Performance with works from “Melody of Certain Damage,” 2021. Composed and performed by Ale Campos, Fielded, Gabriela Burdsall, Gabrielle Sheerer, Lee Muze, Naama Tsabar, Robbi Robsta, and Sarah Strauss.  Photo: Michael Del Riego, Courtesy The Bass, Miami Beach  

Activating the Void: A Conversation with Naama Tsabar

Naama Tsabar stands still, though not passive, in her signature black jeans, black shirt, and red lipstick, a participant in and creator of Perimeters, her latest performance project. She moves into action slowly and deliberately, approaching one of several variously shaped openings in the walls, outlined in laminated maple stripes and varnished a deep red on the inside—string instruments turned inside out. She bends back and inserts her head into the cavity, seemingly devoured by the architecture. Her actions generate ambiguous and slightly eerie sounds that combine with a range of other sounds produced by eight musicians and dancers who are also creating by fusing their bodies with physical space. Thrusting their arms into the openings, plucking and strumming hidden guitar, harp, banjo, and violin strings, and singing into an embedded wall microphone, together they create a choreographed composition.

Perimeters, which features 11 interactive “Inversions” spread across three rooms and hallways, will be performed by Tsabar and a Miami-based crew of female-identifying musicians and dancers intermittently throughout the run of her current exhibition (of the same name) at the Bass Museum of Art; at other times, visitors can engage with the “Inversions.” Everything is playable and connected—there is order, elegance, and chaos, and female power rules.

Inversion #4, 2021. Voice of Wolf Weston, sound of BroodX cicadas, wood, varnish, purfling, paint, infra-red sensors, Arduino, WAV trigger, wires, cable port, and cables; coding: Brian Oakes.  Photo: Zaire Kaczmarski

I’ve followed Tsabar’s work for over a decade, from Jerusalem to New York, to Miami. After seeing Composition 24 at Art Focus, Jerusalem, in 2009, I helped present Composition 8, her first iteration of the performance project in New York, later that year with Artis at X Initiative. Numerous site-specific renditions followed, nationally and internationally, always featuring a range of local female-identifying and gender non-conforming musicians, performing in their own styles, each standing on an amplifier serving as both stage and art pedestal.

A tactile and sculptural shift followed, taking the form of Minimalist, Beuys-style, monochrome felt pieces, playable with a piano string, as well as sculptures of two melded guitars that demand collaboration and intimacy when performed. Black gaffer tape wall works from the mid-2000s—some outlining the wires of guitars and amps, and some smooth wall reliefs like Twilight (Gaffer Wall)—focused on labor and what is essential but unseen and unsung. 

The Bass exhibition includes a re-creation of Twilight (Gaffer Wall), as well as a surprising new sculpture consisting of a pair of Tsabar’s shoes. The title, October 13 2019—July 5 2021, documents the time of their wearing. She jokes that “this is the sculpture that I worked on the most, almost two years of sculpting by moving through the object.” The small sculpture, merged with a metronome ticking at the rate of a healthy heartbeat at rest, is displayed in its own room and serves as a monument to the body, time, and movement. “Perimeters,” curated by Leilani Lynch, marks the culmination of Tsabar’s projects since her first museum exhibition in 2006, tracing her ongoing investigation of performance as sculpture, the body in space, what is hidden yet present, intimacy and connection, and the endless cycles of destruction and creation.

Composition 18, 2016. Performance view at Collins Park, Art Basel Miami Beach; performed by Didi Aragon, Ale Campos, Arone Dyer, Christina Files, Sally Gates, Alanna Higgins, Katie Lau, Yeshiva Lex, Niuvis Martin, Monica McGivern, Emile Milgrim, Danielle Morrison, Lauren Palma, Sophie Pomeranz, Fielded, Sarah Register, Emily Sheila and Carolina Souto. Photo: Courtesy the artist, Art Basel, and Spinello Projects 

Maureen Sullivan: Works from the “Melody of Certain Damage” series consist of pieces from broken guitars, connected by a network of musical strings and arranged precisely as they fell when you destroyed the guitars in your studio. These remains of violence remind me of an early performance in the Wynwood section of Miami, when you relentlessly smashed a guitar on a stage, taking on the macho rock and roll trope. The broken stage became the artwork.
Naama Tsabar: That was in 2010, when Rirkrit Tiravanija invited three artists to each do a solo project in a storefront space. A part of my show focused on the guitar series, and we performed Untitled (Babies), which was initially a 2008 video work in Tel Aviv. I played “Babies” by the band Pulp with a group of female musicians, all from New York. At the height of the song, I took the guitar off and tried to smash it on stage, but it wouldn’t break. [It had been reinforced.] Then, eventually, the stage itself started breaking apart.

Untitled (Babies), 2014. Performance view at Auto Body, Miami Beach; performed by Alejandra Campos, Sally Gates, Carolina Souto, and Naama Tsabar. Photo: Monica McGivern, Courtesy Spinello Projects and the artist

MS: Can you tell me more about the sounds in the “Inversions ?” How are they activated, and how did you choose them? I was picking up guttural sounds, as well as static, before it shifted into melodic song performed by a female vocalist.
NT: This is the first time that I’ve brought motion sensors into the works, where the body enters into the cavity of the wall and starts a sound file, where the movement changes the sound. The sound is made of two components: one is like white noise or waves, but it’s actually cicadas from field recordings that I made in Maryland last year. Brood X cicadas are an interesting phenomenon, hibernating beneath the ground for 17 years, emerging and then disappearing again. When they emerge, they color everything with sound. I was thinking about the space behind walls, the things that are hidden there, visibility and invisibility coming together, and I found a connection with the cicadas’ cycle. A lot of the sound files start with their sound and then merge with the sound of a vocalist singing.

I’m very interested in the female voice as a place of disruption. The female melodic voice is an anomaly in Western culture. Historically, it’s been the only place, for hundreds of years, where women could express themselves, under the cover of melody and beauty. So, beauty, in that sense, was like a Trojan horse—brought as a gift, but from there, a platform for expression and subversion. In the studio with the professional singers, I was looking for the place where the voice goes a bit off and just escapes the melodic; that’s, of course, their signature. With every vocalist, there’s a place where the beauty becomes something unique, the way that they express themselves. The idea is that you enter the unseen, the behind-the-wall, the cavity, and what comes out are strong female voices married with the cicada sounds. Your actions, going into the unknown, bring out something that is underestimated and forgotten. Movement inside these works changes certain parameters—in one, if you go deeper inside, the sound will rise in pitch; in another, it will pitch down; and in another one, it will change between the cicadas and singing, depending on where you are. There is a sonic reaction to your place and movement.

With the motion sensor “Inversions,” you don’t need to be a master of playing anything, you don’t need to enjoy your voice or be confident in it to be part of the work and to insert yourself into the situation. All you need is courage, which is a thing in itself, to penetrate the wall.

Perimeters, 2021. Performance; composed and performed by Ale Campos, Fielded, Gabriela Burdsall, Gabrielle Sheerer, Lee Muze, Naama Tsabar, Robbi Robsta, and Sarah Strauss.  Photo: Michael Del Riego, Courtesy The Bass, Miami Beach

MS: The body has always been very present in your work. In the Perimeters performance, there seems to be a shift toward more dance-like, seductive movement along the wall and into the sound holes to play the instruments and create sound. Many of your previous works had an inherent fierceness, but this felt more fluid.
NT: It’s the first time that I’ve worked with dancers, and it made a lot of sense to bring two dancers into the composition of eight, because these new works call on movement for activation rather than mastery of an instrument. There’s a language of movement and sonic reaction to be learned, and it was a really interesting process and new experience for me to go through rehearsals. How do you bring in the movements in a precise way that is one with the work, rather than create theater around the work? I was trying to have the movements be essential to the sound and the relationship of the two women moving beside each other inside these holes.

MS: Your 2014 performance at the Guggenheim Museum was the first time that I noticed you merging the body with the architecture of the space. There was something very sexual about it, and I recall some reference to the glory hole.
NT: Closer, the Guggenheim work, was a freestanding corner with a set of holes containing string elements and another set of holes for singing; it was kind of like a singer/songwriter corner where you could merge your body into the wall and play it. That was the starting point for the “Inversions.”

Closer, as well as photographs that I started taking in the studio in 2012 where I make holes in the wall and insert my body, is definitely linked to thinking about glory holes, thinking about the radicalized queer culture that men have in these clubs, and thinking about movement through space and movement through the world—gendered movement through the world. It blows my mind that men have the confidence to move their most vulnerable part through a hole in the wall, without knowing who’s the receiving part. To me, that is fascinating. I want to open that up to myself, and to the viewer—moving through the wall, through the holes, with that assurance, confident in your movement and existence through the wall, through the world, and into the unseen. That’s embedded in these works, and sexualized, of course, for other reasons as well. But it’s also about freedom of movement and confidence in movement. 

Closer, 2014. Wood, metal, microphones, microphone stands, tuners, and guitar strings, 54.5 x 54.5 x 108 in. Photo: Kristopher McKay, Courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

MS: Performance art, which was marginalized when you started receiving invitations from museum and cultural spaces in 2004, has since become completely integrated into the art world, with galleries creating departments and hiring dedicated curators. You have several major galleries representing you, but have very little to sell.
NT: The sculptural works and objects can sell, but I don’t sell my performances other than the “Composition” pieces. I find formats to make the work accessible, like vinyl or videography, because I don’t want it to be a commodity reserved only for people who have the means. 

I had moved to New York and was at Columbia doing my MFA when the market crashed in 2008, and the big conversation was that people weren’t buying art anymore, especially not emerging and young artists. Galleries weren’t looking for young artists. The focus was on how an artist could survive, and everyone was talking about residencies and performance, which obviously I’d been doing before. Shortly after, the Marina Abramović show at MoMA sent waves of performance, performance, performance; and Tino Sehgal came into full focus in those years. I feel like the shift toward performance has been a long process; and from my experience, its re-emergence, after the ’70s and ’80s, came from the 2008 crash when everything had to be re-thought and new models were put into place for support. It’s now completely considered an art form and has entered the market sphere.

There’s a misconception that performance is cheap to produce or easy to make—just do a performance. But a performance is the most expensive artwork you can make, and I find people are coming around to understanding the complexities of producing such a thing. 

MS: The opening of “Perimeters” coincided perfectly with the excitement of finally gathering together after so much isolation. We crave the immediacy of experiencing a performance in real life.
NT: And intimacy, too. It’s a thing of bodies coming together. The pandemic is in the body; that’s why we can’t see each other with the virus surging through us. This affirms the importance of our presence and body as the thing to protect and value to move forward. 

“Perimeters” is on view at The Bass, Miami, through May 29, 2022.