Days of Awe: A conversation with Aviva Silverman

Aviva Silverman is a New York based artist who works with sculpture and performance, dissecting the messy radiance between symbolic and the real. Votive forms like dioramas, miniature trains, blown glass and ornamental paintings are viewed through a contemporary queer lens, resulting in a dynamical study of conflicting communion histories. Silverman’s work investigates the ineffable notions surrounding sex, gender, sexuality and religion, addressing incomprehensibility, knowledge, and faith. The work highlights the systems of interdependence often necessary to sustain vulnerable and marginalized communities. They have staged theatrical performances in which untrained dogs played characters from popular culture and recently embedded hand-sculpted icons of LGBT luminaries through a spirited cyclical procession.



Aviva Silverman (b. 1986, NYC, USA; Lives and works in NYC, USA) 
Silverman earned a BFA in Interdisciplinary Sculpture from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2008. They have had several solo exhibitions at Bodega, the Swiss Institute, Veda, and the Volksbühne. Their work has been featured in major group exhibitions at the Sculpture Center, MOMA PS1, and the Venice Biennale. Their work has appeared in Artforum, the New Yorker, BBC Radio, Art in America, Flash Art, and Art Papers, among others, and their book “Is It Soup Yet?” can be found at Printed Matter / St Marks.



Jordan Derrien:
Who are your teachers?

Aviva Silverman:

I met Rona Sugar Love thanks to an interview I was doing for the Trans Oral History Project. She was waiting on the corner of Allen and Broome St in Chinatown wearing a hot pink top outfit and matching kippah. We sat down in my living room and she started sharing her story from the beginning. I’ve listened to her story once before in the downstairs auditorium of a Church in midtown— she speaks matter-of-factly about the horrors of her childhood. She and her twin sister were kidnapped as children in Puerto Rico and tortured for years. Her sister eventually died and she was rescued only to be sent to a psychiatric ward in NYC where she would spend her life in and out of different institutions eventually spending 25 years in prison. We stayed in touch after our interview and texted often. She discovered selfies with a new phone given to her by the Suitcase Project and sent me a rolodex of looks each day. 


We spoke a few weeks ago on a video visit from Rikers where she was taken during Covid. She spoke about her favorite movie in the Alien franchise and preferred combinations of matzah with sardines. She had found Judaism while serving time a few decades ago and continues to practice. 


I’ve learned a lot of lessons from Rona. She’s shown me the resiliency of the human spirit. The idiosyncratic way she manifests her brightness and joy is unparalleled. I’ve seen a kind of fortitude and spiritual alignment she’s cultivated in spite being held in prison that teaches me. She reminds me of my mom, who was sick for thirteen years, and still fought to be alive each day.  I learned a lot about the systems of “care” in the name of Trans elders incarcerated, about homelessness and mental health crisis, and the depthless levels of exploitation and abuse there are within the systems that seek to serve them. Inversely I also learned about beautiful groups like Parole Prep and the Bronx Defenders— which have helped her on her difficult journey. Rona will tell you like it is, she will open the portal of her lived experience for you to peek at the noxious underworld of nightmares - that of the prison industrial complex. Yet, she is still kind. I’ve been learning the six paramitas in my Buddhism class and one is centered in Transcendental Generosity. I feel like I’ve seen glimmers of her being more open and available to people in need then my peers— she doesn’t have much materially but when she can has offered the whole of herself to give away.


Rona Sugar Love in Chinatown, NYC, 2019

Aviva Silverman, Queen City Special, 2020 [detail of Rona Sugar Love]


JD:
What Rona tells us in the interviews with the Legal Action Center, Sylvia Rivera Law Project or the one you did with the Trans Oral History Project, is shocking and alarming. It depicts the worst of neoliberalism which originally placed the "human person" at the heart of the matter. In times of authoritarian regimes, “Freedom” was the best means to achieve and reach “human dignity” for the MPS (Mont Pelerin Society) members. As you mentioned, homelessness and mental illness are major issues in America today, particularly in New York City where “the city’s jails have taken on a primary role in providing mental health services over the last few decades as incarceration rose and the number of hospital psychiatric beds shrank”¹. This was triggered by Ronald Reagan when he pushed a comprehensive Welfare Reform Act through the Californian legislative in 1971². A few years later as president, he started closing mental health institutions in NYC³. Patients often had to live with friends and family or lived on the street; a political decision that gave rise to self-help groups, to the ethic of care and well-being which no longer was provided by the State. 

Speaking of care, two of your works mention Fritz Perls’s quotation. Perls is the founder of Gestalt Therapy, at the premises of the New Age thinking. He was a member of the Esalen Institute, a non-profit American retreat centre and intentional community that explores what Aldous Huxley called “human potentialities'' or various holistic approaches to wellness and personal transformation that involved the body, the mind, and the spirit. What is your interest in the human potential movement?

Aviva Silverman, Disgusting letters we have received, 2015


AS: 

After attending a friend’s graduation ceremony at Landmark Education in 2015 I discovered that my father had studied with Werner Erhard (who first founded EST training, then renamed the Forum, and then Landmark Education) in the 70’s and had brought me there as a child in the late 90’s. I’ve watched his documentary “Transformation” since and fell into a rabbit hole of other white cis-het patriarchs of the movement including Perls, Watts and more contemporary versions like Tony Robbins. I think the HPM existed in the 60’s/70’s because that was the cultural window when avant-garde thinkers, artists, psychologists, and philosophers were all on psychedelics at music festivals collectively vibing. When I read Fritz Perls Gestalt Therapy book— followers of his re-enacted their dreams through role play to uncover their subconscious. I kept picturing white hippies in some sunny expanse of California mixed with the era of happenings, drugs and the “dawning of the age of Aquarius'' with, additionally, frameworks of Freudian psychoanalysis layered on top. What exists now of the movement is a shadowy version formatted as a pyramid scheme for money and also propagated as a tool for government control. The European Union funded training courses for managers, grad students and the unemployed to encourage ‘human potential’ with the intention of growing a stronger workforce. I think the leadership of the era, again being mostly white men, alienates me from investing any emotional interest. As a long winded answer, I’m mostly interested in the movement intellectually. I do understand the power of the movement-- what is a secular version of culture that asks you to investigate what makes you you? It’s a form of modern secular ‘consolation’ addressing our deepest and most basic needs the way religion has done so for centuries.


JD: 

You were raised in reform Judaism under the rabbinical leadership of Rabbi Elyse Frishman, how present was religion in your early life? How would you describe your relationship now? 


AS:

When I was a child I went to Hebrew School every week in a Reform temple led by a mostly female staff. I loved the earth-based rituals the most. The school and my upbringing were Zionist and before long I was indoctrinated— making the pilgrimage to Israel each year and believing it was my homeland. I was also sent to Young Judea, a Zionist camp in upstate New York. The religion element wasn’t the presiding part of my Jewish education. Most of my early education was about the Holocaust, the nation state of Israel and celebrating holidays. I’m so happy I got to grow up and learn differently. Being an anti-zionist Jew now is seated in the felt-experience of knowing what American Zionism looks and feels like. I’m still not very religious although I have been studying esoteric mysticism for years and am a part of a study group led by Elana June Margolis that is incredibly special. 


JD: 

There is a particular figure present in your work that makes me think of that relationship with religion. It’s the angel: Attention is the beginning of devotion (2017), The Living Watch Over the Living (2017), Accepting the Shadow (2018), Service Destiny (2018), Restraint is Support (2018), You are you and I am I (2018). Industrially produced, made of plastic or sometimes made of blown glass, this common figure in your work refers to a religious icon, an extension of god or the sacred. Are you referring to a specific religion and/or specific angel in your work?


Nicolas Dipre, Le Songe de Jacob, c.1500, Musée du Petit Palais (Avignon), ©Photo - RMN - A.Guerrand


AS:

I was in this class the other day and this older man said something about: " the heart, mind and soul do not have form but the body does and I’m not at peace with my body. This has made me enter an inquiry of what is the essence of the body that I don’t have peace with, if it’s not the heart, soul or mind, then what is it?” I centered my research in Abrahamic angels who span three faiths and many different kinds of bodies. A lot of my work questions the logic embedded within religious figurations which designate particular forms for serving as vessels, observers, and protectors—from ancient Judaic Ophanim’s wheel of eyes to Archangel Michael’s hyper masculinized form. I was most drawn to the Old Testament’s description of angels being bodiless and genderless. I feel this affinity to them and their non-binary or pre? post? binary-ness. Their form didn’t assimilate into a logic that could be turned against them, like how gender becomes a system of hierarchy. 


Aviva Silverman, Attention is the beginning of devotion, Veda, Florence, 2017 [Detail]


The New York Times reported about sea slugs who cut off their own heads in order to grow new bodies free from parasites. Their severed heads can move around days after until the rest of them grow. The article goes on to say, “Self-amputation, known as autotomy, isn’t uncommon in the animal kingdom. Having the ability to jettison a body part, such as a tail, helps many animals avoid predation. However, no animal had ever been observed ditching its entire body.” 


The head of Elysia cf. marginata just after autotomy. Credit Sayaka Mitoh © New York Times


JD: 

This article on sea slug makes me specifically think of your work Service Destiny (2018), composed of an angel that has a mirror instead of a head. In an interview with Simone Rossi [CACTUS Issue #06, March 2018], you identify the mirror as something that deals with mediation, identification, and personal agency. For your exhibition We Have Decided Not to Die at Spazio Veda in 2019, you installed a suspended electric train in the space of the gallery, each car working as a diorama. One of them, Passenger IX (Decreation: in two halves) depicts a flexible mirrored surface standing up in the grass, like a Dan Graham sculpture. The title seems to refer to the bible, what are we looking at exactly? 



Aviva Silverman, Service Destiny, 2018


Martha Maxwell surrounded by her habitat display, with stuffed animals and birds, arranged in a rocky landscape in the Kansas-Colorado Building at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, c1876 Library Company of Philadelphia.

Dan Graham, S-Curve for St. Gallen, 2001


Aviva Silverman, Passenger IX (Decreation: in two halves), 2019



AS:

Yes, the concept of decreation is very biblical and was entirely apocalyptic for the world it was intended to destroy/re-birth. Parallels are often drawn between the flood waters of biblical stories and the primeval waters found in certain creation myths as a measure for the cleansing of humanity in preparation for renewal. I don’t have my philosophical hat on but can sense how warped mirrors can create this distortion feedback between the actual and the alien as seen in the piece you mentioned. On the floor of Passenger IX (Decreation: in two halves) rests resin-cast peach slices that are filled with black eyed peas, chia seeds, goji berries. They harken back to an older work called Crude Currency.



Aviva Silverman, CRUDE CURRENCY (the real price of everything/what everything really costs/ to whom wants to acquire it/ the toil and trouble of acquiring it/ what everything is really worth/ to whom has acquired it/ and wants to dispose of it/ or exchange it/ for something else/ the toil and trouble which it can save/ which it can impose upon other people), 2015


Aviva Silverman, CRUDE CURRENCY (the real price of everything/what everything really costs/ to whom wants to acquire it/ the toil and trouble of acquiring it/ what everything is really worth/ to whom has acquired it/ and wants to dispose of it/ or exchange it/ for something else/ the toil and trouble which it can save/ which it can impose upon other people), 2015 [Detail]

JD: 

The parallels you mentioned seem clear in your work. It sometimes flirts with the liminal, something at the junction. There is a countup timer on your website, currently sharing these values: 51y 8m 3w 2d 04:25:10. What is it referring to? Another parallel?


Aviva Silverman, press image for “Protect Me From What I Am,” Swiss Institute, 2019

AS:

My clock is a little marker for myself that I keep secret :)






¹ Four Subway Stabbings and a Young Man’s Downward Spiral, Ashley Southall, Edgar Sandoval and Christina Goldbaum, New York Times, February 24, 2021

https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/24/nyregion/rigoberto-lopez-nyc-subway-stabbings.html

² California Legislature Approves Welfare Reform Bill After Compromise With Reagan, New York Times,  August 12, 1971

https://www.nytimes.com/1971/08/12/archives/california-legislature-approves-welfare-reform-bill-after.html

³ Denying the Mentally Ill, New York Times,  June 5, 1981

https://www.nytimes.com/1981/06/05/opinion/denying-the-mentally-ill.html