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present in absence
Rarely is there such a happy marriage between art and exhibition space as in the recent survey of Absalon at Berlin’s KW Institute for Contemporary Art. Great white blocks of artworks sat scattered in arrays throughout the stark cavernous spaces, fitting as hand-in-glove. Even the heavens came to the party, coating the rooftops of Berlin in a thick layer of snow and transforming the view from the fourth-floor windows into the exhibition’s uncanny double—a field of primary geometric forms forced forward into volume, successive silent planes, perpendicular surfaces mute in their thick, unreflective whiteness.
The exhibition is the first comprehensive presentation of Absalon since a similarly eponymous show at Amsterdam’s de Appel Art Centre in 1994—an exhibition which was initiated before and realised shortly after the artist’s untimely death at the age of twenty-eight. This time around the exhibition takes place amongst a dominant recuperative moment within Euro-American contemporary art and in the midst of the long-tail of Documenta 12 with its exploration of ‘minor’ art, in the Deleuzian sense. Significant attention has turned to a number of until recently forgotten artists such as Lee Lozano, Bas Jan Ader, William Leavitt and Guy de Cointet (of whom only one, William Leavitt, remains alive today to enjoy the delayed recognition).
Perhaps unsurprisingly within this context, the exhibition has been a great success for Kunst-Werke and its curator Susanne Pfeffer. The exhibition dates were extended, a major catalogue is forthcoming and an exhibition tour is currently under negotiation. However, even a confirmed art cynic would be hard-pressed to deny the eloquence of the exhibition’s display, or the oeuvre’s strikingly direct address to the viewer via its foregrounding of surface and bodily encounter within a staging of absence.
Content-wise the exhibition features an extensive selection of work including video, sketches and the odd early-career gouache, all of which are presided over by a singular vocabulary of architectonic forms rendered always, but always, in white and with rudimentary materials such as plaster, cork, cardboard and wood. The works negotiate solitude, confinement, self and society through a progression of forms. They are itemised by number within classifications such as ‘cell’, ‘cellule’, ‘prototype’ and ‘proposal for habitation’.
Across the four floors of KW the cells and cellules recur; unfolding from Cellule (En Silence) (1988) to the final series of six Cellules (Prototypes) (1992). Through intermediary sketches, models and trial arrangements the cellules mutate from elements assembled and reassembled within cardboard boxes into larger forms which disrupt the passage of the viewer and implicate bodies within shared space. The final ascetic living units of the Prototypes were designed to measurements of the artist’s own body and were proposed to confront the urban space of six cities: Paris, Zurich, New York, Tel Aviv, Frankfurt and Tokyo.
Looking forward to the space-ship and backwards to the tomb, the twelve-square-metre habitables differ in form but are uniform in conception; they each include a sleeping platform, kitchenette, bathroom and living-space all jig-sawed together with extreme economy, zero accessories and a homogenous Spartan white finish.
‘The scene changes to an empty room.’
Susan Sontag, The Aesthetics of Silence, 1969
In 1992 the critic Idit Porat described a visit to Absalon’s studio in western Paris, a building originally designed by Le Corbusier for the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz. After addressing the studio’s ‘immense’ scale and the high windows that were out of sight and that yet were perceptible through the natural light that bathed the space, he turned to a metaphor of silence;
An all white and gleaming studio, which, as if it were almost completely empty, absorbs the echo of the steps of whoever paces there, and it seems that the slightest touch, the slightest movement, is inscribed in it, and at the same time it is all very very quiet.1
Silence, as a concept or a complex, accompanies Absalon’s work in its many manifestations, foreshadowed within the parenthesis of his foundational cellule—‘En Silence’. However, the silence that absorbs, the silence that is inscribed with movement and touch is very particular. It is not simply a vacuum or a yawning emptiness. It is a presence felt through absence, a concrete nothing, what Susan Sontag in her 1969 essay ‘The Aesthetics of Silence’ termed a ‘full void’.
Morphologically, the formal vocabulary of Absalon sits most closely to the ‘architectonics’ of Kazimir Malevich. Like his test-models for a utopian totality, the all-white geometric configurations of Absalon’s sculpture are perceptible through differentials of light against uniformly white perpendicular surfaces. They test opticality utilising the medium of visibility itself. They are not three-dimensional objects enclosed around a centre of gravity—their surfaces press outwards, unfolding into space.
Malevich was himself a proponent of emptiness as a totality, of a concrete nothing. In a 1923 pamphlet summarising his ideas on non-objectivity and titled ‘The Suprematist Mirror’, he set out an equation prescribing ‘The World of Human Distinctions’ as equivalent to ‘0’.2 Zero itself is semantically a cipher in this vein, a ‘something’ that signifies a ‘nothing’.
Unlike Malevich however, the corporeal body and through it the lived experience is central to Absalon’s project. It is not an abstract totality/absence but a bareness of quotidian exigency, a specific nothing. Absalon’s is, in the final analysis, a project of figuration. ‘Why the emptiness and not the created space?’ asked Robert Barry in a 1968 interview.3 The same question is begged implicitly by the cellules. In their case the created space is a place-holder for a body, a ‘0’ shaped into a human form.
Thinking back to the fourth-floor, and gazing out upon the snow-covered rooftops that so silently mirror the exhibition. And again, to the words of Susan Sontag;
Consider the difference between ‘looking’ and ‘staring’. … Art that is silent engenders a stare. In silent art, there is (at least in principle) no release from attention, because there never has in principle, been any soliciting of it.4
Silence is determined, to a considerable degree, by the political economy of the speakable. It is in this conjunction that the act of staring is significant to the perception of an absent presence. In this way, ‘absence’ is rewritten as ‘imperceptible’ or ‘undifferentiated’, and the disjunction between ‘emptiness’ and ‘absence’ becomes a site of tension.
In a 1992 interview with Jean-Pierre Bordaz, Absalon noted the non-neutrality of givens, ‘A chair does not have to look like a chair, that depends totally on the decision made by a certain culture, by a subjective logic.5 The camouflage of Absalon’s sculpture within an art environment heightens the viewer’s sense of position in the space, making it immediately and phenomenologically palpable. As such the creation of a silence is not an emptying out but an address to the conditions that determine silence. It is an undermining of stable definitions—what first appears as withdrawal is a process of disclosure. Staring, transposed to an auditory sense, would be the listening that would enable a silence to be heard.
The difference between me and someone who wants to change everything is that I change only for the sake of changing and not to make things better. In contrast to the revolutionary, I need no justification for dreaming such change. I expend a mad energy to create something new, not something better. The better is only a pretext, and that optimism is not part of me.6
Struggle is present throughout Absalon’s work, although in a very different way to that of the artists his work references—Le Corbusier, Malevich, Georges Vantongerloo, etcetera. His white-on-white surfaces do not pertain to the notions of purity, peace, stillness or utopia proper to modernism. The frenetic movement contained within the at-first apparent quietude of Absalon’s sculptural fields is made manifest in the video Bataille (1993), one of the last works in his oeuvre. The artist, dressed for white-collar work, scrambles, stumbles and flails within a Naumanesque shot. The figure is imprisoned, but the boundaries are invisible.
Imprisonment and confinement are conditions that are powerfully present throughout Absalon’s practice. From the literal reference in the titular ‘cells’ to his own statement of society as a ‘total prison’,7 his work sought to make visible the ties that bind. The matter of silence and social boundaries has a particular resonance in relation to this work as well; the fact of the artist’s death due to an AIDS related illness is rarely, if ever, mentioned. The stigma surrounding the virus, particularly when it was first discovered, and its presumed relation to socially unacceptable behaviour, are instructive to this discussion.
Finally, silence, the creation of space, of a place-holder for an absent presence, implies a specific orientation towards an audience. A refusal perhaps, or a withdrawal. It is this quality of silent art, the stance of its non-speaking author, that Sontag deals with most extensively in her essay on the topic. She outlines a choice for artists between a servile or an insolent position; to give an audience what it already knows, or to commit an aggression by giving it what it doesn’t want, being ‘nothing’.
Also in 1969, Michel Foucault published his address to the future emancipation of the author which outlines another possibility. In this, the artist would cast her or himself as an undifferentiated figure. The voice of the author would be audible as a murmur, consisting of one, many or any voices. The modes of existence of a discourse would supersede an individual authorship and what ultimately would be of significance are, ‘the places where there is room for possible subjects’.8
1. Idit Porat, ‘Body-space Houses’, Absalon, De Appel, Amsterdam, 1994.
2. For a discussion of Malevich in relation to a ‘total nothing’ see, Branislav Jakovlijevic, ‘Unframe Malevich! Ineffability and Sublimity in Suprematism’, Art Journal, 63, No.3, 2004, pp.18-31.
3. Cited in Mathieu Copeland, ‘Qualified the Void’, Void, JRP Ringer, Zurich, 2009.
4. Susan Sontag, ‘The Aesthetics of Silence’, Styles of Radical Will, Picador, London, 1969/2002.
5. Jean-Pierre Bordaz, ‘The world as it should be’, Absalon, 1994, op. cit.
6. Cited in Bernard Marcade, ‘Absalon’s Monadologie’, Absalon, 1994, op. cit.
8. Michel Foucault, ‘What is an Author?’, The Foucault Reader, Paul Rainbow ed., Penguin, Middlesex, 1969/1986.