Dana Yoeli: Staging Memorials

Dana Yoeli in her Tel Aviv studio, 2022, photo by Roni Cnaani

In her installations, sculptures, and drawings, the Tel Aviv based artist, Dana Yoeli, digs into collective and biographical memories, to create multi-layered environments which prompt us to discover a rich array of interconnected references—from theater and cinema to history, place, and architecture. In Yoeli’s visual universe the “I”, “we”, and “they” entangle to form a new entity, offering us complex shifting perspectives.

Porcelain plays a big role in your work today. What brought you there?

My interest in porcelain is related to its inherent cultural baggage. Over ten years ago I was working on figurines made of composite materials and oil paint that were convincing replicas of Bavarian porcelain. The thought that a decorative sculptural object can contain so many contradictions has always interested me: kitsch galore and opulent elegance, beauty and great violence, as for example in the hunter figurines of Nymphenburg and Meissen porcelain. I was already working in ceramics for a couple of months, after the passing of my grandmother, Agi Yoeli, who was a ceramicist. I work in her studio today. Impulsively, (as in most things) I bought my first twelve kilos, and just started trying. In the beginning there were a lot of flops, it’s a very unyielding, unapologetic material and I really didn’t know how to work with it technically. But there is also an advantage to this. Coming from a place devoid of technical knowledge, one is liberated to use the material unconventionally, in ways that are not necessarily trivial.

I have since shown intricate porcelain sculptures in various contexts, porcelain and ceramic pieces that merge decoration, elements of nature and body parts, in what seems to be a faithful homage to traditional, miniature porcelain figurines, or decorative elements in a Victorian drawing room or some sacred icons in a church. Then something emerges that should not have been there. This is a world of wild porcelain in which delicate craftsmanship eschews its purpose and takes a volcanic turn.

As with other materials that I use in my work such as concrete, flowers, dioramas – I am most attracted to objects or ideas that hold a collective ethos or idea that, when seen, a certain group of people could connect to the materiality without needing a verbal cue. I use porcelain the same way I think of commemoration sites and poured concrete architecture, we all have a collective sensation that arises when we see a commemoration wall. This collective story is a great foundation for communication in art.

I also love using a material so pristine, fragile, elegant, in a place that is the absolute contradictory. The tradition of porcelain is so foreign to the aesthetic of this country. Its the most inappropriate material in the raw, untraditional roughness of this place, and that loads the pieces with an additional layer of meaning.

When I look at your body of work I am struck by the wide range of sensibilities. Let’s start with your site specific installation, Automaton (2012), you are dealing here with the relationship between memory and architecture – the central piece is a monumental structure made of low-cost local material, a large wall relief referencing the museum building in Kibutz Yad Mordechai, a mix of brutalist and modernist architecture. What was the idea behind this installation and tell us about the process of making it.

This piece was really interesting to make. The location is Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, a kibbutz close to the southern border which played a critical role in the War of Independence. The work was a large, pseudo, wall relief, installed on the gallery floor and loosely related to the museum building “From Holocaust to Revival” in the Kibbutz. The building was designed by architects Arieh and Eldar Sharon, who received the Rechter Prize for its outstanding design when the museum was first opened to the public in 1968. The cultural texture of the public space and a perception of nature and the outdoors as always being ‘decorated’ with a plaque or commemorative site, are a strong aspect of the kibbutz, and are a massive part of who I am as a human being and as an artist. This collective, genetic burden is the meta-language that I try to use in my work.

Automaton was a kind of fabricated relief, in which elements of the museum’s structure and generic motifs of brutalist and modernist aesthetics were combined. I had the idea of making a model of the museum, using its blueprints, and constructing the piece on the floor, literally losing its grip of the wall, sprawled at the viewer’s feet. One of the main stylistic features of the building is that all the angles are of 60, creating an interior that is uncanny and uncomfortable, even claustrophobic at times, and an exterior resembling a Star of David; thus encompassing the national ethos in a perfect, holistic manner. I used the floor plans as a starting point, straightened the angles to 90° and rebuilt it as a topographic relief as large as the gallery floor allowed. This evoked a new and unexpected response to a monument that at first glance seems so familiar. This monument, with its aggressive aesthetics, so typical of public institutions and monuments, yields to the viewer almost humbly, creating a field of concrete that resembled a mass grave, architectural foundations, or a topographic map.

Dana Yoeli, Automaton, 2012, mixed media, installation view, photo by Youval Hai

And in a very different way, in Ashuchit/Fichte, an exhibition and Artist Book, you also seem to be dealing with the architecture of memory, or here more accurately, the “nature of memory”, as Caitlin Eyre put it in Berlinartlink (2016) What is the genesis of that project?

I’m glad that you see the architectural aspect of this work. It was clear to me that the more personal the subject is, the more surgical the approach has to be, examining very warm materials with cool tools. At first I really didn’t know how to deal with the material, how to turn something so personal into a universal idea. I had transcriptions of talks with my grandfather. He recalled his hometown and his childhood with the most mundane descriptions, a sweet German pastoral town, but as an all knowing reader, the stories are constantly loaded with the inevitable ending – he fled Germany on his own at the age of 16 in 1936. I documented my personal journey following the footsteps of memoirs left by my cartographer grandfather.

Throughout this journey in his birth city I gathered flowers in specific locations. I recorded the exact coordinates of the location, documented the surrounding urban and natural landscapes in still photographs. The flowers, having been meticulously collected, are then photographed, printed and excised from the paper. These two dimensional flowers are then arranged into a series of wreaths which in turn are photographically documented again and again in a sterile studio. I wanted to perform some kind of ceremonial act, and to have a touch with the ephemeral nature of memory and the surroundings. The flower wreaths are a symbol of multiple meanings – often used as a symbol of fertility and the awakening of nature after the long winter, as in Nordic traditions, but in Israel, this is a really interesting kind of circling meaning – it has become a symbol of death and commemoration.

Dana Yoeli, Ashuchit/Fichte (the Garden), c-print, 64/57 cm

Tell us about the body of work in Concrete Gardens, your show at Frise, Hamburg (2021)

So this was the first time that I had a site specific work, installed not by myself, but by a colleague, an artist, and I really recommend it to everyone because it was so interesting to see what kind of interpretation a fellow sculptor will give the work. Suse Bauer and I began working on this in 2019, and in the joint excursion and research project Materiality of the Shell, we investigated how social constructs can be read through a constructed reality. We saw parallel presences of architectural shells as lighthouses for social ideas both in Germany GDR and in Israel. I was particularly interested in the staging of memorials and monuments, while Suse, in the concretion of social ideal, future and utopia. The collaborative project, which began in Israel in 2019, has now become very different than was planned due to the pandemic. This turned into a show that I think was far more experimental than my previous work.

I hardly ever work without preliminary drawing and/or models of the exhibition space, and tend to create environments that are pretty controlled. I try to use the work as symbolic objects rather than mimetic props and therefore tend to be quite prepared for the installation process. This time I had to work differently—I tapped into my intuitive self and created a checklist of objects that I thought would be useful for Suse in the space—such as porcelain flowers, shells and dismembered fingers, wall sconces and video works that could be projected in a couple of ways, a far more elastic collection of work than usual. This resulted in a more open ended work, which I guess reflects quite beautifully, and also tragically, the losses we felt at the time. It was installed entirely by Suse Bauer and unfortunately I couldn’t travel and see it. I have since visited Hamburg and continued this research with her and we are hoping for another collaboration, this time with both of us participating, in 2023-2024.

Dana Yoeli and Suse Bauer, Concrete Gardens, installation view at FRISE Hamburg, 2022, photo by Volker Renner

I get a strong sense of theatricality through almost all your work. It maybe most evident in Throught a Glass Darkly, a site specific work in Magasin III, a Jaffa bookstore (2022) Among the ruins we can discover life-sized fingers, a classical sculpture of a nose, a miniature replica of the Elgin horse. I am curious to know if you are referencing in the title Ingmar Bergman’s movie (1961). And tell us about this project – the space, the idea, the process.

This work was created for the display window in the artist book store, Magazine III, in Jaffa, in collaboration with curator Karmit Galili. I love the idea of a tiny vitrine space in a store front, like some kind of alternative art viewing realm, and here I created a painted wooden facade, a kind of tromp l’oeil facade , referring to 19th century tradition of ruin paintings, and through it a kind of performance without a play, and without actors. The miniature objects are placed in the small space, and suddenly it turns out that some of them are life-sized. This deviation creates a more uncanny view of this show, and it is formulated through the means of a dream, almost like a de Chirico painting or a Dora Maar collage that is broken down into flat or three-dimensional planes.

My interest in theater and in staging or displays related to theatrical productions has been going on for several years, in fact, in 2018 I even created a sculpted set for the play Thyestes by Seneca. The thought is that when you watch the theater there is something very clear about your position. I have always loved miniatures and models, and by love I mean I was obsessed with the idea. The possibility of shrinking a world so that you can look at it and analyze it. In the bookstore I wanted to create a theatrical setup, or perhaps a miniature site specific installation that touches on all the places I deal with in my work: elements of ruins, body parts, darkness. Antiquity and Objects such as Elgin horses and columns from the Parthenon that were displaced and brought to another place in the name of culture and progress.

I was referring to Bergman here, it’s a title I’ve always liked for a film which I think is perhaps his most unbearable, but in Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander I saw the 19th century theater for the first time during play and was stunned. In that scene Alexander plays inside the theater with candles and the whole family dances around him thus dismantling the fourth wall idea, which is one of the most interesting ideas in the transition from theater to cinema and art.

Dana Yoeli, through a glass darkly, 2022, mixed media, 140x150x50 cm, photo Arkadi Spivak

In The Palaces of Animals your sculptures depict elements referencing human and nature, aspiration to belong to nature and yet control it—animals, shells, plants and delicate woman’s hand—as dr. Irena Gordon writes, connecting baroque-theatrical elements “draw attention to the possibility that everything may fall apart at any moment.” There is a strong element of stasis, of memento mori in this installation. I see here an odd and stimulating fusion of your ephemeral flowers in Ashuchit/Fichte and your earlier architectural Automation—here, the material, porcelain, comes with heavy baggage of “kitsch” aesthetics and brings us face to face with the idea of body, nature, and temporality. What is your take on that read?

Yes, absolutely, when we started working on this project and it became clear that there was a possibility to work inside the old and deteriorating taxidermy museum in Petah Tikva, it was a dream come true. The combination of the porcelain, a cold and almost corrupt world in its cleanliness, almost immoral in a certain way, installed among old, rotting taxidermy, animals that became display objects—how horrible—and this produces this tension of a Vanitas painting. Unlike the Vanitas painting, which is experienced as an image, here the objects remain in the three-dimensional space, which in turn becomes an almost catastrophic space.

As soon as the white refinement penetrates into the strange space of a museum of nature and taxidermy, the profound perversion that is at the base of the idea is revealed – this is a museum space full of death, full of objects that were once living—killed in order to gain eternal life. Like the leaves and flowers I used in my Bayreuth project—some of them rotting, damp from the frost of southern Germany in October, they too are some sort of fleeting moment immortalized, embalmed. That’s exactly the point, the amplification of the frozen and restrained frequency of the porcelain in a meditative space produces an almost unbearable tension. It was very difficult for me to place the works there. This is a very, very sad place. We have social contracts with such places, we manage to sublimate them amazingly in order to be able to use and enjoy them, but there is a very deep perversion that is related to the violation of the primal contract between humans and nature.

Dana Yoeli, The Palaces of Animals, 2022, installation view at Petah Tikva taxidermy museum, photo by Roni Cnaani

Drawing seems to play a central role in your work process. Can you give us a sense on that?

Yes, drawing is always the basis, that is, it is there as a preparation. It is there as a daily practice.  Drawing has a rather amazing ability to release blockages, to detox the work if you’d like. I will also rarely exhibit a drawing, but almost without exception every work of mine has a preliminary notebook with drawings in it, when I want something to become clear while working. It seems to me that through a daily drawing practice you can achieve something that others do in journaling or intuitive writing. It enables to find out something about the essence of the process. Almost every work of mine, whether it’s a large scale museum installation or a panoramic screen painting, begins with a drawing. There is something at the core that you can always return to because it is the perfect combination between intuition from movement and the intellectualization of a process.

Dana Yoeli, the Lion Hunt (after Rubens), 2019, pencil on paper, 220×150 cm photo Sima Landa

And your recent two artist exhibition with your grandmother?

Changing Room is my most recent project curated by Avi Lubin, which is on view through 29 april, and absolutely one of the projects I am most grateful for. I was invited by the director of The Benyamini Center to show a dual exhibition with my grandmother, the sculptor Agi Yoeli. The show is an installation of works by both of us in a vast space. Showing mostly large scale works, I built an arrangement of pedestals that create an atmosphere and unified context. We tried to create a space that feels theatrical, ceremonial, and symbolic.

In a setting that to some extent looks like an enlarged model, I built an installment of the ceramic works of Agi Yoeli and myself—grandmother and granddaughter—including a large lion, a terracotta cat, a decorative fountain, Ionic pillars, miniature trees and a giant flower. The combination of the works creates a synthesis of a sculptural ceramic environment, a set for a play, an historical museum, or garden decorated by the ruins of an archaeological site. This is the first time I examine directly the connection and the influence of my grandmother on my practice.

Agi Yoeli and Dana Yoeli, Changing Room, 2023, mixed media, installation view, photo by Dor Kedmi

About the artist: Dana Yoeli (b.1979), is a Tel Aviv based multidisciplinary artist whose practice relies on a wide range of media, constructing large scale installations, video work, photography, drawing and sculpture. Her work focuses primarily on the tension between a personal story and a collective ethos, and the roles that nostalgia, memory and commemorative ceremonies play in these relations. In recent years yoeli is engaged with shifting the focus from a collective memory, comprised of a solid ethos, to the fragmented and specific stories of personal, perhaps overlooked images and untold narratives. Yoeli holds a BFA and MFA from Bezalel Academy of Art, Jerusalem. her work has been shown in leading spaces and museums in Israel and Europe, and she is a recipient of grants, awards and fellowships.