241 Things

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

241 Things

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Mud - mother of all materials? Dirty and unscrutable.
Ceramicists lovingly/jokingly refer to their material as mud and admire both its ability to be formed into an object and likewise to crumble.

“Uit de klei getrokken” (translates from Dutch to: drawn from clay) is an intriguing rudimentary cup and saucer set. The designer, Lonny van Rijswijck, used various sorts of Dutch clay. Thanks to the baking process, variations in colour and texture are made visible. A pale yellow hue from Limburg, a shiny brown from Utrecht, Brabo terra cotta. It’s these differences that, according to the creator, visualise the “impressive but unpretentious similarities between origin and identity”

As an artistic concept it’s exceptionally effective. In terms of functionality and form it’s not quite as successful. In other words, the concept materialised through tableware raises a legion of issues. Not in the least by its material.

Set, Lonny van Rijswijck

A cultural and historical interpretation:
In Items 1993/2 I asked Benno Premsela, authority on design, about possible reasons for the – at that time – undervaluation of Dutch designers. Premsela had already given up hope. How could this country of “redistributors of sand and mud” match themselves to countries like Italy and Finland? Needless disdain! Clay is derived from mud that despite it’s simple image, might be the mother of all materials.

Outside of Europe, mud also has its uses: like in the bogolans, clay paintings from Mali, where imposing structures are built using clay. During Mali’s celebration of its independence in 1960, the need arised to swiftly produce festive clothing. The Malinese rediscovered the bogolon techiniqque with which mud was used to print patterns in deep black onto fabric. As a result, yearly competitions were held to determine which region made the most exquisite bogolan. In the seventies, Malinese artists and fashion designers began to seriously apply bogolan. Besides deep black, brilliant white prints were made.

Chris Seydou Mud Decoration Dress
The fashion designer Chris Seydou presented his winter collection in Paris in 1979 with bogolan shawls and headwear in Keith Haring-like motifs. The Nigerian fashion designer Alphadi broadened the bogolan spectrum with blue, green , and even pink. By the time Seydou died in 1994, bogolan had achieved the same status in Mali as batik had in Indonesia.
Chen Zhen, World in out of the World, 1991
Back to the source, mud. For his installations, the French-Chinese artist Chen Zhen (1955-2000) covered rubbish with a layer of mud. By covering these objects from our world of the disposable, Chen removes all technological glamour and in turn, deculturalises them. The mud erases the purpose of the objects and allows them to return, purified, to their origin in , to their heart and soul.

“I don’t care it’s muddy there/it is my house [...] My heart cries out for muddy water.” – Bessie Smith

Muddy Water

Bessie Smith and her Blue Boys, Muddy Water, A Mississippi Moan Parlophone 78

Just outside Rio there’s an extraordinary museum that holds a private collection of folk art that, according to them, is the largest collection in Brazil. The French Jacques van de Beuque travelled the world and for forty years collected folk art on markets, fairs, and shops. He then found a house, now known as Casa do Pontal, in which to show his collection.

The museum is much cleaner in its presentation than other folk art museums in Rio de Janeiro. Each space contains shelves on which endless amounts of sculptures are grouped, as though the collector simply wanted to own everything without making distinctions. The best part of the collection is almost impossible to find. An inconspicuous door opens to a small room where a hilarious collection of ‘arte erotica’ is hidden away; every day sex scenes are crafted with exaggeration and humour, something that the material qualities of clay are extremely adept at conveying. There was much to see and discover, despite the lights constantly switching off and forcing you to keep walking to activate the sensor.

Nain Bebe luneville
Nain
Nicolas Bebe
Nain Bebe luneville
A mini-drama was nestled within a little notice in the newspaper; a great fire had destroyed the castle of Luneville in Lotharingen, also known as the small Versailles. Its extraordinary collection of porcelain is lost, and with it, the ceramic statue of Le Nain Bébé, King Stanislas Leszcinski’s court jester. After being driven out of Poland, Stanislas was appointed Duke of Lotharingen in 1737 by his son in law, King Louis IV, who granted him the castle of Lotharingen, completed in 1723.

Le Nain Bébé, or dwarf baby, was born as Nicolas Ferry in 1741 to a family of farmers. He was twenty-five centimetres tall and weighed less than five ounces. He never grew to be taller than eighty-nine centimetres. Although not directly visible, he was most likely mentally impaired. When he was brought to court, they unsuccessfully attempted to teach him how to read and write. All he really could do was dance. They described him as being stubborn, temperamental, lazy and jealous, even ‘sensual’ and also gluttonous.

He was an enormous attraction and was treated as a living doll. A miniature castle of a metre and a half tall was built for him and was fitted with furniture scaled to suit his size. If ever he became angry, he would retreat to his castle, and when Stanislas called for him, he’d open the windows and gracefully declare, ‘tell the king that I am not in.’

He had a great intolerance for noise. When the king played backgammon, Bébé would make such a whopping fuss that the king would have no choice but to stop. He’d then set him on the table, upon which Bébé would build towers from the game pieces. He also had his own miniature carriage drawn by goats that he would tend to himself in the gardens of the palace. He also enjoyed hiding under the skirts of the ladies of court, which is very likely what granted him the description of being ‘sensual.’ I believe that, because he was considered a non-person, he overheard much of the gossip, which allowed him to act as a spy for the king. Poor Bébé. He was a plaything for the nobility.

Empress Elizabeth of Russia once even tried to steal Bébé by sending an envoy. The Duchess of Humniecka, who was related to Stanislas, visited the palace in 1757 when Bébé was eighteen years old. Accompanying her was a twenty-two year old Polish dwarf who called himself Boruslawski with whom she travelled on her visits to the royal houses of Europe. He was exceptionally well developed and could even speak three languages. He ‘beamed with youth and vitality,’ while Bébé was already aging visibly. Boruslawski, who was only seventy-five centimetres tall, apologised to Bébé for being smaller than him. Bébé explained that he had been ill and had grown because of it! He was so jealous of the Pole that he tried to throw him into the fireplace (the Polish dwarf, by the way, lived to be ninety-eight years old and married a woman of normal posture at forty with whom he had four children).

Bébé rapidly declined during the last years of his life. While he was withering away, a suitable wife was found for him: Therese Vouvray, ninety centimetres tall. However, before the engagement could commence, Bébé fell terminally ill. Stanislas sent for his mother and Bébé died in her arms at twenty-two years of age on June 9th, 1764. Despite being distraught by Bébé’s death, Stanislas allowed his Swedish doctor to dissect the body from top to bottom. His skeleton was sent in a glass casing to the museum of natural history in Paris, where it still resides to this day. Even in death, the little man was poked and prodded.

Not all mementos to the little court jester are lost. His portrait hangs in the historical museum of Nancy, where he is depicted wearing a magnificent blue uniform adorned with trestles. He stares back at us with a look of defiance, while his right hand rests on the head of a large dog. In the case next to the painting, various pieces of his now deteriorating little shoes and little clothes are on display.