Elana Katz is a conceptual artist who works in the field of performance art and uses her body to express herself and make you feel something.
Elana plays with contradictions and wants to demonstrate that social perceptions can be different according to contexts. She is from America, but currently lives in Berlin.
I find her work fascinating, but I wanted to understand her better. Through our discussions, I've discovered a complex personality, very dedicated to her work, who knows very well what she wants and where she wants to go. Elana looks fragile, but she's a very strong woman.
Tell me a little bit about yourself - how would you describe yourself in the most honest way?
I’m a very complicated person. I am drawn to emotional and physiological intricacies; all of my work is concerning this in one manner or another.
I have a complicated relationship to my body, I feel everything in it with a great deal of intensity and this is both a burden, and something for which I am very grateful.
In any case, it makes it not only possible, but also fundamentally essential, for me to work with my body as an artist. It is the vehicle with which I experience and can attempt an understanding of myself, and my surroundings.
I view and feel it as an infinitely complex web of psychological, emotional, and mental threads, which constantly overlap, intertwine, and push/ pull one another. The body is certainly the instrument with which I can most adequately communicate.
Why did you move to Berlin?
I got to know Berlin while I was an art student in New York, and I very much appreciated the contemporary art scene in Germany in general as it was/ is highly conceptual and intellectual.
I wanted to study and practice art in Berlin after completing my studies in New York, and so I looked into the University of the Arts (UdK Berlin).
I was very fortunate to meet Katharina Sieverding and be invited to study in her class at UdK, and then later to receive the DAAD Scholarship for Graduate Studies in Germany, so I moved to Berlin with a strong infrastructure.
It seemed very natural to stay and continue working as a freelance artist after I completed my studies in 2010. I never planned how long I would stay, but now nearly 9 years later I’m still here, and intending to continue working with Berlin as my base.
You work primarily in the medium of performance art -why did you choose this field?
Without performing, I simply do not feel complete. I've always been a performer - I was a classical dancer in my childhood, a very serious ballerina, and I was completely fanatic about my training.
I left dance as a teenager, as the pressures of that world, and my overly extreme approach to it, proved to be destructive. It was a painful decision to leave dance, but the right one.
For years after that I experimented with different mediums of art, and finally landed with photography, which I studied at the Parsons School of Design in New York.
During my studies my photo work became more and more performative. I was doing a lot of studio shooting -- conceptual projects focused on deconstructing beauty and gender ideals, using my own body and others’ as well to perform in the studio in front of the camera.
Just when I was finishing up my degree, it became clear to me that the only thing missing from this practice was the element of live performance itself.
So my first work in the field of performance art I did just as I was finishing my photography degree. Since then it has been my primary medium.
From the point of that first performance, it was very clear that I had found the most complete form of expression for my character.
What was your first performance about - when was it?
My first work of performance art in 2008 was a piece titled “Samba”. It critically examines the role of the samba dancer, as I was working as a samba dancer in Boston and New York with a small company at that time, so this was a present topic for me.
I worked with costuming – the traditional Brazilian samba performance costume was mimicked using objects to imitate the costume itself, as well as the beauty ideals placed upon the dancer.
The dancer’s butt, and how she moves it, is the main attraction of the samba dancer, and so the ideal size and shape of the dancer’s bottom was exaggerated with a prosthetic in this piece.
The rest of the costume was imitated with tape, foam, blocks of wood, and pigeon feathers. I had shot a series of 3 large-scale photographs of my own body with this costume in the studio, and the final piece of this body of work was the live performance itself.
I danced samba on the street in New York wearing this conceptual costume, across the street from an exhibition opening where the photo series was exhibited.
I danced until the sun went down, the costume and shoes fell apart, and I had blisters all over my feet. The performance lasted around 2 hours. That was my first performance, and from then I was hooked on this medium. The work can be seen at this link.
What is your most recent performance about?
My most recent performance was called Comfort, and took place at galerieKwadrat in Berlin. It was a piece that dealt with reaching for, inviting, and being with the inability to achieve: comfort.
In the gallery there was a block of wood, low to the ground, that looked like a mattress. A mattress cover, several sizes too small, was stretched over this wooden block by elastic pulling to attach it at the corners.
On the floor in front of this mattress-like object was a framed sign reading “PLEASE MAKE YOURSELF COMFORTABLE, WITH ME”. It was a rather surreal and disquieting image; it even had an aesthetically violent quality.
I then entered the room, nude, set a timer for 1 hour, and crawled underneath the mattress cover.
As they were invited to do, the audience engaged in a struggle/ process to reach for comfort with my body, the wood, and the dividing presence of the mattress cover.
How do you choose your next subject?
he way that I conceptualize works is always intuitive and unplanned. Absence of protocol is fundamental to how I work. Ideas come to me at times that cannot be predicted, and what will resonate and stimulate ideas is always irregular.
Almost always, an idea surfaces in my mind just as a static visual image. It is the way that I process and channel material, and it is very intuitive.
I think that this image is a response to surrounding factual, emotional, and visual information – my lived experience and my internal understanding of it is somehow contained in that image.
As I've learned more about psychology recently, I've come to believe that much of the intuitive work one makes as an artist is the expression of the unconscious.
Even if I don’t intellectually comprehend my intuition immediately, an understanding always comes in retrospect through analysis and reflection.
This actually allows me to learn a lot, perhaps even about the unconscious realm, through my own creative process.
What do you think about when you stand in front of the audience?
Where my mind goes during a performance completely depends on the work,the topics with which I am dealing, the circumstances of the situation, and the immediacy of the physical experience.
I'm very physically aware during performances, and also aware of my surroundings. Being present is very important.
What inspires you?
Emotional and psychological complexity, which is everywhere.
Art is subjective. Do you think people understand your art? Do you want them to?
Well, each person will bring a different understanding to the work – and I want them to. I don’t want to control interpretations. I like my aims to be relatively ambiguous.
I like to make it clear which topics I'm addressing with each project, but not tell people what to think. I have my intentions, and my work can also be received differently.
What is most important for me is to provoke thought, questions, and feelings in people... as long as this happens; I consider the work to be successful.
How do you prepare before the performance?
I like to approach performance works with discipline. I’m very careful with how I take care of my body… it’s my instrument. Usually just before performing I do a short qi-gong practice to ground myself and slow down.
I usually also write about the concept, just for myself, in addition to the text that is usually made public later. I learn about the work’s meaning through this writing process.
Body of work seems pretty painful- what can you tell me about this project?
It was not so painful actually, in that piece I was working with a traditional Chinese medicinal practice called “qi-gong”, which releases unhealthy elements from injured areas of the body and stimulates blood flow.
Through this treatment, areas of inflammation, poor circulation, and toxicity can be discovered and cleared.
What is so interesting about this practice is that it looks like damaging the body, but it is actually a cross-culturally respected healing process.
This is precisely what the performance is about: questioning social perceptions of (paradoxical) practices of hurting and healing the body.
How do you feel after such an intense performance?
Often I feel full of adrenalin in some manner - energized, powerful, cleared… or maybe I’ll be exhausted and drained, but still there is nearly always an eventual sense of clarity.
In the case of durational performances, when the body is pushed its absolute limits - one can often feel freed from crossing the border of one’s limitations, and finding out what lies on the other side.
Often I find in such situations a strength that I didn't even¬ know was there.
This was the most important lesson I learned when I started doing durational performance art - my own capacity for endurance, which stretched further than I had imagined it could.
I know you worked in Romania for Spaced Memory - what is this project about?
Spaced Memory is a multimedia project that I pursued over the course of 6 years in the Balkans, and it addresses the pervasive topics of memory, postmemory, and absence… in relation to locations of historical erasure.
From 2011 until the spring of 2017, I researched and created site-specific work in Romania, Moldova, and the region of former Yugoslavia at locations connected with Jewish history that no longer exist – places that have been either destroyed and built-over or repurposed -- but in either case erased from collective memory of surrounding societies.
I was fortunate enough to work extensively in Romania thanks to project grants from the Goethe Institute of Bucharest, the Embassy of Israel, and the German Cultural Center of Cluj. It was very intense diving into these many layers of history,erasure, and complicated contemporary realities.
Consciousness of the presence of absence largely dominated this experience, and it is the topic of the works I created. I am still editing all of the collected material, both in collaborations with sound and video editors and alone, in order to create the final Spaced Memory multimedia body of work.
Talking about Romania - last year, you performed "They said it was a dry warm night" in Bucharest. You stood in the cold, in front of the National Library, lying on a sofa - what was that performance about?
This was an allegorical performance: that which “they”– a nameless authority – say to be true is believed without question, regardless of an obvious opposite reality.
I followed standard socially prescribed behavior for “a dry warm night”, with passive obedience, attempting to go to sleep for 4 hours in a fountain on Blvd. Unirii in October -- where it was obviously not dry, not warm, and not night.
The action was meant to stand as a parallel to blind loyalty based on self-denial, related to authority structure within society. It took place within the Bucharest festival “Expanded Space”, which that year was focused on notions of public and private space.
Do you make a living through your art, does it pay the bills?
No, not quite, unfortunately. Actually projects that I have done in Romania have been well financed and better paid than most projects I’ve done in any other country. But I have another job on the side, which provides a more consistent income.
I think your work is very challenging - what motivates you?
The fact that I need to do what I do in order to feel complete. And I believe that what I do is important: responding to, commenting on, and questioning oneself and ones world -- and aiming to stimulate others to do the same.
Why should we care about modern and conceptual art?
Because art has the potential to make one see one’s surroundings, and oneself, in new ways. It has the capacity to push one to question and step outside of what one knows.
Like I mentioned above, if artwork manages to provoke thought, questions, and feelings in people I consider it to be successful… and important.
When will we see you again in Bucharest?
At the moment I don’t have any projects scheduled in Bucharest, but surely I will at some point in the future… I’ll be back! My next projects coming up are in Berlin, I'm now working on a collaborative project with artist Fernanda Trevellin, taking place within the Festival of Future Nowsat Hamburger Bahnhof in September 2017.
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