TWO BEACH BALLS
The telephone rang and I recognised the voice that said: “Hello Vasily, this is Henk calling”. I stood in front of the only window in my apartment on the third oor and observed the people, strolling along Nevski Prospect below me, all walking in the same direction. They were attracted by the city and by each other. Henk thought it was about time he saw me again and invited me with great enthusiasm to be present for the arrangement of the exhibition in the Middelheim Museum in Antwerp. I had to inadvertently smile when he asked me what I thought of the title: Exactly how I remembered it. “Prikrasna,” I said and was happy that he offered to pay the cost of the trip. A few days later,
I travelled from Pulkovo Airport via Stockholm to Brussels. I took a taxi for the nal part of the journey from Antwerp station to the Middelheim Park. Slightly slumped down in the back seat, I tried to concentrate on what was ahead, on what I would see: Henk’s statues in the pavilion by Renaat Braem. He had told me a great deal about it, using various turns of phrase, contradicting himself as if it was vital he made himself clear, which resulted in my head being lled with all kinds of images that I wasn’t even sure existed.
I realised that I had been familiar with his work since the 1980s. I made Henk’s personal acquaintance when I visited his studio in 1989. It was the beginning
of a friendship, and the beginning of a series of texts about him and his work, which meant that I existed in Henk’s life and he in my thoughts. I still remem- bered this rst visit well, just like his words: “Vasily, it is all about time”. I par- ticularly remember the long silence that followed. I never understood why I had never written about it. To my amazement, during the last telephone conversa- tion, when I asked if it was still all about time, he responded with a comprehen- sive answer: “Yes of course, but I take the causality of my actions for granted. I am especially interested in the consequences. I want to restrict the inde nable to something that I can see and can grasp with my hands; in short, I want to im- part the synchronicity of everything I see and know and think to a statue. Each statue is an aviary.” He had not forgotten how to exaggerate. I recognised his reasoning method and wondered if I would have to wander around an empty pavilion, which the “wonderful” architect, in Henk’s opinion, had designed fty years ago. However, thinking back to his Stories of the Present from 1992, a hilarious, poetic text written in Italy just before the birth of his youngest son,
I knew that Henk was a master at juggling logical associations and that he dismantled established concepts: he would not settle for heavily resounding words in empty spaces. Neither was he a theorist that went in search of the right combination of words and concepts using strictly formulated reference models and who found happiness in doing so. So no, he would use the space, engulf it, occupy it and condition it because of the experiential. In Russian there are many words for “experience” and one of the most complex is “tos- ka”, a concept that comes close to Henk’s work and stands for everything that is processed or rejected by the senses, a sense of being overwhelmed, without there being a speci c, identi able cause for it.
I had researched the pavilion by Renaat Braem on the internet because it seemed to be such an inspirational space for Henk. At the age of 77, the archi- tect had recorded his memories and published them under the title Het schoon- ste land ter wereld (The most beautiful country in the world). I found the book and was able to read it with the help of a trainee that worked at the Belgian consulate. The epilogue by his wife, Elza Severin, was extraordinarily amusing. His life history begins with an image of the rst bombardment of Antwerp on
23 August 1914, the day a German Zeppelin appeared above the city; an image that he reproduced as a drawing at the age of 77 and wrote Bommen op het zuid! (Bombs in the south!) below it. He described a warm summer’s day and the street lined with tall houses on each side where the decor was transformed by a hellish re resulting from the series of bombs that fell on the city: “I see the long view of the Montignystraat, the continuous row of pale, white-painted
façades and above the vanishing point of all the lines before me, just a small boy, the exploding German shrapnel shells in the interminable distance.”
From this burning city emerged an architect who preferred uid lines and spaces without obstacles with soft light, as if to erase that terrible image of the burning Montignystraat. Indeed, the pavilion was an exceptional space with an expansive yet enclosed, intimate airiness. The play of light and shadow achieved by nely constructed skylights that externally, on the side, take the form of birds taking ight. The space ends in a large and celebratory, partly open, doorway that spans the pavilion’s entire width. The end appears to be a plea and an expression of a desire to extend out into the world.
As a former literature student (although I did not complete my studies), this story naturally made me think of Vladimir Nabokov and of his forced ight from Bolshevik Russia in 1919, which not only meant that all the family’s property was lost, but even more poignantly, the associated memories from his child- hood were ung out of reach. Childhood held a dramatic signi cance for this generation, that much was evident, but it was also the picture of untamed cre- ativity. Nabokov spent his life chasing butter ies, after the rst butter y – the Old World Swallowtail (Papilio machaon) – enchanted him as a seven-year-old child. In Memory speak, he wrote of a beautiful pale yellow being that restless- ly apped its enormous wings. Henk would certainly not be surprised that the name Papilio from the Latin papilione (butter y) is etymologically related to the word pavilion, which refers to a tent whose canvas aps just like a butter y’s wings; the butter y and the pavilion, a place for art, a place for metamorphosis.
The taxi driver turned around and said: “Middelheim Museum, sir.” I paid and climbed out. I saw a wonderful, pale pink illuminated construction, which was a cross between a petrol pump and a fairground attraction. The names of artists stood in ashing neon letters on the roof and it was as if they were brought to life by the pulsating, chaotic ashes of light and were sent out into the world. Observing artworks from various eras, I ventured deeper into the park and was struck by the feeling that the present time is unde ned and thus in nite; that the future must be designated as cherished hope for reality; that the past is tru- ly in the past, even though the deformed, constructed and thus falsi ed, fading memory is assigned to the written word in order to survive. It does not help.
Art denies time, and space becomes an immense present in which everything endures in sync. I suspected that Henk would agree.
I recognised the Braem pavilion in the distance. I quickened my pace, walked passed an overturned car and came face to face with a hare and its long ears. I recalled the image from the cover of a book that Henk had once given me,
which was very dear to him, entitled Nu Stil (Quiet now ). In it, he had written “we are organs of time”; his statues are those organs! I entered the pavilion and was overwhelmed by a multitude of works. I saw all kinds of objects, shapes, colours, lines… and I gradually recognised several statues and presentations. However, despite the multitude and the apparent randomness in which the pieces were positioned close together, making it impossible to obtain an overview, it was not chaotic. The works’ interconnectedness was much more powerful than their uniqueness. All the objects were connected and absorbed by each other. Their possible mutual combinations appeared endless and so they also appeared to have surrendered to the imagination. This pres- entation could not strictly be viewed as a collection of objects. What I saw
was a sequence of actions in time and of time, which ultimately lead to a grand vision in which the sole objective of observing is to know, to know for sure that nothing stands alone, that everything is everywhere and that there is always an elsewhere. What appealed to me most was the subtle but also celebratory convergence of multiple sensory impressions, which mingled and were part of a story that endures as long as there is time.
I sat down on a blue, metal chair, engrossed in my thoughts, testing the resil- ience of the backrest. “Hello, Vasily,” I heard and looked up. Henk approached me, smiling that same smile from 1996, though he had aged somewhat and was wearing a bright blue hat. “Beautiful,” I said, “Krasivaja vistavka.” We stood facing each other a little oddly, as though we were, in a Nabokov-esque way, playing with an invisible beach ball. Henk looked at me seriously and said slowly in a beseeching manner, which I recognised from Russia: “Vasily, this sentence has been on my mind all afternoon: ‘art affords time the present that is necessary, so that we can live in space, in this space’.” And he made a large sweeping gesture through the air with both arms. Two beach balls, I thought.
Saint Petersburg, 20 February 2014