Rachel Libeskind’s art is not afraid to confuse, annoy, or provoke, and it is deeply personal, brimming with varied imagery and symbols of her own ancestry; as the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, her cultural background remains a subject of interest throughout her portfolio. At only 25, Rachel has been featured in over 15 shows, with publications like Paper Magazine and Dossier Journal taking note of her talent. Her most recent project took the mainly collage-artist off of paper into the three-dimensional world, as she set up shop in a stunning frescoed room in Spoleto, Italy, to produce her first-ever performance piece. Now that Rachel has moved onto bigger things (literally — her last piece occupied an entire room) she assures us there is no going back. Right now, the artist is developing an exciting project at Berlin's Kuhlhaus for the fall of 2015. We are fascinated by Rachel’s work, so we sat down with her in her beautiful Brooklyn home to ask some questions.
How was your recent trip to Spoleto? What were you working on there?
I was commissioned to do a work for something called the Festival di Spoleto, a sixty-year-old festival which is predominantly theater and music, and this was only their second year doing art. It was really crazy. I did this work called ‘The Traveling Bag,’ and it’s a work about suitcases. It was the first performance piece I’ve ever done … It took place in this old papal fortress, which actually up until 30 years ago acted as a prison. I was one of 5 performances in this art show, and I was in this unbelievable frescoed rooms. I had no idea what I was doing until I got there.
The project was basically a meditation on stuff, and a meditation on the past, and a meditation of coming and going and exile and vacation and the absurdity of packing and unpacking and how objects work their way into our lives as burdon.
From images from the show that I’ve seen, the frescoed room complimented your work so well that I thought it must have been a conscious choice to put on the show there.
No, they assigned me into this room. When they asked me to do the piece at first, I thought that I would be making a bunch of works and sending them there. And then when I saw images of the room, I freaked out because how can you compete with 14th century frescoes? You can’t. Nothing will ever look as beautiful. So I had to work around that, and decided that I would do this live installation that changes and dies and blossoms and dies again.
'The Traveling Bag' was three-dimensional, which was a departure for you from your collages. How was the foray into the three-dimensional world?
It was amazing. I’m only 25, so I feel in myself that I’m not yet making the work that I want to be making for my life. And there’s a sense with the 2-D work that I make that it’s not as big as I want it to be.
There’s definitely no turning back. I’m working on another project right now where I’m 3-D printing my own face. I’ve been printing these in all different materials.
You moved from Berlin to New York right before high school; Has having had two very different cultural upbringings influenced the content of your work?
Oh, yeah. My whole impetus to make work is driven by a childhood in a city where history was ever-present and insurmountable. The wall fell when I was 6 months old, and so I watched the city grow alongside me. It’s incredible to be in a city in flux. I had an awesome time growing up there, but it was also very serious and very dark, and I experienced so much anti-semitism, because people didn’t know I was a Jew. And then coming to a place like New York where there are just Jews everywhere; I was shocked. I had no idea that there was this place in the world where you could be a Jew that openly. It was a thing that people wanted other people to know.
In short, yes, it has had a major effect on everything I’m interested in today.
What was the point at which you knew you wanted to have a career in art?
I went to Harvard thinking that I wanted to do a PhD in Religion. I was really interested in ritual, all of the stuff that I’m still interested in with my artwork, but I wanted to be an academic. And then I got to Harvard and I realized that the standard to which I had to conform my writing and thinking was just not one I was really into. I was kind of naïve about that conformity in academia and the sacrifices you have to make to your own style and creativity. And also, at Harvard, basically no one does art. I think I was attracted to that aspect. I was thinking, do I want to write a 75-page thesis on some esoteric topic that I’m never going to revisit, or do I want to make a bunch of awesome paintings? Obviously the latter.
When I graduated — I was there during the financial crisis — I worked four different jobs, all unpaid, all of which I quit within a month, and I thought, ‘If I’m not going to get a job that’s paid, I guess I’ll do art and see where it takes me.’ And that’s what made the decision — honestly, it was the economy.
You re-appropriate a lot of images in your collage work and now also in this piece in Spoleto, taking other people’s old photographs and images from the Internet. How do you manage to keep your work feeling personal while also re-appropriating images from other places?
I believe in the life of the image, and I’m interested in images from the '30s and '40s and '50s, because that’s when images really became mass proliferated. I look into a LIFE magazine from 1945, and regardless of the actual content, I look at these beautiful advertisements that were crafted with so much more care than anything you see today. And I think that this must have been used for three months, and then nobody saw it again. I really feel in this way that I have this spiritual creator role. I want to re-appropriate it back into my work and reify it into its full glory that it once had as a part of history. I really believe in the spirit of these images and interacting with that and finding them.
And how do I make it personal? Well that’s the beautiful thing about art; you could pull together anything in the world, and you can make something out of it within the framework of yourself, and then it’s this new thing. I think that’s what makes it personal.
This interview has been edited and condensed.