239 Things

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

239 Things

The immense hangar, an old converted bread factory, is lined with market stalls where families sell their old wares: junk that, pulled from the bottom of cellars and the dark corners of garages and cupboards, momentarily regains value, however slight. Hands grope through second hand clothing, mostly chain bought and cheap, grouped in slightly musty smelling endless piles.

At the far end of a table covered in yellowing art books, old editions of classics frayed at the edges, and stacks of thriller pulp, sits a large folder. It opens to a collection of drawings, watercolours and sketches that are mostly abstract and frantically scrawled. I look up and catch the gaze of a tall, melancholy man with long mousy brown hair and silver rimmed circular spectacles. With a nervous excitement, the seller explains that these are the remains of his artist days that he sells alongside the used books. I buy an odd, demonic depiction of a creature drawn with Indian ink over a printed pencil drawing.

One late night sitting around my dinner table, a friend notices the ink drawing on the wall, and after taking a closer look, asks if it’s a genuine Han van Meegeren, the great master forger. As it turns out, the backdrop to the demon creature is a copy of Han van Meegeren’s most prolific pieces, namely ‘Hertje’ (or ‘Little Deer’), reproductions of which hung on the walls of thousands of Dutch homes in the 1920’s. But van Meegeren’s style was caught in the past and completely irrelevant in a world of Cubism, Dadaism, and Surrealism, and he was derided by the art world for his lack of originality.

At the start of the 20th century, detecting a forged painting was a fairly simple process: a swab of alcohol was wiped over the dubious canvas, a needle carefully inserted and checked for any oily residue. This would be the mark of a forgery, as an age-old canvas would be thoroughly hardened and deliver a clean needle.

Han van Meegeren bought cheap 17th century paintings to scrape off the original painting. Instead of oil, he used an early form of plastic named Bakelite to mix his pigments into paint. He would then bake his freshly painted antique canvas until the plastic fully hardened, and finished the simulated aging process by rolling the canvas and cracking its surface. Voila, instant Dutch Master!

Relatively few paintings by Johannes Vermeer have survived the ages. When in the 1930s a series of paintings began emerging from his supposed unknown religious period, they were eagerly snapped up by collectors, including the Rotterdam museum Boijmans van Beuningen, who paid what would today be more than 4,5 million Euros for Vermeer’s Supper at Emmaus. The painting, revered by art critics as Vermeer's masterpiece, was nothing more than a carefully executed van Meegeren.

Having foiled the art world that rejected him, van Meegeren lived a wealthy and lavish life all through the Second World War. But his life of decadence was disrupted when, after the end of the war, a Vermeer was found in Nazi henchman Herman Göring’s largely misappropriated art collection, and was traced back to van Meegeren, who refused to name his source. The outrage was immense: how dare he allow Dutch national treasure to fall in the hands of a Nazi? He was arrested for treason, a felony that at the time was punishable by death.

His plea to innocence was simple. He couldn’t possibly be a traitor, because the painting he had sold to Göring was not a Vermeer, but a forgery by his own hand. A sensational trial was carried out in a courtroom hung full of van Meegeren’s fakes. The art world was stupefied – how could they have been so utterly mistaken – and he was deemed to be a liar.

A space was cleared within the courthouse and fashioned into an artist’s studio where, in the presence of reporters and court officials, van Meegeren was summoned to forge his last Vermeer. This proof of innocence transformed him into a national hero, and he was championed for his trickery of the art establishment, but most of all for being the man who swindled Göring. Despite the many millions he cheated out of his customers, van Meegeren was only sentenced to a year of confinement for fraud.

As a free man, Van Meegeren passed away from a heart attack before he could begin his prison sentence, and after his death, his paintings became so desired that van Meegeren forgeries began to flood the market.

My own Hertje still hangs on my wall, covered by the market man’s inky black drawing. Is he still no longer an artist? A failed artist can become a most tragic creature, overcome by vanity, envy, and consumed by bitterness. But Han van Meegeren’s exclusion from the art world led him to what is probably the most extensive art scam ever. “But sir, I'm sure about one thing: if I die in jail they will just forget all about it. My paintings will become original Vermeers once more. I produced them not for money but for art's sake.”

Still from The Brain That Wouldn't Die

During her first chemistry lesson with Professor Allio, who has a huge angioma covering much of his face in a way that made it difficult to guess which was the birth mark and which was the unblemished skin; she learnt the transition of water in different phases.

The transition takes form between solid, liquid and gaseous states of matter, and in rare cases, plasma. Those different states of matter suggest the process of creativity typical of an artist, where ideas often start as blurry images and finish with a solid body of work.

This blurry image, roughly organic, can be compared to an intangible substance almost with the consistence of plasma,in terms of a unique condition of matter, which doesn’t have a definite shape or a definitive volume unless in a container.

In the paranormal field the ectoplasmic phenomena is associated with hauntings and it is understood that it has been a slime-like substance excreted by mediums during trances.

All those transformations from one matter to another could have several affinities with the gestation of an idea until its materialization: during the process of creativity, an artist passes through several complex stalemates: she gropes, she calls herself to question, she can get obsessed, she can switch back and forth between several ideas and she can get truly confused. Exactly during those transitions, the work starts to take form, even if it’s just a rough sketch. This itinerary, which fluctuates through several states of mind, gives an essential mobility to the concept.

Nevertheless each artist has her/his own way of experimentation and unfortunately, what it is visible is always the final stage and a final body of work rather than the uncertainty and the confusion. The backstage of most of the artist’s studio is hermetic and makes it almost impossible to deduce any linear theory about the experimentation. Can we therefore say that maybe artists and mediums have something in common because neither have any rational explication that can explain their conception?

Bruce Lee says “Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”

Being shapeless means for her not being stuck on a fixed point, position or protocol but rather avoiding the safest places and resisting formalisation. Bruce Lee’s words makes her pensive. As an artist, she feels that she has in her hand a double-edged sword that sometimes she doesn’t know how to handle. She feels split between a certain free form daily life and the duty to follow a strict discipline. She knows that she needs some routine to progress in her work but at the same time she is afraid of unnecessary repetitions. Nevertheless she repeats in her mind, almost as a mantra, some statement in which she wants to believe: make mistakes, make risks happen, learn in a wrong way, be convertible, don’t care about ending points, use your non-knowledge as a starting point, use raw feelings and affirm you are an artist, even if people don’t truly trust you when you say that you are an artist without being a painter.

She wonders, are they the advantage points of not belonging to any pre-packaged society category? She wants to believe in this freedom in a conscious manner by cleaning up all stereotypes, a desire which recalls the opposition repeatedly mentioned between Scientific’s rationality and artist’s irrationality. When she is falling asleep this feeling becomes almost a vertigo, especially if she is sitting in a chair trying to resist sleep. When she is in this state, between being awake and falling asleep, she experiences a certain floating sensation that is like being physically in a place, which is notcompletely a real place. From her chair, her wall looks too aseptic, almost like that greenish tone typical colour of a waiting room. She feels strange, balancing like the bubble in the tube of a spirit level that is trying to stay straight.

This uncertain condition of reverie between a state of being and state of non-being, has been a crucial stage in the history of chemistry. In the early 1860s, the German organist chemist Friedrich Kekulé awoke suddenly being able to discern the ring structure of benzene because he dreamt of a snake swallowing its own tail. Similarly, Dimitri Mendeleev, chemist and inventor who created his own version of the periodic table of elements, after three days and three nights without sleep, fell into a profound slumber, from which he awoke eventually able to see the pattern in the form of a table of regular properties.

Valentina Pini, Stick, 2014,

Liquid, equilibrium and dream are three mysterious elements indirectly connected. A transparent liquid can hide a strong invisible power, a poison, a drug or a magic fluid. Equilibrium is highly related to our consciousness or awareness consider that in medical terminology we experience and talk about as labyrinthitis, an infection that can affect our physical equilibrium, which is in turn regulated by a special liquid in our ear. It is a mechanism that can be compared to the functioning of a spirit level. Dreams are dreams and they don’t have any limits, and it is interesting to remember that for a long time, alchemists speculated about what material dreams consisted of and without any evidence, they thought, “dreams were made out of some kind of gas, cloud, or superfine fluid, subject to rapid diffusion,but also capable, as is a gas, of gathering and lingering.”

By coincidence, I stumbled upon a big slide archive that contained more than six hundred old Kodachrome slides. The owner, a blonde lady, who I estimated to be her forties, and who I previously contacted about picking up some vintage audio equipment, saw me looking at the big pile of yellow squared boxes and asked me, ‘Are you interested in this photography stuff?’

‘Yes I am very interested!’ Inside my hart almost stopped, knowing these boxes must be full of slides.

‘Okay, you can take them,’ she replied, ‘the person who was supposed to pick them up never replied.'

I continued the conversation and explained that as an artist, I work with found footage. She replied that she understood the importance of saving cultural heritage. Happy as a child, I left with my newfound treasures: the boxes of Kodak slides, some 8mm films, analog film/photo cameras and the audio equipment.

Looking at the first slides from my projector at home I recognized her on the family photos, they contained a big part of her childhood. I wondered if she had made a mistake by giving them away? Suddenly this question felt awkward for me, usually I don’t have contact with the owners of my found footage and they remain anonymous for me. I wondered if I should return them but my curiosity won me over.

After carefully reviewing all of the images, I selected, re-arranged and scanned nine photos in a period of two weeks. I sent them to her via a private message as a surprise, thinking she would like seeing the photos. But it also felt weird to not ask her permission before publishing them.

This situation in which I had to ask permission proved to be a nerve wrecking experience, because there was always the possibility that she’d want the photos back! After a while she replied, a bit shocked, because in a quick glance all she had seen were the pictures of herself. She wrote me: ‘Who are you and why do you have photos of me!?’ I can imagine it’s kind of creepy, seeing pictures of yourself sent to you by a stranger!

After reading the full message with my concept in it, she luckily replied that she was fine with me making a series of the slides. Still, I felt puzzled as to why she gave them away, but who am I to disagree? She felt that it wasn’t important for her to be mentioned in the credits and asked me to remove the last photo in the series. It's been three months now and she hasn't showed any interest in the slides at all.

So here it is: the series titled ‘A.k.a. the life of’ tells the story of a young child growing up into adolescence seen through the lens of her parent(s). The photographer, I think it’s her father, made an effort framing, staging and capturing the child’s discovery of new things, holidays, road trips, playfulness, love for animals and finally as a teenager looking into her own reflection, slowly forming her identity as a young woman.

I have a background as an experimental filmmaker and believe that each image contains its own story and I treat the found images as if they were frames from a film that is in the making. By thoroughly scrutinizing flea markets, second hand shop and even waste dumps, I find, collect and scan photographic and slide images. By re-arranging this media I try to create new narratives to give existing material a new context.

The cards brush against the heavy carpet as old hands roughly arrange them into rows of three. I am amazed how fast the reader moves, and how consumed the questioner is. It is apparent that the cards are holding authority over the both of them.

These opening titles for Cleo de 5 a 7 gave me a clear destination in Paris; a grungy esoteric shop in the 7th Arrondissement. I have heard that one should not buy one’s own deck. I figured, because I set out with different intentions than divination that I was safe. I was after the imagery, and I know now how complex tarot is to use. Every card has its own meaning, which can be altered by what is dealt nearby, and its orientation. Every reader has different methods, and every reading is subject to subtle changes in ritual.

Tarot was once just a game. It took only one century to become a method of clairvoyance after its arrival in southern Europe. By the 19th century reading Tarot was very vogue, a Victorian titillation akin to Ouija boards and séance. Now the poor cards have been smothered by the crushed purple velvet of modern occult clichés.

The deck of cards I came away with was a plastic coated reproduction named Tarot Egyptien. Egyptian because of a slightly misleading development; it is said that Tarot is derived from ancient Egyptian knowledge and mythology. This has never actually been confirmed and is a little unusual considering a recurring motif in Egyptian mythology is that the knowledge of gods is not human domain.

The eclecticism in a shop devoted to mysticism is both baffling and wonderful to me. Most of the objects you’ll find there are tools; to understand, to teach, to reach, to overcome, to pacify. They are arranged from all kinds of backgrounds. A fossil, a mandala and a rosary lay next to each other, closing oceans and centuries of spiritual development.

Things like tarot are so highly romanticized it is no wonder they are met with so much skepticism. As an artist, tarot is a kind of tool that speaks to me directly. With tarot, an object stands between two people. Through the object issues can be filtered and analyzed. The biases of each person involved in the conversation are present but because the object has the power, they are not leading the discussion.

To place this kind of energy into a physical entity enables the mind to reflect on it from a different perspective. You are actually looking at your question, instead of asking it.

Robert Cervera, Untitled (Jelly Reservoir), 2013. Strawberry jelly, concrete dust.

There are human instances in which we get quite close to understanding the language of materials.

There’s the hoe plunging into the soil: crumbly in its first inches, then more pliable as we reach the moist underneath, then almost solid in the fresh darkness of laborious earthworms. Tchak and the worm is two.

There’s the bundle that a wood seller makes with logs or sticks; the line-like tension of the rope that seconds ago was sleeping amorphously in his pocket.

Robert Cervera, Pink Nappe, 2013. Polyvinyl, cement.

There’s the moment in which you sillily slightly slice the skin of your hand and for a second you don’t know what the physical bill will be: a momentary white line, a surge of blood, anything in between.

There is sculpture in those things. And there is a chance those things may be in a sculpture. And the sound they make – a sound in your mind – sends us back, like a sonar, an image of the world.

Materiality and human agency talk to each other. Squeeze, slice, drench, chafe, wedge, pat. Haptic marvels. How things feel, what they make us feel.

Robert Cervera, Untitled (Theatre Bundle), 2013. Concrete, adhesive tape.

(No distinction can be made between humanity and materiality, Hegel and Bordieu would say. We humans are materials which create other materials which then redefine us. The things we make, make us.)

The unbounded nature of the universe comes into the discussion. Matter flowing, going everywhere, and us chasing it, telling it to go this or that way, to stay in line, to wait in groups of four, of sixteen, of sixty-four.

We try our best to make the uncountable countable, to mark limits and give shape. We end up frustrated and beguiled at once by its unruliness, charmed by its oozing.

Robert Cervera

(Is it possible that we contain matter in the paradoxical way some cage birds, to better admire their flight?)

I am fascinated by that and also by the unexpected occurrence, the providential blunder, which I take to be one more chapter of our ongoing dialogue with materiality.