Ronit Baranga – Frightfully Wonderful
I have been following Ronit Baranga’s work for several years now, fascinated by the way she brings clay to life. Her work evokes conflicting response of attraction and repulsion. They provide visual pleasure and at the same time turn your stomach into knots, even if it is not exactly clear why at first glance. For me this is an indication for good art.
Ronit opened her marvelous studio in Zichron Yaacov to me, situated at the end of a path that runs through her garden. The entrance space looks like a small showroom that presents works from different series and as you walk further you enter the actual workspace, busy but neat. She hugs me with a sparkle in her eyes, leading me into her favorite place in the world.
She studied ceramics in The Midrasha Art School but always knew she was making art and not pottery. Although this material is sometimes considered inferior in the art world Baranga exhibits in galleries and museums all over the world (her galleries are in New York, Melbourne, Essen and Munich).
She tells me about her time at art school: "Being a sculptor in the ceramics department at that time was not traditional and without its grounds - on the one hand the art world would not accept me because I was engaged with ceramics and making what was perceived as craft, on the other hand in the ceramics department I was pushed to explore this amazing material, the clay. I felt that I was neither here nor there. It was precisely from that standpoint that I decided to deal with every-day practical objects - plates and glasses, and give them sensory organs - mouths and fingers, and provide them a way to react. From that point onwards they became an active object that could "decide" if it allowed me to use it - If the saucer wishes to escape the situation, it's their decision. By giving them my organs, they were expropriated from my control.
Shlomit: This was the first series.
Ronit: Yes, but this series has evolved over the years: It began as a control issue - who decides for who? Who controls who? Over time it took new forms and emphasis, much thanks to comments I received from the public about the works. The physical touch became more principle to the work, the objects started to relate to each other, and the sexual tension became more and more apparent.
When Banksy contacted me, I decided to sculpt specifically for Dismaland a series of forty objects that are involved in social interaction: the kettle leaned over to the plate and the milk jug observed, the sugar container outflanked from the side and they seemed to be conspiring or protecting a secret. It took me four hours to assemble them on this table.
Shlomit: How cool is it to get a call from Banksy!
Ronit: Totally! It was a completely insane experience. Something completely different.
A New York curator saw my work for Banksy and wanted some of the dishes. Since I don’t like to repeat myself, I decided to add a twist: I asked myself, "If a milk jug pinches a kettle, how does its flesh feel like? How can I convey this feeling?" I was interested in the intense physical interaction. I called the series Embraced, something between a hug and a clasp, simultaneously both tender and violent.
Shlomit: And how did you transition from dining dished to sculpting girls and babies?
Ronit: During the time of my solo exhibition at a gallery in Melbourne, Australia, I returned to figurative art. Sculpting a human body in clay filled me with joy beyond words. I made a series of works based on the image of my youngest daughter. She used to spend a lot of time with her dolls, weaving this fiction world that was also very intimate. The imaginative world she built in her mind were real for her at that moment. The situation of observing someone so absorbed to the point I could almost see what they imagined, fascinated me. In my work the girl played with dolls, but at the end of the game she scooped them up, and at that point the doll became a baby in which she stuck her fingers. It is a place of love, of belonging, of need.
Then I started to think about the interaction between the girls and the dishes. My objects are always from a tea service, which is used for a kind of ritual in which every dish has a defined role and everyone has to play their part. It's a dynamic of a game - everything is defined, and the rules are clear, until the girl starts playing with them, which creates this tension between the neat and fragile tea-service and the girl who wants to test this adult game. I deliberately created these dishes as wild creatures, insect looking without any method and order and it already takes us on a different path: the girl catches this mouthed caterpillar made of a mugs - he yells at her and she screams at him and her fingers pinch his body, while a parade of wild creatures is following. That’s a much darker place than the original dishes.
It is almost voyeurism when I make people witness my madness. I am interested in injecting two conflicting notions into the same artwork. It is like in literature, when you have many layers and it can be read in different contexts.
Shlomit: What was the next step?
Ronit: For my second solo show in Australia the gallery owner asked for dishes, but as usual I'm moving forward and so they are different than before. I like to be restricted in my work, because within those boundaries I can go wild. I do my wildest things under restrictions. This time it is a feast. Exhibited on an antique dining table a tea ceremony takes place, packed with mouthed desserts; instead of a cherry to decorate the cake, there is a teethed mouth. The question is who eats who? The whipped cream cakes are the hedonistic and sensual symbolizing abundance. The dishes’ fingers are pushed into the desserts, into the whipped cream.
My works are really built one on top of the other. I feel like a magician pulling a handkerchief and each one is tied to another handkerchief. Each sculpture I create brings forward ideas for the next one.
Shlomit: Tell me about your Artemis.
Ronit: My Artemis embodies the duality I love so much: it is based on an Artemis figurine from Ephesus that some scholars believe is a maternal goddess which her many breasts are intended to nourish humanity, while others believe it to be a goddess of revenge and war that wears a necklace of bull testicles, a murderess and emasculating creature. This gap is exactly what drives me - I wanted my Artemis to be these two characters at the same time. Her many breasts are each fitted with a hungry mouth instead of a nipple and it is clear that they do not feed anyone but eat themselves. Instead of standing rigid and frozen, I gave her such an ecstatic smile that seemed relieved, but it is only pretend relaxation - you can see her clenched fists holding the strings tightly. It is painted in a way that looks as if it was made of wet clay, which allows you to touch and leave a mark, but no - it was burnt and painted. Artemis is also about how we sometimes pretend to be relaxed but we are actually control freaks.
Next there was a series of three babies lying on a ball and holding it tight, but instead of a nipple there was a mouth, again talking about who was feeding who in this relationship, which is really very complex. For me, it is about the maternal role of raising a child, but at the same time being a mother is what feeds and nurtures me as human being. I see a huge disparity in the situation before and after motherhood.
Shlomit: You deal with a lot of babies even though you haven't had babies for a long time.
Ronit: Yes, the “baby” is now ten years old. I started sculpting babies at age 40, feeling like I was saying goodbye. They just came from under my hands, without any preparation or premeditated idea. Then I tattooed them. In my view, when you are raising a child you are raising it the way you see the world, your culture, your perception, leaving your emblem, whether you want it or not. The baby is not aware of it at first, and when she will become aware of it, she will never be able to be rid of it. She would go on and tattoo her own children. It is very clear to me via my relationship with my mom and my kids that the emblem passes through.
Shlomit: You chose to tattoo them with a snake.
Ronit: I think the snake is both a beautiful and a very complex symbol - the beauty, the sexuality and the temptation are contrasted with the wisdom attributed to it, the symbol of healing and more. Life is made up of everything. I don't decorate. The snake is there whether you want it or not.
Shlomit: And where did the Grave Watchers come from?
Ronit: It was an exhibition where the setting was very definite, which, as I said, allows me to go wild without limits. It is very liberating and stimulating. For this exhibition the sculpture should have been inspired by an item in the Museum's collection (Israel Museum). I was immediately fascinated by these spirits of the grave watchers from the Song dynasty of the 6th-century, they just mesmerized me: two stiff and rigid hybrid creatures. I found the belief of someone guarding the graves very comforting. In my work, I tried to imagine how these grave watchers would look as infants. I wanted to see what brought them to this position, was it their choice? Is that their destiny? Childhood is liberated from burden, their roar becomes adorable, there is something very sweet about them along with something threatening. It has evolved into three series.
Participating in Fresh Paint Art Fair gave me the opportunity to witness people’s reactions firsthand. They were very excited about the Grave Watchers, which was very strange to me.
Shlomit: I really like the work at the Haifa Museum where you managed to take over the whole space. This is uncanny to ceramics, which is usually limited to small objects.
Ronit: If it was up to me, I would take over the whole museum. What you see is actually me being contained. I wanted the work to accompany the visitors from the moment they enter, but it didn't work out. The idea was that when the viewer entered the space, he would interact with the wall of the museum itself, not with work hanging on the wall. In the corner of the room I created a large concentration of mouths and as you move away from the center they disperse in space. The origins of the work are completely different: I made this open mouth and wanted it to greet me every day at studio entrance. I have a very significant relationship with this space, it's the place I love most in the whole world and I wanted it to be here when I enter so I could have a conversation with. In a chance encounter with the curator of the exhibition on fake news, the idea for this work was born. It took a turn and now relates to interaction in the digital world and its never-ending reverberation. I basically copied the spread of spam. I worked at the museum itself. I made 100 mouths based on my own in the studio and then worked at the museum to assimilate them into walls, five full days of work. Standing there in the corner, I felt such physical pressure and discomfort.
Shlomit: You had another exhibition that took over space before.
Ronit: I had a solo exhibition at the Red House curated by Hagit Peleg Rotem. I felt that the Red House must be part of the show, I couldn’t ignore it.
Shlomit: The walls could talk.
Ronit: Totally! My work consisted of a hundred palms coming out from the walls as if they wanted to sense the space itself. I took one long thread and obsessively wrapped the fingers so that it formed a weaved net. It's less visible when you walk in but when you get closer you can appreciate what was created there. Everything is built upon the tension of the fingers - if one hand lets go it all collapses. On the floor there was a figure of many hands and the string that ran along the wall also connected the figure's hands. The figure was a homage to the protagonist of Merit Ben Israel’s story "Must Not Sit on Braids". During a mental breakdown a girl stands in a hole she dug up in the garden, spreads her hair, reaches out and says "I am a flower". This figure that grows from the floor, reaches out and the hands of the walls reach out to her, and everything is tied together in one single thread tied in her hair. I called her Blossom. The show was called Shy Mimosa, as a tribute to a Don't Touch Me kind of plant. Miraculously, we were able to include in the exhibition this seasonal sensitive plant, which only blossoms for a short while. It was so accurate and satisfying.
Our conversation was unexpectedly interrupted, and I had to rush home to Tel Aviv. All the way back from Zichron Yaacov, I thought about how Ronit manages to tell different neratives and press so many buttons making a way into the audience’s heart while using a relatively limited arsenal of images. It is the way she links them together which determines their meaning, like words in a letter ...
In 2019 Ronit exhibited in Melbourne, Munich and New York. Coming soon is the debut of Arts and Design Biennial at the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel-Aviv, where she will show life size sculptures of mischievous girls. I can’t wait!