« La distance de V à W »
by Mathilde Villeneuve

While Yael Davids has chosen for her first solo exhibition in France a title with Perecian overtones, the words “La distance entre V et W” primarily point to two figures the artist engaged with in the early stages of her research during her residency at the Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers. Simone Veil and Simone Weil — two women whose writing and forms of engagement shaped different trajectories, characterised by pragmatic politics for the former and constant metamorphosis for the latter, but whose lives had in common an involvement in political struggles, their Jewish culture, and the traumatic experience of World War II. These initial referents quickly faded away to wholly give over to the linguistic play that effectively highlights the distance that draws together and separates two contiguous yet discrete elements of language. A play that also echoes the distances the artist has herself experienced and those that she wished to address in this project.
As Yael Davids relays in one of her performances, she grew up on a kibbutz with her Yemenite mother and Dutch father, before emigrating to Amsterdam:

        “We called it ‘The Arab Tzuba’ … Suba had been a Palestinian village and attacked by the Palmach army on the 13th of July 1948, 602 Palestinians were expelled and a Zionist settlement, Kibbutz Tzuba, was established. I grew up somewhere between the two places, Suba and Tzuba” [1] 

One imagines a child’s gaze shaped by the surrounding landscapes of ruin, the “ghost landscapes” [2] that Irit Rogoff speaks of. One also imagines a complex identity construction, caught somewhere between a desire to leave and an attachment to the land (and the subsequent uprooting), between the abandonment of a communal way of life and the survival of a desire for belonging, the mix of cultures and languages, the care taken to preserve within herself the memory of others and their engulfed stories, interrogations regarding political engagement in a country torn between Zionism and diaspora, the entanglement of individual and collective responsibility in an endless and murderous conflict. Thus, for Yael Davids, this sense of distance is shaped by one’s roots, emerging less through objective cartographic data than through an affective and relational geography, determined, among other things, by the means of mobility and the checkpoints one must pass through, and measured through the energies and emotions spent. [3]

        “Revisiting the idea of a single territory as a place that carries the notion of home, I would like to explore and challenge the state of anchoring, offering to see the state as a mobile flexible state, one that needs the others to exist.” [4]

“La distance entre V et W” also rings like an invitation on a journey, the trajectory set out by the floor exhibits, which were developed in part through two group workshops run by the artist. Indeed, the exhibition space was firstly the artist’s work space. Informed by her background in dance training (Remscheid Academie) and the visual arts (Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam and the Pratt Institute in New York), her interest in kinaesthesis and somatic language and her belief in the importance of developing new practices able to nurture the body’s memory functions and imprint new gestures, Yael Davids offered weekly Feldenkrais [5] classes to local residents of Aubervilliers. The bare space of the Laboratoires gradually became enlivened by these shared sensory experiences and the multiplicity of corporeal maps.

Bodies that Yael Davids, a performance artist and storyteller, apprehends as documentary vessels located at the intersection between personal and political narratives, at once receptacles and diffusing channels. The artist approaches the sculptures she produces in a similar manner in that they also involve a movement of abstraction and absorption of language. Just as they abstract and absorb the figures and texts studied during the reading workshops run during her residency: narratives of exile, of spaces and identities by Edouard Glissant, Georges Perec and Hélène Cixous, the correspondence of Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem, and a text by Judith Butler on the constant dislocations and contradictory claims of ap/ex-propriation of Kafka’s oeuvre…

        “Thanks to their porous and absorbent quality, certain materials will carry silent stories and enter into dialogue with other materials, which are used due to their capacity to accumulate reflections and create a proliferation of images.”[6]

Although Yael Davids’ exhibitions typically include an activation through performance — and in this regard the Laboratoires installation is unique — the artist nonetheless pursues the same dynamic of “exhausting” materials (experiencing their potential and possible combinations as she would with a vocabulary, with each new space she occupies). In this exhibition, she privileges glass and clay plaster, developing a work that shoots up and “grows atop the ruins of itself” [7]. The ground is thus a black expanse composed of an unstable substance that absorbs and retains the print of each micro-event. The clay plaster used to create the surface is in part a homage to the houses built by Palestinians, and to their know-how (ironically forced into the service of building shelters for their enemies). As for the deep black pigment, it evokes Richard Serra’s large-scale drawings exhibited at the Kunsthalle Basel [8]. The glossy pigment gives the whole a precious and fragile aspect, contrasting with the rawness of the Laboratoires space and, further, with the heterogeneous, run-down surroundings of the town of Aubervilliers. Finally, the flatness of surface seems to be inspired by Carl André’s floor sculptures, whom the artist willingly cites in her performances and with whom she shares a desire for dynamic horizontality:

        “My idea of a piece of sculpture is a road. That is, a road doesn’t reveal itself at any particular point or from any particular point. Roads appear and disappear. We either have to travel on them or beside them. But we don’t have a single point of view for a road at all, except a moving one, moving along it.”[9]

Yet in contrast to André’s flat sculptures, one cannot walk on these works. Pushed to their edges, we are invited, rather, to walk around them, taking on the constricted choreography the artist seems to have relayed. This limited circulation points to the violent history of land occupation, edging around an uninhabited landscape, a lifeless, burnt-out ground, a ruin were things dissolve, thus banishing any desire to wander there. But this black hole also establishes an emptiness that can reduce the burden of knowledge and painful experiences to thus foster new mental projections.

Set at an angle from this monochrome expanse lies a case containing glass and earthenware domestic objects that the artist picked up in a local second-hand shop and took to her studio to then set about displaying them in a disciplined approach informed by the techniques of still life. This transparent box and its interior stratification are inspired by Gustave Moreau’s ‘watercolour display cases’ — a prolific artist who, as his museum in Paris testifies, aimed to present a view of the whole rather than give access to single elements of work. The transparent receptacle both encloses and reveals the drawings and their models, now brought to coexist in close proximity with one another. Placed in this diamond-like casing, they take on a precious quality.  The glass shimmers with the ambivalence of its qualities — fragility and resistance — and the histories it evokes. That of transparent modernist architecture, which both reveals and controls and can accumulate and diffract perspectives (all the more resonant with regards to Jewish culture and its complex relationship to representation). And then the more specific history of Oran Safety, the glass manufacturer on the kibbutz the artist grew up on, which started off as a specialist windscreen manufacturer to then shift — from the late 1980s to 2000, with the first and second intifadas — to making glass able to resist Bazookas, grenades and other types of rockets.

        “Glass became a defensive weapon, kept in one piece to keep people safe through separation.”[10]

The exhibition is the echo chamber of Yael Davids’ artistic research, its negative. It contains its missing part, made up of a particular personal and collective history, of the experiences conducted in the site, and the theoretical resources explored — now mixed together in the clay, pigment and glass powder. This process of production loads the installation with latent memory. Here, the place of the spectator is that of operating this slow adjustment of focus (as one would say of a photograph), which ultimately winds up in a paradox: the exposure of a geography that cannot contain us.

“Imagine this downward movement of a root — digging, expanding, eliminating that which comes its way. I think of this determined root — turning into plural, branching, cleaving, anchoring, becoming a foundation, shooting a single body. A stem. Settled and refusing to move. I reconsider my idea of the root — to a concept of reduction, violation , insistence and permanence. Migrated. In a constant search for the land that holds this source of myself. How could I imagine that I could become one again? Infused back into the roots? How could I imagine this movement back into the roots as a movement without destruction, without violation?” [11]

[1] Yael Davids, Learning to Imitate in Absentia (performance script).

[2] Irit Rogoff, Catalog, Former West, 18-24 mars 2013, Haus Der Kultur der Welt : http://www.hkw.de/media/en/texte/pdf/2013_2/programm_6/booklet_former_we...

[3] See Irit Rogoff's lecture “Exhausted geography”, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PJOP9l0_nbI

[4] Yael Davids' Notes, 2014.

[5] The Feldenkrais Method offers ways of developing awarenss of one’s movements in space and one’s surroundings through the kinaesthetic sensations linked to them.

[6] Yael Davids’ notes, November 2014.

[7] The Tongues She Speaks, Yael Davids in an interview with Adam Szymczyk, in Terms of Exhibition, Petra Reichensperger, Sternberg Press, 2013.

[8] Yael Davids discovered Richard Serra’s large-scale drawings at his major exhibition at the Kunsthalle Basel. She was profoundly affected by these works. She went on to present Ending with Glass (installation and performance) at the Kunsthalle Basel in 2011.

[9] Yael Davids cites Carl André in her performance Learning to Imitate in Absentia. Original quote in André C. Cuts : Texts 1959-2004, Ed. James Meyer, Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press, 2005.

[10] The Tongues She Speaks, Yael Davids in an interview with Adam Szymczyk, in Terms of Exhibition, Petra Reichensperger, Sternberg Press, 2013.

[11] Yael Davids, Reading that Writes - a Physical Act (performance script).