Tamar Ettun: Living Sculpture

It wasn’t clear just what, exactly, Tamar Ettun and a group of performers were building toward during an hour-long event last June in the small theater at the Abrons Arts Center on New York’s Lower East Side, but all six of them moved between tasks onstage with such determination that most of the audience, though able to enter and exit the space freely, stayed put for the entire duration. It’s Not a Question of Anxiety, 2014, a work the artist considers one of her “live sculptures,” comprised several stations for action and figures orbiting between them: An industrial leaf blower inflated an oversize green balloon made of large swaths of transparent tarp held together with masking tape, which was then tossed around; a dancer attached large plastic soda bottles filled with water to each of his legs so that their contents would pour over his body when he stood on his head; another performer climbed atop a very high ladder to continue growing a large totem pole composed of found materials; and a system of torn-fabric ropes tied together two people, relying on the tension from both participants’ leaning back on the ropes to keep them upright, in a tribute to Trisha Brown’s Leaning Duets.

Ettun, a Jerusalem-born, Brooklyn based artist, grounded her early practice in the fact that she was working without a studio—shooting videos and creating live sculpture in public spaces—while her recent work expands into ever more voluminous forms with multiple actors. The artist and her team of dancers, called the Moving Company (Lyndsey Eugene, Adrian Galvin, Maia Karo, Tyler Patterson, and Tina Wang), have staged several shows together since 2013, often creating much commotion and spectacle with immediately unclear rationales. The Moving Company and the products of their actions, alternately in motion and motionless, embody a hybrid discipline between traditional sculpture and performance that continues to drive the artist’s progress in both media. In posing herself and the Movers as statues, having them stay still for extended periods of time, they become objects. Ettun’s discrete sculptural objects, meanwhile, are expanding in size, nearly weightless and animated, taking a path of their own in her performance-driven installations.

Still, it’s the careful attention to psychological pathologies and the reaction to personal trauma that marks her recent “Performing Stillness” series. Delving further into the dark subject matter of psychic wounds, the works are intensely personal yet pointedly alienating. Her exhibition “My Hands Are the Shape of My Height,” at the nonprofit space Transformer in Washington, D.C., this past autumn, featured a selection of photographs, videos, and casts from arms and legs. The pieces resemble phantom limbs that haunt those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, an unavoidable manifestation of war in her native Israel, where she put in the requisite two years as a soldier in the national army before making the move to New York nearly a decade ago. Performances such as One Thing Leads to Another, 2011–13, explored the fervor of rituals that those afflicted with obsessive-compulsive disorder can be driven to execute—such as pushing a clay boulder around the circumference of an inflating balloon.

Formally, the Moving Company dancers’ choreography of quotidian movements and playful interaction is best seen in Empty Is Also, 2009, with dancer Emily Coates. The performance borrows from the graceful moves of the ballet choreographer and dancer George Balanchine, the postmodern sways of Yvonne Rainer and Trisha Brown at the Judson Dance Theater, and Israeli conceptual choreographer Ohad Naharin’s delicate Gaga movement language. Her extensive research into the engineering of hot-air balloons, supported by a grant from Yale’s mfa sculpture program, informs the ephemeral architecture of the lifelike blimps floating between them.

The past several months have brought a wave of new productions: Performing Studio, the centerpiece of last September’s dumbo Arts Festival in Brooklyn, was simultaneously a functioning workspace where she continued to rehearse “Performing Stillness,” as well as an exhibition and performance space open to the public. In August, she staged a concert at e-flux where the Moving Company played a score composed by Tamar Muskal and Yonatan Rosen on musical sculptures built by Ettun. In September she also participated in The Last Days of Folly, an evening of performances staged in Manhattan’s Madison Square Park centered on Rachel Feinstein’s site-specific fairy-tale architectural follies. Alluding to the improvisational techniques of her prestudio days, she and the dancers fashioned themselves into makeshift live sculptures, standing upside down in trash cans throughout the park, seeming to defy gravity while sporting capes and sneakers. Their actions became subtle interventions in other artists’ temporary installations and amusing curiosities for passersby.

This year began with a residency at Robert Wilson’s Watermill Center on eastern Long Island. She made the move in January and returns this month with members of the Moving Company for three weeks of open rehearsals. Future projects, Ettun says, will articulate “instinctive empathy that is physical and not intellectualized.” The method will again mine her personal history and ptsd’s characteristic of rendering its patients unable to empathize, since all their psychic resources are diverted to emotional survival. No doubt her circle of harmonious collaborators and spirited objects will help her to illustrate greater affect.



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