Tzfia Dgani and Avital Barak in a Conversation about Gesture and Artistic Action

translated by: Margalit Rodgers

“If I walk up and down here while speaking to you, that does not constitute an act, but if one day I were to cross a certain threshold by which I put myself outside the law, that day my motor activity will have the value of an act” (Jacques Lacan’s 15th Seminar on the Psychoanalytic Act, 1967-8)

A conversation between Tzfia Dgani and Avital Barak on the concept of “gesture” and Dgani’s artistic action in recent years.

Avital Barak (AB): This conversation is a continuation of the meetings held by the research group “Thoughts About Gesture” in the course of 2017 at the Institute for Public Presence at the Center for Digital Art in Holon. As part of the concluding stage, an event is due to be held in Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard with actions (performances) by the group members in public space. Tell me what you’re planning.

Tzfia Dgani (TD): I’m planning a performance called “Integrating Without Deviation”. It’s a performance in which a camera is installed in the middle of Rothschild Boulevard with me in front of it. I have to remain within the boundaries of the camera frame, without paying attention to it, and without the passersby on the boulevard identifying me as being filmed, for an hour. I have to integrate into the boulevard. I can pretend I’m going somewhere, stopping for a moment, tying my shoelaces, glancing at my watch, arranging my bag. I have to integrate into the existing order in the public space, and not in the staged order the camera creates, even though the stage I’m on is clearly defined.

AB: In effect you’re proposing a performative action that’s associated with your previous works; once again you’re exploring the boundaries of your presence as an artist and of artistic work as an object, this time using your body. I looked at the works you sent me, several times. It took me a while to understand that I need to look at “The Gospel” series as a sequence, and that gave me some context. Ayelet Hashahar Cohen wrote in the text accompanying your exhibition: “Tzfia Dgani [seeks to] explore the nature of artistic action, to wander between modes of realization, to linger in the ‘in-between’ between idea and execution, and trace the materialization of the spirit.”

I’m interested in framing “linger in the in-between” and “materialization of the spirit”. For me the whole story of “gesture” began in order to try and understand something about the in-between. Between exterior and interior, between movement and stopping. The moment of the encounter and the stopping. Something happens there, something creative that changes the direction of the movement, because the movement continues. This thing, when I identify it, immediately jumps up at me and it connects us with gesture. Gesture as an intermediate space of happening.

And the second thing is associated with “materialization of the spirit”, I can’t stop thinking about it. In recent years I’ve been engaged in a big project, images of Temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock and their influence on society and culture in Israel and Palestine, this story of the embodiment of spirit in material acquires different meanings and engenders very dramatic events in the space in which we live.

Avraham Yitzhak, color print, 2015
From: “The Gospel”, Museum of Israeli Art, Ramat Gan | Curator: Ayelet Hashahar Cohen


Untitled, Formica and gold fabric, 2015
From: “The Gospel”, Museum of Israeli Art, Ramat Gan | Curator: Ayelet Hashahar Cohen

TD: Yes, it’s fascinating that you put your finger on these two points. Gesture, that intermediate space that’s on the threshold, occupies me and enables me to locate myself in relation to the different cultures or institutions I identify. With regard to “realization of spirit in material” – this is a crucial question that has engaged me since childhood. I was raised with the aspiration to build the Temple “speedily and in our days”, and to do so in practice. On a Judaism of land and gold, a Judaism of material. I realized that the question of realization is at the center of life here, and it will also decide the Jewish-Palestinian conflict. When I came to study at Bezalel and was exposed to “Want of Matter” and the perception of Judaism as a religion of words, it came to me as a surprise. And all my religious senses screamed: “No, no, but I know something else. A Judaism in which all the commandments engage with materials, fabrics, food, actions.” The Zionist enterprise is engaged with realization in its modernistic meaning: fantasize something, believe in one ideology or another, and try to realize it in reality. The religious Zionist enterprise takes a different direction, it engages with religious realization: reviving the relationship with God, which happens by means of the religious actions performed in the territory of the Land of Israel. There are all kinds of revival strategies. The Temple also occupies me in the modes of presentation it offers, of concealment: in the very heart of the Temple is the Holy of Holies into which no one is permitted to enter with the exception of the High Priest one day a year – Yom Kippur. The complete opposite of the democratic museum we are familiar with, which everyone is permitted to enter all the time, and everything is hanging on display. When I’m in a museum I often find myself sitting in the dark room where a video is being screened, just to breathe for a moment. To rest from all this visibility, from the visible observing body that’s in the white spaces of the museum. Bialik and Ravnitzky, which is currently showing in Bat Yam, is like a prologue to the exhibition in Art Cube, the Jerusalem Artists Studios that opens this month. In it there are photographed paper cats that I secretly positioned on a table in the national poet’s house. This is a key work because it opened up a lot of questions: What is a museum? What is its connection with nationalism? What can I as an artist do in this space, and what can’t I do? The exhibition at the Artists Studios is a continuation of this investigation, because there too I explore a space with art in it: installations I made in Airbnb apartments in Poland. I present boxes that open and contain photographs and objects. I’m interested in creating an exhibition site that doesn’t belong to the “spectacle” in the frontal view a museum offers us, of a picture hanging on the wall. It’s also connected with the tradition of gazing in Jewish religious institutions, like the Temple and a synagogue, that possess a babushka-doll dimension: spaces nesting within spaces. The curtain, the ark, the mantle, the Torah scroll. An onion with multiple layers. Or the broken Tablets inside the ark, inside the Holy of Holies, in the holiness, in the courtyard, in Jerusalem. What engenders the space, what’s in its center, is the least exposed to view. And there are two more references in this regard: one is Duchamp and how he challenges the institution of the museum with the suitcases he created, and Lacan in whose clinic a painting by Courbet, The Origin of the World, hangs behind a curtain.

Bialik and Ravnitzky, 2014
Currently showing at the Museum of Bat Yam

AB: Apropos the Temple and thoughts about place, space, and the future, it mainly raised a lot of questions in me. Questions about presence and absence, about blindness and revelation. The disruption that continues, that’s imperceptible.

TD: I’ll say that I’ve read, and am still reading, the article by Elena Filipovic about Marcel Duchamp, A Museum That is Not, which is about an exhibition in a suitcase, a project of Duchamp’s in which he collected photographs of his works and engaged primarily with ways of displaying them, and with an exhibition he secretly created after announcing that he was retiring from doing art. On the one hand he says: I want to show art, and on the other he says: I don’t want to show art. This text was written a hundred years ago, but when you look back at the experiments of art, that’s always what they engage with: surmounting a kind of comprehensible appearance on the one hand, and drawing closer to something that’s impossible to display on the other.

AB: Do you mean the gap that always exists between experience and language? What can’t be expressed in words?

TD: That’s right. There, in the article, it goes in the direction of a museum as a disciplining place and an attempt to create a different relationship in which it is not the space that determines the conditions of viewing, but rather the viewer. Disrupting the white space.

AB: I’m connecting with Duchamp and his engagement with readymade; you also make extensive use of readymade artworks in your art, in games of gesture (and tribute).

TD: Yes, frequently of iconic readymade art. Images that have already been etched in consciousness, fixed in our eyes even before we see them. It’s interesting to intervene in these kinds of images because you settle in a familiar area and perform an ironic or poetic change in it, or tell a joke. Everyone is familiar with the Mona Lisa, so my takeoff, my type of attitude towards it, makes the act simple and readable, yet there’s still something of my subjectivity in it. That is, the choice of readymade is first and foremost communicative. Because I encounter difficulty around this issue. You need a minimum of shared cultural context for what I’m concealing to be discovered. And there have been times when I didn’t have that minimum. Art isn’t some kind of magical universal language of stain and form, as we possibly imagined at some stage in history.

It’s also a kind of challenging the culture we’re all supposedly born into. Mona Lisa, yeah, right! What is the Mona Lisa? I don’t really know anything about her, even if let’s say I’ve read books about when she was painted and how (which I haven’t). But I do know something about how I look at her. We live in a time in which the first layer of culture is the layer of knowledge accumulated about something. Returning to see it mandates some kind of twist.

Mona Lisa 1 and 2: Mona Lisa, 53X77 cm, color print, 2015
From: “The Gospel”, Museum of Israeli Art, Ramat Gan | Curator: Ayelet Hashahar Cohen

AB: I want to go back to your work in the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) and Bialik House, to how you infiltrate into the Knesset archives, perform a manipulation of documentation, leave a mark, disrupt, and eliminate the evidence. The same in Bialik House, a kind of minor resistance, creating a crack, and vanishing.

TD: Apropos resistance, I don’t think my works meet that standard.

AB: I actually think they do, it’s precisely that small action, precisely not making world-shifting changes, not saying OK, now I’m changing the government, now I’m stopping the occupation, or now I’m changing women’s status in the world. That’s not the story. It’s the series of small actions that always stand up to a force, an order, or hegemony.

TD: But there’s something in these actions that conveys a declaration about wider potential.

AB: Precisely, it’s the declaration about the potential, this place that you say, It’s possible, that’s how it is, it’s a frame of mind. That is, what is potential? It’s the possibility of change.

Images 1-6:
Untitled, Bureaucratic Smile, 55X50 cm, color print, 2015

During my residency in the Jerusalem Artists Studios I visited the Knesset archives, I took out images engaging with the space and building of the legislative authority, and processed them into a digital collage. I took the treated images and reinserted them into the Knesset archives for the benefit of researchers who will (surely) come in the future and (hopefully) pick up my trail. As a philosophical action this is an attempt to enter eternity. As a conceptual action it is an attempt to change the mechanisms of representation from within the system.

TD: I’m not trying to create works that seek to indicate a potential for change. Perhaps you recognize that this is their effect. It still arouses reservations in me. The work in the Knesset engages with the question of representation. I created something particular that seeks to not deviate from its particularity. People ask me: What are these sticks the women are holding? What’s on the table? And I reply: What you see is what is. I want to do art. For me, art is the most important category within this system. Maybe in the future I’ll become a painter, and this headache of where does art exist and why, will stop. I’ll accept tradition – because a painting exists within a tradition – I’ll be traditional, and I’ll fit in. But in the meantime, the course of my life is anti-traditionalist, it’s Duchampian. So I ask: What is a museum? What are the conditions in which an artwork exists? And I also ask: What are the viewing conditions in which an artwork exists? And it has a double meaning because of my name [lit. in Hebrew, Tzfia = observing, watching, viewing). So I go to Bialik House and install cats there.

AB: But even when we talk about art, and not political art in its purest meaning, it’s done within a particular context and in relation to systems of power, fields of action, and, of course, tradition. When you install cats in Bialik House it’s funny and playful, but it also raises a series of questions concerning the place in which you intervened and concerning your choice.

And when I took an in-depth look at your works I saw the motivation to disrupt something. To say: Hello, I’m doing something in Bialik House that I’m not allowed to do, seizing ownership of it, playing here even though it’s not supposed to be my playground, but you won’t catch me because I don’t leave any traces.

The question always arises of whether it’s even possible to topple the system, what is the meaning of the small, minor actions, or what is the ratio of an individual’s willpower in the face of big power. I don’t harbor any illusions that I can change the world order in my art or academic writing, I can on a small scale, and this small scale is what interests me. When I try to understand the political potential of a movement, and zoom in, when the movement encounters restriction, and another zoom in, focusing on the in-between, the intermediate space in which gesture appears, on the moment the political appears, to paraphrase Agamben. In that small, momentary place there is potential for praxis, potential for a small change: manipulation of an existing photograph and returning it to the archive, and who knows how it will influence a future reading of history.

TD: That articulately describes this intermediary space in which I act, which on the one hand seeks to look at history and intervene in it, and on the other, the artwork is smarter than itself, and certainly me, and I’m interested in giving it precedence. This is a principled position that was formulated in contrast with an ideology, even with what’s called “goodwill”.

AB: Mona Lisa is a woman you disappeared. Rabbi Kook was the spiritual guide of the tradition you come from. These are political choices, they’re not random.

TD: I don’t come from the kind of thinking of doing political art, but endeavor to do art, and sometimes it’s called political. But it’s never the core, it’s not an attempt to convey a message that will change something in the world outside. It’s not an attempt to influence. I am immersed up to my neck in questions of sovereignty and identity, but these are the same questions concerning what is a man, what is a woman, who said, who decided. And the same questions about God. Political art as a genre sometimes serves me as a canvas on which I can paint something. In this respect, it is not political art that wants someone to understand something. Perhaps it wants someone to not understand something.

AB: This is interesting with reference to our discussions on gesture. Is the disappearing of Mona Lisa a gesture that’s signified as disruption or sequence? If it’s disruption, in the way Benjamin reads Brecht’s plays, that Brechtian moment, the gesture that disrupts the narrative and signifies the critical moment, the moment at which viewers are asked to look at what they’re seeing with a critical eye. Perhaps a moment of lack of understanding or the emergence of a question.

TD: Making a collage of the Mona Lisa without Mona Lisa directs the gaze to the setting that existed at the time of painting. To the landscape, to the background against which she sat. To the space, to the relationship that existed there between Leonardo and Mona Lisa, but also between Mona Lisa and the geography in which she is located. Of course, Mona Lisa is considered the “woman”, and the earth is also sometimes considered a “woman”. Both of them are engendered by the gaze of the male painter.

AB: Remember we read Agamben’s On Gesture, he actually continues Benjamin’s reading and views gesture and the action of art as a moment of disrupting sequence, also in the space of political happening, where the political can appear. That art is a moment of interrupting the sequence. In the group we placed Goffman in contrast with him. In his book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life he argues the exact opposite – gestures are what we communicate through, by means of which I do something and you read what I’m doing and understand it.

TD: So I’ll say Goffman, because it is a kind of desire to communicate. I assemble moments that create a setting in which relationships exist. For instance, in “The Gospel” I took the image Avraham Yitzhak as an icon, and made it so he closes his eyes for a moment. Blinks. To restore to him that moment of small blindness. It’s also a response to the phrase: “See it like this and sanctify it”.[1]

AB: In the verses on sanctifying the month there’s something odd because there’s a leap between the signifier and the signified. When you point at something and say its name. Here it points to the thing itself.

TD: Rashi says about the first verse of the Torah that God created the world, but it is Israel that establishes time. That it’s only when they point to the moon and sanctify it that a new month begins.

AB: It’s interesting what establishes what. I’ve just read a definition of the concept of “border” in an article by Merav Amir in Mafte’akh, border as an effect of a multiplicity of performative praxes. She presents the difference between the performativity proposed by Butler in contrast with that proposed by Goffman. Butler would say that it is the naming that establishes identity, while Goffman would say that the gestures of the thing precede the naming. First the light of the moon, and then time.

TD: I want to take it back, and it’s not only Goffman.

AB: Obviously, because there’s something dual there. Your motivation for action is dual, it comes back to the place of presence. You want to integrate, but you actually create a disruption of sequence.

TD: Something in the relationship between signifier and signified and which was there first. The Jewish religion in particular has a set of gestures, imperatives, detailed instructions for every hour of the day, for every day of the year. For example, in the morning you should first put on your right shoe, then the left, and then tie the laces on the left shoe, then on the right. It’s written in Kitzur Shulchan Aruch. That is, it’s not that it describes an action, but the action is determined first of all in reading what’s written. It’s an inverse relationship. And there’s a kind of literality in this sort of existence. It’s etched in flesh. I once heard about someone who stopped observing the Commandments, but when he discovered that he’d mistakenly eaten pork his body expelled it. He couldn’t tolerate it. It’s not aversion to the meat. It’s the signifier “pork”.

AB: So that we aren’t left with the signifier “pork” hanging in the air, I’ll conclude with an open thought. In an attempt to understand what is “gesture” it’s not possible to truly single out just one type of gesture. They exist as a web, sprouting from one another and feeding the explicit and implicit meanings of an entire system – in our case, your artistic action. Any attempt to single out meaning and create clear boundaries for gesture is destined to fail precisely due to its liminal location.


Top: Jacob, goat wool on cast plaster, 2015 (from “The Gospel”)

Bottom: Luca Giordano, Presentation of Jacob to Isaac, 117X191 cm

[1] In the Bible it is written: “And the LORD spake unto Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt saying, This month shall be unto you the beginning of months: it shall be the first month of the year to you” (Exodus 12:1-2), on which the Talmud elaborates: “See it like this and sanctify it”.