To Leave A Mark by Dar Moussafir – Uncoated

Dar Moussafir

To Leave A Mark: A Conversation about Empathy in Dance and Art with Yasmeen Godder

I picked up the paint and covered my entire body with it. In front of me, on the floor, was a meter and a half long piece of fabric, which was delivered to me following my online registration. I leaned towards it and performed the most popular activity during the COVID-19 era: Laying down and surrendering.

Surrendering to the forces of gravity, to the natural forces that exist in the world, which we have no way of stopping; To a comforting touch with something that isn’t me. When I stood up, I counted to ten, following the instructions that came with the kit containing the fabric and the paint. In front of me, is my body. This is a new encounter. Simplified to geometrical shapes, seemingly dense blobs of breasts, stomach, and thighs that reminded me of fertility statuettes. I was aware of an aesthetics that made present parts of my body I don’t usually associate with myself on a daily basis – painfully earthy corporeality, a primal materialistic, ritualistic, almost mythical womanhood. Above this practically foreign thing, hung a stain that was my face, like a crown hanging over this statuette, that is both me and “the-woman” at the same time, a combination of generic symbolic organs and my most unique, personal imprint.

The fabric with my body print joined 49 other fabrics that were sewn together and are on display in Yasmeen Godder’s piece “I’m Here” at Gan Yaakov Park at the Habima Square in Tel Aviv starting today (Thursday) until Saturday, as part of the “Exit Strategies” Festival led by the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality and the Rabinowitz Fund, curated by Dafna Kron.  This work turns the act of grounding into a flag flapping in midair and echoes the longing for togetherness, for touch, adding on to Godder’s fascinating and expanding body of work, which I’ve had the pleasure of accompanying from a PR point of view. When I was asked, this time as a journalist, whether I would like to have a conversation with Godder, I said yes.

Yasmeen Godder is one of Israel’s most successful dancer-choreographers whose works regularly get invited to festivals in Israel and abroad. In March she was set to premiere a show as part of a series of performances/studies titled “Practicing Empathy” – a title that distills Godder’s visual, physical, and emotional research in recent years.

Her recent projects are performance-based and incorporate the audience as part of the shows: in “Common Emotions,” the dancers invite members of the audience to go through various experiences, mostly behind a patchy curtain created by textile artist Gili Avissar. The audience that remains seated witnesses only a fraction of these actions. What they end up watching is a mix of dancers and audience members going back and forth, overwhelmed, and fascinated at the same time.

“Simple Action” is a delicate ceremony. One by one, the dancers approach members of the audience. After receiving their consent, the participants are led to the center of the circle, where they are invited to give their weight to the dancers, who then lay them on the floor with great attention and tenderness. The space is filled up with the support of artist and master lighting designer Omer Sheizaf and vocal artist Tomer Damsky. Her collaboration with the latter also produced Godder’s following work, “Demonstrate Restraint”,  in which the two address the audience and ask for their interpretation of the movements on stage. The visual aspect is amplified with the work of brilliant sculptor Zohar Gottesman. The first development for “Practicing Empathy” has already premiered, while the second has been swallowed by the restrictions of our time.

The new piece “I’m Here” is inspired by influential land artist Ana Mendieta. Mendieta grew up in Cuba and ended her life in New York in a chilling case, where during a fight she either fell or was pushed out a window of the skyscraper where she lived with her husband, artist Carl Andre. She was only 36. In many of her works, Mendieta integrated the presence of humanity and nature. The “I’m Here” imprints, (which inform also resemble Yves Klein’s famous works, but couldn’t be farther apart conceptually), will be displayed in the center of Israel’s most urban city. Considering Mendieta’s tragic death, this is a poetic choice.

When the actual body is hung from this height in the street, it falls and dies. When the emblem of the body is hung high in the street, it’s alive and it roars. Suddenly new bodily possibilities open up through its most private image being, even if only temporarily, where it doesn’t belong. Wherever the physical body is limited and confounded, be it due to the current situation (COVID-19), social constructs (the nudity), or the power of physics (air versus ground), the body’s simulacra, its shadow, its representation, can continue roaming the earth, making up for what we lack.

“In the show that was due to premiere, but had to be postponed, people were invited to stand facing each other and to create a shared sound while exhaling. Every single thing that is now forbidden was almost explicitly what we invited people to do,” Godder sighs when we speak. “Shortly before that, we managed to reach all kinds of communities: mothers from the bi-lingual community in Jaffa and people dealing with Parkinson’s Disease, immigrants, and a youth group in Germany… the actual concept of empathy itself is tricky, it sometimes has contradicting meanings,” Godder shares, “and the deeper I go into it, the more confusing it is. Empathy supposedly exists within us, as a quality or a basic human ability. Therefore, practicing empathy in itself is apparently a contradiction in terms to say, ‘let’s do some exercises to help us do that.’ Still, once you experience it, you realize how multi-layered and endless this could be. When we came back to Israel, half my cast was ill (not with COVID-19! D.M). Something about containing, learning from others, and leaving space for acceptance was so demanding it affected the body. It was significant and then it was cut off, and all that’s left are its ripples.”

These ripples were gathered and became Godder’s two new works: “I’m Here” (to which I contributed my body’s imprint), and “Practicing Empathy 2 by 2” which is performed by two performers for two people in the audience and will show at Habait Theater’s “Striving for Contact” Festival.

“It’s multi-angled research,” says Godder. “I set out on this journey with a question, a request: to use the time we devote to art for practicing empathy. In this situation that was forced upon us, we wanted to take the limitations or restrictions that defined this time and to transform them into empowerment – from a limitation to something through which we could communicate and create intimacy.

The choreographies are an extension to the collaboration that characterized the previous works. They acknowledge the fact that there are other people here, in the physical experience, while also opening awareness of the physical process that one goes through: “the story isn’t all about my dancers and me. Yes, my body is present here, but so is yours and you build things around what you’re looking at. These things are not to be dismissed, they are as important as what I had imagined. And they are present.“

“I saw Ana Mendieta’s works in a retrospective exhibition in Berlin. As I walked through the space, I was moved by the privacy that emanated from her works regarding her own body and the sense of healing and by the acceptance of the body’s mortality, its fragility, and vulnerability –of the place that goes back to the sensation of nature, of earth, natural materiality. Something about the fact that she created for herself: events, actions she performed with her body, in which the outcomes were not the goal, spoke to me. When the “Exit Strategies” call for proposals was issued, it aimed for the moment after when they still had no idea if and how restricted it would be. I thought about the privacy and about the encounter with the body that’s behind the scenes and in the houses, the body that became forbidden, dangerous, toxic, contagious. I also wanted to address the touch and the togetherness. Some of us had contact with our family, but many didn’t. There’s something about imprinting the body on a canvas that allows it to be present in the experience and later be displayed in the public sphere, to say: “It’s here, it’s present,” and to bring it back from a place of quiet to that of demonstrative expression.”

When the kits started making their way to the 50 households, technological presence also started to play an important role: through social media, personal messages,  posts, and stories, dozens of participants shared their body’s image online. Upon returning the kits, many held emotional conversations with Godder and her team. Some of these encounters and impressions appear on Yasmeen Godder Company’s Facebook and Instagram pages. “It makes me want to publish a book with the texts and photographs,” she reveals. “There’s something about them that contains all the things that fascinate me: how can you invite someone else into a personal, internal experience, one that brings things to the surface, and the work doesn’t begin or end with looking at a product and saying ‘wow, they do it so well.”

Godder’s pieces are an invitation to zoom-in on that “human ability” as she calls it, empathy, that some might say differentiates between those with wisdom and those without.  Let’s clarify once more: the closer you observe empathy, the more you realize how little you truly understand. On the one hand, empathy has some very basic aspects, and on the other hand, some aspects that require intellect and heightened sensitivity, demanding efforts at times, to put oneself in the empathic position. The example that may be relevant to most is empathy towards oneself, an exercise that often seems contrived when forced to turn the empathy inward.

As opposed to the situation where empathy feels natural and rooted in you by your mere existence, sometimes just between you and yourself, you feel like giving yourself a good slap in the face. When I imprinted that paint on the canvas and most of it came off me like a stamp, I felt as if I had gone through a symbolic simple cleansing ritual from this time and the challenges it presented. It compelled me to sink into the floor and go inside myself, and the fabric helped me rid myself of it and to “release” it from me onwards. The shower I took afterward was like closure – the paint came off surprisingly fast. I felt relieved, unburdened. Perhaps this period will be washed away more easily than I expect, and leave something worthy behind – the art, the bodies that create and contextualize it, and the people who stand behind it all.