“People ask me, ‘We’re at the Dead Sea, can you recommend a beach, Mrs. Dead Sea. Well, Mineral Beach is gone, Ein Gedi is gone. You can go look at the sinkholes but it’s a tragedy that is nationwide,'” said Landau. “We have  brilliant scientists and entrepreneurs and the situation is frustrating, but I prefer to make art.”

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