The Present Continuous
My art is that designed part of my life which finds its way into the public domain, and the retrospective text that follows is a constituent part of this. I have the idea that I am inventing everything and at the same time that everything contains an element of truth and that what I do has already been done before.
1972 – 1979
In 1974 I moved to Boxtel, a village close to ’s-Hertogenbosch, the city where I had attended academy. In Boxtel I began working in my first own atelier. I drew a lot and produced graphic art: dry-point etchings that I coloured in by hand and sold cheaply at art markets in the summer months. I also tended a vegetable garden. At the same time I was writing poetry and fantasised about producing a film, writing a script that was inspired by the novel Nightwood by Djuna Barnes. I still have the script, but the film has never materialised. This interest in writing was awakened while I was at the academy, an activity that was primarily stimulated by Sipke Huismans, a lecturer in graphic art. Sipke had the unusual habit of writing a letter to students every week, and the students wrote back to him. Writing became a component of my artistic practice.
I enrolled for a course on ‘Marxism’ at Eindhoven University of Technology and thus became interested in the history of Europe’s revolutionary artistic movements and I was especially intrigued by the Soviet Constructivists at the time. I was seeking for a means of communicating with the world directly, without the intercession of symbols, rather than emulating ‘the revolution’ in the political sense. The construction is a straightforward model of connections: one thing is linked to another to form a sturdy whole. I re-encountered the desire for realism in the work and ideas of Tatlin who, as an ideological champion of a new world order, was seeking a concrete, material translation. The concept of the ‘construction’ as a model for and representation of a society became a fruitful point of departure in my work. Tatlin was fond of the Eiffel Tower, as I was, and the thought of his Monument to the Third International being raised onto a cart and hauled through the streets of Leningrad by horses as a trophy in the revolutionary parade was a compelling image.
While continuing to draw and write I also cautiously began to make sculptures: small, wooden figures. At that time I also made musical instruments: a barrel organ with lively dancing figures and a hurdy-gurdy. I provided musical accompaniment for a group that performed street theatre.
I went in search of an atelier in Eindhoven and found a space in an old brewery. There I read Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell’s ABC of Relativity, Maslov, everything about Gestalt psychology, In and Out the Garbage Pail by Frederick Perls. I also studied the anti-psychiatry of R.D. Laing and digested an introduction to Zen Buddhism by Professor Suzuki. In the meantime I started realising big structures. Later on I wrote a text about this period entitled ‘Toen ik nog mezelf was’ (When I was still myself). I wanted to venture out into the world. I wanted to see the city where Diane Arbus had walked the streets and I wanted to see the people she had photographed, so around Christmas 1979 I left for New York in the hope of finding a snow-covered Washington Square, as I knew it from a book of photos by André Kertész. I spent many freezing nights walking the streets of New York, speaking into a memo recorder as I went. On my return to the Netherlands I looked for a bigger atelier, brimming with ideas and eager to realise more sculptures. I was 30 years old. I started to work like a man possessed and was often in my atelier day and night. I became highly enthusiastic but also bewildered by the thought of the great quantity of sculptures I could make. Even now I could be churning out the works that I imagined before me back then but found no time to realise. I was immersed in a world of images and impressions, and I was constantly having to make choices. I wanted to exhibit my work.
In the same street as my atelier there was an exhibition space known as Het Apollohuis (The House of Apollo) that was run by two artists, Paul Panhuysen and Remco Scha. I bought my first diary and I invited them to my atelier at 8 o’clock in the evening on January 29th, 1981. The title of my exhibition was ‘Getimmerde Tekeningen’ (‘Drawings in Timber’), and I presented sculptures, drawings on canvas and a portfolio of screen prints. A six-hour-long tape of me performing piano music was played back during the exhibition. I played music inspired by the simple rhythm of a walk, the narrative line alternating with its repetition. Later in the year I performed with a dancer and for 12 minutes became part of the ‘Panta Rei’ duo, playing melodic minimal music on piano.
I was convinced that the only way to comprehend all the thoughts and ideas running through my head was to make them physically tangible, so that’s what I did. I threw myself wholeheartedly into the world. I wrote a text to accompany the exhibition: ‘Art’s function is to maintain the existing arsenal of psychological capacities that has been amassed through evolution and tradition and therefore gain as great an understanding of them as possible.’ I also wrote: ‘Things exist. Just look. There are facts. The fact is there is a world, but there is another world, the mental world, wherein things are attributed names. This is how the world is understood.’
My exhibition at the Living Room in Amsterdam opened on March 21st. It was an initiative of an art historian and an artist from Eindhoven who had visited me in my atelier and had ambitious plans. It was my first exhibition in a gallery. I exhibited new works, including De Reus (‘The Giant’), Het Huis van mijn Vader is verlaten (‘The House of my Father has been abandoned’) and La Donna. Two months later, during the group exhibition ‘Junge Kunst aus den Niederlanden’ at the art fair in Basel, I sold my first sculpture. I wanted to get to know the buyer, but in response to my question about why he had purchased this work he answered, ‘I’m interested in the artwork, not the artist.’ When I had my first interview in a Dutch newspaper I realised that my work fell within the category of ‘New Dutch Art’. In the text for the Basel catalogue I wrote: ‘The silence is accessible. … I do not exclude the world but want to include it. My sculptures listen.’
I had high expectations, especially when I was invited to go and work at a studio in a former primary school in New York for six months with a bursary. PS 1 is an organisation that runs an international ‘artists-in-residence’ programme. In those days, artists saw New York as the centre of the world. I left for New York for the second time on August 5th, this time an officially invited guest with a studio at my disposal (though I had to arrange lodgings myself). The studio was a dilapidated classroom and the first thing I did was replace the broken lock on the front door with a padlock. It was too hot to work in August, but starting from September I was there at 9 o’clock every morning, the first artist in the building. Sometimes the kids from the ’hood came to visit. In the winter I drank coffee in the cellar with Leon, who shovelled coal into an old stove that heated the PS 1 building. I read the poetry of E.E. Cummings and the study by Canetti about ‘the masses’. On my table lay a book I had found in a cupboard, The Complete Etchings of Goya with a foreword by Aldous Huxley. On Goya he wrote, ‘The only reality he knew was the world around him; and the longer he lived the more frightful did that world seem ….’
On my return to the Netherlands I was met by a series of exhibitions. These exhibitions added a public and social dimension to my life as an artist, which until then had primarily unfolded in the atelier. The debate about art and about the personal motives of artists presented itself, and I became involved in it. I produced a little book of self-portraits with the title Het gebaar waarmee men dieren voedt (‘Feeding the beasts’) and wrote this poem:
You’re the man that feeds the beasts
You have no servants
You are hungry for me
But have no knife and fork
You prepare my repast but don’t eat with me
You ask nothing but still hear an answer
You’re a lodger but don’t stay to sleep
You share nothing
You accept nothing
You’re really famous
Your passion is speeding traffic
Your sorrow is a shop
You broker no delay
You know no moderation
You don’t burn me
Through you I learnt to sincerely respect
I had worked in wood until now, but at this stage I started working on a series of sculptures in aluminium. I wanted to produce big volumes, imagining someone concealed within them. The way I went about this was to imagine myself as that person, which is how I could determine the form. In Stay Strong two lovers sit in an embrace. In the next work the exterior became a suit of armour, which I painted with the insignia of a German tank from the Second World War. The concept of a suit of armour wasn’t much to my liking, so I set this series of works aside.
Floor van Keulen invited me to take part in a performance together with Rob Malasch. We made our self-conscious entrance onto the stage of the Shaffy Theatre in Amsterdam in search of ‘the genesis of a thought’, as we called it back then. We assumed that the tension between us and the audience would generate something that would be intelligible and meaningful for other people as well. We determined that the performance couldn’t be theatre of expression or illusion; it had to convey how thoughts become language. We agreed not to use any theatrical effects or singing. A few members of the audience felt insulted and started hurling abuse, while we continued to thwart, improve, interrupt and unintentionally prompt one another in what we wanted to say and do. We strove to gain a grip on the limelight, the communication, but the reverse was true: the communication had us in its grip. ‘It doesn’t matter whether we are understood or not,’ said Floor. ‘When the telephone rings then I am the phone.’ Rob Malasch broke his ankle when he leapt from the balcony into a sack of flour on the stage.
In the summer I travelled to Fontevraud in France, where I spent a month working with several other artists in a former monastery, part of which was still in use as a prison. A men’s choir rehearsed Gregorian chant here in the afternoons. Jean Genet had been incarcerated here and I went in search of his cell. Flowers were gouged into the walls of many cells, but seldom a naked woman. Here I read Les fleurs du mal by Baudelaire, produced many large drawings and the sculpture entitled Where do we meet? While I was there I read the interview that Jean Genet had conducted with Giacometti and I wrote many letters.
This year I also worked on my first commission in collaboration with a friend, the architect John Körmeling, whose studio adjoined mine. The commission was a work for the Paradiso, a former church converted into a ‘temple of pop’ in Amsterdam. We designed two irregular octahedrons in plexiglass, a clock, and a black, elongated rhombus. The octahedrons stand like finials on the corners of the roof and refract rays of sunlight. The clock was set in the rose window on the main façade and a black, elongated rhombus lies embedded in the pavement in front of the entrance. When I visit the Paradiso I always check to see whether the clock is telling the right time and whether the tile has been damaged.
For the first time I was confronted with negative reactions to my work from reviewers and colleagues. I came to the realization that I had to follow my own path, whatever that might be. I severed relations with the galleries I’d been working with until then. I wanted to retain my freedom and follow my desire to operate as an artist in the world, required autonomy. I created a series with the title ‘Right of Speech’. In the same way as the right of freedom of speech is a precondition for living freely, this sculpture – its form inspired by a plate-stand and therefore like a pedestal – alludes to an outset, to the preconditions for creating and presenting sculptures. One of these preconditions is to be able to think freely and autonomously, unhampered by norms, intellectual preconceptions, extraneous bother and financial gain. I wrote a text about this that can be read as a manifesto: ‘The artist’s autonomy is his openness, his receptivity.’ The text concludes with the words: ‘… that he, the artist, unceasingly questions his self-image, and otherwise behaves in accordance with his desires, because he acknowledges that one does not always know what one wants.’
I visited Rome, Venice and Arezzo. I wanted to see the frescoes by the Italian Masters. Carpaccio in the Scuola degli Schiavoni was a pleasure to behold: the expansive, deep perspective and crystal-clear domestic details within it. The Madonna della Misericordia by Piero della Francesca in Arezzo, a painting in which her mantle is transformed into an enfolding tent where men and women find protective shelter, was a stirring, erotic image. At a little market I saw a woman standing behind a stall that filled with colourful fabrics. I made a sculpture that returns to these memories: Verenigd buiten zichzelf (‘United outside oneself’).
I visited a small island off the coast near Venice and wrote this in my notebook: ‘I’m on a boat. … With my eyes I track the waves that roll away from the boat’s side and dissolve in the undulations of the surrounding water. I can’t spot the exact moment, following a wave time and again, but every time I miss the instant when the wave becomes indistinguishable from the other waves.’
I entered Rome, the city of Pasolini, via the suburbs that I recognised from his film Mamma Roma. I hummed the jazz music from Teorema. At the Vatican I saw The Deliverance of Saint Peter by Raphael, which was an eye-opening shock.
I produced a series of works in which I no longer proceeded from a shape or a specific volume. The completeness and compactness of the sculpture no longer satisfied my desire to make sculptures that envelop the world. Reality had to truly course through the sculpture in order to lend it its very right to exist. My idea was that the sculpture arises like a cry from the world, not from myself. The artist welcomes this appeal with open arms, this is his task and thus the sculpture is born. This is perplexing. The angel in the fresco is, of course, by Raphael, this image that was external to me, separated from me by prison bars yet calling out to me. Two months later I reworked the sculpture with the title Verenigd buiten zichzelf (‘United outside oneself’) and renamed it Go Home.
The ultimate consequence of the sculpture that is ‘permeated by the world’ is the installation. I noticed that I had reached the juncture where I had to choose between the sculpture as an autonomous volume and an installation. Via the installation, or thus was my rationale, the sculpture is subsumed in the world, it ends up being integrated, as people term it. Yet I was still looking for a way to make sculptures in which the sculpture, the object, could be the midpoint. I wanted the representation to follow its own course, independently of historical or social associations. I started to make a great many lanterns, small and large, in different forms. I was as enchanted by the form, the simple outline of a house, the materials – zinc, brass and glass – as by the symbolism. I also started to produce circles. My thoughts turned to the painting by De Chirico with the running girl rolling a hoop with a stick. I found the phrase ‘adjusting the sails of reason to the breeze of my longings’ by Shakespeare, and I grasped what he meant. I accepted my resistance to the opportunity and temptation to make sculptures that are assumed into the world. I made Blind Faith, which could serve as a socle for a huge circle, but has the form of a pair of underpants.
I was invited to exhibit at the Dutch Pavilion in Venice, which was an exceptional project. I was interviewed by Reinhard Niedermeier, a young German artist who I remembered from PS 1 in New York. The first question he asked revealed an impasse I was facing: ‘Your work has grown more chic in the course of time. Why?’ I was taken aback. I suddenly realised that the impact of contructions is primarily aesthetic. I saw myself being confronted with categorisations and that was only partially to my satisfaction. Figurative art was classified within the humanistic tradition, in which the portrayal of humankind is pivotal, while constructivism was denoted as a rational model based on an art theoretical distinction between figurative and non-figurative work.
Volumetric works can arouse a greater degree of sensuality, because the surface invites the beholder to reach out and touch. And volume behaves like a body. I have never been able to distinguish between rationality and sensuality, construction and corporality. The construction had always been a means for me to attain a higher degree if abstraction. Though I am not consciously concerned with symbolism it always resurfaces, since it attaches to forms and representations. Not for You, an orange circle with sharp points is like an eye with lashes, but it also like the circle of fire that a lion must jump through. Like the Untitled made of iron with horsehair it has the form of the décolleté of a dress by Madame Broglio, wife of the painter Mario Broglio, who published the journal Valori Plastici from 1918 to 1922.
I created a pseudonym, Vasily Wells, a young art critic from Russia with whom I could talk about art with a sense of humour. In response to a visit to my atelier he wrote: ‘And what does the artist know about the work of art? For that matter, even if we were to force him to speak he wouldn’t utter a word. He is weighed down by a heavier burden, a greater truth: he does not know. No, let us leave him his house, his wilderness, his horses ….’ I did not begrudge Vasily being right.
In my home city of Eindhoven I staged an exhibition for the Van Abbemuseum with the title ‘Tentoonstelling’ (‘Exhibition’). I could exploit my experiences at the Biennale in Venice to devise a new layout. Here the relationship of one work to the other and their mutual combination is more important than their position in the space. The painting by Magritte, La Jeunesse illustrée, spurred me to think about structuring principles. I didn’t want to isolate the sculptures. Independent of their meaning I wanted to introduce a structure, making use of the different ways in which people stand in a space as a template for the arrangement of my sculptures and works within the exhibition space. In the catalogue, the photo on the left-hand side of the page shows an empty gallery and has a text in the adjacent space. On the right-hand side of the page there is a photograph of the gallery filled with works.
Over the course of the year I made figures, constructions, volumes, transparent and textile sculptures.
Eckhard Schneider, who I knew from the 1986 exhibition in Nordhorn, invited me to hold an exhibition in the Kunstverein Hannover. It was my first large-scale exhibition in Germany and I presented works made specifically for this exhibition over the preceding year. The catalogue concept, the analogy of the empty and the filled space, was the same as for the Van Abbemuseum. I was pleased with the exhibition, invited all my friends and personally paid the hotel expenses, though they never knew.
I started making the first of the Souvenirs. From the moment I placed the sculptures in a constellation I realized I could achieve the same thing in a single work. The Souvenirs served like a bridge between the drawings and the sculptures, whereby the spatially imposed demands no longer matter. The simultaneity of different thoughts and visualisations could be rendered visible immediately. I threw myself into these works obsessively – there was a never-ending stream. They were coagulated representations of joy and unhappiness, violence and eroticism, idealisation and base vulgarity. I called them ‘souvenirs’ because on the one hand they were images from my memory and on the other they were kitschy objects. The Souvenirs were the product of a seemingly unstoppable idea-generation machine.
In October a competition was staged for the new Kunsthal in Rotterdam and I submitted a proposal. The idea was to surround the Kunsthal in a blue concrete expanse and set a camel with attendant on top of it. I wanted to make a sculpture that coupled a certain oddity and everyday normality. The sculpture would loom up in the blue expanse like a vision. Happily I won the competition, and in 1993, just one day before the opening, the sculpture was installed on the roof – not without the requisite difficulties – as if it were heading to sea.
On the invitation of Chris Dercon, I curated my first exhibition, ‘Facts and Rumours’, at Witte de With in Rotterdam, and invited 13 artists to participate. My initial idea was to show a work by Diane Arbus, who once wrote a sentence that will remain with me for the rest of my life. It comes from a book I purchased in 1971 in which she writes about ‘the gap between intention and effect’. As a human being you emit signals that announce who you are, but you have absolutely no idea how other people receive them. The photos by Arbus capture this dilemma between what you intend and what you unintentionally reveal. The affectionate gaze that resonates in her portraits, in which any form of categorisation is absent, was an important guideline for the exhibition: I felt privileged to be able to stage an exhibition with artists.
In the winter I visited Galeria Biala in Lublin, Poland. It was an exhibition space in a former monastery, a complex which also provided space for ballet classes and accommodated a music school. The gallery was managed by a married artist couple, Anna Nawrot and Jan Gryka, who also worked in a secluded, abandoned little school in the countryside with children who came from far and wide to draw and paint.
Towards the end of the summer I stayed in Civitella d’Agliano to the northeast of Rome. The village stands high on a hill surrounded by cultivated fields and country estates. The atelier was a small house, partly hewn from the rock, where it was deliciously cool. There I wrote Stories from the present, an enumeration of absurd pearls of wisdom. On the basis of logical reasoning I arrived at speculative statements about what people do and think with no other intention than to throw this referential framework into confusion. These writings were in part a reaction to my participation in large-scale, programmatic group exhibitions, where I was confronted with organisational problems and demands for justifications, which is something to which I have an innate aversion. For that matter, in my experience there are still many things that go wrong even if I behave prudently, and this, in turn, is an incentive for me to shake myself free of dogmatic assertions, which often lead us nowhere in life. I look for the road less travelled in order to arrive somewhere and I take my time over it.
In September I visited Prague, in connection with an exhibition at Galerie MXM, which was established in 1991 and closed in 2002. The Stories from the present were printed in the catalogue. All the artists from Prague, who were more than keen to disseminate their work around the world, gathered here around the enthusiastic gallery owner, Tomas Prochazka. I found myself in the midst of an emergent artistic movement that, because of a distrust of all-embracing, political ideological systems, had armed itself with the ability to put things into perspective and with humour, from which I was able to learn a great deal. The gallery owner and his wife died in an accident just before the exhibition’s opening, a tragic blow that still often plays on my mind.
If a work of art is considered important then this usually has something to do with the aspect of immutability. For objects this is self-evident: they do not change but endure. A work of art is a container, and everything that people think about it fits. For the ‘Rendez-vous’ exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art (S.M.A.K.) in Ghent more than 800 objects were assembled, temporarily loaned to the museum by the residents of Ghent as ‘their favourite object’: a collapsible wooden stool found at a rubbish tip near a salt lake in Spain, a wooden locomotive missing its front wheels, a Turkish water pipe, a lump of stone and a shard of glass found in London, a wooden spoon, a reel of film in a cartridge, a pair of trousers and a shirt, a pair of ballet shoes, an old coffee grinder, a butcher’s block, a jam jar, a hat of little blue feather, a clay donkey, an antique double bed … a telephone. Objects are part of a cult of attachment that keeps memories alive. However, once separated from the owner, the objects are empty, devoid of memories. Though it is also an object, for a work of art that is different. All the things that have led to the realisation of the artwork, such as motives (conscious or otherwise), desires or obsessions, are transformed into a new entity in the work of art rather than becoming a memory. In the artwork it is no longer possible to discern what led to it. If I look at a work that I have just finished then I don’t actually know what I am seeing.
In the context of the Polish art happening ‘Construction in Progress’, which was first organised – illegally – in 1981 by the artist Ryszard Wasko, I went to Lødz. Here I also met Allen Ginsberg, who read from his work. I am fond of his poetry and I had admired the way he accompanied himself on his little harmonium at a poetry gathering in Eindhoven. I restored a playground in the middle of the city. The playground had fallen into disuse, the equipment lying broken on the ground. When I was ready with the painting and the swings were hanging on new chairs, assisted by two 16-year-old students, the mothers and their children returned. It was a playground again.
Kiyoshi Wako invited me to hold an exhibition in his gallery in Tokyo. I had met him at the Documenta through my friend Yuji Takeoka. Wako wanted to establish a bridge to European art from the Japanese art world. He asked me to write a letter about my work. We worked together to produce a little catalogue with the title ‘There is always another way of doing things’. On the streets of Tokyo I felt far too tall and constricted in my movements. I got pain in my shoulders and shaved twice a day. What was going on? Even my sculptures were too big and too heavy. My sense of scale seemed to be tied to a European norm that was nowhere to be found here. I was surprised by the problem of size. In Tokyo there are two types of scale: that of the skyscrapers, motorways, flyovers and bridges and that of the pre-war houses and streets, where a bicycle and a flower pot constitute big objects. Here even pebbles and oranges are conspicuous objects. My work belongs neither to monumentalised capitalism nor to traditional Japanese objects. For me every sculpture has its own scale. The size of a work is something absolute for me, the first thing I know when I start producing a work. And I never make maquettes. My work is never too small or too big. In Tokyo I came to the realisation that large and small are cultural variables, but I didn’t know how to deal with this.
Since 1990 I had been working on the series Souvenirs, but now I wanted to bring the series to a conclusion and I made the video Vaarwel (‘Farewell’). I placed all the works in a circular, undulating landscape of dark blue velvet with a diameter of 6 metres. I set the camera in the middle of this landscape and turned around slowly. The Souvenirs gradually passed by, moving in and out of the frame. During the montage the colours were manipulated so that the works appeared in an orange-yellow light as if they were being incinerated. Shrill, high-pitched voices of Chinese women accompanied this final journey, my goodbye to the Souvenirs.
I worked on a sculpture for the city of Dordrecht in the southwest of the Netherlands and called it the Giraf tussen de bomen (‘Giraffe between the trees’). I wanted to sculpt an animal that is not quite so self-evident that it is no longer eye-catching. The giraffe stands on a popular quayside opposite a café. Dordrecht was the birthplace and home of the poet Cees Buddingh, whose work I admire profoundly. In his poems he describes the most minute and least conspicuous details of everyday life. It seems as if he slows down our fleeting, transitory world by means of a playful observation, so that it comes to a standstill and is reduced to the actual objects. The effect is comically alienating, because we describe almost everything in terms of movement, development and progress. Buddingh’s writing revolves around static things, a parallel with the way I work as a sculptor. He reworked an earlier translation of the complete works of Shakespeare and this is one of his most frequently quoted poems, from 1966:
seize the moment
this morning after breakfast
I discovered, in my absent-mindedness,
that the lid of a medium-sized jar of marmite
(the 4 oz net size)
fits perfectly on a small jar of heinz sandwich spread
of course I then immediately checked
whether the sandwich spread lid
also fitted the marmite jar
and sure enough: it fitted, too
Nature provides a dynamic backdrop for the collection of works in a sculpture park. There is always something changing, things that were never preconceived and that nobody can control. Nature follows her own clock and people appreciate this. When I walked around Antwerp’s Middelheim Open-Air Museum I found it difficult to place my work. Nature is laden with allusions to beauty, harmony and divinity. At the same time, everything that stands in the midst of nature acquires a cursory character due to the succession of changeable impressions. Here is a beautiful twig, there is a falling leaf. If the sun is shining then the park is a feast for the eye. This is a treacherous setting for my work, because my sculptures are not exactly party-goers. They are either escaping reality or searching for it, I sometimes think. The sculpture is departing or drawing near; the sculpture obscures or clarifies. In nature this aspect of sculpture is neutralised, because Nature is an absolute, always good. Art seeks to establish a relationship, adopts a position with regard to reality and also recognises the not-good. I created a work especially for Middelheim. Telling no lies is a sculpture that seems unfinished, something that a work of art can articulate so well. The title of the work Morgen is alles anders (‘Tomorrow everything is different’) does not refer to the work of art, as that does not change. But tomorrow everything will indeed be different!
For my second exhibition at Wako Works of Art in Tokyo I made a series of six aluminium figures in various sizes with the title Anna. It was the first series I realised in which a group of figures belong together yet are varied in form. I have always felt that the identification of the object is enfeebled in a series. It can, however, be amplified, thanks to the opportunity to draw comparisons. It certainly introduces an interpretive freedom, because there are several comparable figures. The title refers to the love poem ‘An Anna Blume’ (1919) by Kurt Schwitters (translated by the artist himself as ‘Eve Blossom’), in which the artist deals with his infatuation in the same provocative, erotic and amusing way as with words. If men describe a woman’s body without words then they use both hands, which travel simultaneously over the imaginary female form from top to bottom: breasts, waistline, thighs. These notional, symmetrical bodies have become my sculptures. It is in fact the hands of many imaginary men that have moulded these sculptures for me. The names Anna and Eve are also symmetrical:
Do you know it, Eve?
Do you already know it?
One can also read you from the back
And you, you most glorious of all,
You are from the back as from the front,
I visited the Tiroler Volkskunstmuseum – the Tyrolean Regional Heritage Museum – in Innsbruck for the first time. The museum was organising an exhibition with contemporary artists: folk art meets contemporary art. The museum holds an extensive collection of Austrian folk art, including furniture, utilitarian objects and clothes, as well as masks, items made by master craftsmen, and all kinds of religious curiosa. In Europe, indigenous folk art is prized for its reinforcement of identity and culturally binding qualities, and is thus one of the continent’s positive nationalistic traditions. I had just visited New Zealand and had been deeply impressed by the culture and history of the Maori people. They are the indigenous people of the islands, taught to write by English missionaries so that they could endorse the contracts placed in front of them, thus formally relinquishing their homeland. For the first time I saw the 1994 film Once Were Warriors by Lee Tamahori, which is about the problems the facing Maoris within modern New Zealand society: ‘The only chance for the future is to embrace the power of the past.’ In Auckland I came across a book with portraits painted by a Czech artist who had moved to Vienna in 1855. He changed his name to Gottfried Lindauer, converted to Catholicism in order to be allowed to realise future commissions for the church, and went to study at the art academy. As a deserter he fled to New Zealand in 1873 and began painting portraits of important Maoris. Maligned as an expression of colonial power and contempt during the 20th century, these portraits are now highly prized by young Maoris, who, in their search for their identity, have rediscovered their forebears – as depicted by Lindauer. Things can take a very strange turn.
I became fascinated by the strange mixture of reality, fantasy and illusions that I encountered in this history as much as by the confusion of historical distortion and the political instrumentalization of images, objects and people. I wanted to communicate this, so I carefully tore the reproductions of the paintings from the book, framed them and provided them with phonetically notated Maori sayings, such as Ahakoa kai tahi, tera a roto te hahae ke ra, which means ‘Although a meal is shared, the jealousy endures,’ and Toitu he kainga, whatu ngarongaro he tangata, which means ‘The land still remains when the people have disappeared.’ I then hung these portraits on the walls of the Tyrolean Regional Heritage Museum.
This year marked the start of my cooperation with the Iranian refugee Kader Abdolah, now resident in the Netherlands, who has become a celebrated author and writes a weekly column, ‘Mirza’, in the Dutch daily newspaper de Volkskrant. His short stories are his contribution to public debate and he represents a significant new voice in discussions about integration, religion and political decisions. I await his text, which he sends me by e-mail, every Sunday between midday and 1 o’clock. I respond to this text with a drawing. It is wonderful that my drawings encounter the narrative aspect of Islamic literary culture, which Kader has brought with him from Iran. We greet each other every Sunday, and I dispatch the illustration for his text with a smile. We have our own regular spot in the newspaper.
I began working on a collection of poems again:
so many feet that gently test the ground
finding repose in the counterform
yet in this peace unceasingly shifting
as if heading somewhere.
Voor de onbeweeglijken (For the immobiles)
‘No, I don’t want to hear another word, I exclaimed loudly. Listening is obeying and now I’ve had enough of that, so let the body speak … but I couldn’t finish my sentence. Let the body speak, I wanted to say, but if the body speaks then people fall silent. Humans are not always in control of themselves. And it’s easy to make enemies. Just an instant of inattentiveness and one is standing at the door of a former home, singing an even older song filled with angst and melancholy, with quivering voice and a scratching of nails on stone. Ouch! Seize the moment. On this great day revere the burning flowers from the arid land. Those that pointlessly caught fire on the dusty lot. Men flee with their black breath and find a jumping eye that wants to illuminate them in perpetuity. Laughing stone, hesitate no longer to walk along the lake together with the calling leg, play the dancing metre and say, yes … if it’s possible. But whatever you do, stay.’
I wanted to describe the still point. Suffering waxes and wanes, but is always accompanied by the yearning for constancy, for stasis. This may be difficult but senseless it is not, I’ve noticed: within the longing forms a space wherein poetry can emerge. Poetry builds a bridge between two worlds, by which the impossible enters into a relationship with the possible. The impossible resides as a remnant in the possible. The poetry gives the impossible a place. Never disappearing, it accompanies everything.
I sat in the train to Mannheim and prepared myself for the presentation of my proposal for a sculpture for an extension to the city’s university. The presentation of a proposal is something that gives me a bout of nerves, because I have to convince people about something that does not exist yet. I only talk about a sculpture that I’m working on in my atelier once it is complete, because until the moment it is finished I do not know precisely how it will turn out. This state of incompletion is an important and necessary component of the working process, because I want to be able to decide when a sculpture is finished. I don’t enjoy this freedom when I’m working on a commission. I have to prepare myself properly, because people expect me to present a proposal that is complete and fully detailed. I disguise my insecurity with bravura and exaggeration at the presentation. The presentation is a test and will reveal whether the belief in my proposal is sufficiently solid. If I am able to convince my interlocutors during the presentation, then it is fine.
Students from the Departments of Economics and Law work in the space behind the façade where my sculpture stands, and the sculpture is intended for them.
‘At irregular intervals (possibly even during the night), but at least twice a week, the figure bows its upper body and one hears the words ‘tausendmal Dank’ – ‘a thousand thank yous’. This happens once, and then the figure itself begins to express thanks by bending its torso forwards and backwards and simultaneously closing its eyes. This movement is repeated a thousand times, the whole process lasting about an hour. The figure then revolves its whole body by 180 degrees and the same Ritual of Thanks begins anew. After this performance, the figure comes to a standstill. Following each Ritual of Thanks its position is different.
That Ritual of Thanks is a fitting expression, and also the conclusion, of a successful economic transaction.
I made From Ocean to Ocean. I’m fond of fabric that falls lightly and shifts easily; I like its shadows and sensuality. I’m captivated by the effects of the incidence of light on textiles and on colours and flowing shadowy lines, as were Giotto, Van Eyck, Memling and Velasquez. As a sculptor it is impossible to fully control the effects, the drama of hanging fabric, and this lack of control pleases me. When I work with fabric then I partly relinquish control over the shaping forces. It is a surrender to gravity, with which I must always collaborate fully. Gravity is compelling, but also a creative force. But there is something else afoot: fabric draped like a canvas over a form also hides that form and introduces a suggestiveness that the form itself does not possess. The fabric enshrouds the form, in the same way an item of clothing cloaks the naked body. But for the sculpture there is nothing to hide; the mask is its nakedness.
I visited the Peace Palace in The Hague and read the first phrase of the Charter of the United Nations: ‘We the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war ….’ Treaties and laws are broad frameworks that can accommodate all feasible situations, problems and conflicts as well as their potential resolution. If I cannot find a solution to something I often tell myself: ‘Look at the big picture!’ In art I am constantly confronted with the importance of a broad frame of reference and the need not to exclude anything in principle. I picked up the European Union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights: ‘Human dignity is inviolable. It must be respected and protected.’ Of course, but I’m also aware that it is sometimes ignored.
For a catalogue for an exhibition at De Zonnehof centre for modern art in Amersfoort my mother-in-law (her handwriting is beautiful) copied the Charter of the United Nations by hand and it was printed in its entirety. Image and text stood alongside each other. The way I see it is that the representation of the innermost world is analogous to the setting down of our responsibilities towards fellow humans and the rights they enjoy. Thought is organised in art; behaviour in the administration of justice.
I made Lonely feelings on landing and There is no song about it. They are linked by the theme of America’s settlers, though this is not visually explicit.
At some point I purchased a little book written in 1845, the Emigrant’s Guide, a manual published in London. It offered advice and instructions for those venturing to America: choice of ship, rations, clothes, conduct during the voyage and information about what to do on arrival, what time the train leaves, choice of hotel, where to find the channel with steamboats and the doctor. One chapter is headed ‘Lonely feeling on landing’ and was written for those who were confronted with the consequences of their decision to leave their homeland and arrived as aliens in great hordes. Between 1850 and 1890, 28 million people emigrated from Europe. I have a book by the Danish photographer/journalist Jacob Riis, who took photos of the overcrowded conditions in the slums of New York and wrote a book on the subject: How the Other Half Lives.
Lonely feelings on landing is a squatting figure with an outstretched leg that resembles the work I made during a stay at a former monastery in Fontevraud in 1984. This figure has a single arm, which supports it on the ground. This is unnecessary for the equilibrium, but I wanted the figure to touch the ground behind it again, before leaving the ground for good. While modelling the stone for the other sculpture I remembered a line I had noted down from a Native American song: ‘There is no song about it.’ I imagined how the dumbfounded Indians must have watched the arrival of the hordes of people who overran America in such a short space of time and said to each other in despair: ‘There is no song about it.’ When I rediscovered the song it turned out to be about something quite different: it sang the praises of the beauty of animals.
Throughout the summer I worked on a commission for the Peace Palace: a large, seated cat that stands 3.30 metres tall and has a long, straight tail. The sculpture Witness was to stand opposite the entrance to the new library, to the side of the Peace Palace. Precisely on the other side of the historic building stands a small statue of Erasmus, the Humanist, high on a pedestal, a work realized by Hildo Krop in 1938. I didn’t want to make a human figure, because that would personify law. Law is practised and is a public affair. The cat is a domestic pet and this befits the law, which applies to everyone individually. This animal can see in the dark and there in the Peace Palace it is the watchful onlooker and witness to everything that we humans do not want to see. I could not help thinking about Alice’s cat, which leads her to the other side of the looking-glass and back again. Something else that played on my mind was the Egyptian cat-headed goddess Bastet, who accompanies the dead into the world of darkness. Visitors to the library who look out through the window are confronted eye to eye with the cat.
I visited Vasily Wells to be interviewed by him for the catalogue of an exhibition at S.M.A.K., the Municipal Museum of Contemporary Art in Ghent. The text by Vasily Wells from 1989 was in the form of a diary entry that could be used as a display text. Now I wanted to capture a conversation in which I could contradict myself without creating misunderstandings. I wanted an in-depth interview, but one that stuck to the surface. I wanted to justify my artistic calling by talking about what it is like to be an artist. I had to be the one who asked the questions and I didn’t want any why or wherefore questions. By talking about something I wanted to show how the subject is transformed by being talked about. This also applies for the sculpture, which is transformed by means of its observation. What I wanted to say was that nothing is fixed and certain.
I staged an exhibition in Tokyo at the home of Mr. Moriyama, a house designed by the architect duo SANAA. I bought a chair this duo had designed with a back shaped like the ears of a hare. I wrote an article about this project for the Japanese architecture magazine Kenchiku Note. I travelled through the Japanese countryside by train and noticed how comfortably life nestled in the world. ‘The landscape comprehends how people want to live,’ I wrote.
Using gold-coloured aluminium tubing that is usually meant for hanging net curtains in a beautiful room I made a chain-like structure composed of 19 interlinked rings with a diameter of 1.10 metres. The sculpture emerges when the assembled rings are in balance. The way the rings find a point of equilibrium is different every time, so the sculpture is constantly mutating. The sculpture topples over easily, and it is a joyous moment when this happens. It has fallen over in my atelier on countless occasions and I have reconstructed it with pleasure every time. The tinkling sound is exactly like that of bracelets on a dancer’s wrist, but louder. It reminded me of the Cuban song ‘Guantanamera’, a dance melody. I had made an armband for a dancing giantess! The association with a giantess introduces the notional possibility of the sculpture operating on a different scale, as with the work that bears the title 40.000 km. For those who know this is the girth of the earth, the squatting figure crouched on a round cannonball on the ground is a giant sitting on the earth.
I wondered whether the song ‘Guantanamera’ had anything to do with the Guantanamo Bay that features in the news every day. It turns out to be the name for a girl from the little village of Guantanamo. The song takes the melody of a dance that was brought by the Spanish colonists and sings the praises of the girl Guajira from Guantanamo while she dances. The song became an anthem of Cuban resistance and remains a popular dance tune today. I gave my sculpture the title Guantanamera. This historical, political dimension had made an impression on me and I wanted to associate my work with this tale. Later on I became troubled by this link with traditions and ideologies. The sculpture had to be free, so I changed the title to Follow me.