The six 8sq m Cellules Nos 1-6 (Prototypes) were conceived by Israeli artist Absalon shortly before his death in 1993 at the age of 28. Each Cellule was a habitat designed for a specific environment, such as Zurich, Frankfurt, Tel Aviv, Tokyo, Paris and New York. Scattered throughout the world's cities, they were intended to be topographical prophylactics against geographically specific ills.
Born in 1964 in Ashdod, a town outside Tel Aviv, Meir Eshel moved to Paris in 1987. His entry into the Ecole des Beaux-Arts under Christian Boltanski prompted mutterings of genius. He changed his name to Absalon after the handsome, rebellious son of King David, killed in battle by his father's men. The name, which means "son of peace", is synonymous with revolt.
The Cellules were to be practical solutions for "living the social", rather than speculative additions to works on isolation and utopia. The curation of the show is smart, laying out the prototypes like a sort of camp in the cavernous basement of the KW Institute for Contemporary Art. This frees the rest of the exhibition to act as a maze of clues arranged in modules over the remaining four floors.
The internal features of each Cellule dictate the form of its exterior. A low-slung bed within the New York volume appears as a cylinder on the outside. The effect is of skin stretched over the organs and muscles of a human body, with each habitation designed according to the bodily proportions of the artist. Dimensions have been planed down so that "penetrating" the environments – Absalon's word – is difficult. The Cellules compel careful adjustment of bodily movements, producing a kind of site-specific dance of the living.
No 3, New York, inspired by a Roman tomb, was described by Absalon as the most "machine-like", aping the features of that city. No 5, Frankfurt/Main, is a tall cylinder, a bunker-cum-watchtower to represent Germany. No 4, Tel Aviv, looks like a shooting gallery. In fact, there's something militaristic in all the prototypes: long windows like gun galleries, efficient construction and a dungeon-like shower grille over the drop toilet. Like a military camp, the Cellules thrust a self-contained society into an extant one. Within a space produced by the working of existing mechanisms, the Cellule represents an incubation chamber where extreme spatial arrangements give birth to alternative operations "like a virus in the city", Absalon said.
The first floor houses video works in which Absalon screams himself hoarse (Bruits), eats, smokes, masturbates and paces (Solutions), and reels about, limply boxing an unseen opponent that must be himself (Bataille). The 1991 Cellules on the second floor are fully enclosed capsules with removable sections that function as doors, and are filled with geometric shapes that hint at furniture: an examination of how living fills up space that implies that you need to disassemble both to rethink either one. The third floor shows the preparatory works – uneven cardboard models, freehand sketches, collages and video works – that don't fit the precise schema of the final project.
Disposition closes the exhibition in the KW's barn-like attic. This is a 110sq m quadrant of 40 white geometric "elements" – a sort of catalogue of Absalon's formal vocabulary, although it's tempting to view it as the aerial view of a city made up entirely of Cellules. It verges on the territory of the utopias the artist so keenly avoids, but in an increasingly migratory global society it remains just within the bounds of reality. Cellules may yet find their social function.
Absalon. KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin. Until 20 February. www.kw-berlin.de.