239 Things

1000 Things is a subjective encyclopedia of inspirational ideas, things, people, and events.

Read the most recent articles, or mail the editorial team to contribute.

Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

239 Things

Alex de Vries (1957) works as an independent author, curator and publisher together with Jan Willem den Hartog at bureau Stern/Den Hartog & De Vries. He was there at the birth of art magazine Metropolis M and was director at the academy Kunst en Vormgeving 's-Hertogenbosch. He occupied different advisory functions at the Raad voor Cultuur, the Mondriaan Stichting and the Fonds Beeldende Kunsten, Vormgeving en Bouwkunst. At the moment he is active member of the provincial cultural advisory committee Drente and board of Bak (basis voor actuele kunst in Utrecht) and as curator.

During the month of June 2008, I experienced what felt like muscle cramps in my chest at irregular intervals; during the day but also in the middle of the night. They felt like sharp contractions that lasted briefly and disappeared as swiftly as they’d begun.

At my office in The Hague, I called my doctor and made an appointment for the following morning. My colleague Jan Willem asked what it was I’d been suffering from and as I described my symptoms to him, the pain began and started steadily increasing. Unlike before, the pain didn’t stop after some minutes but persisted and slowly worsened. Breathing became difficult, and I felt like I needed to go to the toilet.

Slowly, clarity began to disappear from my consciousness and I tried to find a comfortable position in one of the two Gispen armchairs where Jan Willem and I can often be found, lounging and philosophising. Thinking I was hyperventilating, Jan Willem handed me a plastic bag to inhale and exhale into, to no avail. From that moment, I found myself in a state of unconsciousness where I still was aware of my surroundings but could not in any way exert an influence on what was happening. I could hear Jan Willem on the telephone, but I could no longer understand him.

After a while, the office filled with men who groped and examined me and made me swallow a handful of pills.

‘I bet you feel a lot better already,’ I heard someone say. I was unsure if it was directed towards me, although I suspected it was. I didn’t feel better, but I also didn’t feel any worse. I was completely apathetic towards anything happening around me. Two men held me between them and carried me down the stairs, placed me on a rolling gurney that was pushed into a car. We drove straight to the hospital. I heard the siren but didn’t understand it was me that it was wailing for.

Inside the hospital, I was given a quick look over by the emergency aid doctor. At this point, I was becoming more and more detached from my surroundings. I was in a whole other state than the world around me. My body was nothing more than an empty casing inside which all coherency was lost. The immateriality of my physical self started becoming apparent. I was no longer aware of my external form. Skin, bone, fluid, flesh, all dismissed. Like a ship in a bottle, I had escaped my glass vessel. It no longer contained anything, yet it was simultaneously all. The ship, too, was nowhere to be found.

‘This isn’t going well at all,’ the emergency doctor said. I definitely heard him, but I had no idea if it was me who he was referring to. In any case, I didn’t care. Later, Jan Willem told me that total panic had broken out in the emergency ward, that everyone had dropped what they were doing, leaving patients dumbstruck in the midst of their treatments, and that I’d been rushed to the operation room in a frenzy.

I was fine with everything, letting it all come over me. I felt an intense euphoria. I was completely satisfied with myself, my life, and everything I’d done up to that point. I felt no regrets, neither remorse nor resentment. All was good. Nothing mattered. In the meantime, I was hooked up to an IV, and a hollow needle was punctured into my groin. I certainly noticed these happenings, but I didn’t care. The doctor leaning over me spoke unabatedly, describing his actions. I didn’t care and only mumbled incoherent meaningless responses, Surrendering myself to the euphoria, I felt all become one, and I felt one with the nothingness, dissolving into my body. And then, all of a sudden, I was back to my senses.

‘You see,’ said the doctor, ‘we got rid of the blockage. I’ll now widen the coronary artery by placing a stent, so we can get enough oxygen to your heart again.’ Disappointed at being ripped from my euphoric state and back into this banal situation, I stared at the monitor and watched the cardiologist put actions to words. He explained I’d had a heart attack that he’d put an end to by performing an angioplasty.

I was placed in intensive care for a day and a half, spent a day in recovery before being allowed to go home. I underwent a speedy recovery and visited an artist in her studio that same weekend with whom I spoke nothing of my heart attack, keeping the conversation to her work.

What I learned from this experience is the personal realization that I did not mind dying in any sense. There is nothing awful about the process of dying. My experience was not religious, not even spiritual. The only way I could describe the euphoria I felt is as immateriality. Of course, I’m extremely grateful to those who prevented me from dying, but at the time I had absolutely no qualms with bidding life farewell. I was prepared to surrender. There was no fear, I wasn’t scared. The pain was there, but became secondary; it never disappeared completely, instead it lost all importance. All that mattered was the realization that I had no more expectations of the world, and the world expected nothing more of me. I felt united with who I was. Everything made sense. There was no space between anything. No distance between finitude and infinity.

I truly believe that during this realization of inevitable mortality, the right side of my brain, in which the sensation is manifest that we are all part of a collective life force, united itself with the left side of my brain, where the sensation is held that we are, indeed, all individual beings separate from one another. The separation between the halves of our brain causes this latent schizophrenia in us all, but was dissolved in the knowledge that I am completely insignificant while I am unavoidably part of life, as we know it. That I, without a doubt, will perish doesn’t affect this conclusion. By dying, we dissolve into life.

Immateriality made manifest. It’s mostly our own bodies that shape its contour. Everything material that we realise allows us to experience something immaterial. Between our body and the matter to which we measure ourselves lies our incapability: all that we cannot and do not control. I’m convinced that this space between the things and us is what the artist uses as his material. What the artist makes is of no importance; instead it’s the meaning that the artwork can give to time and space. This implies that the work’s meaning is in a constant and dynamic state of flux. That which means nothing today, was indispensable yesterday but might mean everything tomorrow.

The artist is someone who manifests materialisations. His starting point is how he observes something, how he sees something. This is not in the first place, an awareness based on appearances, but instead on an inner experience. We can undergo this alone. We enter an artwork using our imagination. This is not a matter of creative fantasy, although there’s nothing wrong with that, but of the tangible capacity to express what we do not know, we don’t understand, and what we cannot.