Naama Tsabar creates interactive installations and performances that engage the viewer, activate the space, and challenge our understanding of societal rules. She has created conceptual instruments that need to be touched and experimented with in real time in order to be played. Her work first appeals visually, then intrigues with touch and comes alive with sound. For example, for her piece Closer (2014), which was exhibited at the Guggenheim, Tsabar made a freestanding corner, behind which two heads of microphones on stands disappeared. Behind the walls were guitar strings that could be played only when a viewer reached inside the cavity. Not for the timid gallery-goer, her work requires participation and curiosity.
Tsabar had a solo show this summer at Paul Kasmin Gallery, is participating in the Museum of Arts and Design‘s “Sonic Arcade: Shaping Space with Sound” show (September 14, 2017—February 25, 2018), and a new work for Prospect.4 in New Orleans this fall. Whitewall spoke with her about music, art, and why she collaborates mostly with women.
WHITEWALL: You’ve said that music was the first creative output you were exposed to. How so?
NAAMA TSABAR: My house was always full of a love of music. I played from an early age— piano, guitar—and my brother played music. It was really a space where I could expand. Art was always in the background in my family. It just took me a minute to channel that. My grandfather was a painter, and the house was always lined with my grandfather’s paintings.
WW: What then ultimately led you in that direction?
NT: I was exposed throughout high school; I had an amazing teacher for art, and she just brought on this freshness for thinking about art. She came from a conceptual art background and that totally intrigued me. Later, after I finished my undergrad, I exhibited quite a lot, started working with a gallery in Israel. And then in 2008 I came to study at Columbia, but by that time I already had a career—a path that I had chosen for my life.
WW: For your undergrad thesis, you strung a guitar string around the gallery for viewers to pluck. It seems you were already making that connection between conceptual art, performance, and music.
NT: The start of the 2000s for me was very important in this kind of way where I was still playing a lot of music. I was in a band and performing in a nightclubs, bars—it was a very specific scene. At the same time, I attended art school and things just very organically started slipping into each other. That thesis work was where things clicked and connected.
WW: You’ve previously emphasized how important it is for you that you work mostly with women. Why is that?
NT: I feel so often there is this form of technical mastery in the arts and the musical field, and I think so many times women are made to feel like they don’t know something or can’t do something. All these inner worlds and creative worlds can include or exclude certain people, and I feel so often this gender exclusion. That’s the worst thing that any creative field can do for the people who want to take part in it.
I know from my work there’s this moment where there are no rules—and the rules must be written in that moment of time. And I will explain. For example, when I do a performance, I invite musicians that know how to play sculptural instruments that I made that don’t have these prior technical kind of written rules. And so those moments of getting to know the object, the instrument, the movement against it, are new. They’re written in that place and time. And in that sense, anybody can activate my work. Anybody can walk into the work and be just as masterful as a very knowledgeable musician. That’s a very important thing for me, to create a community that’s not so hierarchal and doesn’t exclude so many people.
WW: Do you find it difficult sometimes to get a viewer to cross that border? Is there a way you try to welcome that experience?
NT: It depends on the country and even on the city that it’s in and how strong those borders are written into the conscious mind in a specific space. Children, more than anything, activate the work without thinking twice. It’s because they don’t have all these rules written into their understanding in society of how one should act.
WW: Thinking more about mastery and gender roles made me think of the installation you did in San Salvador, Propagation (Opus3) in 2015 at MARTE Contemporary. Covering the walls are wires and gear, and musical equipment that I think is often associated with male studio engineers.
NT: For the longest time, because my name is not from here, artists that I would meet afterward at parties would be like, “Oh, I thought you were a man.” Which was funny to me because in Israel, Naama is a girl’s name. But I think in San Salvador, something happened where, as much as there were all these components, as much as there were all these technical abilities, it was also just like a painting on the wall. The first view when you would walk into the museum was in the main hall and you could see the work from afar. So you saw it as a composition on the wall, not all these speakers and cables. The thing to understand is that this whole thing has an actual function that is related to aesthetics.
There is a certain kind of community-related collaboration and participation within my work, and I find that with women it is easier to achieve things without anybody overpowering someone else. There is a lot of listening and a lot of patience, and that’s really important to creation. It is not per se only a woman’s quality, but I have found that there is sort of relaxation and a kind of safe zone for creating when I collaborate with women.
This article is published in Whitewall‘s 2017 Design Issue.