Jan Svenungsson

"Space for living", in: Cahiers d'Art, March 2014

When I first knew Absalon he lived in a garret on Rue du Temple. There was a bed, a small table, a chair. Very spartan. I picked him up there once and was impressed to see him ironing his shirt. He was not unaware of the world. I think he was perfectly happy with his tiny little room.

We met in the first student group of the Institut des Hautes Études en Arts Plastiques, in October 1988. I was the only foreigner who had not already been living in France, and while Absalon had been there for a while, he was different too, louder and less refined than the French artists (who included Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster and Philippe Parreno). In comparison with them, he seemed brash, but he had charm and obvious intelligence and was not afraid. He had arrived from Ashdod in Israel the year before and had done a little bit of art school during his short time in France. The Institute was supposedly postgraduate. Absalon had just begun. He was clearly in a hurry. One of his favorite expressions during this time was “Je suis un bulldozer de la culture.”

When we realized that the Institute was to be all theory and no practice, some of us complained and were given a former restaurant space as a studio. It was Absalon and me and Yan Pei-Ming and a couple of others. Our studio was very ugly, rather unsalubrious, but it was located right on the Place Beaubourg beneath the reconstruction of Brancusi’s studio. Absalon had not yet started to build large structures; he kept making small models of objects and strange furniture placed in thin boxes on badly made tables. All painted white.

It was here, I think, that he started doing the only pictorial work I am aware of him having made (except construction drawings): In architectural magazine photos, he painted out all the furniture with different shades of white. He was reducing the voluptuous interiors to premonitions of what he would soon be building himself. For Absalon there was never any doubt about color: It had to be white, always. Whenever something got dirty, it would just receive a new coat of paint. If it broke, it would be fixed and painted over. It was important, too, that things not be well made. I believe this idea came from Boltanski, who was a mentor and the person who had given him the idea to be an artist—or so he told me. He had come from Israel with some little figures made of steel wire and clay, handmade souvenirs that he had been making for tourists when he lived for a period in a hut on a beach. Boltanski saw these little figures and said, “You should be an artist.” In Absalon’s telling, this idea had been completely new to him.

Even when he had nothing but his hands and his brains, he was already aware of the importance of building a myth around himself. I never called him by his old name, Meir; he fully inhabited the name he had chosen for himself not long before we met. It came with a story, of course. I never knew exactly where reality ended and story began, and I did not really care because I liked him a lot as he was. We had time on our side, I thought.

One day we took the train to Poissy to visit the Villa Savoye. Absalon worshipped Le Corbusier and I was interested as well, but in another way. Where I looked at the incredibly cramped guest rooms of the villa with a kind of fascinated horror, I suspect Absalon saw something rather different. Le Corbusier’s disturbing combinations of the utterly aesthetic with contrived notions of the functional made his buildings into a kind of thrilling environmental sculpture. As space for actually living, they offer limitations. But that’s exactly what Absalon was after: imposing limitations and creating concepts of restricted living as art. In his work, extreme ascetic aspirations are brought out in such a real and convincing way that you never really know where fiction ends and reality begins.

When I returned to Paris in October 1990, Absalon was bubbling with projects and plans.  He had had his first show with Chantal Crousel and was now living in a pleasant modern flat near the Bastille. I was utterly impressed by how quickly he advanced, not just through living spaces but through society as well. Then he told me the exciting news: He was going to move again and had just received the keys to his new abode. He took me there. I could hardly believe my eyes when he showed me around the Villa Lipschitz, built by Le Corbusier for the sculptor Jacques Lipschitz in Boulogne-Billancourt in 1923-24. The building was not in the best shape, that was clear, but it was real. It had the aura: the narrow passages, a roof terrace, and an iconic studio. Absalon was going to live and work there. He told me that a lawyer, a relative or a family connection, had bought the run-down building as an investment and was going to let him use it in exchange for gradually renovating it.

When next I visited Absalon, he had fully colonized the building and was working around the clock with assistants in the studio. He had covered all the graying walls of the house with a fresh coat of his beloved white paint. No longer needing to apply this color to pages from architectural magazines, Absalon had made the Corbusier space his own. It must be a kind of paradise, I thought. I felt happy also because I would now be able to get to know a Corbusier building in a more intimate way, like a friend.

He then told me he was planning to move again. The “Cellules,” which he had built with wood and hardboard in the studio, were now going to be cast in concrete in several cities. His plans were to shed his studio and living quarters and become a nomad in order to live in his work. I couldn’t believe what I heard. Was he serious? Yes, he insisted. His itinerant life would start very soon, he told me, as soon as possible.

I was away for a year and when next I heard from Paris it was Marie-Ange, Absalon’s girlfriend, calling to say he had died.

I had had no idea he was ill. He had done all he could to hide it, from everyone. Much later, I understood that he had learned about his illness about a year or so after we had got to know each other. From that point on, he had been working against the clock. Everything had gone his way, except one fragile thing.


Jan Svenungsson, Berlin, January 2014