Some artists train to use a specific vocabulary of contemporary art and subsequently leave every other language behind. Assaf Gruber has it both ways, selecting moments of Hollywood blockbusters to articulate his evasive definition of sculpture, while also integrating conceptual strategies, often within the same piece.
In Every Corner of the Soul, his first solo exhibition at Galerie Michael Janssen and the inaugural show in the gallery’s new Berlin space, Gruber presents over a dozen sculptural arrangements, many including his precise use of short, looped video clips. Each piece holds a performative tension, whether in the act of physical balancing or in suggesting a prior, present, or future action. Visible from the street through the gallery’s wide storefront facade, rice spills out onto the windowsill, down to the floor from a drilled maraca dangling from the ceiling (Homealone, 2006). A Robert Morris-esque white column stands tilted on a knife, its top balancing a cutting board with a small pile of IKB (International Klein Blue) pigment – ironically and, perhaps, problematically titled, All About Mom (2013).
In these and several other works, Gruber employs humour that’s often laden with double and triple references. Two bright orange, egg-shaped bowling balls (First Kiss, 2013) lie on the floor, begging to be lifted and referencing Gruber’s prior bowling-related works (one of which, Rails to Bliss , lies in the back room). And in Xenophobia (2013), an old medicine cabinet hangs on the wall, its glass doors cinematically ajar, revealing an LCD screen in place of the central mirror panel. A parrot stares out while slowly lifting one claw and wing to balance. The video loop is jarringly short, and freezes briefly between plays, showing the seams of its own clipped status. Like an ironic twist on Rosalind Krauss’s seminal Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism (1976) in which we are denied the image of the artist brushing his teeth, here, video-as-mirror is re-worked as mirror-as-video.
Most of the appropriated video in the show comes from Gruber’s Study in Sculpture series (2004–present), in which he selects clips he believes reference sculpture from the many Hollywood blockbusters he watched while growing up in Jerusalem. For Evasive Action (2013), the artist placed a 1992 Sony home cinema monitor on its side, and flipped a looping clip from Frank Perry’s The Swimmer (1968) upside down so that Burt Lancaster appears to be climbing upwards against gravity. Study in Sculpture No. 39 (2013) features a short looping clip from True Romance (1993) in which Lee (Saul Rubinek) asks: ‘would you like a little coffee with your sugar?’ to which Clarence (Christian Slater) answers ‘Lee, I’m not satisfied until the spoon stands straight up.’ Gruber turns these clips into an evolving, moving target definition of sculpture, an exercise in using his own archive of experiences and references to read art (in a reversal of the more frequent tendency to use art discourse to read life and popular culture). But more than that, Gruber begins to bring us into his methodology, training us to read his work.
The best example of this is one of the central pieces of the show, which shares the title of the exhibition, Every Corner of the Soul (2013), taken from Michel Foucault’s 1983 lecture at UC Berkeley, The Culture of the Self. The work comprises a very short looped audio clip from Foucault’s speech played on a speaker and a looped video of the artist’s foot projected onto the wall from a projector standing on its side in the middle of the gallery floor. The projection intersects with a painted chalkboard, a bag and towel (as though Gruber has just returned from the gym). Foucault’s voice is softer than the sound of the artist’s foot gently sticking down onto the cement floor and unsticking to bounce back up again, in and out of focus on the projection. Perhaps the training that artists complete is the unseen action of the art world, but Assaf Gruber makes it one of his primary materials.