Art Seen: Chicago

Utopian Blind Spots


By MK Meador

We all know we live in the legacy of modernism, whether it be the label of the ‘post-modern’ age, or the normalized sight of Frank Lloyd Wright’s homes in and outside of Chicago. In tracking the aesthetic legacies of the modernist project and effects, within the context of the United States and his native Israel, Chicago-based artist Assaf Evron reimagines imposed architecture and the natural environment within his photographic and sculptural installations. In alignment with the 2019 Chicago Architecture Biennial, Evron has undertaken several projects: a self-titled solo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago as a part of the Chicago Works series, and a public work that imposes the image of an Israeli mountain range upon the windows of the Esplanade Apartments (at 900 N Lake Shore Drive), a Mies van der Rohe designed residential complex—further marking the artist’s interest in the relationship between the natural and the constructed.

MK Meador: I would like to start by asking about how your work as a photographer either intersects with or challenges the architectural—can you speak about your connection to the Chicago Architecture Biennial this fall?

Assaf Evron: Yes—I was part of the first Architecture Biennial in 2015, with an exhibition entitled Athens & Oraibi, at the Historic Water Tower, which followed landscapes and [decorative] ornaments. The project was a part of this big experiment—a type of magic that you could never imagine would happen. Architecture has always been present in my practice, because photography is prescient subject matter for me; it structures our lives in such an intimate and direct way that we do not necessarily stop and reflect on it.

Assaf Evron, Untitled (Zedekiah’s Cave), 2018. Installation view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago as part of Chicago Works. Image courtesy of the artist.

MKM: How has this structuring affected your work?

AE: We think about modernism now as a movement, but where I grew up [in Israel], there is nothing besides modernism. You live modernism without knowing the name ‘modernism,’ because so many things had been built within the last hundred years. Of course, there are many historic buildings as well, which I am very engaged and involved with in different projects. But the state of Israel is one of those experiments in modernism. It is part of an experiment that was done in many places around the world (in each site, it was slightly different, under the wider umbrella of modernism), to create a new man and a new environment for them to live within a utopian vision.

In Europe during the second wave of the modernist project, the goal was for these cities and locales to rebuild themselves after the war. For me, it is really interesting that this idea, as an idea, is embedded within different contexts, for example in Eastern Europe, the Middle East at large, South America, and parts of Western Europe. In my work, there is always a conflict and the tension that this idea of a modern utopia has failed.

MKM: Do you think that modernism is always defined by failure?

AE: Actually, by necessity it has to fail [laughs]. Utopia means not place—that is the Greek root of the word. Once it exists, it means it is not a utopia anymore. It has to fail by default. Yet, the exercise of imagining a future is very valuable at the same time—I think although many utopian ideas have failed, we might still be able to learn something from those attempts. When we talk about this failure within a global context, we can talk about democracy, which is not in particularly good shape. Democracy did not have a very glamourous century.

MKM: How did the work for the Chicago Works exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art come about?

AE: Charlotte Ikes, the curator for the exhibition, had reached out—we had been thinking about what would be interesting to do for an artist project that deals with architecture. We both have a distinct interest in architectural ornaments, both formal and informal, and the ways in which the form of certain decorative elements convey meaning that can sometimes be conflicting for different cultures. The idea for this exhibition was to follow the idea of the meander, a Greek architectural decorative border. I like the idea, because meander (the word) comes from the name of the river Meander in Turkey. Because of this origin, the pattern has an inherent layer of meaning—the way that culture and nature interact—and points to the ways that projection can affect our surroundings without us even knowing.

For example, few people know that when they say meander they mean the river, and that the root of the word originated from the site before it disappeared: the river changed its name. Those types of historical narratives are really interesting to me, because they put things within a wider cultural context. Both in modernism, but also within the proto-modernism of Chicago, the ornament of the meander had been appropriated for different reasons.

Assaf Evron, Untitled (Sodom and Gomorrah), 2018.

MKM: How has meander made its way into your installation for Chicago Works?

AE: As I started to follow the meander ornament throughout Chicago, my work was to turn the building back into a vase. Moving from the work I had done in Israel, I went and photographed the three buildings in Chicago that incorporated the pattern. It has become an Atlas of images, like that of Aby Warburg—of objects moving through culture—and how these images are affecting other images. I found the images of vases, which are rare, at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Others are from the Met and their open source archive. For this exhibition, I am making a sourcebook that includes these visual materials that are related to the work, but are not the work itself.

MKM: Can you tell us about the reference images you selected to include in your Sourcebook? Especially your references to the tile works installed in Israel?

AE: Yes—the tile works, which I pull from in the MCA installation, are a very common practice in Israel. They look like trees, but are an artistic tiling installed on buildings throughout various cities that have no authors—they are clearly elaborate and intentional, but they have no attributed architects. I had taken the building plans from the city archives, for buildings that were done in the 1960s, but now the architects are all gone. It is very distinctive, but also very defaulted.

MKM: How do you mean defaulted?

AE: I suppose like the modernist approach to have a resource, such as these prefabricated tiles, at our disposal, and the desire to use them in a way that creates an aesthetic living environment by just reorganizing them.

MKM: Which buildings did you choose to photograph in Chicago? What unites them for this exhibition?

AE: Each of the buildings I am using have the Greek key. They are the Marquette, the Monadnock, and the Sharp Building—all by the same architects, and each very important in their own right. As I was looking for the Greek knot, or the same pattern on different buildings in Chicago, I was also looking at burial vases from the third-century BC. The same pattern is on the Marquette building as the ropes on the geometric vase. And then there are those stair-like, snake-like patterns here and there, that then were appropriated to this city square in Tel Aviv. One of the main sculptures for the exhibition is based on this pattern, which is part of the city square in Tel Aviv, that was meant to represent democracy. I took the form and turned it into a screen, one that is now an obstacle within the exhibition.

MKM: Is there any material significance to the tile works?

AE: Yes, the tile works employ an extensive and laborious process; they are all handmade tiles and are coated in an expensive, complicated enamel called American Accent. So, you have American Accents [laughs], which is the name of the product but also the name of the piece—Untitled, (Kikar Rabin Square American Accents) (2019). Kikar Rabin is the name of the square in Tel Aviv.

MKM: So the work literally and figuratively interrelates Chicago and Israel—

AE: Very much so. In Israel, the idea was about democracy, but in Chicago the idea was about empire. Of wanting to be as great as Ancient Rome. I was looking at the original plan of the Kikar Rabin square from 1965, and only after Rabin was assassinated in 1995, did they recognize his name in the site. Kikar Rabin is now an icon, where we go and protest. The idea of the public in Israel is very different than in the United States.

MKM: How so?

AE: That is a slippery slope—but, for example, the idea of social democracy and the way you own space is very different. In the US, everybody ‘owns’ the space, and because everybody owns it, no one uses it. It is all very political, because public space is then saturated with the politics of the place, but also the motivation, the reality, or even the aspirational.

Assaf Evron, Untitled (Zedekiah’s Cave), 2018. Installation view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago as part of Chicago Works. Image courtesy of the artist.

MKM: There are such subtle details in your work, which point to an irony that when you create a shared space, that the details have to be very quiet.

AE: I like the subtle and the overlooked in that way. For example, once I lift a detail from the floor and instead make it into a vertical barrier, you have to confront it and understand that it is no longer just a floor that you are stepping on.

MKM: What other elements will be included in this show that may have been reworked or updated?

AE: Well, there is the cave. It is interesting that we are speaking about resources, because the source of the cave work that comprises the wall installations and two-dimensional works had been historically used as a quarry, dating back to the tenth-century BC. When I photographed the site, I wanted to use the images of the cave the same way one would use a quarry—digging for materials. Throughout this series of works, I used the photographs as building blocks for collage.

MKM: Have you done much still-life work—based on your images of the vase?

AE: For me, photography is a tool. I started my career as a self-taught photographer, but I am not married to any genre or one way to understand photography. I use it to present a visual proposition. In this way, the sculptures also operate as photographs. I can take a photograph of something and then relocate it, or take a photograph of this visual instance and then relocate it in space, the space of the gallery. Sculpture is no different.

MKM: So much of your work attempts to make the viewer face something that is not immediately apparent or completely obvious—

AE: Yes, in a way, the ornamentation in the exhibition is like anti-architecture. My architecture and history friends are talking about how there are these gaps in planning— all these things that are not architecture but are interacting with architecture. That there is not proper architectural research about these things, like blind spots. That is where this work becomes relevant, because it is doing this archival and visual research into something that is otherwise totally forgotten or overlooked.

Chicago Works: Assaf Evron runs at the Museum of Contemporary Art through January 6, 2020.

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