Published March 16th, 2023 by Russ White
Through slow processes, sly humor, and old world ways of making, Tamir creates objects that reflect on the perpetuation of culture across centuries of migration
This is the second in a series of articles profiling the seven distinguished artists chosen as 2021 McKnight Fellows in Visual Arts, a grant program for mid-career artists in Minnesota that is administered by the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. The 2021 cohort includes David Bowen, Mara Duvra, Ben Moren, Rotem Tamir, Dyani White Hawk, and Dream The Combine (Jennifer Newsom and Tom Carruthers).
As their two-year fellowship comes to a close, five of the artists will be participating in an upcoming Discussion Series as well:
Photo by Rik Sferra
Every artist’s studio is different — some big, some small, some tidy, some cluttered — but they’re all magical places. The well-used ones especially. It’s not the magic of mystical, conjuring wizardry though; it’s usually more nuts and bolts than that. You notice the sketches tacked above a workbench, the random splotches of ink on a wall, a pile of fabric scraps spilling over onto the floor. Whether they’re little rooms or big warehouses or even kitchen tables, art studios bear the residue of spells long since cast, a peek behind the curtain at the magician, not as a wizard or a warlock but as an engineer, a technician — a tinkerer working out their tricks.
Rotem Tamir warned me ahead of our visit that her studio was messy, though I’d say that’s normal for any artist who’s fresh off an install. Now up at the M as part of the group exhibition Im/Perfect Slumbers is Tamir’s latest: a vertical column of square red pillows, stacked from the floor clear up to the ceiling and interspersed with protruding golden orbs. It’s a strange sort of obelisk, each pillow puffy and perfect with subtle variations in color and size. The shiny, yellow spheres peer out like luxury eyeballs, the pillows’ little hand-sewn mouths hiding their secrets behind the seams. A few feet back, two steel columns strike the same stance, making you wonder if this comfy red tower actually performs some structural function. But the cushions just stand there, bright with color and thick with stuffing. It’s only viewable through the M’s street-level windows, but if the museum were open, you’d be half-tempted to give the thing a big hug.
Back at the studio, two more of these pillows sit out on Tamir’s worktable — the extras that couldn’t fit into the stack. They are skillfully-made, plump little burgundy squares trimmed with white whip stitching around the center seam. Here, though, their little mouths gape open and empty. This is the benefit of visiting the maker’s workshop: you get to see how the sausage is made. One of the golden orbs sits out on a pad of thick, gray wool, and out in the open it’s much larger — a bulbous balloon that she tells me is made out of pine resin that she heated and blew like glass.
Top: Pu'ah, installation view at the Minnesota Museum of American Art as part of Im/Perfect Slumbers. Bottom: Studio view of cushions, wool, and pine resin orb. Photos by the author.
“The spheres are very, very sensitive to almost everything,” she says. “Super fragile. So you’re not really able to sit on the cushion, because the minute you sit on it, it will just crack and break.” In an exhibition focused on sleep, it seems that these pillows are taking pains to disallow rest — they invite inspection, not relaxation. These objects are the nuts and bolts — fabric dyed with madder root in the artist’s kitchen, padded with wool harvested and cleaned from a friend’s farm in Fargo, sewn and stuffed with resin orbs she made large with her own lungs — but in the end, they are meant to mesmerize.
“Yeah, mesmerize is the right word,” Tamir says thoughtfully, “like when you look at something and you're not sure what you're exactly looking at. I want my viewer to look at my work and have their everyday experience shift to a different timeline, a different consciousness. This is where I actually see the relation between artists and magicians.”
Tamir’s earlier work drew that comparison even more explicitly, using the visual language of the stage magician’s magic box more than once. In 2017’s Larval Acceleration, a collaborative performance piece by Tamir and her husband Omri Zin, Tamir slowly maneuvers a giant black and red box around a gallery, methodically opening different compartments and hatches to reveal a semi-mobile and wildly cumbersome method of creating her own helium balloons from scratch. Zin, meanwhile, pilots a hilariously unwieldy vehicular ink-making machine around the gallery, its motor sputtering loudly like an old moped. The exhibition text describes both works as “modular factories,” though the focus of the works is not on the finished product but on the performance of process — each acting as a sort of human Rube Goldberg machine, inviting wonder and play to the act of creation, of using one’s hands to make impractical magic.
With its dramatic paint-job and hidden compartments, Tamir’s little factory is clearly reminiscent of a stage magician’s prop for sawing ladies in half. It’s also a stand-in for the bag of tricks, the hat with the hidden rabbit, the card up the sleeve — the illusionist’s toys that have been carefully engineered for deception and amazement.
Even earlier, Tamir created a series of large, sculptural flutes — all standing vertically like her pillar of pillows and activated by the breath like her balloons and pine resin orbs — but one in particular, This is the Most Beautiful Dragon I Ever Saw, also included its own magic box, serving both as steps up to the mouthpiece and a crate for the sculpture to travel. “For me, this piece belongs to the nomad,” Tamir writes, not just because of its built-in crate but because of her own circumstances.
One of the biggest issues sculptors face is storage, and though her studio is cluttered with a few past works and several items in process, not a lot of her old artworks remain. Having grown up in Israel, Tamir immigrated to the United States in 2011 to pursue her MFA at Virginia Commonwealth University. Coming over, she says, she brought all of two suitcases, leaving all of her sculptures behind — in the trash.
After graduating she lived the life of a traveling adjunct, moving from school to school with her husband and all of their new work. “Every year we moved, the truck became bigger and bigger. We didn't even have furniture, just sculptures,” she says. After having a son and joining the faculty at the University of Minnesota, it got to be too much. “When I moved here I said I don't want to be that person who's just stuck with all of these boxes. Eventually I wouldn’t have room to make new work.” So a lot of it went, again, straight to the dumpster. When I ask how that felt, she answers with a big smile: “Very good.”
Left: This is The Most Beautiful Dragon I Ever Saw, 2015. Right: The Periplanómenos Whistles, in collaboration with Omri Zin. Performance by Dr. Kristen Stoner and The UF Flute studio, 2017. Photo by Allen Cheuvront.
What she lacks in sentimentality about her own work, she more than makes up for with an interest in reconnecting with and perpetuating her cultural heritage. Tamir came to the U in early 2020 and quite abruptly, as we all remember, found herself with a lot of time on her hands. Being stuck at home during the lockdowns made her feel even further away from her family and culture back in Israel.
“I started really consciously dealing with my roots since the pandemic,” she says. “Asking questions like what am I doing here? What am I doing to my son, taking him away from all of his family? I was feeling guilty and also trying to understand, as an immigrant, why do you even need me here? I felt like I was an invasive species.”
In a beautifully written piece for MNArtists, Tamir reflects at length on her father’s family — Jews who themselves had immigrated to Israel from Libya — and their Seder tradition of lounging on homemade mattresses on the floor of her grandmother’s home. Little sewing projects during the early days of the pandemic reconnected her to these childhood memories, and she soon decided to try and recreate her Grandmother Wassi’s wool mattress. The only problem was she had no idea how. In an interview for Im/Perfect Slumbers, Katya Oicherman makes an astute observation, telling Tamir that her practice “is characterized by a kind of courage. When you see that you need to obtain a certain skill, you just go ahead and do it.”
Also included in Tamir’s essay is a detailed order of operations outlining those newfound skills: how she, with the help of local sheep farmers, cleaned, scoured, and then carded fresh wool; how she dyed the fabric a deep rusty red with madder root and sumac berries; and how, with a local upholsterer, she reverse-engineered the best way to sew the whole thing together. Taking inspiration from a couple she met who were preserving their own Native American craft culture through a mixture of research and intuition, Tamir writes that she learned to “trust myself to invent the missing parts of the culture I came from.” The final product, which was shown in the exhibition Carriers of Posterity at Law Warschaw Gallery, blew her family away. Her Uncle Yacov back in Israel was astounded, she writes, telling her “that it looks exactly like the original mattresses.”
Top: The stuffing process begins with the hand-dyed and painted fabric and the carefully cleaned wool. Bottom: Mattress/ ג’ראיה (Jerayah), installation view in Carriers of Posterity at Law Warschaw Gallery, 2022.
This work, along with Pu’ah, the tower of cushions at the M, feel like a far cry from sawing someone in half for an awestruck crowd. But there is still a bit of trickery embedded within them. These rebooted heirlooms are homages to the warmth and resilience of women on both sides of her family tree, as well as to the custom of dowries in her Libyan and Iraqi lineage and to her great-grandmother’s habit of hiding valuables inside of her mattress. “I mean, if I need to hide something, I will hide it there, you know?” she says, pointing to the small open mouth in the side of the cushion where the resin ball should go. When I ask if she has actually hidden anything inside the pillows, she replies curtly, “I will not tell you.” Breaking out in a laugh, she says “A magician should never reveal their secrets.”
With Pu’ah installed, Tamir is on to the next project, inspired by a residency last summer in the Negev Desert where she learned how to weave traditional rugs from local craftswomen. On the floor of her studio, a twelve foot long runner rug is about a third of the way complete. “This is kind of like my meditation area right now,” she says. She began the weaving there in Israel, and says, “For me, it's completely crucial that I brought this thing from the Negev Desert and continued it here,” as a nod to the complicated origins of so much culture, especially along the trade routes of the Mediterranean Sea where her family made their home. These traditions are born out of centuries of intermingling, intermixing, necessity, and innovation, which she is humbly continuing here in her Saint Paul studio.
Hanging above the rug is a large block-printed tapestry from another residency in northern India — a stand-in for Iraq, which was not safe enough to visit. “This is the research that I’m doing right now, going to places that relate to my roots and learning that traditional craft as close to its origins as possible.” Within the confines of the Western canon, these objects would be identified not as art but as craft, and I wonder if she has any kind of sculptural intervention or transformation in mind for them.
Top: The artist's ongoing weaving project from her residency in the Negev Desert. Bottom: Hand-carved ink stamps made by artisans in India based on Tamir's designs. Photos by the author.
“I don’t know what it will look like in the end because at the moment, it's in a stage of learning,” she explains. “It was such an important trip for me that I need time to process it in the studio. The only thing that I do know is that the way I work and the way I look at things is that knowledge is not only in your brain. It’s also passing through your hands, through your experiences.”
“I'm not an activist,” she tells me. “I'm an artist. I think that the best thing that each one of us can do to be a positive member and a positive influence in society is to do what you can do best. In my opinion, the best thing that I can do is to make art. Art has power. Culture is important.”
A minute later, she hedges. “I think we also need some perspective. When we talk this way, I’m like, okay, I need some humor here,” and she lets loose an infectious peal of laughter. “We should also not take ourselves so seriously. It’s not rocket science, right?”
Over the course of our conversation, we never quite land on exactly what the difference is between artists and magicians. The two have a lot in common: trial-and-error experimentation, engagement with an audience, the practical construction of objects and performances that inspire wonder and amazement. Each are individual links in the long chain of culture, the same as any artisan — guided by heritage, intuition, and ingenuity.
When she finished that first mattress and showed it to her Uncle Yacov, she was surprised to learn a bit of family lore that even her father never knew: back in Tripoli, her grandmother’s family were all fabric dyers, too. If that’s not magic, I don’t know what is. ◼︎
Mattress/ ג’ראיה (Jerayah), installation view in Carriers of Posterity at Law Warschaw Gallery, 2022.
To see more of Rotem Tamir's work, visit her website.
Banner image: from Larval Acceleration. Photo by Zack Balber. All images are courtesy of the artist unless otherwise noted.
Help keep independent arts journalism alive in the Twin Cities.