‘One Man’s Floor is Another Man’s Feelings’ Sigalit Landau: Israeli Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2011

A cavernous space presents itself. Quiet and sombre it is concealed from the Venetian sun and filled with a system of water pipes like those of a machine room, severe and functional. This space forms the base of the two-story Israeli pavilion, acting as the literal and metaphorical foundations of a presentation by the prominent Israeli artist Sigalit Landau.

Landau is perhaps best known for her visceral video/performance piece ‘Barbed Hula’ in which the artist, evoking the defiant feminist spirit of 1970s body art, horrifyingly hula hooped with a ring of barbed wire. It is no surprise then that for some this sparse sculptural introduction to the pavilion might seem an unexpected and somewhat subdued beginning. However, the presentation quickly begins to pick up and employs a new sense of subtlety to construct Landau’s signature intensity.

In the back corner of the ground space a video is projected directed onto the floor called ‘Azkelon.’ The title derives from a hybrid of Gaza and Ashkelon, two towns that share a beach but are separated by the border between Israel and the Hamas governed Gaza Strip. The video documents three men playing a game with a knife on this border beach. They each take turns to throw the blade into the sand, connecting lines whilst also erasing marks made by their opponents. A sense of the making and breaking of borders is what stays with you; the swift formation and inevitable destruction that clearly allude to the fraught socio-political implications of a location scarred by division. However, the piece also insists on the need for interaction across these lines and on a crucial commonality, signified by these ethnically ambiguous men who interact through play on this rare site of shared ground.

The next level of the pavilion is reached by a set of spiral stairs beside which hangs ‘Salt Crystal Fishing Net:’ a sort of hybrid formation, somewhere between a sculpture and a hanging piece, between Louise Bourgeois’ fluid solidity and Eve Hesse’ ephemeral delicacy. For the work Landau gathered salt crystals by resting a fishing net in the Dead Sea. After a period of time the salt clustered and crystallised in and around the once buoyant net, rendering it sagging and heavy, no longer bound to the sea but to the land. The result has been slung over a beam in the space, almost defying gravity in its play between extreme weightiness and serene, watery, suspension. It at once speaks of beauty; the salt crystals so like glittering precious stones bedeck the banality of the net to render it so very pretty. However, there too is a glaring poignancy. The beauty, as the cause of the nets sad loss of functionality, becomes a gentle lament to what this object once was.

As a whole the presentation seems to evoke this delicate sense of poignancy. However, a strong current of what is perhaps a poetic hope, but hope nonetheless, seems to ebb just below the surface of Landau’s ambiguous creations. The final piece, her long standing project to construct a bridge made of salt that would connect Israel and Jordan, acts as a case in point of this hope. Images of the artist on pristine salt planes scooting locations for this symbolic unification provides a conceptual edge, a nod to Robert Smithson, to Spiral Jetty, albeit with an explicitly political intent, unfolding, uniquely, for each viewer.

Finally, the presentation throughout evokes a deeply serious contemplation of this artist’s fraught sense of national identity and moreover of that nation’s fraught international identity, a self reflective note that all Biennale presentations should perhaps hope to hit as they inevitability speak of nationhood. Each work has something, each a gripping visual quality paired with a laired intensity that surely sets Landau apart. I could have stayed all day.

Written by Fiona Haggerty July 2011