Essay: Tamar Ettun: About shadows of pink and shades of power (and vice-versa)

The first time I met Tamar Ettun was several years ago. I had just moved to New York, and I was desperately looking for an apartment share when a common friend referred me to her. I remember entering her place, and although I cannot remember the conversation we had, I can clearly recall some print-outs of an exhibition installation that were pinned on the wooden doorframe in the kitchen: colorful sculptures, a tent, an individual person. Those images are burned into my brain. Our paths have crossed several times since then, whether through mutual friends, gatherings, or one of my past curatorial projects, and I have always been fascinated with her artistic language, her stylistic choices, and her unique use of materials to investigate two artistic techniques at the same time: sculpture and performance in relation to emotional states of mind.

Her latest exhibition Eat Pink Owl at Fridman Gallery just closed and set a significant turning point that left me perplexed at first. This exhibition, considered to be the third installment of her tetralogy, incorporates sculptural installation, performance, video, and work on paper, fueled by her research about the hidden connections of colors and emotions and the bodily response to objects and human relationships. While she focused on the correlation of the color blue and empathy in 2015 and on the relationship between yellow and desire last year, this circle of work is based on the investigation of pink and how it’s related to aggression.

With the images of her older work in mind, the works shown in this exhibition are surprisingly different. A slashed womb, stretched eyes, bended bodies, and skinned knees are not what the educated viewer might expect from her. However, these images set a fresh and accurate observation of many current social aspects. While her earlier sculptures show the grace of a ballerina with isolated moving hands, dancing feet, balanced objects, and running water, these works, featuring full body sculptures, are more bold, energetic, and somewhat confrontational. There’s a specific kind of aggression present: not harmful, yet uncomfortable, not destructive, yet disruptive. With a strong aura, they occupy the gallery space, and their aggressive character create an energetic field that even the most arduous viewer cannot ignore.

Her sculpture Pink Horse With Warrior With Silver Skirt is a prime example of such concept. A female figure on a horse dominates the center of the exhibition, and as the title indicates, she is fully pink with a silver skirt. Dominantly feminine, she reminds us of a knight: a traditionally masculine historical figure. The ideals of knighthood, chivalry, and a type of higher humanity have persisted in literature from the Middle Ages to the present day as an element of universal culture. In dreams, a knight can represent chivalry, courage, and honor. A knight also represents power: the power of change, the power over territory, and the power of spiritual consciousness. A knight is one who gathers the strength to battle relentlessly and fights for the good of mankind.

With tense eyes, Ettun’s horse turns his head towards the back while the headless body faces the side, indicating a direction unknown. The horse continues searching while the knight decides where and how to perform her duty. The silver skirt, as an unfolded suit of armour, denudes the warrior and exposes the vulnerable and compassionate part of her: the very human side, emphasizing the dichotomy of aggression versus empathy Ettun worked on this past year.

The investigation of dichotomies are a fundamental part of Ettun’s work. The Hugger is another example of this. His head is aggressively tied with yellow bands to a column while his long arms and legs embrace the architectural element with an attitude of love and empathy. Legs with Woven Basket informs in a similar manner. A female character is trapped in a basket and stumbles across the room. While the torso is hidden under the woven cane strips, static and impersonal, the legs are humanized and in motion with knees that host a nest of feathers and resemble bird-like spirits whose “sight” has moved onto a mysterious emotional level because “seeing” also means feeling with one’s heart. In their unfriendly appearance, they watch their territory, maybe scrutinizing the enemy, maybe glimpsing the future.

Wet Bird emanates the same idea. Half-woman, half-bird, her head is raised, and she looks up firm and alert. Her wings, made of steel-blue pool noodles, are tied with pink rope to her torso, and a cascade of pink fabric stripes of various shades fall down. It looks like she was physically hurt, yet her posture shows decision, strength, and wisdom, similar to a Buddhist/Hinduist Kinnara, the most beloved Asian mythological character, half-woman half-bird, known for watching over the well-being of humans in times of trouble or danger. Indeed, mysticism and spirituality can be found in Ettun’s work all the time, and I don’t need to question why the bird (and feathers) is recurring in this particular body of work as birds are known for bridging the mundane and the spiritual life, the epitome of consciousness and self-confidence. And as birds are also indicators for transition, awareness, and higher perspectives, this might be a first indicator for her research to come in 2018: the color orange and joy.

Over the years and through many series of works, Ettun addresses different forms of communication and different stages of human interaction. Through sculptural and performative practice, she uses the suppression of non-verbal communication (hands, feet, and body parts), verbal/audible forms of communication (cut/filled mouths and throats), and the emotional way of communicating (bended eyes and bodies).

Emblematic of this development is her video piece Part Pink in which her characters cannot see but experience through the other senses. Their eyes are bent and/or filled with pink flowers. While masked and tied, blind, and hindered in their movements, they develop a strong curiosity and quite sensual attraction towards each other, and their synchronistic actions are an unusual symbiosis of aggression and empathy. The connection between blindness and aggression is obvious: Ettun explains that “not seeing the other prevents the possibility of feeling, experiencing empathy.” The color pink is used in many elements (flowers, costumes, yarn) and the character’s interactive approach with them (ripping off petal flowers, moving, and tying) represents the many overlapping aspects of aggression, empathy, and power.

It is interesting how Ettun chooses to analyze the relationship between the color pink and aggression, considering that the color pink is commonly associated with friendliness and, ironically, discourages aggression and ill-will. Brighter pinks are youthful, fun, and exciting, while vibrant pinks have the same high energy as reds: sensual and passionate. The power of this color lies in its many possible variations, or shades, that range from gentility, smoothness, and warmth to physical weakness, emasculation, and emotional claustrophobia.

With the transformation of the meanings associated with the color pink during the last century – from a masculine color to a feminine one, from a color of power to a color of obedience, and from a social statement to a decor – and its different energetic responses in our bodies – from soothing to draining and from nurturing to emotional claustrophobia – Ettun’s research touches on not only very personal and collective aspects, but social ones as well. The works shown in Eat Pink Owl, so deep in their meanings and concepts, are difficult to fully be captured in such a short essay, and they are a courageous statement of aspects that are often taken for granted. Now Ettun’s practice, where performance informs sculpture and vice versa, and where emotions and colors are analyzed, compared, and expressed through bodily experiences for a third year in a row, takes her research a step further and delves into the realm of social issues. Indeed, with the recent developments in our society, the color pink is not just a color anymore but instead speaks to social awareness, gender consciousness, and empathetic insurgence. Pink constitutes a form of power as it has become the most compelling visual element seen in 2017. Today, a simple field, symbol, or sign in the color pink can represent without any verbal description, without any further explanation, a form of tender, yet aggressive, speech – strong enough to empower, silently, yet stimulating a social revolution.

Tamar Ettun is represented by Fridman Gallery, New York . This article is published in the WSI Magazine here.