The New York-based sculptor/musician/performance artist Naama Tsabar is no stranger to Art Basel Miami Beach. Asked how many times she has been in the official show, she offhandedly says, “I think three.” But this year, Tsabar will take part in two Art Basel Miami Beach exhibitions, one a performance called Composition 18 and another showing a museum edition of Untitled (Double Face), an instrument made of two guitars attached at their backs, a working version of which she premiered in Miami in 2010 at a show curated by Rirkrit Tiravanija in the Design District.
Most notable, though, is that her collection of works titled “Transitions #3” will take over the entirety of Spinello Projects, on the mainland, marking her Miami solo debut.
Walking among some of the pieces that make up “Transitions #3,” ahead of a locals-only preview, Tsabar, who is originally from Tel Aviv, seems to have a perpetual smile. But her art has an intensity that belies that grin. She last worked with Spinello in 2014 as part of “Auto Body,” an exhibition featuring artists who were women or identified as women. It was curated as a response to both the lack of representation of women at Basel and the idea that art has to be an object one can purchase and invest in.
Her performance of Untitled (Babies) closed the event. It was a cover of Pulp’s 1994 single “Babies,” which she played with a trio of local musicians. It ended with her demolishing the stage, using her gold-glitter electric guitar as a sledgehammer. It took her a half-hour, and her hands were left bloodied. She said it was the first time she tore apart a stage built with screws as opposed to nails. She first performed the piece in Tel Aviv in 2008 and has only done it a few times since. She thinks she might have only one more of those performances left in her.
An older series of sound performances, which are a little easier for her body to endure, is Composition. It debuted in 2006 as Composition 24, also in Israel, and featured 24 musicians standing on amplifiers while they performed a song or songs that evolved depending upon where the listener walked. “They create this field while they stand on their amplifiers while playing it. They play different compositions that were especially written for this,” Tsabar explains.
Most recently, this summer, she put on Composition 20 during the High Line Art festival in New York. Art Basel Miami Beach will mark the debut of the fourth iteration of the piece, Composition 18. It will be performed at Collins Park, in front of the Bass, during a show called “Ground Control,” dedicated to the memory of David Bowie, this Wednesday from 8 to 10 p.m. All 18 of the musicians in Composition 18 are women, the majority of whom are local. “I commissioned two new songs for this work,” Tsabar says. “The new songs have the same musical structure, so they’re written on the same four chords, same bpm, same musical scale. They’re completely different songs, and they’re played at the same time.”
Composition 20 speaks to what Tsabar sees as a great challenge in dealing with sound. “What I found really interesting with music and sound is that it’s such a violent medium... not physically, but sound is really hard to block,” she notes. “It’s a wave that goes through material. It goes through solid states and transcends them and propagates beyond them or through them. That’s why it’s so hard to make a room soundproof. I’m really interested in how sound penetrates so many mediums. For me, in the visual realm, there’s always kind of like border between an art object — a painting, a sculpture — and your body, and you can define that border, you can be away, you can close your eyes, you can turn away, you can not look at something. It’s very easy to block out, and I feel incorporating sound into a visual realm makes the experience so much more sensual and imposes an experience on you as a viewer.”
With “Transitions #3,” Tsabar is basically breaking down normal expectations of a live musical performance. The audience can get the full effect only by wandering around the performers and entering a room featuring a trio of uniquely designed speakers. “It’s breaking apart this constructed experience that a show gives you,” the artist says. “You’re on a stage; there’s a PA system. If you’re in the middle, you get the best sound, everything goes through the mixer, and then it’s transmitted outwards through the PA.”
She first performed “Transitions” earlier this year in Guadalajara, Mexico. Meanwhile, “Transitions #2” is still up in Tel Aviv. The “Transitions” comprise three bodies of work. First, there is Transition, a series of Marshall amps transformed into something much less recognizable but quite beautiful. Tsabar has externalized some of the vital parts of that ubiquitous amp seen at rock concerts and threaded wires that would normally be behind the amp over a canvas of linen, creating beautiful, measured patterns of lines on each one. Behind that are less pretty aspects of the amp, like circuits. The on and off switch and knobs are still on the outside, but the power light is below the fabric, glowing a ghostly red through the tan material. "I took out their inside — I took out everything out of the box, the circuit board, everything, the wires that were there and through the circuit board and just extended them,” she says. “I used exactly the same color, the same gauge of the wire... All the knobs are completely active."
Then there are the felt-based instruments, which she calls Works on Felt. They evolved from her being asked to do some work on paper, which isn't her medium. Her initial thought of a line on paper quickly became something three-dimensional in her mind. In 2012, an early version was called Work on Paper (Variation Two). It was a curved watercolor paper with a piano string attaching from end to end. On one end of the string was a guitar peg that could tune the string and bend the paper. She eventually came to use felt.
These instruments are wonders of design. A piano wire is stuck into a top corner of the felt, tied below by a nut from a standup bass, which, like Work on Paper, actually works to tune the string while bending the felt. Tsabar has given a rigidness to the felt by embedding carbon fiber in it. Felt, ironically, is a material used in many instruments to dampen sound. With this instrument, the musician can lean into the curved edge of the felt to bend the sustained note after strumming the string, so the felt becomes key to transmitting sound instead of silencing it. "I was interested in this material that has a functional use and how do I take this and flip it, like how do I make felt into the echo chamber itself?" Tsabar says.
Finally, there’s Barricade, a triangle formation of an array of microphones. She prefers not to call the person at the center of these microphones a singer even though she has brought a singer from New York, Lindsay A. Powell, AKA Fielded, to sing into the microphones. She prefers instead to use the title of “activator,” as she looks to the works’ existence beyond the performance. “It could be you; it could be me; it could be anybody,” Tsabar says. “For the performance, it’s a singer. That’s because I work with musicians. But throughout the exhibition, it’s up, and it’s always on, so anybody can insert their body into this very confined space.”
She doesn't see the triangulated space between the microphones confining. Instead, it’s a place to project out beyond the so-called barricade, and each side of the triangle comes out through a separate Transitions amp in the other room. Once again, sound transcends the object. “Your movement is really confined,” she notes, “but then it propagates out. It expands. So the physical is confined, and the sonic expands.”
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The musicians who will play the piece with Tsabar and Powell are all local and include Arturo Garcia, Stephanie Jaime, Nabedi Osorio, Kc Toimil, and Jessica Martin. They will work together for only four to five days to compose a piece that Tsabar says will last between 15 and 20 minutes.
She admits it’s these final days that are probably the most stressful part of preparing the performance, but so goes the challenge of working between two mediums: music and visual arts. “Both have very different ways of operating and creating,” she says, adding that this is why she has named the piece “Transitions.” She continues, “With visual art, in the gallery setting, you put the work on the wall, and then, usually, the opening is within a day or two, so here we ask for a bit more time. But the only way to write with these pieces is in the space itself, so that’s the confinement of the four days — five days if we’re lucky. The first two days are really stressful. It’s like, Oh my God, we can’t do anything. And then I see it. I see it.”
Naama Tsabar’s Miami Art Week schedule is as follows: Composition 18 will be performed Wednesday, November 30, at Collins Park as part of Art Basel Miami Beach’s “Ground Control.” Friday, December 2, she will perform “Transitions #3” at Spinello Projects. Finally, you can see Untitled (Double Face) at the Miami Beach Convention Center in booth A05, Paul Kasmin Gallery.
Follow Hans Morgenstern on Twitter @HansMorgenstern.