She calls herself a citizen of the world and travels with her suitcases from one place to another. She is obsessed with objects and transforms them into pieces of art. Rachel Libeskind is a young artist, trying to change the masculine dominance in the art industry by delivering powerful messages to the society through paintings, performance and interesting collages.
Who is Rachel Libeskind?
Rachel Libeskind is first an artist and second a woman. That’s actually not my idea; I stole it from Louise Bourgeois, who is my favorite artist of all time, who always said that she is first an artist and second a woman in terms of the feminist movement. Rachel Libeskind is a citizen of the world because I don’t actually have any really strong tie to any specific national identity. I have three passports and I lived in five cities in my life. I am not from anywhere, I am a 21st century identity in that way. Rachel is obsessed with the end of the world which is called the study of eschatology. She is very sensitive and also very strong, somewhere between those two things.
How did you decide to become an artist?
I had a childhood where I was exposed to huge amount of art in special ways. At that time when I was a kid, I didn’t really appreciate it, because I was not allowed to watch television or get bored, it was not an option to be bored ever. If I said to my parents I am bored they would say “go read a book or go draw a drawing”. So from a very young age I filled my time constantly with drawings and with installations that I used to make with my dolls. As I became older I rejected a path of an artist because my father is a very well-known architect and I was very concerned as a teenager that I would always be in his shadow. But actually I have to thank my professor from Harvard University, who helped me change my mind. I took a painting class in my second year just for fun and the professor told me “You are really good at painting, why are you not pursuing a carrier as an artist?” I told him I didn’t want to spend my whole life in the shadow of my father and he said it was not a good enough reason. Actually that was the first time anybody ever said that to me and that was the moment when I thought you are right, that’s not good enough reason and that was I think the moment I switched my path. I graduated from the University six years ago. Nevertheless, I went to Harvard —a school which promises the great future and a best job in the world— the economy in US was so bad, that after the graduation we were all unemployed. So I said perfect, this is a great opportunity to work by myself since I can’t get a job anywhere else. (laughs)
How does your ‘starchitect’ father, Daniel Libeskind, influence your work? Do you often get criticized?
My father is the only person who is completely honest with me about my work. I mean he is the only person I have that kind of relationship with, where I know that when he criticizes me or likes what I did, he is telling 100% of the truth and that is a very special thing, what you can’t get from other people. It is really hard to recreate that relationship. Our style and our aesthetics are very, very different. Like completely different worlds but what we are interested in is very overlapped so we share a lot, we spend a lot of time on the phone, talking about books, about ideas, about music. My dad is an incredible genius of music in my opinion and he keeps on feeding me with those external sources like literature and music, even though I am a grown up. I have witnessed how difficult his career has been, as being an architect is much harder than being an artist, because you are constantly at the mercy of not only critics but also city planners, engineers and local governments. When I was a child, we used to live in Berlin for the building of the Jewish museum that took 13 years to build. I mean that’s crazy if you realize how long that is, so maybe that’s why I did not become an architect myself. My dad is an architect but he is definitely an artist to me.
You make interesting collages using old photo albums, pictures from Life magazine and old newspapers. How did you come up with the idea of making collages?
For me making collages is like sketching. The pieces I make always begin with the object I find. My work is more kind of anthropological, it’s never about me wanting to paint a figure, me wanting to paint a landscape or me wanting to tell a story about my life. Specifically, it always begins first with an object that I find, that is mostly ephemeral, and kind of magical because these objects put themselves in the world and then I discover them. There is something to me that is deeply tragic about the incredible output we made until very recently, until everything happened on the screens, there was so much waste of aesthetic, there was so much effort put in the advertising, magazines and photography. There is so much ephemera, and beautiful material that exists in the world that is totally forgotten and unappreciated. This is always where my interest begins. The collage is a very powerful tool where two or three unrelated images are put together and reconstruct their original meaning. That is why I call it sketching, because it is always like a first step to me in figuring out what the project is about, what I am trying to say. It is also quite political because of the act of choosing where I might put an image from 1980s porn magazine next to 1930s children’s book on Mussolini, next to East German vacuum cleaner add. I am making things up and am creating unexpected connections between aesthetic, history, culture and the society.
Tell me about your exhibition The Wild West. What was it about?
It was a show that I did in the gallery which is now closed. The title The Wild West was like a play on a fetishized American term that refers to a period in American history, when invaders murdered native people of this country, before America was coast to coast. It refers to the period of the 19th century when the settlers were invited to come and take as much land as they could, which is obviously a sort of American brand of imperialism. But it’s not only that, The Wild West was also about my life. In one year I will be 28, meaning that I’ll have spent 14 years in Europe and 14 years in America. Having grown up in Berlin which is really East and then having moved to New York which is really West as a teenager, was sort of a strange experience. It was a whole new world for me. In Berlin, I was in the closet, I did not want people to know I was Jewish, I did not want to be discussed, I didn’t want to reveal my identity because I felt very vulnerable as a child, it was something that I did not want to go through. And when I moved to America it was the opposite, you have so much more cultural capital in New York City if you are Jewish, you are immediately instilled in the cultural society here without having to do anything. America has much shorter memory of the history than Europe, which allows American culture to always move forward and pretend that it does not know anything, which is very rare in the scope of European bureaucracy. So The Wild West was all about the levels and privileges of westerners.
Where did your performative art start from?
Before going to the University, I actually studied Opera for about 15 years, I thought for a long time that singing was what I wanted do with my life. I played the piano, I played the French horn and I was performing a lot. Later, I sort of put it all away, and decided I did not want to be an Opera singer and that I would not look at it again. Almost three years ago, I was invited on a festival di Spoleto in Italy to perform. I thought it was a joke but when I arrived there, I came up with this whole installation with suitcases and sounds. I had to perform in this beautiful 13th century old castle in Umbria and I thought: “Shit, how did I get myself in here?” There was no way out, I had to push myself, but as soon as I started performing, the old knowledge, the art of working with the audience, and many years of my childhood that I had spent by the piano, instead of playing football or hanging out with my friends, all of a sudden made sense and came back to me. There I realized that performance is a very important part of my life, an immediate form of art you can’t deny. The perception and the opinion of the audience is happening right there in front of you and that’s a very special thing to me. As an artist I always want my work to touch people and I want my work to be engaging. The exciting thing about performance is that you have powers when you perform and you can get your ideas across in a very efficient way. The performance I did in Spoleto is called Travelling bag and it is about suitcases, movement, immigration, emigration, exile, travel, holiday, materials, objects, ownership and the way we treat the things around us, that in some case represents who we are.
Apart from painting and performing you also work on books. How different is it? What’s your favorite book?
I love books, they are the most secret objects to civilization. The first book I wrote and illustrated is called The Kinder Kalendar 1933, a book of poetry and drawings. Currently, I am having a show up in New York at the center for Jewish history which is like a crazy achieve, where I represent my books made from concrete. I am obsessed with books and am constantly working on them. The reason I love books is that they are kind of crossover objects between poetry, literature, art and information. Books are one of the ancient human objects and I am fascinated by. My favorite kind of books are medieval manuscripts where the information happens in the margins, which are used for commentary. For example, in the Jewish Bible the text is written in the middle of the page and then over centuries the commentary would be written around, in the margins. I appreciate these kind of details. The book I really love, is Federico Fellini’s Book of dreams, which is full of incredible, magical images. I consider this book as one of the best in the world.
What do you think about the women’s role in the art industry nowadays?
Everybody who has an access to the information knows that women have been totally left out of the art world and art market for a very long time. I think women were not taken seriously as artists for a long time because they were not taken seriously in doing anything. When you are a female artist you have to be double as good and you have to work twice as hard to be in the same league as the men around you. When you look at the statistics of the museums around the world and even the most progressive and interesting museums in New York City or in London, where there is expected a deeper understanding of feminism and history, you still have a very low percentage of works made by women. For me in America, in 2016, this issue is more about race, there are not enough black female artists and that bothers me. We have a lot of work to do, inclusion is very important and especially in New York, where things become exclusive real quick. I should say that I am lucky, having graduated from Harvard University, because when you are a woman and when you are an artist, people expect you to be pretty stupid, people don’t want to listen to an artist, and definitely to female artists, so Harvard is something that I can put on the table and get the attention I need. Overall, I don’t want to make work about being a woman, I want to make work about the experience of the humanity and that transcends whether you have a penis or a vagina.
How does New York influence your work and where is your studio located?
New York is the greatest city in the world and also the hardest place to live in, because nothing stops here. As an artist, it is very important for me to have a balance between super busy, constantly moving environment and finding a quite space to curve out my thoughts and inspiration. New York is an electric place. There are so many incredible museums, amazing shows, talks, installations, performances that stimulate you all the time but you cannot go see every fucking show, it could make you crazy and obsessed with the art world in a way that is toxic, so you have to be careful. NYC is the greatest art buffet in the world but it comes at a price. As an artist you have to try to filter stuff, not to be overstimulated, over exaggerated. My studio is located on the frontier of the new neighborhood, right on the edge of the city. It looks over the Marcy Project that is a low income housing project which was a center of crack epidemic in 1980s and is also famous for Jay-z, who comes from this neighborhood. It’s not dangerous to live here anymore as it’s now gentrified and many artists have moved here because it’s cheap.
Are you working on any new project we should look forward to?
In fact I am. I am working on a project that has to do again with the suitcases, I am planning to install suitcases as a public art in Europe. I am also working on a new much longer performance piece that is more like a theatre play and has to do with nationalism and identity. I am returning to painting, which I have not done for two years and I am making a book about the US election, Donald Trump and women. I have lots of things to do, 2017 will be an interesting year.