Performance Artist Tamar Ettun on Sculpting With People

Tamar Ettun, Mauve Bird with Yellow Teeth Red Feathers Green Feet and a Rose Belly, 2015. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Matt Grubb, 2015.

In Stillness and Urgency: An Interview With Tamar Ettun

On the eve of the New York premiere of her ambitious performance Mauve Bird with Yellow Teeth Red Feather Green Feet and a Rose Belly: Part Blue at the Knockdown Center in Maspeth, Queens, MutualArt sat down with artist Tamar Ettun to discuss how stillness, movement and collaboration function in her work.

Tamar Ettun, Alula in Blue, Installation view, 2015. Courtesy of Fridman Gallery. Photo by PAULA ABREU PITA, 2015.

Sarah Murkett: In much of your work static sculptures feel like they might get up and dance, and in many of your performances bodies are tested with scripts demanding large expanses of stillness. For you, what is the relationship between sculpture and performance?

Tamar Ettun: Yes, that's what I hope for! I attempt to invert the relationship between sculpture and dance, as they reflect my thinking of the duality in temporality/permanence, life/death, movement/stillness. My work exists where these mediums - on their contradicting natures -- meet, and hope to expand their boundaries. For me, the static of sculpture resembles trauma, in its unchangeable nature that stays fixed in one's mind in the same way that a sculpture is fixed and doesn't change or move. Yet, trauma is constantly open, never cures, and always has the possibility of lingering, falling apart, collapsing, haunting you. This tension, between a performative event that happens within time, and has fixed qualities, and its opposite, a fixed object that wants to perform in time, interests me. And I'm thinking about empathy as a way to bridge the trauma -- the ongoing stillness, the constant state of urgency - and to activate the bodies of the audience and the movers (The Moving Company members).

Tamar Ettun, Empty is Also, 2009. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Paula Court, 2009.

SM: A couple of years ago you began working with a regular group of dancers and have become a formal group under the name The Moving Company. Dancers and actors behave very differently than plaster and paint. How does this collaboration function within your work?

TE: Well, dancers and actors have feelings, opinions, conflicting schedules, dietary restrictions, broken hearts, unsuccessful therapy sessions, successful therapy sessions, audience members they have a crush on, parents they need to impress... all which make the creation process malleable and surprising, sometimes hard and unexpected. I enjoy working with people very much, and very much with these people. The movers each have their own artistic practice outside my work, and our work together is dependent on the relationships created within the group. I provide the structure for the piece; I bring materials, objects, texts, sound and the ideas to work within and we play and think of these ideas together. So even though this is my work, and I make the final decisions, the process of creation is collaborative and communal, and their voices inform the pieces.

Tamar Ettun, Mauve Bird with Yellow Teeth Red Feathers Green Feet and a Rose Belly, 2015. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Matt Grubb, 2015.

SM: How does your work with The Moving Company otherwise inform your practice?

TE: The sculptures are created from my thinking about dance and movement. Some of them were made from casting body parts of Tina Wang, one of the movers. She comes to my studio and I cast her clothes while she's wearing them and as the plaster dries out and hardens she tries to take it off which is a performance in itself. Many of the ideas we work on together with The Moving Company find their way back to the studio, like making totems and towers that are held live by a dancer and then become a fixed stand-alone sculpture with a heavy sand bag replacing the dancer's body.

Tamar Ettun, Two Hands and a Banana, 2015. Courtesy of Fridman Gallery. Photo by Matt Grubb, 2015.

SM: On November 7th and 8th you will be performing Mauve Bird with Yellow Teeth Red Feather Green Feet and a Rose Belly: Part Blue at the Knockdown Center in Maspeth, Queens, the first in a four part series that was workshopped and presented at the Watermill Center. Can you tell us about this particular installment and how it fits together with those to come?

TE: Blue is the first chapter in a four-year project; every year focuses on a different color and season, yellow-summer, orange-spring, red-fall, and blue-winter. Each part will have a dominant color/mood/shape/narrative, until the finished project with all four parts, which will premiere in 2018. Part BLUE starts as a still formal sculpture - nine performers are bound to one another creating a machine made of humans and objects. The connection between these objects and humans is necessary - they are pressing against each other and if one of the performers lets go the machine will collapse in its entirety. Slowly, one mirroring the other, the machine falls apart and the space fills up with colored objects and movements that are repetitive, separate from one another, yet create a harmonious composition when seen as a whole. I've been thinking a lot about empathy - how bodies mirror each other as an act of empathy which is primal, not intellectualized - and this moving installation reflects on that.

SM: You have presented work in all three of the past Performa biennials. In the time since they commenced their semi-annual program, performance has gained popularity in the art world and beyond. Can you speak about your own experience with Performa and the impact that you think the organization has had on the field at large?

TE: Performa is very special to me. It's inspiring to see how they succeed in bringing avant-garde performance art to the public's attention and created so many interesting cross-disciplinary, playful and deep conversations with artists who wouldn't normally create performance art. I am a big fan of RoseLee Goldberg, for her vision and incredible ability of realizing it and shaping history.

Tamar Ettun, Mauve Bird with Yellow Teeth Red Feathers Green Feet and a Rose Belly, 2015. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Matt Grubb, 2015.

I first participated in Performa 09 in one of the commissioned projects at the X-initiative, while I was still a student at Yale MFA, and I collaborated with Emily Coates, my dance professor at the time. In 2011 I worked with RECESS and showed One Thing Leads to Another, a dance installation that took place inside an inflated hot-air balloon; the audience went into the balloon to see the piece. This was my first piece with inflatables, which I continued working with since. And in 2013 I participated in a story telling event at Van Allen Institute and spoke about raising a possum in Brooklyn briefly.

I'm super excited about Performa this year, and plan on seeing as much as I can!

Tamar Ettun, One Thing Leads to Another, 2012. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Tamar Ettun, 2012.

--Sarah Murkett