Visibles - Invisibles
By Claire Kueny, art critic
Published in exhibition catalogue for Leftover from the Void en francais
Some places don’t need much.
Ben Jack Nash presents Leftovers from the Void an art project at Reichshoffen synagogue (in northern Alsace). An installation in two parts, in this former place of worship, it goes unseen for a certain amount of time during the exhibition. Is the artwork a leftover? In any case it reveals what still persists and what still subsists of the building and, of no doubt, its aura - for want of saying its soul. But what is the void that the leftovers in this artwork reveal?
Fashioned by history, inhabited by memory and forgetfulness, constructed by time, some places are deprived of void. This can be said for Reichshoffen synagogue, even despite remaining unused for more than fifty years. However, no place is ever completely empty, even those that hold out to be such as the immaculate white cube [gallery space]. Yves Klein illustrated this in 1957 at Colette Allendy then again in 1958 at Iris Clert during his exhibition La Spécialisation de la sensibilité à l’état matière première en sensibilité picturale stabilisée (The specialisation of sensibility in the raw material state into stabilised pictorial sensibility). Klein covers the white walls of the gallery. The monochrome became under the guise of the critics, ‘an exhibition of the void’ suggesting above all a spiritual journey, a dive into the« sensibilité picturale invisible » (invisible pictorial sensitivity). In no way is it a materialisation of the void.
Yet to be able to see or perceive this ‘invisible sensitivity’ (pictorial or not), the white space must be reconstructed. Yves Klein used welcoming and hosting devices to achieve this from his choice of invitation card to the colour of the cocktails served during the opening - all in blues. Only by relentlessly conditioning the visitors and steering them towards the colour blue could are they able to detect the presence, the soul, or, as Yves Klein preferred to say, the aura of the space and the artwork:
‘This invisible pictorial state in the gallery’s space must be in every respect until now the best definition of painting in general, that is to say, its aura. Invisible and intangible, if the creative process is successful, this immaterialisation of the painting must impinge on the sensitive bodies or vehicles of the visitors with far greater efficiency compared with the typical and ordinary visual representative canvas paintings, whether figurative, non-figurative or even monochrome’
This study of the immaterial was for Yves Klein an important journey in determining the essence of an artwork and one which has the ability to deeply move the viewer. He was persuaded that this essence is in the form of invisible forces emanating from material and has an important emotional power. Denys Riout wrote that Yves Klein sought ‘to identify and name the acting force which distinguishes an artwork from others when it is in possession of it.’
The journey embarked on by Ben Jack Nash for over nearly two years regarding Reichshoffen synagogue revisits some of the work of Yves Klein
around the void and in particular the ‘non-void’ of a place relating to the immaterial,
sensitivity and aura which are all at times visible, at times invisible but nonetheless perceptible despite everything.
‘What is not visible is not invisible’ is the title of a work by Julien Discrit, a neon light which contains the elaborate codes by Joseph Kosuth or Lawrence Weiner and denies the neutrality sought out by conceptual artists. Each in their own way suggest that what is not visible is not necessarily absent, that it is only empty for those who cannot see beyond the surface.
However, different from Klein’s research, Ben Jack Nash’s work at Reichshoffen synagogue is less about revealing invisible and acting forces in the artwork but rather in the building itself. It was constructed in 1851 and for the dozen Jewish residents still residing in the village after the second World War served as a place of worship until the death of the last official in 1967. The synagogue is currently undergoing rehabilitation, through artistic interventions sponsored by the CIBR (Consistoire Israelite du Bas-Rhin). These artistic projects provide an opportunity to reopen it to the public and in particular discover it in a way which is alternative to the usual purely historical and patrimonial discourse.
Ben Jack Nash’s project produces two installations which focus on two sections of the building: its objects and its light. Despite it being empty, several objects have been preserved (benches, a water bath, a candelabra, prayer tablets, a mekhitsa and a stone ‘donation’ hand sculpture. These are testament to some of the building’s original functions but which are not obvious from the external architecture. The light which comes through the stained glass windows is cast on the ground in yellow, ocher and white and reveals the orientation of the building with the choir facing east.
Ben Jack Nash’s two installations are separated by shadow and light down the building’s two sides to the right and left of the main aisle. They reveal themselves over two moments and across two movements. This binary system imposed by Ben Jack Nash questions our vision, through propelling the visitor from the invisible to the hyper-visible by revealing the true artificial nature of that which appeared so real.
Before describing Ben Jack Nash’s artwork and bearing in mind the connection with Yves Klein’s as above, it is important to understand it in the context of the journey from invisible to hyper-visible. Imagine you are a dozen people in front of the synagogue. It’s the first time you have gone in, you have only ever seen it from the synthetic outside which hides its true function - as is the case with many rural synagogues. The synagogues surface area is around 150 m2. (17.3m long by 10.75m wide). On the first floor, two painted balconies tell us of the separation between men and women during the service. On both sides of the central aisle, several rows of wooden benches face the bimah, placed on a raised platform. The light comes from the right reflecting on the ground. The shadows of the prayer tablets hanging at the front of the room resonate with the painted traces of the old columns surrounding the altar. A profound silence reigns, which undeniably reminds us of the spiritual nature of the place, but also the tragic history of the Jews of Alsace and Europe little more than half a century ago.
Some places speak for themselves.
After remaining in the space for a short while there is silence and nothing moves, not even the reflections of light on the floor. Staff members start to move slowly but with precise determination. They displace the first object, then the second and then the third from their plinth. Despite their displacement the shadows of these objects remain in place, frozen.
Then it is the stained glass windows turn on the lefthand side which are boarded up one by one, yet their reflections on the floor do not disappear. Should I not have realised this sooner? Should I not have realised when I was in front of the windows that my shadow was not cast over them? What’s more, thinking about it, the light at this hour in the day should it not be coming from the other side? From the other side! What (mis)understanding do I have of the most ordinary natural phenomenons? My orientation in space? The existence of my body on Earth, in this place? The melancholic calm of the place has just been substituted by a storm, a storm of questions but above all of doubts. What appeared to me as truth was in fact an artificial illusion. Plato warned us against this. I saw this place without being aware of it, without realising my place without questioning the memory that inhabits it.
Ben Jack Nash’s sculptural gesture sits somewhere between James Turrell, Claudio Parmigianni and Giuseppe Penone. It is between Mendota Stoppages (1969-1974), les Delocazione (from 1970) and Respirer l’ombre (2000). The artist is part of this family of ‘ inventors of place’ as designated by Georges Didi-Huberman in his trilogy. He is part of this family of
sculptors who through light, shadow and/or traces are constructors of places ‘construisent des lieux où voir à lieu’.
The artificial shadows and light reveal themselves as illusory games that make us more bodily aware - of our present selves and yet also absent. They ask us to replace our bodies in space and time. To find their place and perhaps to etch them in history. They bring out above all memory. In contrast to history, memory exists only in the present moment, in the here and now - which makes it so fragile.
Visible? Invisible? Ben Jack Nash’s artistic experience is above all sensitive and disturbing.