Climate change, globalisation, mass migration, secularism, digitisation, longevity. What is it that defines the direction of these profoundly influential phenomena shaping humanity throughout the 20th and 21st century? They are all subject to a process of ‘abstractification’ - tectonic shifts from a more material, physical state of greater certainty and definition to one which is far more abstract, intangible or transcendent. Moreover, this has been taking place at breakneck speed over a period of only three generations or from grandparents to grandchildren. Some of these changes have been overwhelmingly positive, creating greater equality and individual freedoms for the disempowered. Others, however, spell disaster for the future of our planet and its finite resources. The tension and backlash against this tide is in full flow in the form of dramatic surges in right-wing authoritarian populism, border closures, sectarianism and other inward-facing movements bedfellowed in their desire to reverse the process and return to a time of greater control.
Rather than grasp this process through the lens of academics and analysts it is told through an artist’s eye view likening it to the nature, movement and identity found in physical material, matter and objects.
The rise in right-wing authoritarian populism - a backlash in an increasingly abstract world
Populist leaders and movements are shuddering mainstream politics showing a worrying trend being played out across Europe and the EU including Brexit (UK), Marine Le Pen (France), Norbert Hofer (Austria), Geert Wilders (Netherlands), Viktor Orban (Hungary) and Golden Dawn (Greece) etc. Many experts, journalists and political commentators describe a battle of values between the older and younger generations. They observe how older generations who grew up under the umbrella of a more traditional and less liberal value system feel increasingly alienated by neo-liberalism and social progress such as feminism, LGBT rights and anti-discrimination measures. Equally changes in the economy’s operation such as globalisation, deregulation and automation is also said to have largely contributed. These changes have gradually been taking place over the last century and have now reached a tipping point. But rather than explain this phenomenon through the traditional socio-political or economic lens of relevant academic experts and commentators, it is told through the unusual and creative perspective of an established practicing artist. The talk will entertain how it might help to see them in terms of art, aesthetics, space and movement. It will describe how what we are witnessing can and maybe even should be framed in terms of space, aesthetics and form as well as figures, cohorts and trends. Perhaps it is not a cultural backlash that can explain the rise in populism but a backlash of the physical against the abstract and its movement in space.
Decay as shifts from material to abstract identities in physical and socio-political matter
This discussion invites us to reconsider decay as an inevitable process between material and abstract states and argues that we can understand the socio-political landscape as being composed of matter in the same way as physical and natural objects.
Physical matter can be assigned with an abstract and material identity in accordance with its relationship to movement and space. Matter confined or slowed down in space is attributed a more material identity in contrast to matter that moves around or transcends space more freely manifesting a greater abstract identity.
To this end, decay is characterised by movement away from a familiar, tangible and empirical material state to an abstract identity that has a more unpredictable, uncertain and multifarious nature. The decaying process represents an overlap between these two states, one where it is difficult perhaps impossible to precisely detect or access directly the moment the beginning or end. Identifying decay is therefore only possible through deduction of by-products, consequences and hindsight.
The socio-political sphere can equally be understood as being made up of matter with material and abstract identities subject to similar behaviour and traits. Over the past century, seismic identity shifts from material to abstract states have occurred at artificially breakneck speed - physical processes and labour replaced by digitisation and robotisation; traditional and religious values to liberal and secular; protectionism to globalisation etc.
Can we understand this socio-political shift as one of decay as we do in terms of physical matter? If so what can be said about its aesthetics and what new constructions can we expect to emerge? What are the impacts when decay is artificially accelerated as opposed to leaving the process to occur organically?
Abstract for talk - The aesthetics of decay - St Annes college, University of Oxford (February, 2020)
Matter can be categorised by material and abstract identities according to its relationship with movement, space and internal versus exteranal relationships. This operates in terms of a spectrum which can serve to assign matter with a 'relational identity'. Matter which is more confined to internal relations can be said to have a more material relational identity and matter which travels around space more freely and has more flourishing external relations can be said to be at the more abstract end of the spectrum. Its relational identity determines its characteristics. In its material identity matter is more singular, defined, functional, predictable, relatable, detectable, empirical and identifiable. An abstract state however is more fluid, open, interpretable, intangible, subconscious, harder to pin down and specify. The greyest area occurs where the two states overlap between each other particularly, as I would argue, it is not possible to measure precisely the moment that this takes place only that we can deduce it has vis-à-vis consequences and by-products, hindsight or traces. Understanding this relationship is important for the understanding of behaviours, reactions and causes from the natural and built environment to particle physics.
Adopting theory and language from object oriented ontology, the socio-political sphere can also be understood as capable of being thought and treated like any ‘object’. As such the principles which determine material and abstract identities in physical objects are equally applicable to this domain. For example, it is argued that over the last three to four generations western industrialised nations have witnessed an upheaval from a material to a more abstract state at breakneck speed. Previously more set material values, notions or processes have opened up allowing far greater freedom of movement. We see this in terms of acceptable social norms transitioning from traditional and conservative to liberal; globalisation and the lifting of trade barriers; replacement of hard currency with electronic transactions; dissolution of borders and migration, greater equality for minorities and unfixing previously fixed gender roles.
The subjects under discussion at Parallax lend themselves to be explored by this vision. Digitisation and big data for example concern displacement away from the material as preceding analogue and physical processes are removed and the knowledge sector overtakes manual labour altering perceptions of work, the workplace and the worker. Abstractification is also very present in relation to recent dwelling trends (seen for example in eastern Germany) as younger generations move, migrate and mobilise away from rural towns to cosmopolitan cities resulting in rural desertification and declining working age populations.
Basis of workshop discussions at Culturgest Lisbon - Parallax (anthropocene campus) in association with Max Planck Institute, CIUHCT (Lisbon) and Haus der Kulturen der Welt (Berlin)
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.
Discussion between Claire Decomps and Ben Jack Nash
What follows is an extract from a conversation between Claire Decomps and the artist Ben Jack Nash which took place at his studio in Strasbourg in April 2018 in connection with the art project "Left over from the Void".
Claire Decomps is based at the MAHJ museum in Paris. She is principle curator and analyst for Jewish culture and heritage in France (a national department specifically set up under André Malraux) and for several years she worked for the Eastern French region (Le Grand Est). She is officially the only person in France with this specific expertise. Her focus covers both architectural and object based heritage, in public and private spheres covering all historical periods.
In particular they discuss how objects, artefacts and architecture whilst at the core of both their work is seen and used by them from two very distinctive viewpoints.
A full version complete with images is available in the exhibition catalogue.
Claire Decomps: The idea of what is ‘heritage’ is
one which has greatly developed over the years,
even since I have been working in this department.
For example, when I started my job we were already
interested in rural situated architecture and heritage
but only up to 1850. Today, our research covers everything
up to the present day. We also introduced new
fields such as industrial and material heritage. My field
has significantly evolved and continues to do so.
Ben Jack Nash: Its not only a building which forms
part of heritage but also the objects which are found
within them. For me one informs the other - space
and objects are physically connected on the one hand
and symbolically on the other but equally through
their connection with memory. How, in your work do you
distinguish between what is defined as architecture and
what is defined as object?
CD: The object/architecture distinction is not always
obvious. In a synagogue for example, an ark of the
covenant made from stone is embedded into the architecture.
Are the foundation stones architecture or
object? This distinction is not fundamental in what I
do. It is important from a legal point of view - for the
purpose of conservation. In general it is considered
that if it’s attached to a building/ edifice then it is part
of the architecture. But for a study, it is not fundamental.
When we do a [site] study, we don’t separate out
architecture and objects as in other countries but we
study the objects according to their context. For example
is a succah an object, or is this architecture?
It’s a temporary shelter for the festival of tabernacles,
what’s important is the roof, the idea that you must
be able to see the stars and not be protected from
the rain. In theory it’s really a construction but which
has a lot of modification. There are examples of lofts
which have been modified and branches put in place
of the actual roof for the period of the festival. In this
case, its semi-permanent and it is an architectural solution.
What is important in the succah is that people
must build the shelter themselves, a very temporary
shelter, and you appreciate the difficulty with living
BJN: The nineteenth century was the museums’
golden age and a symbol of state power. Many site
specific artworks were removed from their intended
place and put into museums. None of these works
were conceived for the museum space and often the
artist knew their artwork’s destination before making
it. We see this in particular with religious paintings.
As such these art museums can be seen as artifices.
Nowadays, it is far more common to find contemporary
works of art commissioned for the museum space.
Often we remember the space in which we’ve seen a
work as well as the work itself.
In ‘Les Résidus du Vide’, we see the opposite. Instead
of changing our impression of the work by putting it
in an alternative space, it changes our impression of
the space through the work. If you take it elsewhere
it loses its meaning. It is an architectural intervention
which means that the artwork / the art object has a
very direct even inseparable relationship from its
environment. For the synagogue, it is a most authentic
product whereby its authenticity lies in its uncertainties.
Its more natural to think about the object and space
not as two separate entities nor as one single entity
but as a spectrum of entities as with colour. Its more a
series of overlaps. And this spectrum contains everything
which influences our perception of the building
from the architecture to the sunlight to the objects.
These exchanges and influences in the space are not
limited to the architectural borders.
CD: For us one of the main interests is the study of
objects. In museums you don’t necessarily know the
origin off an object. We essentially study objects that
have a connection with the building where they’re
found. How did it get there and why? In relation to
Jewish heritage many objects are extremely mobile.
Its people have moved around a lot with many
upheavals throughout history. Many buildings were
destroyed and their objects were randomly dispersed.
For example in Thionville the harmonium was made in
Vermont USA which is somewhat unexpected. I often
find [in France] objects that come from North Africa,
Poland, the Hungarian Empire and of course Germany -
there’s something from everywhere. What’s interesting is
how these objects ended up where they did. There is a
whole range of analytical factors, including artistic and
the more you know about an object the more important
this can be.
BJN: I see your role as a ‘materialiser’ of objects. You
carry out a study to determine their influence, role
and importance for heritage. Effectively, before your
analysis, the object may exist only in the abstract as
something mysterious whereby its origins and functions
are little known. You are there to bring them to
light and make them understandable vis-à-vis science,
logic or witnesses to fill in the voids. I see the artist’s
role more the opposite. I also want to in a way make
the world more visible but by reinstating an abstract
dimension of the object which creates a universe of
imagination and mystery through its void. Once the
provenance of an object is explained, it becomes
difficult to think about it any other way.
CD: When talking about objects there is a very subjective
side. My work attempts to provide coherence
where there is mystery. There is very little contact with
the public in my work, but when I have the opportunity
to meet them, they teach me something about
the object. For example, I met some people who make
the bundles for Torahs; I have an historical approach,
through standards etc… but they can tell me what
meaning it has for them, knowing that this meaning
may have changed. Normally, these bundles are made
by scribes or calligraphers but here they were made
by women for their families. It was an (Ashkenazi)
tradition in the Rhine region but these women were
Sephardi, where children from a different culture fabricated
them. This knowledge around objects is still
BJN: I have never created a work which has a practical
function. It’s more the form, relationship with light,
limits of the material and aura which I undertake to
communicate. The practical function of the object has
very little value for me.
CD: In Jewish culture, function takes precedence over
form. It is a culture of books and the written word but
which carries little importance regarding form and material.
Every time, it is an adaptation according to the
conditions of the location. What will define an object
as Jewish is its use. But the same object could well
be used differently in another context. We see this
in the synagogue in Reichshoffen - the basin which
was part of a bain-marie or the candelarbre which was
partly made from the bases of sewing machines. The
question I always ask myself is what is the object’s
purpose. For example, a cup could have a number
of different functions. Fortunately, there is often a biblical
inscription or a document from the donator to
understand it’s function. If there is nothing to go on,
I will try to understand how it was used. Many jewish
objects, in synagogues, were donated within the
community…If I see an object outside of its context, I
don’t study it. But I have seen Christian chalices used
as a kiddush cup.
BJN: In contemporary art, the usual things which help
define an object as an ‘artwork’ have become more
interchangeable and harder to separate out. Namely,
the maker, its environment, the subject, the process,
the material, the curator the spectator and the exhibition
space. These overlaps make the artwork less
visible and identifiable from its time and space compared
to more traditional distinctions. The work can
be the sum total of multiple objects. The art object
then requires more context and indications, such as
those contained in your studies, in order for it to be
defined as an artwork. I think that archaeologists will
find it harder in the future to identify today’s artworks!
CD: Objects move around and this is complicated. In
the case of Reichshoffen, certain objects by themselves
would not carry much interest but it is its totality
which makes it coherent. What really moved me, as it
is very illuminating on 19th century Jewish Alsace, is
all the homemade DIY objects. These recycling of objects
are characteristic of the jewish world. Here, we
find many objects from the De Dietrich foundry. This
is most interesting and unexpected which shows this
relationship with the object which is very different to
what you find in a church.
The object has a presence which imposes itself on
you, even if it is disturbing and you do not wish to find
it there. The object will be far stronger than archive
documents or discussion. Often the objects we work
on are under valued even looked down on. It’s rarely
the case in Jewish heritage that there is an affective
attachment to an object. We try to find this interest in
objects for their owner. Here you could say we have
an educational role.
BJN: For me the loss in certainty of an artwork corresponds
to the loss of certainties in society and of
our perceptions of space and time. Their limitations
over the last hundred years have moved faster than
in any other period of human history. Identity loses
its familiarity which provides us with comfort and security.
Sociologically, the same goes for people as it
does for objects. We are seeing the political consequences
of this now. We are being moved towards
more extremism to reinforce a less visible centre.
The uncertainty surrounding this building’s function
as a synagogue is one of the things which struck me
on my first visit, it was if you like a confused identity.
You have to pay greater attention to the detail to avoid
being fooled by its chapel like outline. It also carries
a presence of permanence whilst being discreet and
CD: The synagogue is oriented towards Jerusalem
and this creates a problem with regards its visibility.
We see the lateral facade, the compass determines
the positioning of the synagogue. It is a large synagogue
with great quality. It is lucky not to have been
destroyed and burnt down during the second world
war. It is in good condition. Early synagogues closely
resembles churches or temples. Here, it is noticeably
discreet. This is an Alsatian trend which you don’t see
in Lorraine or Champagne-Ardennes. It is open yet
discreet, a half-way house.
BJN: This is a phenomenon which also exists in relation
to the objects. Either their function is not at all
evident, or they are mixed up with other materials,
shapes or uses. It is clearly constructed during a moment
of transition for the jewish community. The building
carries a sense of permanence whilst its uncertainties
are also very present.
CD: This solidity also speaks to something else. The
synagogue is too big in relation to the size of the village.
The period it was constructed was in the golden
age for rural Jewish communities.They were planning
for a larger community but many in fact moved away
to the city or abroad. They foresaw a future which
In 1850, it is an intermediary stage, where the Jewish
community is still perceived as other on its way
to being accepted. The larger and more visible the
building, the greater the community has become accepted.