text: Robrecht Vanderbeeken / translation: Jonathan Beaton
PREACHING TO THE CHOIR
What kind of images can the artist still make in our society of spectacle? The torrent of sensational news coming from what Sven ‘t Jolle once referred to as the ‘meanstream media’ has a tendency to exceed our grimmest expectations. A toddler washed ashore. Theatrical decapitations by IS that promptly go viral. Drone attacks in night vision, filmed with infra-red cameras. The entertainment industry repeats it all in 3D and slow motion. After every terror attack there comes a sequel with the latest special effects and accompanying video game, or so it seems.
We live in a culture of ideas that is unashamedly arm-in-arm with the popular press. Current affairs reports, with their sensational images, govern our perception and, in light of this, some artists seem to have given up their autonomy: many image makers seek to participate in this mediatised success and thus recycle what they see in the papers or on television. Or to put it more provocatively: how many artists dedicate their talents to reappropriating or painting copies of this image culture? Reproducing images only to leave one’s mark and call it a day. Playing with ambiguities, artists seek to make their aestheticized images immune to critique, they themselves admitting to take no position. The viewer is free to make of it all whatever they want, which is also seen as a matter of autonomy.
There is something fascinating about Sven ‘t Jolle’s ‘image garden’; as an artist he is driven by a different motivation. Of course, his images also correspond with reality. Take his sketch of a little train perched in the trees, for example. Instead of that iconic image of a cow stuck up an Australian tree following a flood, here we have Thomas the Tank Engine from the famous children’s books. A victim of ‘freak weather’, as they call it Down Under, where they seem to be suffering from it more and more. Cause and effect in the same image: steam train – coal – industrialisation – climate change – the escapism of our consumer culture – catastrophe. A wild ride ...
Or take the artist’s spring rider sculpture, like those typically found in a children’s playground, but here in the form of a sheep – a fitting accompaniment to ‘the not so good Shepherd’. Although new, the images are as strong and expressive as they are simple. While many artists follow current affairs because they seek to incorporate the news in their work, it is clear that ‘t Jolle seeks to work in counterpoint to the news.
The political engagement in his work is clear: in the case of some sketches you can imagine an artist who has just folded away the newspaper, disillusioned, or closed his browser window on an internet news report. An artist who, instead of writing a scathing opinion piece about the heinous handling of refugees in the ‘land of the free’, takes out a pencil and begins to sketch. Observation, processing and analysis, but in the form of drawings. Characters, symbols and social practices are rendered in a unique retelling. He strives to achieve what is so often unsuccessful in art today: the development of a visual language that draws an alternative truth into focus. A language that doesn’t reproduce dominant images from the media, but stubbornly responds to, edits, reinterprets, unravels them, places them in a new context as metaphors. The result being his own layered iconography that exposes and refutes, lays contradictions bare.
A second difference is that the ambiguity, specific to the interpretive game that makes art art, is dealt with differently by ‘t Jolle. The ambiguity is in the work, not in the message. His drawings don’t try to cover all bases by leaving the meaning vaguely open; expression is not withheld for fear of losing autonomy. In the case of many images, this artist is not afraid to take a clear position. Yet the act of drawing isn’t hung up on indictment. One observation leads to another, adding layer upon layer. By way of delightful digs, apparent trifles and striking associations, one is transported to a unique visual world, pulled into a visual story replete with characters, situations and decor.
In ‘t Jolle’s oeuvre, social critique is more than a simple reflection of the news. He doesn’t sugar-coat anything: it is simply scandalous that our economic system produces such egregious inequality. It is plainly unacceptable that millionaires can make additional profit without paying taxes and that the general press is fascinated by this shameless selfishness, celebrating it as if we were witnessing an example of creative entrepreneurship.
But although today such critique is the bread and butter of cartoonists, ‘t Jolle stands firm in his position as a fine artist. His sketchbooks reveal a quest to transcend the temptation of the fast, pointed commentary of cartoons. In his designs he remains a typical modern artist who seeks, within the context of the page, to create an autonomous image. ‘t Jolle’s work is identifiable not by superficial, showy characteristics but by the dynamic out of which it is born. It seems a complex balancing act: to not slip into the familiar refuge of caricature or into creating a mere remake fleshed out with certain meaningful residues from media archives. In short, ‘t Jolle is committed to a certain challenge: how do you, as a fine artist, arrive at your own visual anthropology?
As an art critic, one equally faces a balancing act in viewing this multifaceted work. The suggestive images tempt one to run rampant with philosophical interpretation. The work also invites one to place it on a pedestal held up by grandiose allusions. Yet ‘t Jolle does not lose the plot in constructing meaning and he himself places nothing on a pedestal. In neither case does it suffice to only discuss the creative labour of the artist and this is a natural result of the artist’s original approach, in which the spirited and hopeful qualities of his work also originate. Allow me therefore, at the risk of impropriety, to go further into this, probing into what I suspect are the motives of this iconoclasm.
As a creator you can only be a modernist if you are also one as a person: someone who wishes to insert a caesura into the present in the hope of a better future. Dismantling in order to build it better next time, following designs that are in everyone’s interest. Making art out of a progressive zeal, but without preaching. Art not focused on the production of exclusivity or the underlining of one’s own genius. Separate from the tiresome cult of narcissistic despair.
When you start from such a modern disposition, you don’t come out with ‘postmodern’ work that revolves around the viewer bringing their own meaning to the work. With ‘t Jolle’s drawings, he protests, from one side or another, against such relativizing and elusive postmodern meandering. Both in art and in public life in general.
Which means? Intellectuals, politicians and artists have protested for years that we have arrived at the end of the ‘big stories’. Our ideological feathers have moulted, it seems. We are left with a survival strategy based on cynicism and irony: standing at the side-lines of society like spectators, we view our own lives as if it were something amusing. A spectacle. Keep it cool, like in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994): freed of responsibility, armed with a mocking grin and a raised eyebrow. Yo bitch, say what?
It is a familiar accusation: the critical thinking with which postmodernism began grew into a general attitude of scepticism and indecisiveness rendering impossible any critical attitude with respect to the ownership structure that keeps our society in a stranglehold. What ought to be the difficult path of independent and critical analysis in going from deconstruction to construction has collapsed into an all-too-comfortable pose of restraint. Even in the art world this pose has taken the upper hand. Theory and truth have become suspicious by default. They have been dismissed as ‘pamphletary’, ‘preachy’, ‘sloganistic’, and in their place is a focus on form and how it can be manipulated. We have experienced the deconstruction of everything that showed any kind of authority as a theory of ideas. It would only serve to corrupt. Being critical ultimately comes to mean sticking to the trodden path and remaining open to a diversity of opinions, not to say a market of ideas. Because – as if it were all in defence of fairness – every vision, regardless of its level of truth, would only be an opinion anyway. This morality of tolerance permits us to exchange opinions rather than keep them for ourselves. Fundamentally defending a vision quickly starts to appear like proselytism. And such zeal is not proper. It’s something for narrow-minded fanatics. Uncool and above all so last century.
We do have heated discussions on the importance of freedom of expression, we are all Charlie, preferably transcending borders of culture, religion, gender and ethnicity. But what’s the use of such freedom if we have nothing new to say? All that’s left is an anti-authority sentiment: you’re free to have convictions as long as you don’t bother anyone with them. And so long as we don’t have to take you, the artist, seriously.
The post-modern impasse ultimately comes down to one thing: assuming a sceptical attitude towards pretty much everything, to be left floundering in the vacuum of this attitude. And from this position to hear everybody out as equals. Because everyone has a right to their opinion. And these opinions are given free rein in the din of freedom of speech. ‘Openness’ thus becomes resigned superficiality and superficial resignation. A perverse form of aloofness, in fact. Because this dogmatic scepticism implies that we eschew choice, participation and engagement. With polite indifference being the ultimate conclusion. But what role can art play in this context? What does freedom even mean at this point?
Socio-economic interests and objections start to veer out of focus. In this way, post-modern ideology serves censorship: not by banning anything, but by reducing everything to a busy bazaar of disparate opinions. The actual violence is thus in the tendency to fool oneself that we live in the best of all possible worlds. Something which we are indeed constantly told, with an intensity that attests to our fear that this may not be the case. And of course it’s a bundle of lies. What we’re left with: every man for himself, and the market for all. The God of Money reigns, sovereign as a secular saint who makes no distinction between capital and state. And we all fall victim, not only art.
Art as manifestation
‘t Jolle’s line drawings and tragicomic sculptures exhibit something that is lacking in a lot of other work: a disarming honesty which the artist uses to disclose the impotence of art to make a political difference. ‘Don’t get all bent out of shape, it’s just art’ – the point of departure from which to then continue working tirelessly towards an emancipated practice. This reminds me of the battle playwright Harold Pinter so militantly made public when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005. He took the opportunity to speak directly about art, truth and politics. Pinter opted for a video message as he was too physically unwell to make the journey to Stockholm.(1) It would become his last testament. Pinter begins his speech with the assertion that art often mirrors the ambiguity between fact and fiction. In art there is seldom one truth; there are many truths that variously challenge and negate one another. But as an individual one desires to know what is true and what is false. This is why as a writer you have to dare to break this mirror in order to defeat ignorance. Only then can we be left facing the truth. Pinter then broke the mirror and launched into a fierce indictment of the evils of the United States: the bloody ‘state terrorism’ with which the regime has guarded its economic power for decades by means of lies and repression. Together with our ‘allies’, the Saudis. This violence escalated with the ‘war on terror’, with more attacks across the globe being the provisional endgame. In the meantime, politics lulls the people into a sleep where they can rest unconcerned with any underlying ideological motives. But how many have already lost their lives in Iraq? ‘We don’t do body counts’, the American general Tommy Franks once said. Broken bodies and blood are unsavoury, not the kind of thing you want in the news.
‘Despite the enormous odds which exist, unflinching, unswerving, fierce intellectual determination as citizens to define the real truth of our lives and our societies is a crucial obligation which devolves upon us all. It is in fact mandatory’, Pinter concludes. ‘If such a determination is not embodied in our political tradition, we have no hope of restoring what is so nearly lost to us: the dignity of man.’
In his speech the freshly honoured Nobel Prize winner turns to poetry, which he uses to emphasise where it is for him that the power of art resides. He recites poems that allow us to relate to the victims of wartime suffering. Highlighting the deaths that according to official reports didn’t take place. ‘Blood of children ran through the streets. Without fuss, like children’s blood.’, Pablo Neruda wrote. (2) ‘Come and see the blood in the streets.’ Reciting his own poem, Death, Pinter implores us to ask ourselves with every dead body:
Where was the dead body found?
Who found the dead body?
Was the dead body dead when found?
How was the dead body found?
Who was the dead body?
Was the body dead when abandoned?
Was the body abandoned?
How well did you know the dead body?
Did you wash the dead body
Did you close both its eyes
Did you bury the body
Did you kiss the dead body
The threat of terror dehumanises, something the politics of fear depends upon. And so grows the distance between ‘us’ and ‘them’. But a democratic and unified society can win back power through human contact. By coming together. Herein lies a challenge for art. The oeuvre of ‘t Jolle has clearly been stoked by this challenge. Arriving to his exhibition at Voorkamer in Lier, I came across an image that has haunted me ever since: a dirty, ripped t-shirt on a clothes hanger. A refugee’s? Behold: the uniform of the lumpenproletariat. It hung discreetly on a wall of the old house. You could walk straight past it. Some rags on a hanger with three holes in them. It could be a face. But something emanates from this embodiment that creates an unexpected intimacy few fear campaigns can beat. It was the sensory construction of meaning that did it: from this inhuman scene grows a desire for more humanity. If you look at the shirt for a while, it starts to cling to your body. Only the ‘us’ remains of ‘us and them’. That which saddens them makes our happiness impossible. Their freedom is our freedom. My freedom is ultimately as conditional as fine art. It is impotent outside of a context of solidarity. And this honest insight serves as a starting point for change.
(1) YouTube, 9 Nov. 2011.
(2) in the poem Explico Algunas Cosas.
DO, UNDO, REDO. On Recent Drawings by Peter Morrens
‘Watt did not of course wonder all these things at the time, but some he wondered at the time, and the others subsequently. But those that he wondered at the time, he again wondered subsequently, together with those that he did not wonder at the time, over and over again. And many other things in this connexion also, of which some at the time, and the others subsequently, Watt wondered subsequently also, time without number.’(1) Samuel Beckett, Watt (1953)
— Remaking Drawing
A long time in preparation but executed only recently, Peter Morrens’ new suite of drawings has, in line with his practice more broadly, involved the reworking of existing images, most of which were of his own making. The original intention had been to remake a selection of his previous drawings in a new, standarized format. However, having just left his life in Lier and relocated his studio and archives to Antwerp, a much wider array of material surfaced. This material presented itself as a kind of ‘time capsule’ of past ideas, memories and experiences, now newly available for reworking.(2) The resulting drawings, made with black charcoal and graphite on A3 paper, each translate some kind of personally resonant pre-existing image: Morrens’ own older drawings, yes, but also a variety of source images, found fragments from magazines, old installation shots, his own children’s early drawings, book illustrations, salvaged words and phrases, crude photocopies, and private photographs.
What is at stake here? Firstly, there is the question of drawing itself: its materials, its processes, its registration of bodily activity, its mediations. Secondly, and in a related way, there is the question of time and its inscription. Morrens presents us with a model of time that is radically incomplete and susceptible to vast shifts in tempo; one that is both haunted and projective. Thirdly, the project also bears upon the question of contemporary artistic identity. We find Morrens operating in the dynamic space between opposed positions: coherent sense-maker and champion of paradox; earnest communicator and mercurial trader in ironies and expletives; receiver of impressions and producer of the new. These tensions are never resolved, but rather generate the energy to keep on making.
In recent years, drawing has frequently been characterised by its indexicality.(3) According to the American philosopher C.S. Peirce, an index is a type of sign that has some existential connection with its object, pointing directly to it. Imprints such as footprints, bullet holes, and analogue photographs silently indicate physical contact with that to which they refer.(4) The drawn mark is an indexical sign for the artist’s hand and (via an extrapolation that is far from secure) his or her subjectivity. As well as contributing, perhaps, to the production of resemblances (‘iconic’ signs, for Peirce), or of arbitrary conventional representations of objects or ideas (‘symbolic’ signs), the drawn mark also evidences the process of production with particular directness. Here we find Morrens both exploiting this directness and, by way of a host of techniques of marking, erasing, sanding, masking and re-inscribing, also layering and complicating such traces, often rendering them indeterminate and ambiguous. Wildly diverse on the level of subject matter, the drawings are nevertheless set on a standard scale, use consistent media, are made by the same hand and have been collected into one book. If this is quite far from chaos, however, we should also not expect an elaborated thesis either, but rather ‘oxymorrens’ and ‘productive confusion’.(5)
— LIFE, one part reversed
Z.T. (2007) was an important drawing for Morrens that mimicked a fictive front page of the international edition of LIFE magazine, made using oil paint, watercolour and pencil on paper. LIFE’s logo is accompanied by an outsized sausage, curled up like a desublimated symbol of eternity. A disruptive, comical coup, this was a work to be re-made for the current project. However, in returning to the original source material, other ideas displaced this first intention. Morrens cropped his image, leaving aside the irreverent sausage and focusing more directly upon the logo: four capital letters, very familiar and making up a word so loaded with meaning as to be flattened out under the pressure. Except that Morrens has reversed the ‘F’, has included the smaller word ‘INTERNATIONAL’ beneath it, and ‘HISTORY’ below that.
‘HISTORY’, however, has been subjected to quite an ordeal: rubbed, scraped, worn, ripped and smudged. The whole image, which retains the bold graphic impact of the magazine design, is nevertheless busy with the evidence of sustained handling: the black marks are bold, scored, heavy. Smudges and trails of powder, debris from the process of making, reveal the textured grain of the surface. Text justified left, with the right hand side of the page all but empty, the operations of asymmetrical cropping, juxtaposing, inscribing and erasing enter into a compressed and suggestive relationship with the words presented. What happens to the drawn words has implications for the concepts they indicate: ‘HISTORY’ struggles for presence amidst aggressive erasures; ‘INTERNATIONAL’ is far from seamless, riven as it is by smudges and dust; and ‘LIFE’ has been culled from a pervasive popular media, with one part reversed. The connotations, ricocheting from signifier to signified, soon pile in.
— Vermeer, quickly
Vermeer’s paintings are emblems of a kind of heightened temporal suspension. In them time is held up by an extraordinary lambency. These are not moments cropped from the continuous fabric of duration, but rather ones paused over, raised to the condition of internal images that have been woven together by the intensifying threads of recollection. Taken up by the febrile energy of Morrens’ process, however, a blur renders the Dutch master’s View of Delft (1660) like a landscape seen from a moving train: hurtling, fragmentary, merely glanced. Is this a new kind of ‘slipping glimpser’, to recall Willem de Kooning’s famous self-characterisation, and one newly attuned to the splintered rhythms, currents and collisions of contemporary life?(6) It should be stressed, however, that even when Morrens’ work is ‘fast’, which is by no means always, this has little to do with the lightning speeds of digital transfer. Rather, its roughness and evident facture check that kind of limitless dematerialized speed. Indeed, time in Morrens’ work has neither uniform tempo nor unambiguous direction. It is not a time of discrete successive moments, but one of recursivity, retroaction and incompletion. As with this current project, his tendency is constantly to revisit and re-engage works that have not yet escaped the studio. The past is constantly hauled into the present to be configured anew.
Morrens’ output also has a slow and, if not quite meditative, then at least decelerated aspect. His ongoing series of pictures based upon hi-fi speakers, with repetitive grids like ‘perverse Agnes Martins’, is contaminated by explicit popular reference, for example;(7) and his spare but laborious drawings of gridded notepapers, scaled up by 300%, engage repetition and constraint to allow thought to fall away from the process of making. Morrens, since his first visit to Kyoto, has been fascinated by the city’s famous zen gardens. Experiencing these places in real time, the clarity of knowledge is balanced, exhilaratingly, by an equally strong sense of the enigmatic and ungraspable. The different but equally strong paradox between meditative and touristic experiences also struck him, and here it is apposite to recall the tragi-comic predicament of Italo Calvino’s Mr Palomar. Visiting the famous Ryõan-ji gardens, Palomar, try as he might, is unable to bracket out his real, situated, jostled condition for the sake of the desired spiritual effects:
“If our inner gaze remains absorbed in the viewing of this garden,” explains the pamphlet offered visitors, in Japanese and in English, signed by the abbot of the temple, “we will feel divested of the relativity of our individual ego, whereas the sense of the absolute I will fill us with serene wonder purifying our clouded minds.”
These ‘instructions for use’ […] seem [to Palomar] perfectly plausible and immediately applicable, without effort, provided one is really sure of having a personality to shed, of looking at the world from inside an ego that can be dissolved, to become only a gaze. But it is precisely this outset that demands an effort of supplementary imagination, very difficult to muster when one’s ego is glued into a solid crowd looking through its thousand eyes and walking on its thousand feet along the established itinerary of a tourist route.(8)
Fast and slow, contemplative and distracted: Morrens tends to work with dialectical pairings so as to dramatize sets of opposed qualities without synthesizing them into a sublated whole – past and present, chance and control, crude and refined, oblique and direct, trivial and pressing. That Morrens makes artworks under different names (PM, Herman Smit, Point Blank Press) is not so much the issue as the way his work figures a distracted, receptive and mobile subjectivity. We might say that his work is propelled from a force acting in the gap where a fully integrated subjectivity might have been.
— Point Blank (Shooting or Shot?)
As Point Blank Press, Peter Morrens acts as a piece of aural flypaper. Sitting on the train, in a café, on the street, reading a book, in the world, a phrase will stick. Public space abuzz with words thrown into mobile phones, issuing past a smile, rising from a page of printed text like a slap. Dutch, French, English and German words that stick in the mind, quickly noted down, salvaged from pure contingency:
“A certain brutality”
“I am what is around me”
“Die macht der dinge”
“I don’t LIKE you”
“The arena of fragmentation and repetition”
“In your face”
Language that has been chanced upon, caught in the mobile net of attention, is then set down again onto pages from school pupils’ exercise books. These pages, with their regular grids and lines, variously faded and browning, originally produced to aid in instruction and obedience, are then filled with urgent, crude, gauche, undisciplined writing. The writing has an anti-professional, punk flavour – it carries something of the expletive, the slogan, the insult, the plea, the powerful lyric.(9) The title ‘Point Blank’ signals that no skill or aim is necessary: this is pure, inevitable collision. And the artist, what is he doing? Registering, noticing, recording, selecting, repurposing, relaying: enacting, to borrow from Leo Steinberg’s famous discussion of Robert Rauschenberg’s work, ‘the mind as a running transformer of the external world, constantly ingesting incoming unprocessed data to be mapped in an overcharged field.’(10)
— A Vocabulary of Action
‘Criticism must begin by recognizing in the painting the assumption inherent in its mode of creation. Since the painter has become an actor, the spectator has to think in a vocabulary of action: its inception, duration, direction – psychic state, concentration and relaxation of the will, passivity, alert waiting. He must become a connoisseur of the gradations between the automatic, the spontaneous, the evoked.’(11)
Harold Rosenberg: ‘The American Action Painters’ (1952)
Energetically worked, overworked and reworked, Peter Morrens’ drawings testify to an intense physical process: urgent, tactile, involved. The images that Morrens chooses to translate themselves often carry complex and ambiguous associations: a street-lit night scene, viewed from high above, somewhere between film noir and CCTV; the cabin in which Le Corbusier worked and near which he drowned; an ecstatic image of a woman’s face, with blurred edges connoting the flush of bodily sensation; a Duchampian diagram of cylindrical stage lights; a sublime mountain landscape turned strange cinema by the presence of an uneven white rectangle; words drawn, smudged, erased, and deformed; the sheen of a metallic tray, playing with depth and flatness; a bent piece of paper; a car crash. The artist’s facture of the drawings variously nuances or interferes with these associations. In one untitled drawing, for example, a candle and its mirrored reflection are rendered by rich, silky vertical charcoal strokes evoking the ‘Big Arm Sweeps’ of de Kooning, or the calligraphic boldness of Franz Kline. This confident gestural work of the body is set against an image that involves both spectral replication and, via the candle’s central place in the symbolic tradition of still life, finitude.
Often the work of Morrens’ hand is less bravura, however: rubbings, smudgings and scuffings abound, building up the surface of the drawing with a patient deliberateness. Areas of dense graphic activity are also often cut sharp by a masked edge, cropping the image and leaving large parts of the page white. All this evidence of the artist’s work is not really a question of manual style or expressive immediacy, but it does nevertheless have to do with intensity, and indeed humour. Morrens speaks of the centrality of strong personal experiences and feelings in his practice, with each drawing charged with the weight of private memories and associations, as well as with the sense of urgency, ambiguity and even ridiculousness that often accompanies reflection upon such resonant experiences. It is perhaps the urgency of the facture, eloquent of a physically concentrated working process, that indexes this affective content most directly for the viewer. While the artwork is not a transparent window into another person’s consciousness, an apprehension of the ‘grain’ of the lively working body is unmistakable (12). It is this ‘grain’, this interference and impurity, that Morrens’ work feeds on, holds up and sets to work. In this way the manner in which the physicality of art’s materials and processes is declared has something to do with a type of engagement with the extra-artistic world. Morrens’ drawings above all give form to an attitude: unprecious, energetic, inclusive, disobedient and paradoxical. Obliquely, they suggest a modus operandi for negotiating the everyday world and, as such, constitute their own kind of interpretation of it.
(1) Samuel Beckett, Watt , London, 2009, p. 111.
(2) Peter Morrens, email to the author, 20th February 2014.
(3) See, for example, Michael Newman, ‘The Marks, Traces, and Gestures of Drawing’ in: Catherine de Zegher (ed.), The Stage of Drawing: Gesture and Act, London and New York 2003, pp. 93-108, and Margaret Iversen, ‘Index, Diagram, Graphic Trace’, Tate Papers 18, autumn 2012 (online).
(4) C. Hartshorne and P. Weiss (eds.), The Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce , vol. 2, Cambridge MA, 1934-1936, pp. 274-303.
(5) Peter Morrens himself made this neologism in an email to the author, 14 January 2014.
(6) For a discussion of de Kooning’s self-characterisation, see, for example, Richard Shiff, Between Sense and de Kooning , London, 2011, pp. 234ff.
(7) This is Morrens’ phrase, spoken in conversation with the author, Antwerp, 3th February 2014. The discussion could usefully be extended, given Martin’s own very spare use of everyday fragments and detritus in her work from the early 1960s.
(8) Italo Calvino, Mr Palomar , translated by William Weaver, London, 1985, pp. 83-84.
(9) Comparisons might be made to Raymond Pettibon’s work, although Morrens’ production is less readerly, less ‘intertextual’. On Pettibon, see Benjamin Buchloh, ‘Raymond Pettibon: After Laughter’, October , n° 129, summer 2009, pp. 13-50.
(10) I quote from Steinberg’s classic invocation of Robert Rauschenberg’s picture plane as an analogue for mental processes (Leo Steinberg, ‘Other Criteria’  in Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth Century Art , Chicago, 2007, p. 88.)
(11) Harold Rosenberg, ‘The American Action Painters’, in Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (eds.), Art in Theory 1900-1990, Oxford, 1993, p. 29.
(12) Roland Barthes wrote that ‘the “grain” is the body in the voice as it sings, the hand as it writes, the limb as it performs. If I perceive the “grain” in a piece of music and accord this “grain” a theoretical value (…), I inevitably set up a new scheme of evaluation which will certainly be individual (...) but in no way “subjective” (it is not the psychological “subject” in me who is listening; the climactic pleasure hoped for is not going to reinforce – to express – that subject but, on the contrary, to lose it).’ Roland Barthes, ‘The Grain of the Voice’, in Image-Music-Text, selected and translated by Stephen Heath, Glasgow, 1977, p. 188.
On 12 December 2013, in an email accompanying the conversation Lee Ranaldo and I were having on his Lost Highways drawings, Ranaldo wrote the following:
‘Going well if a bit much traveling – all good though – we are in California, have been up and down the west coast – wonderful shows in San Francisco area. I haven’t been getting many good drawings on this trip in spite of trying, and in some very inspiring country. It’s unpredictable when they really go well.’
In this email, Ranaldo is referring to his Lost Highways drawings, an ongoing series of small format sketches that are based on roads and their surrounding landscape that Ranaldo sees from the passenger seat of the van while on the road with his band. The roads and landscapes pass very quickly, so their characteristics are mostly noted down in few lines to a sheet of paper, executed in a very short timeframe. The Lost Highways drawings record the roads traveled, with their curves and crests, mountains, trees, flyovers... Roads that in many cases resemble others, seen on other journeys – or even on the same trip. The drawings recognize the road as constantly changing yet constantly the same. Like life itself is constantly changing and constantly the same.
In the following conversation Lee Ranaldo elaborates on the naissance and concept of this ongoing and still evolving series of drawings, of which you’ll find a selection in this publication. The series will hopefully continue and develop in other artistic journeys. To me, it seems that for Ranaldo there are still endless journeys to embark on. The subject matter for his drawings will present itself every minute he spends traveling in a van while on tour, where the road seems to become one with life. Turn the pages of this book and embark on parts of the journeys that Ranaldo made, while he is hopefully packing his valise and gathering his pens and paper to hit the road again soon, to continue the journey. The constantly changing yet constantly the same life and work of artist-musician Lee Ranaldo seems to echo the words of On the Road author Jack Kerouac as he writes: ‘Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.’
ROLAND GROENENBOOM: As for the inspiration of the series’ title, Lost Highways drawings: David Lynch or Hank Williams?
LEE RANALDO: Hank Williams for sure! It’s all playing off the ‘Lost Highway’ of his song title, and using it as a representative for all of the many road songs, songs born of the road, of wanderlust, or wandering. I wanted the drawings to represent the constantly changing, constantly-the-same quality of the highway. Zen masters of the past have used the metaphor of the river – it’s always the same and always different – to illustrate a basic koan, and I’m also trying to evoke that teaching as well.
RG: Could you elaborate a bit more on the relation, for you personally, between a koan and your Lost Highways drawings?
LR: A koan is sometimes described as a means by which a Zen master would disrupt or combat the general analytical nature of the mind, a ‘puzzle’ that would cause logic to fail. In my drawings, I refer to the nature of the endless ribbon of road as ever changing, yet ever constant. To try and draw a moving target on the one hand and at the same time something that, for all it’s variety, is always in some way the same: the endless vanishing point of the perspective on views out a car window.
The trick for me is to find a way into the image, to try and capture something that has changed from the first mark I make on the paper – that is never the same when I finish as it was when I began. I’m not working from photographs, which would be another project completely, nor am I spending endless amounts of time on any one drawing. The object is, firstly, to try and harness some of the energy of the landscape in a graphic way, and then, from there, to see where it might lead. Some of the images are done in a matter of moments, just grabbling general shapes and trying to jot them down. In other cases the image formulating on the page takes precedence and I start concentrating more on it than on the actual landscape rushing by.
Another aspect that to me informs the drawings is that each one is dated on the back with the place of execution (‘To Barcelona 101213’, ‘To Seattle 121213’ etc). Each ride in the van can be seen as a particular series. Usually during a ride I find one medium is working well and sometimes try and execute a rapid series of related pieces, as though the line had come alive or the eye especially insightful.
RG: Would you relate your drawings, made with few, expressive lines, to Zen ink drawing and calligraphy?
LR: In some sense I would, yes, or anyway I’ve looked at a lot of calligraphic writing/drawing over the years. These drawings start out with a few gestural strokes, inspired by what I see in front of me, and put down as quickly as possible.
The other reference I sometimes have in mind (although I have not gone back and looked at this work since starting on this series) is the heroic, graphic paintings of Franz Kline – similarly also mostly in black and white, and also with many lines running right to the edge of the picture plane, as though uncontainable. In Kline’s paintings the lines never stop midway across the canvas but rather always travel all the way to the edge. My roadway lines are doing the same thing in most cases – they are cutting the picture plane into shapes.
RG: Which other artists come to mind as inspirations for this series?
LR: Another one would be Richard Diebenkorn, both the late Ocean Park series (which is so much about the line) and also his earlier abstractions that seem to picture landscapes seen from above, like topography maps. These early abstractions, and his early figurative drawings, which had such a bold, graphic style, have been a very big deal to me. And speaking of Diebenkorn, there is ALWAYS Matisse (from whom Diebenkorn took SO MUCH). Among my most favorite paintings ever would be View of Notre-Dame (1914) by Henri Matisse, that skein of black lines on a blue field, so abstract and yet it’s all there, the cathedral, the quay, the Seine.
RG: In 1977, you were an art student and you made an etching based on sketches of landscapes seen from a car window. How did you get from the 1976 sketches to the 3-plate etching of 1977? Did you base it on a specific drawing or was the image more freely approached and put together from different sketches, for instance? And why did you decide to transform a quick sketch into a laborious work such as a 3-plate etching?
LR: I had a few drawings done during that 1976 road trip – all variations on the same theme – that became the basis for a 3-plate, 3-color etching. This was a student assignment, part of the process of learning the technique of creating a multi-plate etching. I was (and remain) very committed to the etching process. I chose a couple of those sketchbook road drawings, which had watercolor on as well, as being suitable for use on this assignment. They were created with a limited palette of colors and it seemed I could easily derive plates of red, blue and green from the sketches.
RG: In the etching all elements, such as the clouds and the trees, are stylized – almost Hockney-like, and also reminiscent of the paintings of Munch – while the recent sketches are very free, loose, but strong in line and composition. As with the process from sketch to etching, would you think of ‘translating’ these recent drawings to paintings, or do you accept and cherish them as they are, as sketches, drawings?
LR: I’ve wanted for some time now to attempt some larger scale versions of some of these pieces (with my memory of Franz Kline’s works in mind – big and gestural on a large scale), but thus far have not done so – I’m possibly hesitant about the process of trying to recreate in a studio environment the natural energy that is flowing when the car is actually moving through a landscape. I know I have to attempt larger scale versions of this idea at some point, but thus far have not figured out a way in to doing so that I think would be legitimate. Also, at the moment I’m reveling in the sheer number of them, their ease and freedom of execution. I have dozens and dozens of them now, can do 5 or 10 or 12 on an afternoon’s drive if things are going well. Somehow the cumulative aspect is also important, pixelated visions of the road rushing by.
RG: When did you start the series? I saw drawings from 2011, but you seem to have intensified your production of them when on tour for your album Between the Times and the Tides, in 2012?
LR: The series took off in earnest in the early summer of 2012. I decided sort of spontaneously to bring along some paper and drawing materials that summer as my band was traveling around the USA and Europe. I’m not sure what I had specifically in mind. In part the idea was simply to keep my hand in with some graphic eneRG:y while on the road – just making marks on paper without worrying too much about the outcome. A quick notational jotting that might be a visual equivalent to the sort of ‘highway journals’ I kept more fastidiously in the 1980s and 1990s – sort of staring out the windows of moving vehicles and noting down thoughts inspired by the traveling.
Alongside these drawings are a large number of even smaller sketchpad drawings – many done on nighttime drives in total darkness that are even more gestural in their nature, following what lines are visible out the window without having any reference to the paper at all. ‘Blind drawing’, I suppose. Sometimes these smaller ones have an even stronger energy than the daylight ones.
RG: Do you select drawings and discard others after they’re done or are they all accepted the way they are?
LR: Rarely are drawings torn up and discarded, but there are certainly ones that I find ‘better’ than others. There is really no telling when an especially good one will come along. Sometimes I get a bunch of nice ones in a row, sort of ‘on a roll’ (no pun intended!) and other times I’ll make many that I feel are second-rate. The simple logic is to keep at them, keep doing them, and sort out the value of individual drawings later. Indeed, sometimes my favorites a month later were the ones I might have destroyed at the time I completed them.
RG: What do you find striking in roads/landscapes as seen from the car window that you started drawing them at this frequency since the summer of 2012?
LR: The road is serving as a metaphor for a particular psychological state of mind, one that includes the idea of escape and also the freedom of the open road, as representative of endless possibilities – around every bend a new adventure, a new life perhaps. Moving requires traveling light, leaving behind the dead weight of old ideas, and advancing towards certain unknowns. There’s also a certain lack of stability that comes with continual travel, which has both positive and negative aspects.
RG: While on the road and drawing, do you experience differences between countries or even provinces of countries or does the landscape become more generic as you try to catch it in a few lines?
LR: It differs not by country but by character – deserts to flatlands to mountains, etc. I tend to recognize now the types of landscapes that most inspire – ones with a lot of architecture to them – lots of planes, masses and lines. I guess it could be said of the roads that I’m sketching – with their yellow and white lines painted across the land – that I’m simply re-drawing those lines, and the way they cut a swath through the natural world.
RG: The other day, I talked about the Lost Highways drawings with an artist who mentioned that the drawings to him do not just represent roads and landscapes, but that they evoke many other images, such as female nudes. How important – if at all – is it for you that these drawings are open to interpretation and that the viewer could see different things in them apart from roads and landscapes?
LR: In my mind my activity is strictly focused on trying to capture the landscape and the road, with its various twists and turns as it winds in and out of view ahead. Certain landscapes are more inspiring than others, landscapes with lots of curves and depth and shape. So the travel element has been important in terms of discovering various different types of landscapes. It seems as though the more rugged the landscape, the more elements there are to grab on to with the pencil or marker or whatever – the more graphic possibilities.
That said, as someone with a lot of figure drawing in my background (the nude was a particular focus in my college days) I have also noted the similarity of the landscape to the female form in creating these works. I’m constantly trying to note down the various curves in front of me in a way very similar to life drawing, the expanse of fields or valleys being very similar to the skin of the human form. Often evocative of the female form. There’s a reason, I suppose, why we refer to ‘Mother Earth’ – it’s in part to do with the verdant, fertile nature of the land, but also to the rolling curves as well.
At certain points in my work drawing the nude I became stuck by the graphic nature of simply noting the outline of the body, realizing that I needed to draw within the lines of the body as well, over the surface of the skin in all it’s dimensionality. I think I’m at a point now where I’m facing this same dilemma with the landscapes. I need to now take them to a next level, but I’m not sure yet what it is. It might be simply setting up in the landscape now, without moving, and trying to capture a more detailed image. Maybe. Certainly there are many landscapes I’ve driven through during the course of this project where I’ve wished I could have stopped and studied the architecture of the scene in front of me more completely.
(1) The term expresses the Buddhist notion that all of conditioned existence, without exception, is in a constant state of flux – panta rhei, meaning ‘everything flows, everything is in motion’.
Text by Roland Groenenboom
Images to take away
In 2006 Dutch sculptor and draughtsman Henk Visch (b.1950) published a book entitled Beelden liegen niet [Images don’t lie]. On the cover, in a circle, is the specification ‘8+’ and, indeed, Beelden liegen niet is recommended reading for people of all ages interested in learning about the work of Henk Visch and about sculpture in general. Visch is one of those rare artists in the Dutch-speaking region who writes and speaks about his work in a pleasing, uncomplicated and discerning way. He strikes the perfect balance between non-committalism and precision, between the artist’s intentions and the viewer’s interpretations. Beelden liegen niet is no exception.
Of course, it sounds like a falsehood: with a little good or bad will, these days people can make anything and everything out to be a lie, even though it is not so easy to prove. In one chapter in Beelden liegen niet, entitled ‘Pinocchio’, Visch explains the title of his book: “I look
at the head with its incredibly long nose and I am immediately reminded of Pinocchio,” Visch writes. “It’s a sculpture by Alberto Giacometti ( The Nose , 1947). Pinocchio is the title of a children’s story written by Carlo Collodi in 1877. Pinocchio was a wooden puppet but every time he lied his nose grew, and lying made him human. At some point in the story Pinocchio asks: ‘How can you possibly know that I have told a lie?’ A fairy answers: ‘Lies, my dear boy, are found out immediately because they are of two sorts. There are lies that have short legs, and lies that have long noses. Your lie, as it happens, is one of those that have a long nose.’” And Visch concluded: “So a person can lie, the image cannot; the image is what you see.”
Similarly, this artist’s book by Henk Visch is a compilation of images that can be looked at and assessed for their truthfulness, or lack of it. Called Exactly how I remembered it, the book brings together three types of work. Firstly, there are the photographs of figurative sculptures, such as Too late for the grave (2006), Lonely feelings on landing (2010) and Untitled (1983). Secondly, there are several recent drawings, or fragments of drawings, mainly of human bodies and faces. And thirdly, there is the series entitled Exactly how I remembered it (2008) that comprises sculptures made out of wire, pearls, beads, threads, buttons and rope. Most of the works are standing, upright therefore, and yet they are not reaching for the sky and they are never monumental; they look like sketches, human figures in-the-making, created by a sculptor who, because of circumstances – poverty perhaps or a shortage of raw materials – or simply out of ingenuity or boredom, finds himself having to make sculptures with unusual, thin materials, rather like someone painting a landscape with a pencil.
The order in which these three groups of objects appear is also important, as are the resulting relationships. The recent sketches are at the heart of the book, while the photographs of the sculptures form the outermost layer, like a gleaming wrapper around a sweet, which also has a hard centre. It is as if these figures are looking at the images of Exactly how I remembered it and thinking about them, while in their turn the images in this series conceal from view – or at any rate enclose – a different sort of drawing: sketches of rather painful-looking, naked, helpless creatures about which there is always something human.
Three groups, three parts, and three places: the middle (the preserve of scribbled creatures), the outside (where observing creatures reside) and the twilight zone in-between (the domain of thin, stringy sculptures). One is tempted to think of various kinds of famous trinities, such as the Christian trio of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, the three destinations in Dante’s Divine Comedy (hell, purgatory and paradise), or – more modern, more inward – the division Sigmund Freud identified in the human personality: the Ich or ego, the controlling Über-Ich or super-ego and the Es or id, the source of subconscious desires. And it is indeed pleasing to move between these three little groups of three, and to associate them with each other, in order to see how they fit into the related, but very different, groups of images Visch presents in this book. Is the way that Visch reaches for the (human) image, without wanting to capture it, reminiscent of the biblical ban on trying to represent God? Could it not be that as we turn the pages of Exactly how I remembered it, we descend into an inhospitable, cold and colourless hell, before – fortunately – managing to climb back out? And do we not, as soon as we leave our homes, correspond with those unassuming little monuments with which we try to face up to the world? All this while, in our heart of hearts, we are waging an endless battle between, on the one hand, desires which seem to reside in a marshy world and, on the other hand, abstract, borrowed, immutable laws which firmly indicate the borders of what is – and what is not – allowed.
Once again, there are three things that contradict these interpretations, comparisons and conjectures. Firstly, each of Visch’s images inclines towards the human, to some limited, whimsical or abstracted degree. Secondly, there is the title of the book: Exactly how I remembered it. And thirdly, there is the artist’s belief that a person can lie while the image cannot; the image is what you see.
It will become clear to those who weigh this up that these images look at each other in the same way that people do, and as we – the readers of this book – look at them (and vice versa). The remarkable thing about a book is that the pages are (usually) fixed: you cannot look at two pages at once (unless they are opposite each other, left and right, which the illustrations of the Exactly how I remembered it series are not). So leafing through or reading it, with whatever degree of concentration, always goes hand in hand with recall. The thicker the book, the greater the number of pages and the more the long-term memory takes over from the short-term memory. And that is also the remarkable thing about looking at people – at the encounter, the conversation, the welcome, the parting. Since people (if they are still alive) change constantly, every impression we have of them relies on a memory of the last, and each effect produced on the mind looks ahead to the next. No – the images we are for each other do not lie, and neither does Henk Visch’s work. But we do have to look at each other, and hold onto a mental image, in order to recall each other, even if the time to say goodbye has not yet come, just as we keep the previous pages of Exactly how I remembered it in our mind’s eye when we are several pages further on.
Henk Visch tells a memorable story about all this, about this inevitable, sad but also wonderful process – between people, between one image and another, between people and images – of looking, remembering and looking again. The story is very short. Visch tells it in an interview with Robbert Roos that appears in the catalogue accompanying a retrospective exhibition at KAdE in Amersfoort in 2012. “Long ago, when East and West Germany were divided but people still travelled from East Germany to work in West Germany, I was at the Friedrichstrasse border crossing station in Berlin when I noticed a man and a woman saying goodbye. The man went back to the woman; she couldn’t go any further. They took each other’s hand and embraced. They looked at each other and the man closed his eyes. It was very physical, very real. It said: you are staying here –
I am leaving. By closing his eyes, the experience became an abstract moment. When you close your eyes, the image is lost. Or the image forms in your head. In a flash, the perceptibility, the corporality, the concreteness of things becomes something imaginary; something you yourself create in your mind. And so something you can take with you. That man could not take his wife with him. She had to stay behind. So he shut his eyes and the woman was immediately transformed into a little ‘image’ he could take with him. And so he went on his way.”
It is as if the images in this book close their eyes and immediately transform each other into a little impression we can take with us to the next page. And so, as we read the book, we take each individual image with us. Because the book is arranged in three parts, we feel we are getting closer and closer to the core, and to the truth; the more naked, the thinner and sharper the images become, the closer we come to the essence. Or is it the other way round? And once we are beyond the halfway point, we go through the same process all over again in the other direction. Perhaps every page of Exactly how I remembered it contains the same image, one that we change – by looking, reading, turning the pages and remembering – into another lie.
Christophe Van Gerrewey
Original text in Dutch: Beelden om mee te nemen / translation Alison Mouthaan
Dirk Zoete and the World as a Stage. Concerning multi-layering, scaffolding, theorems, processions, portraits and the self as a landscape
Look! Look, exclamation mark. This is the task encapsulated within Dirk Zoete’s ensemble of drawings entitled Scènes. They ask you to look and listen because, like theatre productions, the drawings speak. Except this is a theatre without words. In theatre, as in all good narratives, enough space must be left between the lines for people to be able to fill in their own interpretations. But ‘look!’ is the message. Scènes plays within the gaps of what is visible, the deficiencies in memory, the twilight zone between knowing and feeling, the bridge between reality and imagination. Look, and you will soon begin to see the development of multiple sets of drawings. A drawing is drawn over. Even better, the picture of a drawing is drawn over. Dirk Zoete’s drawings are not a palimpsest in the strict sense of the word, but more like archaeological layers within the genesis of quasi-cinematic production drawings.
The process behind the genesis of the drawings deserves close attention. The work begins with the making of sets, maquettes and scale models. This is nothing new. As a driving force for building systems, the role of the maquette is a fundamental part of Dirk Zoete’s work (see, for example, the installation Flemish Voodoo, Voorkamer, Lier, 2008). By revising the ancient function of study sketches, Zoete allows the drawing to act as a research tool for the creation of ‘larger’ works. In his series of drawings, such as Ark, Collection, Oli-tek or Kartelrand , the drawings are, however, given a more autonomous status. In fact, the three-dimensional installations or maquettes are, as it were, study models that have a precise function in relation to the execution of the drawings. The pencil drawings coerce a sense of finality. The act of drawing is not simply instrumental, or placed in the service of another medium. Rather, it focuses Zoete’s universe upon the farm, circus, theatre and the deus ex machina (1) in a monochrome colouring of lead. The maquettes that form the basis for the series of drawings also function as their imaginary boundaries. With the utmost discretion and fundamentality, the maquettes set up a given scene. In the case of Oli-tek, a theatre scene is suggested by nothing more than a piece of bent cardboard. By photographing the maquettes and by, in fact, framing them, the infinite white space of the wall is dissected by two circular segments: one forming a larger staging surface for the scene, and the other displaying a narrow segment of the ceiling or the open space above the surface for the play.
In Kartelrand the frame of the mini-theatre inside the maquette is literally granted an indented edge, while in Circus on Stage or Ark Invert the edge of the stage set is comprised of little more than the sides and rounded corners of a proscenium. While framing was a coded element in drawings and paintings up until the late 19th century and even into the early 20th century (providing the artworks with a much-needed autonomy within the interiors in which they were displayed), Dirk Zoete establishes his theatrical framing as an essential part of his drawings. By insisting on this theatrical element he underlines and reinforces the epic nature of his drawings. In fact, each drawing is a performance, a spectacle in time, a circus act played out through an accumulation of attributes, objects and characters.
And thus he creates almost cinematic sequences: a black and white photograph is made, once again, from the maquette or from the first drawing. That picture, with its new characters is thus, in turn, granted new ‘meanings’ – and it is from this photo that the drawing arises. This creates, from the outset, an intriguing tension and optical confusion between photograph and drawing. It is almost as though the greys in the black and white photo, and the shades of grey from the pencil, create a game of mimesis and disguise. Just as theatre imitates and intensifies life – and thereby holds a magnifying mirror up to reality – an unseen, complex relationship occurs, likewise, between fantasy and reality and photograph and drawing.
With each successive step in the sequence the complexity is, of course, intensified. The drawing of the photograph of the maquette is represented in the form of a photo basis for a third drawing. And so the backdrop is gradually populated, colonized, cultivated, domesticated and charmed: like a public square by a circus troupe; or a farm by stables, barns and silos; or the landscape of the Old West by pioneer wagons… The process of drawing upon photographs, taking photographs, and making drawings of photographs continues three, four, five ... up to ten times. If the drawings are stacked one on top of the other and the pages turned, one by one, they become, quite literally, a flip book in which the images seem to move. Page after page unfolds before your eyes like a film.
Could this be the essence of these drawings? Or are we wrong? We therefore have to look again, and this time, take a slower look. So we turn back, page by page, and see that the boats don’t sail and are stranded: their movements petrified like an archaeological relic. If we look slowly, the boat appears to be more of a ‘shipwrecked’ building than a boat. Or we see how each of Dirk Zoete’s boats seems to carry the Titanic within itself. Broken. The ship that was sunk by a treacherous iceberg – during a party! The scenes that Dirk Zoete decorates with streamers and perky characters bear a similar tragedy within them. Party and play while threat hangs in the air. Yet he evokes a world analogous to Brueghel, in which man is but a mere mortal within a universe whose conditions govern him. Unlike Brueghel’s works, however, in which nature still symbolizes mythical power and supremacy, Zoete creates a world of structures and machines that embodies the alienation of the ‘modern’ man. At the same time, there are frequent references to cowboys or American-style barns. The American ‘frontiersman’ embodies the humanity in Dirk Zoete’s drawings, the man who occupies the land, crosses the prairie and colonizes. The frontiersman who builds various structures and barns – structures with a high degree of autonomy. Like a vase on a cabinet, or a clock on a dresser, they are placed in a loose connection to the landscape. American barns appear frequently. With their hollow shell, the ‘barns’ radiate an elementary form, one that is both alienating and yet familiar at the same time. It is the type of ‘uncanny’, or unheimlichkeit, that refers to the lack of actual habitability so typical of contemporary ‘non-places’.
Dirk Zoete’s drawings demonstrate a kind of reductio ad absurdum, where the absurdity of life is performed as if upon a stage. In the scenes that Zoete builds up, step-by-step, it’s not surprising that people figure and are, in actual fact, alienated from each other. Humans exist merely as props. Many of Dirk Zoete’s figures seem to have escaped from the Bauhaus designed plays of Oskar Schlemmers, or better yet, plucked from the Russian Constructivist theatre of Ljubow Popowa or, even more specifically, Fernand Crommelyncks’ play Le Cocu magnifique (1922). While the early-20th century Russian and German avant-garde movement was driven by a social dream, and drew its impetus from the belief in a manufacturable world, Dirk Zoete’s world speaks out much more from the jest, the farce, haughtiness... as Crommelynck explored in Le Cocu. Farce has, of course, a dark side. It touches upon the very absurdity of life itself. In the past, portraits and death masks were almost interchangeable with each other. Ensor, Bosch, Brueghel ... it seems easy, but Zoete’s work is unmistakably rooted in the tradition of the Low Countries where, since the Middle Ages, the world is only to be captured in burlesque, surrealist imagery and by a visual language in which the genres of painting interlock.
While, today, Thierry De Cordier’s sculpture De landschappeling raises the question of a separation between portrait and landscape, Dirk Zoete’s Ark drawings merge the image of a boat with that of a landscape. But is the boat indeed a boat? Initially it is a building. A construction. Or is it an encampment? The boat as landscape, as a workshop… but above all, it is a boat in scaffolding. Assumptions. A landscape that lays the foundation for machinery, houses on stilts, ladders, Jacob’s Ladders – the latter reaching uselessly (or not?) into the sky. It helps to reflect upon the different steps in the process and the composition that forms the Ark drawings. As a result, it becomes clear how the images are built up layer after layer and how the ambiguity of intertwined images creates new ‘identities’. In the Ark drawings, among other things, a building is doubled and shifted so that it half conceals the first building that was drawn. The second building is thus a bow. Together they form a boat. A steamer, it appears, with the addition of a chimney and a paddlewheel. Here, once again, an image from the Old West beckons: steamers on the Mississippi? What is the meaning of this boat? Is it a reference to America in the time of the pioneers? Does the image of the boat embody promise? Or does it carry the land of promise within itself? Yet if you look carefully at the subsequent Ark drawings, even more structures appear, provoking the impression of a chaotic shipyard. In turn, the shipyard becomes a tower of Babel. And thus Babel – and hence Zoete’s ark – is no more than a ruin that perhaps, because it is simultaneously incomplete and undeveloped, and yet in a state of decay, is doubly imperfect?
– The paradox of stationary motion
Static and hushed. Drawings as snapshots. In the stillness and so-called impassivity of the drawings lies a paradox: while the drawings seem frozen in their scaffolds and tableaux, everything alludes to movement. The circus performer who balances on a rope (see, for example, Walk the Line (J. Ford)), or the smoke rising from the chimney of the boat…The pencil lines of the crashing waves in the wake of the ark… the boats give only a semblance of remaining still. Look! Yes, look again carefully. Actually, they are caught in the shutter-speed of the photographer. Except here, the photographer photographs with pencil lines, giving free reign to his imagination. While each drawing goes about the business of depicting human activity, the curtain could come down at any second in Dirk Zoete’s theatres. The threat creates a state of alertness, of exigency. The scene/stage framework, and the threat – even if it’s only half implied – imbue each drawing with a sense of urgency. Time always has its part in the play. For once, theatre and life aren’t the same. Finally, there comes a time when the curtain must fall. And here too, amid all these series and amid all the drawings – in which the structure of the theatre is made manifest in the frame surrounding the tableaux vivants and the circus of human endeavour – time creates unrest, and compels us to look.
– A Trojan horse
Although different in nature, the identical paradox – that of stationary motion or mobile immobility – plays a crucial role in the ‘installation’ The Big Convoy (2) (Annie Gentils Gallery, Antwerp and Netwerk/Centre for Contemporary Art, Aalst). As a descriptive term, the word ‘installation’ is, in fact, misleading. The work is comprised of a series of carts and wagons of the kind familiar to us from parades and processions, although lacking a definitive design: dozens of models travel along, each showcasing a different scene. Each trolley is a self-contained world. It is easy to imagine them being hooked together to form a convoy. The title of the work is a nod to the American myth of the covered wagon trains that the pioneers sent forth into the pristine, so-called ‘New World’. The haphazard carts, reminiscent of the sculptures ‘fiddled’ together by Alexander Calder, seem to form an ironic comment upon the theatrical spectacle of the American dream. One cart alludes, quite literally, to the Marlboro man: it bears the picture of a cowboy in a rugged Old West landscape. Forming the background to a sort of theatrical scene, the picture is framed by bright yellow curtains draped down either side. The curtains frame the cowboy beautifully and he confidently poses, rather aptly, in front of a jagged pillar of rocks that towers high above the plain.
Were it not for the presence of the cowboy, who serves to compact time and space to an absurdity, the cart could almost pass as a reproduction of a pageant wagon belonging to a troupe of medieval travelling players. This seems especially true when you look at another wagon, and see a donkey dangling in the air: as it attempted to pull the cart with stones, which was too heavy, the beast was simply lifted into the air by the counterweight. An image taken from the Internet, the photo shows yet more of the absurdity of the human lot, the theatre of life. The parade of wagons that Dirk Zoete presents in The Big Convoy relates to the groups of pencil drawings not only in content, but also in form. With their pleated, semi-circular scenic backgrounds, a few of the wagons directly echo the pencil drawings. These drawings show buildings with antennas, cables, chimneys, water tanks, streamers ... Buildings in a state of construction, say, or structures in a permanent condition of being built and remodelled. The drawings on the carts take over a crucial role from the series of pencil drawings: namely, when the picture is used as a negative image. The white sheet becomes black negative, while the grey-to-black pencil lines are silhouetted in white – an effect that suddenly gives the pencil drawings the status of chalk drawings. This simple reversal, a basic photographic technique, makes the drawings seem even more precarious and temporary. It’s as though the ‘chalk’ drawing might, at any moment, be wiped away. It’s also interesting to note that the grey and black hues of the graphite, which possess an expressionist gravity similar to that found in the work of Albert Servaes, become literally illuminated. These so-called ‘light images’, which include the series of pencil drawings entitled Collection, create a kind of catharsis that enriches the medium of drawing as a vehicle for creating visions.
Perhaps we need to view the impact of Dirk Zoete’s work, in this case the groups of pencil drawings and The Big Convoy, as a kind of Trojan horse? Like the great, hollow wooden statue of Greek mythology, it contains hidden ‘soldiers’ who are stealthily wheeled in to do battle with the fixed notions of art. That undermining of the artistic means and the cross-pollination between design, installation, maquette, photography, theatre, film and architecture … makes for a shattering oeuvre. The Trojan horse, after all, was offered as a gift, during a time of celebration, and turned out to be a treacherous challenger. Dirk Zoete shows us that the enterprise of man is a vain enterprise. He shows us structures that remain in ruins, and indicates that every architectural or technical ambition is a vain folly. That man – a Harlequin, an articulated doll – is not the director but rather the cue ball in the theatre of life. Keep in mind, especially if you place Collection, Oli-tek and Dissection on Stage next to each other, that the world can consist of a collection (_Collection_) of objects and beings. Just as the metaphysical void in De Chirico’s paintings (between everyday objects on a table, for example) forms a landscape or a stage, so Dirk Zoete gathers together a world that, paradoxically, he explains and dissects at the same time.
While Collection literally places people, objects, buildings, heads ... together on a rack, as though the cabinet is a stacking-up of landscapes (and everything equal in scale regardless of actual size), Oli-tek depicts an ever-increasing collection of barns around the image, and shadow-image, of an elephant. The collection is, in fact, more like a dissection of the schizophrenic world of today, where the relationship between things – between man and landscape, between man and work, between building and technology, between pleasure and labour – is blurred. A world where we speechlessly watch, and are unable able to fully grasp, what we see. And so, while the drawings and The Big Convoy merge into one great parade of images and after-images, Dirk Zoete’s world is a performance and we play our parts within a multi-layered universe filled with scaffolding, theorems, parades and portraits, and the idea of the self as a landscape.
(1) From the Greek, theos ek mékhanés, which means ‘god from the machinery’. In Greek theatre, actors representing gods were suspended above the stage, with the denouement of the play being brought about by their intervention.
(2) The Big Convoy has multiple meanings and has also been chosen as the title of this publication. Thus The Big Convoy gains an extra layer of significance that encompasses the installation, the drawings and the book.
Text by Koen Van Synghel – Translation: Alice Evermore
(Original text in Dutch: Dirk Zoete en de wereld ’n schouwtoneel. Over verdichten, stellingen, optochten, portretten en het zelf als landschap)
LA CHAMBRE DE TANIA
Le compteur affichait une rangée de cinq zéros. La porte de cellulose glissa lentement et Tania quitta le couloir. Le jour de ses quatorze ans, elle était entrée pour la première fois dans sa chambre. Le soir même, elle avait fait courir le long d’un coin saillant, le lierre de Colchide qu’elle portait. La lumière blanche diffusée à la surface du plafond était éblouissante. Tania s’enfonça dans un vieux fauteuil en osier. Sur sa tête, la corolle de son costume de violette de Cry s’ouvrit tout à fait. Autour de ses bras, des feuilles vertes se déplièrent et s’étirèrent pour mieux capter la lumière: la fleur se démenait spontanément pour délasser son hôte. Tania pilotait les cinq zéros encore incrustés à la surface de ses yeux. Son Service était terminé. Elle battit des paupières, étalant les formes rougeoyantes sur le haut des armoires. Tania emporterait tout ce qu’elle pourrait. Le reste de ses affaires serait enlevé et trié par le Gros-bec voisin, chargé de l’entretien.
Elle entendit mentalement le petit son caractéristique. Tania activa le cOm ovoïde enfoncé dans sa tête derrière le septum nasal, pour visualiser le message. Le portrait de Franck apparut dans une facette hexagonale superposée à son regard. L’image du termite lui serra l’estomac. L’insecte à tête blanche était raide et paraissait déterminé. Il dit: « Chère Tania. Le clan est décidé à vous accueillir cette nuit. Il y a une place pour vous. J’ai vidé une commode pour vos affaires. L’air de la mer est vivifiant. Vous adorerez. Je viendrai vous chercher à 23h00 devant l’Hôtel. N’ayez aucune inquiétude. Je serai armé. Je vous embrasse. » L’insecte xylophage disparut, remplacé par le mot « Réponse ». Tania commanda à son cOm: « Dis que j’ai bien compris. Que j’emporte une malle et un pied de lierre de Colchide. Des remerciements à la fin. » Elle n’avait pas besoin de relire le message: il serait formulé clairement selon des critères stylistiques préétablis. Dans quelques heures, elle devrait s’en remettre à un type affublé d’un costume de termite qui l’avait draguée sur l’Arantèle.
La puanteur de Louis se lisait sur le visage du grand Aulne qui se tenait à distance. Le gamin était frêle et crasseux, gratifié d’un petit costume symbiotique noir et neutre serré sur le corps. Les deux étaient en piteux état. Le costume couvrait à peine les coudes et les genoux de son hôte, rabougri par les années d’éducation exigeante de la Pension. Le grand arbre scanna l’agrément immatériel du gamin. « Bon anniversaire. », dit-il, en s’écartant de la porte. La veille, il aurait écrasé la tête de l’adolescent à coups de poings s’il s’était présenté à lui. Mais aujourd’hui, il fêtait ses quatorze ans et devenait de fait, un pensionnaire de l’Hôtel. Les pieds nus enfoncés dans la moquette du grand hall, Louis savourait son entrée. Derrière le comptoir, un calao soufflait dans son casque jaune. Louis n’hésita pas et marcha dans sa direction. Il dit, en désignant la moquette bleue floquée de milliers de cacahuètes ocres: « J’ai une cacahuète comme ça dans un message. » L’oiseau se connecta dans l’Arantèle, au signal cOm du gamin. Il fit une copie de son agrément et entreprit de remplir avec justesse sa fiche d’inscription au Service de quinze mille jours.
« Encore une formalité… », souffla le Calao bicorne. Il déplia sur le comptoir un plan de l’Hôtel. Son index emplumé passait sur les étages. Il s’arrêta au neuvième et tapota sur une case vide. Enfin, du même doigt, l’oiseau pointa l’ascenseur. Il attendit que Louis tourna le dos, il replia le plan et se posa sur un juc caché par le comptoir. L’ascenseur emporta Louis jusqu’au neuvième étage. Le sol du couloir était tapissé de la même moquette bleue et ocre. Louis se planta devant sa porte en souriant. Son cOm servit de clé. Le compteur vissé dans le mur, indiqua le nombre 14999. La porte s’ouvrit, remuant un vague parfum de fleur. Emerveillé, Louis contemplait le volume propre, vide et d’une blancheur parfaite. Il entra. Les dernières molécules du parfum tourbillonnèrent. Le petit costume symbiotique noir et neutre de Louis attrapa dans l’entrelacs de ses fibres chitineuses, celles qui le frôlèrent.
Le feu brillait par à-coups, colorant de rouge les troncs noirs des pins. Les voix gueulardes des gamins du clan résonnaient de partout. Marie ferma les yeux, l’épaule moite et molle à laquelle son visage collait, ne gâchait pas son bonheur. Elle commanda à son cOm un enchaînement de fragments mémoriels qui surgirent dans un agglomérat de facettes hexagonales. Un tas de profils défilèrent: poissons, lézards, fougères, rongeurs, conifères, mollusques… Le montage s’arrêta sur le visage poilu d’une vieille mygale au regard affectueux. L’image de l’araignée se multiplia dans chacune des facettes. Marie avait fouillé l’Arantèle pendant des mois, avec l’idée folle d’y repérer un ascendant dans son lignage. Et un jour, comme une évidence, le signal de l’arachnide s’était imposé. Le beau Toshiro remua. Marie insinua à son petit costume symbiotique noir et neutre d’ouvrir des interstices pour laisser passer les caresses. Les doigts prothétiques de Toshiro s’y engouffrèrent et glissèrent sur les jambes artificielles de Marie.
La reproduction n’était plus une affaire de sexe. Le stock de gamètes était maintenu à l’Hôpital depuis le protocole Meering sur le brassage génétique. Depuis 55 ans, toutes les générations symbiotiques avaient été conçues dans des tissus à incubation. L’Hôpital s’occupait des nouveaux-nés costumés jusqu’à leur sevrage, avant de charger la Pension de leur éducation au Service. Ceux de mauvaise constitution étaient déposés aux sorties des tunnels de la ville et nourrissaient les rôdeurs. Toshiro passa ses doigts émaillés sur la surface rasée du crâne de Marie. À quatorze ans, du coeur de l’Arantèle, ils recevraient dans leurs cOms les agréments pour le Service. La ville les rappellerait malgré leur exil. Toshiro se redressa et alla uriner sur des chardons. Sur la plage, le feu était éteint: les autres avaient déjà rejoint le camp. « Lève-toi, je te raccompagne. », lança-t-il à Marie qui triturait les fleurs rouges d’un buisson de valériane. Il avançait devant elle, frôlant les tamaris et les oliviers de Bohême, couteau à la main, prêt à tout. Marie aussi tenait son couteau.
« Bonjour, je suis ravie de te rencontrer. », dit la vieille Mygalomorphae, en dodelinant de la tête. Marie sentit la transpiration qui traversait la chitine de l’araignée. Elle coinçait difficilement sous un bras un aquarium qui contenait quelques centimètres d’eau et un petit poisson-cachemire multicolore. Le reste de ses affaires tenait dans une grappe de sacs en calicot blanc, pendus aux huit pattes du costume et à son autre bras. Marie désigna du menton la remorque attachée à sa moto Touring. Elle était tendue. La mygale malhabile descendit du trottoir. Elle cala l’aquarium dans la remorque en amoncelant autour, les sacs en calicot. Un Rat à crête passa la porte de l’Hôtel, contourna le grand Aulne et se faufila sur le parvis. « Grouille! », lança Marie. L’animal aux poils noirs et blancs hérissés sur le dos repéra l’arachnide, il grogna et fondit sur elle. La vieille mygale bondit à temps sur la moto et étreignit Marie qui lança la Touring à toute allure. Le parvis était loin, le rat aussi. Marie ne ralentit pas. Elle s’engagea dans le réseau de galeries souterraines pour quitter la ville. Le petit costume symbiotique noir et neutre de Marie enfonça un lacis de filaments dans son dos. Puis, par à-coups, il diffusa une suite de doses chimiques apaisantes. Marie prit la direction de la côte. Tout allait bien.
Ni les plaintes de l’araignée, ni les cahots du chemin de terre, ne la firent ralentir. Au sortir du tunnel, Marie tourna sur le parking d’un Marché Dingo et se gara à l’endroit réservé aux deux roues. La vieille mygale relâcha son étreinte et Marie descendit de la moto. L’araignée la suivit l’air troublé. Marie répondit sèchement à son inquiétude: « Nous ne rejoignons pas le clan. » Dans la mosaïque d’yeux inquiets, elle se vit brandir un couteau. Elle le porta trois fois à l’estomac de la mygale qui hurlait. Son corps s’écroula sur la rocaille. Marie se jeta sur elle. L’hôte était déjà morte. Elle lacéra avec force le costume qui résista encore un peu. Marie sentit l’approbation naître de la nuée d’hyménoptères qui allaient et venaient autour du magasin. Elle plongea intuitivement ses mains dans les liquides chauds des corps de ses victimes. Puis, elle en barbouilla son petit costume symbiotique noir et neutre. La réaction fut immédiate. La membrane pubescente frissonna violemment. Elle s’étira, glissant et couvrant entièrement ses bras et ses prothèses de jambes. La chitine autour de sa gorge enfla pour recouvrir sa tête jusqu’aux oreilles. Sur son ventre les stries rouges de son imago apparurent. Le costume piqua Marie d’une dose chimique euphorisante. Ils éclatèrent de joie!
En position dans le grand hall, Louis regardait dehors, à travers les verrières de l’Hôtel. La toile orbiculaire dessinée dans l’Arantèle entre les treize policiers s’imprégnait de l’humidité qui tombait sur le parvis. Le nez de la Touring se frotta à l’un des fils. L’information fusa dans le treillage. La captation du policier qui lorgnait la moto s’imposa au regard des douze autres dans des facettes hexagonales. D’autres facettes s’agglutinèrent à la première, offrant une image rompue de la moto et de la fille à mesure qu’elle progressait dans la toile. Les policiers restèrent camouflés, le piège était splendide. La fille se gara tranquillement entre deux lignes blanches repeintes sur les craquelures de la chaussée. Elle éteignit ses phares et coupa le moteur. Elle contourna la Touring et avança en direction de la porte gardée par le grand Aulne. Le costume de Louis diffusa dans son abdomen une dose chimique qui dopa sa témérité. La fille le cherchait. Le policier ramassa les deux valises piégées et remercia l’Aulne qui l’aidait à quitter l’Hôtel.
Marie reconnut le Petit Collier argenté qui venait à sa rencontre. Elle avait repéré le jeune papillon un mois plus tôt sur l’Arantèle. Il voulait renoncer au Service, fuir la ville et rejoindre le clan de la côte. Le costume de Marie diffusa dans sa nuque une dose chimique apaisante. Sa méthode pour identifier et attirer ses ascendants avait été jusqu’ici… infaillible. Marie agita frénétiquement ses antennes de guêpe, en guise de salut. Puis, sans attendre, elle retourna s’appuyer sur le cadre de la Touring. Elle y savoura les vertiges de son costume soumis aux lumières criardes des lampadaires. Le Petit Collier argenté vacillait: sans doute désorienté aussi, par l’éclairage artificiel. « Tu peux ranger tes valises dans la remorque. », siffla Marie. Le jeune papillon resta planté face à elle. Il leva les deux valises et les tint à bout de bras. Les chevrons orange, jaunes et argentés de son costume envahirent la surface des bagages et se mirent à tournoyer. Sous l’impulsion des lumières blanches des lampadaires, les couleurs explosèrent. Prisonnière du Pompile noir et rouge asservi aux remous hypnotiques, Marie regardait, impuissante, les douze autres policiers sortir de leurs planques et l’encercler.
Sur le mur de la chambre, l’image de la Psylle rockeuse venait d’établir le contact avec celle du Bostryche typographe. La proximité de la chanteuse déjantée força le coléoptère à jouer de la guitare en grattant son abdomen. Louis farfouilla de nouveau dans la boîte d’images qu’il avait achetée dans un Marché Dingo. Il attrapa celle du Pont suspendu au-dessus d’un précipice. Il la colla sous les deux autres. Des gouttes de sueur perlèrent sur les fronts de la psylle et du bostryche. Les deux personnages regardaient tantôt vers le bas, tantôt vers Louis, le suppliant des yeux de les sortir de là! Louis éclata de rire. Son costume diffusait en continu dans son dos, une solution chimique euphorisante. Il adorait son nouveau jeu d’images. Une autre au hasard. Il colla sur une lézarde du mur la Vrillette dentiste. Aussitôt, la vrillette quitta sa case. Elle se jeta sur la Psylle rockeuse, décidée à lui arracher une à une les dents à la tenaille. Louis avalait des nouilles. Le sang qui giclait de la bouche de la psylle remplissait de rouge la case du précipice. Dans quelques minutes les trois personnages se noieraient dans le sang. Louis le savait. Il attendit le temps qu’il fallut pour le voir.
Dans le hangar de tôle à l’abri des oliviers de Bohême, la salle d’opération faisait aussi office de salle d’attente. Les patients qui chuchotaient dans un coin étaient tous des gamins du clan avec des bras et des jambes à rafistoler. La capture de Marie animait leurs conversations. Loin du confort de l’Hôpital, Tania devait se débrouiller avec presque rien. « Ne bouge plus, je coupe les chairs. », dit-elle, en appuyant sur la cuisse artificielle du garçon allongé sur la table d’opération. Sa main ne tremblait pas: son cOm indiquait en surbrillance la ligne de coupe et son costume lui administrait avec parcimonie, des petites doses de tranquillisant. Tania n’avait rien perdu de sa précision dans les opérations de prothèses, mais au sein du clan, son travail avait un tout autre sens. Elle plaçait, chaque jour, des petits engins explosifs dans les faux membres des gamins. Puis ils allaient, abandonnant ça et là leurs prothèses désarticulées, attaquer la ville qu’ils vomissaient. Penché sur l’établi au milieu du hangar, Franck le Termite pressait avec minutie une série de filaments tirée de l’intérieur de son costume, afin de recueillir la bonne dose de benzoquinone. « J’en ai pour cinq minutes… », chantonna-t-il. Maintenant, il mélangeait le liquide recueilli avec une mesure de gypse pour en faire une pâte homogène. Dans une minute, il achèverait la préparation du minuscule engin à loger dans la cuisse du jeune garçon.
« Le termite a lâché la bombe: faites feu! », lança le Petit Collier argenté dans son cOm. L’ordre fut exécuté dans la seconde. Les projectiles télépilotés traversèrent les tôles du hangar, puis dans un retentissant bruit métallique, ils frappèrent leurs cibles! À l’intérieur, on entendit le chahut des corps tombant comme des mouches. « Cibles atteintes. », annonça le papillon, dont la voix placide résonnait dans la toile orbiculaire tendue sur le hangar. Depuis sa chambre d’hôtel, à travers l’Arantèle, Louis commandait l’assaut. Il poursuivit: « Trois hommes entrent. » Trois hommes forcèrent la porte du hangar. Personne n’avait survécu. Les policiers se penchèrent sur les corps et fixèrent sur les visages des morts, des trompes autoguidées, afin de récupérer les cOms enfouis dans leurs têtes. Extraction faite du cOm ovoïde de Tania la Violette, un policier attacha sans délai celui-ci à l’Arantèle. L’ordre était clair. Les autres sécurisaient les alentours.
Une dose relaxante. Louis s’allongea sur le lit. Il commanda à son cOm la connexion à celui de Tania, fixé à l’Arantèle depuis le bord de mer. L’énorme flux mémoriel se répandit dans des facettes hexagonales qui occultèrent sa vue. Louis cherchait sincèrement des informations sur les ramifications du clan de la côte. Le papillon, lui, avait à dessein un nouvel imago. Il diffusa une seconde dose relaxante et resserra lentement ses membranes chitineuses. Le masque qui couvrait le visage de Louis enfla d’un coup et un amas de filaments grouilla sur ses joues. Louis voulut se redresser, sans effet. Il reçut une dose chimique analgésique; alors, les filaments s’engouffrèrent dans ses narines et creusèrent son crâne. L’os se brisa. Le costume progressait à l’intérieur de sa tête. Louis hurla. Les filaments enrobèrent son cOm, l’isolant totalement. Le tableau de facettes hexagonales disparut. Le flux mémoriel en provenance du hangar traversait désormais ses conduits nasaux pour se répandre par vagues dans les membranes du costume qui vibraient de bonheur. Louis scrutait, impuissant, le plafond de sa chambre. Un filament piqua son hypophyse d’un puissant psycholeptique. Le plafond s’illumina. Il perdit connaissance.
Louis était debout dans le couloir, les yeux fixés sur ses petites mains crasseuses. À droite de la porte, le compteur indiquait le nombre 14999. Son petit costume symbiotique noir et neutre le piqua d’une dose chimique euphorisante. Il sourit. La porte de cellulose s’ouvrit. Louis se souvint du parfum. Il comprit à cet instant l’inclination irrationnelle de son costume pour la fleur qui avait habité leur chambre avant eux. Il entra. Les murs de la chambre étaient couverts d’un tapis de lierre. Des meubles en bois massif encombraient la pièce. La porte se referma derrière lui. L’atmosphère était humide et pesante, le parfum de fleur entêtant. Louis suffoquait. Il se réveilla dans un sursaut et attaqua la matière soyeuse qui l’enserrait. Dans un dernier geste pour se libérer, il tomba du lit et roula sur le sol. Des pans mourants de son costume tombèrent après lui. Le processus était achevé. Dans le vent qui traversait la chambre, des petites taches multicolores tournoyaient. Louis se souleva et alla se poser sur une table. Il leva la tête et entreprit naturellement l’inventaire des particules qui allaient au hasard des courants. Il inspira profondément: Asphodèle blanc, Petite Astrance, Daphné lauréole… Il essaya encore: Julienne des dames, Cardamine impatiente… Enfin, il reconnut la violette de Cry. Louis plana jusqu’au rebord de la fenêtre. Il avait faim. Il leva de nouveau la tête. Ce n’était pas tout à fait elle. Le parfum émanait de semences de violettes qui fleurissaient à la surface de la ville dans les éclatements de béton.
This essay does not provide an overview of Hannelore Van Dijck’s oeuvre, but departs from an analysis of two details from her creative process. Their anecdotal character might initially seem irrelevant to a more general description and analysis of Van Dijck’s work, but the series of photographs that record the realisation processes in this publication, So grün war mein Tal (1), and the video recordings on the artist’s website (2), both support the assumption that it is an approach with meaning.
Observation one. During a residency at Dale i Sunnfjord, a small Norwegian village surrounded by mountains and sea, Hannelore Van Dijck reached, in her own words,
a crisis point. Unexpectedly, she was unable to complete a drawing on paper. It was the first time that she’d had a residency in such a beautiful natural environment. But was it too beautiful, too perfect? At the time, she couldn’t determine whether the remote location, with its large bare cliffs, was aggressive or protective. The fact remained that despite having depicted many other landscapes in the past, and despite her direct observations of these beautiful surroundings, she was unable to begin her work. She came to the conclusion that ‘to perceive something’ does not necessarily mean that she should interpret it as an image, even if the environment contains a sublime beauty and her work revolves around the interpretation of observations. Nevertheless she created a large wall drawing. Upon a high white wall, in a corner against a tall window extending from floor to ceiling, she depicted an equally high curtain. It is the most abstract drawing that she has created thus far.
Observation two. Van Dijck usually reserves a period of two weeks in order to realise a drawing in situ. I visited the artist when she had almost finished the work, Sea, in Croxhapox, the Ghent art centre. Upon entering the room, with its panoramic mural, Van Dijck came to greet me and I was struck by the charcoal marks on her face. Such was the concentration of them under her nose that they evoked the illusion of a small moustache.
Charcoal is the material with which Hannelore Van Dijck realises her work. She usually buys it in a shop, but she once gathered wood herself and transformed it into charcoal through a controlled burning. In the case of a drawing on paper, the fruit of the labour is stabilised with a fixative, although charcoal is so dusty that even this never entirely succeeds. And precisely because the fixative neutralises the fragility of the charcoal upon paper to a great extent, it deprives the drawing of a certain dimension. It’s different when a work is realised in situ; there is no set containment or stability. Regarding a wall drawing for instance, traces of the drawing process cover the edge of the floor and gather along the seams between the floor and the wall – an accumulation of black debris. The artist chooses to leave these residues behind; they are part of the final work. When the charcoal drawing is extended, and also covers parts of the floor or ceiling, the dusty remains of the realisation process fan out across the floor.
At the end of this summer, Van Dijck covered the entire tiled surface of the inner courtyard at Voorkamer in Lier with a drawing, Le Plat Pays. Walking across the courtyard, it was barely possible for the viewer to distinguish the full image. On the other hand, it could be surveyed in its entirety from a rooftop window. However, in order to do the latter, one first had to walk through the courtyard. In a video recorded from the window during the final stages of the drawing, you can see how the artist becomes part of the picture she is creating: as she adds to the work with her hands, other fragments of the drawing are swept away by her feet. This also pertains to the spectators who walked across the courtyard. This contamination did indeed move in two directions: the viewing subject (both the artist and the visitors) partially destroyed the image whilst observing it; simultaneously, the object’s dusty, clingy residue fastened itself to the shuffling shoes of the viewers, who were completely unaware of its presence. The residue was thus carried, seemingly unnoticed, into the adjacent spaces, whilst some of the stubborn remnants even survived beyond the exhibition area and were conveyed back home, where they gradually spread further. (Just like coastal tourists unintentionally transport tons of sand home every year.) This aspect of Van Dijck’s art reminds me of the Tintin comic, The Sunflower Case, in which a tiny adhesive bandage continuously bothers Captain Haddock, especially when he thinks that he’s finally eluded it.(3) Although the artist makes a conscious decision to leave the grit behind, the processes described above are not intentional but occur randomly through the actions of the viewer and, not least, through the artist herself.
The modern image is purely a visual matter. At least, that was the conviction of the two American critics, Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried – perhaps the last fervent defenders of this theory. A recent biography of Greenberg bears the telling title, Eyesight Alone.(4) According to Fried, the crucial feature of a high quality modern image was its ‘presentness’: an absolute sense of being ‘present’, meaning fully complete images that can be experienced by extremely observant spectators in a single glance.(5) During the 1960s, and based on these assumptions, the two critics opposed the rise of so-called ‘literal art’, including minimal art, land art, installation art and happenings. ‘Literal Art’ rejected the creation of a total image, or the illusion of another world or possible other worlds. Rather, the space – enhanced by the artwork – existed in reality, within a concrete ‘here and now’. Both the objects placed by the artist, and the viewer, inhabit this space. Such artworks can only be realised in the personal, spatial and temporal perception of each individual spectator. In this sense, ‘literal art’ was iconoclastic, justifying Fried and Greenberg’s resistance: it was destroying the modern image.
The modern subject creates an image of the world by placing itself outside of it; to the extent that one succeeds in making the world an object, one becomes a Subject or, in other words, the creator alongside God: someone who does not have to partake in the state of existence (the creation) but who keeps a distance in order to add something new. The belief that an individual human being can appear as a subject of its existence constitutes the essence of modernity. It follows that the Scientist, the Architect and the Artist can thus be counted as the most representative figures of modern culture. The history of Western modernity has sufficiently shown that the subject of this modern, humanist culture was not Man, but the White Man or, more precisely, his distant Eye. The history of Western modernity is also characterised by stereotypes in which the male does not resign himself to the banalities of existence, but rather ventures outward to create his own new world – ideally in a brilliant stroke of the pen – while the female was expected to stay in and, performing her duties within this existence, ensure that the world of the here and now kept turning with cyclical, repetitive actions which, in themselves, had no meaning. If women were indeed allowed to produce images, then these endeavours stemmed mostly from the same sort of repetitive actions: knitting, weaving, sewing, braiding or crocheting. While the male devised the concepts and structural frameworks of new initiatives, the females were allowed to manufacture the decorative textiles used to adorn the interior of these new constructions. While the first required a focused, detached vision, the second demanded, both in production and reception, the dispersion of everyday experience.
One characteristic of Hannelore Van Dijck’s drawings is that they offer clever combinations: the shifting and blurring of conventional contradictions and, at times, the complete abandonment of preconceived notions. They avoid neither filthy material nor sweet, heavenly illusions. They include wonderful trompe l’oeil effects, which often do not create any virtual depth, but merely serve to embellish the space – the most explicit and radical example being the thousands of hairs drawn on a concrete floor resembling an animal skin ( Fur ). Highly effective and powerful, Van Dijck knows exactly how to divide a space and master it, but she is not afraid to revert to immersing herself in the repetitive act of drawing, pressing her nose against the image plane to the point of releasing control. She is usually very well prepared for a two-week drawing session. When she began the wooden palisade of Schwarzwald, for example, she had already used photographs to help her appropriate the grain structure of the boards, and had retained their qualities within her visual memory, as well as the physical technique required to reproduce them. Photographs play a major role when preparing a work (a camera is a mechanised version of the perspectival, objectifying, modern gaze), but the photographic source (that distant gaze) is often largely abandoned in the course of the drawing process, at which point the drawing develops much more ‘from within’. The resulting drawing that Van Dijck presents, comprises – or consists of – the entire space: the art infiltrates the existing space and, at the same time, is infiltrated by it. For example, the drawing Window consists of lines of light and shadow on the floor, a radiator, the exposed framework of the original panelling and a false ceiling, as well as additional lines and the charcoal shading that grants the illusion of a window and the suggestion of incoming light. These provocative images are full of apparent contradictions, infiltrations or interpenetrations of the real and the virtual, the abstract or the literal and the figurative, the existing and the potential, yet they never contain narratives or representations of any human presence. This last characteristic might suggest that the aesthetics of the sublime (understood as a perfect beauty existing beyond human affairs) could serve as an interpretive framework for Van Dijck’s work. Yet, to me, the very opposite seems true.
According to Clement Greenberg, the emergence of the avant-garde was a response to the inevitable decline of modern Western culture, which was preyed upon by ‘social and ideological confusion and violence’.(6) According to Greenberg, the only possibility of ‘saving’ a form of high art in this context would be if artists turned their back on the outside world, and completely surrendered to the internal laws of their own medium; or, in other words, if they appealed to its abstract ‘nature’. On the one hand, the avant-garde meant the implosion of the modern perspectival space of the image. On the other hand, it was simply a push forward, and thus an intensification and hardening of the modern model. Ultimately, it was a last attempt to maintain the autonomy of the creative subject as genius creator alongside God. It was precisely for this purpose that both the creative and the viewing subject were reduced to the ‘Eye’, and the relationship with the artwork to that of a mere visual experience. In this respect, there is a telling parallel with the Franco-Swiss architect, Le Corbusier, who, like Greenberg, was an exemplary exponent of the avant-garde culture. Le Corbusier also pointed to the ‘violence’ of the modern metropolis, its inhuman, sublime dimensions: ‘_La ville congestionnée est comme une nature trop sublime_.’ (7) Le Corbusier’s solution to this problem consisted of a view that was armed, and thus defensive and aloof, and formatted according the laws of the camera. The architect always had a camera at hand in order to tackle the sublime.
According to Le Corbusier it was the alienating, sublime dimension of the modern metropolis that led his older colleague and role model, Adolf Loos, to exclaim: ‘A cultivated man does not look out of the window; his window is a ground glass; it is there only to let the light in, not to let the gaze pass through.’(8) Indeed, in many of the houses that Loos designed, the view outside is effectively blocked. And while the camera plays an essential role in Le Corbusier’s design methodology, Loos boasted that his interiors couldn’t be photographed.
The same motives that are present in Hannelore Van Dijck’s spatial installations can, to a large extent, also be found in her drawings on paper. They almost always involve part of an interior, sometimes with more attention given to the structural details, at other times to decorative aspects. It is striking how often windows feature as a subject. Though they never allow anything to be seen, even if they include a television monitor. They function exactly as Loos designated: as purely a source of light. And just like the interiors of the Viennese architect, Van Dijck’s drawings also partially escape the grasp of the camera.
Van Dijck’s stay in Dale i Sunnfjord, and her decision not to depict the surrounding landscapes, suggests that she did not feel compelled to capture the sublime as an image. In Norway, it was a response to the natural environment; an extreme urban jungle would probably trigger the same reaction. The sublime is anonymous, absolute and massive; it is non-negotiable. Many twentieth century artists have concerned themselves with the sublime, beginning with Paul Cézanne and the Mont St. Victoire series. Thereafter, the avant-garde has increasingly refocused upon itself.
The temporality of Van Dijck’s realisations sometimes assumes an extreme form, within which the violence of the natural elements plays a decisive role. On the evening of the opening, Le Plat Pays was obliterated within minutes by a downpour. The artist remarked that it was a particularly intense experience, but not one that made her want to crawl into a hole. It was not so much a sublime experience as a – admittedly violent – poetic one. The downpour is reminiscent of the film La Pluie ( Projet pour un texte ) by Marcel Broodthaers, in which we see the poet-artist writing words that are instantly rendered illegible by the rain. Or the Section documentaire of his Musée d’Art Moderne Département des Aigles: a museum floor plan, excavated on the beach at De Haan.(9) This was a museum with the lifespan of a tidal interval, with signs labelled, ‘_Defense absolue de toucher les objets_’ – one may observe but not touch. The eye of the eagle, the modern eye, must helplessly surrender to the merciless, generous poetry of appearances and disappearances. In every journey towards Utopia there is a shipwreck – the crucial moment in which the navigational instruments of the measuring, conquering gaze collapse.
(1) ‘How green was my valley’ (also the title of a novel written by Richard Llewellyn).
(2) hannelorevandijck.blogspot.com (accessed 25 October 2012).
(3) Hergé, The Adventures of Tintin. The Sunflower Case, Tournai, 1956.
(4) Caroline A. Jones, Eyesight Alone. Clement Greenberg’s Modernism and the Bureaucratization of the Senses, Chicago / London, 2005.
(5) Michael Fried, Art and Objecthood, 1967, in: Charles Harrison & Paul Wood (ed.), Art in Theory, 1900-1990. An Anthology of Changing Ideas, Oxford UK / Cambridge USA, 1992, pp. 822-834.
(6) Clement Greenberg, Avant-Garde and Kitsch, in: Clement Greenberg, John O’Brian (ed.), The Collected Essays and Criticism. Volume 1, Chicago / London, 1988, pp. 5-22.
(7) Le Corbusier, Urbanisme, Paris, 1925, p. 174. This passage is the starting point of a brilliant essay by Beatriz Colomina, where she respectively compares the action of observing in the architecture of Adolf Loos and Le Corbusier: Beatriz Colomina, The Split Wall. Domestic Voyeurism, in: Beatriz Colomina (ed.), Sexuality and Space, New York, pp. 73-130.
(8) B. Colomina, ibid.
(9) Marcel Broodthaers, La Pluie (Projet pour un texte), 1969, 16mm, black / white, 3’, Brussels, Marcel Broodthaers, Musée d’Art Moderne Département des Aigles, Section documentaire, August 1969, De Haan.
For images of these two works see: Marcel Broodthaers, catalogue of the eponymous retrospective curated by Catherine David and Véronique Dabin, Paris / Madrid, 1991/1992, respectively. p. 1 and p. 204.
Original text in Dutch: het Snorretje / translation Alice Evermore / editing Helen Simpson
Sculpture in the domain of the possibilities of architecture
‘Simplicity is not an end in art,
but one arrives at simplicity in spite of oneself, in approaching the real sense
of things.’ Constantin Brancusi
Paul Gees is an artist who is building up an oeuvre on the sidelines of Belgian art, an oeuvre that relates in ‘contaminative’ fashion to the rhizomatous developments in modern and contemporary sculpture.
Paul Gees intervenes, assembles, combines, tinkers and experiments with wood, steel and stone – the fundamental materials which since time immemorial have been linked to the basic conditions of architecture.
Sculpture only became truly modern in the work of Constantin Brancusi, which, in the wake of Auguste Rodin – who made sculpture independent from place and architecture – saw ‘space’ in general as pedestal and support so as to relate sculpture to the notion of the experienced infinity. In the nineteen-sixties the ‘independent’ and ‘an sich aspect’ of sculpture was knocked right off its pedestal in the work of mainly American artists such as Carl Andre and Richard Serra, whom Paul Gees cites as his great inspirational examples. Critics such as Benjamin Buchloh and, above all, Rosalind Krauss with her syntheses in the essay ‘Sculpture in the Expanded Field’ (_Magazine October_, 1979), gave theoretical support to an evolution towards getting ‘out’ of the safe presentation spaces of galleries and museums. At that point sculpture was permeated with production strategies taken from industry; sculptures increasingly became city art and land art, where the works did not directly present themselves as monuments but as ‘possible’ moments attached to the private experience and uses of open and public space.
What Constantin Brancusi intended with his mighty ‘infinite’ column in the Romanian town of Tg. Jiu in 1938, which was built to a height of 30 metres as a stack of identical modules, was not erected only as a monument to the victims of the First World War, but, in his poetic/metaphorical words, also as ‘I wanted to build a stairway to heaven’. This column without a pedestal, half a module of which disappears into the ground and also ending in a half-module at the top, took the specification of infinite symmetry in its composition to a point that could very much count on the interest of the artists who, under the ‘minimal’ label, created their art (sculpture) on the solid ground.
The transition from verticality to horizontality wrested a change of mentality that also visualised the hard-won consequences in the radically changing social and ‘gender’ pattern in the unsettled societies of the sixties.
In these circumstances, sculpture became an ‘in-between zone’ – a new challenge for artists who were able to discover, seek out and question the empty residual spaces by means of interventions, often of a temporary nature. According to Rosalind Krauss, sculpture – contrary to Brancusi’s aspirations such as ‘The surfaces ought to look as though they went on forever, as though they proceeded out from the mass into some perfect and complete existence’ – here burst its seams in a confused context which, in formal ‘negativity’, shifts between landscape and non-landscape and between architecture and non-architecture.
Paul Gees’ artistic production is woven into this story of sculpture, quoted in passing, but in a way that moves between autonomous and ‘site-specific’ work. As a consequence, the two-track practice in Paul Gees’ oeuvre tolerates and supports the fact that the free-standing or hanging sculptures can also be considered as ‘drawings’, ‘sketches’ and/or ‘models’ of the more monumental interventions the artist carries out in architectural surroundings or in public space.
Gees’ autonomous and usually steel-framed sculptures are like imaginary architecture, functioning in their own right in any spatial context. They are usually ‘open’ objects which, although they do ignore the surrounding space, ‘incorporate’ the contextual space into the overall visual formation.
I recently saw a photo of the 1980 work Licht-op, a very simple site-specific work that Paul Gees made on the parquet of the Sint-Lukas Gallery in Brussels. The characteristic herringbone pattern of the parquet is immediately reminiscent of the minimal, perfectly traceable strip paintings by Frank Stella.
Paul Gees’ simple work on the parquet at the Sint-Lukas Gallery consisted of the minimal act of slightly ‘lifting’ a piece of parquet that is held up by a simple light bulb with visible cable. By means of this simple ‘gesture’, Paul Gees was able to ‘illuminate’ the floor as a single sculpture in which the sculpture space is no longer treated as unambiguous. It is an intervention that links up closely with Carl Andre’s practice; in the reverse movement, Andre cuts ‘into’ the space with his loose sculptures in several parts and in this way enables the space to be experienced consciously.
This early intervention by Paul Gees is probably a key work in which the notion of ‘propping up’ (in the broadest sense of the term) is applied, which appears in much of his later work.
In this case it means ‘holding up’, supporting or, as is too often written in pieces on Paul Gees, ‘putting matter under tension’, which generates, determines and (temporarily) fixes the form of the sculpture. The lamp becomes the pedestal for a piece of parquet floor and in this way elicits an ambiguous status which in this case sustains the definition of the concept of sculpture as a ‘thing’, a delineated piece of ‘expanded field’.
The public was able to continue walking over the Sint-Lukas sculpture but also around it, as with any other three-dimensional sculpture. In all its simplicity it’s a complex intervention that was only able to function and be seen by means of an external source of energy, just as in the interventions by the late Dan Flavin, with fluorescent tubes which are only experienced as space when ‘alight’.
The fact that this work is a generator of external energy determines its continued existence.
Openings in architecture such as a door or a gate or the supporting pillar of a building have on several occasions drawn the interest of Paul Gees’ desire to put matter under pressure and to allow the sculpture as a visually tangible provisional element to exist in a larger entity. A fine example is the work in which a beam that is split mathematically to a certain height – as if it were a Greek column – is at the top ‘crowned’ with a rough stone that holds the ‘sculpture’ in position in the doorway. It is an exemplary work in which architecture and its ‘roots’ are reflected by means of transposed materials that form the ‘core’ of architecture. Art here holds architecture upright in a symbolic and disarming way, and the artist evades the properties of gravity and pilots the sculpture into the tensed and load-bearing limits and boundaries of architecture.
The interventions brought about directly in the context of architecture sometimes seem to tend towards the spectacular; a suggestion that Paul Gees deflects by way of a visual idiom that clarifies and keeps visible the means of propping up the materials and keeping them together. Paul Gees constructs the impossible by what at first sight seems a succession of logical building principles.
Whatever else may be the case, Paul Gees is a sculptor of clear lines: simplicity of composition is the (stylistic) characteristic of his actions and the visible form extrapolates and materialises the concept of ‘transience’.
Paul Gees inventively varied his activities as a sculptor by working both indoors and outdoors; by creating both autonomous and site-sensitive integrated interventions as well as combining all these basic principles with each other.
A beam straight through a window appears to be in a state of tension. A heavy beam hangs perfectly at right angles against the façade of an arts centre and is visibly held in balance by the weight of several rough stones that maintain the insinuation that they guarantee the perfect position of the beam, which has exited from and projects from the architecture. In this sense, the thought of the artistic production by the American Richard Serra also occurs to us, in which the tension of bringing and placing together extremely heavy steel sheets makes the aspect ofdanger_ an inherent part of the visual form and the experience of sometimes gigantic sculptures. Unlike Richard Serra, in Gees’ work the ‘life-threatening’ element is never taken to extremes; also because Gees takes safety precautions that mean his sculptures at most have only an insinuation of danger.
In 2011, as part of the town exhibition ‘From Dust to Ashes’ and in a recent exhibition in a gallery, Paul Gees has presented a series of new works and interventions that display an expansion of complexity.
In the setting of an impressive stairwell in an abandoned building in the town of Asse, Gees mounted an upright sculpture that grips the handrail and narrowly approaches the ceiling. Apart from its ‘temporariness, the relevant point about this impressive sculptural intervention is the way numerous familiar components of Paul Gees’ oeuvre are bound together upside down like a compressed index of his visual idiom, in a sculpture which once again can be seen as a variant on a Greek column that fans out towards the top. A pallet, boards, a rough stone and even a (bedside) cabinet on three legs were the parts of an oppressive accumulation of objects in this middle-class stairwell.
This will most certainly be a key work in his recent production period. A period in which the methods including the splitting of a wooden beam, propping up, and keeping other materials and objects both under tension and in balance result in a many-layered aesthetic sculpture which at the same time captures the memory of both his own oeuvre and elements from the history of modern and contemporary sculpture.
Here it’s appropriate to insert a quote from the American sculptor Carl Andre:
preface to my work itself
in, is, my, of, art, the into,
made, same, this, work, parts,
piled, piles, broken, pieces,
stacks, clastic, stacked,
The big difference is that Carl Andre rejects any deviant form of formal contamination, considers and treats the repeatable principle of mathematical order as a priority and is perfectly able to involve the space of the action wherever necessary into his flat sculptures, which are conceived as a ‘place’.
As part of the ‘X Radicals’ exhibition (2011) at the Strombeek Cultural Centre, Paul Gees made two wall sculptures stretched between the walls of the entrance hall and the bar. These interventions were like ‘gateways’ that marked two functionally different ‘service’ spaces in the cultural centre with a sculpture in which the boundary function of ‘accessibility’ was heightened by means of a shaky construction just above head height; experienced as being taken to an extreme.
With this sort of intervention, Paul Gees emphasises his desire for the control and accentuation of architecture and the urge to draw attention to the surrounding high-quality architecture which is sometimes not even consciously experienced.
Paul Gees recently showed a number of small sculptures in which we see a new direction in his artistic research. The suggestion of a table (table-au) makes its entry in a different way here when, for example, a piece of wood with a saw cut and a piece of stone wedged into it, with next to it a piece of flat Formica (or imitation) is combined with or, in another work, is set in the context of, a steel sheet treated with enamel paint.
These are wall objects in which Gees experiments with such materials as car paint, dirty oil and filler, which add a layer to the underlying material and carry the perception of the work of art from the ‘literal-concrete’ to the ‘symbolic-interpretative’. Filler and car paint are associated with ‘finish’ and experienced as ‘neutral’ and as ‘standard’ materials which in visual art are associated with minimal artists such as Donald Judd and John McCracken.
These intimate works display the possibility of ‘models’; as ‘sketches’ in which a broader architectural support can be employed for interventions in which architecture and art coincide one on one.
The industrial patina of something like car paint is double in this work; its use cannot be suspected of any aesthetic-artistic purpose and it is able to confirm itself to be a confronting mirror for the ‘user’.
In his recent, frequently ‘stacked’ work, which is delicately held together by a ‘frame’ or by a possibly manipulated trick that is available to him through the possibilities of ‘site-specific’ working, Paul Gees accumulates and manoeuvres his memory regarding sculpture.
Putting material under tension literally holds the eye and the mind spellbound and as it were continues to make an appeal to the power of the imagination.
All in all, art remains an eminently private experience in which the interpretation and the ‘outcome’ are the intimate ‘literary’ sequel to what an image can bring about in the mind.
Paul Gees’ work has in the course of time not been characterised by changes of style but by consistent and gradual continuing work on a rhizomatous oeuvre, growing out of an awareness regarding the intrinsic beauty of matter, heightened by interventions that continue to put pressure on the matter and ‘our’ mind.
‘The wonderful thing about art is that in the 20th century, with its new sciences and new technology and new ideology, it has retained the constancy of cautious and attentive handwork. The artist here remains very close to his materials and experiences, and it leads to singular insights’.
Original text in Dutch: Sculptuur in het domein van de mogelijkheden van de architectuur / translation Gregory Ball
In Praise of Hands
In 1934 the French art historian Henri Focillon wrote Eloge de la Main, a short eulogy on the hand, with a meticulous description of this body part as it appears in the arts. Focillon wrote with a pen, and for this reason he was aware that everything made by people has always been in contact with the hands. ‘I undertake this essay in praise of hands as if in fulfilment of a duty to a friend. Even as I begin to write, I see my own hands calling out to my mind and inciting it. Here, facing me, are these tireless companions who for so many years have served me well, one holding the paper steady, the other peopling the white page with hurried, dark, active little marks.’
The hand comes between us and the things we do – it retains in the most visible manner a memory of the moment of creation, the result of which remains, while its genesis is lost. Hands make and do things, but at the same time they obliterate the process of creation; manual work results in a product, but in an absence too. So the hand is both the bridge and the gap between our thoughts and our objects.
Focillon writes ‘Hands are almost living beings. Only servants? Possibly. Servants, then, endowed with a vigorous free spirit, with a physiognomy. Eyeless and voiceless faces that nonetheless see and speak.’ The particular role played by hands as both tools and witnesses to the work makes them become faces, blind and dumb faces which nevertheless have something to say and which look at us too. This poetic paradox encapsulates human occupations – both those of the hands and those of contemplation – and this is also the riddle that underlies the work of Nikolaas Demoen.
It is no coincidence that this book starts with an image from the video A possible journey. This work can be seen as a quiet statement of principles. Like almost all Demoen’s work, this film was made in the studio. The location of the proceedings and the artist’s precise but solitary action are not only put on display, but are also presented as the subject itself. The artist walks back and forth without making any progress, and he has large hands which the movement makes swing back and forth too, as happens when one walks quickly. But in fact nothing really happens and no progress is made. Yet the still from the film is an image that can occupy a page in a book in its own right, with its own aesthetics. This man is on his way to something, and the size of his hands suggests that not only will he cover long distances, but, whatever his destination, will also do great things. This work makes visible the promise of a journey and of work and manual labour, but at the same time it tells us the somewhat sad outcome: this is not real movement, but only walking on the spot, and the big hands are as yet incapable of great deeds. So does it all amount to nothing? Perhaps. But what we actually see here is the suspenseful and infinite distance between a human action and its result.
It would seem that this can be said about much modern or conceptual art. Good examples are the films Bruce Nauman made while sitting on a chair in his studio or walking back and forth for a while. But the difference is that although Nauman did ‘act’, he no longer ‘made’ anything – unless, very ironically, it was a film that documented his own inactivity and inability to create an aesthetic product. There was no sign of a ‘real’ object or final result. On the other hand there are artists who do not make the result invisible, but the action that resulted in the object. The work of Richard Tuttle is a perfect example of this: his objects – paintings, drawings, collages, sculptures – have lost all connection with their genesis. They are pure and mysterious things and although of course we can still see that they were made, we have no idea how or why or in what way. Whereas in Nauman’s case the action has no result, in Tuttle’s case the result has no action. It is between these two artistic extremes – or in a combination of things that seem incompatible – that we find the work of Nikolaas Demoen.
This is also made visible in the second image in Oog.Blue (which also comes from a film). The initial situation is defined by two diagonals in the form of an abstract, sacral composition. Then a hand appears, which sets these diagonals a-dance: they turn out to be tubes stretched across the space, knocking against each other with a gentle tinkle. Something is made in the studio, but this artefact is as it were contaminated by human hands, which symbolise the act of creation itself. The abstract is not confronted with the concrete because of any theoretical involvement, but because doing something (however minimal it may be) already has good and unexpected consequences even while it is still happening.
The oval is another device in addition to the hand. An oval is one of the most minimal figures one can think of without resorting to basic geometric forms. Between the rectangle and the circle, the oval is almost anthropomorphic (it is the shape of an eye), but it is also useful, as a frame in which a photo can be mounted or as a dish on which objects lie. The oval makes its appearance in this book in a photo from a film: it floats slowly backward and forward above the floor of the studio. It would seem that no artistic practice could consist of much less than this. Yet it does catch the eye, and this minimal basis is the beginning of a series of works that maximise the potential and the properties of the oval.
This certainly applies to the numerous photographic portraits. A face hides behind a white oval held by a right hand. A couple of facial elements are drawn on it. The eyes have been cut out. So, in the same way as Focillon described the hands, these too are blind and dumb faces that look and speak. The opening in the image is reflected: there is as it were a hole in the photo, but this excision is in the shape of a frame, and this frame is pierced where the eyes are, which makes the ‘real’ face visible – by looking. The artist intervenes in a standard photo-portrait in a way that it becomes clear and obvious what he is doing, but this does not enable the consequences to be established. In every image in Oog.Blue, a concentrated yet playful attention to ordinary hands, eyes, legs and feet is confronted with a formal and aesthetic concentration, and the result is a combination that does not offer any unambiguous meaning and holds the attention precisely for this reason.
Nikolaas Demoen’s work does not ‘focus’, it is not intended to solve social or political problems, it is not clear who or what it ‘examines’, it does not challenge art history, nor does it seek alliance with it, it is not critical of this or that – it is work that makes the space and the distance between an action and a final result visible and tangible, just as hands do when we look at them long enough.
In his Cahiers, Paul Valéry wrote ‘What is finished has not been made’. The works in Oog.Blue are finished precisely because they have been made.
Christophe Van Gerrewey
Original text in Dutch: Lof van de hand / translation Gregory Ball