You are talking about figuring distance—wasn't an early title of your show Figuring Distance? What I was thinking about was the idea of measuring—the way you measure things. How do you feel about measuring and role as a standard or constraint?
The whole project is set up almost in opposition to measuring, although there are photos and interventions, especially in Paris, where I put my little bits of porcelain in relation to standard units of measure. After all, Paris has the prototype meter bar. It also has the Médaillon Arago, a project by the artist Jan Dibbets that commemorates the astronomer and physicist Francois Arago, who worked on standards of weights and measures and determined the meridian line in Paris before it was moved to Greenwich. These were formulated scientific units—mine are handmade irregular and broken line fragments. They don’t have any standard measures. They reveal the hand the old-fashioned way, as I made lines by rolling out clay like we did in kindergarten to make snakes. I am not a professional ceramicist so some pieces came out of the kiln straight, others curved. I was able to go around corners in my line-making. It’s about measuring, it’s about research, about the scientific method, but because they are irregular and arbitrary, they enabled me to talk about the immeasurable—the abstract rather than the concrete, things that cannot be measured—all sorts of topics beyond that of obvious numbers. Carrying these little bits enabled me to comment on things larger than exactitude.
If it is something that you take with you to various places do you think that it becomes your own standard of measurement?
I think it became a ritualized way of measuring. I had enough (pieces) so that I would not repeat distances. Each time I found a different relationship to what I saw in space. In each city, the architecture and geometry differed, especially in Siena, which is based on medieval and renaissance ideas of symmetry and proportion. This prevented me from having a standard. I did have those little units and something fixed but there was enough variety and spaces in between so that it did not become regularized.
What about in terms of ways to measure the space in different contexts, like, I know that this is my 2-inch piece of porcelain, so this is what a 2-inch piece of porcelain looks like in Jerusalem?
I did have to change my strategies, especially in Jerusalem. The landscape is so overwhelming there—the open space and relation of sky to land—as a city it had more open space than Paris or Siena (a walled city). The little bits were dwarfed. They were miniatures in relationship to vastness. But in terms of measuring, I was thinking of borders and boundaries in context. I was thinking of the boundless— space without boundary.
How do you take the more practical ideas of measurement materials and connect them to the idea that these are ritual objects?
Even with the scientific objects (same phenomenon with the arms and armor section of a museum) that are incredibly beautiful, incredibly detailed, and the result of skilled craftsmanship, there is first and foremost functionality. Why were these things so beautiful? They didn’t have to be. I am negating function. Mine don’t really work. They might function as ritual objects—more as ceremonial objects or objects that could be used in a performative way that involves repetition. Most ceremonial objects are detailed and carefully crafted. Mine pieces are deliberately hand-made, crudely sewn and irregular. That, too, has to do with the arbitrariness of measuring and the arbitrariness of boundaries and the sometimes unnatural divisions of statehood.
How do you see them in terms of religious ritual purposes? What is your relationship to that idea of creating an object for a ritual?
I have made actual ritual objects (a spice box, a tzedakah box, a Seder plate) that can function in a ritual context. The porcelain objects in Ludic Interventions are almost talismanic. They are crude but they function in a talismanic way. They leave a trail and are like territorial markings. The closest part that intersects with ritual and ceremony may be the wearing of the special shoes, hat, and glove. The style of these objects was influenced by my time in Siena although I made them and used them in Jerusalem in the latter stage of the project.
I’d like to connect with the idea that this is a performance and the way in which you play with time in the video by going forwards and backwards. I know that with your work with the eruv you are interested in the connection between the ritual of space and the ritual of time—that you can use space to separate sacred and profane space and time. Could you talk about the idea of time in terms of its relationship to distance in the way you make or film these pieces, but also in connection to measuring time or the time that you spent in various places?
From the very beginning I wanted to measure distance and by distance I also meant my own conception of time away—time away from home and time away from my own culture and my own language and how to figure this and make it into something tangible,as these are abstractions.
I have a broken line (much shorter than a kilometer) of irregular fragments. I wanted to use these to grasp the immeasurable. How do I determine time away and what is its value in a larger sense that I can’t assign an actual number? How do I measure distance between cultures? In terms of time and the video—there is fast motion, slow motion, forward motion, backward motion—a lot of doing and undoing. It’s almost like Sisyphus—the character goes up the hill, down the hill, goes out the gate, comes back in, goes and goes around the corner again and again. Wearing the ceremonial shoes becomes ritualized behavior or some strange highly personal ritual. You don’t know what this person is doing. All I knew is that I wanted motion forward and in reverse.
You see the stones, a wall, and a gate. It is almost a parable, resonant in the Middle East,but also just a story about line. In the video the character puts down the line then puts it somewhere else or else puts it back down again. It never seems to work. There is almost something “Beckettian” (if that is a real word) because of the futility of this character’s actions.
What about territorial markings? Do you want to talk about territorial pissing or the scatological?
I did realize that it was a way to mark territory although I originally thought more about Hansel and Gretel and the trail of breadcrumbs or that “Kilroy was here” than about animal scat and scent, but the connection is definitely there. Most of the porcelain pieces against the dark earth are white, which always sets up this purity/impurity thing, but some are blue or graphite-colored. The graphite brings it back to text and lines of text. I did work with newspapers in each city and made drawings corresponding to learning a foreign language and the limits of understanding. I was interested in blocking out territory on the page. I wanted to compare what would happen when you read right-to-left (Hebrew) or left-to-right (English) so I would take the English and Hebrew editions of Ha’Aretz (Israeli newspaper) and block them out and see what kind of visual formalist abstractions they leave.
Siena is a place where the territorial and the cultural are very specific and dependent on names and colors in an interesting way. Do you feel that learning how to read the boundaries or the external markers (like the meter mark in Paris) is another way of learning a language? In other words, was learning the ways of measuring—with your measurements—a way to learn how those boundaries are marked?
I was sometimes guilty of misreading the signs, of misinterpreting. Signage itself is an important part of each culture (I also documented signs everywhere I went). I remember seeing this huge ad plastered on the side of our neighborhood pharmacy in Paris. I don’t even remember the product but you see this young father holding his baby and both are bare-torso. It advertised something in French. I was astonished to see the very same ad in Hebrew in Israel. Something that I had interpreted as French was overturned by seeing it in Hebrew. I had interpreted it differently because I had made cultural assumptions. Some huge company had obviously marketed the product internationally. I read it as an outsider to both cultures and interpreted it or should I say misinterpreted it because I read the signs in a culturally-specific, even stereotypical way.
In terms of intelligibility, the actions of the character in the video probably seem meaningless. You can’t tell if it is meaningless and unintelligible or something incredibly meaningful (as a ritual may be to some). The whole project might be like that, drawing a fine line between the meaningless and meaningful.
Even without looking back at the photos and video, could you describe the way dirt is in a specific place? For me it is a visceral experience.
My reference to dirt or earth or land or territory in Paris is that of the garden and its formal lines. I think of the rich color of the earth in Siena and of the dark yet sometimes parched pits of the construction sites in Jerusalem. In Israel you have the dirt of the archaeological site–the digs in the old city or the Galilee where I witnessed new archaeological finds. I had always seen my little fragments as mock measurements. In photos of archaeological sites there are often units of measure to demonstrate scale. I never said anything but people at the sites assumed that I was using my pieces as markers of scale and proportion for my photographs!
Living in a foreign city is a 24-hour learning experience. It means that it is not contained in the classroom or the studio–that going and knowing how to buy a cup of coffee is a task that you have to negotiate and think about how to learn to do it–because of the language barrier, because of all of the cultural barriers, and because it is unfamiliar space. And because it is unfamiliar space your everyday becomes novel or interesting.
The whole year was like that. Every day became novel.