Published in the catalouge for Uri Aran: Here, Here and Here
Kunsthalle Zürich

                                 Uri Aran: Here, Here and Here, instasllation view, Kunsthalle Zurich, 2013


To extract objects from their majestic silence takes either a ploy or a crime.[1]

                                                                        - Zbigniew Herbert


Affect, gesture, and melodrama abound in Uri Aran’s installations. The New York–based artist introduces story fragments and half-characters into his sculpture, video, and drawing configurations, only to then obstruct any definitive catharsis of plot or identification. Aran’s storyboard “personas”—which take initial form as everything from I.D. photos, pet imagery, toys, and consumer iconography to the artist’s own snapshots—are displayed on sculptural supports (most often shelf-like pedestal structures and roughhewn worktables or desks), and are subject to rapid substitution patterns, following what the artist calls the “flat logic” of his idiosyncratic design. In these propulsive scenarios, Aran devises his characters’ existences like a scriptwriter: plotting out every demise and rebirth, and the emotive effect of each transition, revision, and step-by-step maneuver.

         Uri Aran, by foot, by car, by bus, Gavin Brown Enterprise, New York, 2012. installation view

In Aran’s 2012 solo exhibition at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise in New York, for example, a passport photograph of an “uncle in jail” (and its scribbled caption) cropped up somewhat ominously here and there throughout the installation—occasionally trading places with an absurd image of a smiling dog, or with a scaled-up or scaled-down photograph of a horse’s head. Embedded like pieces on a game board, such human and animal metonyms do not cancel or wholly replace one another in Aran’s landscape; rather, they become associative devices within a set of episodes that have no clear beginning or end. Adorned with linguistic labels describing modes of transportation and arrival—“by foot,” “by car,” “by bus,” and so on—the works in the gallery show functioned as way stations for the estranging sentiments associated with having an “uncle in jail.” Variously showing scenes of departure, or evoking loss, shame, and joy, Aran’s sculptural tableaux were imbued with the echo of that oddly loaded phrase. By appending the familiar avuncular register of “uncle” to a phrase of cultural judgment and infamy, “in jail,” the viewer/reader’s curiosity is both peaked and left ill at ease.  

A series of quick line drawings in the same installation—depicting a mouse, a horse, a shark, and a cat, and recalling Dieter Roth’s comic draftsmanship—were superimposed over the image of a smiling pregnant woman, adding another level of protean transformation and diegetic anxiety. Presented alongside worktables perforated with drill holes and holding configurations of everyday objects and castoff studio materials—meticulously arranged, like mementos—Aran’s images and sculptural topography offer an uncanny register of new life, confinement, and cultural displacement, all positioned among wood shavings and seeming detritus.  Swiss army knives, the orange fingertips cut from work gloves, an assortment of key chains in the shape of balls from different sports, and lenses extracted from spectacles and magnifying glasses, were gathered together to form an alienated object retinue alongside the quasi-personas circulating upon Aran’s worktables. The result was a mood shift from the presence of familiar, everyday things to an apparitional and orphaned repetition: as with the appearance in the installation of a young boy’s school photo (is he to be considered the nephew of “the uncle in jail” or the uncle himself in his youth?) held within a cut open plastic milk gallon; accompanied by a host of baseball key chains and an oval mirror coated with sticky residue, the boy’s visage recalls a past era when kidnapped or missing children adorned the back of milk cartons. And yet the image doubles as a plot twist for the viewer to actively guess at and conjecture upon. Pried from any diminutive role as a bauble, the key chains mass together and trigger associative memory, both in relation to one’s recollection of posing for a similar primary school photo but also to the previous character transitions played out within Aran’s dramatic setting.

Reminiscent of the ploy that Polish writer Zbigniew Herbert writes of in his short prose poem titled To Extract Objects, Aran constructs a shape-shifting language with the most meager means, collecting an uneasy inventory of pathos, absence, and laughter. His spendthrift materials and halting linguistic repetitions work together to elicit a kind of sadness and nostalgia for the work’s own materiality and imagery. Aran repeatedly goes over actions undertaken and sentimental iconographies, embracing and exhausting absurdity to the point of forcibly breaking it down into a new syntax. As Herbert writes in the poem quoted above, it is very much “the language of a stifled epic” that results when objects and images are framed by the shift of a linguistic ploy or criminal act:

        To extract objects from their majestic silence takes either a ploy or a
        A door’s icy surface can be unfrozen by a traitor’s knock, a glass dropped on the                 floorboard shrieks like a wounded bird, and a house set aflame chatters in the          
        loquacious language of fire, the language of a stifled epic, about everything, the bed,         the chests, the curtains kept to themselves for so long.[2]               

While text often pins down an image—even a cliché one—compelling it to perform as an illustration or a product, in Aran’s work, images are forcefully detoured by language, in both spoken and written form. With their abrupt substitutions and transitions, his installations recall the process of learning a foreign language or studying a grammar primer. Social situations occur in medias res, repeated in various permutations and with different power relations, placing the viewer (now in the role of student) in the midst of the social fray. Extracting objects and images from their silence, narrativizing them and making them relational and loquacious, comic and iterative—unruly and even delinquent—demonstrates Aran’s interest in the moralizing nature of idiomatic expression and his peculiar parsing and remediation of English language phrasing. As Aran himself has said in an interview, “The infinite possibilities of producing meaning through the interplay of sign and signifier – I address this aspect of language through repetition, re-organization and quotation. English is the language of the West and of pop – you can’t escape it. The way it’s received is so mediated that it feels quoted. I find these things funny and I indulge them in my work.”[3]

In his sculptural wall configuration Dear Tenants (B) (2013), for example, fragmented and partially effaced textual loose ends take on a foreboding and moralistic tone: close inspection of the stainless-steel backdrop hung with images, objects, and a framed drawing, reveals handwritten phrases such as “We knew then & there” and “In the end, I guess, I learned such a great lesson.” Scrawled out faintly, such pedantic phrases are obscured by scatological caricature drawings, making the captionlike textual elements seem to function as both mood enhancements and tutelary spirits within Aran’s profiling universe.

Uri Aran, Dear Tenants (B), 2012, mixed media, wall piece: 48 x 96 inches (121.9 x 243.8 cm), framed drawing: 18 1/2 x 23 1/2 inches (47 x 59.7 cm)

There are potential plot turns and character situations implied throughout a work like Dear Tenants (B): two inkjet printout images show a young woman taking a smartphone picture of her own pregnant belly; drugstore ID photos of anonymous young men lurk nearby; diminutive cutouts of happy dogs are countered with pictures of trusting, “smile-for-the-camera” human grins. Such socially awkward yet familiar images point to and mirror one another, like understudies in an existential crisis that is never completely enacted, only mapped out and obsessively, continuously rearranged.

                       Uri Aran, Untitled Chimpanzee (2013), single channel video, 28:58 mins, 2013 

Related concepts of training and tutorial repetition are central to the video works so pivotal within Aran’s endeavors, including his contributions to the recent Venice Biennale and his solo exhibition here, here and here at Kunsthalle Zürich. In both presentations, the viewer was indirectly addressed by a directorial voice that is often only audible in Aran’s videos; and yet the viewer is notably and irrevocably excluded from any shareable meeting place or direct encounter with those directing the action. In the video Chimpanzee (2013), for instance, a young woman speaks into a studio mic: “This was a special night, Dad dialed the phone and got our favorite pizza . . .”; and a young man and woman trade phrases: “I much prefer our downstairs neighbor on the first floor to our upstairs neighbor on the third floor”; “We have each other.” Aran is seemingly just off-camera, giving cues to the speakers, again placing the viewer in the position of estranged dialogue partner. The young woman gives further insight to the directorial approach at play in Aran’s work in a later passage of the video when she indicates the surrogate nature of being a stand-in or body double, therefore in an out-of-body position:  “In the movies it is explained that it is very painful to switch bodies, because your bodies can get very confused. Some organs are different in other bodies. Some bodies are different sizes. Maybe the body that you entered is sad and you are happy. Maybe the body is a female and you are a male.” Using what theorist Gilles Deleuze termed the “out-of-field” principle of cinema, namely that which “refers to what is neither seen nor understood, but is nevertheless perfectly present,”[4]Aran’s videos conjure a coercive atmosphere of directives, compelling performers to repeat and vary their phrasing, while insinuating the viewer into a voyeuristic role. Everyday phrases and objects work off one another to create heightened moments of mimetic crisis, fear . . . and eventually pleasure. The viewer is in training here, being familiarized with scenes that evoke absence and emptiness, scenes that stay the same even as they change: deepened and yet made more thin and artificial in their repetition and substitution.

Indeed, the “out-of-field” relates directly to what André Bazin further clarified as the “out of sight” effect of cinema and its conventions, a hidden capacity that gets distributed into the perceived setting even when a character is not visible, a narrative presence that the viewer comes to rely upon and even occupy as almost a first person observer: “The screen is not a frame like that of a picture but a mask which allows a part of the action to be seen. When a character moves off-screen, we accept the fact that he is out of sight, but he continues to exist in his own capacity at some other place in the décor which is hidden from us.”[5] For Aran, the presumed décor and capacity for sustaining narrative without embodied presence exists explicitly within the mis-en-sceneand residual actions of his installations whereby the phrasing and mood of a video’s voice-over is translated and mutated into the coercive maneuvering of his sculptural pieces. As Aran aptly articulates, “I do approximate or borrow the strategies of filmmakers to get the emotional results that they elicit from the movie theater audience (humor, sadness, anxiety, etc.). I then isolate, layer and misalign these moments to create a new kind of narrative… voice-over as a self-aware quotation of “voice-over,” the edit as a self-aware quotation of the “edit,” etc., etc. which results not in a specific genre, but rather the notion of genre and the notion of narrative.”[6]

Within the exhibition here, here and here the décor that Aran parses and extends to create a ‘narrative presence’ within the installation is that of a piazza illustrated upon a pizza delivery box, while the ‘notion of genre’ is something akin to a self-aware situation comedy. A pizza box with the handwritten caption “Don’t walk here” shows a cartoon-like Italian piazza with a fountain, a café, apartment buildings and flowerbeds, and, importantly, along the side, a check box of choices: extra cheese, sausage, mushroom, pepperoni, etc., as well as the line for the customer’s name, “CUSTOMER ___________”. Repeated in variation across a perimeter of pedestal shelves in one room of the exhibition, the flatness of the pizza box form acts as a surface for montage and pagination effects, complemented by framed drawings and sculptural interruptions. Collections of digitally manipulated images and inkjet prints—portraits and I.D. photos next to animals—exist throughout, populating the box forms in both sculpture galleries of the installation, echoing the narrative potential of the piazza and apartment building as a location and background scenario for all that unfolds in the video and larger installation.

Culled from a miscellany of digital and print sources, Aran further manipulates and distances his stand-in iconography with lo-fi printing techniques, insisting upon a cast of characters and formal translations as a kind of degraded index and storyboard to be played out, revised, and started over again. Recalling video artist and theorist Hito Steyerl’s argument for the restive narrative potential of digital image sequences to undo received genre forms in her essay In Defense of the Poor Image, Aran’s work can be seen as proposing a new criticality and avenue for storytelling within the associative readiness and linguistic distortion of screen culture: “The poor image is an illicit fifth-generation bastard of an original image. Its genealogy is dubious. Its filenames are deliberately misspelled. It often defies patrimony, national culture, or indeed copyright. It is passed on as a lure, a decoy, an index, or as a reminder of its former visual self. It mocks the promises of digital technology.”[7] By joining poor images with a contemporary fragmentation of genre forms, Aran positions his own editorial acuity and associative design logic in place of conventional narrative and identification, leaving an aftertaste of breached authority. The push and pull of discipline and reward that results in Aran’s work proposes storytelling as a series of decoys, stifled epics, and mannerist depth. As with his frequent use of classical and jazz music to transition between scenes in videos, the linguistic phrasing and image profiles of Aran’s characters join with his roughhewn keepsakes and compositional architecture to create a sustained rhythm of metaphor, receding materiality, and compromised identity.

                              Uri Aran: Here, Here and Here, instasllation view, Kunsthalle Zurich, 2013

Within the context of here, here and here, his art of detours takes hold via repetition, promoting multiple and partial selves in place of heroes, and scenarios over singular deeds. Circling back repeatedly to the illustration of the piazza on the pizza box as an illustration of a lost ideal or fantasy home, Aran’s errant responses stay resolutely within the act of setting out upon a tragicomic journey. The detour scenario becomes the ultimate form, allowing for walk-on parts and wounded, bisected versions of the self to become the psychological subject of the work. For example, drawing and sculpture constellations unfold to include signature poor images: a pixelated image of a toddler being drawn afloat through a swimming pool by its mother, a young girl with her hand held out trying to entice a horse from its stable, or the puppet character Ernie from the children’s television show Sesame Street failing to resist a plate of cookies. The impoverished images and consumer materiality feel used and yet valorized, “helper-objects” of memory as philosopher Giorgio Agamben has incisively put it, “somewhat shameful objects—half-souvenirs, half-talismans—which one wouldn’t renounce for anything in the world.”[8] Coaxing the viewer to come closer and inspect this trail of seemingly remnant objects and images, an obsessive vulnerability takes shape, moving the viewer through the montage and topography of Aran’s cosmology of variation, difference, and temporary identification followed by error, erasure, stain, and covering up. Memory is made corporeal in Aran’s sculptural montage, a symptom in a longed for yet impossible continuity of events, insisting upon images and mementos as triggering actions and behavioral gestures to be inhabited and repeated. Though a comedic ambiance of genre forms and familiar gags presides over the “poor cinema” that Aran’s installations manage to animate and bring to life, his scenography is opened up throughout to a metaphysical doubt that rings and repeats long after the show is over.

                                                                                               —Fionn Meade

[1]Zbigniew Herbert, The Collected Poems 1956-1998 (Ecco Press, 2007), p. 294

[2]Ibid., p. 294

[3] “I Believe in Mimicry,” interview with Cecilia Alemani and Uri Aran, Mousse Magazine, #26, p. 117

[4] Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1. The Movement-Image, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis 1986, p. 17.

[5] André Bazin, What is Cinema? vol. I, 107, p.144

[6]“I Believe in Mimicry,” interview with Cecilia Alemani and Uri Aran, Mousse Magazine, #26, p. 119

[7] Hito Steyerl, “In Defense of the Poor Image,” e-flux journal #10, November 2009

[8] Agamben, Giorgio “The Assistants” in Profanations (MIT Zone Books, 2007), p. 32

Copryright Fionn Meade unless otherwise stated