White on White on White

Exhibition View (ABSALON at KW, Berlin)

Exhibition Review:

ABSALON curated by Susanne Pfeffer

28. November 2010 to 20. February 2011

KW Institute for Contemporary Art (Berlin)

From my apartment window the ‘memorial for the murdered Jews of Europe’ appears as a vast snow-covered rectilinear grid. When one stands within, the flatness of the top view gives way to a dense network of concrete blocks. The stone towers crowd together creating labyrinthine corridors. To crawl between them makes one feel intensely negligible and vulnerable, unable to see what lies ahead and who might be standing by the left corner. It is a nameless monument and yet it precisely outlines who is commemorated. Albeit contested, as a piece of memorial architecture it attempts to perform as an immersive environ rather than standing in for a phallic column with a list of names.

On the ground floor of KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Absalon’s pristine white, life-scale Cellules stand upon a white floor. Each one is distinct in its form and interior layout, neither entirely sculptural nor pure architecture. These post-apocalyptic abodes appear as paranoid spaces reminiscent of the Kafkaesque burrow. As I walk into one I become aware that the spatial language borrows from that of a nuclear bunker, and I’m reminded once again of being within the holocaust memorial.

The deceased Israeli artist, created these as ‘life containers’ with great care; they are neatly partitioned and designed to facilitate everyday activities: cooking, bathing, working, sleeping. Interestingly, each space is made according to the artist’s physical dimensions and body language. Therefore, it is capable of ‘holding’ only one body at a time — as every viewer is made to crouch under, climb up and peep into these creations; they demand a sustained physical involvement. About the Cellules, Absalon stated: “They are not meant to posit any solutions in terms of isolation but instead for living the social.” In actuality, the exhibited pieces are prototypes for units that he had planned to install in metropolises such as New York, Paris and Tel Aviv. As a nomadic housing project, the Cellules encapsulate a dynamic futuristic potentiality.

It is the first in-depth solo show since the artist’s passing away in 1993. Even though he was only 28 at the time, Absalon had already developed a highly elaborate oeuvre. Whilst some of his projects remain unfinished, they have been meticulously worked upon—from detailed drawings to 3D models to full-scale architectural pieces. The art works occupy all four floors of the KW and the curatorial narrative facilitates an experiential walk through the artist’s work process and the developmental stages of his praxes. After encountering the Cellules on the ground floor, the next two floors offer a collection of drawings, 3D models and video pieces; some of which are being exhibited for the first time. There is the sense of moving from a complete structure to unraveling units and works that are still ‘being made.’ The top most floor contains a kind of topography of space-objects that reveal the artist’s obsessive cataloguing of geometric possibilities and minimalist aesthetics. It was after Absalon moved to Paris in 1987[i] that he began to explore an abstract vocabulary and actively draw upon modernist influences of the Bauhaus, De Stijl and Russian constructivism. For a short time he even lived in a house that was designed by Le Corbusier in 1924[ii]. In the manner of Cezanne, this artist employed the most basic shapes to construct complex spatial compositions.

To me Absalon’s Cellules appear as a personal memorial of defiance and of living an ‘alternative.’ He considered them “bastions of resistance to a society that stops me from becoming what I must become.”


[i] It was in Paris that Meir Eshel became Absalon; a name he borrowed from a character in the Old Testament, but also one synonymous with revolt.

[ii] ABSALON catalogue produced by KW Institute for Contemporary Art (Berlin, 2010)

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