Palpable presence – Nathalie Zonnenberg


by Nathalie Zonnenberg

Palpable presence. Spectacle and imagination in the work of Gabriel Lester

Usually, a curator’s first encounter with an artist occurs through their work. This may lead to collaboration in the form of an exhibition or a long-term project, and sometimes a friendship even ensues. In the case of Gabriel Lester, I first met the person before I became acquainted with his activities as an artist. At the time we started talking in an Amsterdam cafe late one night, I could hardly consider myself a fully fledged curator. As a staff member of the artist initiative W139, I was just starting to put my ideas about curating exhibitions into practice. Lester, for his part, could not yet call himself an established artist, but he did have articulate ideas and ambitions in this direction. 

Some time later I saw his first major work, How to Act (2000), at the Open Studios of the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam, and I was pleasantly surprised. Since then I have seen several of Lester’s projects and I am often amazed by the natural way in which the work is experienced. He himself provides a good explanation for that: ‘My intention is that my work is something that happens to people, much as life happens to people.’ With How to Actit was exciting to see how Lester gave meaning to the space merely with light and sound. What is striking is how freely Lester applies methods that do not originally belong to the domain of the visual arts. He explains that his childhood experiences of his father’s mime performances are an important reason for his fascination with illusionary space. But other experiences, too, such as classical film and film soundtracks, contribute to this. Today the crossover of various media is an established practice in the visual arts. In this context Lester’s work intrigues because of his relaxed, almost carefree approach. Lester confronts every new context offered for the presentation of his work with curiosity and above all plenty of enthusiasm, not restricted by any theoretical ballast. It is precisely this enthusiasm that draws in the spectator with such apparent ease. 

Apart from a number of performances and a few films in which he participated, thelion’s share of his work is characterised by an almost formalistic approach. This is expressed in the precise way Lester charts any given space before adding his installation or otherwise transforming it. According to Lester: ‘When I am invited to make a work on location, I first have a look at the exhibition space. I try to assess how people move around in that space, how they stand in relation to it. Before drafting the plans, I try to read the situation like a story, as something that has a beginning and an end. I want to make work which creates an experience you can take part in, rather than an “image” that one looks at.’ An early and typical example of this is the exhibition A Haunted House of Art(2002) in the space of the Amsterdam artists’ collective Outline. This exhibition comprised not Lester’s own work but that of other artists, which Lester selected and put together in the context of his own presentation. The whole was mostly reminiscent of a sort of cabinet of curiosities in which the selected works functioned as pieces of a set. The atmosphere of the presentation was far removed from a typical contemporary art exhibition and was more reminiscent of the spectacular experience of a visit to the theatre or amusement park. He simultaneously managed to create an environment in which the interaction with contemporary art suddenly became very lucid, natural even. 

Alongside the formal principles that he elaborates in his work – of which the minimalist Cut to the Chase,created for the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague in 2002 is a good example – Lester always includes unexpected additions, which convey an added sensibility to the work. He likes to compare his work with improvisation in music, which also departs from fixed, almost pragmatic structures of rhyme or melody. Improvisation lies in the details, which have the same importance for the total experience of the work that salt does for a meal, according to Lester.