Berlin

*View of “Absalon,” 2011.

*View of “Absalon,” 2011.

Absalon

KW Institute for Contemporary Art

*View of “Absalon,” 2011.

It’s easy to misinterpret Absalon’s work: as a Minimalist pastiche, for example, or a Bauhaus homage, a faux-utopian solution to the problems of modern living. But KW’s retrospective of his output dismissed such clunky art-historical assumptions, concentrating instead on the artist’s deep, urgent need to find a way of both participating in society and sheltering from it. Absalon—born in Ashdod, Israel, and called Meir Eshel until he adopted his pseudonym in 1987—is known primarily for his “Cellules.” These small structures—stripped of all detail, rendered stark white inside and out, and based on Absalon’s own bodily dimensions—are living units big enough for one, and one alone. While early examples such as Cellule No. 5, 1991, seem ultimately like hypothetical dwellings, his later “Cellules No. 1–6 (Prototypes),” 1992, are 1:1 models for buildings that the artist genuinely planned both to construct and live in. Each one was intended for a different city, and had he not died in 1993 at the age of twenty-eight, Absalon might well have seen the project fully realized.

All six works of this latter series were displayed in KW’s main hall. The most troubling aspect of being inside these private spaces was the intrusion: They were designed for Absalon’s life, not ours, so entering them as art objects seemed inappropriate, possibly even transgressive. But as the show made clear, this tension between isolation and exhibitionism is a pervasive theme in Absalon’s work. The “Cellules” are the clearest examples: Though they are heavy with a sense of retreat, they are also impositions on the world from which they protect the artist. In Absalon’s words, each one was “like a virus in the city, because of its whiteness, because of its different way of existing, and because of its different proposition.” Other works showed a similar yearning to escape society, break cultural norms, and be noticed, all at the same time. In the video Bruits (Noises), 1993, for example, Absalon screams until he loses his voice. In Bataille (Battle), 1993, he punches the empty space around him wildly, a strange gesture that falls outside the bounds of normal behavior. And in Solutions, 1992, he carries out daily activities—bathing, lying down, sitting at his desk—inside tiny white spaces, illustrating just how serious he was about living in his alternative structures.

Time and again, this excellent exhibition tested our understanding of Absalon’s practice. The one constant was inescapable physicality; he was everywhere, demanding that we move through, and be moved by, his invasions of conventional space. The question that lingers over the exhibition is what Absalon really wanted us to do with his work. The artist was apparently reluctant to have his practice read in biographical terms, but nevertheless, his short life is an unavoidable anchor—not so much for its specific details, but because the gaps between his body, his experience of the world, and his work were paper-thin. The catalogue includes a lecture Absalon gave in Paris in 1993, which is characterized by a mixture of swagger, intelligence, a sense of impending mortality (he already knew he had aids), and total clarity of purpose. It leaves no doubt that his motivations were intensely personal, and had little to do with participating in the art world. Perhaps this is what makes his work so thrilling. And in a nice irony, it also explains why this strange, tragic young man was such an important if elusive figure in late-twentieth-century art.

Anthony Byrt