Jean Bernard Koeman is an artist and curator. He makes drawings, sculptures and site specifc installations. From 1999 to 2002 he was the director of Kunstencentrum W139 (Amsterdam). As a guest teacher he has been connected to MAPS (Master of Art in Public Sphere in Sierre [Zwitserland]) and the Gerrit Rietveld Academy en the Sandberg Institute (Amsterdam). As a scenograph he has been involved at Les Ballets C. de La B. (Gent) and Toneelhuis in Antwerp. Besided that he is an art collector, world traveller and cultural devourer. The last years Koeman built site specific installations and architectural integrations in museau and art institutions in Island, Kosovo, Finland, China, Albany, South Korea, Turkey, Switzerland, The Netherlands and Belgium.
Jean Bernard Koeman
How to Make Art
One of the greatest clichés of the art academy is that we’re taught how to think and look. This could almost be considered an insult to those who are newly admitted to the academy, as if they’re not yet able to think. But according to the great writer David Foster Wallace, we do have a choice in what occupies our thoughts, and how we can learn to use this choice in a constructive way. If he’s correct, we’ve learned to look at another way of thinking at the academy, as well how to see something that does not yet exist and find a form for it. In other words, this is the thought process that happens inside the studio. But when an artwork is placed within an exhibition we’re forced to begin our thought process anew. The placing of the work in a physical construction demands the gears of thought to start their churning once again.
Any space where art is presented has it’s own signature. In an ideal situation, it should act as a refuge—a habitat for the artist, the art, and the public alike. Presenting work is a contextual and relational matter. This is inherent in the agreement in which we build a set, a display of temporary nature in which works begin a dialogue with scale, atmosphere, and the significance of both the place and the other works within that space. We build new sentences.
A space speaks to us (‘It’s a place full of known and unknown unknowns,’ as Thoreau puts it. This text will restrict itself to the presentation space, because the public space conjures wholly different questions and criteria etcetera.) Is it a dead white cube, or an eloquent, stimulating white space?
Should we begin by ‘depersonalising,’ a space? In other words, to find meaning in meaninglessness, or to neutralise the space as much as possible? Space breeds hope and future: the promise of explosions of colour on a neutral canvas! In any case, an exhibition must inhabit a space by correctly analysing it; by thinking and searching transforming it into mental architecture, and subsequently the ideal habitat for a work. By doing so, each work becomes site-relevant and in turn, becomes empowered. Something from nothing. A room as a generator of energy. A measure, a guide. It requires vision to be able to interpret a space and imagine the work within it. The space must be considered as a partner: an ideal physical relationship. Similar to love, the work comes to life only when the relationship is wrought.
An ensemble of works, whether by one artist or many, creates a route within the presentation space. As the viewer walks through the space, viewing bold statements or zooming in on details, a story unfolds, or an essay is relayed. A dialogue is created between the works by their placement and the space surrounding them, and is completed by the presence of the viewer. Often, the viewer is alone, or at least needs to find their own, personal, relationship to the space so that fellow visitors might become a figure, another element to relate to. Just like an architect can only truly see his work once it’s in use, a viewer and his own subjective world of experience finalises the completion of the exhibition. Art simply does not exist without this last element. The viewer expands the significance and complexity of the works: in a similar way that the storeys of a skyscraper ultimately, when seen from a human scale, allude to imagination.
The audience uses the intentions of the works as a reference for their own findings. Through presentation we find the sole evidence of whether our intentions are visible to The Other. A text and a title offer metaphysical foundations. However, this relationship only works when the work and the written correspond. ‘Theory without practice is sterile. Practice without theory is futile,’ someone once said. I believe in tactile theory; concept must be implicit within the full picture, and not just within the A4 placed beside it. Tangible.
An exhibition touches on many matters; an explicit placing, a forceful conglomeration of works, or the meaning of silence, the experience of seeing, the logic of poetics, light and space, contextual theory, the passing of time in multimedia, but also the duration of time within motionless sculpture… In fact, and this is the beauty of it, every good exhibition includes a relevant thought on the presentation and placing of an artwork. But also: the invisible, the intangible, the non-existent, and the subdued. It can rouse an emotional response. We all seem to be afraid of this, but in fact, it’s the most beautiful of all: the emotion that is stirred within the symbiosis of theory and practice. The right thought in the right place.
There are few general statements to be made about fine art, except that her immense power is likewise her weakness. Within the contradictions that make her lies her fragility. It stands, hangs, or simply exists. Irreproducible. That’s why art has a harder time drawing a large public than cinema or music. But in essence, I find silence and inertness the greatest qualities of fine art. Dead, worthless material that can suddenly strike a chord within one person, which can explode with energy, life, and magic and incite an endless hunger for thinking and feeling. This is art’s immanent tour de fource. As soon as the newly enlightened viewer moves on, the material reverts back to lifelessness. For this reason, art needs protection. Protection that can be found in a well-constructed exhibition.
In the novel ‘The House of Leaves,’ by Mark Danielewski, a family moves to a new house. Along the way, they discover that the interior of the house is far larger than the outside. The interior keeps expanding endlessly, as though mutating, while the outside remains the same. I often think of this when I exit a good exhibition and look at the building from outside. Inside, I made a journey through dozens of hallways, rooms, colours, and ideas. The solidarity of the physical space has collapsed, but it brings new mechanisms of perception.
Thinking about how to present art is relatively new. Of course, medieval painters knew what they were doing when they painted allegoric images above the cathedral altar, but the very conscious placing of artworks as an intrinsic ensemble in a space, or the idea that art is only ‘temporary,’ are ways of thinking that have only been around since the 1950’s with the rise of the Situationists. They were the first artists that came together to reflect on concepts such as urban planning and the vague distinction between art, life, and participation. They deconstructed the society of the spectacle and introduced terms such as psycho-geography. Art became a tool with which to understand the world, and art could be anything: a newspaper or a distorted radio broadcast.
A new light was shed on culture in general, and most pertinently on the classic exhibition, because for the first time, the context of a work was given a defining importance. It was no longer just a thing in a chamber, but a means to view and alter the world. It’s these revelations and all that came as a reaction to them, that we work with and have to reinvent. Research and Destroy. From the first mega exhibitions and curators like Harald Szeeman, to where we are now; an ever expanding field where art is no longer merely something, but also somewhere.
Antwerp, December 2011
The quotes were chosen from the following books;
- David Foster Wallace, lectures
- Henri David Thoreau, ‘Walden’
- Mark Z. Danielewski, ‘The House of Leaves’, Pantheon Books, 2000
‘Art is by the Alone for the Alone’
A mouth and a tongue of lava
Ladies and gentlemen,
I’d like to say something about the Volcano. The ultimate authorities of the Earth. Tsunami machines. Monstrous pustules of Techtonics. An elegy of worship, humility, devotion, and awe. A puny man, swallowed by a radical landscape.
I apologise, but I have no answer to these gas and fire spewing, regurgitating mountains strewn over the globe with seemingly no other purpose other than to remind us that our planet is a smouldering ball of magma, and that we are just little temporary inhabitants... and not much more than that.
A nonsensical, softly glowing dot in a universe filled with searing, cold, and raging heavenly bodies. Just as we have no answer for death, this rant will be devoid of critique, flattery, rhetoric, or debate.
We cannot own the volcano, cannot control it, expunge, there is no coaxing it, no, we cannot even theorize it...
No, this is not a declaration of love to the volcano, but one of a lover that would not, by God, know what to do if the object of his desire was his.
The perfect conical summits on the island of Hokkaido in North Japan, Iceland’s glacier covered sleepers, Java’s sulphur spewing, the ice lake of Puy de Dome, Singu’s flanks in Myanmar.
And the hundreds of hills on the Korean island in the Chinese sea...
One of the series is a bit longer and follows the sulphur mine worker, Mohammed, who I accompanied for two days on the Ijen Vulcano in East Java. Twice a day, Mohammed makes the lengthy journey to the rim of the volcano where he lowers himself into its putrid interior, where liquid sulphur and gas are emanated in great quantities. The sulphur solidifies almost immediately and Mohammed carries the 80 kilos on his back out of the volcano and makes his descent, all for a meagre starvation wage. This is the most beautiful and likewise most gruesome tableau I have ever seen.
I combined the photos as an essay in which the black of the lava and the intense yellow of the sulphur are combined in a musing on these colours, but also about the significance of these materials. The display refers to the economic and social factors, and yet it is also presented as a depiction—a scene from a film. It became an exercise in ruminating on the hopelessness of the injustice in the world, that at the same time portrays perception as an intense experience. And an experience always proves itself more potent than an image.
‘We were mesmerised by the volcano’s jaw, yes, a mouth, and a tongue of lava,’ Susan Sontag wrote in her novel, ‘The Volcano Lover’. ‘A body. A monstrous living body, masculine and feminine at once. It thrusts, it ejaculates. But it is also an interior, an abyss. A living thing that can likewise die. An inert being, occasionally in movement, existing only in intervals. An ever-present threat. If predictable, still never predicted. Capricious, untameable, malodorous’.
Is this what one refers to as the primitive?
Nevado del Ruiz, Mount Saint Hellens, La Soufriere, Mont Peleé, Krakatao, Tambora, Katla, Newer Shield
Poignant names for eternally slumbering giants that might awaken at any give movement. A thundering giant whose attentions will turn to you. King Kong and Godzilla in one. Spewing, destroying all, only to fall back into sleep.
Religion and ideology often assume that there is a significant meaning to the universe, humanity, and history. The arts and philosophy have been questioning these assumption for ages. Many centuries ago, even Shakespeare said that ‘Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’.
Albert Camus, too, deemed human existence ultimately futile, and thus, absurd. But it was precisely in that acceptance that man’s ability and freedom lay to give his own meaning to life. In other words, futility is the primal source of human creativity, the art of living, and art.
Hoewever, it’s also the source that clings itself excessively to art and threatens, time and time again, to swallow her whole, as Mr. Ormeling once suggested. Perhaps this is why many people feel a strong aversion to art: it reminds them too much of the futility of life.
Mountains and volcanoes can have the same effect. People fear their massive, purposeless presence; they stir within every fibre of our being the realisation of our complete meaninglessness.
I enjoy immersing myself in this feeling. Perhaps I’m somewhat megolomanic, not without audacity or ostentation. I should probably put this into perspective. I’ve been presented here as Volcano Hunter, as though I travel the pyroclastic ash clouds carrying a leaden bag, but I have to disappoint you: I’m merely a tourist who enjoys visiting non-touristic destinations.
Seven centimetres of volcanic ash is enough to collapse the roof of a building. And I’m not talking about Chinese Tofu architecture, but about a solidly built North American home.
The English philosopher Francis Bacon once described the goal of man and progress as attaining ‘complete mastery over nature’. Not by revealing the laws of nature, but by seducing her to a creative collaboration of sorts.
The forces of natures usually have the last word, like in the above mentioned example. One in ten people on this planet live in the direct vicinity of an active volcano... these areas, are after all, extremely fertile.
Even though were are the initiators of art, it becomes ever more clear that nature is the true creator. Whatever the human undertakes, each art work, each action, begins and ends with nature. Natura Artis Magistra.
The Ancient Greek philosopher Empedocles threw himself into the Etna to prove his spiritual divinity. Dissolved into the Nothing. His followers did, however, find his sandal which the fickle and uncooperative mountain had regurgitated; and they knew what this sly fox had wanted to do; to disappear for eternity.
Horatius told the disappointed students that poets have the right to destroy themselves.
When I’m 92, I’d like to do the same. Although, I might no longer be physically capable, so I might just call on you when the time comes.
Many thanks in advance, and I’ll see you on the flanks of the Etna!
(We listen to some pleasant volcanic energy, I’m going to the mountain with The Fire Spirit, a song by the Gun Club, performed by 16 Horsepower...)
Antwerp, May 2013-09-06
(Text spoken during an evening on the power of nature in Artis’s library in Amsterdam. Commissioned by Lost & Found)