Like Joseph Cornell’s boxes blown up to human scale, Sigalit Landau’s installations isolate moments of transition. For her project last year, “Somnambulin,” the Israeli artist transformed a cement mixer into a mobile music box. Traveling in costume on her magic bus through the streets of Exeter, England, Landau passed out tiny body bags containing lollypops in the shape of a small girl, modeled after the archaeological remains of a frozen vagrant. Each lick of the lolly was a reminder of migration and homelessness and decay and death, complicated by the pleasure of sweetness.
Enamored with the magical properties of sugar, Landau decided to play with the substance for her massive new site-specific installation at Thread Waxing Space. As yet untitled, Landau’s first solo exhibition in the United States is a giant cotton candy machine occupying the spacious 5,000-square-foot loft on the second floor of an old industrial building (hence the name) overlooking the textile merchants and clothing marts of Lower Broadway. The eclectic piece, part performance, part sculpture, part installation, is a suitable coda for the nonprofit alternative space founded 10 years ago by Timothy Nye, who was unable to resign the lease after a massive rent hike. When the show closes on June 9, so does Thread Waxing Space.
“Often, in Landau’s works, spaces of safeness — home, nest, tent, bed — turn rancid. Such places become damaged by accumulation, by excesses,” writes curator Lia Gangitano of Landau’s feverish, latter-day manifestation of a Willy Wonka-esque confectionery factory. At the opening party on May 3, dozens of onlookers gawked at the rare sight of Landau and three other attractive young women, thinly attired in white briefs and tank tops, frolicking in hundreds of pounds of sugar and billowing strands of cotton candy. The proceedings were recorded on digital video and projected in a room to the rear of the gallery. Landau has conceived a microcosmic lifecycle that echoes the once-fecund Soho arts precinct, steadily drained of creative vitality by rising rents and Chelsea-bound art dealers, but puffed up by ubiquitous tourism.
One of Israel’s leading contemporary artists, Sigalit Landau, 31, has exhibited her work in important group shows in Israel, but so far her most ambitious, puzzling projects have appeared in Europe. Exhibited in the prestigious Venice Biennale and Documenta X in 1997, “Resident Alien” expresses her interest in “zones of survival and residence for unintegrated communities,” Landau said in a statement. For this “transportable refuge,” Landau banged out a large mound in the bottom of a 20-foot shipping container and filled it with dirt and other debris and household goods. Visitors were invited to climb inside, peer through a hole in a white box suspended from the roof, and discover a radio playing Arabic music from within a Turkish toilet.
When The Jewish Week caught up with Landau, the new installation was not yet complete. The aroma of sawdust and banging of hammers did not distract her from riffing on the American love of sweetness (“sugar coating”) and the production of shelter (“a home sweet home”). Wearing combat boots, paint-speckled cargo pants and a sleeveless T-shirt with “Brooklyn Defense” and a machine gun stenciled across the chest, Landau projected the image of an artist at work. She commanded up to a half dozen laborers to execute her imagination during her month-long residency. “If I had a year I’d do it all myself,” she says, sitting on a dusty dolly amid the clutter of tools and materials in the gallery workshop. “But I also depend on experts for things I can’t do myself.”
A seven-foot curving plywood wall is the first sight in the gallery. Walking up the spiral ramp circling clockwise around the perimeter, the visitor realizes the wall retains a massive bowl, roughly 20 feet across. At the center of the hemisphere, the metal apparatus wrapped around an iron column is the foundry of Landau’s vision. Five tons of sugar, dyed with red food coloring imported from Israel, will be whipped up into whispery strands of cotton candy that Landau likened to animated Arabic calligraphy. The strands that do not soar over the lip of the giant mold and escape human consumption collect and harden into a giant inverted cone. Other cones and lifesize sugar-coated resin cocoons haunt the rear sections of the gallery.
After five weeks, Landau estimates the base of the hollow cone will grow to nearly two meters in diameter, at which point the installation will be dismantled and the cone excavated and installed upright like a tent in a New York location not yet determined. With the first rain, the sugar cone will dissolve into “a sticky puddle of blood,” Landau says in anticipation. “Maybe that has something to do with Israel.”
“I’m interested in simple home forms,” Landau says. “But not in a designed, practical way.” The sugar tent has the poetic function of recalling sacred places like the Temple Mount and Native American abodes like the igloo and wigwam. Landau’s curiosity in transient domesticity seems connected to her peripatetic youth. Her English mother and Bukovinian father frequently relocated for work, and Landau grew up in England and the United States as well as her hometown of Jerusalem. “I speak English with a Hebrew accent and Hebrew with an English accent,” she says, somewhat proudly. Landau has slipped into a similar lifestyle as an artist since graduating from the Bezalel Academy in 1995. She retains a studio in Tel Aviv, but has lived in Paris, London, Berlin and other cities while preparing her labor-intensive projects.
At Thread Waxing Space, however, Landau has made the metaphor of refuge a reality. During the duration of the exhibit, she’ll sleep in a cozy loft space overlooking the plywood landscape. Landau will be around during visiting hours, she says, meeting with visitors and continuing to work in the crawl space beneath the wooden architecture. “I like sleeping near my work. If not, I have dreams it’s breaking.”
For the casual viewer, art like Landau’s can be particularly perplexing despite its obvious charms. And Gangitano’s essay in the exhibition publication, liberally quoting postmodern critical theory darlings George Bataille and Julia Kristeva, sheds little light. Landau repeatedly emphasized the experiential nature of the billowing cotton candy and dangling cocoons. Only direct participation “shows things you can’t see, like an x-ray of reality.” Her art is intended to create a mood in the audience by exposing them to radical transformations of familiar materials and spaces. Landau’s little journeys are meant to invoke the epic narratives of the migrant and refugee. She avoids simplistic political overtones and resists making direct associations between her art and her Jewish identity. “I don’t want to be didactic.”
In an essay for Documenta, Israeli curator Ariella Azoulay recalls an outrageous element of Landau’s exhibition at the Israel Museum in 1995, a video documentation of her “(staged) ejection from the Museum into a garbage container, traveling inside the truck to the Palestinian village of El-Azariya, where she is tipped out together with the garbage.”
Disliking the strictures of group shows and traditional museums, Landau tries to find alternative spaces. “Resident Alien,” for example, was the only artwork situated outside of the Biennale Garden. Thread Waxing Space, known for encouraging artistic curiosity and fostering experimentation and collaboration among artists in different disciplines, has given her freedom to play with ideas. “This is the best place I’ve ever worked,” Landau says, citing the onsite workshop and cooperative staff. “They’re not afraid to go with my visions, which are sometimes hard to digest.”
But once the cone is removed, the doors to Thread Waxing Space will be locked and the staff will join dot-commers on the unemployment line. Director Timothy Nye tried to orchestrate a merger with the larger public arts organization Creative Time, but the two groups were not able to find common ground. Gangitano hopes to compile a history of Thread Waxing Space for publication and to start a new Downtown arts space of her own, but says these endeavors are “embryonic.” And if she can’t find a place to donate it, Landau’s art will be scrapped.
“It’s not unusual for us to build huge things and throw them into the Dumpster,” Gangitano says. And so it goes.
“Sigalit Landau” runs through June 9 at Thread Waxing Space, 476 Broadway, Man. (212) 966-9520. Hours: Tue.-Sat., 10 a.m.-6 p.m.