Milcah Bassel is an avid art learner whose curiosity leads to cross disciplines and techniques such as sculpture, performance, and bookmaking. She probes deep into her subjects and investigates her forms with rigor, but also with a playful approach. That playfulness is revealed throughout her diverse body of work, giving us a distinct flavor of her thought process and sensibility.
AS: You were raised in Israel and currently based in Jersey City. Tell me a bit about your background and what brought you to art.
Milcah Bassel: I was raised in Israel in a Jewish Orthodox setting. While creativity and unconventional careers do run in my immediate family, there was very little in the way of arts education at school and no real examples of career artists in the community. Being very shy and often bored in class I developed a tendency to occupy time and create my own territory through drawing. This was a primary and solitary action, and often a one-person rebellion against the visible and invisible forces that shaped my life. I think I built a kind of identity around artistic capabilities and creative output which by my early twenties had transformed into a vocation. Forming a career in the arts took a few more years and it is an ever-evolving process.
I never pursued an undergraduate degree. In Jerusalem I studied bodywork and healing modalities by day, and painting and drawing by night. I straddled these two pursuits in various schools and on my own, shunning academia, doing everything I could to carve out a space to develop some real skills as well as a sense of freedom from social expectations and norms. With the experiential at the core of all my pursuits, I traveled through Europe and the U.S and lived in Brooklyn for a while before moving to Tel Aviv-Yafo. Knowledge – embodied, contingent, sensual, and spiritual (though no longer religious) – provided the impetus for intellectual and historical research. I think that is still my prevailing methodology. I find that this somewhat messy and unconventional early chapter offers insight into the phenomenological axis of my practice today.
In 2010 I made the decision to move to the U.S and completed a Post Bac in Studio Art at Brandeis University the following year. I received my MFA in Visual Arts at Rutgers University in 2013. It was throughout this time that my work steered boldly away from my early figurative and representational training and became more dimensional, abstract, and performative. That’s when ways of articulating the experiential came into focus and my pursuit of the body-space continuum began in earnest.
AS: You work in many forms – drawing, book making, performance and seem to work in mode of projects. How do you start a project?
Milcah Bassel: Some of my work in recent years has developed around a site, space, context, or deadline-driven event. Falling into the category of emerging artist in the NYC timeline often means these productions occur quickly, from the time of proposal or invitation, they are produced and then exist for a short time with little ephemera remaining after the event. What drives many of these are an open-ended inquiry and invitation for co-creation with the viewer – the artworks might be performative or participatory, demanding some level of physical engagement. Site-responsive installations usually begin with establishing some level of intimacy with the space, sometimes using it as a studio for several weeks. I once slept in the gallery in which I was installing during the week, leading up to the opening (Bluebound, 2013, Roxaboxen, Chicago). The insistence on this method posed a particular paradox when developing and installing a piece remotely (where is the line with you?, 2015, Hanina Gallery, Tel Aviv), becoming intimate with the space by proxy – gallery maps and scale models, hundreds of digital photos and drawings, and live video feeds with the profoundly attuned and committed curator, Noa Heyne.
Medium is a fluid thing for me. I have this voracious appetite for crossing ideas between media and dimension so that means a lot of cross-pollination between mediums that otherwise may seem radically different. Hand papermaking, ceramics, artist books, prints, fabric wearables and architectural extensions, DIY wood furniture, photo, video, sound, and live performance – have all expressed and triggered different curiosities and resolutions in my work over the years. Behind the scenes I cultivate an in-studio practice where experiments unfold in slower time than the deadline-driven projects and are often materially focused. I am always midway through multiple drawings, often labor intensive, accumulating over months or years, pending completion.
I think of the projects as inherently social, responsive to external factors and aspiring for interconnectedness, clearly demarcated by visible events and later existing primarily through documentation, if at all. The work in the studio is shy, it develops more from the inside-out and reveals itself incrementally and on its own time, I think of the results as poetic documents.
AS: What is the genesis of “Divider, revisited” (after Lygia Pape) performed by voluntary participants at White Box, NY and Trestle Gallery, Brooklyn, 2013? I am intrigued by (simulation collage).
Milcah Bassel: This occurred around the time I was wrapping up my MFA at Rutgers. I had recently discovered the work of the brilliant artist Lygia Pape (Brazil, 1927-2004), and was so taken by the scope of her work, how with equal conviction she addresses everything from minimal abstraction to the socio-political. One of the components inside my thesis show was a horizontal division of the entire gallery, using spandex to create a kind of architectural diaphragm at just over 5 feet high (com.part.men.tal, Mason Gross Galleries, 2013). Performing Dividor, Revisited a few weeks later was a companion gesture to that piece and an homage to Pape’s Divisor from 1968. Few people here seemed aware of her work at the time, and it was not until 2017 that a retrospective of Pape’s work was exhibited in NYC (Met Breuer). In the homage version, the giant fabric rectangle was worn and performed simultaneously by up to 36 people maneuvering inside and outside the gallery. This idea of a collective garment and moving architecture was also a catalyst for my recent piece Netwalk (Rubin Museum, 2019).
AS: And “Up”?
Milcah Bassel: I love having the opportunity to engage odd architectural spaces, to study the specific movements, subtle behaviors, and awareness of the bodies that move within it. William Paterson University has this bizarre giant enclosure that spans two floors of the art department, it is flooded with natural light and houses in its center a very out-of-place white cube with entrances at every corner. For up! I installed 9 fabric extensions from the ceiling – creating a large vertical spatial drawing doubling as wearable extensions for viewer interaction. The blue and pink spandex pieces hung from the 30 foot atrium ceiling and were to be worn like hats, serving as body-architecture connectors, inviting the active viewer to transform stasis into movement, dangling verticals into restrained crisscrossing diagonals. The pieces highlighted the vast expanse between one’s head and the ceiling, transforming the invisible into the embodied.
Milcah Bassel , up!, 2015, interactive installation (fabric, wood), dimensions variable
AS: It seems that language is pivotal in your art. Let’s take Father Tongue for example. What is the idea and process behind it?
Milcah Bassel: Father Tongue is a great example of how I play with the fluidity of language and what happens before and after it. Using Hebrew letters as a conceptual and formal building block for graphics that allude to architectural space, Father Tongue, spans murals, drawings, and a stenciled pulp painting edition. Each composition repeats the same five right-angled characters with slight yet significant variables. By flipping and inverting the orientation of the letters, the characters and spaces between them collapse and reconstruct, teetering between complete abstraction, cipher, and language. For the mural (Kniznick Gallery, 2015), I used black ink and graphite powder applied across the entire wall expanse of the gallery, with classic drawing materials meeting classic calligraphic materials meeting interior architectural surface.
There is an experimental sound performance that ties in additional textual layers pertaining to the first passage in the book of Genesis, spilling into narratives of the inextricable chaos in creation. “Father” refers to the patriarchal roots of traditional Hebrew texts, but also to my actual father, a scribe in the Jewish tradition. Observing the formation of these glyphs as a child played a roll in my earliest experiences of the visual and abstract nature of language. Before you learn to read, letters are just curious shapes, their meaning perhaps promising but mysterious. I find this pre-ability to fully access the written word yet to recognize that it holds meaning endlessly fascinating.
AS: You seem to draw in your work on conceptual, minimalist and performance art. What is your art- historical context and how are you conversing with it?
Milcah Bassel: Oh, the conversation is broad, multi-generational, inter-disciplinary, and malleable… From architecture, to contemporary dance, to music and sound art, I am drawn to the spatial and tactile intersections with visual art. The work and legacy of – John Cage, Yoko Ono, Trisha Brown, Evonne Rainer, Eva hesse, Sol lewitt, Lygia Pape, Lygia Clark, Carolee Schneeman, Louise bourgeois, Gordon Matta Clark, Louise Nevelson, Ana Mandieta, Absalon, Rachel Whiteread, Ann Hamilton, James Turrell, Janine Antoni, Ernesto Pujol, Meredith Monk – is a truncated list of contemporary artists (50s till today) whose work is very alive to me. The writings of Luce Irigaray, Bachelard, Lucy Lippard, Elizabeth Grosz, Susan Stewart, Patti Smith, Rebecca Solnit, Thomas McEvilley, and Gay Watson’s A Philosophy of Emptiness, have all played a role in better understanding what I am trying to do or name.
I often find the chronology of the broader conversation to be skewed and that “influence” and “inspiration” come during or after the thick of a passionate discovery. Like a mystical force ensuring a fatal collision with someone’s work who fundamentally changes what you yourself can get away with, where a kind of private one-sided comradely is established. The Neo- Concretist movement, Minimalist, but even more so the Post-Minimalist movement, the Judson Theater and its offshoots, the light-space movement, the feminist movement of the 70s as catalyst for the conceptual, performative, political, and everything in between. I revisit De Stijl, constructivism, and the Bauhaus. I also take the greatest nerd trips into prehistoric art and architecture relics and theories.
AS: In “Grid Piece” you are combining performance, drawing, and moving image. Tell me about that project and what is your main takeaway?
Milcah Bassel: Grid Piece is a performance at the intersection of drawing, still photography, and the digital screen, engaging with the metaphor of the grid’s “purpose” in taming the void. In a sequence of 3000 action photos I explore a kind of embodiment of – or giving a body to – the grid through a playful cycle of creation and destruction. I’ve been fascinated by grids for a long time. Their evocation of extreme confinement and platforms of allowance are compelling to me. These neat containers of emptiness and information, directional guides taming our mental chaos and spatial confusion. We tend to associate them with modernism and abstraction but then there’s the enigma of grids found in prehistoric cave paintings. I approach the intersecting verticals and horizontals as though they themselves were a body – denoting planes extending from our limbs into space – indicating direction, situating what is above, below, and around the body. To me grids are unresolved delineated spaces – so we continue to rendezvous.
AS: The human body also seems to take central role in your work. For instance, in Open/close/open, a title taken from a poem by Yehuda Amichai, you invite visitors to play with you by moving 79 small ceramic vessels in a grid which represent organs in the human body. Can you elaborate on that and I am curious to know what did you learn from this experience both as an artist and on states of being?
Milcah Bassel: Open Close Open is a moveable grid, with tiny cubic vessels that can be flipped between open and closed positions and in-betweens when oriented side-ways. Built and glazed by hand they are each “armoured” with a dark metallic exterior on five sides and a flaming red interior.
“Patuach, Sagur, Patuach” – “Open, closed, open”, is this repetitive mantra in the Hebrew poem by Amichai. It came to me as I returned to working with clay during a residency (Guttenberg Arts, 2017). In the poem these refer to states of being and correspond with one’s pre-birth, life, and death. It is the time spanning birth to death that he claims as the closed state. There is something inverted and haunting about this idea. The words accompanied the labor of hand building and glazing, and the research I was doing about this false obsession we have with quantifying the organic body.
While installed at the Bronx museum (2017), Invitation to Play performances spanned 3-4 hours with the duration of individual games varying from player to player (5-45 minutes). I’d invite inquisitive visitors to sit across the table from me and play, asking them to make the first move and determine the length of our session. The game has no rules. Through the games infinite rearrangements and attitudes were revealed. The piece can be configured horizontally, vertically, rhythmically, architecturally, competitively, narratively, symmetrically, philosophically, chaotically, comically, generously, endlessly. Some people are paralyzed without rules and some can act out the theater of their imagination, play as business, like children play.
AS: You were recently a yearlong resident at the Center for Book Arts. You have been working in book formats before. How did this experience develop this aspect of your practice?
Milcah Bassel: Yes, a few years ago I began experimenting with book forms as a platform for performance narratives with A Little Book of Polar Coordinates. Until the workspace residency at the Center for Book Arts though I had no real training in book arts. The residency included free workshops and classes in everything from classic bookbinding techniques and letterpress to box making, hot-stamping, paper marbling and more, which I immersed myself in. There is a kind of intimacy that develops with processes that are very labor intensive which I tend to gravitate towards, and I quickly found bookmaking like second nature.
I spent much of my time at CBA developing the unraveling book form which became governing vessels. What looks at first to be a small, curious, dense object is actually a network of cases that opens and opens again to reveal a polymorphic composition of vertebral abstractions. governing vessels synthesizes the architecture and anatomy of a book form with that of the human body, playing with the medium’s intrinsic interface of structure and content.
In my work for years I have focused on architectural and graphic spaces as a kind of metaphor for both the individual body and the overarching social systems. The history of the book as a physical container of knowledge, image, stories, and entire worlds, provides this automatic layering of associative meaning to its form. Books are miniature architectures, books are bodies, books are documents. As an object it can usually be held all at once, but it is in fact a time-based medium. It is inherently an interactive object, which is central to much of my work regardless of media.
AS: Your latest project was Netwalk: A Collective Garment, performed recently at the Rubin Museum. What would you like to share about it?
Milcah Bassel: I was invited to create a piece for public engagement by the Rubin Museum for their Annual Block party. Their 2019 theme was Power Play and I was thinking about the seat of power within the individual body and how this extends to the collective body and then back again. To express this in a tactile way I sewed a series of 16 harness-like belts made of red, orange, and magenta fabrics. For this color spectrum I was thinking of color-sensation relationship, of the base chakras, of blood, and of Buddhist monk garb. These individual pieces were to be worn by any participant attending the event and then interconnect to create a unified network. The piece brings attention to the core of one’s own body and that of others, as well as the exchange between personal and collective power.
The event was free, open to the public, and set along West 17th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues on an impossibly hot midsummer Sunday afternoon in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. As people came through, we invited them to hook into the garment and when a group was formed, we walked the length of the block together, negotiating the rhythms of our collective body and environment.
AS: What is happening in your studio these days?
Milcah Bassel: Alongside more project-driven installations and performances of the last few years I have a slow-growing body of work in my studio approaching a cumulative culminating point: Porous architectural terrains (cast paper relief), modular geometric units (more ceramic games), shifty grid fields (multi-media drawings in all sizes), and other amalgamation of the poetic-geometric. The work is informed by a wide range of topics, including modern and ancient human habitat, medical imaging, healing modalities, philosophies of emptiness, power politics, and more. I hope to share it with the public some time next year.