By Esther Dotan, on Assaf Gruber's series "Studies in Sculpture" for the publication Studies in Sculpture: 22 Fragments
Cinematic excerpts run on a pedestal. Narrative scenes extracted from famous films. A black man being assaulted—possibly a detective; he is holding a prosthesis that has come off his leg, and in a slightly suspended close-up, kisses the shoe painted on it. A person pulls a gun at a closet, the closet doors open, the hiding man shows himself, his eyes stare; a woman feigns innocence. A guillotine blade hurtles down—we know that the eyes of the decapitated head are blue because a moment ago they filled the screen and stared at another pair of blue eyes in a counter close-up, and a moment before that, a standard procedure was completed: a quick sip of wine and a brief puff on a cigarette for the condemned. A man gapes craving eyes, grinning eagerly at a suitcase overflowing with banknotes; another man secretly pulls out a gun and shoots him to death; the murderer stares at the vehicle sinking into the river with the dead body inside. The hunk thrusts the fast food at the poor wretch, 'Eat!'. A Nazi doctor measures a woman; yes, her physical features are likely those of a Jew—or an Armenian or an Arab; yes, she is supposed to pay for this "medical" service. A pianist is dragged from his chair onto the piano, kneeling on it on all fours, a hooligan decorates his butt and neck with heavy iron bells. A father and son pretend—chatting and laughing as if nothing had happened, as though the child's pigeons have not been maliciously slain. A muscleman waives the services of a hooker with three lush breasts. A black sniper stares dumbstruck, having had to admit to the superior skills of the white sniper. And so on and so forth. Merciless violence, both explicit and implicit. Sadism. Pure evil. Racism.
What is the purpose of all these on the pedestal? To provoke anger? "Indignation demands action," John Berger once said about images of violence in the press. But what action may be taken here? It is all drawn from the movies. Pulled excerpts, pulled guns. Is the selector's eye like a camera shooting at attractions? At scattered chains of staring eyes? Risking a cluster of virtual climaxes. Where should one seek a re-weaving of meaning here? In 1976, British artist John Stezaker combined pairs of production shots from films: a man or a woman talking on the phone—the matched expressions spawned new stories; e.g.: a live moment in which she whispers and he is indifferent, thinking about something else. We know, she doesn't (Cross Connections). What story does Assaf Gruber construct here? For, to adopt the cinematic medium means, inter alia, not to deny the construction of a narrative.
And another risk: copyrights. Culling excerpts from famous films? Collaborating with the promiscuous use of intellectual assets in the Google age? Or perhaps a dodgy democracy of a new type?
And another risk: To do ostensibly nothing, and sign one's name on it. No doubt, Duchamp is somewhere in the background.
And another risk: How are the excerpts gathered by Gruber different from those of the countless content producers on the web? It is an era of producers (Facebook, YouTube, etc.), says Boris Groys ("Marx After Duchamp, or The Artist's Two Bodies," e-flux, no. 19, October 2010); moreover, everyone is a production worker (unless they are entrepreneurs like Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons)—unrewarded proletarians who serve the Internet tycoon or the art market from the backroom of some museum or gallery. In her essay "Art as Occupation: Claims for an Autonomy of Life" (e-flux, no. 30, December 2011), German artist Hito Steyerl continues the "proletariat" discussion in her own way via an acrobatics of meanings, juggling with the words 'occupation' and 'work' (labor, work of art), mentioning, among other things, the profusion of cooperative nonprofit galleries set up by artists. According to Groys, we live in a new era of production conditions which differs from the "all consumers" condition described in Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle. Who is the audience in an "all producers" reality? Or, from a different angle, is it possible to conduct a dialogue between subjects in the narcissus garden?
Sculpture without Sculpture
I will attempt to show that the paradox pending in Assaf Gruber's series Studies in Sculpture constitutes a distance from Internet productiveness, draws away from it, defines resistance and, in a way, implies an agenda for art.
The series seeks a subject for a dialogue in order to materialize as an independent presence. It is like a play in need of an actor. The moment of display is an opportunity for the artist-gleaner wandering in the liminal zone of the (Duchampesque) strategy of choice to conduct a dialogue with a viewer, as subject to subject, and transform potential into actuality—albeit conceptual; transform the virtual into an "object-event" in a real space, or more accurately—into a relevant situation. Where does the choice of excerpts lead? Where does the sculpture-without-sculpture, the pedestal-without-a-sculpture lead?
A second viewing reveals that the climaxes running on screen, torn from various cinematic dramas, draw attention, in each of the excerpts, to some object, shape, form which plays a specific plot-related function in the original film. At the same time, each of these forms also drifts into different contexts which render it a charged form, an object with content, a study for a sculpture: a white bookcase designed with geometrical lines functions as a bizarre receptacle for dead pigeons; a long shot featuring a close-up of a car sinking in a river is a sculpture suspended on a void; a white ruler for measuring nostrils—an illusive sadistic object (unless it is, perhaps, needed in plastic surgery) recurs in different frames as an ostensibly pure, self-explanatory minimalistic object; the close-up of the three breasts appears like a surrealistic exaggeration of sexual objecthood, or perhaps a conscious feminist provocation; the rectangular formal smoothness of the guillotine parts clashes with its essence as a brutal controlling weapon; the prosthetic shoe fuses the Freudian fetish with European colonialism. Sculpture in potential, sculpture on hold: the aforesaid human inferno may be flattened into yet another hackneyed cliché if it is formulated directly, adding another image or another word to the already existing ocean of descriptions, which launches tiny, indifferent looped waves vis-à-vis a violent reality that continues to ravage, scalp, crush, trample, shoot in the name of elected governments, in the name of tyrannical dynasties, in the name of self-appointed hooliganism. Hence, one must wait with an image-unrealized-as-an-artwork as long as it is helpless in view of the existent. To my mind, the waiting is the story of the series.
The meanings extracted from the clips were not necessarily intended by the filmmakers; they emerge by virtue of the ensemble selected by Gruber and concurrent with the evolution of the new context of the excerpts as sculptures on a pedestal. Virtual three-dimensional forms conceptually sketch a violent map of a collective subconscious, a map exposed and sustained only at the time of viewing: the form's "extraction" and signification is an ongoing, evolving process, and it is the live moment of the series. The viewer enters the space which brings the cinematic excerpts together; he gropes between the risks and traps lurking by the visible, seeks the way in the labyrinth of self-posed questions, moves between the flickers of self-proposed answers. The meanings are not dictated. The intentions behind the choice are one thing, while the viewer's signification is another. It is a conversation, not a riddle (at any event, no riddle should be allowed access here). The objects scattered in the selected clips fuse into an antagonism against the aestheticization of decontextualized, clean, pure form. The viewer is offered situations which are sets of interrelations, not a dissociated sublimation of an emblem or an icon.
Tension between Movement and Non-Movement as a Medium
The pedestal is fixed, whereas the emblematic form in the clip is not only woven within a scenic plot as a hidden presence, nor installed in and of itself; it is, rather, in constant movement, running, swept in a loop. The tension between movement and non-movement (see David Campany, Photography and Cinema, Reaktion Books, London, 2008), characterizing a trend in modern and contemporary art which blends oxymora such as moving photograph (conceptually—Hiroshi Sugimoto, or concretely—Andy Warhol's films, for example) or cinematic picture (e.g., Jeff Wall or Cindy Sherman) for its purpose, utilizes parameters from the intermediate realm between cinema and photography and generates here a new tension in reference to sculpture. Sculpture has a long history with fetish, and fetishization (think of Marx), we know, has been given another expression in the yielding consumerist awe which sustains the dynamics in the stardom and commodity culture, including the field of art. In the series Studies in Sculpture, it is precisely the structured movement of the cinematic clip, of the medium which in itself fosters fetishism, that prevents a fetishistic hold on an object fleeing despite the stable, permanent base of the traditional pedestal.
The tension between movement and non-movement, which is, in fact, the "medium" of the series, also plays another role, coming from a different direction. In the mid-20th century minimalist sculpture did away with the pedestal, and liberated the sculptural object from a quasi-autonomic, delineated enclave to interrelations with an actual space. It seems that the reinstatement of the pedestal to these "studies" is a programmatic act resulting from the changing times, a counter-response: a structural wedge in a virtual cascade.
The brutal situations in the running cinematic excerpts amount not only to a brilliant, disillusioned strategy of "sculpture on hold" in an image-sated world, but also to the conscious choice of entrenching in the gallery space. The decision elicits questions which cannot be evaded. The chosen cinematic clips obviously prevent indication of concrete violence; namely, they prevent trespassing, an action in the world. By action in the world from the art world I am referring, for example, to the postage stamps with the portraits of UK casualties in Iraq whom British artist Steve McQueen wanted—but was not allowed—to take out of the wooden chest of drawers he created, and functionally distribute in the public space as a daily reminder of an imperialist manipulation of the global kind (Queen and Country, 2003-2009). Similarly, the series of photographic code images and text by American Taryn Simon, An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar (2003-2007), is a script of trespassing. Such is also the installation The Sculpting Legion (2011) by Israeli Yochai Avrahami, which exposes a "Department of Sculpture" with IDF esprit de corps and its use of an innovative, sophisticated plastic material intended to "sculpt" a surface as camouflage, a material which was revealed as toxic, liable to contaminate the earth and water (the work debuted at the Israeli Center for Digital Art, Holon, in the exhibition "According to Foreign Sources," September 2011; curator: Gilad Melzer). But this is, as aforesaid, a different journey. Still, nevertheless and indirectly, the series Studies in Sculpture cannot but revive tangential questions about a forbidden territory, about a taboo. This highly present absence holds the potential for a continued effective discussion of its own from the series, which is possibly implemented directly in other works by Assaf Gruber.