In this interview, Marianna Olinger sits down with artist Keren Moscovitch. The two discuss the nature of sexuality and spirituality in Moscovitch’s work. Using photography, video and her own personal life as a medium, Moscovitch attempts to explore her own definitions of intimacy.
Marianna Olinger: You often describe your work as being about connection, intimacy, sexuality and taboo. How did that emerge?
Keren Moscovitch: I was in a fairly traditional monogamous relationship. Then, we started exploring different meditative practices around our sexuality, and opening our relationship to other people – becoming non-monogamous. I found myself exploring intimacy and a level of openness that I had never experienced before, and having my own assumptions and boundaries challenged. So, I started making work about my experience by shooting portraits and images of what was happening around me, the people that I was involved with, the sensual experiences, the taboo explorations. I was interested in using photography to capture these experiences, so that I could understand it and digest it. I started off very diaristic, and over time it became more about looking at the bigger picture of what this exploration was actually about.
Keren Moscovitch. Rapture Through Form (Bad Muthafucka) (2010) from the series Me Into You.
MO: I think that your work has a lot to do with pushing or reevaluating boundaries. How does the audience respond to your work?
KM: I find that a lot of people are confronted by my work, that it seduces them, but that it also challenges them and makes them a little uncomfortable. Some people are very excited about that, and other people shut down in some way. But I think that, for everyone, it makes them think and reevaluate their own boundaries, their own sense of what’s normal or acceptable. I believe that growth and understanding happen through discomfort, so I feel that if my work doesn’t make people a little bit uncomfortable, it’s not going far enough.
MO: What are you working on right now?
KM: I’m working on one project that is a short experimental documentary called One More Way to Sink Into My Heart. It’s about a couple in their 60’s who have a very creative, intimate life that I’ve been fortunate enough to get access to. They’re very close friends of mine. They live out in the country. I go to their house and hang out with them and talk to them about their intimate life, their relationship, their definition of love and intimacy. We also talk about different practices that they use to get closer to one another and to themselves as individuals – self-exploratory practices in the sexual realm. The piece focuses on where the sexual and the spiritual intersect. I’m also witnessing a relationship that I deeply respect, dissecting it and seeing what makes it so beautiful, what makes it work. The other major project that I’m working on is titled Doppelganger, which is our collaboration.
Keren Moscovitch. Untitled (2013) Still from One More Way to Sink Into My Heart.
MO: You often mention spirituality as being a central issue of your work. How does that come into your work, and the projects you are working on right now?
KM: On a very basic level, spiritual practice requests of us to challenge our notions of who we are, what’s real and not real, what’s important, what’s negligible, what’s distraction… and also spiritual awakening is very uncomfortable. You have moments of pure bliss, but, in my experience, the spiritual journey is very tough. My spiritual inquiry began through exploring sexual energy as a meditative space, so that’s my home base. It’s about spiritual transformation through the sexual. In the film I investigate someone else’s relationship. I can observe it, analyze it, in a different way than when I’m in it. But now it’s affecting me so I’m becoming a part of it in a different, or unusual, or unanticipated way. I would say that the spiritual is my biggest challenge, in life and in art. It is so abstract. I keep thinking about Kant. He talks about infinity, and the spiritual is so much about infinity and the thing that you’re never going to actually touch. You’re just going to get closer and closer to part of it, and then you may not even be getting closer to it, but on some level you are. Being a visual artist, I really respect artists that can manifest spirituality in their work in physical form, because it’s really hard to do that. There are many bits and pieces of it in my work, especially in the process. Ideally, as I grow more, as I embody my spirituality more, my work will embody spirituality more.
MO: Did this relation between sex and spirituality come first, or after your art exploration about this subject?
KM: I made work when I was a lot younger that was about women’s bodies and sexuality. And I made other work in graduate school about domestic space and its relationship to the spiritual, the uncanny, memory, loss and death. Then I didn’t make art for a year. I just went into this completely other world of sexuality, and, specifically, sexuality in the spiritual. I have a very vivid memory of a conversation I had with a teacher of mine, when I said to her ‘I finally understand that when we talk about the energy of orgasm, that is my creative process, that’s my art.’ That flipped the switch for me.
MO: What do you think you are looking for in your work?
KM: The search of my own heart is connection and intimacy, and I’ve always done that through art. Whether it’s intimacy with you through our correspondence or intimacy with this couple by being in their energetic sexual sphere, and these really deep conversations that are happening on camera, it all achieves the same thing. I think that what’s different about the projects I’m doing now is that I’m trying to understand how people achieve relationships and connection. I’m fascinated by what makes people tick, what turns people on, what gets people connected, what makes people uncomfortable, so at this point (and that’s where it’s a research methodology in a way), I feel like I’m studying human beings.
MO: How do you see displacement in your work, both territorial and emotional?
KM: I have always felt out of place pretty much everywhere I go. It’s something that I‘ve come to terms with just recently. The interesting thing about the project Doppelganger, is that we’ve been producing that work from so many different locations. I’ve produced that work from at least three countries, it’ll be four soon, and in every place I experience myself differently, and in every place I experience myself as the exact same person. I was speaking with someone about my desire to escape and he said, ‘Well, wherever you go, there you are!’ Somewhere deep inside I do believe that we are very, very constant. I don’t feel that displacement territorially, because I bring my baggage (and, my ego) everywhere I go. But, I think of emotional displacement as a feeling of alienation and disorientation, which I identify with very strongly. Being in an open relationship that lacked boundaries pushed on all of the insecurities of that core identity. In one way there’s still a lack of displacement because you bring yourself to every situation. It doesn’t matter what boundaries are there or not there, the goal, or the desire, is to stay grounded in yourself no matter what, and to find your bliss, to find your peace, your happiness, you know… your pleasure. Being in any situation that’s nontraditional, where boundaries are opening up, there’s a real feeling of a lack of safety and never knowing what’s going to happen next. One can also feel alienated from the people in your life when you don’t feel safe. I’ve lived so much of my life craving this deep intimate connection and yet I’m a person that seemingly can’t stay grounded in that for very long, and is very easily seduced by adventure, movement and displacement. So I guess we create our own reality, our own journey. It’s interesting that a person who craves so much belonging and security also gravitates towards chaos. A lot of the content of my work is the interplay between connection and disconnection, alienation and intimacy.
Keren Moscovitch and Marianna Olinger. End of Summer North, End of Winter South (2014)from the collaborative project Doppelgänger.
MO: In your projects Me Into You and One More Way to Sink Into My Heart, do you consider yourself to be working in a directorial model?
KM: It’s a really grey area. When you’re working with a hand-held camera, the camera becomes an extension of you in space. I tend to work with very little equipment, I don’t use a crew, I don’t use assistants. When I was making Me Into You, if you’ve agreed to be on camera then I’m just going to bring the camera with me and use it to capture these moments between us. But then, I do become directorial because I tend to be very formal in my practice and I like to control the aesthetic. It was important to me, and continues to be important to me that certain interactions be documented, so there’s sort of a dance where I’m in the action and then I’m out of the action. I’m an observer, a participant, the director, a watcher.
MO: Do you consider yourself a performer at all? How do you see that label or that reference into your work?
KM: I think that everybody who’s being looked at is performing. Always. And the nature of the photographic medium is that there’s a constant consciousness of being observed, so everyone’s performing. Which is not to say that it’s inauthentic. I think you can perform your authentic self.
MO: You teach a course where you specifically talk about sexuality in photography. What is your relationship with teaching something that is so central to your own practice and to your personal life simultaneously?
KM: I love it. When they come in with their work, and their anxieties, and their sadness, and their excitement, and their adventure, and their taboo, I know what they’re going through, and I feel like I can talk to them as fellow human beings. Sexuality is such a great connector. With each student, it’s a new relationship every time, and it’s an intimate relationship when you’re dealing with this kind of work. You asked before about spiritual breakthrough. People have spiritual breakthroughs about who they are on the planet through this work, and I’ve seen it over and over again, both in art and outside of art.
MO: In the case of Me Into You, you were having an open relationship, in that way, for the first time and you were also experimenting with a new artwork process. How did that change, from that first experiment to what you’re doing now?
KM: My practice now is more critical and analytical. I want to say I’m more removed from it, in a way. With Me Into You I was so in it. I was immersed. My whole life was these relationships. It was very physical, very visceral, very immediate. What’s happening now is that there’s a step out of the direct experience, and I can be more of an observer of someone else’s process. Or, with us, with Doppelganger, I’m an observer of my own process with someone else in a way that’s more scientific. It’s very connected, very emotional, very passionate and very real, but the way that we’re documenting it is almost like building a research methodology, where things are being documented in a very particular way and there’s a lot of writing and a lot of observation of the act. It’s just as involved, but it’s a different kind of layering, of observation of your own experience. I look at my life as a series of experiments and experiences, and I look at everything as material, a series of creative practices, if I’m able to translate the experience into material. I was missing in Me Into You a certain critical distance, which was perfect for that body of work, but there’s almost a naiveté to what I was doing because it was so fresh and so new.
MO: How does politics play into your work?
KM: The socio politics of the work has to do with the limitations that people place on themselves, and the limitations that are placed on people by society, in particular around sexuality, intimacy and relationships. So, going back to this idea of displacement… I’ve never felt at home, I’ve never felt comfortable with the patterns of life that we’re supposed to follow. Anything where there’s a way that people do it, and so you need to do it that way, makes me really uncomfortable, and it’s not because I’m such a rebel. It’s really an anxiety and doesn’t feel authentic to me to follow someone else’s rules or patterns, the template that we’re supposed to fit ourselves into. So, the socio-politics is about self-expression and freedom, because our world is so pre-packaged. I think a lot of it is capitalism, and the way that capitalism sets up rules and ideals that we’re supposed to live up to. It’s not that political, but I do think that a lot of people get left behind because they don’t fit the mold.