Art Seen: International


by Ruslana Lichtzier

His name used to be whispered among the informed students of the Israeli Art Academies; they heard it from their teachers that, here and there, alluded to him in an intimate, blasé fashion, as if he was a friend – the best, yet completely forgotten Israeli artist of the late 20th century, they all used to mutter. My classmates and I used to search obsessively for the few traces that he left behind, after a premature death in Paris. Maquettes, diaries, video works and photographic documents singled out a complex, intriguing artist. A visionary sculptor, or rather a builder, that reminds one of the temper of Boullée met with 18th century premodern architects. He seemed to have an imaginary, almost savage in its idiosyncratic vision in mind; one that was not bound to modernistic ideology. A grandiose artist who, based his production on radical systems of constrains, was best known for his rigid white cells. I was haunted by his work since the moment I first saw it until this summer. One can imagine how monumental it was when I came to know that Absalon had a retrospective in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.

disposition (detail). 1990 wood, cardboard, white paint, 6 neon lights, 40 elements
140 x 928 x 1028 cm. 110 qm / square meters. Collection Frac Languedoc-Roussillon. exhibition view at KW Berlin. photo: DIETER LOSKEN

Entering the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion, you are confronted with a white, three-dimensional bare outline; a proposal for a different universe, a universe of singular habitations – intimate residences that resist the title of Home. You know that these proposals are not for you to take; they cannot be copied, utilized, or manufactured. Slowing your pace, as if you were in a temple of a forgotten sect, the only light that emits from the neon glass tubes casts its impression, vibrating in a clear likeness to the shades of a cathedral’s stained glass windows.  Attention sharpens on the curves and the verticals of the architectural compositions. Entering the cells, you feel their rigid constraints upon your body. It is a still space. Yet the silence of the exhibition is broken with a frequent scream.

Absalon was born in 1964 under the name Meir Eshel in Ashdod, a suburban coast town south of Tel Aviv, Israel. After his military service, he retreated to live in a wooden hut that he built on the backlands dunes of Sinai, and then Ashdod, until the evacuation by municipal inspectors. At the age of 22, Eshel left Israel with a one-way ticket to pursue an artistic career in Paris, where he had family and citizenship. Straight after his arrival he adopted the name of Absalon, in its French pronunciation. Through a friend of the family, he was introduced to the elite of the arts in Paris, and subsequently met the well-known French artist, Christian Boltanski, who became a close friend and a mentor, introducing him to the leading curators of France and Israel. Absalon has his first solo exhibition in 1989 at the age of 25.

In 1991 he began building the Six Cells, which were uninhabitable, yet almost true to human size. The units, structured out of wood, cardboard, dispersion paint, neon lights and Perspex, separated themselves from the surroundings they occupied – into membrane-like, enclosed structures, allowing selective entry and exit points. The assemblages of basic, white geometrical forms created balanced compositions. While giving the impression of a stable mass, their durability slightly trembles to the cold illumination of the neon light. It exposes the pieces’ frailty and opens them up into other orbits. They recall futurist visions, bringing to mind the astronaut bed in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Boullée’s Cénotaphe a Newton (1795). Yet also, other traces are revealed – of monastic life and sarcophagi rituals. Within this, the cells collide with the spheres of an unbound past and a future residence. They escape the linearity of time, and it is this that becomes one of the most vital forces in Absalon’s work.

cell n° 4. 1991. wood, cardboard, white paint
147 x 180 x 247 cm. Collection Capc musée d’art contemporain, Bordeaux

A year later, Absalon builds Proposals for a Habitat, which prepared the leap for his last, grandiose project. Made in a similar thin fashion, this one-meter height complex, connected between six cube-shaped units into a 153.6 × 126 inch unified closed system.  In a counter action to the six cells, it seemed this work opened itself up to the world. Connecting Absalon’s most loved cities into a one continuous closed net, it proposed, more than anything else, a map of new territory. While the six cubes are standing for Paris, Zurich, New york, Tel Aviv, Frankfurt, and Tokyo, Proposals for a Habitat becomes an act of disdain for national and geographical borders, allowing Absalon to sink into one contentious sphere of desire. Between 1992-1993 Absalon constructed the human scale prototypes for the Cells. These structures were supposed to be “injected” in the six urban centers around the world; acting, as Absalon put it, like viruses.

While each cell held a different formation, all of them contained only the most essential to satisfy basic human needs: a bed, a chair, a table, a shower, which is also the toilet, and a kitchen. Negating notions of comfort, the cells were deigned to activate his specific body. In some, his head was forced to bend too often – in others, he would brush the ceiling while standing. Imaging optimal inhabitation, Absalon planned an intimate space that is ruled by its material reduction. If he would have a visitor, and it would be have to be only one at a time, the space would enforce physical condensation of the two bodies, having a distance of only about 40cm (15.74 inches). It created a “compactness of a relationship which intrigues me.”[1] In this, these structures are both an answer and a refusal of Le Corbusier’s Modulor, and the modernistic project of generalizing aesthetics and human needs. Within this domain one cannot forget oneself; rather, the cells would forcefully react and reeducate the inhabitor, “In time and by habit, this mechanism will become my comfort.”[2]

Yet, the aggressiveness of the structures enacts not only towards the body – but also toward the outside – society’s law. Escaping any municipal regulation, the cells cannot fall under the category of “outdoor sculpture,” nor meet the minimum conditions for recognition as a building, due to its limited floor space. They were not illegal; they existed outside the law, unrecognizable.

Alongside his sculpture-architectural production, Absalon developed an experimental video practice.  In Solutions, (1992) he performs his proposal for habitation inside a cell. In a small white cube, each with one austere piece of furnishing, he is sitting, drinking, eating, smoking, stepping, lying down, masturbating, taking a bath. The video reveals a new kind of a secular ritual; a cycle of repetition of an internal exile, or further, of a self decided nonperson. The camera’s position revels the concept of a platform – the entry to the cell, an invitation to share the passing of time – this, doing nothing. We see his legs move with agitation, as if with anticipation for it all to be over; but it goes on, and we are proposed to bear through it, next to him. His later videos from 1993 crystalize this proposal by extracting and isolating one dire act.  Battle is an endless beating that the artist performs upon himself, Noises is a continuous scream (that has only brief pauses while the artists inhales some air) – this is the scream that broke the silence in the pavilion during my visit.

Absalon, Cellue No.3 (Prototype)
, 1992. 202 x 410 x 280 cm. 
Wood, Cardboard, White dispersion paint, Fabrics, Neon Tubes. photo: dreusch.loman, 2010, Courtesy Musee d’Art Moderne de Saint-Etienne Metropole

Being both imaginary and modernistic, Absalon’s work leaps between past relics and future visions; his objects flicker in tension without falling into historical materialization or conceptualization. The Bauhaus vision of abstraction, which must lead to simplification, shatters next to Absalon’s production. The simple geometry skews back and forward between comfort and restrain, while its austere whiteness creates serene compositions that alleviate the objects back to what was once a religious place, but in this cycle is instead occupied by extreme mental conditions. Regardless, Absalon’s tight dance with modernism negates any idea of utopia. Instead, he wants the change itself, “I desire a self-contained universe… But the difference between me and someone who wants to change everything is that I like change for the sake of change and not for improvement. Contrary to the revolutionary, I have no need to justify my dream for change. I put a wild energy into the creation of something new, not of something better. The better is only a pretext, and that optimism is no part of me.”[3] It seems like the trajectory was all carefully planned from the start.

His meteoric success came to an early end with a premature death at the age of 29, which concluded a compressed oeuvre that was engrossed only in five years of production. Not long after, his work was exhibited rarely and scarcely; he was forgotten. Only in 2010 a resumed interest in Absalon came with a comprehensive retrospective at the KW, Berlin, followed by the show at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.

Ruslana Lichtzier is an artist and writer, recently graduated from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago

[1] Radiant Non-Vision, or the Hazy Edges of Darkness, On the Six Cells Absalon Built for Himself, Moshe Ninio, Absalon catalogue, Tel Aviv Museum of Art, 2013, p. 205

[2] Gehen bleiben: Bewegung, Körper, Ort in der Kunst der Gegenwart, ed. Volker Adolphs, Kunstmuseum Bonn, Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2007, p. 82.

[3] Absalon at the Centre d’Art Contemporain, Ivery-sur- Seine, 1990.

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