La Giarina Arte Contemporanea, Verona, Italy (catalogue available)

Assaf Gruber
Elena Forin & Isin Önol
website of the event

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‘An artwork prolongs, and goes beyond, common perception. What common perception trivializes and misses an artwork apprehends in its irreducible essence.’

‘Reality would not be only what it is, what it is disclosed to be in truth, but would be also its double, its shadow, its image.’

E. Lévinas

Is it ever possible to apprehend an artist’s privacy by simply getting to know their work? When Elke Krystufek masturbates in public in her piece, “Satisfaction” (Kunsthalle Vienna, 1994) or shaves her pubic hair, does she simply reveal or exhibit her private self?  Krystufek’s video piece “Share the Night” (1997) where she has sex with her boyfriend is another extreme example. Or how about Tracey Emin’s installation “My Bed” (1998) where she exhibits her bed, her “most personal space”, complete with the remnants of the previous night’s activities. the viewer of these pieces actually encounter the private being of these artists? Is it possible to share the privacy of an artist through an artwork?

The concept of “privacy” needs to be examined through an intercultural perspective. Clearly, the idea of privacy differs according to various social and cultural parameters. Monotheistic culture, for example, has had a strong impact in determining the religious aspects of privacy. Therefore there can be no catch-all definition of privacy. It is more rewarding to explore the boundaries of privacy in an artist’s work in relation to that artist’s context and personal history.  What does the artist intend to show, what is to be kept secret?  Similarly, the way these elements are perceived will also be influenced by the personal history of the viewer. The definition of privacy in an artwork can therefore never be absolute.

“Privacy” for artists, does not simply point to their private life but suggests something hidden, secret or unstated perhaps.  Subtlety, lack of definition, quiet, darkness, complexity, ambiguity are characteristics of these works that in turn imply “privacy”, as if something were hidden from the eye of the viewer. In contrast characteristics of clarity, lucidity, simplicity seem to imply an openness in which there is no need for conspiracy or subterfuge.

Assaf Gruber’s works contain a valuable sense of humour which is also a source of provocation for the viewer.  Cryptic titles and the curious way, in which the artist observes, uses and translates his material, imbue the work with ambiguity, contradiction and conflict often leaving the viewer feeling ambivalent. The selection for the show “Privacy” suggests a carefully wrought privacy; rather than the manifestation of something private. In each medium, with each object, Gruber ensures that ambiguity is retained. By deliberately hiding the narrative that underpins the work while leaving clues of a possible narration, by using conceptual and material layering, he creates a perception for the viewer which is “doubled by its own shadow”.

Paradoxically, the more one attempts to exhibit privacy, the more the privacy is lost; a process resembling casting light on to a shadow in order to show it better. That which is private needs “darkness” to retain its essence.  Privacy by definition must remain private. This might show the impossibility of exhibiting privacy but rather the value of its discussion in an art work. A comparison of Krystufek’s explicit performance masturbating in a bath tub with the “Homealone” piece, for example, implies privacy in a less distorted way, by simply preserving the privacy.

“Homealone” is an installation first produced in 2006. About 30 kg of rice placed on the ground seeming to have just been discharged out of a maracas hung from the ceiling. The spectator encounters the moment following the “event”. A discharge has happened, and only the result or the evidence remains, presumably intended to be reminiscent of male ejaculation after masturbation.  The title of the work (and of course the shape of maracas) further contributes to this narration.

An ambiguity of location, space, geography and time is a shared feature of Assaf Gruber’s works.  This ambiguity is reinforced in the questionable significance of situations, in suggested violence, hidden narrative and humour to be found in each work of the artist. Apparent simplicity belies sophistication and a perpetual ambivalence. “Kikar Atarim” is a very good example of this. It takes the form of a lambda print photograph, titled after a place in the centre of Tel Aviv. In translation the title, “Kikar Atarim” meaning “site-square” denotes no specific significance. But seeing this photograph of a demolished road, and knowing that the space is located in Israel; immediately relates this work to war or terrorism.  But Gruber appears deliberately to keep this moment of photography undefined. Once again, the viewer feels, like in “Homealone”, that a major event has taken place here: that this is its aftermath.  There may be no actual danger but it is implied. After interviewing the artist, I found out that the space photographed has nothing to do with a deliberate attack. Rather it is an artificial, rather decorative but useless, area between the sea and the city; a space hardly visited by anyone. One of the previous mayors had it built, and every mayor since has had to have it restored due to regular deterioration from poor use. The building next to the road was supposed to be a lively shopping mall, but it is now abandoned. Only vagrants come to the area. The green light and the clearness of the image suggest that it may have been manipulated but in fact this is not the case.

The two videos in the exhibition also reveal the artist’s characteristic approach and modus operandi. ‘Match point, the first video ever made by the artist, is one of them. With a very carefully thought out and organized plot, a ridiculous game takes on political connotations. It is a video of about four minutes. Brilliant red billiard balls are being thrown onto a tennis court with a ball machine, commonly seen in professional tournaments. The balls always travel in the same direction.  When enough balls are gathered on the ground, they start hitting each other just as they would in a game of billiards. While one side of the court gets filled with balls, the other side remains empty and quiet. It seems as if one side is attacking the other, or perhaps challenging the other to a game.

The other video, titled “Manu and Dougie” shows an two boys aged nine or ten, who spend an afternoon in a more or less empty suburban environment. The nicknames, “Manu” and “Dougie” are given to the boys by the artist.. However the viewer doesn’t know which actor plays Manu, which actor plays Dougie. Here the viewer can only guess which name would fit which boy, or which name the artist might choose for each boy. This remains private. Nor does the viewer receive any information about the, vacant field, shown in the video or what it may represent. She does not know why these two boys have come all this way on their own; she can only guess why the streets are empty, or what time of year, or of the day it is (in the beginning of this paragraph, the writer informed us that it was afternoon). Rather she encounters the boredom, creativity and violence of the boys. She sees how they collect the empty bottles from a rubbish dump, and in the end how they smash them in rage, in what appears to be an act of vandalism. The video has been shot in a documentary style, but sudden pauses, effects and the music at times give it the appearance and feel of nostalgic and mysterious movie cameos. The outstanding performance by the two boys serves to give the view the feeling of penetrating the privacy of their actions. The absurdity of the story merges with well-arranged effects in a carefully constructed subtlety. In an interview with the artist, I learnt that the field shown in the video is a new construction site in the North of Tel Aviv. At night, it becomes the busiest prostitution district. So the bottles that the kids collect, the condoms, and other rubbish that is seen in the video are the actual leftovers from the nightlife of that space.

The installation, “Getting Even” is one of the most provocative pieces in the exhibition. There are about fifty bowling balls lying on the floor, unable to move because they have been cut. Their possibility of movement along with the viewer’s potential involvement in, or enjoyment of, a ball game have been prevented by this act. Looking at the installation of the half balls, encountering their disability brings us face to face with our own disability; a sad moment. Having played his game and satisfied his curiosity about what is inside the ball the artist exhibits the leftovers of his absurd and no longer private game.

“Orly 04:11” is a sculpture of the specific moment of arrival of the artist’s luggage at Orly Airport.  It is a very rigid, heavy sculpture coloured and finely finished on one side, and rusty on the other. As a representation of a frozen moment, it once again contains a secret narrative. Grubber evokes the moment of waiting and grabbing ones bag off the baggage carousel at an airport as a definitive moment of privacy.

In this exhibition, Gruber makes a statement about his perspective of privacy. In choosing this title, he leads viewers into a game of creating narrative possibilities for themselves. Through repeated manifestations of ambivalence, Gruber charts the uncertain borders between private and public, shadow and light, actual and art, intimacy and dullness, clarity and opacity, enjoyment and monotony. His works are neither here nor there: they are forever poised in between.
Isin Önol

Asaf Grubber, Kikar Atarim, photograph, 2008
Asaf Grubber, Manu and Dougie, video, 2008
Asaf Grubber, Match Point, video, 2007

photographs by the artist

other past projects