Published  03/02/2011

Brave old world: Absalon

Brave old world

KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin
28 November 2010–20 February 2011


Every house hath two doors, one into the street, and a postern door on the back side into the garden. These doors be made with two leaves never locked or bolted, so easy to be opened, that they will follow the least drawing of a finger, and shut again alone. Whoso will go in, for there is nothing within the houses that is private or any man’s own. And every tenth year they change their houses by lot.

Thomas More, Utopia, Book II, “Of the cities and namely of the Amaurote”.

For Thomas More, ideal living arrangements were those that promoted the opening up of private life and its synchronisation with public codes. More mapped out his Utopia on an island: a place for him to isolate concerns; a thought bubble. Israeli born artist, Absalon, (1964–1993) offers a more recent annex to the utopian tradition. In the main hall of the KW Institute, the crux of this tidy retrospective, curator Susan Pfeiffer has resurrected the then-young-artist’s “solution to living in society”.1 Equally preoccupied with correlating individual freedom and broader social structures, Absalon’s final, unfinished, project was to live alone in a series of portable houses – “Cellules” – in six different cities around the world (Paris, Zurich, New York, Tel Aviv, Frankfurt, Tokyo). He was on the way to turning his “no-place” into a concrete reality: models began in 1991, with full-scale prototypes made the following year. Absalon’s death in October 1993 rendered the prototypes, in effect, ghost houses.

The Cellules were to encapsulate “complete whiteness” and “ultimate emptiness”. The prototypes are made from wood, cardboard and plaster, perfectly smooth, and painted all-over white; they are accurate in every formal detail, notwithstanding functional elements such as water and heating. Like stages of play on an all-white Rubik’s cube, each presents a permutation of the same basic features: every house has slit windows, a desk top, an integrated shower and toilet with a moveable grid, a futon mounted on a shelf. Obsessively compact, to the point of demarcating his current interests, there was only enough room on the shelf for 15 books. Every house has a clean rectangular opening, with calculations tailored to Absalon’s height; among other rules, he decided that he must be able to stand up in at least part of the house and that the surface area was to be between four and eight metres squared. Modifications were made from one model to the next, with each interior necessitating a different way of moving through it.

More’s vision of a come-as-you-like community would have horrified Absalon, whose “solution” was absolute in its definition of solo dwelling. Whereas in the exhibition visitors can access the prototypes (and this is fun), Absalon intended the real things to be inaccessible; they could, at a pinch, accommodate one caller and no-one else. He took a dim idea of guests, protesting, “I would never allow myself to be violated there”. One Cellule is accessed by a stepladder, like a sanctified clubhouse. Another, in the centre of the hall, has a low door and a tower, for which there is a vivid source: “the monks in Ireland used to build towers to protect themselves from attack and there was a little door so that you could climb up a ladder into the tower and once they were all in, they pulled up the ladder and they could go up to the top floor. In those days there were no bombs, so no-one could get in.” The acetic discipline of monastic life is characterised by Absalon as a bid for self-preservation, and accordingly, the Cellules were designed to both shelter and dictate the artist’s behavior. It is an extreme reading of Brian O’Doherty’s “Inside the White Cube” (Artforum, 1976).

Absalon had undergone a regimented education. Born Meir Eshel in Israel in 1964, he went through military boarding school and military service, and saved up to get away at the first opportunity by making and selling jewellery. On moving to Paris at 23, he changed his name (the choice was made by virtue of Abshalom’s rebellious associations). He lived there for five years, his last, over the course of which he produced the body of work brought together here for the first time.

In preparation for the installment of the first and only Cellule proper, in the 13th arrondissement in Paris, the artist completed due paperwork to identify that the house was indeed a house and not an artwork, which would require a different planning procedure. At the same time, Absalon was adamant in distancing his work from the dictatorial principles of modernist architecture: “The great difference between a modernist and me is that a modernist thinks about the world, how to make it better, how to sort it out. Whereas I am not thinking about changing the world, like the avant-garde might have done, I am thinking about changing my life.” He shouts and stomps to make his point. Echoing up and down the Institute’s concrete staircase are emissions from Bruits (Video, 1993), where Absalon screams until he loses his voice. In Bataille (Video, 1993) Absalon is filmed flailing about in shirt and trousers, slipping on his leather soles, busting against himself. Just as in Bruits, where the film’s full stop is silence, here the artist locates himself within the emphatic ellipses of the surrounding space.

Absalon was intent on defining himself against his context. The enclosed existence prescribed by the Cellules, if successful, would be one that blanked out surroundings, as if in defiance. “I put these houses in locations where I can use them purely to avoid utopia, since these houses are in no way utopian, they are real houses that I am really going to live in.” The houses were intended to function hermetically, rather than promote an ideal system. However, since they never got to the functioning stage, they remain preserved in the gallery setting, forcibly consecrated as a utopian moment. The Berlin winterscape provides a peculiar context for the exhibition: quiet and white with snow, and emptied out of people, the principles of Absalon’s Cellules are writ large, in some kind of synchrony.

1. All quotations from the artist are taken from a talk given at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-arts, Paris, 4 March 1993, on the occasion of the exhibition of the six Cellules at the Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris /ARC.

Further reading
S. Pfeffer (ed.), Absalon (KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin 2010).
B. Parent, Cellules (Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 1993).
B. Marcadé and J.-P. Bordaz, Absalon (Zurich Kunsthalle, 1997).

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