Mateusz Choróbski

H.aven, the title of the exhibition by Mateusz Choróbski (Radomsko, 1987) at the Dr. Éva Kahán Foundation in Vienna, reflects well the project it introduces as well as the history of the place where it is located; especially in terms of its semantic articulation. In fact, with a spelling game it can quickly change meaning, opening up to different levels of reading, just as there are various interpretative nuances that accompany the exhibition and just as many chronological phases that have taken place in the direction of the Viennese cultural institution.

H.aven, without a period after the letter H, can be understood literally as Haven, i.e. “port” in English, a physical refuge on the water, a landing place where you can find comfort and shelter after a journey. By inserting an “e” in place of the period it becomes Heaven, “paradise” again in English, that is to say that primordial place that welcomes the first human beings according to the biblical tradition or that place, celestial or terrestrial, destined for all those considered “right” in the context of theologies based on the interpretation of biblical texts. By deleting the initial “H” H.aven becomes Aven, which, as Choróbski notes, is “a unique and versatile name with a rich history and multiple meanings. Its origins can be traced back to both the Irish and Hebrew languages. In Irish, Aven comes from the name Aoibheann, which translates to ‘beautiful and pleasant’. The other meaning in Irish is ‘fair splendour’. Aven is also a biblical name mentioned in the Old Testament, conveying the meaning of ‘iniquity’ and ‘sorrow’ in Hebrew. (…) The etymology from Proto Brythonic is ‘river’ but the term can also be interpreted as ‘hole’ or ‘vertical well leading upwards from a cave’ (...)that is, “something the opposite of Heaven which also grammatically refers to Aven”.

Playing on the double declension Haven / Heaven of the term, Choróbski elaborates a project that pays homage to the figure of the French-born Romanian poet, of Jewish origin and German language, Paul Celan (Cernauți, 1920–Paris, 1970), who, according to the artist, “all his life he searched in vain for his place on earth and returned to reflect in his poems on a life that had been irretrievably lost”. Having first escaped the Nazi deportations, a circumstance in which he lost both parents, then the persecutions of the communist regime he travelled throughout Europe before finding definitive refuge in Paris where, afflicted by mental disorders, he took his own life in 1970 by throwing himself into the Seine. His collection of poems Von Schwelle zu Schwelledates back to the early 1950s, shortly after the famous Todesfuge (1948), focusing on the concept of “threshold” as a liminal condition that precedes an identity space, both from a cultural and personal point of view, similar to the idea of family, home, place of origin, temple of memory. That “threshold” which, both in the Jewish tradition and in the mind of the artist, takes on the symbolic value of an initiatory territory guardian of moral and civil, personal and collective values; and which, in some way, is also expressed in the verse “I still go in front of the house, I look for water in the sand” also contained in Von Schwelle zu Schwelle. Drawing inspiration from it, Choróbski ideally connects to the site where the Dr. Éva Kahán Foundation is located in Vienna, Karmeliterviertel, once an area inhabited by the Jewish community largely dispersed during the Holocaust. The neighborhood is located north of the historic city of Vienna, on the Danube Island Unterer Werd, and in the 14th century it began to be populated as it became easily accessible thanks to the construction of a bridge. Until the second half of the nineteenth century, its area was repeatedly subject to floods from the Danube.

The set of these historical and cultural stratifications, fused with the personal and professional experience of Paul Celan, constitutes the narrative heritage on which Choróbski draws for the project in Vienna. As usual, in this case too he starts from the observation of the surrounding reality and translates it into works that are expressed according to a complex variety of linguistic systems: plastic, video, performative, installation. For this purpose, he draws on a varied iconographic and iconological repertoire, often inspired by everyday life and the subjects that mark its dilution over time, capable of stimulating every trait of the viewer's perceptive system, both from a visual and emotional point of view. These are common objects such as poor materials, mineral and vegetal elements that he sometimes manipulates, sometimes presents in their original state by observing their evolution under the action of the physical and chemical phenomena exerted on them by nature or man. Through them he intervenes on the space of circumstances, thus modifying its visual and emotional perception and adopting it, in turn, as another operational substance although completely intangible and virtual.

The installation conceived for the Große Sperlgasse is composed of three typological sets, all specially conceived and dated 2024. The first consists of seven luminous bodies (H1aven-H7aven) as many as the arms that form the Jewish Menorah. Each of them is positioned near a window - the five in the gallery plus the two that open into the room adjacent to it - and emits a glow which at the same time takes on an identifying character (it signals, even at a certain distance, the position of the exhibition space), logistical (with its energy and intensity and chromaticity it involves the territory and circumstances, significantly changing its vision), symbolic (the mystical and spiritual value of the luminous glow), allegorical (seen from afar, the lamps resemble candle flames with golden reflections, to votive lamps suspended in a temple). The seven electrical structures are completed by a glass surface, a recurring material in Choróbski’s work and composed, before processing, of a sandy mixture. The idea of the latter recalls the geological residues that covered Karmeliterviertel when, until the 19th century, it was subject to continuous flooding and, more generally, the sand of the desert of biblical memory: Moses leading the Israelites to reconquer the promised land passing through the desert. The exhibition evokes this chapter of the Old Testament and draws inspiration from it to reflect on the present time marked by continuous migrations and the wanderings of many populations in search of a place to live; as well as Celan’s constant traveling in search of a place of choice where he can spend his existence in peace. Thus, we return, once again, to the Jewish tradition and its historical imprint, still alive, on the area that hosts the Foundation. Traces of glass then reappear in the door and window frames. It comes from the fusion of what was originally contained in thermoses (heat-insulating containers created for the conservation of the heat of a liquid product) or in the hemispheres necessary for the practice of “cupping” (medical therapy intended for body care) that is to say for two “instruments” aimed at the physical and personal comfort of the individual, yesterday as today. That is to say, recycled material which, together with the traces of colour present on the wooden frames of doors and windows, leads back to a topic very dear to Choróbski, memory, which more or less explicitly pervades the entire project today. To complete which there are sculptures positioned on the floor of the gallery and both entitled H.aven. These are two stone cylinders that contain glass sand inside them in the quantity equal to that which could be contained in the lungs of a human being. In the artist’s intentions, they refer to the theme of breathing, that is, to a primary vital process, and they also constitute a metaphor of existence and a reflection on the concept of individual and collective identity.

Finally, the small room in front of the entrance to the gallery hosts Nature a video installation composed of a film played on a sheet stretched across the walls, a sort of false ceiling under which a stool is positioned on which to sit and watch the projection. At short intervals, a luminous writing appears on the linen fabric, as if traced on a fluid surface, which reads “Nature banished into imperfection”. Seen from bottom to top and inside the room, the inscription, moved by reflections similar to those caused by grazing light on an irregular surface, causes the sensation of being underwater or as if immersed in primordial amniotic fluid. It constitutes yet another allegory of life, in line with Choróbski’s entire exhibition project, confirming the continuous intertwining of history, memory and emotions that fuels his research.

Pier Paolo Pancotto, curator


Please note: due to the multimedia nature of the exhibition, the Kahan Art Space Vienna will be open daily from 18:00 - 22:00, Wednesday to Saturday.

Photocredit: © Manuel Carreon Lopez