Henk Visch in conversation with Tim Van Laere

as published in the catalog accompanying the solo exhibition “there were no empty chairs”, in Galerie TIM VAN LAERE from 11 March to 24 April 2021

(publication TIM VAN LAERE BOOKS)

TVL: This is your sixth solo exhibition in the gallery, the first in our new space. You decided to intervene in the space and to fit translucent curtains to the windows. This is also the first time since the opening of this space that the walls of the exhibition rooms are mostly empty. It is only in the smaller space on the left that you are displaying a series of your drawings. In addition, there are only two sculptures that connect with the wall: Dancing Bear and Exit. What motivated this choice?

HV: The new gallery space inspired me to think about the relation between space and my sculptures. This begins with the floor I walk on, as part of the earth’s surface, which is infinite and therefore unlimited. In this exhibition I want to emphasize the vastness. That is why the walls are empty, bare and untouched. A translucent curtain has been hung in the high windows, which start on the floor and draw the outside in so brutally, with no threshold. The streetscape, which attracts attention like a video work, is thus kept outside and is of no importance. Not only the floor, but also the scent and shine, the texture of the walls, the temperature, the acoustics and the light determine the layout of the exhibition. Everything that is to be found in the space relates to the body, in an adventurous manner and to an unknown extent, because the walking body is in motion. Sculpture frees the body from the ‘discipline of standing still’ dictated by the central perspective of classical painting, which is part of the Christian culture of obedience. The body is alive when it is in motion. And the exhibition is like the stage at the opera, of which Pavarotti said that that is where the story becomes reality.

Dancing Bear shows a figure that is tied to a wall with several coloured threads and that looks into the space, turned towards the viewer and away from the wall. Exit, a work from 1991, hangs on the same wall. When I made this work, I was thinking of Raphael’s The Liberation of Saint Peter. This fresco in the Vatican features a grid and it is only because of this that the image of the prison and the prisoner emerges. Strangely enough, we long for another world. Harry Potter has to go through a wall to reach his magical world; Alice has to step into a mirror and run down a rabbit hole to get to the realm of which she is queen. The wall with the grid is the obstacle behind which things happen that are fantastic and anarchistic, and where all representations lead us astray: here we are in the space of life in all its reality and fullness. Dancing Bear provokes our stable world view.

TVL: Your works possess an introverted poetic force that is, I find, characteristic of your works. It touches a certain chord in the viewer that is very personal and rather difficult to describe. It is almost like a song or melody that can evoke a range of associations without us being able to say what it means exactly. Do you also recognize this feeling in the making of your work?

HV: To me the making process is an intimate affair, intimate with my body, my hands and my time. Something that I don’t know yet and that takes place and imposes itself under my hands and before my eyes. In retrospect, I remember a time full of pleasant contact. During the work, a lot of things are not clear, but that’s alright, because later I can see where I was in my thoughts and then I can see the work. Then I can think about it, whatever I want, because in retrospect everything is possible and allowed. There is never just one version of something: every story becomes part of the work of art. I then choose a title from among the many notes I wrote down daily.

TVL: Your titles are often quite enigmatic. Although they are often very telling, they don’t describe the piece itself. Rather, they create even more associations. The title of this exhibition is also enigmatic: There were no empty chairs. Where does this title come from?

HV: The title of a work arises afterwards because language is a product of retrospection. Language introduces chronology, determines a beginning and an end, and in fact destroys the simultaneity of the various sensory impressions evoked by the work of art and makes the work of art into a unity. That’s why the title can’t coincide with the work of art, not even as a reference or designation. It is something extra that makes it possible to discuss the artwork. The work of art is different: it arises at a synergistic moment when all kinds of experiences exist simultaneously.

In the game of ‘musical chairs’, when the music stops, players have to look for a chair. But there is always one chair missing and a contest ensues for the last remaining chair. The loser is eliminated and must leave the game! The Doorman lets him out and tells him he doesn’t have to come back. The Doorman is an important title for me. It personifies power and social injustice. Faced with such a figure, people know when they are excluded and when not. The Doorman is the well-trained security guard who can refuse participation in reality and leave you behind in the harsh world of isolation and survival. 

It is not without reason that The Doorman is at the heart of the exhibition, in a central position. This work determines the spatial arrangement: a circle of works takes shape around it. I initially wanted the figure to rotate slowly, but then decided that of all the rotating figures, it should stand still. Titles are important for me to say goodbye to the work. 

The title of the exhibition has to do with a documentary about Europe in which a sportsman, a runner, relates that he became European champion in Athens and that the entire stadium had cheered and shouted with joy and people had stood on their seats. The noise had been deafening and he was totally overwhelmed. In the documentary he looks around in amazement at the then empty stadium and utters the title of my exhibition, ‘There were no empty chairs’. Sport and sculpture share an obsession with the body: in every competition, the physical ecstasy is passed on to the public, and something similar happens in my exhibition, although to a lesser extent and perhaps in a different form. I think that the meaning of a work of art can only be described in terms of pleasure, and that is a product of ecstasy.

TVL: During the mounting of the exhibition, you talked a lot about the Bob Dylan song ‘Key West’. We’re both fascinated by Bob Dylan. Does this obsession with music also creep into your work?

HV: Certainly! It’s a long story. I first heard Bob Dylan singing ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ on one early Sunday morning in 1963, I quietly took a small light-blue transistor radio from the buffet in the living room of my parents’ house to my bedroom and put it under my pillow so as to hear the bass better. It was tuned to Radio Luxembourg. I was 13 years old and listening to the very pirate radio station Bob Dylan sings about in ‘Key West’in 2020! There were several pirate stations but not all of them were engraved in small black letters on the big round dial used to tune to the stations. Radio Luxembourg was a password that gave access to music I wanted to hear! It was a gift. The next day I bought the single. Since then, Bob Dylan has never left me and I always found something in his songs that had happened to me. ‘Key West’is on his latest album. He is now 79 and can see his end approaching. He sings about letting go of the world with abandon. He means it: ‘I made up my mind, I give myself to you.’This loose, sentimental attachment to the world is nothing but the beginning of detachment. He sketches a world in which scraps of impressions blend with historical facts and reflections. All this is made concrete and local in Key West, the last of a series of islands at the tip of Florida, in the direction of Cuba in the Gulf of Mexico. In the song, it seems to be the perfect place to say goodbye to the world and Dylan does so in so many words: ‘Key West is the place to be if you are looking for immortality, Key West is paradise divine.’ At the same time, the lyrics describe places worth seeing and they mention streets named after people who lived there, as in an advertising brochure for tourists. The everyday banality of life and serious reflections on taking your leave from life dissolve into one another. I would love to take a walk in Key West. It seems that death is the song’s muse. 

TVL: The work Return is a real masterpiece of yours. It’s possible to make out a human figure, but it seems to be engaged in a process of transformation, taking on all sorts of forms that the viewer can take in by moving around the sculpture. The experiences of the human body are also a central theme throughout your oeuvre. In an interview you once described the human body as a kind of archive of memories and experiences. The process of sculpting is also a very intuitive process in which you pass on your own energy, memories and thought processes to the material of a sculpture. The patina of this sculpture is also very special. And as with all good sculptures, your works are also about gravity. Is it fair to say that your figures always seem to be searching for a certain balance?

HV: Return is like a congealed lava flow, a river without banks with the physicality of the landscape by which it was formed. The landscape is the product of geographic changes, of evolution. Humankind walks across the vastness of the earth: the body is not only an archive of traumas, of pain and joy acquired in childhood, but it is also an archive of traumas of shifting continents, volcanic eruptions, lightning bolts, tropical forests, floods and thousands of years of moonless darkness. Every place on the body is a tourist site, where histories are told.

The patina of Return is the result of cold-applied chemicals. It will take years to achieve the same effect as a patina created in half an hour by heating it with fire. The ‘cold patina’ results in a constantly changing colouring of the surface. Return facesupwards from a lying position. Something recumbent automatically finds its balance, but something erect has to be balanced. Without balance, the tiger can’t stalk, the cat can’t jump. Balance is the balance of the waddling gait, of the old man, balance is a prerequisite for any movement. The dying man falls over and is carried away.

TVL: Sculpture is also a matter of filling in a space, dividing up a space. As a sculptor, you’re highly aware of the space your sculptures occupy. In Enigma of the Western World, you even incorporated polished stainless-steel globes that deliberately integrate the environment into the work. 

HV: That’s exactly it. Enigma of the Western World is a group and my work comprises homogeneous and heterogeneous groups. This is a homogeneous group in which the bodies are functional and have the same purpose, which is to stay with the group and strengthen the group. The shiny globe is like a new organ that explores the metaphysical dimension with which art has long been connected. I first saw the word enigma when, as a 20-year-old, I read the title of a painting by Giorgio de Chirico in a book, L’enigma di un pomeriggio d’autunno. The enigma in Chirico’s work is what is not understood, but also the wonder or riddle which can be both ominous and liberating. The empty squares in his work are fascinating. When I saw his paintings, I wanted to make work that could stand on one of Chirico’s empty squares. I had never managed that until now. By neutralizing the emptiness of the square and by placing a sculpture there, the metaphysics becomes superfluous and the square becomes accessible. 

TVL: Many people see the human figure as the defining characteristic of your oeuvre. I myself am fascinated by your installations, which I believe are also very typical of your oeuvre. Besides you and Jimmie Durham, I know of no one who can make this type of work. I have the impression that these works are about a moment that you experienced or are a statement that you want to make. Can you tell us more about the works Who Stands Between Me and Chaos and Monument to Commemorate Sympathy?

HV: In the late 1970s I studied Marxism with my mother: I attended lectures and many books were published at the time with pictures of the Russian Revolution of 1917. I became captivated by Russian agitprop, propaganda through agitation. The fact that the visual arts and artists had been involved in the revolution was intriguing. I was part of a street-theatre group from ‘s-Hertogenbosch. That’s when I first met Vasily Wells, a poet, an idler from St Petersburg. Tatlin’s work the Tower (1919), lifted onto a cart and drawn by horses through the streets, was my favourite work. It inspired me to make De Brug, my first spatial work, in 1977. Agitprop opened my eyes to social thinking at a time when I was still a dreamy outsider. This paved the way to my first exhibition, titled Getimmerde Tekeningen. My artistry has always been connected with, and certainly grew out of, this political awareness, the idea that the world is a network of ideological connections which is constantly changing and which also needs to be changed. The Memorials, which are all constructed, composite works, are a result of this. I can accept my figures, which isolate themselves as objects in space, within the context of what my Memorials evoke, concern for the happiness of our fellow human beings. Who Stands Between Me and Chaos, Monument to Commemorate Sympathy, Monologue, Springtime, La Dynamique inconnue de l’imagination and Homo Universalis 2021, but also Nezahualcoyotl are all examples of this. Homo Universalis 2021 is vaguely reminiscent of Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing in which man fits precisely in a circle: the Renaissance ideal of completeness, totality, in which the general, the universal is recognizable in the specific and vice versa. The view of humankind has changed, of course, built up out of ideological remnants which, in a state of infinite expansion and differentiation, leave behind uncertainties. Homo Universalis 2021 contains parts of other works, various small objects which, while retaining their specificity, form the homo universalis. This fragmentation is the theme. Tim, art is about the fullness of life where nothing is excluded and closed off or categorized: everything exists in a relation that can fall apart at any moment. So, for me, the starting point of a work of art is anywhere and everywhere, at random. My frame of reference encompasses all phenomena, all signs of human behaviour that play a role in life, but also the weather, night and day, breakfast, headaches, friendship, the news, philosophical outpourings, the certainties of educated people, puberty problems, a poet’s biography or war.

TVL: It is clear from our conversations that you know a lot about a wide range of subjects. This knowledge clearly leaves traces in your work, as in Nezahualcoyotl, a title that refers to the Aztec king, poet and philosopher of the same name. What appeals to you in this type of mystical historical figure and how do you translate this into a sculpture?

HV: When I was working on this piece, I was reading Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History by Eduardo Galeano. Details play a leading role in his book. The world of details is incredibly fascinating. Galeano rewrote the history of the colonizer in South America in order to unmask and break the grip of colonization on the Latin American continent. This book is a collection of stories in the form of a yearly calendar with a historical event or legend for each day. Seemingly unimportant anecdotes from history are inscribed in the book’s poetic narrative tradition, debunking the official colonial narrative through 365 details. The death of Nezahualcoyotl, which is included in his ‘calendar of human history’, took place on 7 June 1472, 20 years before Columbus set foot ashore in 1492. At the time, Nezahualcoyotl was as old as I am now. He left 110 children. He was a king who built a dam in a lake, laid out a flower garden and wrote poetry. I miss this subtle blend of insight and sensibility in our current kings and leaders. Václav Havel, the president of the Czech Republic (1989–2003), was an exception. He saw no categorical difference between politics and culture: cultural awareness was a source of political awareness. For him, a poetic frame of mind was necessary to do politics. In the same way, political awareness is necessary to make art. I have an incredibly beautiful memory of Havel, the poet-president, visiting my exhibition at Galerie MXM in Prague in the autumn of 1992.

A striking feature of the work Nezahualcoyotl is the cast-iron clock that can be rung with a cord; anyone sleeping must wake up. The work has everything that belongs to a ruler: agility, solidity, the story and colour. But also monumentality, which is meticulously interwoven with insignificance and decay. Vulnerability and the lack of any outline complete the king. The sound is his age. 

TVL: In this exhibition you also often refer to literature, as in De Mantel, which references the story of the same name by Nikolai Gogol (‘The Overcoat’). Gogol tells the story of Akaki Akakievich, a government clerk who is teased by his fellow clerks until one day, after saving up for a long time, he buys a new cloak and finds happiness again. At least, until the cloak is stolen and he then roams the streets of St Petersburg in the freezing cold, returning from his wanderings more dead than alive. What does De Mantel represent for you?

HV: The work is a small figure with a coat, a coat made from long, shiny, curly, jet-black hair. It is a sleepwalker for whom the night contains, as for Akaki, the shadows of the nameless, the unknown. Gogol called these shadows soundless, silent ships. That could also have been the title of the work. I agree with Gogol that the transformation of something real into a phantom is the moment of art. However, in the presentation of the work of art, in the exhibition, the phantom becomes part of reality again, where it lives on. 

 TVL: You also often write about your works, sometimes using the pseudonym Vasily Wells to do so. You frequently engage in conversations through correspondences. It seems to be a kind of game that leads to a certain mystification of your work and person. What appeals to you in this game of false scents? 

HV: Vasily Wells is my alter ego (whose initials are those of my car). I haven’t heard from him for ages. I don’t even know where he lives anymore either, he has stopped answering my messages. I don’t know whether he has left St Petersburg and is now eating baguette in Lyon or walking around his favourite museum of naive art in Nice or whether he is in prison. Having an alter ego is strange. You can treat him rather arbitrarily, it seems: conjuring him before forgetting him. He says what I don’t say. He can stare out the window of his small flat in St Petersburg, read Nabokov’s Speak, Memory for the fifth time, listen to Maria Callas or call me. The alter ego is a tool that allows me to manifest myself in the world the way I want. But entering reality in this way is like taking a detour. Since I recently entered into a direct and open relation with the world, detours no longer appeal to me. I just follow the highway signs.

(published by TIM VAN LAERE BOOKS)

as published in the catalog on the occasion of the Henk Visch exhibition “there were no empty chairs”, in Galerie TIM VAN LAERE from 11 March to 24 April 2021

(published by TIM VAN LAERE BOOKS)