This week, justArts spoke with Milcah Bassel, a Hadassah-Brandeis Institute Artist-in-Residence, about her upcoming exhibit, Father Tongue, at the Women’s Studies Research Center.
justArts: Can you give us an overview of this project?
Milcah Bassel: I titled the project Father Tongue and that refers to a few different kinds of connections here, but one of the main narratives that kind of leads me into this piece is [that] my father is a traditional Jewish Scribe, and as a child, I’d be watching him copy these letters meticulously day after day after day. I realize now that I didn’t know how to read yet, so for me, this was a very visual experience when I was younger. … So what I did here is—I’m revisiting the Hebrew language now as an artist, as a visual artist, and as somebody who comes from an Orthodox background but is now secular, so in a way, it’s like reclaiming this alphabet for myself. What I did is, I looked through the 22 letters of the Hebrew Alphabet. … I picked these five letters because they are all made up of a right angle, and exclusively of a right angle. … I chose them because they are these very simple, minimal building blocks that are used over and over again to make this language, but they are also geometrical forms that you would find in architecture, and a lot of my work deals with space. … I sort of want the letters to be somewhat recognizable to people who are familiar with Hebrew, and even people who aren’t might recognize them as being some kind of script, but at the same time, I want people to just get lost in this spatial, visual experience. So I’m letting the language aspect of it kind of melt away and revert back into this chaotic state.
JA: What is the process of creating the wall drawings?
MB: Right behind you, you see these pieces of mylar, these are my shapes, these are my building blocks. Hebrew is written from right to left. The way I’m treating the space is like. … you would read it on a page, … and at some point there is going to be an accumulation of letters. They are less decipherable than individual letters, but what I’m doing is using the same five stencils, the same five building blocks, over and over and over again. What I do is, I place them on the wall, and I take the inside of the stenciled area, if I want to be applying graphite or ink on the outside, which would be the negative space, I can do the opposite. … So I’m really just using the stenciling process and developing the composition of the piece as I go along.
JA: What is the main idea you hope viewers take away from your work?
MB: Well, that goes back to some of the things I was saying before, which is that I think it’s really interesting that people can approach this piece from their own background. … Some people really relate to it because it’s Hebrew; they immediately detect the letters, and there’s something there about the tradition that’s very meaningful to them. ... and then they sort of have to let go of that in order to enter this visual and spatial experience. So that’s one approach. Another approach would be, someone would walk in here and be like, oh, this is so cool, what’s this abstract form and really just relate to it from that visual element. … Then they’re either kind of in between approaches as well, but I really like this idea that we each are able to access information from our own background, and all of those ways are valid.
JA: What has been the biggest challenge in the art process?
MB: There always are challenges. I guess there is the anxiety of, is this going to happen? Because I am developing on site, and what that means is, I don’t have a master plan, like I don’t know exactly what is going to happen at the end of this installation. … I have a deadline. It has to be up by April 10, and I like there to be a certain amount of time for reflection so that I can kind of check, I can let the work speak back to me as it’s evolving. You know after you put something down, you kind of need to sit down and look at it and see where it’s going, and then ask how it is tying in to these ideas. … turning these letters into spaces, turning letters themselves into a negative space, what does that mean conceptually, when I’m trying to work with something spatial here. So those are the challenges in the work, like, how does that happen in the work? How do I sculpt with these letters and allow that concept to evolve as I’m doing it? … Those are some of the challenges inside the work. Working with the deadline, working on site, produces a certain kind of urgency and a certain kind of challenge, which I enjoy. I enjoy the challenge.