In Contact: Yael Davids

Author’s Note: this text comes from a conversation I had with Hannah Dawn Henderson. It is actually a collaboration with Hannah, in much the way that many of my texts are filtered by Hannah. This one in particular draws on a conversation that has been distilled by Hannah into a written document.

In the early spring of 2020, I was working towards presenting my exhibition, A Daily Practice, at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven. The exhibition was to be the culmination of three years of research. Yet, mid-way through the build-up, the momentum came to a halt. The museum, like many other such cultural institutions, was closed. It wasn’t a comma — a momentary pause — but a full-stop. A break.

During the height of that uncertainty, not knowing when (or even if) the exhibition would open, I had to reconcile with myself that I had gone as far as limits — my own and those of the situation — would allow. Limitation provokes self-introspection — at least, it can do, when the anxiety and distress that typically accompanies it is distilled to a lower concentration. Here, I recount my thoughts leading up to and following that fracture.

On Being Present

Being present is a labour. Working in the field of performance art, I’ve often found myself confronted by how the economies that surround art conservation rarely accommodate the body of the performer. One of the first tasks that art handlers must master is how to move an artwork in the most efficient way possible, without placing any needless stress on the work itself. You will never, for instance, witness an art handler rest a canvas on the ground perfectly horizontal. To do so is sacrilege. Per the effects of gravity, the weight of the paint places excess strain onto canvas. A painting never feels its own gravity. 

Whilst on a residency in Rio five years ago, suffering from constant back pain and physical discomfort, I made an appointment with a local practitioner of the Feldenkrais Method — looking for a strategy of managing and being responsive to this discomfort in my day-to-day life. Esther Schorr Raphael made a great impression on me — she became an example for me. My one-to-one Feldenkrais lessons with her were annotated by conversations orbiting themes that would range from literature, philosophy, psychology, anatomy and wordily affairs to daily domestic necessities.

The Feldenkrais Method was developed by Moshe Feldenkrais and entails sequences of movement, often slow paced and varying in scale. The core intention of the Method is to develop awareness of one’s bodily and psychological tendencies —  the little habits we accumulate throughout life. It is about learning one’s body, one’s self, and opening up pathways towards better supporting your physical and mental presence in this world. 

Shortly after I came back from Brazil I decided to pursue formal training in the Feldenkrais Method. During my third year of training, I was invited to submit a proposal for the first candidacy of the Creator Doctus — a post-graduate trajectory of self-directed artistic research, supported by the Erasmus+ Programme of the European Union. The trajectory would entail three-years of research in collaboration with the Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam and the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven.

On Learning

My research concerns learning conditions and the potential to reform many of the typical tropes that existing conditions have produced — the idea, for instance, that learning inevitably imposes a sense of stress, competitiveness and is defined by achieving exclusively ‘correct’ outcomes. I’ve worked as a tutor for more than ten years at several art academies, and I’m also the mother of a young child; through my daughter and students, I’ve closely observed the distress that can emerge by internalising those prevailing ideas. Learning, however, should be a life-long pleasure and commitment — a daily practice.

Over my three years of collaborating with the Van Abbemuseum, I provided weekly Feldenkrais lessons in the museum itself —  taking place on the floor of one of the museum’s exhibition room. These lessons were also exercises in horizontality — asking everyone present in the building, whether a visitor or a staff member from any department, to take part.  In my second year of the process, I worked through a series of public seminars/lessons, whereby the lessons were developed in response to works from the museum’s collection. I would study these works intensely — their composition, material and form. I tried to internalise the works into my body. I spent time with the work — learning from the collection (rather than learning about the collection).

Our way of traversing a museum tends to prioritise optics. It’s not so surprising, really, given that the habitat of such institutions is not accommodating to other experiences. Think about the nature of lighting and temperature — understandably, the emphasis is on best conserving the artworks. These conditions are an extension of the same set of regulations that determine that a painting must never lie horizontal — it is a matter of ensuring the best possible care for the artwork. I wanted to offer the museum worker and the beholder an equal support.  The Feldenkrais lessons that I offer support an experiencing of the artwork through an acute, two-directional gaze — outward and inward — a gaze that internalises the work through evoking a physical, simultaneous study of both it and oneself.

The culmination of my research is the exhibition A Daily Practice. Originally, the exhibition was meant to open at the end of spring. Yet, despite all our planning, everything had to stop. After three years of work, it was surreal to experience this abrupt incision — imposed by something totally beyond any one’s control. My morning commutes to Eindhoven found themselves swapped for early-morning walks in my local park, trying to side-step hyper-territorial runners. The intense installation time was swapped for home-schooling my daughter — work and personal life colliding, trying to find a suitable fit and balance. Perhaps that distinction has always been a kind of myth 

On Plurality and Mutual Engagement

A nuclear ethic or assumption of mine is that one is always plural — one is composed and supported by many other voices and efforts. This was also a stimulus for my show in Van Abbemuseum. In these times, more than ever, it’s important to be responsive to this fundamental interconnectedness — to take care of not only one’s self but also one another, to pay attention to what the left hand needs to say to the right foot. One aspect of care is recognising and reconciling one’s limits — not necessarily viewing them as a hurdle that must be overcome. A minor, barely visible movement should never be trivialised. Even the mental aspiration of such a gesture is an expression of effort. 

Two months later than planned, my exhibition opened. In order to be compliant with social distancing regulations, the weekly Feldenkrais lessons that were intended to run throughout the course of the exhibition have had to be postponed and adapted. Moreover, at any one given time, a limited number of visitors are allowed to occupy each of the exhibition’s rooms. This means visitors must tread with a certain attentiveness for those around them; strikingly, it is that very such attentiveness that I had hoped my lessons would support, yet under these conditions it is a consequence of vigilance rather than a sense of internal reconciliation that radiates outwardly.

It’s also been interesting to observe how visitors’ physical reserve towards one another also extends to their engagement with the work. Some of my previous installations have featured very fragile components — exposed to the hand and responsibility of the visitor. Whereas previously I would commonly see visitors casually prodding or caressing these components, I now witness hesitation — disinfectant-saturated hands kept in pockets or behind backs.

When the museum’s team and I eventually got the go-ahead to continue with the installation, our pace was much slower. We were beginning anew, adapting to a different scale and rhythm. This different pace brought me to experience something new in terms of what it means to prepare an exhibition. When preparing an exhibition, I and those around me work ourselves into a state of near-exhaustion — frantically trying to meet that deadline, the opening. On this occasion, the exhibition was finalised some weeks before the museum could officially re-open. It has been something of revelation and it leads me to want to sustain such a manner of working — circumventing surplus panic and needless exhaustion.

So, much in line with my studies in Feldenkrais, this period has put into focus an urgency to better understand myself, my motivations and how I extend myself towards and encounter the world around me. There has been dismay and uncertainty, and also insight. It is an ongoing process of learning to move in this world with care and attention towards oneself and the other.