Nir Alon - This Way or Another
25.02.05 - 01.03.05
Curator and Editor: Sven Nommensen
Published by: Kunstverein Buchholz, Germany, 2005
A Table and Eight Chairs. Limits to Stability
Text by Eva-Maria Engelen
The table and eight chairs that Nir Alon's grandparents brought with them from Eastern Europe to Israel were only for use on high days and holidays. They were draped in covers to protect them. Nir Alon may as a boy have sneaked into the parlour with his sister to play hide and seek under the covers and to make up stories. They may have wondered why they were not allowed to sit at this table when they visited their grandparents and to eat and chat at it with everyone in the family circle.
Make up stories about why you aren't allowed to use the furniture in Nir Alon's installations in the manner to which you are accustomed. You know how to sit down on a chair and how it feels when you bend your knees and your muscles relax once you have sat down on the seat. You know how to draw a chair to a table, how to open a table drawer or, for that matter, how to hang clothes in a wardrobe. And when you enter a dark room you automatically switch on a light or a lamp. You don't have to think about it, your body carries out all these movements by itself. You also imagine that you feel these physical sensations when you look at the installations consisting of chairs, tables, lamps and drawers. But you can't carry the movements out and yield to the desire to do what you are accustomed to doing. You have to stand in front of the furniture and can only walk around it and reflect on why you can't do everything you usually do with furniture and lamps without thinking. Automated actions you are seldom aware of are nipped in the bud by objects being used differently than otherwise. You have become part of a work of art by them keeping their own balance, bereft of their accustomed roots and caught in a state of suspension.
If you wonder why the artist has changed these otherwise so familiar objects in this way and what he means by it, come up with answers yourself. Whatever ideas may occur to you, none are wrong. Your answers are prompted by the installations and the titles that accompany them. Installations and titles form a starting point for your ideas, your imagination and the limits to imagination.
The artist has embarked on a game with the physicality and colors of objects that he has come across by coincidence and now holds the outcome of this game, which at the same time follows his desire for personal expression, at the ready for you. His game is based on a personal (hi)story that you do not need to know to play your part. This personal history remains a personal one even if it finds its way into a work of art that goes public. The artist does not make use in his art of the public interpretation of his art or of the connection between history and art.
A personal history is that of immigrant whose parents were immigrants too. The one migrated from the Middle East to Europe, while the others migrated from Europe to the Middle East. Immigrates cannot, as a rule, take with them to a new existence the furniture with which they are familiar. That is part of the immigrant's history. We know that even if we ourselves are not immigrants. It may not be our personal history but these are circumstances in which the story has become a public history that has left the place where it originated and does not come back to being a purely personal (hi)story.
Existing Absence is a title that names the connection between private and public history. Just as the table and the eight chairs in his grandparent's house were only for use on high days and holidays, the personal story that has found its way into the public work of art is not at the immediate disposal of all observers and interpreters. The personal story remains a personal one even when it finds its way into a public history, opening up a gap that is closed by the observer's interpretation. This story in the gap is only hinted at because the artist feels a deep need to communicate something, and he leaves it as a gap because he does not commit himself to a single case or instance. – Existing Absence also stands for everyone who has left a place or been forced to do so. By visiting an exhibition you have already accepted rules of the art scene, but you can now continue almost without rules and regulations. You are guided only by Nir Alon's art that you are looking at and by the titles that his objects have been given, there by indicating a direction for your thoughts. You are invited by the art in front of you and by the artist behind it to take a fresh look at objects with which you are familiar and to sound out the limits to your imagination. In this process you are, as noted above, not left entirely to your own devices. The titles are guidelines for the stories that will convince you.
The title Melancholy, for example, may prompt visitors to an exhibition to see the furniture artistically arranged in a state of suspended balance as a funeral pyre or a room abandoned in haste. The title Tell Me About Love is like an invitation to think about your personal relationships, such as about their fragile nature and maybe that good fortune of coincidental balance achieved contrary to all expectations. Much will depend on the observer's feelings when looking at the work – just as in the choice and installation of the objects much depended on the feelings and sensitivities of the artist Alon who made the selection.
Nir Alon enjoys walking the streets of a city. That is why old furniture put out for a waste collection is an ideal occasion on which to be attracted by furniture of all shapes and sizes. You can walk from house to house and see furniture by the roadside that is bereft of the function for which it was originally intended, and you will come across it in all its concrete shape and color – and the (hi)story that is associated with it.
If you collect furniture that has been put out for waste collection or by clothing on the flee market, you simply must enjoy dealing with history and stories. If you pick up a desk you will envisage the room where it once was used to write on. If you buy a 1950s or 1960s dress or pair of trousers and don't imagine that your mother or aunt, father or uncle might have worn them and don't image what they must have looked like and how they may have felt in them, and if when wearing them you take on or imitate none of this feeling and this other way of moving and behaving, you have merely saved money because you were either unwilling or unable to spend more. A lack of imagination and empathy is a sad and dreary state.
Furniture, like clothing, has a history. When we look at it we can guess who used it, and when and how often. There are limits to which it can be changed without destroying it. It stands out as what it is. These are objects that you have to deal with. They are made already and not created anew. Their design is fixed and their shape and size have long been theirs.
They may be singled out in an instant by the roadside, the artist looking to one side as he laughs in conversation with a friend, then perhaps noticing a little cupboard the surface finish of which he likes. It is a coincidence that he takes up, and what he chooses follows on from the moment of seeing and from his feelings and sensitivities.
Beauty is not something intentional. It hits us unexpectedly and amazes us because it is out of the ordinary. There are unusual things that are beautiful. An object bereft of its function takes you aback and surprises you. Something is strange. It is the same with something beautiful that we are not expecting. And this thing that is not everyday and is strange and beautiful can surprise us in two respects – by its beauty and by the unusual nature if its existence. Beauty in Nir Alon's art is derived not from strangeness but from a thing's ease and simplicity.
The unexpected is based not just on beauty but also on strangeness, and this strangeness often causes amusement. What is beautiful must not lead to amusement, and what is amusing is not necessarily beautiful, but Nir Alon's art is both – beautiful and amusing. That is due to the unexpected and the strangeness that are triggered as an impression and a sensation by things having been bereft of their customary function, having lost their usual stability and been brought to a state of suspension or balance. A synonym for balancing in German is "tightrope walking". But has anyone ever seen a wardrobe dance or walk a tightrope? If that fails to amaze you, if you don't sense the limits to stability, on seeing cupboards, chairs and tables dancing, if your thoughts don't change and call for other words, then Nir Alon must have failed to reach you with his art.
Alon's installations are arranged to make the fragile balance of things to each other not just visible but the subject of art itself. The observers see that and are aware of the instability of these objects that do not collapse. How, one may wonder, do they know this? They themselves will usually only have played with building blocks as children, and few of us will have tried out hands at tightrope walking. So it is highly likely that many will have no physical knowledge of this and that the experience from which they infer this knowledge is a matter of the instability of our lives.
You stay for a little while longer even if your thoughts do not call for new words. This is not art that requires words to deal with it. If you find something strange and unexpected amusing, just give in to a smile. Maybe your surprise will be transformed into a feeling of amusement. As long as you can come to terms with the strange, shabby old furniture bereft of its function will not leave you feeling miserable and in despair and the instability of the installations may lead you to a new balance in your thoughts or feelings. Balance, you know, is a tightrope walk, and that includes a tightrope walk of the emotions.