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By Andréa Picard
“These homes will be a means of resistance to a society that keeps me from becoming what I must become.”—Absalon
“In Basque mythology the house or etxe is a sacred area where the living and the dead meet on equal terms.”— José Maria De Orbe
The Israeli-born, Paris-dwelling sculptor Absalon chiselled his aesthetic to the very basic, essential components of form in a fervent, though cryptic dialogue with Modernism. In the late ‘80s-early ‘90s, he developed his own spatial language, resulting in 1:1 scale architectural models built out of wood and painted a uniform white. Meant to represent idealized living units, his cellules reveal an obsessive fascination with order and containment. While Japanese capsule-rooms/pod-hotels and the attendant trippy virtual pod-worlds of Mariko Mori may come to mind, Absalon’s work is much closer to the monastic than to a futuristic, multimedia utopia: think Fra Angelico’s San Marco. Barren, protective shelters from the chaos of the outside world, the units were built to size—his size—and were to be placed in cities throughout the world where he would travel as a nomad but still have a peripatetic home of his own: Paris, Zurich, New York, Tel Aviv, Frankfurt, and Tokyo. When he first exhibited a series of six cellules in 1993 in Paris (sadly, the year he died), Absalon explained that the cells were shaped not only by his body, but also by his mental space, and that in their reductionism and austerity, they were designed to “condition” the movements (or lack thereof) of his body in conjunction with their idealized formal considerations and their physical limitations. Their mausoleum and tomb-like qualities did not go unnoticed.
Bearing more obvious affinities with the Constructivists, the Bauhaus, de Stijl, Le Corbusier, and even Loos (not to mention the architecture of Tel Aviv, “the white city”), Absalon remained enigmatic about his sculptures’ apparent but also nebulous relationship with modern architecture. Having died of AIDS at the age of 28, his unfinished series has perhaps inevitably become imbued with a sense of personal tragedy, isolation, and truncated history. It presciently resounds with the struggle of personal subjectivity vis-à-vis an increasingly technological, fast-paced world, in which the multiplication of box-type living has continued apace. His Cellule No.3 (New York) was exhibited last year at Le Musée d’Art moderne de la ville de Paris during their magnificent and moving (and also morbid) show “Deadline,” which presented the final works made by artists who knew they were dying, including the insuperable Felix Gonzales-Torres, Joan Mitchell, Hannah Villiger, Willem de Kooning, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Martin Kippenberger. The least known of this group, Absalon managed urgently to create a sizeable body of work in half a decade’s time, his will to produce battling time in general and, ultimately, his health’s steady decline. His habitational units (and their reproducible prototypes) embody a message of social and private protest, made loud and clear by his accompanying videos which see him physically sparring with air and space (as much as with nothingness and everything), lashing out in loud, disturbing Bruce Naumanesque fits: screaming to be alive, screaming as we struggle, screaming to awaken, and, clearly, battling to protect one’s private, personal space.
The first comprehensive solo exhibition of Absalon’s work has at long last been mounted by the KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin, a show of major importance which confirms both the artist’s neglected and singular place within art history. Comprising videos, drawings, collages, his cellules prototypes and myriad sculptural shapes stemming from a primary, geometric language, his work also shares in the somewhat divergent ethos of Gordon Matta-Clark and Rachel Whiteread. While partaking in a certain socially engaged psychogeography of domestic space with Matta-Clark, Absalon’s aesthetic is cleaner, colder, and closer to that of Whiteread, whose sculptures are often white and minimalist even when working dramatically in large-scale. Her use of negative space bears affinities with Absalon’s rarely exhibited non-cell sculptures; in both of their work, the uncanny lingers large as space once occupied is made material as if to embody the residue upon residue of lived experience. Whiteread’s most famous and controversial sculpture to date, House (for which she won both the Turner Prize and the “anti-Turner” prize), was made in 1993, the year Absalon succumbed to his illness. He left behind an astonishing and assiduous artistic output, most significantly a series of homes, not houses, and ones not only for the living, but also for the dead.
One of the most striking film posters adorning the walls of Rotterdam cinemas during the IFFR belonged to Aitá, the fascinating, elliptical second feature by Basque filmmaker José Maria de Orbe. A stark black poster bearing the film’s title in white capital letters and a simple white oculus reminiscent of Suprematist paintings by Malevich (and the Pantheon on a cloudy day!), its graphic was instantly alluring and, as it turns out, just as mysterious as the film itself. Tranquil, unassuming, pleasantly sphinx-like, and with many moments of arresting beauty and calming repose, Aitá was a delightful surprise, even if at times a bit studied and self-conscious. One of two memorable films from the festival to address the “house/home” divide, Aitá bears several similarities to Chilean filmmaker Théo Court’s Ocaso, a pensive, painterly, and seemingly fragile portrait of an old butler and the decaying house in which he has lived for many years. Though vastly different in tone, style, and telling, Aitá and Ocaso are remarkably similar in their treatment of memory, time’s passing, and its ultimate resurrection. Both could be characterized as “haunted house” films, in which crumbling, creaky remnants and tenacious fragments from the past loiter like ghosts stuck in an in-between world, not yet ready to vacate the premises. Both also delineate difficult moments of transition epitomized, respectively, by a house that has lost its former glory and one that lays in near-ruins as those who have lived and loved the abode struggle to accept its and their own fate. The term and act of renovation takes on added poignancy.
Aitá—whose title is Basque for father—can best be described as a series of charmingly eccentric conversations between two men, neither of whom are directly introduced to us, and an exploration into the dusty corners of the grand villa in which they occasionally meet. As the film progresses, one understands that the elder gentleman is the sensitive caretaker and guardian of the historic house and the younger man a priest from the neighbouring church who visits for philosophizing companionship. Their conversations are charmingly banal, reveal interesting fragments of the history of the house, and veer toward the obsessive when Luis Pescador, the custodian, consults the plain-clothed priest about a hovering, soon-to-be consuming white light that appears before him, effectively blinds him, and is “always there.” Herein lies the puzzle of the poster, or so it would appear. Is this death approaching, about to eclipse the last vestiges of the twilight years? A surprising and brilliant cut later responds to our inquiry, only hinting at metaphor through architectural detail, when an actual oculus takes shape before our eyes. Answers are not easily provided in Aitá, and as the priest pleads ignorance, the film abandons its characters to focus on the nooks and crannies of the house. Constructed from one beautiful static composition after another, the film follows the careful gestures of the caretaker, while cataloguing the characteristics of the house and its gentle, yet startling transformations beneath shafts of the morning and setting sun. Nearly every scene is a handsome still life, some recalling tableaux from Chardin, Claesz, or Fantin Latour, with their darkened backdrops and speckles of iridescence, carefully rendered by gifted DOP Jimmy Gimferrer, who won an award for the film’s cinematography at San Sebastian last year. Doors, left semi-ajar, are of major compositional importance, and act like a series of soft-lit paintings by Hammershøi, the master of the domestic interior.
Observing beauty amid decay (and the beauty of decay), Aitá lovingly documents the house in every detail, from the chipped paint and moisture stains, its mismatched layers of peeling wallpaper, to its rickety floorboards, stained-glass windows, and the overgrown ivy clinging stubbornly to the stately stone façade. More through visual memorializing than the fragmentary dialogue, it becomes clear that the house is not just any old house, but a home as dear to the filmmaker as it is to the caretaker, who is incensed and crestfallen when a bunch of young vandals break in one night. In fact, the abandoned home has belonged to Orbe’s family for centuries (it dates to the Middle Ages when it served as a citadel), and what transpires onscreen is a mix of fact, fiction (the break-in), and re-enactment, radically oblique in its unfolding. The experience of watching Aitá has more to do with the appreciation of textures and sounds, and the intimation that private Proustian feelings can be shared anonymously through the act of creation. The film’s languor and hushed style invoke our imagination and announce the impossibility of a single-strand narrative, so tightly woven is the fabric of history shrouding the house in suffused melancholia. Its civil or museum-like role, as signalled by the visit of the schoolteacher and her students, adds an entirely new dimension to the idea of cultural memory and the conflation of time.
Fundamentally intimate (and intimiste in its portrayal), Aitá has inevitably been compared to Víctor Erice’s El sol del membrillo (1992) in its quotidian quietude, its attempt to paint a scene that refutes stasis on account of time’s passing, in its radiant amber light, the incompleteness of human exchange, and, especially, in its physical containment—that of the house and its surrounding grounds. As the seasons change and daylight casts a mood-altering hue, Aitá, like El sol del membrillo, approaches a form of collective memory rooted in the history of representation. “History is slow and life is fast,” opines one of the characters, as if stepping out of an Oliveira film (this tenet routinely applies to the Portuguese director’s characters but by some miraculous luck of the draw, never to the man himself). Like Oliveira’s incredibly moving memoir film Oporto of My Childhood (2001), which begins with a molten, faded photograph of his family home, Orbe’s film is ripe with the reverberations of past existences, as much as it is filled with Bachelardian promise, so long as the home still stands and is remembered. The sphere of white light that fills the film’s poster defies extinction, in its lineage and pictorial imprint (it’s the opposite of the black hole that consumes everything at the end of Jacques Nolot’s Avant que j’oublie ), offering plenitude not oblivion.
Orbe has cited as influences the brooding, hovering canvases of Mark Rothko, Giotto’s golden life-frieze frescos, and the monumental, oxidized sculptures of Jorge Orteiza, who had, during his lengthy career, argued for a particular aesthetics of the Basque soul. Calling forth these regional souls of living past, celluloid itself—the preferred phantasmagoric medium—is used to raise the dead, as archival footage from films shot in the area (some of which was chemically treated for extra eerie effect) flickers from the walls, at first fleetingly and quite hauntingly, then in a sepulchral climax. Lured by the trappings of the haunted house, Aitá relinquishes its beautiful restraint in the end, obviating some of its subtle and endearing musings by filling all the gaps with these ghostly projections—ones hitherto concealed, though fecund and restless in our mind. Its final, wordless scene, however, between caretaker and priest is a perfect, poignant toast to the unsaid.
Coincidentally, Ocaso proffers a similar ending, but the effect is radically different. Court’s modest use of archival imagery transcends the house altogether, filling the screen with footage that we recognize was shot in the exact same locations as in the film. The footage gushes with life: Belle époque festivities, with Victorian women lapping up the sun on the grassy knoll combing their luscious hair and smiling for the camera as children play nearby; an amateur pan records the wild but breathtaking grounds and views, while the house is shown as the pinnacle of life, love, and bustle. The end credits inform us that the footage belongs to the producer’s family archives, revealing yet again a personal connection to the film’s house. This dwelling in Villa Alegre, Chile, now lies in a sombre state of disrepair, and provides the perfect setting for Ocaso’s worn and worried protagonist. The effect of the archival footage, in its far-away familiarity, is nothing short of crushing. Once a welcoming home teeming with people, this atrophying shell is a metonym for the old and the unwell that it contains, and the inevitable cycles of life—as clichéd as that may inescapably sound.
Languid where Aitá is dreamy, Ocaso—Spanish for decline—is even more cloistered and introspective as it closely observes the daily rituals of an old, frail man with shaky hands and a stooped walk, who tends to the decaying house and its sick master. Bathed in digital sfumato with a Sokurovian palette of burnished fog, the film recalls the distended and disorienting look and funereal feel of Mother and Son (1997), as well as Elger Esser’s vanishing vistas. Little happens in this almost excruciatingly slow film, but the daily rituals and repetition—drinking wine from a plastic bottle, gathering kindling in the yard, changing the bed sheets, or simply waiting—signal a tenuous struggle for survival amid the banality of life’s bare necessities. Shelter, here, emerges as the most crucial, though Ocaso is structured around the elemental: earth, fire, water, and air, all under the sign of destruction.
Almost wordless, the film’s main dialogue comes at the midway point, when the owner of the house (one presumes) launches into a diatribe about man’s suffering and the difference between real suffering and literary suffering. It’s a melodramatic moment at odds with the film’s unspoken realities and its extreme tranquility, and like the bombastic single speech in Béla Tarr’s even more barren, Nietzschean masterpiece The Turin Horse, can be brushed away with a single word, or in this case, a shot of the protagonist whose unremitting silence makes apparent such a distinction. He’s in no state to lament his situation, as his home slips out from under him and he must, nearing the end of his life, find someplace else to go.
Much too Spartan to register as sentimental, Ocaso, in its stuttering claustrophobia and with its intractable subject, leads us in a way back to Absalon. The variables are all flagrantly different, the comparison is crude, even, and yet, wanting a sheltered place to sleep at night as the mind wrestles with being cuts across all difference. The sculptures of the artist’s tiny, though life-sized beds, tucked into the corners of his cellules, echo in the final image of Ocaso in which the old man finally lays himself down and slowly disappears into the bed, as matter and memory gradually merge. Though outwardly cold, formal, and severely ascetic, Absalon’s works are primarily somatic and as we enter what were to be his homes, we have good reason momentarily to feel safe.