In the middle of Neukölln, between Spätis and hip new wine bars, between the canal and Sonnenallee, we met Yam Shalev in his atelier. The Israeli is an autodidact and music lover – his work the artistic answer to a meme. Yams’ motifs are isolated body-parts, trying to find a hold in an artificial, polished world. His paintings are full of contradictions: black-and-white against colourful, meticulously detailed against plain and bold, naturalist against surrealist. Surrounded by paint, brushes, spray-cans and flashy pop-art canvases, he vibes through his studio and tells us all about his art, the social media-dilemma of our generation and differences between the Tel Aviv and Berlin art scene.
Nele Tüch: Your art is a social mirror of a digital generation – is it intended to be funny, critical, a self-reflection?
Yam Shalev: That’s true. I consider my art as a social mirror to a digital generation but just as much it’s a way to express our experiences and my perception of them. We’re all growing into a new world and it’s dividing us into two dimensions: The first is the reality we live in daily, and the second one is the virtual dimension – which we now even seem to spend more time in than the real one.
I think we can all relate to having those funny, exposing, embarrassing and confusing moments as a human being. I’m just trying to protect them from the digital perspective, that is not made for this vulnerability and still needs to be explored to reach the same confidence to show our humanity, we have in real life.
NT: A recurring motif in your work are hands. Do they have a special meaning for you?
Yam Shalev: Yes! While trying to figure out myself and how I experience the digital dimension I realised that our hands are the most primary part of our body operating online, apart from the mind. They are everything we use in order to transfer our focus and mind to the other dimension. This is the reason I use black and white to show hands. They are shown without a body or personality which lets them operate as a representation for all of us.
Luckily, I even managed to catch some good laughs while using the hands the way I did. There is something really funny, absurd and creepy about floating hands… I guess we’re less complex as we think we are.
NT: If you compare your paintings over the last couple of years, are they the results of your environment and your inner conflicts?
Yam Shalev: Definitely! We are always a reflection of where we are, with whom, what we are doing and in which mental health- or spirituality-state we are. Since I moved to Berlin my whole perspective about art and its world has changed.
In general, we have the privilege to copy-paste ourselves to other places in order to work on our personal state in all those parameters, mentioned here before. Luckily, the step that I took to move here opened my eyes for more different kinds of art and definitely has been projected now on my new series of paintings.
NT: You exhibited in Tel Aviv, Berlin and London. What else is on your career bucket list?
Yam Shalev: Well, there is no specific destination, to be honest. For me, the main goal is to keep exhibiting and, of course, to explore and experience more locations, but it’s more about always keeping up with the galleries.
I would love to exhibit with more galleries that show and represent similar art I’m doing. There are many great established galleries out there, but there is also a great amount of new, refreshing galleries that deal with the same subject I am dealing with. To show with them in those spaces would be a real breakthrough for me.
NT: If you compare Tel Aviv and Berlin – how different are the art scenes?
Yam Shalev: I don’t even know where to start. For the beginning, I must say that they are both great but very very different. Berlin’s art scene is very big and something between very experimental to very established. Tel Aviv is way smaller, closed-off and very exclusive. There is not a lot of space for experimental art, except within universities.
For me, as a self-taught artist, Berlin was more inviting to create, show and exhibit. I haven’t taken the traditional path of studying – in Israel, unfortunately, I had no chance to even consider that path.
“Luckily today there are more and more collectors, an open market, online platforms and online galleries and these are a lot of opportunities to engage with collectors.”
NT: In German, we have the saying „a breadless art“ if you work on something with all of your heart but financially it is not very rewarding. Can you relate to that prevailing prejudice of art?
Yam Shalev: Thankfully today it does not represent the reality anymore. I do agree to a certain degree that being an artist can and will face you with financial problems as long as you fully commit to it. However, luckily today there are more and more collectors, an open market, online platforms and online galleries and these are a lot of opportunities to engage with collectors.
I can share about myself with an open heart that I have been facing unpleasant financial situations and am still facing them now, but when you choose to invest from yourself into something you always know that there is going to be this risk.
NT: When not talking about your work, what is a topic you can’t stop talking about?
Yam Shalev: I think music. Since a very young age I have a strong attraction towards music. Almost all of my family members are musicians or at least they are playing an instrument. My biggest passion is and most of my inspiration comes from music. This is the one thing I can spend hours talking about and it’s been always kind of a safe space for me.
“As much as Instagram is a great thing to work with, art needs to be seen in person, and as much as it’s easy to get connected to other artist and people from the industry, in order to have strong relationships you need to invest time with the people in person. It’s all about finding the balance!”
NT: Your work, for sure, would look different without social media, but social media, especially Instagram, can be a chance for a young artist to be discovered. What’s your take on social media as a medium for art?
Yam Shalev: Well, for me its always been my main tool to get exposure, opportunities and interactions. In general and for visual artists especially, this is a great tool to use. I’ve seen a lot of artists that use Instagram in the best way possible, but for me, it is important to remember that as much as it is a great thing to work with, art needs to be seen in person, and as much as it’s easy to get connected to other artist and people from the industry, in order to have strong relationships you need to invest time with the people in person as well. It’s all about finding the balance!
But besides that, Instagram is definitely the biggest game-changer for the art world. I can say it has changed a lot regarding my own career and experience as an artist in a positive way.
NT: In the course of the pandemic, did your workflow change?
Yam Shalev: Very much! Luckily, I have had lots of time and focus to create – for me personally, the quarantine was a huge blessing. Of course, things got postponed and it has taken a toll on my calendar but besides that, I’m super grateful for this time. In the beginning, I was shocked like everyone else, I guess, and it took me a while to find my rhythm but once I embraced the idea that that’s what it is and it will take a while to come back to normality, I managed to find the focus. And I even got more connected to other artists during this time.
NT: Personal leeway (=Freiraum) – what does it mean for you and where can you find it?
Yam Shalev: Music! A great conversation with a very important person to me just clarified this to me lately. There is nothing else that can make me feel the most free-minded and the most myself.
All images by Karoline Nørbæk
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