A race against oneself: confronting the mirroring gaze.
Delving into the complexities of gender performativity, Amsterdam-based artist Romy Yedidia probes feminine stereotyping, recurring to her own anatomy as a transformational tool central to her practice. The Israel-born artist studied Interior Design at the Holon Institute of Technology in Holon, Israel, moving on to graduate in Architectural Design at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam. “I made a conscious decision to become an artist after,” explains Yedidia, who’s been located in her Amsterdam studio since 2018. Having exhibited in numerous shows in Germany, Serbia, and the Netherlands, Yedidia’s work merges installation, performance and sculpture, a synthesis through which she explores the representation of the female physique in the media. Greek architecture is referenced symbolically in Yedidia’s work, as a metaphor for supporting a heavy weight of societal expectations while remaining unflinchingly graceful. In a subtle, yet piercing critique of body politics, her carnal busts portray female bodies either marred by discomfort and restriction, or flawlessly fitting Western standards of beauty. Addressing the viewer on an emotional level lies at the core of Yedidia’s practice, including her performances, during which the artist daringly gazes back at the male viewer, or reflects on the burdensome parts of the human condition. Involving agitation, effort and pain, her endurance acts demand equal amounts of scrutiny and introspection, requiring her to prepare both physically and mentally for what she describes as a “race against oneself”.
Coming from an academic background in design, when did you first begin to feel the pull towards Fine Arts? Was this a gradual or immediate transition?
It began subconsciously, but once I became aware of it, the transition was fast. Halfway through my Interior Design degree in Israel, I moved to Amsterdam to continue my studies in the Architectural Design department at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy. The fact that the school is first and foremost an Art academy, it allowed me to be much more critical, expressive, and opinionated. Naturally, this reflected in my projects. My first sculpture, called “Belly Love”, created in 2016, marked the beginning of a new body of work. This initiated a departure from a more classical architectural format which I had employed until then, to a focus on more autonomous mediums such as installation and sculpture. “Belly Love” felt like such a direct and strong self-portrait and made me realize that I was much more excited about art than design. I continued with this line of work until graduation, for which I presented “Preserve Me”, a column made out of reproductions of my body parts in concrete. Near the time of my graduation, my family kept asking about my next steps, and which architecture offices I would apply to. These questions felt quite bothersome, because I knew my heart was set on making art, which felt therapeutic and provided a huge satisfaction, as well as being a way to process past traumas. Of course, the fact that I was not trained as an artist, as well as the highly ageist and competitive environment of the art world felt intimidating. However, I persevered and decided to find a studio and surround myself with a network of artists. From the moment I made the difficult decision to pursue a career as an artist, the actions I made toward fulfilling this goal have been quite determined and quick.
Having studied Architectural and Interior Design, how have these fields informed
There are a few things that come into play here. Firstly, architecture is very controlled, it needs to be carefully calculated in order not to collapse. There is also something performative about it, in a sense that only the surface can be seen, and yet there is so much going on behind the scenes, from construction, dust, fillers, pipes, etc. That is how I experience being a woman. The expectations of society towards females are similar, as only the perfectly designed architectural masterpiece is desired, without there being much care for what goes into creating it. I often use the term “effortlessness” in my work. This fake effortlessness interests me, as, for instance, the “I woke up like this” notion. That is how I think society wants women to appear, without caring of the turmoil that might occur underneath the surface. Coming back to architecture, think of a perfectly polished, smooth, plaster wall. It is satisfying to look at, it is pleasing, but it does not steal your attention. Yet we don’t think how much work is required to create it. The societal expectations toward women are similar – to look pleasant and presentable without showing the behind-the-scenes effort.
To what extent has growing up in Israel fed your practice? Has this influenced your decision to explore feminist issues?
I think it was a combination of a few factors; firstly, my gender, as well as the country I come from, and the household I grew up in. I do see that women are freer in the Netherlands (relatively to Israel, but this is not to say that there is no sexism in the Netherlands, the situation is still dire), while sexism is much harsher in Israel, where the binary is deeply ingrained in society. Ever since I can remember, I have experienced the expectations of how I should behave and what I should look like. Especially in my own household, probably more so than in the Western environment, where perspectives on gender equality might have been more accepted. Although things are changing now, with a growing diversity of female role models. This is very different compared to the nineties and the 2000s when I was growing up.
Your studio walls feature images of Alina Szapocznikow and Louise Bourgeois’s work, among many others. Could you speak of any aspects of the work of these women artists that resonate with your own production?
I came across the work of Alina Szapocznikow in 2014 in Israel, and it felt like I had never been so impacted by an exhibition before. Her work is autobiographical, and it has a humane and vulnerable aspect to it which I look up to and try to channel in my own work. This is a way to connect with an audience, which I appreciate. Other influential artists are Louise Bourgeois, Marina Abramovic and an incredible Israeli artist called Sigalit Landau.
Mastering concrete and plaster casting takes effort and time. How did you approach this technique? Was the process of learning it intuitive or calculated?
A bit of both, as I already knew several simple casting techniques from my previous education. However, I had not heard of the body casting technique before. The idea came from a ceramic workshop that took place at the Rietveld academy, where I studied. Ever since then, I became extremely enthusiastic with the process, learning about it quickly. I remember the first casting session of my own body for the work called “Belly Love”, which felt very engaging and performative. Immediately after the session I felt ecstatic, adrenaline was rushing through me. I knew I had discovered something with so much potential, and I became obsessed with it.
Do you remember the moment when you discovered the possibility of casting your own body? Could you describe your first contact with this corporeal technique, and develop the process of physically materializing ideas through it?
To have a successful cast, one needs to stand very still. That offers a rather unique experience, which requires to emulate being an object, so in a way you need to channel objectification. If one moves, the material cracks, which I find very poetic. I truly came in touch with that idea. My work is not feministic in terms of rebelling, as I was raised with conflicting values, and am thus very conditioned. Instead, I reflect on awareness and confrontation. My way of dealing with this issue is by subtly making it unignorable. The performance titled “Objectify” that I did in 2018 comes to mind. I was standing naked, with my arms raised as a caryatid, being cast in plaster. While scanning the audience for connection and acknowledgment, I noticed how difficult it made male viewers feel. They were gazing at my body only sheepishly, avoiding direct visual contact. It seemed like they preferred to gaze at a naked female body in private, on screen, without the confrontation of the mirroring gaze. From the moment there was someone with a name and a profession gazing back at the male viewer, things got complicated. This felt like a revelation.
Working with sturdy materials like concrete, metal, or plaster, how much room is there for experimentation? Can accidents be embraced?
Of course! I remember times when I did not like how the piece turned out, so I tossed it away, only to find it later on in the corner of the room and reuse it in a way I hadn’t planned. Also, moulds often break and crack during casting sessions, especially if I move. The failure can then become the work itself. It reflects the body rebelling against being restrained and turned into an object. That is the concept that I am developing. It began as an accident, as the least desirable outcome.
Your performative sculpture series “Cornice” is based on a classic architectural decoration and proposes a layered critique of patriarchal expectations and perceptions of women in contemporary times. How did this project come about
It was a project that I had been brewing for a long time and was very eager to proceed with once I received my first grant from the Mondriaan Fund. I learned about the technique of pushing a running mould through plaster to create cornices from a former teacher at the Gerrit Rietveld academy. After graduation, while thinking about my next project, I remembered this technique and began researching about it, and suddenly an idea came about to combine the female body profile with the mould. The process of adding plaster and then shaving it into shapes also really resonated with the concept. It seemed like everything fell into place, and it was certainly an amazing moment.
Can you elaborate on the performative quality of “Cornice”? How does the action of casting and shaping the plaster relate to your investigation of gender performativity?
The performative part of the work has two meanings. One of them was conceived after I saw videos of old masters using this technique. The process of making the cornice with a running mould is contradictory – the plaster must be added to the wall and then be shaved off, to constrain the material into a certain shape. This addition–subtraction relates to the double standards of femininity I often talk about in my work. The requirements placed upon women; being beautiful yet effortless, thin but still curvy, combining family and career, etc. These ideas resonated with me, reminding me of the opposing forces required to make a cornice in this traditional technique. The second meaning has to do with battling gravity and time to stay desirable. When I taught myself this technique, I realized how much physical effort goes into it, and how fast one must work to prevent the material from sagging. The act of shaving and treating the plaster is also quite violent. I find this relatable to the mental pressure women feel from society and to the violent act of objectification they are subjected to in order to fit the stereotypical mould.
Enduring discomfort, physical effort and sometimes even pain, performance is an integral part of your work. Do you prepare yourself, mentally and physically, for carnal acts like “Belly Love” or “Objectify”?
To an extent, yes. In preparation for “Objectify”, which lasted 100 minutes, I had spent a certain amount of time with my arms raised in the air every day, to build up my endurance. But physical discomfort and pain are only small parts of the process. The bigger aspect of the performance is the concentration. While performing, there are no distractions, no coffee breaks or music to listen to. One has to hold onto one’s artistic vision and willpower. It is a race against oneself. It is difficult to prepare towards having that sort of concentration. To achieve that aspect of the performance, I try to connect with the motivation behind my work, in order to get the energy to deliver a compelling result.
I recently saw your performance Anxiety Machine as part of your duo show at Arti et Amicitiae in Amsterdam. What emotional reaction do you hope to achieve from the viewer by this visceral, highly emotive work?
In this piece I show my inner, most overpowering anxiety in the form of screaming into the device (the Anxiety Machine) and leaving a charcoal powder mark on the table. It is literally disrupting the perfect facade that we are encouraged to present to our environment. I want to encourage conversation about mental health, and I hope that as a result, members of the audience that might identify with my anxiety will feel less alone. In my eyes, in order to generate a social discussion, an artist must start from one’s own subjectivity, allow oneself to be vulnerable, and thus make space for the audience to contemplate freely, with no fear of judgement.
I was fascinated by your limited-edition publication, “The Beauty Machine”, with covers featuring diverse parts of your body reproduced in latex. Could you elaborate on its investigation of surveillance systems forced upon women?
“The Beauty Machine” is an artist research publication which explores the collective and intimate monitoring system that is operated on or by women through architecture, mass media and pop culture. Both society and women, who are socially conditioned, operate the machine; women observing other women deviating, or not, from the norm. Needless to say, mass media and pop culture, in essence what we’re being exposed to and what we’re being told, have a huge influence on us. Architecture was another lens through which I wanted to explore this issue, as often we take it for granted. The places we live in have influence on how we see things; they affect our everyday lives and can even facilitate the act of being looked at. In line with this idea, I have explored some architectural case studies, for instance the Farnsworth House by Mies van der Rohe, where the glass windows could be viewed as a framing device for the woman living inside. I then combined this research with autobiographical elements; reflections of my own upbringing and of what shaped me into who I am. The book contains rather private and vulnerable content, and thus the covers seemed fitting to bring this exposure further.
Does the prevalence of image-driven social media platforms like Instagram, with ever present depictions of the hyper-polished female flesh, fire up your creative
It definitely motivates me, as it proves that the problem of female objectification is still ongoing and can also be the origin of a lot of unhealthy comparisons and self-perceptions. The prevalent use of it, especially among people in their formative years, scares me. It makes one think about the current human living experience, the desire of “perfection” and the selfie culture. Its lens is not forgiving, allowing so little of one’s true essence to be experienced and expressed. Personally, I am very selective on what content I am exposed to. But, of course, the algorithm has enough information about me to try to influence my decisions and habits. It also presents a personal conundrum; am I being narcissistic if my face is online? Therefore, I try to keep a certain distance from it.
Moving forward, do you see your work taking a different direction, be that through embracing new conceptual perspectives on gender issues or exploring varying mediums to the performative and sculptural?
I am interested in concentrating on theoretical architectural texts, as I feel this will allow me to reconnect with my background. Material-wise, I am moving in the direction of combining heavy, monumental work with the audio-visual and mixing the two. Next to that, I am also currently working on sculptures that explore the malleability and resilience of wax and clay. All the while trying to be freer: being more forgiving and less judgmental towards my work, exploring mistakes, experimenting and letting go.
Words by Gabija Seiliute