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Nahum Tevet

I just had a fascinating chat with Tel Aviv-based sculptor Nahum Tevet in advance of Seven Walks, his first solo UK show at Dundee Contemporary Art. (Or, rather, he said lots of fascinating things despite not being able to understand my ‘Irish’ accent.)

Tevet makes impossibly complex, impossibly large installations, that take years to complete. Using thousands of everyday objects, or objects that look like everyday objects, he re-contextualises and combines them in a way that doesn’t so much follow the guides laid down by past movements in art history - Modernism, Minimalism, perhaps Constructivism - as muck about with them. Without having seen it in the flesh, I can’t be sure, but I suspect his work nowadays is mostly about the way we look at art, something touched on in the following conversation.

Here are two images taken from Tevet’s Untitled 95-96 to whet the appetite, and so you can get a better idea of the new work he talks about here:

Nauhum Tevet - Untitled 95-96

Nauhum Tevet - Untitled 95-96

Could you tell me a bit about the delay getting your work out of Israel?

There was a strike! The government is a right wing government, and they tried to change the strutcure of the ports, which was the strongest union – until now. There is a certain authority which unifies all the ports in Israel, and that made the union very strong. So they tried to privatise – they’re very good students of your Margaret Thatcher! – and when they made the new rule in the Parliament, the Knesset, at that very moment there was a strike, which is still going on.

That must be frustrating.

Yes, my work was held less than twenty-four hours before it had to leave the port.

Oh no!

Just my luck.

So – is it pretty frustrating?

Well, it is not what one will expect. It is frustrating, but it might be interesting actually.

That’s what I was about to ask – are you taking it as a challenge? Will it change the work?

No, no. The way I work is in a studio, in the very classical manner of a studio artist. It is not an installation that can vary in dimensions, or something. I sometimes say the work is a satellite that I launch from my studio that lands in some other place.

So it’s completely realised before the installation?

Yes, it’s realised again with the exact structure and placings. On the millimetre, as they say.


If you look at pictures of my work, you can see how complicated it is, so there is no room for variations. Because every single element is so much dependent on another, if you move something, it is like… it’s like an orchestration in a way: if you change one tone, everything goes wrong.

So what will you be showing in DCA when the show opens?

It depends how quickly we open the crates! The first stage of the installment is tracing a very large, detailed floor-plan, which I am copying from a map I have with me. This by itself is a few days work. So when people come, they will be able to see a very large drawing on the floor, which shows the placement, the marks and signs for every single object that is to be placed. So, yes, people will see an abstract drawing with a lot of letters and numbers and information that will allow us to store it later. And I hope that we’ll be able to put at least 20-30% of the installation in, but it’s all one piece, so there will only be sections there.

So how do you feel about showing it like that?

It isn’t really showing it, it’s more like letting people have a glimpse, like a work in progress. It might be interesting in a way. It’s not the optimal situation, I would prefer to have it ready, first so as to be nice to them and second so as to be nice to the work. If someone will bother to come again and see the complete work, then it’s quite amazing to see how all this comes together… I guess on Saturday, it will be quite messy. There will be perhaps a thousand objects spread around, waiting to come to a certain place.

Talking more specifically about the piece – you’ve been developing it for a long time…

From the very early nineties, I’ve been pushing my work, or starting a new stage, a new chapter. In ‘91 there was a very big career retrospective, titled Painting Lessons, though it showed sculptures. There were sculptures that showed complexity, that were made of many many objects, that were very colourful. But since ‘92 or so, I took a few decisions. One was to push this interest in complexity and multiplicity to a certain edge, so the works in the last ten years or so really grew, and got bigger and bigger, until they became more like room installations. They fill the entire room. You’re with me?

Yes, yes.

Right. Each work will be bigger than yourself, and there was a challenge to make big works without making monumental work. There was an interest from the 80s to make work that it is impossible for the viewer to get a hold of.

Because they can’t appreciate the whole?

Yes, yes. You are coming from the art I guess? You are an art person?

Er, yes – I write about art a lot, but I’m not an artist.

Good good – I’m sorry, I didn’t know what kind of journalist you are! So, the main ambition was criticising or attacking the ideas of Donald Judd and his friends, the idea that you see something and you right away know everything about it. And also, the job of memory or perception. What I tried to do from the early 80s, well, I remember saying in an interview then that I would like to do scupture that will beat the camera, that there will be no way to represent them, or even to tell in language what is going there. But at the same time, it is not about chaos or a mess. It is about playing with a tradition, the minimalist or modernist tradition, with a rational object, with images that recall certain objects that we associate with a certain tradition or discipline. What I want to do is play with that, to turn it upside down. I do this by using boxes, or cubes, or very simple forms, but inserting into that not only complexity but also little stories, a narrative – but never with the idea that a work is about, I dunno, a certain story, my biography or something. It’s all about throwing hints, and pulling back – something like that. You assume that there is a certain order, and you look and it’s all collapsing, and there is a proposal for something else.

So there are little clues for people to work around?

Yes, you are having a clue in a certain area that a certain event is happening, or a certain psychological mood, or a little something that alludes to a specific moment in art history, and, by the way, my own history – there is a lot of quotation from earlier work, a retrospective look. If you look even at the internet site, you can see that even in the 80s the same elements appear again and again. So the problem is building a certain vocabulary that is kind of limited, then seeing how much wealth there is in it, or whether I am capable of surprising myself playing with the same stupid cubes!


Now, the point is this when you ask about this specific work: the work grew and grew, which has a lot to do with working in Tel Aviv, not New York or London where every second week you must produce something. I took the advantage of working behind the mountains, where no one cares what I am doing, and closed the studio door so I could spend time – and money by the way! The idea is of working in a counter-productive manner, not playing the game of the system. I remember once making a work and saying, ‘I want that piece to be so complex and so big that no one can take it to his collection.’ Of course, it was sold! So – this very specific piece was developed in this line. I started in 1998, in a space that was not so big, and my intuition was that I wanted to push this kind of business into a new horizontality. I was interested in the point of walking and looking, so you are not standing in one place to see a picture or sculpture. You really have to wander, and while you are wandering, you have an adventure. The more I worked on the piece, the more I became interested in this situation. It is almost like when you read a book, or listen to a concert – there is a question of the narrative of the piece, the way one piece links to another. Now, the way I work, I really felt that it was bigger, so I had the opportunity to move to another studio, which was bigger, and I really thought I would just add another few pieces here and there, and that would be it. But it so happened that I spent another five years at that studio, and luckily that studio is an old basketball room from a school. Luckily it wasn’t a football room, or I would have been working for another twenty years! It really bought many interesting questions – working with all these little elements, how big can it be, without becoming a mess, or a storage? So it was really intriguing. This new scale of the basketball studio really intoduced bigger elements into the piece. In the end, the piece kind of stopped in the studio with about sixty centimetres between the piece and the wall. You are really pressed into this labyrinth, as if you are in the labyrinth, but there is not one section in the whole work where you can enter the work. So there is this interesting effect of being drawn in, but staying outside. I worked a lot at creating very tempting views. There are these units that are chest level

Those tall table-like structures?

Yes, there is an element that is kind of a partition, the side of which is about one metre and thirty centimetres. They create a situation that is like a wall that you want to see behind – like an obstacle for the body of the viewer and of the mind, for your ability to see. The whole thing is very dense, there is a lot happening behind these walls of furnitures and architectural structures in a way. It is really about… when you look at this, you are missing something, and if you move a little you will see, but there is again always something that is preventing you from seeing. So it is only your imagination that will allow you to get inside. This was the studio situation, but in Dundee there is more space, because the room is bigger.

But they still won’t be able to get to the heart of it?

No, no. I think what is happening is that there so many intimate, and hand-made objects that they call you to look at them. They are not the kind of things you want to look at from ten metres away. From the distance it’s just a pile of…


Yes! There is a kind of relationship between the viewer position, the viewer position in a way – the work moves you from this side to that side, you try to push yourself a little backward or forward. It is like choreographing the viewers movement.

You’re like a conductor?

Not in that way. The work just stands there. The piece doesn’t care about the viewer, but the viewer has to work. In many ways it looks like a cemetary in a way, rather than a garden or whatever.

I was going to ask whether, with these architectural aspects to the work, you were making some sort of alternative city, or alternative world? Even that there is some kind of Utopian aspect to the work?

People are often using this metaphor of Tel Aviv, or wherever. They call Tel Aviv the White City, or the city likes to call itself that. Tel Aviv is full of Bauhas buildings that are white, or off-white now. I don’t work with this in mind, actually. I said something at the beginning of the interview that the work tries to deny any possesion of meaning, or image, or some kind of simple descriptive something, so that you could see the piece and say, ‘Ah, that’s about architecture.’ This happens because I am using very simple objects – cubes, partitions, a table that is like a drawing of a building. The tables even came from some sort of joke on the cube. In Israel we say [something in Hebrew] – it means ‘turning up twice’ or something like that. This piece, because of the scale, one could say it is Manhattan, or one could say it is Tel Aviv, and there is this feeling that you are walking in a city, because of the vistas that are open, like streets. But actually everything is built from interior stuff, from simple things from the home. So if it is an outdoor landscape, the whole tone and touch, the imagery is made from inside things. I mean, if you see two beds beside each other, this is not an outdoor architecture thing. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there are many boats in my work – there is an image of a boat that is turned upside down and becomes an iron. There is a lot going on to do with water, for example, as if the whole structure is sunk in some strange place. So there is a table, but there are boats floating under the table legs. Maybe if one started to read the piece and say, ‘This stands for that, and this for that,’ you will maybe find meaning. Just as I say – this table is upside down, or this boat is attached to a vertical wall, perhaps this means the ground has unfolded. It is very complex, not just in terms of there being many many things, but in terms of trying to find meaning. The point is that whatever you try to stamp on it in terms of meaning, you will fail.

Or however close you come to understanding, there is something else in the way denying that understanding?

Right, right. I wrote a little statement for the catalogue at the Venice Biennale, a few sentences that describe this in a little poetic way, the manner that I start work. It said that there is no plan or program for what I am going to do, and that is why I spend so much time. I may think at the beginning that I want to do this and that, but every time I add someting there is a surprise, I am pushed in a new direction, given new options to continue. It is as if there is a virus, or a cancer, something that destroys any logic. Part of what will make you interested in understanding is that despite this, there is a very clear feeling that there is an order, that there is a certain logic. This is why I am not going to change the work – every time when I come [to a gallery], I place it as it is, in fact it can be placed without me there. So, anyway, in this little statement for the Biennale ends with the idea that the more you look at a piece… I love this metaphor that you assume it is something… I mean sculpturally, theoretically, if you think of someone like Richard Serra, it is about making you find a place in the world, but in my case I am interested in the idea that you stand on the ground and the carpet is being pulled from underneath your foot. Or as if you are on a running belt, like they have at airports, where the ground is always escaping from you. Another reason why I am working for so long is that I am like a dog running after his tail!

So the way you work – letting new things suggest themselves and that kind of thing – almost works in the same way as the viewer experiencing the work?

I’m sorry, you speak so quickly – are you Scottish or Irish?

Sorry – I’m English, but I’ve lived in Scotland so long my accent has gone funny!

A whole new accent? Okay!

Yes. What I was saying was is there a similarity between the way you make a piece and the way someone viewing it has to work when they are viewing it, or interacting it? Like a mirroring?

Oh, that is certainly true.

So that’s something you aim for?

Well, I won’t ask anyone to stand with it for seven years! Not really that, but when I am doing it I am the viewer. I play until I am pleased with a certain section, the way I respond to it. You know, when it takes so long to do a piece, by the time I am on the fifth or sixth year, I forgot what I started with. So it is really about whether it works for me or not. So if I am excited about something, I would love the viewer to have a similar experience. A good viewer is someone who has really got it. I know I miss many many people – on many levels it is so different from the way people are used to seeing art today, you know they run in and see things like they see things in a mall. It’s about begginng for attention! Listen, you can’t get in dialogue with the world if you are always running. The time is really important. I know many people will just say, ‘Eh, what’s this?’ and then they are not there, but there are a few people who will really get intrigued. I won’t say that these people will have my experience of the work, but if they come out with certain things that excite them, then I am happy.

Right, that should be plenty of stuff for me to work with. Unless there’s anything else you really wanted to highlight about the piece?

Well, we spoke about time, we spoke about complexity, we even spoke about the strike at the port! I think that is all, but I think what might be good is if you have a look on the internet site [], there are some texts, and an interview. Look at those, and look at the images, and you will know everything of me.

Okay, thanks very much, and I’ll see you at the opening.

Thank you. Bye bye.


Posted at 10am on 13/08/04 by Jack Mottram to the interviews category.
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