Jump to Main ContentJump to Primary Navigation

Making art from an intimate ritual

"I don't care if people like or dislike my work; I just want them to engage"

    Rachel Libeskind with two of her tapestries.
    Rachel Libeskind with two of her tapestries.

    "I always say that I don't care if people like or dislike my work; I just want them to engage."

    So says Rachel Libeskind, the 27-year-old American artist who this week launched her first solo exhibition in the UK, at Contini Art in central London. And she means it, too, if the title of her show is any indication: The Circumcision of Christ and Modern Oblivion.

    "It's a topic that I discovered years ago, while studying at Harvard. Well, actually, it discovered me," Libeskind explains.

    "I was given this vita [biography] of a saint's life. It was fairly boring, then all of a sudden this saint described an ecstatic revelation in which the foreskin of Christ appeared in her mouth."

    Libeskind's interest was manifold. On a visual level, she was fascinated by art from the past millennium depicting the event - images of the infant Jesus alongside a mohel, receiving the ritual act. These hung in churches across the world, and yet passersby seldom acknowledged what the event conveyed.

    But she was also intrigued by the added layers of context.

    First, the fact that the Church had made it excommunicable for anyone to speak about the relic. Too many people had claimed to have it over the centuries, making it a dangerous threat to the Church's control.

    Next, the implications they held for the history of antisemitism. Christians have long debated as to whether Christ was or was not resurrected with his foreskin intact. Had he been "forever marred" by this Jewish ritual?

    The notion of identity, of Jews being divided by "the ultimate mark" took Libeskind's research to Nazi Germany, when soldiers ordered men to undress to identify the Jews among them. As the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, she was all the more intrigued.

    Then, of course, there was the added statement of a Jewish woman bringing the topic into focus. "I sort of feel like it is appropriate," she says. "I wasn't circumcised, so I don't have that personal 'burden', so to speak. I'm also not a Christian, so I don't feel like I have the spectre of the Church on me. It feels very free."

    The result is a series of images, sourced from Christian iconography across the world, depicting the circumcision, which Libeskind then had printed on to larger-than-life tapestries. The added joke - a very conscious irony- is that she had them printed by the American discount conglomerate Walmart. Each piece has its own "Made in USA" tag.

    "For me, it is a commentary on religion as a whole," she says. "On the systems of meaning that religion provides for us and how they are incredibly directive. And yet, if you just scratch below the surface, you find all these discrepancies."

    Libeskind's intellectual curiosity, questioning systems of power and notions of identity, is, she admits, ceaseless - a lasting mark of her unconventional childhood.

    The daughter of famed Polish-American architect Daniel Libeskind, whose work includes the Jewish Museum in Berlin and the reconstruction of the World Trade Center in New York, she was born in Milan but raised in Berlin until the age of 14. There are pictures of her as a five-month-old baby watching the Wall being torn down. "My whole life, I have seen the concern with making meaning and identity, creating something out of loss," she says. "That is a big part of who I am and how I got here."

    She credits her father with piquing her artistic, quizzical nature. "In Germany, he was doing this really important work about our history - in a place that was so broken- through architecture, and talking about the spirit of space," she says.

    "I knew from a very young age that he was different, that the world wasn't really like that.

    "My dad instilled in me the idea that sometimes doing things in an oblique or abstract way is more effective than always being pragmatic and logical, and driven by norms. He always told me: 'never follow anyone else, only listen to yourself.'

    "I was definitely inspired by that. I think it made me want to leave my own mark through art."

    From her studio in Manhattan, she produces work in a range of media, from paintings and drawings to videos, sculptures and fabrics.

    Recently, she has begun "performing" within her installations, creating one-off shows and unrehearsed routines that give her audience an entry-point into her work.

    "So much of today is about being a passive consumer," Libeskind says. "But I think that people have a lot more to say and give.

    "Interpretation is theirs for the taking, to like or dislike," she adds. "I'm just a person who is making this stuff."

Features

Mazz Murray - the secret superstar

Francine White

Friday, March 10, 2017

Mazz Murray - the secret superstar
Features

I couldn't cope without Shabbat

Rachel Creeger

Thursday, November 10, 2016

I couldn't cope without Shabbat
Features

Arts Agenda

Anonymous

Arts Agenda
Features

Year in review: the arts 2016

Keren David

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Year in review: the arts 2016
Features

'I always felt something was missing'

Charlotte Oliver

'I always felt something was missing'
Features

The man behind the masks

Charlotte Oliver

Thursday, July 21, 2016

The man behind the masks
Features

Have you heard the one about the female rabbi?

Rosa Doherty

Have you heard the one about the female rabbi?
UK News

Sir Nicholas Serota says farewell to the Tate

Daniel Sugarman

Sir Nicholas Serota says farewell to the Tate
Features

Making up her own YouTube success

Lianne Kolirin

Making up her own YouTube success