Im Rampenlicht

Photo: Katja Harbi

Interview with Roey Victoria Heifetz

Roey Victoria Heifetz was born in Jerusalem in 1978 as Roey Heifetz and grew up in Rehovot, a small town not far from Tel Aviv. After her army service, she studied at the Israeli Academy of Art and Design „Bezalel“ in Jerusalem. Following completion of her bachelor’s degree with Cum Laude, she continued her master’s degree while working at a studio in Tel Aviv. In 2012, she was invited for a one-year-residency at the prestigious Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin. Falling in love with Berlin she and her partner decided to stay. Residencies in Miami (Fountainhead residency program, 2014) and Los Angeles (18th Street Art Center residency program, 2018) followed.
While being part of numerous national and international group exhibitions and having many solo exhibitions, she also was invited to show her paintings at the Israel Museum of Art. Roey Victoria has received many awards and grants including the 2010 „Artist-Teacher“ award by the Israeli Ministry of Culture, 2018 she won with “Third Body” the Ann and Ari Rosenblatt Prize for “Visual Artist” and is with ““Block of Clay“” part of the Venice Biennale (Israel Pavilion 2019)

More information about Roey Victoria Heifetz on her website.

We talked to her right before her next residency in New York where, in October to November 2019, she will show her art, meet curators, art lovers and will be seeking interesting, new collaborations.

K: When did you realize you wanted to make art?

RV: That’s actually one of the first things I ever knew about myself. Since my first painting class with my neighbour, when I was 9 or 10 years old, I knew that this is my thing. She taught me how to paint with charcoal.

K: It’s interesting that your first lesson was with charcoal. You use that today.

RV: Yes, I painted my first picture with charcoal. It was landscape, but it was charcoal. When I was a kid between 6th and 12th grade, I only drew with pencil and pen in my notebook, mostly girls. I was mainly interested in haircuts, drawing step by step how the hair changed. I never thought I would make a living like that, painting women and their hairstyles. But I remember that moment, I was obsessed with hairstyles and how the hair changed.

K: How do you develop your projects ?

RV: I work with my intuition, I need to have passion. I need to have an emotional, physical and sexual connection to the painting. It’s not that I have big ideas and then I produce it. Sometimes I see in my mind what I would like to do in the studio and do it but then I start something and it ends very differently. I am painting one character and then the character itself changes. I’m changing the hair, transitioning the face, the figure is growing up in front of me. That’s why I like to paint on a large medium, because I need a space to try, to fall in love, to fall into the figures, and sometimes I paint a figure that I did not think of before, and everything changes. There is no big plan.

K: I am fascinated by your unique style. Your pictures take you on a journey. When I looked at them in the beginning I thought I saw only muscles. It feels like you are confronting the observer with the truth – the truth of the human body.

RV: It is actually muscles and wrinkles. The muscles, the hair, the wrinkles and the skin are blurring into each other. So it’s true that you can see the muscles in the face, the movements. When I paint it’s like a surgery of the body or sculpting. When I see the skin I think of what is below the skin, how the face is actually structured, then I build the figure.

In some ways it’s also my perspective of life, the way I live my life and the way I deal with my art.  I reveal something which is very direct and real. And when you keep revealing, the truth becomes something like a mask. It’s not really the truth, it’s only another layer. When you live with truth, when you go to this dark and not so easy place, you understand that the truth is something very fluid. This I am also expressing in my paintings. People don’t look like this in real life… the paintings show different layers of a truth.

K: I read in an older article you call your figures authorities.

RV: When I started a few years ago I felt the need of an authority.  Now I think less about the figures as authorities. The figures are protecting me but at the same time I battle with them. It’s a kind of parent…a figure that is supposed to show me something, something essential, something protecting, like a teacher, a mother, a leader. I am following them but then confronting them and revealing them. So it’s less of an authority but more a mentor. And as you are getting closer to him or her, it is not clear anymore who is the student or the follower.

That’s what happened to me with those paintings. For years I painted very strong and feminine figures and I was very boyish in my look. There was a distance between us. Then I became more and more like them.

K: You are going with your figures on a journey?

RV: Yes, with every painting it is a total journey. They are transitioning with me. What I like about drawing is that you can not really erase the mistakes you did while drawing. There are these moments in which I don’t like the painting, when I really hate it. Still I keep on drawing and then I love the drawing. Sometimes a viewer says: “It’s really hard for me to look at the painting.”. I can really understand them. There can be a month or two that I cannot look at a painting. I can’t stand it. But I know that is something I need to confront. I guess, when it’s troubling you somehow, there is something behind it. Same with the figures. Sometimes I can stand them and sometimes I can not. I mean who wants to see these figures all the time. Its not giving you a sense of beauty, it’s giving you a sense of realness. Even the most brave people cannot watch themselves in the mirror everyday and see everything, the good and the bad. To protect ourselves we need to be sometimes to forget, or to be blind a little bit. Otherwise it’s too exhausting, not easy. And those figures have this effect on you. For me it’s the only way I see art. But I can understand why it’s not easy to watch them all the time.

K: You called your project, and then the book, “Confessions”. Why?

RV: It started with the project in 2014, when I worked with Mark Gisbourne, a very well- known curator. I had the chance to do this project in a former protestant church. Since it was in the Eastside of Berlin they took down all the ornaments, leaving empty places. I liked this very much. Somebody took away her beauty. I didn’t want to only exhibit my pictures, I wanted to use the space and to take from the religious aspect of the church what was relevant to me, the moment of confession. I like when people are revealing the truth, then their faces change, so I called the exhibition ‘Confessions’.

I worked on it a year. During this year I tried to meet people, other priests, asked them about their experience on confessions. Then I slowly realized that it was more about finding people who could tell me stories about decisions they made about their bodies and that they regretted. And I am still interested in stories of people and their decisions, whose outcome was a bit different than expected, and they have regrets. Regrets is something very complicated. Most people are trying to run away from regrets. During the research I met one of the figures and that is the Frau L. figure.

K: Did you meet her in person?

RV: Yes, I met her through a dating app. I went to her house. She lives in Neukölln. And she told me the story of regret. She transitioned as a transsexual woman during the 80ies. She regretted the reassignment surgery, not who she is. For me, the sentence she said: ‚I see myself when I look into the mirror and I see my decision and my regret‘ moved me extremely. In so many ways it pushed me to ask myself questions about my decisions in life and about my gender. I was so moved by Frau L’s story because I am a person that understands things just through the observation of my body. This is my strength and my weakness. I need to feel it. Today I can say that the exhibition was a monument for her. For me she was the main reason I created this exhibition. She was the main painting there, she was present without being present…she never came. And during the exhibition I did something I didn’t think I would do – like when I was seven or eight years old I started wearing women dresses, this time in public. It was the first time I started to show a little bit of myself to the world.

The idea of the exhibition was that people would come to the exhibition space, visiting me while I was there. They would share stories and I was sitting there, listening to them. Sometimes I took the stories into a painting. Mostly, I have to admit, it was my playground to confront myself. The energy that I created in this exhibition, this space, the idea, that it was in a religious space, was a big moment for me. A place that I could really confront myself, again without getting into one answer, one exact answer. So this was the reason I called it “confession”.

K: The question of a third gender or gender in general is a very popular subject at the moment. Do people approach you because of this topic?

RV: Yes, in many ways it makes me happy to see that the gender issues are brought up into the discourse. Until now many things were behind the curtains and not revealed. But at the same time, as in every other aspect of life, there is a tendency of people to define things, to put things in boxes. My paintings and I are revealing and sharing something that is not yet defined, not yet closed, still ongoing. They don’t deal only with gender issues, they deal with the body, aging and sexuality and what it means for us, for me, to get older as a woman, getting older in general, to see your body changing. How do we react to those fears? This is very crucial to me. I can be up and down within a day just because of this subject.

I would like to think that people are interested in my art because it gives them a different perspective to deal with this subject. Also with the gender issue, people come and see the painting, they see these questions, and they see that I don’t give them one answer. At the end it’s not so interesting if it’s a man who became a woman, at the end it’s about the process. My art and also the gender transition it’s an opportunity for me to go deeper, even if its hard, to ask very crucial questions and to use it as a window to be present. Because as I said, closure is not relevant for me, I didn’t find ONE answer for myself yet, and I don’t think I will. It’s not that gender is THE answer I needed all my life. But it gave me a perspective. I was always this boy that was very feminine, I was always this boy that checked his body. I was dealing with eating disorders, I was obsessed about it. I didn’t feel my body most of my life, I always felt that something is missing. So definitely the last 6 or 7 years, when the gender issues were brought into my life, when other people who were braver before or more than me gave me that option I understood that this is an element, something I missed, I didn’t see. But it gave me one more pair of glasses to see through, to see deeper. Our tendency is to have some definition of ourselves, we want to think that we have something that is stable and solid. It’s hard to be able to hold the fluidity of truth in this space. I don’t really care anymore if I will be a woman or a man or in between.

This and the paintings helped me to be closer to myself and to my authentency. I have been so close to my body, to my emotions, my expression of art. I don’t know how other people define me. I am sure that are people who define me as this transgender artist, or this woman artist or the one that did this old woman. People like to define, to put in boxes. For a long time it was really troubling me but then I understood, I can’t control it. We are changing all the time. People who see you for a moment, don’t see the change, they see a moment. It’s definitely not easy for me to see my body change. But somehow I am very excited to see my body to become more feminine. When I looked at my old photos, I suddenly saw this photo of mine, when I was 17 in Italy. I thought first: Oh, look at this boy, he looks so happy. But no, I was not happy. When I was 17 I felt very old, very ugly, i didn’t like my body. But it’s funny how you could think so, a happy boy, very flirty, very light. A picture of a very small moment in time. It calmed me down to understand this. I remember how I was, playing by the rules. I was boyish, a gay boy following a booklet of rules and I was one of “them”. Today I am not one of them. Today I am in between, I can’t be defined as a woman or a man, I am just myself.

Interview by Katja Harbi

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