Nahum Tevet has a problem. The Tel Aviv artist is readying himself for his first solo show in the UK at DCA, but the single work he plans to show, Seven Walks, has been trapped in Israel thanks to industrial action by the country’s dock-workers.
‘It is not,’ Tevet says, stoically, ‘the optimal situation. My work was held less than 24 hours before it was due to leave the port. Just my luck.’
For any artist, a logistical hiccup like this would be a blow, but where others might dash off a few new pieces, or go on a Duchampian hunt for found objects, Tevet’s practice precludes such stop-gap measures.
Using familiar, everyday materials to craft equally familiar forms - tables, partitions, simple cubes - Tevet works on a vast scale, assembling component sculptures into complex room installations that resemble cityscapes, even entire worlds. Seven Walks is his largest piece to date, and has been in production since 1998.
‘Since the early nineties,’ he explains, ‘I have been pushing my work, starting a new chapter. I took some decisions after a career retrospective in ‘92. One was to push my interest in complexity and multiplicity to a certain edge. Another was to make work that it is impossible for the viewer to get a hold on.’
That is not to say that Tevet pushes his audience away, intending his vast assemblages to be monumental works that bellow a single concept at the viewer. Quite the reverse, in fact.
‘I want to attack the idea that you can see something, and right away know everything about it,’ he says, ‘I am playing with that modernist or minimalist tradition, with objects we associate with a that tradition or discipline. I do this by using simple forms, but inserting into that not only complexity but also little stories, a narrative. It’s all about throwing hints, and pulling back.’
Tevet achieves this effect - a dialogue with art history that is, too, a conversation with the viewer - by the careful placement of the individual forms that make up his large-scale works.
‘There is one element that is like a partition,’ he explains, ‘together they create a wall you want to see behind. There is a lot happening behind these walls. When you look at the work, you know you are missing something, and if you move a little you will see, but again something prevents you from seeing, and only your imagination will allow you inside. I work a lot at creating very tempting views, so there is this interesting effect of being drawn in, but staying outside.’
This teasing, playful aspect to Tevet’s installations mirrors the artist’s working practice. The sheer scale of Seven Walks was prompted in part by a move to a new studio, a former basketball court - ‘Luckily it wasn’t a football pitch,’ Tevet jokes, ‘or I would have been working for twenty years!’ - a space that allowed the sculptor to keep on sculpting, adding more to Seven Walks as each part suggested the next. ‘When I am working, I am the viewer,’ Tevet says of the relationship between his methods and the gallery-goer’s experience, ‘When it takes so long to do a piece, by the time I am on the fifth or sixth year I forget what I started with, so it is really about whether it works for me or not. If I am excited about something, I would love the viewer to have a similar experience. The time is important too. I wouldn’t ask anyone to spend seven years looking at Seven Walks, but it is so different from the way people are used to seeing art today - they run in and see things like they see things in a mall. You can’t have a dialogue with the world if you are always running.’
So, Seven Walks is a dense, layered installation, one that demands a long look, but, with much of it caught up in the dock-workers strike, how will it look next Saturday, when DCA opens its doors?
‘That depends,’ Tevet says, chuckling, ‘on how quickly we can open the crates. When people come, they will see a drawing on the floor, with the letters and numbers that will allow us to install the work, and about twenty percent of the work in place. I would prefer to have it ready, of course, but this way it is like a glimpse, a work in progress. And, if people come back, they will perhaps be more amazed at the finished work.’
The opening night will, then, be something of an aperitif; a unique chance to catch Tevet part-way through the process of realising a piece he has spent the better part of a decade assembling, before drinking in the completed work. Perhaps that ill-timed strike was a happy accident after all.