When I visited Addam Yekutieli’s studio in Tel Aviv, he graciously welcomed me at the door, walking gingerly, as he recovered from an urgent hip replacement procedure that followed a knee replacement procedure. His shattered and scarred body was reminiscent of his characters, similarly supported by crutches in a recurring motif he has employed for years. Whether drawing his recognizable, fragile figures or being a voice for the marginalized, he immortalizes feelings through different mediums, opening a window of understanding. Additionally motivated by living in one of the most complex and troubled parts of the world, he continues to explore the ways his message can transcend boundaries, evolving and maturing rapidly and beautifully.
Sasha Bogojev: Can you remember the first piece you created that you felt was art?
Addam Yekutieli: Hmm, not really. Actually, I'm now sitting right next to a childhood drawing from when I was three, but I'm pretty sure it's not the first “art piece” I ever made. Both my parents are artists, and back then, they had a collaborative studio practice, so I grew up around it, always playing with materials and being exposed to art. My parents would let me and my sister, who is also an artist, have little exhibitions in the living room.
Even though I didn't think anything of it back then, maybe that was the beginning of some sort of mentality. I started drawing more and more, so when that connected with a process of finding myself through skateboarding and punk rock, that was the second wave, because I was finally exposed to things that felt relevant and urgent to me.
You grew up in the US and moved to Israel at some point, right?
We moved to Israel in 1995 when I was almost 10. I grew up in Huntington Beach, which is a skate and surf epicenter of sorts. I wasn't really part of that culture in an active way then, but once I was, a year or so later, it wasn't nearly as developed in Israel. I'm sure you know what I mean, with you growing up in Croatia. There were certain things you knew about but you had no way of reaching. I think that created a curious drive, in the sense of needing to search and do research to gain access to what I’m interested in.
You started creating in the street back in the "old days," so to speak. When was that?
That was around 2005. Creating work in public spaces started out just by understanding that it was possible, and then allowing my creative process to be influenced as a result. Before, I always created, but was also puzzled as to what the level of interaction a pile of drawings on my desk allowed. At that age, I never thought of exhibiting or really sharing my work. When I started doing work on the street, I was exiting a long period of a depression of sorts. It was after I graduated high school and everyone was going to the military. It's a strange transitional process that happens in Israel at that age.
It was probably easier to label “street art” as one thing back when you started. I wouldn’t say that, as there was so much curiosity and experimentation and, I'm not saying this in a bitter way at all, but not many other people were involved in its production. There were fewer external forces involved acting as mediators for the artists. For me, the most important part was that it was independent, immediate and intuitive. I just think it's morphed into something else that doesn’t serve these three things for me. Most of the current work in public space, at least what’s being created by artists, only takes place under sanctioned conditions. I don’t mean this in the sense of legal or illegal, but more in the sense of an organic interaction that I feel is missing. I don't think there is a right or wrong way, each serves a different purpose. During the period where I was making work like this it felt didactic, as if the relationship between the viewer and the artist was dictated. Re-introducing spontaneity was a big part of stepping away from my image-based work towards text-based and being able to interact organically and suggest the image, as opposed to illustrating it.
Do you remember what triggered this change?
There were two moments that created the big shift in the way I perceived my work. Once, I was in a car, in the middle of nowhere in China, and there was a big field with an old rusty gate. My first reaction was to stop the car in order to paint this gate. My work has always dealt with the ephemeral and the passing of time, so all that was evoked in me. It seemed strange that I was intent on creating a piece about the passing of time, or a representation of the passing of time, which felt vain of me. I felt that it was doing a good enough job in evoking all these metaphors on its own. Observation became a larger component in what I was hoping for my art to allow. I think the combination between the immediacy that I described before, and this mentality of not wanting to impose, but become a part of something larger, brought me to making smaller pieces. This is when I developed a more philosophical, or more conceptual approach to using text in public space, such as Truth and Method or Vicariously Speaking, which are more about suggesting a situation while still respecting the environment and people around you.
(Addam in his studio, portrait by Sasha Bogojev)
And what was the second?
It was a piece I did in 2012 next to a really dirty old wall near an old studio. Passing by one day, I wrote, "A dirty thing," on it. I left it like that for a week or so, allowing people to create their associations, connotations and speculation about the text. About a week later, I went back and placed a white flag on the ground next to it. By chance there happened to be a bundle of tied branches on the side, so it created an even more layered meaning because of its similarity to the imagery I use in my other work. What I wanted was for the viewer to make their own connection and take an active part in creating the image through these suggested elements. I didn't want to create an installation that says, "this represents my views on nationalism and patriotism,” but more of a situation that feels like an interesting, unintentional coincidence to the viewer. This formed my mentality towards all the projects I've done pretty much since, driving me to revisit my text-based works.
Do you think that living in Israel influenced the decision to start creating more engaged work?
Definitely. To an extent, my work has always dealt with political topics, and I often focus on the emotional compositions of these topics. At the time, it was almost like an ideological decision to focus on subtleties. I perceived that the two are not only inseparable, but are almost the same, and this had an immense affect on my approach. I think that growing up in a place like Israel, politically, but also religiously and socially, is a very intense reality. There are certain things that you don’t realize are very unnatural about the environment you live in. I remember when I understood this—I was in Norway in 2008 for Nuart festival in Stavanger, and it was my first time in a Scandinavian country. Everything was so pleasant, so serene and so peaceful, so quiet, and for some reason, I felt uneasy, but couldn’t understand why. I then realized it was one of the first places I've been to with no readily visible presence of a degree of conflict. That was very unfamiliar, and created a deeper personal understanding of the reality in the Middle East.
How does it feel for an empathetic, big-hearted person to live in a region with so much tension and injustice?
I think that my decision to live in Israel is very layered. While I have roots in Tel Aviv and most of my friends and my family are in Israel, it is still very complicated for me energetically. I feel that we are witnessing this huge political shift, a critical time, whether it be relating to the Occupation or Israel’s internal affairs. All the history that this region bears, combined with multiple historical narratives, some shared and some not, has created a weird mutant of sorts. I feel we need to understand this, reflect, and react.
Many of the projects you do are very emotive, honest and weighty, which must be draining. How do you cope with carrying all that information, emotion, and experience?
It’s something that really has an effect on me, and I feel that that's good, especially now, having to take time out from life due to two major orthopedic surgeries that I recently underwent to address a longtime arthritic autoimmune condition. It has changed my perception of pain, both physically and emotionally, allowing me to re-evaluate many things. While on the mend, I've started drawing again, and have been creating these big indexes of numbered hand gestures, each with a paired text. It's hard to explain, but the texts feel like thoughts or principles that aren't necessarily mine, but suggest narratives, and again, through different people, abstracted or fictive renditions of things I've experienced. I've noticed they've been a way for me to process all my thoughts, a product of what I’ve been going through physically and mentally. Like with my beginnings, it is a way to exorcise it all and get a sense of understanding and relief from bottling up all these thoughts.
Is it possible that all these projects with other people are cathartic, maybe like bungee jumping when you're afraid of heights?
In that sense, it is therapeutic, and there are profound things I learn from these exchanges. Whether they inspire, whether they are difficult, these are all things that I take with me, and I know it's a privilege to be exposed to them. Like my physical situation, it's been almost 10 years, to some degree, and I know that it made me experience certain things that most people will experience later in life, like how to ask for help and be patient. This gave an introspection that wouldn't be possible in any other way, and I am more at peace with certain existential thoughts. I feel like I am exposed to a lot of truths. I see a lot of parallels between the process I’m going through physically and the process of working with with other people revolving around difficult subjects. You need to breathe into the pain and give it a chance to let down its protective guards. There is a lot of overcoming revealed on behalf of the various participants, and this, for me, is the balancing force to the more difficult aspects of the process.