Covering all five floors of KW (Kunst-Werke), this survey of the work of the Israeli artist who renamed himself Absalon, and who died of AIDS in 1993 at the age of 28, documented a foreshortened career of bewildering productivity. Although the works on view spanned seven years, nearly all came from the first three years of the 1990s. This restriction accounted for the show’s visual consistency: it resembled a single body of work stretched to its logical limits. And human limits, physical and conceptual, were the central theme.
Like Minimalist sculpture, Absalon’s six “Prototype Cellules” (all 1992) reflect the dimensions of the human body and the body’s relation to the works. They are modernistic habitation cells, each with a unique design, containing the minimum space and furnishings to harbor a single person and meet his basic requirements: a shower stall, a cot with a thin futon mattress, a stool, a worktop, a sink. Two of the dwellings are split-level, with a ladder leading to the sleeping den. All are constructed entirely from wood and fabric coated with whitewash, so most of the interior features are no more than rough designs that would have to be replaced by plumbing and wired fixtures. Since the materials are those of standard white-cube gallery architecture, the cells blend into their environment, poignantly testing the boundary between autonomy and conformity. The individuality of the designs asserts proud self-sufficiency, while the works’ whited-out surfaces sug- gest self-effacement. Entering the cramped interiors is like being absorbed into a sanitized haven-a clearing-despite the claustrophobia of close confinement.
Each of these sculptures was intended to be located in a different city, serving as a makeshift abode for the internationally nomadic artist. This program, with its utopian overtones, is consistent with the works’ Constructivist-like designs, wrought from a set of basic geometric forms: the cube, the cylinder, the sphere. If the “Prototype Cellules” sometimes resemble single-story adobe houses, the “Cellules” (1991) are more like streamlined space shuttles, lit from inside, issuing a sinister but seductive sci-fi glow
A section of each shell, removed to create an opening, rested next to the main structure as though just popped out. The interiors, smaller than those of the “Prototype Cellules,” are more ambiguous in their repre- sentation of functional features, which seem to have decayed back to the forms on which they were based. And yet, as the “Prototype Cellules” are too modernistic for primitive dwellings, so the “Cellules” are too modest to fully justify the sci-fi metaphor. But Absalon’s work is a reminder to us that science fiction is always a narrative of the past as well as the future, of reduced means as well as technological advancement. Bare rafters and porthole windows in KW’s loft gallery were painted white to accommodate Disposition (1990). The installation’s 40 elements resemble white fossilized blow-ups of Alan McCollum’s pseudo-technological sculptures. It seemed they might all somehow fit together, like a giant’s puzzle, if only the artist had enough time to solve the problem.
Pen drawings, notated in Hebrew, along with small sculptural maquettes in open-topped cardboard boxes, evoked Peter Halley’s analogies between geometric formalism and social and political systems. These studies provided a view into the roots of Absalon’s idom, allowing him to be situated him in his ’90s context. They demonstrate how the sculptural language of the “Cellules” share aspects of the design art of Andrea Zittel and Jorge Pardo, with its tendentious blend of utopian esthetics and condo-style furnishings.
Absalon’s isolationism may be the antithesis of the social opportunism of the “relational aesthetics” gang—Rirkrit Tiravanija, Liam Gillick, Philippe Parreno, etc.—but he shares their ecological consciousness and globalist perspective. The geeky precision of his architectural drawings contrasts with the psychological angst of the videos Bruits and Bataille (both 1993)—in which the artist screams until he is either too hoarse or too exhausted to go on, or flails around a bare room like a demented dervish, impotently thumping the air—and makes the films appear more studied in their existentialist theatricality. Those seven years of production may have required an expontential degree of urgency, but it is clear that Absalon always knew exactly what he was up to.
Photos: (left) view of Absalon’s “Prototype Cellules,” all 1992. (right) Cellule No. 5, 1991, wood, cardboard, neon tube and mixed mediums, 111⁄2 feet long. Both at KW.