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Lior Shvil is a New York-based sculptor, installation and performance artist. He gave us a tour of his recent Manhattan solo debut at Andrea Rosen Gallery and discussed the development of his practice.
While developing this exhibition you outlined three types of aggression (true, conditioned, commoditized); could you explain how you isolated those three types and how they're manifested in the work?
I think there is the very childish aggression, which is about physical power, it's not about taking out or taking over. There's violence and there's power, and violence is an extension of the childish aggression. It's about two people fighting and looking into each other's eyes, and they can overcome the aggression and become friends. It's physical, you can smell it, see it and touch it; it's more sexual.
The power is something that's commodified, it's about control. It's less about engagement. The engaging is about being masked and you can't see the real fighter—he's just a function, an arm of the bigger power. So the character Benni
is signifying this kind of power, the commercial, commodified power. It's the supermodern capitalist power that sends soldiers overseas and sends airplanes without pilots to bomb certain places. That's power. I'm interested in challenging that and laughing about it through different media channels—video, performance.
You mention laughing at power, and there's a very fine line in your work between humor and violence, between violence that is very satirical and violence that is really violent; how do you negotiate that boundary in your videos, installations and performances?
It's like the difference between the oppressed and the oppressor. As an Israeli, there's a delicate balance that is continually breaking down, which has existed throughout history. So humor is something existential that you use to survive hard times, but reality is also funny. We see all these superheroes and fighters on TV, and their commodified power, and it's very serious. But the real thing is very messy, very physical, and sometimes funny.
That's my experience and that's what I'm trying to show through the exercise, or the performance—that's what I call it, exercise. To bring the viewer into the mess, but in a more physical way. I'm trying to let the viewer see the failure of the body, the failure of the machine, the failure of my exercise. That's why some of the material is very delicate and breaking down. It's not theatrical, but there is purpose for all the training. So I'm trying to train for failure.
You always perform in your own work; are you ever tempted to work with a collaborator, or is your presence essential?
I always thought of my early work as a documentation of a performance, so the camera was always static and shooting for a long time so I had a lot of material. But before it was never scripted. I see my latest work as pushing even more into live performance, so I see my body as part of a situation or a sculpture. The performance is something I need to experience; it's very physical, and sometimes even a little dangerous.
So would you say that the performance is the primary form of your work, or is it dependent on multiple media—the sculpture, the video, the performance and the installation?
I don't see myself as focusing on a specific medium, although video was always there because I think it's very easy and accessible as an everyday tool. For me, projects start from my own biography and my experience.
Was there a specific experience that served as a catalyst for this piece?
Inside the Artist's Studio: Lior Shvil's Arduous Performance Art Exercises
Inside the Israeli, New York-based artist's elaborate installations.
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This piece specifically started from an event that took place not long ago, when an Israeli commander took over a ship. That really caught me and brought up difficult memories and issues that I have lots of problems with, so since then I've been planning this, writing scripts and I began to build it. There's different essential experiments that I'll continue doing, but this basically is looking back at myself and where I was, and where I'm coming from.
You've mentioned this character named Benni; do your characters always come from an interior place or experience, or are there characters that are drawn from the outside world?
I think both. I wouldn't be able to act on or engage anything that I didn't experience one-to-one, or at least closely. And of course I'm digging up those characters from a very close environment. So for instance, it's very well-known that today former officers and veterans travel the world working for private companies that governments hire to do what their own military cannot do. So that's a very familiar phenomenon. And then sometimes the work is more poetic, if it's coming from a cultural experience like literature or things that I grew up with and developed through.
In your piece at SculptureCenter last year you engaged similar issues, but coming at them from an angle, via butchery; what interested you in that similarity between violence against animals and warfare?
"The Kosher Butcher
" was metaphorical, whereas this is very specific, but I think in both cases there is a kind of blood culture. And what I mean by that is there's a balance between tradition—family traditions and history—and cultural history, thousands of years of the same continuation of blood culture, and what this culture has become today. And there is a crack or a break in this culture, between the power and the violence. It's become something more abstract. Blood as a culture united people, but now it's become something that symbolizes aggression.
To what degree are your performances scripted; how much room do you leave for chance and improvisation?
In my latest work I'm making much more space for chance. For example, with "The Kosher Butcher" the script is part of a bigger script for a longer piece, so it was there but I really exhausted myself because otherwise it's just speaking to the camera. Sometimes I find weak points of my practice and try to infiltrate those to break myself. So in "The Kosher Butcher" I pushed myself to the limits of exhaustion, which is how I could execute it more intuitively—based on the script, but sometimes going off it. For me the performance has a lot of adrenaline, especially on this structure, there's a lot of weak points for breaking the piece, moving and the failure of the body, so it's kind of different—although the choreography's kind of the same.
Have there been any artists—Mike Kelley comes to mind—who've been especially influential for you?
I think earlier on I was mostly influenced by European art history, but today I'm more engaged with American contemporary art and art history—so Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy, and Kara Walker. And all of them for different reasons of course.
Speaking of Kara Walker, a couple of your earlier pieces make use of silhouettes; how did that develop into your current performance practice?
My first piece ever was a silhouette video where I perform through a hand-drawn storyboard, so the video showed my shadow's movements inside this frame. Then I saw a Kara Walker show that was in Tel Aviv at that time and I realized, "Ok, I should move on." It was amazing. A few years later I started doing paper installations
, and during that time I was physically absent from my work, it was more like sculpture. I think that my absence from the work was important for me at that time. But narrative is always an important structure for me; the visual language is different.
Does the act of putting on masks and costumes in some of your performances have a certain liberating effect? Does putting on your costume take on a kind of ritualistic significance when you're preparing for a performance?
Absolutely. You mentioned the clown aspect, and that's something I'm still writing and developing. I see the clown gesture as maybe the most influential character for me. The costume is related to that: it's a way of freeing myself, and it's freeing the imagination of the viewer. I allow myself to be free. There is definitely a ritual related to it, like the ritual of dressing up.
How do you create your installations? Are they assembled for the first time on-site, or do you make them in your studio and then bring them here?
I'm always planning ahead since I usually know where the installation is going to go. I think that creating the sets and the studio practice is more essential, so I'm building the site within my studio and shooting, playing experimenting there. So that when it goes to the exhibition space it's easier to keep the studio feeling.
Is it hard for you to create that same studio atmosphere in a gallery or museum?
My previous performance
was in Miami in a show curated by Rirkrit Tiravanija, and in that piece I played a very exposed, very poetic character. And it wasn't just my body being exposed, but also my mental condition. Here I'm much more trained and covered, so it's easier for me to execute what I kind of instinctively know. But that piece in Miami was very difficult; it took me like two hours to be alone and get myself into character. But that was the only way to capture the fragility of the character. It was very musical.
But that becomes another challenge: how to re-enact the studio performance in the gallery. In this piece it's much easier, but in the character I performed in Miami, jaK'oV, it was very site-specific. The space was very different from my studio, it was a storefront, so I had to engage with all kinds of different dimensions. I felt much freer in a way that I think is better than here.
How have your spectators or your collaborators responded to the mix of humor and violence, confrontational and presentational modes of address in your work?
It's very diverse. Through the violence I'm trying to share something very physical, and I think the part of power that deals with violence is very attractive and sexual. Within this structure there is a bigger concept, and the humor has the same importance as the violence. The humor is coming from a long tradition of theater that's inspired by vaudeville, Yiddish theater. "The Kosher Butcher" was inspired by early TV commercials. The balance between humor and violence is also related to breathing; there's something very relaxing about it, but also something very stressful.
(Photo by the author)