Israeli-Colombian visual artist Orly Anan mixes elements of theater, dance, performance, and costume design into surrealist neo-kitsch compositions. She recently premiered her first short film Ein Sof during Mexico City’s art week Zona MACO, in partnership with MATERIA and Mubi. Anan describes the film as a ‘Kabbalistic circus’ that blends elements of carnival, kabuki, and sacred numerology into an explosion of colors and symbolism. Art Observed caught up with the artist to talk about her film, her practice, and the esoteric sources of her creative inspiration.
ANFISA VRUBEL (ART OBSERVED) – When did you come to Mexico and why did you choose this city to be your artistic base?
ORLY ANAN – I came to Mexico about six or seven years ago. I had always been attracted to Mexican culture. I was living in New York then, but knew that at some point I would live here. I didn’t know Mexico City, I didn’t know anything. But when I arrived a lot of great opportunities came to me, and this was the place where I was able to expand artistically. I don’t see myself living anywhere else.
ART OBSERVED – It’s a very kaleidoscopic place, and it has an incredibly rich tradition and history of surrealism and mysticism. Seeing your work and its vibrant hybridity of cultural references makes me understand your attraction to Mexico. It must be an amazing mirror for your work.
ORLY ANAN – Absolutely. Mexico is such a vast country, and in some ways the artistic and cultural capital of Latin America. It definitely inspires my work – the fact that I can have the materials and landscapes and fabrics and plants and everything else. I live in the historic center, and it’s like a huge market. You go downstairs and the streets are packed with so many things. It can be a bit overwhelming, but I love living in this collage. It just keeps bringing more opportunities to mix things together.
ART OBSERVED- You’re a multi-disciplinary visual artist. You create elaborately theatrical sets, with fantastical characters and surrealist costumes. How would you describe your practice?
ORLY ANAN – The main discipline that I have always been attracted to is theater because I love how immersive it is. I think it’s the most complete of the arts, the way it really transports not only yourself but everybody into a parallel frequency. I love how human it is. So, I always try to bring elements of theater into everything I do, even if it doesn’t manifest as a physical performance. Even if it’s video art, I love to position the camera as if it were in a theater. And when I’m making a miniature set design, I’m approaching it as if it were a microcosm of a theater piece.
ART OBSERVED – I find that the influence of theater is quite evident in your first short film, Ein Sof, which just came out in partnership with MATERIA and Mubi. I recognize elements of kabuki theater in it, and of the circus as well. What is this surrealist theater that you’ve created, and who are the characters?
ORLY ANAN – I am interested in investigating the idea of transformation, and that was the concept behind creating the characters that you see in my film. I come from Barranquilla, which is the Caribbean part of Colombia, a city where the carnival is a huge part of the culture. We have so many influences from Indigenous and African cultures, as well as from the Spanish. I love that everything collides and intermixes, and the carnival is an opportunity for celebration and transformation. You have the opportunity to put on a mask and detach yourself from your ego and the persona that you created, and become something different. I like to play with the idea of channeling characters who have metaphysical powers.
ART OBSERVED- The title of the film means ‘without end’ or ‘the infinite’ in Kabbalah. How is Kabbalistic symbolism, and the idea of transformation, reflected in the film?
ORLY ANAN – I combined the Kabbalistic elements behind the letters that are imprinted on each one of the masks you see in the film. I love working with Kabbalah, because of the power that certain constellations of letters have. The film is a Kabbalistic circus, an opportunity to sneak into a talent show that is happening somewhere in a parallel galaxy.
ART OBSERVED – So it’s more of a hidden symbolism.
ORLY ANAN – Exactly. About six years ago I went to a Kabbalah master in Jerusalem, and he told me: “I think you should start using Kabbalistic letters inside your art, even if they’re hidden you can manifest different things or send messages.” So I kept that idea, and started to investigate and take courses. I can’t consider myself Kabbalistic because it’s such a vast knowledge, but I’ve been diving into it more and more in the past few years, and now I feel like it’s slowly becoming a psychological act where the letters and the constellations of numerology are having an effect. It’s very powerful.
ART OBSERVED – Definitely. And you need to use them correctly, because otherwise you can unleash unwanted energies [laughs].
ORLY ANAN – Yes, so it’s done with a lot of respect. Even if people don’t understand what the symbols mean, they can feel their power. In the end, it’s about the intention you give to things. It’s about the vibrational experience.
ART OBSERVED – Is there an element of ritual in how you methodically assemble your hyper-detailed works?
ORLY ANAN – I see it as something that comes more from intuition and intention. What is amazing about art is that it blurs the boundaries between performance and ritual. I like to think that they’re both part of the same practice, so I wouldn’t separate them. Shooting Ein Sof was the real performance. The film is the result – a portrait of what actually happened – and only the people who were on set that day could see it as it happened. This is why I want to do more theater, so people can actually be present for the real performance and not just see it later on video. Although video also presents fantastic opportunities, because you can change the story by editing. You can deconstruct what happened and reconstruct it into something else.
ART OBSERVED – Theater is such an immediate experience. Some of the most riveting performances are the ones that blur the line between the performer and the audience, using the collective energy of the audience to bring about something entirely different.
ORLY ANAN – Exactly. For the screening of the video at MATERIA’s studio, we created a special space, an immersive little cinema. A lot of the work that we do at the studio is handmade and artisanal, so it was nice that people were able to see the physicality and the full dimensions of the pieces.
ART OBSERVED- I love the idea of a little cinema, with the Orly Anan flair. It’s always interesting to see a work reinforced by different mediums and sensorial experiences. You said your pieces are handmade and artisanal. How do they come together? How much of it is handmade versus found objects and the things you source from markets?
ORLY ANAN – Each project is different. There are projects where I just choose a color palette and I have a concept, and then I go and hunt for the things I need. And other times I can be in a kitchen supply shop and see something that is just insane and I’m like, “This is great for a hat or a headpiece.” I love finding random objects, even if it’s from a place where they sell replacements for your laundry machine [laughs]. For Ein Sof specifically, I took out all the fabrics that I had in the studio – boxes and boxes – and I put them together for each of the characters, experimenting with colors and textures. It’s a collective process, and there are many people working together in the studio. And there’s always space for improvisation, which is extremely important, even if it’s five minutes before the start of a performance starts. We have to leave space for things to change.
ART OBSERVED – Of course. And can you tell us about the choreography in the film?
ORLY ANAN – This was my first time working with a circus company. I work closely with Yezbek Chaul, who is a great performer and has a lot of experience working with circuses. So when I needed super extravagant talent, she helped me find the right people – a juggler, or a woman that hypnotizes everyone with her spiral, contortionist movements.
ART OBSERVED- Are the characters inspired by any specific mythologies?
ORLY ANAN – They were inspired by different philosophies and cultures. There’s the ying-yang and the spiral, which is such a pervasive symbol in so many different cultures around the world. A spiral for me is the perfect mirror of humankind, symbolizing the many times we can duplicate ourselves. It’s amazing to metaphorically translate all the superpowers one can have into the classic circus that we’ve seen since we were kids.
ART OBSERVED – You combine elements of different cultures in your work – Japanese, Latin, Southeast Asian, to name a few. Is there a particular one that inspires you more than others?
ORLY ANAN – I’m interested in rituals that happen in a format that resemble a dance or a celebration, and that have heightened symbolism and intentions behind them. I really love the idea of carnival and what it represents. Carnival in Colombia, in Brazil, in Africa, in Asia – they even have different carnivals in Nepal. Traditional festivities are born from a necessity to express or to hide yourself, or even to protest. I feel people have this perception that carnival is just this place where you dance and go crazy, but if you look through history and through each specific dance, you see that the roots come from this deep ancestral need.
ART OBSERVED- The concept of dance as ritual is truly ancestral. It channels the Apollonian and the Dionysian, this collective eruption of emotion.
ORLY ANAN – It’s something that definitely unites humanity. I went to Vietnam and they have these crazy puppet shows, and even though I do not understand Vietnamese, I could feel them. And it’s crazy because they are puppets telling war stories, but it feels like a celebration. In so many cultures – from Africa or certain Amazon tribes – there was a need to transform yourself to repel monsters from the jungle, to scare them away to protect the tribe, or even mock the colonizers that were coming. The history of costumes and their role in transformation is so vast that I don’t consider myself doing something new. It’s mostly a question of how to bring these ideas into the [contemporary] performative arts.
ART OBSERVED – You do a very good job of bringing it all together. You make it fresh and modern, in a visceral and exciting way.
(MATERIA x MUBI presented Ein Sof during Mexico City’s art week ZonaMaco. Streaming now on Mubi.com)