Merav Kamel And Halil Balabin
“The fact that we chose early on to work as an artist duo was rooted in the sense that together our capabilities and bodily limits may expand beyond our own, forcing us to do radical changes in our comfort zone and individual habits.”
Could you tell us a bit about yourselves and your background? Where did you study? We are Merav Kamel and Halil Balabin, an artist-duo, working together since 2012. We met at the Art Department, at Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, Jerusalem. Merav knew from an early age that she wanted to be an artist. At age 10 she received a gift of oil colours set from her grandfather. Even though no one explained to her what to do or how, and turpentine spilled all over, the paint gradually found its way to the canvas, while the materials were her best teacher. To this day, we still find in our studio practice that materials are our best teachers. Halil found interest in art studies while learning dance at a renowned masters’ studio in Mizpe Ramon (in the Negev Desert in Israel). A coincidental visit to the art dept. of Bezalel Academy made him sense the freedom art gives you. The ability to be odd captivated us both. We spend a great deal of time in our studio, one might say we are art ‘addict’. We are submerged into minor details in our work which makes every move quite extensive and leads to a struggle between our flow of ideas and passions and a relatively slow pace of work. We work in two separate areas of the studio and meet occasionally during the day to share a new revelation, a work we finished, or an exciting thought. Both of our presence allows us a dialogue with a person you love and appreciate and enables a mutual fertilization. We love to be in the desert. Spending time in a monochromatic, quiet, and empty area blows your mind and senses with excitement. During the second COVID-19 quarantine in Israel (October 2020) we stayed at a month-long residency at Arad Art Center in the desert and were surrounded by a bare horizon which made us feel diluted and transparent. We hope to have a house and a studio in the desert. Today our studio is located next to Tel Aviv beach so walking to/from our flat to the studio allows us to enjoy an uninterrupted gaze in some nature next to the urban landscape.
What spurred you to work as a duo? What has been the most fulfilling and unexpected aspects of your professional partnership over the past nine years? At the very start of our relationship, we used to sew dolls as a gift to one another. Gradually the dolls were connected, one would do the nose, the other would do the foot, and then we played with the other organs and began having surprising connections. Today we work together on various levels. Sometimes we pass works from one to the other, sometimes each one is focused on his/her own work. Yet the emphasis is always on a shared working space and consequently a shared exhibition space. One of the most important things for us as creators is broadening the limits of our consciousness and imagination. The fact that we chose early on to work as an artist duo was rooted in the sense that together our capabilities and bodily limits may expand beyond our own, forcing us to do radical changes in our comfort zone and individual habits. Over time our collective work has evolved. In the beginning, we would work on the same piece of art, in the same material, within a concept we agreed upon. Over time we realized it might diminish or even castrate our individual desires for the sake of the joint work. Naturally, we began opening up to additional creative practices within the studio for a solo or collective work. Funny enough we realized unintentionally and nonverbally that our works beautifully connect in an exhibition setting. Maybe it is our flow of consciousness or some weird sense that creates these relations within our works. We have a similar line and an almost identical style, that mostly only we know who did what.
Your 2016 project "Maalal" references the Freudian notion of a screen memory and your 2019 project "Naked Leg" drew inspiration from Louise Bourgeois, who considered art as a parallel "form of psychoanalysis". Does psychoanalytic theory factor into your practice? If so, in what ways? Louise Bourgeois once said that artists have the privilege to be in touch with their subconsciousness and that is her definition of sanity. The ability of art to convert and mix between sanity and madness, and to flex and confuse the imaginary synthetized boundary between the two, is perhaps the source of our drive to do it over and over. The relation between psychology and art interests us as an experience rather than in a theoretical manner. We see art as a tool, a space for a talk with the unknown. It tells us things about the outside world and on our own mind, it raises fears, and fear is the most fertile source for a creative imaginary. Paranoia, like fantasy, is associated with creation. Fear makes the world go around, as Bourgeois wrote. Like evidence from a dream, figures from our past are raising out of the material in our hands with surprising and absurd connections that no sober mind can invent, a force of creation that is beyond us.
Whimsical, humanoid figures made of fabric and wood feature heavily in projects such as "The Hotdog Man and the Thief of Distances" (2020), "Naked Leg" (2019), and "Bauchnabel" (2018). What was the inspiration for these figures? How does their materiality affect their subjecthood? We are in search of access to the territories of the unknown, of the absurd, of the nonsense, the humour, and fantasy. There are many gateways to enter. Material, for instance, has proven to be a familiar access for us, yet also random figures in a peeling wall, dreams, going through old sketchbooks. Most of the time our sculptures begin in a relatively clear direction however failure and disruption lead to the final figure or scene, while it is being created. Usually, there is no one cohesive theme connecting our works. It is done by the viewer. We see them as a cluster of short stories meeting all together in one space. Our inspiration can potentially come from anywhere; it can be history, the present political situation in the Middle East, signs and symbols in the public arena, private jokes. At times there can be detailed works in our mind and at others, works are born out of the process itself. We try to be as stupid as we possibly can and to work from a whimsical, embarrassing, seducing, and wired point of view.
Your most recent major exhibition, "The Hotdog Man and the Thief of Distances", at Artport Tel Aviv includes the aforementioned wooden, humanoid figures and a painting installation. Can you elaborate on the conception of this project? In recent years we have stopped working with concrete ideas and proposals for exhibitions. We feel that the mechanism of art operates in a way that contradicts and castrates the possibility to develop an intuitive, alarming and unidentified process. An idea can be a trigger for creative action, but what happens from this moment on is the thing that interests us the most. It can also be the most challenging thing to talk about. During a year-long residency at Artport, Tel Aviv (2020), we were able to work without a deadline and gave ourselves space and breath we so needed. Covid-19 quarantines only enhanced our inner motivations over exterior ones. We became focused on doing art for ourselves and not for curators, viewers, or for market demands. The formation of our last show was very organic. We began analysing our activities only after installing the project ‘The Hotdog Man and the Thief of Distances’. The paintings are gathered into one unintentional, intuitive and continuous mural painting. It is a broken narrative, like doing a puzzle without knowing the final image. Each painting has lines that go beyond its paper, and only in the adjacent painting can you know its course. Our technique of infinite and continuous painting allows us to create numerous points of view that challenge the law of the “scientific” perspective. It aspires to a realistic description, in the sense that it describes our overall experience of the world, like a scroll, a diorama, a Byzantine, Egyptian, Japanese or Persian painting before the invention of the linear perspective. The painted figures blend with one another, flow from one thing to the next, object and subject blur, chaos opposite order. Our technique of engraving a soaked paper with watercolours requires high concentration and intuitive work like a Zen drawing. During our residency, we also dwelled into wood sculpting. Each of the sculptured figures is a result of a slow and concentrated learning of what can and cannot be done with wood. The limitation of the material is a crucial starting point that offers options we would have never considered. The failures and faults in the process are those who brought the most remarkable results. These figures have an architype feature, referring to the past, to myths and familiar images from different cultures, corresponding with the history of wooden sculpture. At one end is the Hotdog Man, a storyteller, a teacher, a Guru, discharging an endless chain of hotdogs into a whole in the stage, eating or shitting them, like stories he gets out of his mouth. He sits in a meditative posture, maybe giving a lesson. Across from his are an array of figures waiting for him to speak, watching, listening, maybe waiting for salvation, some dedicated others opposing, criticizing.
What artwork have you seen recently that has resonated with you? One of the most mind-blowing things we recently came across was ‘The Midnight Gospel’ animated series. Fantastic animated figures in a disturbed world of disrupted human perception. The sense of two receptive channels and two narratives running simultaneously competing on your focus creates an interesting complicated state, and very much in correlation to our edgy mind. A place we really love is the Museum Insel Hombroich (Museum Island Hombroich) in Neuss, Germany. An art museum in nature that looks like a green watery reservoir. You walk around beautiful and strange Tetris-like buildings showing masterpieces by Modern artists next to ritual elements of cultures form around the globe. No guards, no wall text, no labels, only amazing flow between a stroll in nature and human creations that at times spider webs and dust found their way to it. The ability to have life blend with art reminds us of the dissolvement of substance, its death, and in that manner, these works of art are the most vivid and alive. It is the perfect place to hallucinate in nature, and most importantly they offer a free cafeteria with comforting food and hot drinks. Also recently we visited ‘the painted house in Shlomi’ by Afia Zacharia. A small low budget flat in the town of Shlomi, on the border of Israel and Lebanon, which Afia Zacharia had turned into a work of art that was open to the public after her death in 2002. With simple means, intensity, and continuous work, she made her flat into an alternative universe, a decorated wrapping palace like-tent.
Is there anything new and exciting in the pipeline you would like to tell us about? Lately, we discovered the fun and exciting thing of visiting caves in the desert of Israel. We take with us our working materials and set a studio in nature. We plan on taking more of these trips and are not sure what will become of it, yet we are very excited about it. We are constantly looking for creative ways to merge our art and our lives, rather than keeping them apart or struggling between them.