Eitan Ben Moshe was born Haifa, Israel. He studied at the Kalisher Art School and completed his postgraduate studies at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, Jerusalem. He has also studied Art and Buddhism at the Shambhala Meditation Center in New York City. Sourcing inspiration from a wide range of traditions, Ben Moshe creates works that prosper in space. His sculptures are hybrid fusions of glass, plastic and crystal. They are elements originating in a biological or chemical laboratory, a living-room cabinet, a display catalogue, or a three-dimensional printer. Occasionally we might recognize a spindly glass flower, a crystal star, or an overflowing champagne tumbler, but for the most part we sense the refusal to form a unified, specific, or organised narrative. He lives and works in Tel-Aviv and Berlin.
FRONTRUNNER speaks with Ben Moshe about chance encounters, working in big cities, botany, and the joy of art.
In your 2021 solo exhibition, The Story of Y, at Alon Segev Gallery, you combined mediums and perceptions/worldviews from different cultures. How did you choose the theme of this show?
I’m currently setting up the second installation of the exhibition, The Story of Y Part 2, at the Blake & Vargas Gallery. The second part will include two works from the first installation as well as new works. The name of the exhibition did not come up, at first. A friend of mine, artist Hagit Rubinstein, visited my studio about a year and a half ago and saw some of the works that were already finished. She said that they reminded her of the book, The Story of O. It’s a very well-known book of erotic tales, written by a woman under a pen-name of a man. In the book, the female protagonist enters, of her own will, a kind of a castle, and the book details numerous BDSM experiences. It is a very strange and twisted book, in terms of how one perceives it, since it was written under a false name. In my opinion, there are some back-and-forths of consciousness and subconscious within the movement of the book. I was familiar with it, and I might have even started reading it once and did not connect to it. But that time around, when I read it at an older age, it was more interesting to me and I found many connections between the book and my work.
The artworks that [comprised] the main body of work at the exhibition were reliefs made of a mixture of hand-sculpted parts and parts created in a 3D printer. There was also a film, Aomori (2021), created with a computer-generated imagery (CGI) program, and was based on a Japanese folk song. I think that most of my projects and my exhibitions combine various mediums. They are a kind of a visual séance where I conjure all kinds of energies, forces and mediums. The word media, or medium, is being used in its “literal” context, as a practitioner of mediating communication. Sometimes, a new theme would come along, like the theme of this book, and it would exist somewhere in the back of my mind. But, I cannot define how the works are directly related to it. In a more abstract way, I could say that some of the works include elements reminiscent of all kinds of genitalia. I always explore botany, sex, and reproductive morphology of plants, animals, and humans. In recent years, I’ve been fascinated with the sexual structure of plants, in which gender is very fluid, much more than whatever seemingly-radical groups within the human race are trying to develop these days. Some plants even change their sex during a season and fertilise themselves if they are not able to find external fertilisation. Their sexual acts with themselves and with insects are fascinating. The way plants use camouflage to trap insects, the way insects create some kind of a dance and fertilise the plants. Their interaction with one another and the orgasmic elements of their acts that involve different animals have really interested me, lately.
I spoke with Shir Moran, who is also represented by Alon Segev. I asked her about artists that influence her at the moment, and she mentioned you and your latest exhibition. One similarity I found between both of your bodies of work is the theme of lucid dreams and the awareness of the process of creating your art.
Lucid dreams is a definition I can comprehend. How aware I am of the process during the creation of a piece? Perhaps I am absorbed with it, or in a state of hyper-consciousness, but from an ideological or a conceptual point of view. I often fully understand my exhibitions only after they close down. This whole idea of “concept” and the serious disease that infects the art world called “Art Research” is, in my opinion, one of the heaviest damages to the field. Artists are becoming uninteresting scientists and their art suffers, as well, since they confuse art and science. They have pages upon pages of research and explanations, but when you step in, you see a cold-blooded creation that is not an artwork, nor scientific research. I favour both of these fields and I think that naturally, every artist is also a researcher, but the process has become too aware of itself and artists feel they are expected to have a scientific justification to their work. I notice this phenomena mostly in Europe, since there are numerous funds that support that kind of art-making. It influences the artists greatly. It’s slightly less present in Israel and in the United States, from what I have seen. I believe that awareness and understanding exist differently in art; there is a dreamy element of it, and I would often prefer art that remains obscure or unexplained. Its power circulates in space and in the cosmos for a longer period of time.
I think academia plays an integral role in this aspect of art. In regards to your academic journey: between your undergraduate and graduate studies, you spent time in New York City and created your own independent study that included time at the Shambhala Center. What led you to embark on this journey?
I was in the midst of a confidence crisis with myself and with my art, and I was looking for new, energising resources. Recently someone told me that the word “crisis” in Chinese is both a danger and an opportunity. I came to New York and started studying on my own, sitting in museums and art spaces for hours, photographing and writing. I felt I was re-learning and reinventing my knowledge through the images and texts I came across. When I arrived in the city, I worked in kitchens, because that was what I used to do in Israel at the time. One day, a very wealthy Israeli guy contacted me. He was renovating his house in the Lower East Side, in the style of Gaudí, and wanted me to clean up after his construction workers. I got to his place and we became friends, instantly. His American workers were exhausted by him, since he asked them for all sorts of odd sculptural structures and they did not understand exactly what he wanted. Back then, I didn’t have much sculpting experience since I was mostly a painter, but I took over the renovation process fairly quickly. The renovators taught me their craft and left. I ended up sculpting the house for over a year. It became my sculpting school. Whenever I needed to learn a craft, I was able to bring an expert to teach me, and I had credit cards I could use for every hardware store in New York. It was kind of a crazy sculpting school since I had to somehow build his house through his whims and the images he had in his mind, but I learned through dialogue with him, as he was a very interesting man. I had a school in New York I wish everyone could have. It was a combination of Buddhism, practice, and interactions with amazing people. At some point, though, the city became mentally unbearable for me and I left. I go back there every once in a while. I really enjoy visiting and I can see myself living there for periods of time, but not more than that. I could maybe see myself living upstate. The Israeli guy I mentioned was both a tough businessman and a very spiritual person. He took me to various workshops and ashrams in upstate New York, including one led by Gurumayi [Chidvilasananda]. It’s a very well known ashram that is absurdly located in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish town that looks like it was taken out of a story by S.Y. Agnon. All the American celebrities visit it. I was introduced to the world and aesthetics of the New Age, and I think my art is very connected to their practices. Even though New Age is often discussed in a cynical manner, I personally think it has a lot to offer, especially to the art world.
Is there an initial step you would recommend to someone who aspires to take themselves to a foreign country and create a plan similar to yours?
First and foremost, don’t be shy. Go meet up and speak to a lot of people that live in the place. When I arrived in New York, there was no Facebook or Instagram, but today it’s so easy to get into so many meetings and events. Act like you’ve discovered a new island. There used to be an ancient tool, a round hoop, that explorers would throw and wherever the hoop landed, they would go and explore. They used it so they would not end up choosing a place based on its beauty. They wanted coincidence to play a role in their choice. On that note, go wandering. Secondly, especially for someone who lives in a country that is not theirs, it’s important to slowly build a routine, even a busy one. I think artists live in great chaos and unknownness within their work and it’s a good thing, but I think it’s important to balance it with a healthy, organised lifestyle and to take care of the body and soul. One should not be a tortured artist, thrown in a reeked apartment. On the contrary, the artist should take care of themselves in a better way than a high-tech worker does. Their loneliness and the way they work are not easy to handle in modern society. For example, I introduced my students to meditation, and most of them thank me for that. I also highly recommend to keep studying all the time. I do it myself and one of my greatest pleasures, perhaps even greater than making art, is to learn new things that make my mind and body active. Whether it’s martial arts or a philosophy book, I think that the act of the challenge is important. When you challenge your spirit and make it thrive, you set up an environment where interesting works will grow. They won’t necessarily have a direct context to what you learn or do, but you act like a gardener. If the soil is fertile, the plants will grow interestingly and beautifully. You won’t even have to take much care of them, they will grow there by themselves.
I love the imagery of “growing” sculptures rather than making them, because sometimes works are created in my studio over the years in unexpected ways. A part of one sculpture can suddenly transition to another, or I could find a feather on my way to the studio and it would become a part of the sculpture. At some point, the sculpture does not want any more adjustments. It feels it has reached its full maturity and sometimes it wants to leave the studio and to be seen.
In the past, you’ve claimed that the artist is the medium. As an instructor in both Bezalel [Academy of Art and Design] and Shenkar [College of Engineering and Design], is there any advice you give your students beyond meditation? Or was there ever good advice you received and you pass on, regularly?
It seems to me that different things come up based on every student’s needs. I do not remember receiving any good advice from my instructors. They mostly scared me about the future. I remember one of my professors would say that art is like walking in quicksand. They had all kinds of sayings and “threats” that are, by the way, not that far from the truth, but are not exactly advice. I think that the previous generation, that of my teachers, was very different from who we are today. They lived in a much more difficult time, in terms of ego and relationships. It was less friendly and communal. Today, I feel I have good friends who are fellow artists whose lives are intertwined, and I think we are living in a better time these days in terms of our mental attitude towards art. Maybe our approach is less heroic; it does not necessarily damage the art, but on the contrary, perhaps it’s better to not take art so seriously, in such a dreadful way. It’s easier said than done, though. I can sometimes get myself into extreme states because I am not pleased with what’s going on in my studio. But I try to remind myself that it’s all just a game, though it does not always work.
Additionally, try to avoid any external feedback as much as possible. When I teach art, I ask my students (even though they are not happy about it) to give feedback to themselves. I only do it in the Art department, and I would argue that nowadays, there is almost no difference between art and design. I think that there is no medium-based difference between the two at all, and the two fields operate in overlapping areas very often. I once said in an interview that it’s a hybrid of a fashion designer and an autistic [person], and I mean autism in its enviable sense. I have worked with autistics, and watching their ability to create out of sheer carelessness for whatever anyone thinks of their work is admirable. Most artists don’t have the privilege of carelessness, since they have to be hyper-aware to succeed in this world. It’s not easy, but it’s essential to be able to connect to an initial pleasure that is not dependent on what others think of you. After you get there, go and share it with them, nag them and ask for their opinion. The initial steps should almost feel like a state of meditation, or dancing alone in your room in the dark, so you don’t think about how you look when you dance. You are flying. You don’t have to do it by yourself. You can share the experience with others. If there is advice I would give it is this, and maybe it can be abbreviated for the booklet of good advice.
You create a kind of – not colorless environment, but an environment that lacks a color palette. An environment that had been abandoned or frozen in time. Does working in different countries, between Israel and Germany for example, play a role in those environments?
I am sure it does, even if I am not fully aware of it. I don’t like being a tourist and it was very important to me that my life would not be only in Israel, so I made sure to have a studio in Germany. I try to work on or participate in at least one large-scale project outside of Israel every year. It’s fun and refreshing and essential to me. Every environment I interact with affects me. To this day, I wander around, write down and photograph outdoors, frequently. From the day I started making art, I’ve always filled in sketchbooks. I use them on flights or in the bathroom, not necessarily in front of certain objects. I keep collecting snippets of places and feelings, but I don’t think that the colors, or non-colors you mentioned, are communicating a particular location in the world, as I’m trying to transmit moments. The landscapes I created in many exhibitions in Israel are not necessarily related to the Israeli landscape or the Israeli air, although I’m sure that at some level they are, since I’m present there. Some elements of my work seem broken and temporary and are related to growth and destruction. Clearly, the Israeli landscape and the physical one reflects that. Whenever I return to Israel after being away for a while, I walk around Tel-Aviv’s streets I have always known and suddenly, Israel appears to me as a detached, dismantled place: half-broken balconies that no one seems to notice. In Berlin, you are required to get a special permit to paint an outdoor pipe in a specific shade that is accepted by the building, at least in some neighbourhoods. I see some slight similarities between certain areas of Tel-Aviv and Berlin. To your question, I am certain the cities affect my work.
I must ask why you never display them, although I have a feeling I know the answer.
I will, for a moment, turn the interview around and ask you – why do you think I don’t display them?
Simply because they are very personal.
I don’t know if they are “personal”, but if I were to compare them to computer language, I may say they are like machine code. You don’t necessarily have to see it. But I don’t have a specific answer. I usually feel that there is no need to share them. In previous exhibitions, I happened to hang one or two sketches and ended up taking them off. I had paper-based works in my solo exhibition at the Herzliya Museum, but they were different from other sketches since I created them in the context of a specific move I made there. I once asked my wife why she thinks I don’t showcase my sketches and she said, “you will show them at the end.”