Home Alone: A Conversation with Tal R and a Most Contemporary of Exhibition Experiences
We've witnessed so many exhibitions, projects and individual works taking an unexpected turn these days. A great example of this new era of seeing art is Israeli-born, Denmark-based Tal R's solo exhibition that has virtually opened at Tim Van Laere Gallery in Antwerpen, Belgium. After institutional solo shows through Europe, the UK, and the Americas, his debut solo presentation with Van Laere was installed at the gallery's spacious venue but open for a virtual visit only.
Home Alone revolves around large-size paintings of solitary birds cramped in small cages, as well as still life drawings depicting household objects stripped of human presence. Intrigued by how fitting both the title and the imagery are with the current situation, we reached out to Tal R. Known for work that "offers intersections of personal experience and wider history through a visual jigsaw, finely balanced between representation and abstraction," we were curious to hear from him about the new context for this particular body of work, but also, the ways that the current situation affects experiencing the art in general.
Sasha Bogojev: Do you remember, when did you decide on the show title and the concept of the show? I'm asking because of how it's matching the current situation actually.
Tal R: I decided the title in September, October. There were two different things that influenced me. First, I've been interested in the idea of still life, the objects you have in your house. It doesn't have to be something special, it's just whatever you pick up on your way. Like you have Instagram and you put all the pictures of stuff that you like. Then in your house, you have a three dimensional Instagram. You put up stuff that somehow talks to you. You don't ask, "Why do they talk to me?" Or at least I don't ask. I just take them and I put them on a shelf, on a table, and then I sit and look at them, and they look back at me. Then when you start drawing them or painting them you give them another life.
That sounds like the premise of the Toy Story movie...
Yeah, I have kids and that means I have seen Toy Stories. In Toy Stories, whenever we leave the room, the toys, the objects, have a different life. In painting its the same - you take some boring junk that you bought in Venice, a souvenir, but when you draw them or paint them you give them life in a painting like they didn't have before.
It's also about the imagination and the ability to create. What is it to draw something? Is it to copy it? Is it something stupid that you always hear in art school, "I painted it in my style"? That's all bullshit. What you actually do is that you actually give life to stuff, and you actually show your generosity of all the objects around you. You speak to them. You speak with them. That's what you do. Nothing about style. Style is for dilettantes, for amateurs.
And where is the Home Alone title coming from?
Home Alone how these things live when you're not there. But it has a double meaning. Recently I was reading again one of my favorite books, The Cinnamon Shops by Bruno Schulz, who was a drawing teacher and had died in the Second World War. He was a Polish drawing teacher. There is a chapter in this book where his father, whos clearly turning mad, he buys all these eggs. And out of these eggs come all these exotic birds. And all these weird birds from far away places have their life inside the house. So I started to draw this very classical image of a bird in a birdcage.
I thought it's such an amazing image. It's something that if you give it to a child who's 12 years old, and you say to them, "Write something about this," every child will have a feeling, every person will have an opinion about a bird that's a bit too big alone in a cage. It's about culture, and at the same time about nature.
How does it feel to put up a show with such theme and imagery at times like this? Because it became almost like a prophecy of some sort.
Actually, at first, while they were hanging the show in Antwerp I said, "Okay, Home Alone, that's actually quite funny with the new reality that starts appearing." It was all kind of a coincidence. But you could say if you paint a bird alone in a cage any place in the world, any time, it will have a certain meaning because it's such an archetypal image. It's like the moon reflecting in the water. These things are almost like sentences that would change in a different context. If you show a bird alone in a cage in Syria it will mean something different there. At least for our part of the world, the virus is democratic.
Does it maybe bother or how do you feel about that it could be getting different connotations because of the global situation?
I think the brilliant thing about art is as I said before, it's like a sentence you throw into society. I remember Daniel Richter, he painted, long before it was an image on everybody's mind, people in boats, refugees in boats. And it was just one out of many images, but suddenly the idea of refugees in boats become on everybody's mind. His painting got a new reading. But also, we don't know the future. In 10 years a bird alone in a cage will mean something different.
I think it is like that if you are interested in making images that are "half precise." Everybody can read "people in a boat," "man falling off a horse," "moon reflecting in the water, ""bird in a cage, "but it can be read differently in different contexts. So I'm interested in doing images like this, and I'm excited that this means something now and means something different tomorrow.
When I first got the images from the gallery the exhibition felt so large, monumental, and I was thinking, "Is it possible that the show is revolving about the current situation and that you created this work so quickly?"
No. It's completely coincidental.
How does it feel for you personally to put up a big show like this knowing that only a handful of people will actually have the chance to see it in person? How does that feel for someone that creates art that's meant to be experienced in person?
When you do a body of work, a family of paintings, you peak when the last painting is done. Then it peaked. Somehow it's done for you. I'm not really sad that there is no opening. I'm of course sad that I can't see it, but that's not the worst. I think the worst thing is that a lot of people can't see it in the flesh. That annoys me.
And how do you feel about the efforts that galleries and museums are putting to bring their exhibition to people through technology and social media?
I think there's so much bad to say about social media, and so much that people of my age who are like over 50, we can complain about social media, but in times like this I'm actually grateful for it. Because in a way it gives an idea about this painting, these images. The painting can't be experienced on an iPhone, but the idea can be experienced.
The painting is like a physical thing, it's like a sculpture. When you stand in front of them you understand something you can't see on a screen or on a piece of paper, or in a catalog. It's something you can only experience standing in front of it where the size is correct, you can sense the structure. That's sensing the painting as a body. But if a painting, and don't get me wrong, if a painting is great, even if you look at it on a postal stamp, it will still be a great painting. You will still understand the idea.
Talking about this appearance in person your work has this quality of smaller studies with all these textures and roughness of brushwork, but then on a monumental scale. How important or purposeful is that from your end? And how do you achieve such an effect on such a big scale?
Before doing this bird painting I worked seven, eight months on a very large painting of men falling off horses. It's the same size as Guernica. It's like more than seven meters long. In that painting, I really got to play with making things very big and to understand things that usually are just a few centimeters suddenly are half a meter. Actually I took the experience from that into these big birds.
Every family of paintings or you could say every painting you do has something that educates you in a way that you feel. You realize "oh, now I can do this". But it also educates you by disappointing you. I think a lot of artists will agree, what pushes them forward is more than disappointment. Things that you think didn't really succeed. Then you push to the next painting and you try to make this succeed. When this succeeds something else is not succeeding. That's kind of the two poles that you develop your work between - what succeeds and what didn't succeed, and you always push this education further, the self-education. In a way that it is funnier to say it, it's the flower you sent and the flowers you said you sent. Which is from a song by Stephin Merritt.
Since we're talking about that technique can you explain a bit about your Kolbojnik concept which explains your practice?
Kolbojnik is a word that I got to know when as a child I went to visit family in Kibbutz in Israel. This was when everybody finished their food they would all put their trash in the same place. And this place was called kolbojnik. I think around 2002, 2003 my work was very much about collecting a lot of material. It's actually wrong to say collect material because that seems more distant. It's more picking up stuff that your greedy hand picks up by itself. I had mountains of material. All these things that I was deeply fascinated by. In a way you become professional about all your interests, all your hobbies, all your fascinations, all your attractions, you become professional about them. That means you start collecting like a maniac.
I called this big mountain kolbojnik. I was thinking at that time I went through that education and I'm not there anymore at all, but the sculptures I did at that time, I was fishing in this kolbojnik.
It feels like such a theory can be applied to how each individual is created?
How much of what is you is actually something you chose? A lot of stuff is whatever you were brought up with. Surely you didn't choose the school, you didn't choose your parents, the person that kicked you when you were in the metro when you were nine years old, or pornography that suddenly some older kid showed you. That's actually what created this kolbojnik that you were going to fish in the rest of your life whether you wanted or not. When you pick up the material you just prove that you're a product of an upbringing that you didn't choose.
Where do you feel in your own kolbojnik at this point in life?
I think in a way that's something I grew out of. I don't have the same interest anymore. Your interest changes. I think I've also tried hard to put a lot of stuff behind me because I was always more interested in what I didn't know than what I knew. You get tired of certain things.
Is there a certain reason why the exhibition is just including the canvases and works on paper, and no sculptures or other mediums?
Yeah. I wanted to have this Home Alone theme with the bird. The bird is of course alive, but how much can it actually move inside that cage? It's more like a mental state. It can only be a bird, like an idea. It's a bird for the viewer because that's how cruel we are as humans. You put a bird in a cage because you feel you own the idea, but the bird can only be an idea. It can't be a bird anymore.
It's something that speaks about what it is to be a human. Also, then you have all these objects alone in the room, and the life you give them when you draw them, when you paint them. I wanted to have this kind of claustrophobic, isolated feeling. So no sculptures, because I wanted to have a clear impact, a clear slap in your face.
Learn more about the show at https://www.timvanlaeregallery.com/current