Posts Tagged 'artists'

Little big man

Martijn van Berkum, Svolvaer — From my fifth until my 16th I set out every year with my parents on a holiday trip to France. We had huge a orange tent and a station car with a metal construction on top that my father filled with a one meter pile of plastic chairs, a table and loads of toys and other junk. Then a bright blue plastic cover went over it and the whole thing was fastened with a couple of meters of neon orange rope. Squeaking under the tremendous weight it was carrying, the car would sink around twenty centimeters and it’s a miracle the axes never broke on the way.

Inside the car every cubic centimeter was filled, minus a small space exactly matching the dimensions of my body. There I would sit for twelve long agonizing hours while temperatures were slowly crawling over thirty degrees the further we approached our destination. To add insult to injury, I had to sit with my feet up all the way, because the space in between the front and back chair was exactly large enough to fit in a cooling box. A light brown cooling box, with a dark brown lid on top and round corners, the loyal travel companion of every average Western family in the eighties.

Now, if you were to travel today to Lofoten, in the far north of Norway, and visit a tiny town called Svolvaer (a trip I can highly recommend), you will find at the sailboat harbor in the center a cooling box exactly similar to the one my parents owned. The colors are different, a soft pale orange box and a bright orange frame, but the design is just the same. It was put there in 2004 by the artists Elmgreen & Dragset for the LIAF 04 (Lofoten International Art Festival) exhibition.

Elmgreen & Dragset
Tiergarten, Berlin, May 21th, 1991

LIAF is a biennale and therefore the 2004 edition collected the “best of” biennale material: Henrik Håkansson, Michael Elmgreen & Ingar Dragset and Pipilotti Rist, among others, all Nordic or international art heroes. Being the biggest exhibition in Norway, together with Momentum in Moss, it is rather strange to be located in Svolvaer, which accounts for only 4000 inhabitants. Why organize such a huge event in such a remote area? I’m not sure whether the 2004 edition managed to answer that question and hitherto, every second year discussions about the legitimacy of LIAF’s being at Lofoten surfaces again. The Elmgreen & Dragset piece always plays a central role in that discussion and given the number of occasions it has been vandalized one can argue whether it is a successful public art work.

On the other hand, I could also argue that the merits of the work are super interesting. It takes up the ready-mades by Duchamp and puts it into the context of a growing local tourist industry and the romantics of outdoor camping. Being casted in bronze and over painted to look exactly like a plastic box, it issues questions around mass production, uniqueness and prize vs value. But these are very much ‘white cube issues’ and don’t speak very much on a site-specific level, let alone that they’ll mange to answers questions around the legitimacy of LIAF at Lofoten. Why should inhabitants be so interested in such boring questions about what art is? And why should they care about international artists making statements about their tourist industry? in a way they don’t care about and financed with a chunk load of public money that could also be put in maintaining local fisher industries or other public matters. Could that be too big a discussion for such a small art work?

Despite the arguments that surround the work, the fierce debates and misunderstandings, the cooling box has a quality, or rather, it has developed a certain quality. Each and every year the box gets kicked into the water; it’s been mocked, debated, covered by snow, attacked by storms, loved and hated. Nonetheless, it survived and I admire the little fellah for its resilience. It’s small size, apparent vulnerability and triviality turn it into a perfect actor in the debates surrounding public art and LIAF’s legitimacy. It’s a chameleon that can shift from representing two internationally acclaimed artists, to being a controversial public art work, to an expensive solid bronze object, and to being an innocent, beaten little child, abandoned by its spiritual parents and left at its own devices. In other words: it’s a little big man.

I love these schizophrenic characteristics the work embodies. But what fascinates me even more is the fact that all the violence and critique the work has endured over the past years yields one crucial result: the much sought-after legitimacy. The box is battered and bruised, but still stands proudly on the jetty by the water. It has earned its place there and has become a proper citizen of Svolvaer.

A report about LIAF 08, which ended a little while ago will follow shortly.


Stealing beauty

Martijn van Berkum, Rotterdam — Busy, busy weeks. But I have to squeeze in this article since the art work in question is one of the funniest and most intelligent works I have seen the last months.

Stealing beauty is a 20 minutes video art work by the Israel-born artist Guy Ben-Ner. It’s a parody on typical sitcom soap opera’s on television, staged in different IKEA stores over the world. We follow the fictive lives of Ben-Ner, his wife and their two children as they struggle with problems that are drenged with moral and cultural issues. The camera is put up without authorisation of the IKEA stores and people are walking by, looking into the camera and intervening in the imagined lifes of the Ben-Ners, while price tags change from euro to dollar to yen.

The real Ben-Ner and his family themselves have migrated to the United States and in a very comical way the video issues problems of migration, of trying to fit in, trying to adapt to a Western way of living. “Honey, I’m hohooome”, is the first thing Ben says when he arrives in an IKEA living room. But their foreign accents, and their hilarious comments on the peculiarities of Western-American culture reveal that they don’t fit in precisely. References in their texts to Marxism give a hint, for instance when the children yell “children of all nations unite” when they are arguing with their father. The want for dissolving into a collective, symbolized by the globalized IKEA consumer ideal, is apparently stronger than maintaining your own identity.

For more information, please check this great article in the New York Magazine Art Review.  

A four minute trailer of the video:

Now, lets talk about football

Martijn van Berkum, Rotterdam — To stand in the middle of the arena and let the cheers and buzz of the crowd run through you; to feel the grass, control your breathing, know where your teammates are, blindly, at any time; to experience the game as if it were in slow motion, seeing every action before it happens. That’s when you truly inhabit the game; that is Zinedine Zidane in his best days.

When I was contemplating on an article that would discuss all those great art works dealing with football as subject, the one underneath, ‘Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait’, stuck to me. It is a feature film by the artists Philip Parreno and Douglas Gordon. In 2005 they filmed football player Zinedine Zidane during the match Real Madrid – Villa Real with seventeen film camera’s, real-time, 90 minutes long.

It stands out from other ‘football art’ because, rather than turning the sport into a metaphor, it examines the essential quality of the game: a highly concentrated site where performance, narrative, sound and movement interplay with each other. The video, in relation to that, is a symphony and dramatization of these settings. It filters out all disturbing elements and focuses on Zidane moving, breathing, scanning the game and playing the ball.
In complete… control.

Fragment from ‘Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait’ by Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno

Those few occasions when I really excelled in my work, I remember having that feeling of complete control over all the circumstances. I’d reckon that in a football match, in order to succeed and win, you would need that feeling all the time. Therefore, a field, or a stadium, isn’t just the stage for a match as such, it also functions as a setting that meets all the conditions required for gaining that complete control and filters out everything that frustrates it. That’s the setting of Parreno and Gordon’s film about Zidane.

“I can hear someone shift around in their chair… I can hear someone coughing… I can hear someone whisper in the ear of the person next to them… I can imagine that I can hear the ticking of a watch”
– Zinedine Zidane

Examining these circumstances reminds me of some of the great works by the early conceptualists and performance artists in the sixties. They too focused on the characteristics of their environment: Bruce Naumann measured his studio, Douglas Huebler photographed the sky over different cities and Dan Graham described his audience in one of his performances. ‘Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait’ fascinates me because it captures all those conditions in one work and celebrates Zidane as one of the best football players ever, for being able to master and control all those circumstances and excel.

Yes, the Dutch do great at the current European Championship and I am absolutely thrilled! But this first tournament without Zidane… I guess I still have to get used to that…

Please find more fragments from ‘Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait’ here, here and his most gorgeous action of the match here.

Alma Löw: Art in the woods

Trial and Error, Stockholm – Alma Löw is a private initiative, run by artist Marc Broos in the countryside in the western part of Sweden. It started ten years ago when Broos built 16 pavillions in the slopes by his home and began to invite artists.

Entrance to the pavillions

Without economical support from the region he still can’t offer the participants any compensation. But artists keep coming because of the ambition and energy level:  Annika von Hauswolf, Gilbert and George, Leif Elggren, Nathalie Djurberg , just to mention a few. And as an artist you get something that, at least not I am used to: You are not called to any meetings and you are not required to write or explain anything, because Broos only wants you to do one thing: Show us your art! 

Some of the 16 pavillions

This summer is the 10th anniversary and 30 artists have been invited. Artists Jörgen Svensson and Anna Persson have curated the 16 pavillions and Marc Broos the 10 rooms in the new art hall “Paleis Oranjestraat” (named after the street where he was born). 

Paleis Oranjestraat was built because, in an article, Marc Broos was called “King of his domain” and he thought that as King, he should have a palace. He bought a barn close by, rebuilt it into a maze of showrooms. There are also a seminar room, a workshop and, in the future, residencies for visiting artists.

Some interior views

If you travel in Sweden this summer to experience picturesque countryside and art, you don’t want to miss Alma Löw, which has got both. And if the weather happens to be bad, Marc Broos always provides the visitors with rubber boots.

Read more (in Swedish): VF NWT, DN,

Epitaph for Paul Cseplö

Po Hagström, Stockholm – About a village that didn’t recognize the value of art, and about the artist who painted anyway.

A dear friend of mine, artist Paul Cseplö, died May 12 after many years of leukemia.

When I was a child, Paul was the only artist in the small village where I grew up. He came to this northern part of Sweden with his family as a child, escaping the war in Hungary. Soon he began to paint this changing landscape and continued to do so for the rest of his life.

In our village art could be nice, but it was never considered valuable, and the artist himself was regarded as a queer fellow. Paul was told that posters were cheaper, so why buy paintings? This didn’t stop him though, he trusted in art as a force in itself and he knew what it could do. He proved to be right.
Despite people’s low esteem of art and strong opinions about his paintings, they still wanted his services. So when the old school was rebuilt to a hostel, Paul painted all the walls with scenes from nature – for free. And when they built a new dance floor, Paul painted its background. Not that he wouldn’t have appreciated something in return, and not necessarily monetary, but it always turned out to have been for free. And he kept painting for free for 30 years. Few places in this village are without the signature of Paul. Art is everywhere, in homes and the pizzeria, in offices and in boathouses, on trailers and in the old people’s home.
Did the village deserve this? I don’t think so. But Paul made a choice and he painted, and he made sure that art would be present everywhere.

According to Paul nothing really disappears, but this world still is a duller place now that he went off to wherever.

Robert Rauschenberg

Martijn van Berkum, Rotterdam — I step on my balance. It reads 70 kg. I step off and on again. Now it reads 65 kg. Much better. The difference: Robert Rauschenberg. I put aside his catalogue (it’s so heavy) and realise that this 635 pages monster still doesn’t cover his work altogether. How on earth can I weigh the intellectual, creative and visual influence he had on me?

* I think a painting is more like the real world if it’s made out of the real world *

For sure, I could describe his historic importance being one of the first postmodernist artists: looking at the world, at his environment, his country and culture, rather than looking at his canvas only. He was one of the first who brought back the world into art, “the return of the real”, to use Hal Foster’s famous phrase. I could brag on about the way his layered, mixed-media canvasses unfold the intense complexity of life. How they describe a new world of spectacle and entertainment, of chaos and uncertainty.

But that just won’t do it, at least not when such a giant passes away. So, instead, I will have to “return to my reality”. To the time when I had my own inspiring dialogues with Rauschenberg and that was, like so many of his admirers I’d reckon, when I entered the art academy.

Now this is a peculiar moment in life. You find yourself, for the first time ever, alone on unknown territory and just one question burned in my mind: what on earth am I going to do here? All frames of reference that had provided structure to my fragile young life so far were swept away. I had no clue about what art school was supposed to be; I had no clue of what was expected of me. So for want of something to cling to I bought a ridiculously big Rauschenberg catalogue. 635 pages, I thought, that should provide a long-term source of input.

* An empty canvas is full only if you want it to be full *

It’s quite striking, now I come to think of it. In need of order, of something to hold on to, I turned to an artist whose work could be described best as chaotic, layered and uncertain. What good would that do? Nevertheless, despite this paradox, what I needed wasn’t a “regime” of order and discipline to find my way into life at the academy. Instead, I was looking for something that would get me “out there”. What I needed was a Starship Entreprise, a vessel that would take me on a journey and explore unknown worlds and galaxies! And Rauschenberg turned out to be my Jean-Luc Picard: captain and spiritual guide through my private universe of possible artworks. And so we embarked on a journey.

The metaphor of the journey is crucial in this matter, because movement is the only way to discover what art has to offer. You need to touch, smell, look, create and produce heaps and heaps of mediocre drawings, failed silkscreen prints, attempted paintings and then you need to mix them, layer them, cut them up, glue them together, pile them, fold them, burn them, destroy them and start all over again. This dynamic and creative circle of life seems to describe exactly the attitude that Rauschenberg had towards art and that helped me to get through those first years in art school.

* People ask me, “Don’t you ever run out of ideas?” In the first place I don’t use ideas. Every time I have an idea it’s too limiting, and usually turns out to be a disappointment. But I haven’t run out of curiosity *

An actual count of Rauschenberg’s works could provide some clues about his giant production, so I pick up the catalogue again. After 160 pages I’ve counted 200 art works, leaving 475 pages still to go… In a rough estimation that would add up to around 800 works, which is, needless to say, merely a selection, put together 10 years ago. It’s a long shot, but perhaps Mr. Rauschenberg produced roughly 2000 works altogether. Divided by the 56 years of his professional career, that would account for 36 works a year. Slowly inching along myself, I barely manage to produce four projects a year. I guess I still got a long way to go…

* I don’t think there’s anything really wrong with influence because I think that one can use another man’s art as material either literally or just implying that they’re doing that, without it representing a lack of a point of view *

Robert Rauschenberg: a postmodern Da Vinci, dinosaur and space traveller, spiritual father of influence, creativity, inspiration and ‘point of view’.


There is no nature

Martijn van Berkum, Rotterdam — We cannot see nature. That’s my opinion because, the moment we see it, it becomes something different. Which makes me wonder, if I would continue this line of thought, is there such a thing as nature altogether?

What is nature, collapses the moment we start trying to understand it, study it, but also when we start looking at it and romanticise it. That’s where nature becomes culture, science, art, anything that fits into a human system of understanding and ordering the world: an idea. As such nature is nothing more than a philosophical fata morgana, a projection of the mind which dissolves the moment you touch it.

This collapse of nature however isn’t only an ontological issue – a dialectic of how our attempt to understand nature leads to the very destruction of that understanding. On the other hand, there is a very practical side to the ‘undoing’ of nature. It is the construction of a romantic idea of nature in art what makes go out there: lie on the beach, hike through mountains, stroll through forests and turning them into parks, leisure areas. In fact, in our being with nature we re-enact, or reproduce, this romantic conception of what nature is to us, hence the term ‘recreation’. A process in which we reshape nature into a cultivated landscape, conditioned for leisure and entertainment.

Science perhaps, is even more destructive. If art provides the ideas for reshaping nature, science provides the instruments. It’s our very knowledge of nature which enables us to control it; to parcel out an entire country (the Netherlands) into a conglomerate of urban, industrial, agricultural and recreational zones. Not to mention the environmental problems caused by science: global warming, pollution etc.

Obviously art plays a very dubious role in this process. It represents and shapes our admiration for nature and in doing so, sets in motion the above mentioned destructive events. This Bermuda triangle of landscape, art and science in which nature disappears, is the subject of the work of the Finnish artist Ilkka Halso. His photographs are an ironic celebration of the complete and final victory of science and art over nature. The grandeur of his landscapes brings to mind the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich. With a crucial difference however: nature in Friedrich’s work is mystical, wild and powerful; humans, on the other hand, are small and vulnerable. In Halso’s work nature is powerful as well. Science, however – this seems to be Halso’s message – has superbly overpowered nature and brought this conflict to an apocalyptic conclusion:
There is no nature.
For more information, check this great article by Jeroen Boomgaard, head of the Professorship of Art and Public Space, of the Rietveld Academy.

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