241 Things

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

241 Things

Richtje Reinsma (Amsterdam, 1979) is a visual artist that draws and writes. She studied at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy at the department Audio Visual and the Sandberg Institute. Together with Roosmarijn Schoonewelle and Heleen Wiemer she set Het Harde Potlood - a experimental and multidisciplinary platform where mural drawings, drawing waaruit muurtekeningen, drawing campaigns, installations and performances come from. Besides that she is co-founder of De Parasiet, a curious and experimental magazine.

A box of matches is a pocketsize miracle. Destructive force taken hostage in a mass product, tamed nature by the pack. The matchstick, puny as it might be, is a great symbol for the way in which man has forced the elements under his control.

How our ancestors learned to handle fire cannot be said with certainty. It is plausible, however, that it has taken long for early humans to not only transport and maintain fire from a natural source, but to also generate it themselves. Ever since the invention of the matchstick, the art of making fire has become a piece of cake. Never before has fire been so user-friendly and mobile. Moreover, matches were ‘the only manmade objects that were so cheap that you could ask a stranger for one,’ writes sociologist J. Goudsblom in his book Fire and Civilisation.

Numerous scientists and philosophers have dealt with the question as to what distinguishes man from the animals. Some consider the use of language or tools characteristically human acquisitions, but there are plenty of indications that apes and other animals also make tools and master complex systems of communication. According to Goudsblom, the human species has a monopoly for one ability only: the control of fire. Over time, we have come to set the world on fire. On photos taken from space, the nightly earth glows with the domesticated fire of houses, factories, streets and highways.

The average nineteenth-century person used six to eight matches a day. Nowadays, weeks can pass before you strike a match. We might be completely dependent on fuel for the energy we extract from it, but the sources of our evolved fire remain out of sight. The fire of now is buried in power plants, factories, engines, cables and batteries. We ignite lamps, furnaces, cars and other equipment by pushing buttons. Fire in its original shape, flaming and smoking, has become ornamental. Candles, campfires and fireplaces belong to the realm of romanticism and vacation, they have become atmospheric accessories. There are still a few that smoke, but the electric cigarette is on the rise.

The matchstick has gradually become a nostalgic item. Will enough users remain to prevent their extinction? Surely. There are few things more moving than a box of matches. Like a group of jinn, the unused sticks lay asleep in their carton housing. Each match is a fuse, a chance to get something going. Even if that is merely a passing illusion, as is the case in the story of the girl with the sulphur sticks who, barefoot, sells bundles of matches on new years’ eve. She escapes the cold and hunger by lighting her own unsold merchandise, and experiences a vision with each stricken match until death catches her off guard. Against a single match the darkness flinches is the name of a picture slide installation by media artist Jeanne C. Finley from 1998. Sometimes a title is a work of art in itself.

I used to fantasise once in a while about a trip to a production forest for a matchstick factory. I wanted to walk through trees that would end up as fire sprigs in lightweight boxes, boxes you can shake to hear the sound of wafer-thin promises rattling against each other.

There are two fields in which the matchstick is still valued for its worth. First there is the market of the emergency kit. What if the earth is hit by a nuclear bomb, a natural disaster, a colliding meteorite, causing all electric circuits to fail? Who wants to have a chance at surviving such a catastrophe needs to make fire. Not a single emergency kit, therefore, lacks special supermatchsticks, waterproof and extra thick.

But also for ritual and religious occasions are matches still a precious requisite. Perhaps because they proffer the semblance of timeless naturalness, with their analogous flame and primal scent of fire. Yet the fact that the striking of a match is a modest ritual in itself might also have to do with it, a ritual in which light and warmth emerge at the expense of irreversible destruction. Every match perishes at the hands of its own function after all. That makes the striking of a match a grave moment. No matter how ephemeral or futile, it is a sacrifice. A full-fledged drama of thirty seconds: the preliminaries to the ignition, the promise of combustion, the ineluctable consumption that follows as the fire devours the wood, the catharsis of the freeing of light and heat, the demise when the material has served its turn. But without the end there is no beginning.

Paper is vulnerable. Every form of contact with the world affects its condition. When you place a hand on it, it moves. A subtle bumpiness, a slight stain. Even if paper is lit by the sun, if water drops on it, if the wind lifts it up or if it hits the floor, it will preserve traces thereof.

Paper emblematises the power of victimhood. By itself it would never contrive to undertake anything, but it will remember and showcase everything it undergoes. Paper is passive but vigilant. Its strength lies in its capacity to take what comes and testify, to proclaim the transience of existence. As soon as the three-dimensional world collides with its two-dimensional membrane, the latter points this out.

No wonder paper is the quintessential disposable material. We wrap food in it, wipe our mouths, sex organs and arses clean with it. Paper desires to be tainted. It gives who fouled it a grateful sense of cleanliness, a proof of usage that cannot be disavowed. It requires minimal effort to appropriate this defenceless material. Paper lends its user a feeling of careless might.

All the more does it impress when paper is cherished: if it is framed behind glass, protected in a vitrine or a vault, if it is handled with little white gloves. Because it carries something that somebody wants to preserve: promises, inventions, signs of life from a bygone time. Precisely because of its flimsy brittleness can paper be endowed with unimaginable status. Is it a coincidence that our contracts and bank notes are made of paper? That the body of Christ is eaten in the shape of the host, a coin of consecrated edible paper? That a present does not receive its ceremonial value until it is wrapped in gift paper?

Blank paper is sometimes called ‘virgin’. Few materials can appear as immaculate as a fresh sheet of paper. Such a radiant, new surface can be a promise, but also pure intimidation. It is not for nothing that an empty paper is the symbol of writer’s block. The white is locked. As an unconquerable fortress, it waits. Bare and naked as an unploughed field. What should be sown? Once started, there is no way back.

There is a drawing that I often think of, even though I only know it through a description I read somewhere. It is a drawing by Bas Jan Ader. It consists of a piece of paper on which numerous attempts have been made at drawing, which have been erased again and again, until only an extremely thin film of paper remained. An ode to failing, to the vain endeavour of materialising a conception of the imagination. Although theoretically, all is possible on paper, in practise it mostly amounts to very little. Only the promise persists forever.

There are two antipoles among draughtsmen. There are the cautious perfectionists, who keep the paper around their drawn traces as pristinely white as possible, and the aficionados of stain and crease. Artist Rik Smit belongs to the first class. In his gigantic panoramas, drawn with impeccable precision and often from a bird’s eye perspective, the paper in between and around the lines is tight and gleams with sparkling white, as if no hand has ever touched it.

Rik Smits 2013

During the making of a large drawing Smit sometimes goes through as many as 12 rulers. If the plastic of the ruler becomes dirty from the graphite of the lines Smits draws with them, it starts to leave a haze on the paper. That means it is time for a new one. Smits uses about a hundred rulers a year. For the sake of convenience he usually buys the entire stock at Bruna.[1] If the weight of the hanging paper causes a dent in one of his enormous drawings, Smit steams and irons the paper until no traces remain. Kim Habers, in contrast, tears, creases and cuts her paper. Her sometimes space-filling drawing installations look like solidified disasters.

The work of Kim Habers

Johem van Tol made the sensitivity of paper itself the theme of his installation VEL. Etude # 5 for paper (2009). He hung a huge empty sheet of paper facing a line-up of lamps that were continuously changing in temperature. Under the influence of the heat, the paper starts to slowly expand and ripple, causing a constantly different, abstract image to emerge. Van Tol knows the kinetic properties of paper like no other. He even formulated a musical composition for paper, which he performs with his Paper Ensemble. During their concerts the Paper Ensemble make different kinds of paper crackle, whine, lisp and hoot.

One of the most beautiful qualities of paper is its capacity to propel the imagination at full force with minimal means. The song It’s Only a Paper Moon (1933), performed among others by Ella Fitzgerald and the Delta Rhythm Boys, allows itself to be listened to as if it is sung by a drawing itself:

Say, its only a paper moon
Sailing over a cardboard sea
But it wouldn't be make-believe
If you believed in me
[LINK: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ndxAZfJxfy8].

Some people think that the age of paper draws to an end now that the world is digitalising. The digital animation Paper Age (2013) [LINK: http://www.kenottmann.com/2013/05/blog-paper-age-fur-deutschen-webvideopreis-2013-nominiert/] by Ken Ottmann shows how the powers of a dinosaur from folded newspaper collapse when, in the midst of a newspaper landscape, it encounters a huge tablet. It walks onto the screen, falls down, and dies. However pretty these images are, the paper fetishist mainly notices how fake the movements of the digital-paper dinosaur are. As it moves its programmed limbs, the elastic pixels bend back and forth most limberly, whereas real paper would fold and crumple. Thus the video unintentionally shows the opposite of what it wants to demonstrate. Precisely the fragility of paper is the secret of its magic. As long as we have bodies, we will long for materials that are as vulnerable as ourselves.

The Dinosaur from Paper Age

[1]Dutch franchise of stationeries, red.

Soft, pale pink, and firm. God’s buttocks are glorious. How could they not be, this is God we’re talking about! They were revealed to me in Verborgen musea – Erotische kunst by Peter Woditsch (2008), a documentary about secret erotic art collections. In the film, professor Charles Méla speaks of the divine behind painted by Michelangelo in the fifteenth century in the Sistine Chapel. Approximately four million people view this behind every year. How did Michelangelo dare? Did the patron Pope Sixtus IV simply not notice it, did he tolerate it in the name of artistic freedom, or was he well aware and appreciated it as a gag? In all nonchalance, Michelangelo casually reveals the creator’s butt. It’s almost as though they wound up on the painting by accident, like in a snapshot taken where God, after creating the sun and the moon and the elements, spins around abruptly so that a flash of buttocks is seen through the fluttering of his robes.

It’s almost unbelievable to think that in the heart of Vatican City, Michelangelo’s God has been floating in this compromising position above the heads of robed clergymen and the tourists who are required by the pope to cover their shoulders and knees. Funnily enough, I noticed nothing when standing under Michelangelo’s fresco as a schoolgirl years ago. If a tour guide had pointed and said, ‘Look, God’s butt!’ I would probably have found this a very extraordinary view, but on my own and without the help of language, I completely overlooked it. I saw what I expected to see: pious art.

Thanks to Peter Wotisch’s documentary, I now know that the Vatican possesses one of the largest collections of pornography in the world. When the invention of the printing press spurred an influx of sinful and blasphemous texts and illustrations, the Catholic Church began the Index Librorium Prohibitorium: a list of forbidden books, in an attempt to temper these abominable publications. In order to know what to forbid, the Church carefully kept track of what arrived on the market. The Index-collection is unfortunately not open to the public, but artist and collector Jean-Jacques Lebel was once allowed a peak into it. He saw shelves full of male genitals, taken from classical sculptures bought by art-loving popes. Before being placed in the halls of the Vatican, the penises were removed, neatly labeled and stored away. The castration wounds were covered with marble fig leaves. At first, the thought of these genitals stored away made me giddy, but now that the forced castration of Henk Heithuis has been revealed, it seems there’s not that much to laugh about.

Other museums manage their pagan erotic art in a different manner. In Villa Borghese in Rome, for example, there’s a sculpture of a hermaphrodite sleeping on his or her side. The side on which both breasts and penis are visible is faced towards the wall. The unknowing visitor sees only the back, and remains impervious to its dual gender. If I think back to my youthful disinterest, I’d almost think that Villa Borghese could have saved itself the effort of rotating the sculpture.

Jean Michel Traimond, guide at the Louvre and at the Musée d’Orsay in Parijs, often notices that people seem oblivious to what they’re really looking at. If it were up to him, it would stay that way, because young women, children, and prudes should not be confronted with sex in the museum. One of his examples of such a sinful work is a centaur embracing Bacchante by the Swedish sculptor, Sergel. On one side, the centaur holds the arm of a priestess, but you’ll see that the other hand is laid on her behind with one finger stroking her anus, the other one touching her vagina. According to Jean Michel Traimond, most museum visitors never notice this, because they perceive the museum as a venerable institution with no room for primitive urges.

‘Art is for the bourgeoisie, a delight for the elite. It’s unthinkable to the greater public that something as ‘low’ as erotica could also be considered art.’

The longer you think about it, the stranger it becomes: the only ones who behave in the museum are the visitors, the sculptures themselves are stiff with sex and violence. I think I’ll go to the Rijksmuseum and the Allard Piersson soon, I’m curious what I’ll see now that my eyes are finally open.

With thanks to Lucy, roaming art platform.


Compared to nightsticks, Kalasjnikovs and bats, whips don’t come across as very intimidating. Who ever heard of a war won by an army armed with whips? Or of bank robbers using whips as their method of coercion?

The whip’s power to induce fear is as good as lost in the Western world. Slaves were whipped to death. Children were covered in welts after educational beatings. Now, the whip has become a decorative attribute, a prop. From being an instrument of power, it’s transitioned into a representation of an instrument of power, a symbol.

In other parts of the world, the whip is still used as an instrument of punishment. For example, two Saudi Arabian men were recently convicted to two thousand whiplashes and ten years of imprisonment. They had uploaded a video on which they were dancing on a car naked.

The other day, a smart looking older gentleman lifted his cane towards me and yelled: “Would you like a free slap?” I politely declined his offer. Later I regretted it. Why hadn’t I enquired further? Maybe the gentleman could have provided me with some convincing arguments regarding the free slap. What I know for sure is that I would have interpreted his offer much differently had he offered me a knife wound, or a gunshot wound. I would have been scared, now I was merely surprised.

Why does the whip no longer strike fear into the hearts of Westerners? Has the whip been overtaken by large scaled, advanced weaponry, that in comparison transform the whip into an old fashioned, primitive, and nearly innocent object? Are we so inexperienced with the force of the whip that even our imagination falters?

Erotica thrives on taboo. It comes as no surprise, then, that the whip is a staple item in every sex shop. Like the penis, the whip seems to possess a certain level of autonomy, although both remain dependent on a body in order to come to life and to discharge.

One particularly commanding whip is the metal chain whip, made of two metal rods joined together by metal rods. Because of the many chain links between the rods, it takes endless practice in order to comprehend how movement courses its way through, and furthermore how to use it without injuring yourself.

The chain whip is popular with the Taoist and Buddhist monks of China. Into the air they endlessly crack their formidable whips, breaking through the sound barrier in their search for salvation.

Dutch theatre maker Boukje Schweigman and dancer Ibelisse Guardia Ferragutti trained with these fighting monks, and in 2011 made the performance Zweep (Whip.) In a making of the film, Guardia Ferragutti says: “A whip has no master. The master is the whip itself.”

Raymond Talis, author of Michelangelo’s Finger (2010,) explores why humans, in contrast to animals, point using their fingers. According to Talis, we point thanks to our consciousness. We experience ourselves as separate individuals, and thus do not become one with our surroundings. But in our fellow humans, we recognise isolated peers, we can see each other looking. We’re able to guide the gaze of the other by drawing invisible lines using our eyes or our index finger. Is the whip an extension of the index finger, with which we can impose our will onto the bodies of others? Still, no one will ever have complete control over a whip. The first flick of the whip may be under your control, but you’ll never know exactly what path you’ve set into motion. Before you know it, the whip you’ve cracked will rebound and hit you with twice as much power and take you down. The real force of the whip remains impossible to truly fathom.

I’m on my way to a house of retreat to sit through four days of silence. I’ve been anxious for weeks. My friend tells me I’ll be constantly preoccupied with sex because her friend staying at a similar retreat was overcome with all-encompassing feelings of lust that wouldn’t leave her alone. Similarly, there are two other silence seekers that I know of who fell prey to erotic fantasizing about fellow lodgers. One of these examples resulted in a wild a love making frenzy, the other triggered a stream of tears when the silence was broken with words that proved dishearteningly disappointing.

At this point, I’m expecting to find myself in a hermit-like state, without others, and without raging hormones to worry about. I’m mostly anxious about meeting the hostess. What if my stay is silent from the start, or we only every exchange an absolute minimum of words? I feel like an addict to words who’s being subjected to cold turkey withdrawal, after all, I’m an absolute novice when it comes to staying silent in the company of others. There’s no doubt that this experience won’t be the same as simply not speaking. I’m trying to put myself at ease. I’m normal, and normal people talk every day. For thirty years now, I’ve been speaking, although I naturally do my best to listen every now and then as well. It’s very reasonable that the prospect of complete silence instills fear in me.

Everything seems strangely normal upon arrival. The doorbell rings, the hostess extends her hand, speaks her name. After a tour, the day’s rituals are described: besides the permanent solo-silence, there are three communal silent meals and two communal silent moments lasting a half hour each day. In the evening, one can converse if desired. I’m the only guest and am seated next to hostess A at a gigantic table suited for a dozen or so lodgers. The silence begins when we start our lunch. That is to say: verbal silence. With the lack of conversation, our bodies take the opportunity to make become loudly manifest. I can hear my jaws grinding and the muscles in my throat swallowing, alternated by the muted thundering of my intestines.

I thought I was an experienced eater, but it turns out that anything you focus your full attention on stops being straightforward. When has a mouthful of food been chewed sufficiently to swallow? How big should a bite be? A mouthful of fruit dwindles to nothing when chewed, while a bite of compact, home made bread expands to disturbing proportions. Could it be that one of the prime functions of conversation is to distract us from the noises our bodies make? I’m extremely aware of A to my left, and am constantly attuned to her rhythm. We finish our sandwiches at almost the exact same moment. My chewing is slower, but it takes her longer to pick what she wants on her sandwich. I watch her movements from the corner of my eye. This crooked gaze is difficult to sustain, and so my pupils escape every now and then to take a flight of exploration.

My eyes might, for example, travel over her plate and see how far she is in eating her meal. If I glide my gaze, making sure it doesn’t hang over any one thing for too long, I brave looking halfway between her elbows and her armpits. Beyond the plate lies a border: that’s where the forbidden terrain of her upper body begins, and above that the face where the food enters and disappears.

It’s only when I offer A tea in three words that I dare to make eye contact with her. Could it be that you’re only meant to make eye contact with one another during an exchange of words? Could it be that the reason we speak to each other is mainly to be allowed to look at one another?

Column on a stay at a house of retreat, published online in art magazine LUCY from CBK Utrecht on 30th of Augustus 2011.