Frocks and fabrics typically have associations with women as fashionable wearers or anonymous makers. In contrast to this passivity, Tel Aviv-based artist Sigalit Landau activates a simple 19th century style dress to become a symbol of ambiguous transformation and complex mythological reference. At Marlborough Contemporary her ‘Salt Bride’ series of eight photographs, each titled ‘Salt Crystal Bride Gown’, feature a black dress submerged in the Dead Sea. Over time it progressively whitens, encrusting in salt, until emerging as a shimmering bridal frock with tiny surface gaps that reveal its dark origins.
The dress itself is a direct copy of the garment worn by the character Leah in the early 1900s stage performance of ‘The Dybbuck’. Leah first appears as the wronged wife of Jacob redeemed by God in the Book of Genesis. In ‘The Dybbuk’ she is forced to marry someone she doesn’t love, preferring to unite with her beloved in death. Repeated in ‘Fiddler on the Roof’, this scenario is resolved by a caring father. Landau’s dress presents a metaphor for women at the mercy of their socio-anthropological circumstance.
Simultaneously floating and anchored down with sandbags, the dress parades as free but is held captive. It traverses over time, across cultures and between living and spirit worlds. A featureless black cutout becomes a hanging silhouette of a fallen woman. An x-ray shifts to a Bloomingdales window display or a celebrity’s glittery garment. In the grand finale the dress appears as a pointillist painting with delicate, pearly details.
The relationships between art and textiles hardly new. India’s ancient Kalamkari paintings featured Hindu deities adorned in sumptuous fabrics. The Tang Dynasty created images of gorgeously cloaked women. Michelangelo carved Pieta’s collapsed robes with tragic drama. Scotland’s Alison Watt continues to pay homage to the ethereal presence of loops and folds, while American Ruth Root hones in on their patterned repeats. Landau’s ‘Salt Bride’, like Doris Salcedo’s ‘Atrabiliarios’ (1992-1997) collection, presents garments without their wearers. They become objects of representation rather than decoration, projecting the awfulness of human loss and questioning restorative possibilities.
Landau’s practice repeatedly and intensely returns to salt and wounds. She has submerged various objects in the Dead Sea, from bicycles to workers’ boots. Her sculptures of people stripped bare of their flesh, without identities, are worthy cousins of Kiki Smith’s foetal positioned bodies with externalised entrails. In ‘Barbed Hula’ (2000) Landau girates with a barbed wire hula hoop on Israel’s only peaceful shore, accentuating the thorny crown of suffering within local geopolitics.
While Landau’s dress and its transformation are facts, the surrounding interpretations are stories. Paradoxically, many claim that stories are all we have. ‘Salt Bride’ explores the narrative of the female protagonist at odds with the system which decides her fate. This is a neat analogy to the female artist working in conjunction with and resistance to the rules of practice determined by a male dominated Western canon. Landau raises ideas of generational, cultural and collective memory, held in the body and worn in the very fabrics we use to cloak ourselves.