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Gilad Efrat speaks with Guy Nissenhaus in the midst preparing for his upcoming exhibit, “Calypso”
Guy, tell me how it all started?
One of the things that jump started my work process in the studio was reading Homer’s “Odyssey”, a literary epic that captures the journeys and battles of Odysseus. Several images and thoughts came to mind after reading the scene in which Calypso, under order of the Gods, releases Odysseus from her cave. He heads out aboard his raft into the turbulent sea and washes up on the shores of the island of the Phaeacians. Princess Nausicaä arrives with her maids. They play with a ball, and their voices wake Odysseus up from his sleep. The princess orders him to go to her father’s palace and that’s when the adventure that lies between reality and fiction begins. That’s the place I want to get to with this work – someplace that trails certainty and imagination, consciousness and sleep. I was preoccupied with the ball the girls were playing with: What kind of ball was it? What was it made of? What does it represent? As far as I was concerned, there was this blatant issue with masculinity: the ball represents a form of adventure, play and fun. I’d also go as far as saying that it’s a sort of symbol, or even a cliché- for a father-son relationship. The ball became a charged image of my feeling of otherness – when I realized I didn’t like basketball or football. When I wanted to learn how to tap dance, do gymnastics (although the teacher said it was just for girls) and play guitar like Julie Andrews in “The Sounds of Music”. You know, people are made up of all the balls that’ve hit them and the balls they’ve managed to avert.
As I look around your studio what I see at its center is an impressive pile of flowers cut out of metal, reaching all the way up to the ceiling. You call them “Orchids”. You’re planning on covering the support pole at the center of the gallery with them. To the best of my knowledge, orchids usually grow in tropical areas, and they wind themselves around trees and other plants – which leads me to think of a hanging installation – a place that in its essence is also holding on to the exhibit space, as the viewers experience the attachment between the space and its different components. How did the orchid end up in your work?
My mom really loves orchids, and there were always orchids in my parents’ house when I was growing up. The orchid is a complex, spoiled and expensive flower. It only blooms for a few months out of the year and the rest of the time it’s sort of dead. You still need to water and prune it, although it no longer gives off the beautification for which it was originally purchased. The orchid, which reminds me of a sexual organ, immediately drew me to Georgia O’Keefe’s orchid drawings, that in their simplest form are the female sexual organ, the place from which the entire world originates. The orchid manages to contain all these openings within the body connected to sexuality, and at the same time, the boundary between inwards and outwards, to things that enter and exit the body. My work on the orchid started with a paper sketch. I wanted to figure out how I was going to do it. I always start with sketching on paper. I browse craft and decorative websites that explain how to simply construct shapes. That’s how I discovered the orchid making technique. Almost all of my work begins with a sheet of A4 sized paper that I play around with, and eventually winds up being a 3-meter bronze statue.
There’s an additional component, a second part to your installation: the stainless-steel piece, a sort of large punctured mirror.
That piece still doesn’t have a title, and it’s currently hanging in the studio like a mirror. In the exhibit it’s supposed to hang like a hammock, a sex swing. And then the viewer will look at it from the atop facing downwards, like Narcissus staring at his own reflection. The piece contains an abstraction of two characters in a profile position, like two question marks. It’s a perforated negative image of two people spooning. At first, there was a head and a neck and then two additional holes were added; the first association that came to mind were stars, droplets or paint drizzles. It’s both a hammock with two people laying in it, a mirror which perforates your image and a glory hole – a hole in the wall through which one engages in a sexual act.
From looking at the works that make up the installation, it seems to revolve around your self-image, self-portraits of sorts – even if your facial features aren’t necessarily recognizable. It seems as though the pieces are cyclical – they circle back to you, to your sexual identity. What are your thoughts about narcissism in that regard?
The way I see it, the most alive and interesting place to create art from is you yourself, your experiences; not from a theoretical or intellectual place. In the end of the day, you’re describing a human experience, and the person you’re most familiar with is you. I don’t think there’s any other way to make art. To create art is to express something that’s been troubling you, that’s been gnawing at your brain, that’s been weighing on you and needs to be let out, that needs to come down from the spiritual and imaginative world down into the material world. In terms of narcissism, I wish I was a narcissist. With the stainless-steel I wanted to create something that would reinforce the tension of looking inwards. Those moments when you stare at yourself in the mirror and see your faults. And perhaps that’s what makes me the biggest narcissist of all: I’m not afraid of exposing my wounds and displaying the lowest and most difficult parts of myself.
Why is the installation titled “Calypso”?
“Calypso” is a name that offers me context, a feeling that I have roots. The mythological story allows me to step outside myself, from my tight-knit family, and venture out and ask bigger more existential questions. In Greek, the name ‘Calypso’ means to conceal, hide. This entire exhibit revolves around concealment and disguise, a hiding place that’s being revealed. In the “Odyssey”, Calypso offers Odysseus eternal youth if he stays with her instead of returning to his home. That’s very tempting. I’ve injured myself on more than one occasion while working in my studio because I was so obsessed with seeing the completed work. I get into too much of a hurry and then I get burnt – instead of taking a deep breath, controlling myself, and letting things move at their own pace. I feel the same way about the gay scene and the time and place in which it operates. Time and time again there’s this need to step out, to see and be seen, to receive fast love and gratification instead of looking inwards, of waiting, letting the work percolate. For example, the rust covering the orchid petals wasn’t created naturally over time, it happened within 24 hours, with the use of acid. With “Orchids”, I cut and corroded the sheet metal, similarly to the pieces in my dad’s welding workshop. Iron work has been passed down in my family for a few generations. My dad manufactures furniture pieces on an assembly line, and I create sculptures that are made up of lots of units, but they’re created in a special process. Additionally, my dad creates iron fixtures for furniture while I - create flowers.
On the one hand, the title “Calypso” contains these cultural layers, and on the other hand, it sounds like the name of a night club. Sort of retro.
That’s right. There are two nightclubs called “Calypso”: one was a 1970s club in Ramle, and the other one is a dance bar on Frishman beach in Tel Aviv. If you google “Calypso” those are the first two places that’ll pop up.
So, you’re essentially letting us into your club with this exhibit?
“The Broken Hearts Club” or the “The Cut-Up Club”. Yes, I’m really inviting viewers into a club. At the end of the day, being at a crowded party can be very lonely, you’re closed off inside your own experience, in your devotion to the music. A place that’s both dark and sexy. But the dark and morbid cave I’ve created is ultimately an exhibit…the antithesis of a closed-door night club with. It encapsulates all of my entire club scene experiences.
There’s a third piece to the installation: furry branches connected to electric guitar strings.
The piece, “Strumming on a Shaved Chest”, was created after I heard this guy I had a crush on scratching his shaved chest. Instead of it repelling me, the scratchy sound reminded me of strumming a guitar.
Do the strings make a sound? Can the viewer pluck the strings?
Yes, but it’ll be like strumming an electric guitar without an amp. The issue at hand is the image, and the chance to touch, to create intimacy. You need complete silence in order to hear it. I actually created a guitar that’s associated with the feminine. If I were to dismantle the guitar shape in two there’d be the neck, that’s like a rod or a penis, and the body, that resembles the female curvature or shapes that are associated with the female form. The two converge in a hole; the meeting point takes place in the sound box. It creates a round hole like with the stainless-steel sheet. I worked only with the guitar neck.
Your work on the installation took place primarily during the CODIV-19 lockdown, when “social distancing” was implemented. Did that period intensify the way in which you experience the relationship you refer to in terms of work, sexuality, closeness and alienation, intimacy and violence? If times were different, would we be experiencing your body of work differently?
I started working on the installation before the CODIV-19 outbreak. When the lockdown started, I was at the height of my work and I stopped going to my studio. The fact that I couldn’t touch another human being made me cautious and think long and hard about who I choose to touch, with whom I choose to take a risk with. CODIV-19 was like a slap in the face, it didn’t allow room for any human interaction; it shut it off completely. I see the correlation between my work and what’s going on currently in the world: similarly, to coming in contact with another human body, was also coming in contact with the sharp, wounding, materials – both of which were putting me in danger. If you come close to the “Orchids” sculpture, it might injure, puncture, cut and expose you. I’m very fearful of this exhibit. I feel like it’s exposed me. With this exhibit I’ve finally allowed myself to reveal what I’ve previously kept hidden and concealed with my former work.
When I think about this installation, your use of iron in this piece and in your previous work, over the history of Israeli art, several Israeli artist who’ve worked with iron come to mind, such as, Yechiel Shemi, Menashe Kadishman, Igael Tumarkin, Ya'acov Dorchin. Their work with iron oozes masculinity and machismo. They preserve the heroic myth of the artist facing the material with their work with iron. Where does your work fit in in regards to that?
Indeed, I feel the presence of iron in Israeli art as extremely masculine. Working with iron relates to industrialism, to the generation of pioneers that founded things. My work with iron comes from a personal place – coming to terms with my identity, with my dad and grandfather’s family traditions.
What you’re saying is that you don’t have a “father” figure in Israeli art, like Kadishman, who used to laser cut giant metal sheets, but a biological father who cuts iron in a welding workshop?
Of all the artists that you mentioned, the one I connect with the most is Kadishman. His sculptures stem from the two-dimensional, like his “Sacrifice of Isaac” sculpture or the “Scream” sculpture, they’re sort of these iron sheets cut-outs. You can tell his sculptures originated on paper. You can understand the transition from a small and intimate paper sketch to a large-scale outdoor sculpture – one that can only be made of iron. I understand Kadishman’s work process, I feel connected to him. With “Orchids” the metal is thin, eroded, rusty and falling apart, it’s lost its power. I cut and bend it by hand. Dorchin’s sculptures, for example, can’t be bent by hand. I search for the gentle, vulnerable, ugly and egoless presence within the iron material. Even if at first glance, my work might seem large and impressive, it’s in fact made up of crumbs. I’m trying to piece them back together. It’s a pillar made up of all my memories, disappointments, of not living up to what’s expected of me as a male son, that I was never able to fight. I’m made up of these crumbs – just like the sculpture.
Your work is abundant, Baroque-ish, blossoming, inviting and generous. But at the same time, walking amidst the sculptures creates a certain aversion; also because of the dangers associated with the materials, like injuries, but also because of the iron’s texture, the perforated tin, the brown color that dominates over everything.
It all circles back to the issue of seduction. If “Orchids” was completely rusty, there would’ve been something beautiful in the rust’s aesthetic, its monochrome. During the work process a few spots remained rust-less, that only have a few hints of rust, something that might resemble a blemish, a beauty mark or Psoriasis. The shapeshifting of the material creates the aversion and the attraction between what’s alive and what’s dead. I can identify the touching moment when the rust and the stainless-steel converge. These tensions come up in the studio during difficult, and at times, unbearable moments. The work is able to grow and prosper, despite the less than ideal circumstances. You witness its evolution and take part in it. When I look at the installation inside the exhibit space it's dead. The moment in which you assemble the installation inside the exhibition space is good and gratifying, and you can talk and write about it, but the invigorating moments take place inside the studio.