Alon Levin – Texts
Conclusion to the Big Ideas: An Interview with Alon Levin
Catlin Moore, September 2011
Modernity—in all its West-centric incarnations—has been debated, deliberated and disputed
since the last feudal lord packed it in. Baudelaire lambasted the arbitrary parameters that
dictate “advanced” civilization; Machiavelli’s antecedents celebrated them. The very notion of a
“modern” world results in a perpetual discourse on the factors that prescribe it. Within the walls
of Ambach & Rice’s new Los Angeles gallery, the dialogue persists with Alon Levin’s staggering
solo exhibition, ‘Conclusion to the Big Ideas’, a collection of insightful works supplemented by
the artist’s publication, ‘Modernity in Very General Terms’, 2011. Through its meticulous
scrutiny of power structures, capricious rules, and sociological myth, Levin’s work accentuates
the irrational aspects of so-called rationality. And yes, he’s privy to a bit of satire. DailyServing
contributor Catlin Moore recently interviewed Alon Levin about his work.
Catlin Moore: Let’s start with the book, Modernity in Very General Terms. This piece spans the
course of ten years’ worth of writing and research for you, and also serves as a tutorial for your
exhibition currently on view at Ambach & Rice in Los Angeles, ‘Conclusion to the Big Ideas’.
For those unfamiliar with your work, how are the concepts in the book incarnated in the exhibition,
or are they? Is this a relationship you have forged in previous bodies of work?
Alon Levin: I wouldn’t really call the book a tutorial, it is more of a collection of notes to myself.
I made the book before I made the work for the show, and I included the book to serve similarly
in the context of the exhibition: as a companion piece that is on the one hand a work in and of
itself, but that at the same time provides a kind of background to the rest of the exhibition.
CM: Some sections of the book are more minimal than others. For example, “An Introduction to
Europolis” consists of incredible detail, empirical evidence and formulas, while “The Object As
Never Seen Before” is more allusive. Why the variation in presentation, and how does that
manifest in the tangible artwork?
AL: All the texts and works within the book were originally made with different intentions.
Some segments were written to myself, some to friends, some for publication, and still others as
works [of art] in and of themselves. “An Introduction to Europolis” was a work that was
published in dot dot dot in 2004, while “The Object As Never Seen Before” was part of a
reader that accompanied an installation in 2010. Since the book was not written at once or
in any linear way, it is as fragmented and seemingly under construction as the rest of the work
in the exhibition. Both the written and the physical work range from the severely abstract to the
absolutely concrete, while dealing all the while with whatever issues are of interest to me. In
that sense, they don’t seem so at odds with one another to me. They are two poles of a language
that sometimes clash and sometimes merge.
CM: The book explores the experience of finding patterns and relationships within power
structures and modern realities. Did you unearth data or information that caused you to view
your practice differently? What is alluring about parameters, rules, taxonomy and thematic
patterns in modern culture to you?
AL: Maybe it is my background—between countries, cultures, schooling systems, and
nationalities—that drew me toward the subject of power structures. I had many run-ins with
bureaucracy, and never did well with authority. I went to six high schools in three different
countries. At a young age I had already decided that power was assumed through symbols and
costume and was not to be trusted. I suppose my strong distaste for hierarchy is the reason for
my obsession with it. I can’t locate any ideological shift as of yet, but the constant confrontation
with ‘modern reality’ in its many incarnations of administration has undoubtedly informed my
CM: Do you find yourself employing irony or humor as a means of illustrating these points?
AL: I don’t see my work as being nearly as serious as its subject supposes it is. Maybe because
power and its structures are so severe, I try to approach the work with a kind of humor. I don’t
mean to illustrate some joke or have a punch line, but I do think it is important that people
recognize the irony and can see the subject with some distance. I think the subject (and my
practice) can use a little mockery.
CM: Some of the text is purposefully nonsensical in its evaluation of social patterns and
successes. Why is this an important attribute to highlight?
AL: I seem to make things just as nonsensical as the quest for a social pattern.
CM: Can you explain the notion of “objects attempting to understand themselves?” Is this an
intended parallel to the human condition?
AL: It’s a little hard to give an explanation about that. I was meaning this more as an intuitive
thought rather than a scientific analysis. Obviously, things do not become aware of themselves.
So let me give you another somewhat cryptic anthropomorphic thought: I am thinking of an
elephant trying to hide behind a skinny tree, not being aware of its own dimensions.
CM: “Quarter Report 1 / Men With Ties” is perhaps my favorite section of the book. What was
your goal here, and how did the concept manifest itself in the exhibition?
AL: “Quarter Report 1 / Men With Ties” is a series of collages from images published in an
entire quarter of the New York Times. It is a somewhat absurd reorganization of all these
images by theme or subject. I started collecting the images without a clear idea of what I was
going to do with them with the intention of somehow making sense of it all in the end. When
I started sorting everything, some groupings that emerged were very concrete: such as
“International protests” and “American protests.” Others, on the other hand, were simply
collections of recurrent gestures and tendencies. Examples of these are “Men with one hand
I and II,” “Men with two hands I and II,” “Three men,”" Men with ties I, II, III” or “Verticals.”
In some ways the current show is like a quarter report, though one that spans a longer period
of time and is not particularly methodical. Some things have been omitted, while many new
things have been added. The show is a kind of rearrangement and reinterpretation of thoughts,
ideas and actual physical works. This is particularly clear in the work ‘Untitled, The Everything
of an Almost Future I – V,’ 2011. This tower-like structure houses a collection of sketches
I made for a series of painting cut-outs that were based on Malevich’s work. These sketches
were used in preparation for an installation I made last year and now are restructured as an
exaggerated archival shelving unit.
CM: Focusing on the art itself, much of your earlier work included color, both as an
organizational illustration of your practice and an aesthetic choice. This show is quite minimal
and stark. How does that choice function for you?
AL: Though the show may give a first impression of being minimal, beyond perhaps the
aesthetic relation to minimalism, I think the work is anything but. The objects in the show have
an overload of layers, both in the physical sense and conceptually. Rather than ideas being
reduced, they are in fact expanded and all layers of the process are kept transparent. Be it the
stacks that hold the piles of frames so that they can be painted, the earlier paint job still shown
on the edge of an object, or simply the expanded history of modernity in the two-volume,
custom-made, print-on-demand Wikipedia-book, ‘Modernity in Very General Terms’, 2011,
that serves as a balancing foot to the object in ‘Prospects of Validation IV’, 2011.
CM: Many of the works feel deconstructed. In your evaluation of constructed societal practices,
was this a tongue-in-cheek decision, or purely compositional?
AL: Definitely not purely compositional. The deconstructing starts in my initial dealing with
a subject matter; this is later translated into the process and thus is still evident in the resulting
physical structure. Deconstruction (and my general demeanor, I’m afraid) is usually perceived
as a rather serious matter, so I am glad you asked. And yes, I mostly mean it to be
CM: Despite exploring the very notions of genre and boundary, your work defies common art
historical references. There is no nod to abstraction, realism or the like, but it does remains
conceptual. Was this an organic development in your work?
AL: Well, just as I have a resistance to power, absolutes, and definitions in the real world,
I suppose I avoid it within the realm of art. Any one genre with its doctrines or manifestos is fun
to investigate, but mostly to then push off of, not to adopt or join. I don’t want my work to
belong to something that is already defined, or to be read from any singular perspective.
CM: You’ve referred to your works as a stage. How does that hold true?
AL: I guess I say “stage,” because the work often functions as a model for something else:
something bigger, or something real. In the meantime, the work itself is more of a prop, part of
a somewhat theatrical version of societal operations.
Acts of Refusal. Fleeing, Dreaming, Repeating, Watching (Among Others)
ART IST KUKU NU UT at Tartu Art House, Tartu, Estonia
Kathrin Meyer, September 2011
The work of Alon Levin (*1975 in Israel, lives in Berlin and Den Haag) addresses ideas of
success and failure, of progress, emancipation and systematizations of social life. Instead of
looking at particular, singular events, his work is concerned with the broader idea of modernity,
its ideas and symbols. Levin looks at the expression of this concept in art, the applied arts and
sciences and translates his findings into space-encompassing structures of wood, plaster and
other everyday materials. Levin has acquired his knowledge through a process of trial and
error, teaching himself – the construction of his at times expansive structures is based on
experimenting, seeing how they endure, finding solutions that work, improvising.
The objects and installations he creates are based on extensive research encom- passing
architecture, mathematic figures, the organization of space and its symbolic meanings as well
as the vocabulary of gestures. He makes references to stories and theories that shape our
Western way of thinking, creating models of them, questioning and testing them. A recurring
reference for Levin is Russian Constructivism, namely the abstract works of Kazimir Malevich
and El Lissitzky. Levin returns to this moment in history as a paradigmatic example for an
attempt to translate ideas about social and political change into objects, images and designs of
printed matter and space. Most importantly, these ideas were put into abstract forms which in
themselves (and not by pronouncing political ideas explicitly) were thought to be agents and
expressions of a profound change in society. How did this fail? Where did it succeed, if at all?
What remains? Levin’s work responds without giving answers by further complicating things,
thus raising more questions.
Alon Levin repeats emblematic forms and translates them into wooden struc- tures made from
simple planks and fixtures that can be found at any hardware store. Inventing systems for
storage and display, he classifies and archives them in a strict order according to his own rules.
In his setups, the activity of exhibiting presents itself as an obsessive act of repeating,
arranging, organizing space and objects. His installations manifest the urge to mark a blank
spot, to destabilize ideas about failure and success, to create images for the instability of
ideological, economic and scientific systems and conclusions.
For his new body of work, Levin has dedicated his research to rituals and aesthetic forms of
honouring success, such as the pedestal. The pedestal provides the winner with a momentary
difference in height, which lifts the declared winner over the others. Winning indicates being
better than the majority, beating the opponents, becoming a prominent figure within a mass.
Levin’s abstracted, amateur construction of an unusable pedestal (or better the hint at a
pedestal) highlights both absurdity and the desire to reach the top, to be the best, to be
competitive and win, which is another idea shaping contemporary society.
Conculsion to the Big Ideas at Ambach & Rice, Los Angeles
Press Release, September 2011
AMBACH & RICE is pleased to present ‘Conclusion to the Big Ideas’, Berlin and Den Hague
based artist Alon Levin’s first solo exhibition in Los Angeles. The exhibition will coincide
with the U.S. release of Levin’s second monograph, ‘Modernity in Very General Terms’,
a compendium that spans ten years of projects and writings by the artist. The publication will
serve as an informal guide to the exhibition while providing an overview of the first stage of
the artist’s career.
Levin employs common hardware store materials in a muted palette (styrofoam, plaster,
plywood and cardboard) to explore themes that span socialist architecture, mathematics,
Russian Constructivism, and political, social and economic theories. Together the sculptures
comprise a setting where the present is positioned parallel to the past, or as Levin further
suggests, where “something has happened or will happen, like a stage.” Works defy both
abstraction and representation, opting instead to usher in iconoclasm, a futile and sincere
attempt to cleanse “Modernism” and its utopian aspirations, a deconstruction of previous
venerations, both personal and universal.
‘Conclusion to the Big Ideas’ marks a shift in Levin’s conceptual practice and a re-imagining
of his exhibition strategy. Previous exhibits generally consisted of installations that addressed
and explored finite themes through the dismantling and reordering of established systems.
‘Conclusion to the Big Ideas’ opts instead to address the yearning for broader justification and
supremacy within social and political theories and the physical manifestations that aim to
declare these validations. Levin destabilizes these philosophies while implementing
predetermined parameters and processes that resolve the outcome of works; resulting in what
he describes as “objects attempting to understand themselves.”
What further distinguishes ‘Conclusion to the Big Ideas’ from past exhibits is the artist’s
willingness to embrace a greater autonomy between individual works. Here the viewer
encounters seemingly disparate concepts, activated through the guise of emancipation,
achievement, failure and progress. Objects reminiscent of speech podiums, towers, coliseum
seating and archives amass to form a lexicon of inert triumph. Through obsessive reordering
and categorization Levin manifests a horizon of unfulfilled validation, failures that Levin
perceives as windows of opportunity, platforms for new possibilities.
Through what could be defined as Socratic method or oppositional dialectics, Levin seeks to
upend our notions of linear history and absolutism. He would likely embrace Plato’s assertion
that “I know that I know nothing.” Relentless inquiries excavate previously held assumptions
to impart new perspectives that are to be adopted as quickly as they are to be discarded.
Through a hierarchy of objects, a virtual taxonomy of achievement, Levin evokes the absurdity
and futility of achievement in material form.
End to the Grand Gesture at Klemm’s, Berlin
Press release, April 2011
Conversation with Silvia Kaske and Sebastian Klemm
Sebastian Klemm: Starting with the idea of ‘breaking a habit’ – you usually produce
large-scale installations. But as we sit here in your studio – surrounded by a number of soon
to be finished pieces – one could get the impression that your upcoming exhibition will go
more in the direction of an ‘ensemble’ or set of works.
Alon Levin: Of course, this stands in connection to the title of the show, ‘End to The Grand
Gesture’, but it is also a general feeling of myself, something I would call ‘the success of
failure’ – try something that is bound to fail and eventually through that process you learn
what is working.
Silvia Kaske: Applying the color white to formerly colorful elements is literally a process of
‘whitening out’ some of the work you have done before. But there could also be ‘blackening
out’ - so why would you use white, seeing that both black and white are non-colors?
Alon Levin: Both are colors that symbolize something. I see blackening as something very
Sebastian Klemm: Almost like an act of destruction.
Alon Levin: And a very aggressive one! But white represents defeat, like the white flag.
The color both erases the old but also creates a new work, like ‘Untitled, a Universe Under
Control’, which was part of my first show at KLEMM’S, and will now be in the exact same
place again, but this time it is ‘chopped’. The work is physically deconstructed into many
new parts. So the white can be read either as a new start, a blank page, or as a cover-up.
Sebastian Klemm: That brings me back to the title of the exhibition, which in itself sounds
like a grand gesture.
Alon Levin: Indeed it is quite a statement and at first I wasn’t even aware of it. But when I
was working on the book accompanying the exhibition, I realized that it needed an
introductory note to direct the reader. I thought of writing that the book was a grand narrative
of the failure of the Utopian dream – but this phrase demanded a lot. So I changed it and now
it says: ‘Modernity in Very General Terms is meant as notes towards a ‘grand narrative’ of
modernity’s utopian failure.’
Silvia Kaske: So would you say then that the titles of the book and the exhibition are like
mutual comments that feed into each other?
Alon Levin: They supported each other during the working process and I switched the titles
around all the time. But I do feel that ‘End to The Grand Gesture’ is not as big a statement as
‘Modernity in Very General Terms’, when I am talking about modernity as an early
philosophical idea, from the 15th century, not just modernism of the 20th century.
Sebastian Klemm: Since a while the term ‘modernity’ has been highly debated and a good
number of artists are reflecting on it. Could you describe your understanding of the topic?
Alon Levin: I care about what is around me – but when I look at these things, I know they
were not invented yesterday, and so they keep leading me further back. It is always a process
of editing this data, but only then can you look at the bigger picture, which is neither modern
Sebastian Klemm: Coming back to the look of the work, we have the impression that the new
show will have a different and very special atmosphere: in addition to the fact that everything
is completely white, there will be kind of a ‘filtered daylight’ in the gallery. So that you will
have a White Cube with a lot of white works, only hints of predecessive color.
Alon Levin: There were a lot of intuitive gestures that I included in the work. The process
goes beyond positioning physical objects in the space. In this exhibition, the works are also
the walls and the white ceiling. Blocking the window is part of it – everything becomes
hidden, the space becomes a white cube but also a place where something has happened or
will happen, like a stage.
Sebastian Klemm: Would you say that you work more with your intuition than before?
Looking at your work, it seems there is a masterplan with still enough space for things to
happen. Now with these objects that you could actually pick up and carry in front of you like
signs, it feels more playful than the idea of a „bigger picture“ that has to be there in the end,
like the ferris wheel that you did before.
Alon Levin: With the smaller structures, I could start without a grand scheme, without a
defined thing, but more with an intuitive idea, so that the playfulness happened while figuring
out what it would become. In this way the structure and the playfulness are similar to what
I’ve done before, but what is different is the process that led me to it.
Sebastian Klemm: What is interesting as well is that there is going to be an actual book to
look at as part of the work, a Wikipedia lexicon. In the work itself, you could discover
identical layers of sheets or books in shelves. Is this connection to science or literature
something that you had in mind?
Alon Levin: It certainly is a form of piling up – everything gets organized in this physical
archive. In that sense, every archive is like a measurement of time and thought. So all those
structures, all these panels piling up, the lines on the walls, they can all be seen as
arrangements of quantitative measurements and of time… I like the idea that modernity starts
with the philosophical thought that ‘from now on, we control things and the way they will
be’ rather than to tell how things have been in the past. The white paint still exposes the past,
it is not trying to hide anything. As utopian societies are in search for something, the pieces
in the show can be used as ‘Revolutionary Tools’. These are structures that can be held up as
if to serve a certain purpose, like an architectural plan or a model for something.
Silvia Kaske: It is almost scientific to a certain degree – to specify, „scientific“ in a sense that
nothing gets lost. For example, when you have chopped up the big piece, it is still the same
amount of pieces, which have been turned into a new form.
Alon Levin: The idea came about for a very functional reason. It was a gigantic object that
was a huge burden to me, while now it is very manageable: you can pile the pieces up on top
of each other – it is very efficient! I’d say it is scientific in the sense that it wastes no energy
as you said, like the perpetual motion machine that man always sought after and will continue
to seek, although everything tells us that it is impossible and we know it. But the dream is
The Object as Never Seen Before (Who Said the World Was Round)
Mihnea Mircan, May 2010
The installations of Alon Levin function often as abstract panoramas, as ‘history made
visible’ in the absence of protagonists and extras. The constructions recall an archetypal
disaccord at the core of history, the rattle of ideological machines, the very mutability of
Order, negotiated between the unfolding of Progress, the entities that try to impersonate
transcendence in the collective unconscious of the last centuries – to fill out its structural place
–, and the ambivalent forms of obsolescence that result from this endlessly incomplete
reconciliation. The installations archive traces, echoes, part-objects, object-worlds, flags and
insignia of identity, ruins and the promises of the new, chaos vanquished or chaos
formalized, collapse and recalibration. In works such as the series ‘The Fake, the Future and
the Finite’, the artist prodigiously compresses and structures the suggestions of ‘everything’
– ideas of organization, measurement and the immeasurable –, into a view of how time passes
through cultural constructs, how it infiltrates, disrupts, and recreates the very discursive
armature that was designed to insulate them against time.
From a standpoint outside the totalizing ambitions of each new technological regime, and yet
enmeshed in history, Levin observes the oscillation between vulnerability and ambition,
acceleration and deferral of an ideal Order, never admitting to be the temporary armistice of
orders, that traverses European culture. He refers to the ensemble of these processes as
‘postponed modernism’: modernism as perpetually unkept promise, as a geometry of
destruction visualized via calculations and permutations that thematize structure and
disintegration. The artist’s recent work suggests an enhanced preoccupation with a dialectic
of embodiment and abstraction, a cultural and political process of reversed resemblances,
where things mimic each other and transgression is forever matched by what is being
Levin’s innately unstable objects embody abstraction and abstract embodiment, or define
themselves through passages between the palpable, the categorical and the historically
irrelevant, or insufficient. The project ‘Art for the Masses’ was an elaborate study of display
strategies, of visualizing that which sustains and enhances visibility. The infrastructure,
administrative to the same extent as art- historical, of defining the object of historical desire in
the museum – in this case the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which inspired the
collection of unruly, agglomerated pedestals –, was held at center stage. An empty vanishing
point was repeatedly approximated via the arrangements of plinths, whereby strategies for
making visible were equated with disciplinary maneuvers to naturalize or make heterodox,
and to shape a controllable world. The incongruous assemblage of pedestals, suggesting
sculptures quickly put together from paintings and then relegated to the status of support
structures, touched upon the century-old problem of medium specificity, but also obliquely
engaged the mechanisms of validation in art history.
Two new works pursue the thought of the archive as a stage, designed to contain or capture
the event that would imbue it with meaning. The first of these, ‘Or Why Not Celebrate the
Past Before the Future Will Come (accounts of a happening I, II and III)’, is an expansive
visual archive, a database of protruding shapes that organize themselves according to covert
systems and in the absence of the textual props that would anchor them
to specific cultural or political narratives. The installation organizes and painstakingly
classifies distinct geometries that flirt with plural interpretive possibilities, that evoke banners
and emblems, abandoned meanings and reconfigured ideas, or that could simply serve to
produce an infinite collection of monochrome paintings and sculptures, for which the work
can function as an infinite inventory. This is, in a sense, an archive archiving itself,
provisionally accepting its antonyms, pervaded by a sudden urge to revise its impulses and
categories, or by the frisson of all that it has excluded – devalued as being adjacent or
antecedent to discourse.
‘The Object as Never Seen Before (Who Said the World Was Round)’, the work presented at
Art Amsterdam, interrogates the conditions of visibility of the object, while locating in the
very object – at its core –, the threshold between emphatic manifestation and a retreat into
obscurity. The installation is poised between equally strong drives to see and to hide, to
proffer and to remove, to place the object just out of interpretive reach. The elaborate
suggestions of the theatrical reinforce the impression of a scenography that is about to reveal
its characters and unfolding actions, yet all the elements are paired with their contradiction in
a way that suspends or postpones the event. ‘The Object...’ is indeed never seen: it is hidden
or replaced by a machine for thwarting an epiphany, the converse of a ‘deus ex machina’.
The co-presence, or simultaneity, of contradictory gestures of ‘screening’ the work, cannot be
dismantled into a sequence of steps, where visibility withdraws or obscurity withers, as we
cannot ascribe precise intentions or moral values to these a-chronological decisions. Perhaps
the spectators that the installation would uncomfortably accommodate, and to whom
revelation is promised and denied, enact the scenario of our relationship to visual objects in
general, and map the (dis)connections between the different stages artworks go through,
between becoming work, becoming visible and becoming history, and our assertions about
objects and subjects, worlds and selves.
Or, perhaps, the duality between the foundational paradoxes of art history and other
disciplinarian practices is at play here as well: maybe spectators are summoned to an
ideological program, where things, their shadows and their negations function as the
insidious puppet show of indoctrination.