BY Paul Teasdale in Features | 12 MAR 14
Featured in
Issue 161

In Focus: Assaf Gruber

GIFS as readymades; finding inspiration in Hollywood film

BY Paul Teasdale in Features | 12 MAR 14

There’s a scene in the 1988 film Cocktail where big-dreaming bartender Brian Flanagan, played by Tom Cruise, is sitting with the table-bussing artist Jordan Mooney, played by Elisabeth Shue, in an idyllic Jamaican setting. Flanagan picks up a drink umbrella and muses, ‘You know there’s a guy who makes these. The guy’s a millionaire.’ ‘What about the guy who makes these?’ Mooney asks, picking up an ashtray. ‘And what about these plastic things on the end of laces?’ queries Flanagan. ‘It’s probably got one of those weird names, too, like, erm, ‘‘flugelbinder’’,’ Mooney shoots back. ‘We sit here, surrounded by millionaires,’ Flanagan rues. ‘You rack your brains day and night trying to come up with a money-making scheme and some guy corners the flugelbinder market.’

This clip is #41 in an ongoing project by Assaf Gruber, ‘Studies in Sculpture’, which he began in 2004. The series is an expanding archive of scenes from famous movies – mainly American, mainly from the late 1980s – that Gruber recalls watching as a child growing up in Tel Aviv. Each clip contains an unintended reference to art-making in general or sculpture specifically – the artist’s primary medium. The project forms a kind of visual dictionary; a compendium of key scenes, pithy mantras and unintentional moments of artistic lucidity from Hollywood stars, which the artist then shows in varying compilations. We see exaggerated versions of various performance-art clichés: Arnold Schwarzenegger lifts a car to a 45-degree angle to turn off an alarm in Twins (1988); Roseanne Barr deftly rigs up incendiary devices to burn down her philandering husband’s house in She-Devil (1989); Michael Douglas crazily saws off the heels of his wife’s stilettos in The War of the Roses (1989). These scenes are funny, but not just. The can-do capitalism and go-get-’em attitude of the era – Flanagan’s quest for his own bar, Cocktails & Dreams, for example – acts as a cautionary counterpoint to Gruber’s witty research. Gruber is interested in what it means for an artist to ‘make work’. This line of enquiry is about negotiating the intransigent politics that a young artist finds himself caught up in, as an entrepreneur and producer on the one hand, a researcher and student on the other. Artists, just like Flanagan, are searching for their flugelbinder moment.

Every Corner of the Soul, 2013, mixed media, installation view at Galerie Michael Janssen, Berlin. Courtesy: Galerie Michael Janssen, Berlin–Singapore

Though he considers himself a sculptor, Gruber’s interest in objects is influenced by elements borrowed from performance. As in ‘Studies in Sculpture’, video clips, GIFS and their gestures and movements play an integral role. Clips are embedded in his sculptures or function as sculptures themselves, often presented on plinths. The gif as readymade brings both depth of cultural meaning and breadth of context: its register and function is by now familiar but, at the same time, stripped of a narrative outside of the highlighted moment, its endless repetition allows for concentrated reflection.

Besides film, another golden-age American cultural trope synonymous with the leisure time of the blue-collar worker features repeatedly in Gruber’s work: the bowling ball. Struck by it as almost the perfect readymade, Gruber decided to see what the inside of a bowling ball looked like, so he sawed one in half. From afar the result looks like a split-open bubblegum ball, or a curious sacchariferous fruit. For the work No White Opinions (2011), Gruber arranged an assortment of differently coloured bowling balls, most cut in half, on a low white plinth outside the Małopolskie Centrum Kultury Sokół in Nowy Sacz, Poland. He has also fabricated them into alien-looking egg-shaped hybrids.

This neat, witty minimalism extends to other works. Doubt (2013), for example, is an iPad balanced on an angled spirit-level, bearing a video of a gravity-defying shot sliding upwards across a bar top. Or the dual-projection La Verité (2013) – one on the ceiling, one at floor-height – showing a looped GIF of a coked-up Ray Liotta banging his hand against the tiled shower wall (here turned-ceiling-turned floor) in Goodfellas (1990). Or the precarious All About Mom (2013), a toppling plinth – the height of the artist’s mother – upended by a large kitchen knife, bearing a small heap of International Klein Blue pigment and a chopping board.

These works were included in Gruber’s solo show at Galerie Michael Janssen in Berlin last year, where he arranged an assortment of pieces based on isolated elements of a working day. Taking film theorist Siegfried Kracauer’s tongue-in-cheek essay ‘Boredom’ (1924) as a starting point, the exhibition formed the artist’s investigation into what it means to abstract oneself from the world – to uncouple a GIF from the internet and just watch it on a loop. The titular work in the show, Every Corner of the Soul (2013), played a looped segment of Michel Foucault’s famous 1983 lecture at UC Berkeley, ‘The Culture of the Self’, while a close-up of the artist’s foot jumping up and down on a concrete floor was projected against a wall, disrupted by a chalkboard and an unzipped gym bag. The artist’s work as a practice, endlessly repeated. 

Assaf Gruber is an Israeli artist living in Berlin, Germany. In 2013, he had a solo show at Galerie Michael Janssen, Berlin, and was included in the group exhibitions ‘Perpetual Travelers’ at SAVVY contemporary, Berlin, and ‘Victory Obsessed’ at Centrum Kultury Zamek, Poznan, Poland. He was recently awarded a fellowship at Berlin’s Akademie der Künste.

Paul Teasdale is editor of He is based in London.