The Inflatable World of Tamar Ettun | Studio Visits
A dive inside the incredible, inflatable studio of Israeli-born sculptor and performance artist Tamar Ettun.
Photos by Charlie Rubin
This article originally appeared on Creators.
For the past year or so, Tamar Ettun has been working through the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council Workspace Residency located on the 19th floor of a commercial office space building in the financial district, which I'll admit seemed like an odd environment for a troop of art makers trying to explore the depths of their creative minds. I stepped into the sterile lobby of 28 Liberty St. and was lost almost immediately. It's the kind of skyscraper with the rows of elevators that only go to certain floors, and front desk employees that look like they're secret service. They printed me out a visitor's badge, pointed me in the right direction, and I finally made it up to the floor of the LMCC where Tamar was waiting for with a cup of coffee and a big bright smile on her face.
Ettun is an Israeli-born sculptor and performance artist now living in Brooklyn. After she fulfilled her requirements in the Israeli army she moved to the States to pursue the arts. She went to school at Cooper Union in 2007, while earning her BFA from Bezalel Academy. Ettun then went to on to receive her MFA in sculpture from Yale in 2010 and since then has had her work shown at numerous exhibitions and performances around the world. She has had work shown at The Fridman Gallery, the Watermill Center and Madison Square Park. She has been honored by several organizations like Franklin Furnace, The Pollock Krasner Foundation, Fountainhead Residency, and Abron's Art Center among many others.
We take a brief tour around the office. The 19th floor, and I'm assuming the rest of the floors in that building, is made up of two long halls running parallel to each other separated by a wall. The office space has an open floor plan with tiny closed off offices tucked away up against the walls, giving each artist their own private station—not that they'd need any more space; you could play football in there. We pass by other artists in the residency: sculptors, painters, photographers, and dancers. There are large piles of wood, stacks of large canvas pastel paintings, hardware tools, cardboard, plaster, and clay. After a lap, we circle back to Ettun's home base.
About 70% of Ettun's work is on the ground. Outside of her office, she has two fold-up tables that covered in pieces of plastic, scraps of paper and textiles, plaster, and more "stuff," as she calls it; her sculptures are made from just about anything she can find. With warm and shiny bright colors, her sculptures are bizarre in their contents but familiar when looked at as a whole. She creates from random, banal objects that don't look like they should fit together, until she molds and trims them down to the point at which they create a singular image, a recognizable figure or shape.
I stumble over a pair of shoes that were made from three sets of high heels she's glued together. She picks them up, explaining that they are to be worn by a dancer in her next performance with The Moving Company, a four-year collaborative art project founded by Ettun, comprised of dancers and actors who, according to her website's description, "perform repetitive and strenuous actions based on Ettun's sculptures." The company rotates through a different theme and color with each new year.
A square wooden floorboard, about 20' by 20', serves as a rehearsal space. Ettun has blown up one of her signature colorful balloon sculptures in anticipation of my arrival. I cannot quite put my finger on its shape, but maybe that's the point: the colorful blob looks something like a stomach, or a lung, maybe. I squeal like a little kid when she asks if I'll get inside.
The balloon with one of the air generators you see outside bounce houses—Ettun gives it a quick pump before we go inside. To enter the sculpture, she leaves a small hole on the side of the balloon. It's not entirely on the ground, just sort of just floating somewhere in the middle of the room, and is fairly small in diameter, so I have to dive in. Then, it's like being swallowed by a creature from Starship Troopers. Ettun actually makes these inflatables herself by sewing together old hot air balloons, which explains the weathered, paint-splattered sewing machine sitting on a desk right outside.
We have to take our shoes off and leave the coffees outside. Inside, it's her own little fort, spotless and smooth, a place she keeps clean, free of any crumbs or dirt. This is peculiar, intriguing because of the completely cluttered workspace around us. It isn't sloppy, by any means, but unrestrained.
As we settle in, both lying on the ground, she tells me about her time at Yale; her time in the army; how, the second she tells anyone she is from Israel, they immediately try to insert some sort of political discourse around her work. She recalls a recent studio opening and how exhausting it was to explain her work a million times, constantly deflecting assumptions about "underlying political sentiments." That, and how good the food is New Haven, Connecticut:
Creators: What's your relationship to The Moving Company? How did you get in touch, and what does the new website you worked on mean to you?
Tamar Ettun: Having worked with different performers on each project, I decided I wanted to have a consistent group to develop a unique movement vocabulary with me. I sent out an email to my entire list asking if there is anyone who would like to join, and from there things developed organically. We meet on a weekly basis regardless of the performance schedule.
The piece we premiere next week at Bryant Park, Part Yellow, deals with desire, and for the past seven months we've been talking, reading and moving with desire in mind. I see this part of my work in a similar way to the Gutai group's activity in Japan, the spirit, community, and interdisciplinary aspects of it.
For me, playfulness, pleasure and adrenaline are not in opposition to care and focus, the combination of skilled and unskilled performers is intentional and horizontal, the inclusiveness and the communal spirit are at the core of the Moving Company's vision. I am deeply interested in personal stories of trauma, which I see as formally related to questions of movement and stillness I am dealing with. I have the biggest admiration for the artists I am working with and their personal searching around these subjects. It is not, strictly speaking, a collective since we are doing my work, but doing my work is based on the uniqueness of the people I am working with. A horizontal society. Playing is not thoughtless, playing is the point.
The website was designed by Other Means. We wanted to create a conceptual website that functions as an art piece and reflects the Moving Company's spirit, the way that everything moves and changes within the structure. On the homepage, you can click on the words—which are the title for the ongoing four-year, four-part Mauve Bird project—inside various images of rehearsals / performances / found objects / references, inside animated shapes based on my hot-air-balloon drawings. Each time you click on the page, different images come up, and I keep adding images from each performance, so it's an ever-expanding pool of images. If you scroll down, you can see video compilations of performances, and at the end there are info and credits. The viewer is active, and the viewing experience is different every time.
What is it about inflatable objects that you are you attracted to aesthetically/conceptually? How do they represent space to you, and how do you like to play with it?
The inflatables feel to me like live colorful breathing creatures. Thinking about sculpture and performance, these creatures seem like they have life to them, huge lungs. I make them thinking of communal spaces where people can be together, or alone, and connect to their most immediate sensations. It's a reduction of the noise and loudness of the outside world, my anti-FOMO NYC gesture… And, also importantly, it's practical: it allows me to create large immersive pieces that can be folded up small and carried around on the subway or on my bike. I like carrying an inflatable in my bag and feel like I have a kind of a secret non-practical weapon.
In performances such as 1 Thing Leads to Another and Mauve Bird, how do you instruct performers? How much is dictated and how much is improvised?
Each mover is assigned a task, a movement and an object, I create a map for the objects/movers to move around the space, and structure the pace of things to meet and interact. The movers improvise in the way they interpret the tasks and negotiate with each other and the inflatables. I'm interested in the kind of readiness that improvising allows, the animalistic, primal instinct of being ready for action, to tackle, grasp, respond quickly. The improvisation draws from a pool of movements we have developed over the past three years.
How do you flesh out your ideas? Where do you experiment?
Starting a new project for me is like a tasting menu—I awake my senses and test materials, colors, ideas, shapes, movements in small pieces and see what happens to them when they are next to each other, on top of each other, inside each other. I reach out to people who I think would have interesting conversations with me about the theme and collect references—both visual and literary—to create an archive. I try to make the archive wide and open: curvy, yellow dollar-store bucket, Erwin Wurm banana sculpture, erotic Yiddish Celia Dropkin poem, "Beyond the Pleasure Principle" Freud essay, etc.
Then, I write: I make the conceptual frame of the work from everything I collect and learn, I need it to have a tight structure because the nature of my work is very free and as soon as I start production I let myself go as messy, big, and incoherent as the materials and movers take me, trusting that the frame is "home base" and I will always return there. Recently I started writing short stories, which are about the body and objects, and tie the movements and objects back to a non-linear narrative. By the time I'm done collecting and writing and listening and talking and sketching and testing and moving, I'm so stimulated that my hands start putting things together on their own.
What role does the studio play in your process? How do you think the area in which you create affects, if at all, your final product?
My workspace is very important to me, since the process of creation forces me to be as open and receptive as I can be. Everything that surrounds me enters right inside me. Like, having no immune system. I have been very lucky to receive support from many residency programs, and the best thing about them is meeting other artists that challenge and inspire me. Now, I am at the LMCC workspace program, at the center of the financial district, which is a very strange location. I notice my movements are faster and more efficient walking down the street, being surrounded by this capitalist practical environment brings out constant anxiety about ambition and productivity, on the other hand our studio floor is vast. It's the only place I know in New York that you can see objects get smaller as you walk away from them in the same space. I can make larger gestures, expand, have an imaginary horizon line for my sculptures.
What does your studio say about you?
I am my studio.
Tamar Ettun is currently working towards a solo show at the Uppsala Museum of Art in Sweden that will open in 2016. The Moving Company's last performance was held at The Watermill Center, captured in a short film which you can watch here. They have an upcoming performance this month at Bryant Park.
Head over to Tamar Ettun's website to stay up to date on new works and upcoming performances.