By Scott Gleeson
Multimedia artist Bat-Ami Rivlin scrutinizes the pivotal moments when barriers between bodies, things, and spaces break down or intersect in unexpected ways. Concerned with the nature of embodied experience, and what the artist terms the "performative" character of flesh, Rivlin sublimates overt political commentary in her art in favor of creating uncanny or surreal encounters that locate her sculptures and viewers' bodies within the scopic regime. Her art, often composed of wax or resin-infused textiles, junk, and human hair, recalls the work of such artists as Robert Gober, Hans Bellmer, Alina Szapocznikow, and Eva Hesse, and re-centers discourses of formlessness within the contexts of the body, abjection, and the technological mediation of digital images. Peripheral Vision talks to the artist to learn more about her work and the ideas driving her practice
Describe a work of art that has been meaningful to you or influential in some way.
I am incredibly inspired by the works of Alina Szapocznikow, particularly the Photosculptures series, in which the artist photographed twerking, contorting pieces of gum, seemingly made to evoke an intimate characteristic of the body. Something about these stayed with me, the work portrays a certain fleshy tenderness that alludes to a vulnerable exposure of sorts. Each photograph contains an abstract gum-sculpture hanging, stretching, resting or dangling itself off of a simple firm structure, further emphasizing the material's softness and flesh.
What is the first work of art you remember experiencing as a child? Was there something about the experience that influenced your practice or decision to become an artist?
One of the first artists I was introduced to was M.C. Escher. I remember looking at a booklet I've had of his work, following the mathematically inspired patterns and surreal scenery. The most striking element in his work was what I perceived as an obsession for shapes. Closely inspecting his detailed etchings and woodblocks, I would imagine how he had made every line, and what great devotion that entailed. I had idolized this character of the artist-craftsman that lives in constant flux with his practice, a practice that nourishes and sustains the artist's mind and in turn, the artist's body. I'd later come to realize that this fantasy had little to do with most artists' reality, but the effect remained, I was set on becoming obsessed.
How old were you when you decided to become an artist? Describe your training and how it has contributed to your current practice.
I cannot remember a time in which I wasn't drawing. From as early as I can remember I would return home from kindergarten and sit at a table busy with color paper, markers and pencils that my mother would prepare beforehand, and start to draw. My hands were always working, sketching in school notebooks till there wasn't any room for class notes, drawing on documents and books till they turned illegible. Any official training I've received afterward complemented an already concrete sense of space and theme. One of the most significant shifts in my work occurred when I entered my high school's printmaking class. Roni Itzhaki, the teaching artist, created a space for making work out of anything you could think of. The tiny print shop had one press, a few surfaces, overflow of materials, and drawers bursting with previous student work and other "interesting stains" as Roni used to call them. There I learned to exhaust everything around me as an art material. Whether it was garbage, food, accidental imprint or leftover scraps, it was all bonafide artist material. That sense of opportunity in almost every material stayed with me throughout my growth as an artist and as a thinker. He called my doubts "fantastic" and would name my friends and me "blind sheep" if we complimented each others' work out of politeness. He was the kind of teacher that confronted you with where you wanted to go and then dared you to get there.
What are the dominant themes in your current body of work and how did your practice evolve to focus on these concerns?
My work revolves around themes of abjection and flesh, particularly the female flesh and the different performative roles it takes in different spaces. My work evolved from a fascination of meaty bodies depicted in Saville's, Bellmer's, and other artists' work, to a more critical concern that considers what vulnerabilities those depictions of flesh derive from. My practice involves the consideration of the aspects of flesh that have been marginalized from visible social spaces. These elements of the corporeal have long been linked to concepts of death, desire, and savagery, but their stubborn existence persists. What are the elements of our flesh that are hidden in formal social gatherings, in commercial images, and in the sexualizing male gaze? These questions are the engine that pushes my practice into existence.
Describe your studio practice and working methods? How does this space contribute to your process and development of idea?
I usually find myself prompted to create a piece when finding an especially ‘convincing’ material. I’m especially taken by domestic objects that relate to the body, particularly those which show evidence of exhaustion. Working with found objects; a used sofa, a rusty sink, or a run-down dishwasher, I relate the object to three bodies: first, the user, evident in the dents, marks, and worn-out nature of the second body, the used material. Finally, the work invokes the third body, the viewer, which activates both former bodies in relating his/her own flesh to the flesh of the piece. Nothing happens without the latter and the injection of human flesh into the scenario of the work. The viewer relates dented, ’fatigued’ materials to the actions of the user, while also relating her/his own flesh to that of the materials.
How do you make your art? Please describe your materials and techniques and how they developed.
I usually pick up found materials and create moments in which they become animated into desperation or weariness. Many of my works contain hair and the use of wax, as it’s an easy way to mimic skin surfaces. Many times wax and silicone will be used to allude to ‘fleshy performances’ involving moist-ness, bodily fluids, and other ‘unseemly’ functions. When working with new media, I revert to creating what that medium ‘understands’ as flesh. The main purpose becomes to create a representation of flesh in the same way that flesh is constructed through the medium. In my animated GIF series http//BLANK I’ve produced a digital version of flesh that can only be understood as flesh within the medium: pixelated, looping digital images showcase a digital embodiment of a body within the space of the internet.
You have won an all-expense-paid trip on the Time Machine! Where would you go?
I want to go to Nina Simone’s Montreux Jazz Festival concert in 1976.
Dogs or cats? Beach or mountains? Urban or rural? Salt or no salt (it’s a margarita thing)?
Cats. Beach. Urban. Salt.
Describe your work as an educator or administrator and how this relates to you personal art practice.
I truly believe that artists are able to lead the way in creating a more critical and creative understanding of how we educate both in the school system as well as in popular platforms. The very essence of contemporary art, that of doubting basic notions and inherited constructs, allows for more creative processes to take place and more critical developments to be had. My work as an educator is mostly focused on creating a space in which students are empowered to rethink notions they have been taught as fact. Critical solutions and unique thought narratives are rewarded and branded as interesting and creative rather than strange or irrelevant. When working on projects such as ART21's 'Creative Chemistries: Radical Practices for Art and Education', Creative Time's 'Summit', and Oliver Herring's 'MAD.SQ.200 TASK', I was constantly impressed by the incredible potential that 'art-thinking' (Luis Camnitzer) has in constructing a more fair, critical, and challenging understanding of the world. All of these projects had a shared central core; a public initiative to question, examine, and reclaim social constructs. The very concepts of my work derive from the same ability to rethink the given, the 'obvious', or the predetermined.
What kind of music do you listen to? Do you listen to music in the studio?
I usually listen to classical music when I work. Mussorgsky and Haydn are my favorite as of now.
Tell us about your current body of work?
My work is currently developing towards more performative forms. The consideration of theater is becoming more apparent, and the overall concern leans towards experimentation with spaces rather than objects. Works are becoming more of a part of a space rather than an independent object.
What work in your portfolio do you consider your most pivotal accomplishment and why?
During my sculpture residency at the School of Visual Arts, I picked up a run-down dishwasher from the street. It was an attempt to ‘harvest’ something out of the city’s streets and use it as an art material. That was the first piece I’ve made with the intention of making flesh out of a found object, and it is still one of my strongest works in my opinion.
Talk about a recent exhibition of your art. What pieces did you show and how do they relate to other works in your portfolio?
I recently took part in a residency exhibition. I had worked on an outdoor installation that involved the creation of a new space. I dug out a 60 x 30 inch pit in the ground, approximately 50 inches deep. The grass that I had displaced when digging the void was replanted on the bottom of the hole. A window was installed on top of this lawn-grave, and a small fleshy object, one of my sculptures, was inserted into the newly born space. The piece, Untitled (LAWN), creates a separate, morbid, artificial space. The work illustrates the dissonance between the domestic and the intimate, the artificial and the flesh.
Tell us about your experience at an artist residency. Where did you go and who did you meet? Would you recommend the residency to others?
I’ve taken part in the School of Visual Arts Residency which was incredibly fruitful for my body of work. I had daily studio critiques by esteemed artists and thinkers such as Nicolas Touron, Steve DeFrank, Alois Kronschlaeger, and Saul Ostrow, which were challenging, inspiring, and eye-opening. I feel as though that saturated intellectual space jumpstarted my critical abilities and is directly linked to the body of work I create today.
Historically, women have been underrepresented in the commercial and academic art worlds, and where women are represented many are paid less than their male counterparts. How has this dynamic affected your professional career as an artist?
It’s interesting to be working with the notion of flesh as a female artist. I used to try and dismiss my ‘femaleness’ in the work that I’ve produced, thinking that it would somehow ‘hinder’ and divert from the piece. I now believe that is utter nonsense. My entire experience of the world is colored by my gender, among other things, and my being part of the female sex means that my perception of flesh is affected by aspects of the culture that target women. As a female artist working with concepts that consider performative social aspects of the body it is only natural to reflect on the specific characteristics of female flesh, as it is and has over centuries been mostly used and exploited.
What country were you born in? What has inspired your decision to live and make your art in the United States? Has your experience as an immigrant influenced your art?
I was born in Israel and have moved to New York City in 2012 to pursue a career in the arts. I’ve enrolled in the School of Visual Arts and have decided to stay in the city after my graduation. My experience has mostly been that of re-evaluation of what I would have otherwise taken for granted. There is something interesting in being able to look at more than one social scheme and realize how much of our value system is artificial. Moving to another country and trying to root yourself in its social fabric requires proficiency in language as well as in culture, and that’s when you are more likely to look back at your own culture with a more critical eye. I believe it has made me more doubtful, in the best way.
When working on the piece, how do you decide when an artwork is finished?
The term ‘finished’ is many times temporary for my works, as in many cases I photograph my objects and installations in different forms. Whatever I use in a temporary installation is later recycled and given a new life in a new piece. I reach a stopping point where I feel that the work is holding a certain tension, photograph it, take it apart, and start over again.
What would you be if you weren’t an artist?
A lawn chair.