Shira Wachsmann is a visual artist based in Berlin. She was born in Israel, travelled across India, spent some time in London and finally settled in the German capital ten years ago. We’ve talked to her about her work, life and studies.
Texts and Images
Since I can remember myself I was always creative, and to study art was just a logical continuation of my chosen path. Visual art studies in Germany have a very free and open framework, that’s why I opted for the Berlin Weißensee School of Art. Most of the time the school’s curriculum suited me due to my very high level of self-discipline. Though, there were times when I was seeking to get more out of university and struggling from the absence of the theoretical underpinning, which I was so keen to develop. This theoretical knowledge was meant to have a concrete task of becoming a basis and structure that I could lean my own ideas and art practice on. For this very reason I’ve begun studying philosophy at the Open University in Israel and simultaneously completed one semester at the UDK (Universität der Künste).
Philosophy shaped and enriched my art and is still continuously supporting my work. It is not just the ideas, but a way of thinking and processing knowledge. Philosophy helps me to open my mind to the theoretical aspects of my works, to think beyond the limits and not to stay only in one field of creativity.
Often my art works are developed from a long theoretical and image based research. I think it gives strong roots to the work, which I can then experiment freely from. This is a huge strength, which allows me much more freedom to be extreme and playful. Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity and borders, Emmanuel Levinas’s ethics of the Other and some views of Yeshayahu Leibowitz on religious matters are some of the thinkers I am reading at the moment in relation to my practice.
One of the most important aspects of my development was experimentation with different materials and approaches. With an art image we can transfer several ideas at once creating various connections and associations. Whereas, with an academic text it’s impossible to create so many different levels and variety of connections simultaneously. I have also noticed that there are so many ways in which my work could be perceived by others. despite my intentions people will still draw my work into different directions and places that they are interested in themselves I’ve realized that I should really go with what I believe in, even if it’s against the taste or opinion of others.
The idea behind my studies was to professionalize my work. Today I think that to be an artist is more of the way of living and thinking rather than simply a profession.
Circles and Plants
In general, my works are built on top of each other and develop from one another. It’s like an endless spiral that is continuously expanding. I collect maps and archival materials, and then I often create new works from it. For many years I’ve dealt with the issues of land, territory, home and homeland, as well as their relationship to our culture and to the ways we are brought up. And also how images shape our mind and direct our thinking for different purposes.
In 2011 towards the end of my studies, Anne Duk Hee Jordan and I created the work titled, “Metrotopie”. It was part of the Asia-Pacific Weeks in the Haus Der Kulturen Der Welt (House of World Cultures). We transformed a tram wagon into a biotope filled with a variety of plants. The wagon represents a flow of energy, a communication between passengers, plants and the environment.
In my latest video work, “Endless Circle” (2016), I deal with the combustion process of my former work, “Coal” (2013) a spiral-shaped wood cone, and it’s execution in Bebelplatz Berlin in front of Humboldt University. The work confronts fire as a form of escaping the boundaries of the circle with the problematic historical connotations that the act of fire brings up. Through its historical references my video deals with the active repetition of a historical narrative and the way it constructs a collective identity. This cone as a circle marks and separates what is “inside” and what is “outside” of it. At the same time its spirality turns it into an endless form from which one could not escape. Only if one could recognize the conceptuality of the circle one would have a chance to go freely in and out of it. Since the act of setting my work on fire was made in front of an audience it formed a collective of witnesses. The group of dancers that circled the fire incorporated the performance of a collective ritual. The documentation of the fire celebration challenges the boundaries between a cultural event and a collective ritual.
At the moment, I enter the world of cacti for my new body of work. In pre-1948 Palestine cacti were used to mark territory or areas of a village, because the climate conditions in Palestine do not allow seeds to germinate in the soil and to spread on their own. Cacti are only spread with human cultivation or when the branches accidentally fall on the ground and take root. This makes them perfect to be used as a fence or territorial marker. After 1948 and the eradication of Palestinian villages the only sign left of those villages in Israel were the cacti. Israel appropriated the cacti as a symbol of its people. This led to the popularization of the term Sabar referring to an Israeli-born Jew alluding to the similarity between the fruit and people, being tenacious and thorny on the outside, but sweet and soft on the inside. The villages have been destroyed and the Palestinian territorial marks have become a symbol of recognition for Israel. In 2013 in Galilee many cacti were found withered and covered with a white powdery layer. The extinction was caused by an aphid parasite of the genus Dactylopius Opuntiae. This parasite was developed in other parts of the world to stop the cacti from spreading. Somehow the parasite entered Israel and as a result the physicality of these territorial markings is now disappearing from the region and what is left are the redrawn maps created by Israel.
I am just entering deep research which is bringing up many things to the surface, I’m curious to see what will come out and how the work will develop. This major project of mine will contain several different works, now it mainly consists of drawings and objects, but it will probably develop later, also into a video work. It is a direct continuation of my work that contemplates territory and colonialism developing into different directions such as immigration, archeology and the role of vegetation during wars.
Isolation and Community
Perseverance is one of the most essential qualities for an artist. Many hours of lonely studio work can wear you out if you do not see results or get recognition, this can be a very difficult in the long term perspective. Inviting people to studio visits and maintaining regular dialogue with other artists and curators became a solution for me. It is very important for me to open my studio and hear what people think about my work. The figure of an isolated artist doesn’t attract me.
Community is very important and I am very much in favor of connections and collaborations with other artists. If artists exchange information with each other, all those involved in the process will gain more by pushing each other and in the end by creating more.
At the same time one of the biggest obstacles for me is funding. This obstacle arises again and again. Most of the time when I have a desire to create a new artwork I need to apply for funds, sometimes I get them and sometimes I don’t. Without a budget some artworks, especially video works will not happen. So part of my work is still waiting patiently for its time.
Future and Perception
It is very interesting to see how we will develop and learn in the future. Even now, there is a big difference in our ability to remember things compared to the past. Many things are inside our smartphones and computers so we don’t have to remember numbers and daily information. If we lose some of our memories and ability to reflect on daily information how will it impact our perception of home, land, roots and sense of community? Probably, other connections in the brain are strengthened through the use of new technology, though it’s not clear how it impacts us or how it will change our norms and identities.
Currently information is very accessible, but superficial. Yet if we really want to go deep into research we still need to open books and go into archives – an idea which might appear strange to the future generations. It’s a pity that the ability to perceive knowledge in this way could disappear from a person’s practice.
On the other hand, there has been so much knowledge that has already disappeared and now is replaced with new kinds of it. I think the desire to get out of the endless circle of familiar narratives will give us a chance to re-create ourselves in the future.
Pictures: Salit Krac (portraits) and Merav Maroody
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Text: Saltanat Shoshanova
Editing: Olga Sokolova