"If You Read This Article You Will Lose Your Sword," A conversation with Ira Eduardovna

Ira Eduardovna, The Princess and the Tiger (2010), video still, courtesy of the artist
When she was ten years old Ira Eduardovna, 30, moved to Israel from the former Soviet Union. While Russian culture has remained present in both her life and her work, she has never returned to the country of her childhood. For the group exhibition “Signals” at the Bat Yam Museum of Contemporary Art (organized by curator Danna Taggar Heller) she created The Princess or the Tiger (2010), a visually and structurally complex 8-channel video installation inspired in part by the traditions of Russian children’s adventure stories, and their preoccupation with journeys.

Ira Eduardovna, The Princess and the Tiger, 2010, video still, courtesy of the artist

Mounted sequentially around the curving interior of the museum, the multipart film follows the eight journeys of a young female character played by Eduardovna herself. Each enigmatic trip is shot from a slightly different angle, with nearly identical actions as well as noticeable paralleling discrepancies, suggesting that the stories contain a tightly interwoven set of linear variations and possibly divergent outcomes. Enacted slowly over a 360-degree panoramic narrative, viewers can follow the journeys one by one, in either chronological or reversed order. The quality of unease pervading the scenes is augmented by composer Vasily Medved’s unsettling original score.

Eduardovna, currently an MFA student at Hunter College in New York, had been waiting to work with the atmospheric adventure tales of her childhood for a long time. In the installation, her character’s actions are timed and synchronized but the locations of her purposeful wanderings vary, taking the viewer through a magical world of branching and disjointed causes and effects. (She always enters and leaves the rooms – and the camera frame – at the same time). In each journey she finds clues or signs from different sources – from her own figure speaking to her from a TV screen to the writing she discovers in an old classroom which she herself had paradoxically inscribed in chalk during a previous journey. “If you turn left you will lose your sword” proclaims one of the cryptic messages her character comes across, stated with the matter-of-fact instructional ominousness common to such fables. “There is no tiger behind this door”, promises another hard-painted sign. In the final part of each scene we see an older male character who reveals to both the character and the viewer one word of an entire sentence, which together comprises the puzzle’s solution; because this collection of journeys is, in fact, composed like a series of true or false decisions.

Coupled with its relationship to the epic quality of fairytale quests, the work is also conceptually based on the book The Princess or the Tiger (1982) by the American logician, magician and mathematician, Raymond Smullyan, which Eduardovna’s father, also a mathematician, used to read to her when she was a little girl. (Eduardovna’s family members often appears as actors in her work). The link between the two narrative forms of the puzzle and the folktale, characterized by mortal choices made or not made, is a fascinating one for Eduardovna, the first type endowed with a mythopoetic quality and the second with a rule bound discipline.

Ira Eduardovna: The Smullyan book is a collection of mathematical logic puzzles, stories in which a prisoner can gain his or her freedom by solving a riddle and choosing a door: If behind the door there's a princess, he is free. If it’s a tiger - he is dead.

Vardit Gross: Aside from the fantastical imagery, do you feel any of the book’s sense of logical conundrums and elegant solutions persists in your work?

IE: I was educated and raised to appreciate the value of logical thinking, freedom and responsibility. The connection of the fairytales to the mathematical puzzles is in the challenge of combining two ways of thinking: the hero’s journey in the typical adventure story is full of physical and moral trials, whereas the prisoner’s journey in the logic puzzle is an intellectual or rational one. But both carry with them the ultimate threat of death. The confluence of these two moods in one uncannily similar place is the constant conflict that the character is dealing with.

In general, notions of discipline and hierarchical systems are very prominent in my work. You can see it in my character’s decisions and movement through space. I think hierarchy is directly related to logic, and that logic has components that are hierarchic. For example, in mathematical logical riddles, you have to understand the hierarchy of the components to be able to solve the problem: X is bigger than Y; Y is greater than Z, etc).

In another video work that was in the “Signals” show, The Library Room (2009) in which different scenes are projected onto an unfolded cardboard box, members of my family are seen packing up and wrapping different objects. You can see the discipline and the hierarchy involved – my father is projected onto a panel of the packing box that is a little bit higher than the rest (the hierarchy goes father > mother > elder sister > little sister). The father names the object in Russian and writes it down, the mother takes that object out, the sister wraps it, the other sister puts it in a suitcase. But my little sister can’t put the object in the suitcase if the elder sister doesn’t wrap it, the mother can’t take it out if the father won’t name it. So each family member is doing a very specific task in a very specific rhythmic order.

VG: Is this scene a memory of your family packing everything before moving to Israel?

IE: This specific image is invented, but it is based on reality. I did add my own layer to the scene, which made it a bit eerie: The words you see are the name of the object in Russian but the synthetic voice you hear is naming the objects in Hebrew.

VG: You conceived The Princess or the Tiger for the “Signals” exhibition at the Bat Yam Museum in Israel. You shot it in the woods in upstate New York and abandoned interiors in the city. But you still wanted to use Russian as the movie’s language.

IE: My own personal biography and upbringing, obviously, has much to do with it. But more than that, I feel that language becomes an element in itself. Language represents a particular place, a culture and spirit. The Russian language is something that I left behind when I moved to Israel as a child, and there is an element of longing and a degree of nostalgia in my choice to use it in this film. It seems that for many people Russian has different connotations or associations - when we designed the posters for the film everyone who saw them asked me if these were references to Constructivist-Communist propaganda. But this was definitely not a direction I was intending to go in.

VG: You’ve just finished this major, complex project. Do you have any other dream projects in the pipeline?

IE: For a long time I’ve been hoping to go back to Russia and make a film there. I have a feeling it will be interesting to examine the idea of home and memory after so many years of imagining and recalling it, and after I have developed so many ideas about this place from a distance during the past two decades.

For more information on the artist, please visit www.iragallery.com