Tomer Sapir: Inspired by a "Monster"

Israeli-born sculptor Tomer Sapir—a “crypto-taxidermist” of creatures that have never walked this earth—surveys the borderlands of technology and nightmare.

Photos courtesy Elad Sarig 
Tomer Sapir is a Tel Aviv-based artist who creates a conjoined mixture of faux science and real art to sculpt new forms of life. Using a method known as crypto-taxidermy, he combines the disparate parts of real and imagined creatures to form a single, unidentifiable life form. Sapir mixes natural and organic materials, including concrete, synthetic fibers, and resins, in his efforts to confound and amuse. Even though his fantastical animals are supposedly dead—embalmed, stuffed, or in the form of skeletal remains—many of his works nonetheless show signs of life: a fossilized carcass may reveal deeply embedded larvae, while another may exhibit newly grown “hair.”

Sapir’s use of artist’s materials to replicate nature blurs the preconceived boundaries between authenticity and imitation, exposing various dichotomies and rendering meaningless what can be “proven” by the scientific method.

In the battle pitting science against art, each is a formidable opponent. Sapir’s world–colored by his own “new, doubtful mythology” inspired by organic configurations–is a journey through a fitful sleeper’s dream or an accidental visit to a natural history museum, instilling both doubt and wonder.

Helen Bartley for Guernica.

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Guernica: The name of your most recent show at the Chelouche Gallery in Tel Aviv was “Terra Incognita.” Do you see yourself as a tour guide of sorts, leading others into uncharted territory?

Tomer Sapir: Terra Incognita was the term used by medieval mapmakers to indicate unmapped or undocumented areas. I see myself as more of a rogue explorer than a tour guide. I gather my findings, but before they’re exhibited, I implant them with bugs to mislead the viewer and alter their scientific relevance.

Guernica: When did you first become interested in cryptozoology?

Tomer Sapir: I first discovered cryptozoology in the summer of 2008. I was reading an online newspaper and I found a story accompanied by a strong image of an unrecognizable corpse lying on a shore. The three women who reported the event claimed that this hairless, mammal-like creature with a beak had decomposed shortly after it was found. There were few remains left to be photographed, but the picture and the story created a huge public stir. The media reaction was quick and the creature was nicknamed “the Montauk Monster.”

I was intrigued by the wretched mammal-bird who’d mysteriously been swept ashore. I began my own investigation and was amazed by the vast number of theories trying to explain the “real” story. I wasn’t as interested in the truth as I was in the intense way the public reacted to an image of an unidentifiable creature released by a dubious news source. During my online research I was first exposed to “cryptids”—scientifically unconfirmed creatures of speculative existence that are excluded from all contemporary zoological indexes. Cryptozoologists search for proof that the animals in question do exist.

The story of the Montauk Monster became the catalyst for a series of projects: “The Visit” (1 and 2) and “The Shores of Montauk.” Actually, the spirit of the Montauk Monster still continues to linger over my body of work. Through my research of cryptozoology and cryptids, I was exposed to crypto-taxidermy—the creation of stuffed animals that don’t actually exist. The taxidermist combines the parts of various real animals or uses artificial materials to produce new creatures, much like those found in mythology.

As an artist who deals with “gray areas” and the illusions of elusive truth, I understood that my actions in the studio were very similar to the actions of the crypto-taxidermist. Although I don’t use real animal parts, I do create fictional, organic configurations that are not included in any canonical index.

Guernica: In your two-dimensional study of the Montauk Monster, there is an underlying mystery surrounding the creature’s origins and its possible connection to a facility researching bioterrorism. Could you talk a bit about this project?

Tomer Sapir: It was speculated that the creature had escaped from the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, a secluded, top-secret government facility located on what was known as “Monster Island.” The facility was once a military base, but later became part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1945, focusing on the research and diagnosis of foreign animal diseases. Since 2003, it has been managed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and houses a bioterrorism defense program.

I don’t know how much of this information is reliable, but I became curious. The aim of this kind of facility is to repulse external threats to national security. It was fascinating to me that there could be a possible connection between a secret governmental facility and the demise of this poor creature, somehow forced from the amorphous ocean to solid land. It seemed to undermine the symbolic and political order. The whole story made me wonder about borders, the uncanny, and our perceptions of good and evil.

In 2009, I was invited by curator Urs Küenzi to participate in the show “The Answer is Within You” at Substitut Space in Berlin. The body of work shown there included some small collages made from layers of transparent grease-proof papers and printed images. The complete series functions as a group of fragments, clues, and evidence pertaining to the Montauk Monster story. In an inner room of the gallery, I set up a loop of projected images featuring the Montauk Monster that I obtained from the internet—fading up, appearing slowly and then vanishing.

Guernica: How did the naturally occurring changes in light affect your visual storytelling?

Tomer Sapir: The paper works were hung on the façade windows of the gallery, the border/membrane between the space and the street. During the day, the light came from the street and went through the transparent papers into the space. In the evenings, the light from the space went through the papers to the street and the gallery functioned as a light box. The changes in the balance between the in/out light sources influenced the appearance of the works during the day.

Guernica: Can you tell us about “Overturned Cryptid” and its particular significance?

Tomer Sapir: “Overturned Cryptid” is the first cryptid I created while in the MFA program at Bezalel Academy. It holds the DNA for most of my work that has since followed.

Guernica: Some of your cryptids are reminiscent of the menacing creatures found in early science fiction films. For example, there are the mutated giant crustaceans in Attack of the Crab Monster, or the genetically engineered beast with human DNA in Forbidden World. Has your work been influenced by these genre films?

Tomer Sapir: I’m certainly influenced by science fiction films and appreciate the camp value of the early ones. However, I’m much more influenced by horror movies than by science fiction. When I was ten years old, one of my classmate’s parents thought it could be fun to screen Nightmare on Elm Street at their son’s birthday party. It was my first horror film, and it terrified me. After a few days, my friends and I wanted to feel that same rush of adrenaline again, so we watched another horror film. For several years thereafter, we met every Friday night to watch horror films. I believe that those days have had a huge effect on my present work. I’m fascinated by the compressed moment, the potential for sudden catastrophe.

Guernica: How does your most recent cryptid reflect the future evolution of your work??

Tomer Sapir: I’m always asking myself how I can create an enigma from objects that one could otherwise easily grasp. At one stage while working on this show, I had a desire to create a huge monster with about ten legs.

As I began working on the legs, I studied them as they stood separately on my studio floor. It seemed they worked substantively as sculptures on their own so I left them that way, adding only a tail and a stinger at the end of each.

Aside from the group of legs, another part of the original monster survived. Instead of the whole creature, I created a wall sculpture detail of the beast’s backside where its long tail and huge testicles meet at its stinger—a seductive trap. This is my most recent cryptid and best represents my current vision. It also establishes the direction of the ongoing project. While in previous shows, one could sense the presence of artists such as Mark Dion and Roxy Paine, with “Terra Incognita” I’ve returned to the influence of Louise Bourgeois.

I realize, as my work evolves that it’s becoming both more intimate and more intimidating. It amazes me how closely related these words are in English.

Tomer Sapir is the recipient of the Israeli Ministry of Culture’s 2012 Young Artist Award. He will be participating in “Unnatural,” an exhibit curated by Tami Katz-Freiman at The Bass Museum of Art in Miami from September 8th to November 4th. “Research for the Full Crypto-Taxidermal Index,” an ongoing project, will be part of “Contemporary Cabinets of Wonder—From Amazement to Disenchantment,” curated by Dalia Levin, Daria Kaufmann, and Ghila Limon at the Herzliya Museum for Contemporary Art, on exhibit from September 8th to December 2nd. Additional information about the artist and his work can be found at:

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