Chit-Chat Sirah & eitan

pieter van bogaert

Beyond Beauty

Sirah Foighel Brutmann and Eitan Efrat on The Gathering Series

What is so interesting with Brussels based artists Sirah Foighel Brutmann and Eitan Efrat (both °1983 in Tel Aviv) is that they seem to develop for each new work a new aesthetic. In 2011 they made ‘Printed Matter’, a 16mm film starting from the archive of contact prints of Sirah’s father and Israeli photojournalist André Brutmann. There the camera of Sébastien Koeppel never moves, while Sirah’s mother leafs through the album of her father. In 2013 followed ‘Journal’, which also starts from photos made by Brutmann of international guests at Yad Vashem, the Shoah memorial in Jerusalem. There the camera never stands still, but dances as part of a choreography through the exhibited photos.
The following conversation deals with their two most recent films in which different aesthetics are combined: ‘Orientation’ and ‘Nude Descending a Staircase’. Both films are part of the Gathering Series for which two more films are planned. The first two films deal with monuments built by Israeli architect Dani Karavan. ‘Orientation’ films ‘White Square’, the monument for the founders of Tel Aviv. ‘Nude Descending a Staircase’ films ‘Passages’, the memorial for Walter Benjamin in the Spanish town of Portbou.
A conversation in five acts.

Pieter Van Bogaert. Talking about monuments always already is talking about beauty. Every monument plays with the notion of beauty. It lures visitors through beauty. Therein lies the attraction that makes the monument work.
Each of these two films develops its own multiple aesthetics to reach beyond that beauty. You could say that ‘Orientation’ is about the past of a monument. The question there is: what lies behind a monument: the Palestinian village of Salameh. Or below: Watermellon Hill, on which the monument is built. ‘Nude Descending a Staircase’ goes into the other direction. It deals with the future of a monument. Then we are talking about agency: what does a monument do with people? It creates a flow of tourists of whom you use the footage found on YouTube in the first part of ‘Nude Descending a Staircase’. But also the second part of the video – where you show the discarded stairs in the town of Portbou or the entrance to the Walter Benjamin centre that is used for other things now – deals with the future of the monument. So if going beyond beauty in the first film means to deal with the past of the monument, in the latter it means to deal with the future of the monument, the future of beauty.

Sirah Foighel Brutmann. There are many parallels in these two works. In both of them there is a very obvious frame of beauty. In both monuments there is a staircase that leads towards a frame directed towards the sea. In both cases it is the Mediterranean seen from opposite sides. The same idea of opposed directions comes back in the staircases, which are prominent elements in both monuments. In Tel Aviv it goes up on the hill where you see the waterline through the city. In Portbou the staircase goes down. There is a certain hierarchy already embedded in the sculpture from where you get the viewpoint on the beauty – or rather: the climax – of the sculpture. This frame that is given to see beauty is probably the centre point of both these works. We approached it quite differently in both films, because the location itself and the way people gather and operate in each of these locations is very different. But each time there is this very similar conduction of this frame that guides the visitor towards the observance of the sea.

This image of people facing the sea reminds me of the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich where you see figures from the back on the mountain facing the valley or, indeed, the sea. That is what actually happens in Karavan’s sculpture in Tel Aviv, where the stairs go up. But also this going down in Portbou, these stairs leading into the abyss, the unknown, something to be afraid of, is part of the same story. It is a very romantic image that makes you think about beginning and end, about life and death.
Eitan Efrat. Referring to Friedrich’s painting is interesting in the context of Karavan’s memorial, in regards to the gaze of the individual: there is an intriguing alternation of the politics behind this gaze, once as a conqueror and second as an admirer of the romantic-untamed wilderness. Maybe in the context of post-colonialism – or colonialism in progress in Israel/Palestine – these two gazes are actually overlapping and share the same point-of-view.
Talking about beauty, the first thing I see is nature. The sea is the most immediate nature I know. When I think about the beauty of nature, I think about magnitude, about the size of it. There is something non-political in a beautiful landscape. And when I think about beauty in relation to the film and in relation to what you say, I think about falling in love. It is something that happens to you. It is a bit cliché, but let’s go with it. You cannot intentionally fall in love. This idea of falling in love is very related with the idea of falling in beauty. When I think about beauty, it is something I cannot be directed to.
So this is where we come to see beyond beauty, trying to find the beauty in complexity, in the sculptures of Karavan. Through the interview and getting to know him, we realized he is in fact very modest. He just does the things he thinks that are beautiful because this is what he is good at, as a genuine proposition to the visitor of his sculptures. However I find some naivety in this proposition. I see something else that obviously in all his works pushes me towards the direction of the experience of beauty. Which adds a surplus to beauty. It is a different kind of beauty. We are all looking at this together. That is where beauty becomes political. It has an agenda of some sort. That is where it becomes tricky and looses its aura, its simplicity or intended naivety.
Sirah. I am reading Michael Taussig’s book ‘Benjamin’s Grave’ in which there is one very personal essay on Portbou, but also about the sea and our ability to forget the sea in our obsession to the beach. He explains how, if we look back in history, there was a much stronger relationship between man and the sea. Men would go to the sea and would be awaited at home. Which is not part of our culture anymore. That said, the sea plays such a big role in our daily lives, but we managed to abstract that role. All the things that happened through the sea – from goods transported to slavery or the current refugee movements – are abstracted in our lives. So to react on your idea of stumbling upon: there is just not so much space for a beauty which is just nature. Nature is already politicized.

But there is more in beauty than only nature. Can’t we find beauty in politics? It can happen in art. But it is true that it has to happen, as an event. It is not something you can point at. That is where beauty is always very personal. ‘Nude Descending a Staircase’ deals with the tourist gaze and the path everybody follows. Then it is not beautiful anymore. We always want to take the other path then the one taken by the tourists.
Eitan. Indeed. However I don’t think the problem lays within the number of people watching, but rather in the potential and failure that are embedded within the power of the public. It can also happen while watching a film. So maybe it is easier for us to talk about films, instead of beauty.

Or monuments maybe?
Eitan. Okay. Let’s say that the work of Karavan itself is beautiful. But then there is something that a sculpture or any work of art can propose that is beyond beauty: a complexity, something that is not visible.

For every film you make, you develop a certain aesthetic to work with. This use of aesthetics always leads one way or another towards thoughts on beauty. That too is a way of framing. It is very clear in ‘Printed Matter’, where the frame is very fixed and does not change throughout the whole film. In ‘Journal’ the frame is much more open, like a choreography, but still there too you always see the same frame of the photographer who made the pictures you use. And then of course the two films we are talking about: it is always about framing and therefore about aesthetics.
Eitan. But is aesthetics then an outcome or a goal? I would say it is an outcome, an artefact. Something that comes out from a process. I don’t think we choose aesthetics.

But at a certain moment you will have to make decisions. Not to move the camera in ‘Printed Matter’. To develop the choreography in ‘Journal’. These are decisions you make very consciously.
Eitan. These decisions are made because they are suitable for the process of what we’re doing. We don’t move the camera in ‘Printed Matter’, because there is no reason to move the camera. It is not because we want it to look like this or that. Or to refer to other things. Actually, in ‘Nude Descending a Staircase’ it is the first time that, while realising what we were doing, I came across a reference towards Ernie Gehr’s ‘Serene Velocity’. That made sense. Through Gehr’s film we understood what we were doing. It is not that we tried to crack Karavan’s sculpture through his work. It is an apparatus that is created by conceptualizing, by reading, by thinking and researching and making the process and by pursuing the process.
Sirah. The Gathering Series is also very much about the process of gathering material. The gathering is also a reference to bringing things together and processing them.

Indeed, all your films are meeting points in the history of cinema. ‘Orientation’ and ‘Nude Descending a Staircase’ meet materialist cinema – Brakhage – in the first and structural or flicker film – Sharrits, Gehr – in the latter. There is a tradition in film and choreography that relates to ‘Journal’. This static image in ‘Printed Matter’ relates to pre-cinema or the experiments of Marey and Muybridge who create motion through a series of photos: back to the flipbooks. You probably know you are part of a certain tradition, and if you don’t, it will become part of the agency of the film where the spectator will link your work with the traditions he or she knows.
Sirah. That is exactly what is not easy with these films. Both in ‘Orientation’ and ‘Nude Descending a Staircase’ we use very different strategies. ‘Nude’ starts as a found footage film that becomes a flicker film and then turns into a more straight forward documentary and ends up with this almost abstract experience of a sculpture with sound. It is hard to follow the film because it uses so many different forms. That all of them could be recognised as an aesthetic or as related to a certain style and that by using all of them in a film that is only eighteen minutes long, makes it very dense. But still we were very conscious of every shift we made in the edit. Every change in style was a choice. I like the challenge that this creates for me as a viewer. But I am aware it is a challenge that not every viewer is ready to take up. The same thing in ‘Orientation’ where each part of the film uses a different strategy.

There, one of the strategies to go beyond the beauty of the monument is coming very close and filming the surface. This is where you want to go: behind the surface, or below the surface, to reach what is not visible. But by doing that, you make a beautiful image. It looks like a scratchfilm. Even if it is made on video and is very digital, it has a materiality that comes very close to that of a filmmaker like Stan Brakhage. That is where I start rationalizing, trying to follow your way of reasoning while making the work. That is where I, as a spectator, go beyond beauty. Beauty starts with a lure, an attraction. This is what Karavan does. That is what you do. And that is how it works for me. I am lured in it. It is through the beauty of the image that I arrive at this frame of history.
Sirah. One of the first thoughts we had before working on ‘Orientation’ was that this hill has always been there, long before the sculpture was conceived. Long before the state of Israel was there, there was always a hill, a landscape. This too comes back to the question of gathering. A hill in a landscape that is otherwise flat is a potential place to have a view from. You could easily imagine that people who used to live in that area would use the hill for that same purpose as it is used now in the sculpture of Karavan. In Portbou the thought about gathering is also a gathering outside of time. It means that the people need not to be there at the same time in order to become gathered in a way.

The hill is a very important place for gathering in Israeli history. That is where most of the colonies are started: to have a good view over the landscape. Not a nice view, but a strategic view.
Eitan. This is still clear today. The Jewish settlements are still built on top of the hill whereas the ancient Arab villages are down in the valley, next to the river.

The final version of ‘Orientation’ is totally different than the version I first saw in 2014, when it was part of your exhibition at Argos. There you only had the most aesthetic part of the film where you go over the surface of the monument. Afterwards you developed other aesthetic strategies to reach beyond the beauty of the monument. Like working with light, where the image whites out. Or the reversal of the image when you go behind the monument into the Palestinian village. There it is not really clear what you do: is it a negative? Not really. It looks more like a correction. So what I first read as the negative of the monument – the Palestinian village that used to be there – had to be read as a correction of that image.
Eitan. The colour correction that was made in this part of ‘Orientation’ simply exchanged darkness and light but kept the original colours. We created this effect in order to lit up the abandoned dome structure.
You said earlier that beauty is always personal. For me, what we call beautiful is something that we share. And then it actually lacks. When we presented the first version of ‘Orientation’ at Argos, the aesthetical part, or the beautiful part, became more important. It has to do with the fact that we worked last minute. I have the feeling that when I am pushed in the corner, I will present beauty. I will put beauty in front of me. I will make it nice. Although I think that the presentation at Argos was in a way beautiful, I don’t think it was such a good work. But I can understand that people like that much more than the final version. There were moments while making these films that we had to make a decision to follow either the logic to make what we wanted to make or to make something that people will like. That is something that makes our practice quite vulnerable.

I am puzzled when you say that beauty is something you share. I’d rather say that the problem of beauty is exactly the sharing: it is something you cannot share. Think about the tourist gaze on the memorial for Walter Benjamin. It is there, in that shared gaze, that your film goes beyond beauty.
Sirah. That is exactly the problem we want to address. Writing about these two films and thinking about the future of the Gathering Series themselves, is also dealing with the failure of the potential of the gathering. This thing where we are all supposed to stand together in awe in the end turns out as a certain failure.

Something I think about when thinking about beauty is the common or the things we share. You can have this feeling when you are in a manifestation and are part of a large group of people sharing a common concern.
Sirah. And then you go home and ask yourself: was that it?
Eitan. I have to think back on this demonstration in Jaffa against the bombing on Gaza in 2009 when Jews and Arabs marched together. That was amazing. There was a sign that I could relate to. Maybe because of the immediacy and the clear message: stop bombing Gaza. I have a totally different feeling when I think about the civil uprising in the summer in Tel Aviv against the prices of cheese and the rent. Although it was exciting, they claimed it was apolitical, they refused to see the affect the Zionist history and Israeli occupation over Palestine has on the life and economy in Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities. What I am interested in at this moment is gathering in grief. It is also very problematic, unsettling: to imagine that someone dies and that death becomes a symbol of our unity. There are many problems there, but here I find something to start with. I think about how a funeral becomes a protest in Palestine. It becomes gathering in fear, when the army comes again. The demonstration starts with a funeral to end up with more casualties that will lead to another funeral. These different modes of gathering overlap, they go into each other.
Sirah. When the potential of the gathering becomes a failure, it is important that the failure is not a dot. The failure is not the end of the situation. And that is something we both try to explore in our films: that this failure becomes poetic. In this poetics there is a construction of something other.

Then you talk about the hope beyond failure. To use the words of Beckett: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Every failure leads to a new – be it a better – failure.
Sirah. Or to a new poetics, a new view. Structurally there is in both these films a poetic effort. There is a failure and in that failure there is an extra push to go further, to go forward and to look at it differently. That is very important for me. It is not just about revealing a mechanism and end with a pessimistic note. There is a continuation. The failure is productive into something which is yet to be defined, to be articulated or not to be articulated.

That is the subject of Herman Asselberghs’ ‘After Empire’: to replace the fear of 9/11 as the iconic image of our century by the image of hope of 2/15 when millions of people took out to the street to protest against the war in Iraq in 2003. It failed, because the war started a few days later just as it was planned. But what remains is this feeling of hope. That it is possible to mobilize a large and worldwide multitude for a common cause. It was possible then, it may still be possible in the future. And if it failed then it does not mean it will fail in the future.
Sirah. I am not even sure if the next step has to be a gathering again. Through these two films I see it more poetically than imagining a protest. It is more about imagining putting light into an abandoned historical architecture, or it is about looking at an abandoned sculpture with a performative gaze, with the potentiality of writing a history.

Karavan calls his sculptures gestures. You show that in the first image of ‘Orientation’ with the stone on which is written “gesture for the founders of Tel Aviv”. Karavan also talks about the use of that word instead of monument or memorial on the soundtrack of ‘Nude Descending a Staircase’. It made me think of Agamben’s ‘Notes on Gesture’, which is a text about cinema. For Agamben the element of cinema is gesture, not image. He starts with the analysis of movement by Gilles de la Tourette who studied the gait, just like Muybridge or Marey did in the pre cinema period. He deals with the fact that we tend to forget gestures, which makes cinema so important.
Sirah. That is actually the thought behind the flickering part of ‘Nude Descending a Staircase’. That is where the title comes from, as a reference to Duchamp and to cinema and the early photographical studies of movement by Muybridge and Marey. The individual movement in the frame of the sculpture is composed by the space and so loses its individuality and becomes a path that everyone walks on in the same footsteps. We interpret Duchamp’s painting as an attempt to create an image of movement striped of the individual body, and this is also what we try to do in the video.

Did you talk more about this idea of gesture with Karavan?
Eitan. Yes, through his responsibility towards the visitor of his sculptures. He was really concerned about security. The fact that his sculptures are sometimes dangerous and kids play on it and people could get hurt. He was talking about how he calculates the measurements of the steps: whoever is capable to climb these steps is strong enough to take care not to fall of the sculpture. In terms of gesture there he really facilitates a certain path, a certain movement where you arrive to by walking. There is this famous picture of him in Portbou where he looks through his hands held as a frame. There he shows what he wants people to see. That gesture made by one person says: this is beautiful, I want people to see this. Which I find quite naïve.

Before ‘Nude Descending a Staircase’ all your work dealt with Israeli politics. That changes with this film. You leave the framework of Israeli politics and go to Portbou, the place where Walter Benjamin died. So I started looking for links with what came before: Jewish culture, Diaspora, migration, Nazism, Benjamin’s notion of messianic time or when time comes to a standstill that links to your idea of cinema or of frozen movement in Duchamp, Marey or Muybridge. What were your reasons to make this film?
Eitan. The only thing I can add is a personal reason. It has to do with Benjamin’s position towards Israel, his refusal to go to Israel. It also has to do with my personal attempt to frame myself outside of Israel. As a Jewish person you carry always this reference towards Israel. And of course I am also Israeli. I try to learn more about this idea of refusal and of Diaspora as a home. Also it is related to the birth of our daughter: the idea of localising ourselves here, in Brussels, where she is born. By chance, Benjamin died the same day as Rita was born: the 26th of September. But still it feels very close because of Karavan of course. It is very easy for us to relate the formal choices in how he works and thinks to Zionism and modernism and how Zionism used modernism as a language to concur and to occupy. This – and of course the Mediterranean Sea –is something that makes Portbou still feel like home. For me it also goes hand in hand with Karavan outside of Israel in this place in Spain and learning and studying it. And learning about the border and the history of the thirties and the Spanish civil war.
Sirah. We learned a lot in the process where we felt we are in unfamiliar territory. When we learned about the mass graves in Spain and about the meaning that it has today in politics. These are all things we stay attentive to but it is really outside of our discourse. Now, working on the distribution of the work I am very conscious of the fact that the film is in Hebrew. It is still something that I sometimes feel weird about. It is approaching a place through the filter of the language of the sculpture that is foreign to the place. Benjamin is very easily claimed by his Jewishness. Especially in Israel, he is not just a German philosopher but most of all a Jew. Which is essential to his writing. The sculpture itself is a commission of Germany. That is already a detour around Portbou, a certain reduction of the place that is not really a participant in the decision making.
Eitan. We have a tendency to work with things that are closer to us. And that, the things that are closer to us, might change, or they do change over times. That is how it went with ‘Orientation’. I grew up with the sculpture of Dani Karavan. My grandparents lived next to it. But I never knew why it was called Watermelon Hill in Arabic. I still don’t know. The process started from investigating that. Salameh, the Palestinian village behind the hill, has a road named after it. I lived right next to that road and I never questioned the name. It is familiar and not familiar territory. It is the place where I grew up, but it is totally new history to me. Ariella Azoulay writes beautifully about it in ‘From Palestine to Israel’, where she, as a researcher, has to open up another layer, dig deeper and not stop at ’67. And it is really symbolic because it is near to my grandparents house who are from the generation of ’48 and fought the so-called war of independence. That is where it stops. It is for a while already in front of me, but I could not see it.

Sirah. One more thing to confuse it even more. When we were working on the four chapters of the Gathering Series at the same time we were working on my grandmother who owned the glass slides from the shop in Saarbrucken that were also part of our exhibition at Argos in 2014. Her history is similar but different to the escape route of Benjamin because she goes back after the war to Poland to Lodz where she grew up and understands that she can’t stay there and tries to get to Paris to start a new life there. But then she gets stopped at the French border and ends up settling in Saarland which was then no-man’s-land, changing hands between France and Germany. There was also a certain similarity and a certain idea of crossing the border and being stopped at the border. Which side of the border you are being stopped on at what time destroys or constructs a life.

The terrorist attacks last week in Brussels made me think about shifting borders. The attacks made thinking about beauty much more complicated again. It became so unreal to spend time on beauty. But then again, I had to think about these terrorists and what beauty means for them. They create a lot of chaos for us but for them it is part of their new order. This is the beauty they are dreaming of. In the end it is not so far away from the monument for the founders of Tel Aviv and the Nakba – the Palestinian catastrophe of 1948 – that lies behind and below it. It all depends on which side you look at it to see the beauty or the horror of it. These shifts have a lot to do with the process of the imagination or placing yourself in the situation of the other and see how somebody else experiences something totally different, like your grandparents looked in a totally different way to the monument than you do today. It is these kind of shifts that I think about. And that you think about clearly when I look at the works you make.
Sirah. I’m thinking more and more that I can’t flip the coin anymore. I have to see both narratives. They cannot be separated. They write each other. They both are there. In a way I feel that there is no border anymore.

It is not because they shift that there are no borders anymore.
Eitan. The terrorist and the person standing next to him affected by the bomb, they might be not so different people. There is a force behind these people, circumstances behind the terrorists. After the attacks in Paris I read an article about the drugs Isis uses and the drugs that the Nazi’s used. Different regimes for different terrorists groups. That gave me kind of an access to imagine these crazy, untouchable terrorists.
As a kid I remembered a guy with a keffiyeh throwing stones like the most scary person. While we went through the archive of Sirah’s father I learned that these are kids with rocks. There is something happening in Israel now with this kitchen knife intifada. People take tools from their kitchen – scissors, knifes – to go stab soldiers or civilians. The act of violence, that is the only thing that marks the border. But looking in a slightly bigger scale there is already a very complex relation of elements at work. The occupation, the violence of the military, in Israel is not about justifying acts, but about thinking borders. When one body attacks the other, that is where the border is. But looking a bit away, borders are already disappearing.
Sirah. That is what is interesting about Islamic State: it is an ideological state and not a place. They are busy with land and concurring, but it is not about place, it is about occupying an idea. That is very relevant of the time we live in. It is an understanding that goes beyond borders, beyond the frame that we are all confined to. This idea of occupying an idea, an image, is so much stronger and so much more relevant to the time we live in than occupying a land.

Fort Beau – april, 2016