In my next installment of my “Artists I Know” series, I interviewed the multi-media sound artist (and Colorado native) Talya Feldman.
I encountered Talya’s work as part of the Pink Progression “Dearly Disillusioned” exhibition, “In the Making,”curated by Odessa Nomadic, at McNichols Civic Center in Denver, in December 2019.
Her piece, “After Halle,” is a multi-media installation that features ten voices of the survivors of the mass shooting at a synagogue in Halle, Germany, on Yom Kippur in 2019. Finding this piece within the exhibition was a visceral experience for me. As I got closer, I could hear the voices humming “niggunim,” or the wordless prayer melodies that suffuse Jewish communal prayer. The purpose of a niggun is to ease someone into the prayer mindset, much like the repetition of a mantra. These wordless melodies also help to connect other members of the community into one voice.
At first I just heard the niggun humming from each audio station. Walking around to each section of the installation, I felt it, internally. I said to the friend that was visiting the exhibition with, “I know this!” and proceeded to explain the meaning to her. As I read more about the story behind the work, and its relation to gun violence, I felt even more deeply connected. I live near Columbine High School, and my husband attended Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, for two years.
Eventually, I was able to meet Talya, the artist, to find out that she was a survivor of the synagogue attack, and talk with her about her work. Since then, we have continued to connect via email and Zoom, as we navigated the post COVID-19 world. Talya is now back in Hamburg, Germany, working on her M.F.A. at the Hochschule für Bildende Künste (College of Fine Arts). It is my pleasure to include her incredibly thoughtful responses to my questions. To learn more about her work, visit talyafeldman.net.
Julia: First of all, please tell me a little more about yourself. Who you are, what your media is, the ideas you explore in your work. Also, are you currently working on your MFA?
Talya: I actually grew up in Denver, Colorado and am now seeking my Master’s in Hamburg, Germany at the Hochschule für Bildende Künste in their Time-Based Media Department. I got my BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2013, and afterwards worked several years in New York — supporting the curatorial staff at the Jewish Museum in New York, helping to found a carpentry and design program for students with disabilities at the non-profit Adaptive Design Association, Inc. and becoming the personal archivist to artist Mel Bochner.
I come from a fairly strong background in painting and drawing — but in recent years have also shifted my practice to include video, sound, performance and installation art. My work has always focused on the identity and history of my Jewish community in various ways — despite the criticism, prejudices, and hurdles that I have had to overcome in doing so. I think as Jews we carry a strong link to the past in order to process and move towards the future. There are so many moments in Jewish life and tradition when we pause to remember those that came before us, the tragedies that have befallen us in the Diaspora, while at the same time celebrating our communities and the joyful occasions and achievements that give us the strength to keep moving forward. Those juxtapositions of grief and joy, past and present, have always been the crucial and underlying themes of my work.
Julia: You are originally from Colorado. Do you feel that growing up here impacted your work in any way? How so?
Talya: Most definitely. Something that I learned from my time working with the artist Mel Bochner was that as artists ‘we paint what we are.’ What I understand that to mean is that we are always, even subconsciously, creating work from our own life experiences. Colorado, and the Jewish community I grew up in, has certainly carried a strong power in the way I view and process the world — and as a result of that, an important subtext in the works that I create.
Julia: The piece that first brought me to your work is very powerful, “After Halle.” I found all of it very transformative, taking a traumatic experience and turning it into something beautiful, but also a commentary on American gun culture, anti-Semitism, and the consistency of Jewish practice in the face of all this. What is the story behind the conception of this piece? What do you want it to say to an American/Coloradan audience?
Talya: After Halle is a very intimate and vulnerable piece for me, and one that I wanted and needed to create in collaboration with others as a means of healing from a traumatic experience. After surviving the mass shooting in Halle, Germany on October 9, 2019, on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur – I received a gentle note from a great mentor and Rabbi of mine saying that while we may never understand why such devastating things may happen, we are given a choice to use these challenges to appreciate life’s gifts and share the pain of broken hearts. Joy and sorrow are real, he wrote, how we use them is our prerogative.
As a Coloradoan I grew up in the dark shadows of Columbine, Aurora, and Highlands Ranch — and as an American, I am sensitively aware that this country sees an average of one mass shooting every single day according to the latest Gun Violence Archive statistics. It was important for me — as an artist and a survivor — to find a way of connecting this very personal experience to what I see to be a growing geopolitical issue in danger of becoming normalized and barely reported on.
In my research for this project, I came across the book Musicophilia by the neuro-scientist Dr. Oliver Sacks. In it he discusses the psychological impacts of music and sound on the mind. The vibrations of sound, and of humming in particular, can be used as a form of self-soothing to shield both hummer and listener from trauma.
I approached some of the community who I was with in Halle and asked if they would be willing to let me record them individually humming the niggunim, the melodies of the Yom Kippur service from that day — in the hopes that like for me, these melodies and this collaboration might help them cope, process, and heal.
After Halle was an opportunity for me to offer comfort to the community I was with in Halle, to myself, but also to listeners in Colorado — who perhaps more than most, would understand the scars that a mass shooting leaves behind.
One aspect of the installation that was especially meaningful, and that I did not anticipate, was the reaction of those listeners. Each survivor’s voice, ten in total (which in itself is a significant number in Judaism), was connected to its own speaker — and not all voices played at the same time. At the exhibition opening I watched as people stood patiently in front of each speaker and simply waited for them to hum. This response reminded me of the Jewish tradition to visit a house of mourning and wait for the mourner to speak first, to tell you what they need, thereby offering them the greatest comfort. I felt, in their own way, people experiencing After Halle were also waiting for the voices to speak first, giving them time and space to be heard — and that was incredibly moving for me.
Julia: Did you have a previous connection to Germany, before choosing to study there?
Talya: I actually began my Masters last year at a school in Boston that offered a summer semester abroad in Hamburg. A few years prior I had begun extensively researching racist and anti-Semitic iconography, and its relationship to collectors, museums, and artists who re-appropriate that imagery in their work. My apprenticeship with Norman Kleeblatt, former Chief Curator of the Jewish Museum in New York, allowed me to access two particular exhibitions that he organized within this topic, the first being a vast collection of anti-Semitic materials and objects from the Dreyfus Affair in France which he had found hidden in storage, and the other more highly controversial exhibition, Mirroring Evil. This exhibition featured German artists like Mischa Kuball and Rudolf Herz who were manipulating and appropriating Nazi imagery as a means of taking back their power and changing their narratives. Both exhibitions questioned the role and responsibility of museums and artists in allowing for such historically painful and harmful materials to be made visible.
My application to study abroad in Germany allowed me to meet and delve deeper into the work of these artists and these questions, and to confront much of this imagery at its source. When I arrived I found a unique and thriving Jewish community, one that has, since Halle, been especially supportive and encouraging of me and my work, as well as an art community who embraced me and my identity as an artist and as a Jew in a way that I had not experienced before — and so I decided fairly early on into that summer semester to transfer programs and finish my Masters degree in Hamburg.
Julia: I am just now starting to integrate my Jewish identity and practice into my own work as a painter and fiber artist. How did you come to integrate and explore your Jewish identity into your work? Was this something from the outset of your work as an artist, or did it develop over time?
Talya: I think my Jewish identity as explored through my art practice is always developing, just like how our relationships to community, spirituality, and history inevitably evolve depending on where we are in our lives — but it has certainly carried a strong presence in my work throughout my career. We paint what we are — and my Jewish background is a large part of what I am.
But it has been a challenge bringing that identity into a secular art space, where being Jewish, or openly so, is not necessarily celebrated or encouraged. I have certainly been confronted by curators, professors, and other artists who, due to their own prejudices and stereotypes, refuse to have a conversation about – or even acknowledge – Jewish identity in contemporary art. Over the years I have been told there is no space for someone like me, that I am too Jewish, and that the Jewish history I explore has no credibility. One professor went so far as to tell me that we Jews brought the tragic aspects of our history upon ourselves.
Similarly, I have met many artists, Jewish ones, who hesitate identifying themselves as such for fear of being pigeon-holed into what is considered Judaica art, of being labeled and criticized negatively because they are Jews, or on the opposite end of that – as one critic expressed to me — ghetto-ized. I think you can argue that this fear, on the side of Jewish artists or artists who are Jewish (there is a distinction in that choice of phrasing) stems from a long history of anti-Semitism and also a strong desire to assimilate, which was particularly important for those artists moving to and living in America in the early to late 20th century. Jewish art critics like Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg and Abstract Expressionists like Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko really helped form America as the epicenter of the art world, but their Jewish identities were and are not often discussed. Even when Newman’s own zip paintings stemmed from his focus on Jewish Kabbalah he refused to be acknowledged as a Jew.
But there is power in how art can change narratives, and how it can challenge perceptions. And there has always been a place for spirituality and the metaphysical (I’m thinking, for instance, not only of the Renaissance but of the chapels designed by Mark Rothko and Sol LeWitt). And while these explorations into Jewish identity put myself at risk — a target for bigotry and for my work to be dismissed as too Jewish — I also believe them to be my greatest act of defiance. Our voices matter — especially in these times when age-old anti-semitic tropes and violence are re-emerging in mainstream society on a global level.
Julia: What are you working on now? Plans for the future? (Which I know is a crazy question in our current situation, but I would love to know anyway.)
Talya: I am working on several more collaborations at the moment that I am pretty excited about — with musicians, choreographers, and researchers — delving deeper into some of my earlier work on anti-Semitic iconography and how it is newly manifested — and thriving — on social media platforms. I am also exploring various influencers of Eastern European history and sound as a further means of connecting cultures and offering more forms of healing.
I will be installing a sound and video projection here in Denver next week that I encourage people to come out for — while remaining at a safe social distance. At the start of the pandemic some close friends and musicians, Zoe Aqua and Fenyvesi Attila, one in Denver and the other in Budapest, began a virtual experiment playing together — but apart — the transcriptions of two great folk musicians of Roma descent, Potta Géza and Dzsuga Géza. More information on what this project will look like, and the performance schedule, will be up on my website and on my instagram soon – so stay posted!*
Note* – This performance took place on May 24th and 25th. To see the performance, follow Talya on Instagram at @feldmantalya.
Julia: Lastly, how did you get connected with Corianne and Kristopher from Odessa Nomadic? Was “After Halle” conceived for “Dearly Disillusioned”?
Talya: Corianne, Kristopher, and I all met in undergrad at SAIC. When they moved to Denver and started Odessa Nomadic several years ago I was thrilled. I think they have and are establishing an exciting, innovative, and growing art presence here in Colorado, and I was glad to be a small part of that when they invited me to show for Dearly Disillusioned. After Halle is a difficult topic and involves a lot of moving parts — not to mention the labor involved with its install — but Kris and Corianne approached it sensitively and supportively. They gave the work the space it needed — and I will always be grateful to them for that.
Julia: Thank you, Talya, for sharing your work!