With her „visual poetry“, the Israeli artist Nitzan Mintz is on the verge of international stardom. In our interview she talks about the horrors of her military service, losing meaning in the process of translation, creating art illegally in Berlin – and the two faces of feted street artist Banksy.
Oliver Driesen: What made you write poems and develop the “visual poetry” format?
Nitzan Mintz: I do it since I was 19 years old. I’m now 30, so it’s a decade already. It all started when I was in the military, which in Israel is mandatory even for a girl, for two years. I served in the Navy, as some kind of instructor for biological, chemical and nuclear warfare. I know, it’s weird, doesn’t sound related to my life, does it? I used to put soldiers through a gas chamber almost on a daily basis, for them to test their abilites under pressure of dangerous gases. It was a hard time for me, and having suffered from deep depression almost my entire life, you can imagine it got worse in the service. The entire system of the Army, the things I had to do there, my commander and everything, was too much for me. And my depression got worse and worse. That got me to a certain point where I just wrote all the time, and then I took it outside. This visual poetry was my way to shout it, to scream it. I used walls for this, illegaly. I just couldn’t help it. It was like a need, something I could not control. I had to tell everyone.
Do you always write in Hebrew or do you create the English versions, too?
I use translators. I never write in English. It’s not my native language and my written Engish is poor. I make tons of spelling mistakes. So I always write in Hebrew. It is very, very different from English, let alone German. You have such a rich language, many words for many things. And sometimes very many letters in one word. Hebrew is very “thin”. We don’t have a lot of letters, and we don’t have a lot of words. Hebrew is to the point. The average word would contain only four letters or so. That’s why the English version looks so much longer. So I give it to a professional translator for Polish, or French – and as I will go to Mexico soon I’m going to have someone to translate it into Spanish. But for English I use always the same person.
Do you think a lot of your original poetry gets lost in the process of translation?
You always lose some things. Especially when the original is a reference to biblical ancient Hebrew. I like to take material from the Old Testament, things that are pretty normal to say in Hebrew. But when we try to translate it into English, suddenly the translation means nothing. So that gets completely lost. I didn’t crack it yet. Of some poems I would just not use an English version. And others turn out to be more beautyful in Einglish, because that language is very “round”. Hebrew ist “sharp” and “square”.
Your poems have a melancholy, sometimes even depressed ring to them.
Yes, that’s true. Once in a million times I write something funny or happy. But it doesn’t come easy to me, those funny bones. Usually it comes from a very deep place. I wish I could write happily and funnily. I just had a conversation about that with my mother. We talked about that all my poems are so sad and she suggested that I try to sound more happy. Well, I could try, but it really doesn’t come easy to me.
Is writing poetry a form of therapy?
I wouldn’t say so, because it doesn’t help. Or maybe, a therapy that doesn’t work.
What comes first: the place ore the poem?
It can be both. I can fall in love with a wall, a location. Then I would take a picture of it and then I’d sit next to my computer and research what’s going on in that street, what kind of history it has. I want to get a sense of the neighbourhood, the area, so that I can connect and relate with my words. And then I can either quickly find a “collage”, a match of one of my poems and the area. It has to be a strong connection, I have to feel it. I have to hear the sound, like “click”, and then I know it has to be there, and it’s going to be okay. Or, if not, I will just write something, which is much harder for me. Because when I write, it can take very long. And then I take another look, and a third look – it can take years, because I edit myself. So I think 70 per cent of the time I do this “collage”, the matching of my existing poems to the location. And 30 per cent I write specifically.
Why do you often chose derelict, run-down or abandoned buildings for your visual poetry?
It helps me to grow and to change. This way I cannot sit down and rest and enjoy because each second one of my pieces, one of my works of art is getting destroyed somewhere. So I need to work harder if I want to exist in this world.
Tell me about Dede, the artist who illustrates many of your poems congenially, often depicting animals made up of hundreds of individual elements.
Dede is my partner in life and my partner in art. He’s a painter, a street artist who has his own career. We both met in the street. The street gave me many presents, but this was the biggest and most important gift in my life. Since we became a couple, we shared a studio. And we started to collaborate. We are still learning how to do this, because I write and he’s a painter. But these days, we do everything together. Obviously, he doesn’t write my poems and I don’t do his paintings, but I decide how the painting is going to look like, the composition, the colours and everything. He doesn’t have a choice! (laughs) We help each other a lot, we’re super-involved in one another’s works. We also get commissioned together.
Can the two of you pay the bills with your art?
We already had a solo show in an amazing gallery in Tel Aviv. We have been invited to Miami with a solo show which will start one month from now. And we’re starting to get some recognition, it seems. We travel six to seven times a year, to different locations in Europe, Asia, whatever. But once each year, we return to New York for three months. Tel Aviv is my home, my base. But we travel a lot. Our art pays for it. I mean, we’re not rich, but we do get by. We are very lucky.
It reminds me of Banksy, the anonymous street artist, and the way he got more and more famous and recognised, even established, worldwide.
All the street artists in the world, the better known ones, develop this kind of lifestyle. If you stay in your home town you are not going to be known worldwide. Nobody cares about Tel Aviv, or Israel, unless it’s got to do with terror or something we did to the Palestinians. Nobody cares about our culture scene. So for me there’s no point in staying here all my life. As regards Banksy, if you had asked me seven years ago, I’d have said I love his art, I think it’s smart. But today I think differently. He has two sides: on the one hand, he does impressive and super-thoughtful projects like the new hotel he opened up in the West Bank. In my opinion that’s one of the smartest pieces of conceptional art. This hotel was built right in front of the separation wall between the West Bank and Israel, so that your view from your room goes straight to the wall. That in itself is art. On the other hand Banksy does this clicheed art that I cannot stand, like that girl with the balloon. Things that are obvious, super-kitsch. It’s not smart, it’s in-your-face. Every child gets it in one minute. So I love his projects which are genious, and then there is this super-clicheed other side which I hate.
How important are the materials you use to create your poems?
The materials which I and Dede use are objects that we find in abandoned houses or in the street. We collect many, many objects. That can be a very old door, or just garbage: a piece of paper, a piece of debris from a wall. All I do is walk around and collect things all the time. That can be a simple nylon bag. We never buy anything. We believe that recycling is very important, but this is not what drives us. It’s just a bonus. We are interested in objects that have a history, that look used, not brand new and shiny. I can do many things with these artefacts: I can make the nylon bag the “style” of the piece, or I can mix it with many other objects, and then I get a new quality of material. When you attach everything to each other and then use a sanding machine, you can sand everything together. That results in a special “format” looking like used paper or something very complex, with many colours and shapes and textures. Sometimes I put the poems on that surface, or I cut the words and letters from that material. I sometimes put several layers on top of each other. It depends on the words.
The letters and words often seem to have blurred boundaries, or they overlap each other which sometimes makes it difficult to decipher their meaning. Is that intended?
That’s something I’ve come to love to do in the past three years. Because I like codes and I like secrets. It’s also that I like it visually, the aesthetics of it. To me it looks like an abstract painting. I try to blur the borders and call myself a painter, although I don’t know how to paint at all. But it is a painting at the end of the day.
Do your poems have a political dimension?
I don’t define myself as a political artist. I’d rather say “social”. Social is in a way political, but it comprises more the human aspects of life. So it depends on how you define social. If you say that’s political, fine by me, but I’d never write very obviously political stuff. It’s not my style. Around me in Israel so many poets are very political, and I always try not to be. Not because I am afraid to insult someone, but because I feel I have something else to contribute.
Do you get reactions from people who walk by your poems and pause to read them?
Yes, unfortunately. I really hate spending time next to my works. After I’m done, I’m off. Even if I go visit them, when I see that people read them, I go away. I don’t want to have anything to do with it. But I got reactions, both good and bad. Sometimes I hear them speak to one another. Then they say things like “wow, so emotional” or “WTF, I didn’t get it”. I’d just rather not hear it. I need to be focussed on what I want to do, not on other people’s opinions about it.
Did you ever get into trouble because of one of your poems, or because you used the space illegally?
I got into trouble with the police because it’s illegal. It happened twice in New York, in Israel it happens all the time. I’m not worried here, because I can’t lose my citizenship. But in New York I can lose my permit to visit, so that scares me very much. I try to stay as save as possible. Here in Tel Aviv, if I get arrested I will be okay in the end even though I will have to pay a fine or a ticket. That’s managable. Once though I almost got in trouble with some pimps. In the end they just erased my poems and it was fine.
Who, do you think, owns the „public space“?
The property owners, definitely! I mean if it was your home and someone came and used it for writing a poem onto its wall? It’s your property! I know I’m not the good guy here. I’m just doing what I want without thinking about the others. I’m not an angel! I shouldn’t be judged like a criminal, even though I am in some way, a small-time criminal. If it’s a private house, it belongs to the owner. If it’s a bank or something that belongs to the public, it’s a different question. But at this moment I’m standing in the middle of a street in Tel Aviv. All I see around me are private houses. Maybe you’d feel honored to have a poem painted on the wall of your house because you’re interested in poetry. But what about your neighbour? Would he be happy, too? Everybody has their own opinions, that’s why it’s illegal. But it’s a hazzle having to watch your back all the time while you’re trying to create.
Does it feel differently when you do it in foreign countries?
Yes, certainly. In Israel I feel much safer. I am worried about the landlords, as you can meet some violent people, you never know how the night is going to end. But still, here I feel much safer. When I go to New York I don’t know the rules there, I’m not a citizen. So I’m much more afraid. It’d hurt much more to lose the possiblilty to go there than to be punched if I’d be confronted by someone. That’d be much worse for me.
Have you ever worked in Germany?
Yes, many times. Just last week someone told us that a piece Dede and I created in 2015 in Berlin was finally erased. It survived for four years – in the middle of Berlin! That area in Mitte is very touristic, but it survived for so long. It got tagged many times in that period, so it didn’t look very fancy any more. But four years, that’s much more than I’d expected! Now, finally, there’s a new piece of art there. Some other artist has taken over that wall. And that particular wall belongs to a very interesting alley in Mitte. There is a gallery there that belongs to people who started a squatting there. They are ex-punks, now in their 40s or 50s maybe, with kids, but they are still anarchists and squatters. So it’s a very cool alley in otherwise rich Mitte, a very special place. They gave us materials and colours and the very best locations, it was really amazing to find this wall with their help. We were treated very nicely. Dede and I spend a lot of time in Berlin actually. We go every year for one month at least. And Dede created in Hamburg, too. And also in Munich, I think we still have two pieces there.
And how do you feel about the history of this country?
Well, you never forget. But most of my friends live in Berlin, you know, half of Tel Aviv is there now. I’ll walk in the streets and I’ll hear Hebrew. Many young people from Israel are trying their luck there, they love the country and Berlin. So the connection ist very strong now, you almost can’t separate the two cities any more. I will return!
© Oliver Driesen 2019, no reproduction without written approval