A. Odyssey of the Hallway
My acquaintance with Simon Adjiashvili's interiors is very different from the usual acquaintance with art. For years Simon lived in the apartment under mine in Tel Aviv. The apartments were identical in structure as well as in various features such as doors and windowsills. And so when I saw his paintings, which are based on his apartment, I saw my apartment as well. In the meantime Simon moved away, but when I look at these paintings I can see in them, perhaps more than the "ordinary" observer, a letter from Simon addressed directly to me. I live almost literally within some of these paintings.
I would not have mentioned this personal detail had I not thought that there is something about it which is not just personal. Because first and foremost these paintings transform a familiar space - familiar even to those who do not live in my apartment - to a space of the spirit, of the secret and of the imagination. He who knows these rooms from within sees this at once, but you do not need to live in them to see it.
Walter Benjamin wrote that the wanderer leaves his doorstep for the streets of the city like a sailor whose ship has anchored in a strange city. Simon adopts this suggestion but in reverse: this is how he observes his own house. This exhibition is a journey into the exotica of the familiar.
Simon's paintings transform the home into a fragmented puzzle. The puzzle cannot be put together into a complete picture. On the contrary, with each additional painting the puzzle grows, the big picture recedes a little further. Therefore the particularly loaded areas in these paintings are the areas of border, or transition areas from one space to another. These are the areas where the details could have related to the totality and yet they do not. The doorsills between adjacent rooms are such areas. In an ordinary house the passage is neutral and routine. Does anyone think "I have passed from the living room to the hall", But here, in some of these paintings a large region of darkness separates the space that we see from the rest. Perhaps this darkness has a border and in another painting you will find another room at the end of the dark, but in one painting an ordinary living room opens out towards the observer, who gazes at this ordinary room as if from the other side of the night. At the far end of the painting the abyss of darkness can be seen again, reborn and thickening, leading who knows where. Perhaps there too at the other end someone stands and gazes inward. From darkness to darkness, darkness through which a faint light glows, the house - that is, the painting - can be seen.
There is a beautiful book of poetry by Israel Eliraz whose title is "How to go into a room you have never left". This exhibition brings a simple response to Eliraz's question through the paintings. To draw your room thus means to enter into it, to really enter it even though you have always been within. It is a common cliché that art enables us a new view of our familiar world. But for me, with Simon's paintings, the cliché is very real. I look at his paintings as if at a dream dreamt by someone else - a dream about my place, my room. This is the private mythology of my own living room, of the door, the odyssey of the hallway.
Looking at these paintings we can see that what we perceive as "place", that is as a localized and defined entity, can widen to infinity. He who understands this does not really need foreign travels. Every corner of every house can be many changing places. Simon creates this infinity both because he leads us to ask ourselves if we have not already been here, in another painting, and because he opens the doors and the windows not only to light, which painting by its very nature so loves, but also to darkness. And in the darkness a place can grow without limit. As children we knew this. There is a hint of this childish terror in these paintings. Think of actually walking through them - in total silence, barefoot, in the middle of the night. Walking like this, watching like this, is what this exhibition offers.
The house disintegrates and is rebuilt at the same time. In some of the paintings there are lines of perspective which seem to be taken from architectural blueprints, as if these paintings are plans, sketches for a future house. But at the same time they are a dissolution of a house which has already been built. These paintings lie between the house already built in Tel Aviv and the imaginary house being built right now. It does not seem unlikely to me to see this intermediate state against the background of the painter being an immigrant.
This intermediate state of the house stands out because of the darkness. The Japanese author Kamo no Chomei (1153-1216) wrote that "the limitless view created in the imagination surpasses anything that may be seen clearly by the eye" and Yoshida Kenko, 14th century Japanese author, wrote, "I feel sorry for the man who says that night dims the beauty of things. At night colors, ornaments, and richness of materials show to their best advantage... a voice heard in the dark - a voice that betrays the fear of being overheard [by a stranger, DB] - is endearing. Perfumes and the sound of music too are best at night". Therefore, Kenko suggests that "visits to shrines and temples are best made on days when others do not go, and by night", and in general "in all things, it is beginnings and ends that are interesting".
Simon's rooms are almost all found in this state, before the beginning or on the verge of disappearance. Darkness will soon fall, and perhaps the light has only begun to reveal that which is in the room. One way or another, the reality of the room is revealed just from its being on the verge of nonexistence, on the verge of invisibility. When we come across a blinding light we shade our eyes with our hands. What would be the right gesture against strong darkness? In other words: these paintings ask you to pay attention to the way you look at them. You cannot just cast a glance.
Simon's rooms are the kind of which Junichiro Tanizaki wrote in his essay "In praise of shadows". Facing such a room you might sense "a fear that... you might lose all consciousness of the passage of time, that untold years might pass and upon emerging you should find you had grown old and gray". With all this, there is magic in this invitation into the dark. Because this darkness hints at infinity. Its direct continuation is very far away. The darkness in these rooms is in direct communication with the dark sky. On the wall of Simon's studio I saw a small painting of the sky with a star shining, and next to it - a small Caravaggio reproduction. The whole story in a nutshell.
The magic of the room is stronger sevenfold when out of the darkness emerges its total contrast, just as the star in the sky captures our hearts because it is surrounded by black space. Tanizaki writes of the mystery of gold in the darkness. How gold in the dimness becomes more mysterious and more significant than gold in full light, which is showcase gold. Look what happens in one of Simon's paintings, how at the head of the ascending stairs something from inside the room suddenly casts a light. Or when a mirror suddenly glows on a table in another painting. This too is "gold".
Most of the paintings in the exhibition could be perceived as different wings of a single house. Even if they were painted in two houses they create the same feeling of wholeness which emerges from pieces of a place unified by a hidden "gravity" (as in a musical work such as Bach's "Goldberg Variations", where the connection between the parts is in the background and not in the "revealed" melody.) That is why the painting which peers into a neighboring house is so strong. Turning outward is a rare gesture in Simon's paintings, and the diagonal of the composition emphasizes this. Here the gaze emerging from the house reveals, to his amazement perhaps, another house, not so very different, it appears, from his own. We see a little, but it is enough to see that there too a quiet emptiness reigns, there too furniture is sparse, there too is a darkness which comes out towards you until you are able to see.
February 18, 2010
Yoshida Kenko, Essays in Idleness: The Tsurezuregusa of Kenko, trans. Donald Keene, Columbia U.P. 1967 [1330-1332], pp. 164-165, 115; Junichiro Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows, trans. T. J. Harper & E. G. Seidensticker, Vintage 1977 [1933-1934], p. 35-36.
B. The Floor
Rooms a moment before they were abandoned, a moment before they became memory; the last
glance before turning off the light and locking the door. The feeling of standing by the room at the
very last moment, the door still open, sharpens the gaze and makes it feel fateful. Paradoxically
the paintings recreate this fleeting last moment anew. What is more, they recreate it again and
again, and transform it to a series of moments. Thus, what could have been seen as the blink of
an eye before departure is suspended, as if the door which was about to close behind you has
become many doors, and the moment of departure has been extended, thickened.
This thickening of the moment of departure is reversed in Simon's paintings, in the final event, and it becomes the period of waiting before entry, an entry into the suspended moment of departure. The strong past tense of the paintings, the feeling of gazing at something which has been left and which in a moment will turn into memory, transforms in these paintings into a gaze at something into which we are about to enter, something which lies before us, which is only beginning. That which has passed and almost been closed undergoes a marvelous metamorphosis and becomes that which has not yet begun, that which has only now opened. Simon's paintings are this re-opening.
These rooms could resemble the stage of a theater which the actors have already left, but
could also be the stage of a theater a moment before the first actor enters. The paintings contain both past and future in full, and therefore they also create a strong sense of continuing present, a present that is "imprisoned," so to speak, between this past and future. In other words, these paintings have a strong quality of "beyond" and of transition. A gate through which we pass to memory and to the future.
Doors and passages are a recurring component of these paintings. But these paintings do not show a simple passage from one place to another. They conceal multiplicity and variety. This
leads to the half dreamlike quality which pervades the pictures. The rooms are always on the verge of transformation to surrealistic spaces; at times they are on the verge of transformation to an abstract geometric painting, and only a door or a door handle reminds us that this is a room before us.
The flooring on the right raises a question. A quick glance at Simon's apartment today reveals no such flooring. It is doubtful if there is such a floor in any apartment in Tel Aviv. Even Simon's previous apartment, which I mentioned at the start, did not have such a floor. Where has it come from? The riddle was partly solved when I saw a photograph of Simon's old home in the city of his birth, Tbilisi, in Georgia. The photograph shows alternately dark and light
squares. But the squares in the photograph are parallel to the walls of the room, not diagonal. What has caused the flooring of a house which Simon has not visited for over twenty years to slant on an angle? I think that the answer may be found not in Georgia but in Holland, and
not in the artist's real house but in his metaphysical house - in the rooms painted in 17th century Holland - and in particular in several of Jan Vermeer's rooms. For example in his painting The Art of Painting.
Simon's painting recalls not only the floor, but also the light falling on the floor from the left. The memory wanders from the simple Tel Aviv floor to the black and white floor of the house in the city of his hildhood, from there to the floor of the Dutch painting, and back - to the painting painted here and now. Think for a moment of Simon Adjiashvili as a floorer. The tiles which he lays down join three houses and three periods into one plane - the house now
in the present; the house that was abandoned in 1990 when Simon and his family immigrated to Israel; the house of the art of the past. This flooring creates a flow and a connection between the places and times; between the personal memory and the artistic memory, and between these and the work of art in the present.
The new painting can appear to be a place from which we go back to the past and the art of the past, but also a place to which the art of the past and memory arrive, that is, a junction towards which memory of childhood and memory of Vermeer's paintings are drawn and meet. Simon's paintings succeed in holding at least three places and three times, and forming them into a common floor.
In the painting there is a strange table. Try to look at it and to see this table not as half a table, that is, not as a table which is missing a drawer, but rather a table which has a missing drawer, secret and invisible. The missing part of the table is no less important than the
present part. If you look at the table that way, you will see that the entire space in which the table is located resembles the table: this is a space in which the missing, the emptiness and the hidden are no less important, possibly more, than that which is revealed to the eye. The
floor is a good example of this: it is important as a manifest element in the painting, which guides the eye inside and balances the large squares, dark and light, behind the table and to its right. But this floor is important also because it leads to Vermeer. And that is the thing which we cannot see in the simple physicality of the painting; we must allow it to reach us from the distance where it lies, to conjure it up.
An open door - a closed drawer. The door opens - as does the door which is the painting itself - to reveal that which is hidden, encoded. The drawer too can be opened to see what is inside. But the transparent drawer is difficult to open because it is not made of matter. This table is the essence of the room because in these paintings the entrance into Simon's rooms too is always a partial entrance. The entrance opens something, reveals something, but there will always be another door which will keep these rooms unapproachable, holding secrets. These rooms cannot be lived in, only looked at, because in these rooms the silent sound of opening the missing drawer is always heard. Trying to open the right hand drawer means trying to create a relationship with these paintings.
On the table lies a page, perhaps a letter. This letter is the heart of the exhibition for it contains the essence of the table, and the table contains the essence of the rooms. On one hand the letter has a clear shape, a simple familiar rectangle. On the other hand its edge touches the missing side of the table and it contains primarily light, not words. This is a letter which asks to be read, but what is written there - we will not know. In fact it isn't important. What is important is that this letter exists and seems to emerge to us from the painting. How beautiful that it is placed on a diagonal, almost like one of the "Vermeer" tiles at its side. This letter too is a sort of tile, inviting us to take a step, to enter, to stand in the space that the painting opens up.
Isn't this what happens between us and paintings again and again? We walk through a museum, pass by many paintings, until suddenly our gaze is drawn almost of itself to one of these letters, which we label "paintings," a letter which has been waiting for years, sometimes
for centuries, for us to receive it and reply. Sometimes the eye steps on the letter and already it is inside, its foot on the floor, as one who has come home.
January 14, 2012
Other texts coming soon.