Tamar Ettun: ‘I am using the structure of a religious practice as a fold for my art-making’

Natasha Kurchanova, Studio International, October 2, 2015

Tamar Ettun is an Israeli-American artist working in sculpture, performance and video. Born in Jerusalem in 1982, she came to the United States in 2007 as a visiting student at Cooper Union and stayed to study at Yale’s Master of Fine Arts programme. Since 2009, she has been exhibiting sculpture and video and engaging in performance in New York and Israel. Central to her art is the attempt to integrate sculpture and performance to “find stillness in movement and movement in the still sculpture” to figure out “how they contradict and complement each other” (artist’s statement). In 2013, Ettun formed The Moving Company, a performing group with which she meets regularly to script and otherwise develop its public appearances. In her sculptures and performances, Ettun focuses on ritualistic aspects of art, and in the way her work can address the viewer’s psychological space in its relation to trauma as manifested in post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. The artist agreed to an interview with Studio International in relation to her current exhibition, Tamar Ettun: Alula in Blue, at the Fridman Gallery in New York.


Natasha Kurchanova: Tamar, thank you taking the time to speak to me. You describe yourself as a sculptor, but your work breaks boundaries between media: it is inherently multi- or rather inter-media. You do not make just sculpture, performance or video, but you intermingle media and invent new forms. So, my first question is about your training: what did you study and where?


Tamar Ettun: I was in the fine art department at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, studying the foundations: painting, sculpture, video and drawing. Then at Cooper Union in New York, I attended a study abroad programme. There, I started making videos because I did not have a studio or necessary materials and tools to make other work. And, finally, in 2008 I was accepted on to the Yale MFA programme to study sculpture.


NK: I find your personal history fascinating: with your Orthodox roots in Israel and what I see as your drive to bridge religion and art, or, rather, to find a way to use some of the religious devices – such as ritual and repetition – in art. I am thinking, in particular, of the story of your walk from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. It’s very powerful, and I wonder if you ever thought about it in symbolic terms, because Jerusalem is the religious capital of Israel and Tel Aviv is the artistic one.


TE: This walk began as a very straightforward act without any symbolic connotations. It was my first few months of art school, and everyone was talking about Tel Aviv, which is the centre of the art scene in Israel. I grew up in an Orthodox community in Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv seemed very far culturally from everything I knew. I wanted to bridge the gap between the two cities with my body to understand art and the city where people make it. That pertains to my first walk, which happened in March 2005. After that, I decided to repeat this walk every month, and it evolved into a three-and-a-half-year project. It takes the entire day – 12 hours – to walk from one city to the other. It is a meditative experience, because the road is very straight. The space between the cities is where things are left, forgotten and abandoned. During the first walk, I saw many dead animals along the road. No one looks at them or cleans them up, because they are not in anyone’s way, scattered along a road between two big cities. There were also a lot of remains of car accidents. I started collecting this material and carrying it with me, small pieces that could fit in my hands. When I came home, I began making small sculptures out of them based on the images of dead animals. Because the project lasted three and a half years, I could observe decomposition in the bodies of animals I found on the road.