The ideal form, the pedestal and the continuous movements between the two

Sofie Van Loo

To be a master of misinterpretation to be a political hallucination 1

In 2005 Paul Hendrikse made the work ‘Verloren Ruimte/Espace Perdu’ for a group show at the STUK art centre in Leuven, Belgium. During the preparations for the exhibition, the artist became fascinated by the work that another artist, Guy Mees (1935–2003), had made in 2002 for the opening of the building. Mees had taken away the existing wooden skirting boards in the exhibition space and painted an orange line in their place. Every artist who later showed work in the exhibition hall of STUK would also, inevitably, be exhibiting ‘within’ Mees’ skirting boards, or, at least, the space created by them. In 2005 Hendrikse created a photographic reproduction of this work. He scraped the painted ‘original’ from the wall but left a little piece of the work visible in one of the corners of the room. Hendrikse displayed the rolled up ribbon-like photographic reproduction on a brown cardboard box that functioned at once as a mobile pedestal and an archive box. Both the pedestal and the photographic sculpture are movable and can travel, physically and in the mind. It is as if Hendrikse wanted to point out that the desire triggered by contemporary art is in a sense an illusion, but that it is necessary to observe, experience and think about the doublesided paradox of such art.

In Hendrikse’s homage to Mees, the latter’s work is partially destroyed. Mees ‘forced’ every artist who showed his work in the space to take his intervention into account, although his orange skirting board could also have been painted over at any moment. However minimalistic the intervention, an orange skirting board is hard to ignore. Hendrikse took it into account, and engaged with it: is that violent or respectful? He extracted the emphasis on the monumentality of the architecture from it and simultaneously created a sculpturally replaceable monument, a moment for ‘contemporary’ art. A notable shift occurs, from a dialogue between painting, sculpture and architecture to one between photography and sculpture. Both works start with the premise of the ‘pedestal’ as a supporting element. Mees’ pedestal appears to support the architecture of an exhibition space; it is a semi-permanent intervention. On the other hand, Hendrikse’s pedestal functions like a mobile hatstand and a support for the work, as well as an archive. Hendrikse reveals the almost invisible premise of contemporary art when it gains an aura: released from the pedestal, it itself becomes ‘a pedestal’. Traditionally, the aura is invested in the psychology of an architecture and reinvested by the institution. In this way the paradoxical two-sidedness of the artwork at any particular moment tends to fade from view. The space between seems to have dissolved. Perception takes over. Hendrikse also emphasises the sculptural element of Mees’ intervention, although it appears in his work through the not-showing of his photograph. When Hendrikse rolls up his own photographic reproduction of Mees, he is making a two-directional statement: Mees’ ‘original’, which if viewed conceptually did not want to be seen as an original or could not be called an original, has been (re)made in a different exhibition context and with different colours, which made all these interventions ‘original’, while robbing the concept of ‘originality’ of its strength. Perhaps through Hendrikse’ work the trivialising of Mees’ work has been halted. It is in this invisible in-between space that Hendrikse works with and from, or rather it is this in-between space that Hendrikse allows to exist, be it in another or new constellation. He creates breathing spaces to work anew with who and what drifts between existence and non-existence. This drifting overpowers the work at a later stage, especially when it is appropriated from a distance or smothered intimately. It does not make any difference in what way it is done, for both apparently create ‘the same’ copies of copies and shifted copies that appear different at that moment and frequently also appear different in form. In Hendrikse’s work, plausibility is hardly ever called into question; implausibility is hardly ever set right. In spite of this, the viewer would like to believe the opposite, or be reassured of its plausibility. What remains is mostly not the work /oeuvre, but the biography that is projected onto its remains. Every biography comes across as a witness, and is consequently projected upon the work until it becomes completely invisible and exists in a plausible way. The existence of the biography is paradoxical, as if one needs to contradict the doubt of its existence and make it real along these lines. When the myth of the biography’s reality is confirmed by the artist, as Hendrikse does, will this lead the viewer to the work anew? Whose work does one arrive at, and which aspect of the work is also as illusion?

Hendrikse’s material often consists of autobiographies of famous people, or at least known in a specific context. His work is frequently about individuals who have such an iconic, affective or authentic presence that they can only be remembered as myth. It is noticeable that Hendrikse focuses on individuals who did not register widely during their lifetimes, but were only recognised and reconstructed after their deaths as part of a cultural heritage or political ideology. With some of these figures, for example the South African poet Ingrid Jonker, posthumous attention was of such proportions that it appears as if death did not actually take place, or as if their lives never really started during their lifetimes. It is as if these phantasmatic lives cannot, nor can ever be concluded. The myth of their everlasting life is their fate.

By homing in on biographies shrouded in auratic myth, Hendrikse investigates the complex interrelation between art, culture and politics and the role of perception within it. A continual displacement, or shift, of the creation of an in-between space seems to be necessary to enable the aesthetic and reflective to occur in time and space. Hendrikse suggests that representation does not pursue the image since the mystification, the falsification, takes place too quickly. In the meantime, this falsification has become self-representative, shaping the potential conditions of the construction of representation. Yet even then it remains unsure and speculative and seems suggestively unfixed. One possible examination still seems to sway between the viewpoint of a mental image and the perception of the interpretation.

The person you are playing is you, but not completely you. 2

One of the artist’s fascinations is how one reality can become more insightful via another. In the body of work ‘Hauntology of Smoke and Ochre’ (2009–2013), which came into being via workshops, a documentary and a photographic exploration in Cape Town, a performance in Amsterdam, and a book, Hendrikse used the person of Ingrid Jonker (1933–1965) as a starting point. Jonker’s father, Abraham, was a writer and politician of the South African National Party. She never knew her mother, Beatrice Cilliers, whom Abraham left before she was born. Cilliers died at a fairly young age after a life of poverty, moving around and waiting for a man who was not going to return. Jonker and her sister eventually ended up living with their father and his new family, though she never got along with him. Still, she dedicated her first collection of poems, ‘Ontvlugting’ [Escape], to him – a collection published when she was only nineteen. Jonker, along with other writers and poets, opposed the censorship of the National Party. She also openly criticised the pass laws that limited the black people’s freedom of movement. In 1963, her collection of poems Rook and Oker [Smoke and Ochre] appeared, which garnered a literary prize a year later. The prize seems to have been a ‘last attempt’ to get her onto the side of the establishment, which remained highly critical of her work. Jonker eventually travelled to Europe thanks to a scholarship, but upon her return she became depressed and was institutionalised. She took her own life by walking into the ocean, her body found washed up on the beach the following morning. After her death her final collection of poems Kantelson [Setting Sun] appeared and the Ingrid Jonker literature prize was established. Nelson Mandela recited her poem ‘The Child’ (in honour of a child shot dead by soldiers at Nyanga) during the sitting of South Africa’s first democratically chosen parliament in 1994. Gerrit Komrij translated Jonker’s work into Dutch in the volume of poetry ‘Ik herhaal je’ /’I Repeat You’, (2000) along with a substantial biographical epilogue by Henk van Woerden, which insisted on the tragic aspects of her life. Several documentaries have also been devoted to her, among others the VPRO documentary ‘Korreltje Niks is my Dood’ / ‘Insignificantly Small My Death’, (2001) produced by Saskia van Schaaik. Here too the stress is on the artist as tormented individual, which in her case extended to every aspect of her life: familial, relational, personal, emotional/mental, social, economic, political, public and largely also artistic, with the almost continual emphasis on how talented, authentic, honest, genuine she was while at the same time sensitive and vulnerable. The more authentic and honest a person has been made, it seems, the greater the falsification and the greater the risk that the individual is reduced to a ghostly, floating figure. In this way Jonker becomes a symbol, a metaphor of the potential and still evasive imagination. Hendrikse uses the myth that accrued around the person of Jonker as a way to follow not her work but the pursuit and haunting of the figure ‘Ingrid Jonker’. Jonker does not come across as a tragic individual in the various pieces Hendrikse based on her persona. One of these is a series of posters (3) silkscreened with the words ‘Hauntology of Smoke and Ochre’ over an image of Jonker that appears from underneath several layers of ink. ‘Hauntology’is a term Jacques Derrida used to describe the paradoxical state of being and non-being, where the difference with the word ‘ontology’ is made. For Derrida, the present only exists in respect to the past and only if specific aspects of the past are reviewed. Derrida predicted that in a time when history is the dominant discourse, this revision can only be done in relation to the ghosts of the past, ghosts that can remain in the paradoxical state of being and non-being. For Hendrikse, it is about the difference between what ‘really’ was – that which can no longer and perhaps could not even be accessed during Jonker’s lifetime – and what the perception of it could be ‘now’. Hendrikse investigates the possible conditions that create the mechanisms of these kinds of observational constructions, not to produce an authentic portrayal of Jonker but to create an interval, an in-between space for her presence. In his article entitled ‘A Fact is Still a Copy’, Dirk Lauwaert describes the difference betweenreality, realism and myth as follows:

Reality is a ‘kind of’, while realism is a convention, ‘something you can investigate the structure of but that has no substance. […] It is a regulator of relationships. Realism modulates the relationship of things, but these relationships are always between people and to itself. So every realism is a political and moral program. […] Reality is an effect for the semiotician, hence a result, a construction. […] Realism is a crucial category since the humanities and the equipment that relays it (photography, sound recordings, media, etc.) form the basis upon which we conduct life. Realism is a construction that relays: it isolates facts from the global experience. A fact is but a framework and a focused copy (hence, a message).’ Two more modes could be placed opposite these: myth and experience. Both entail work, not productive work, but a trade. They keep all thought processes under the spell of the concrete. 4

But what if realism, this construction, concerned reality as myth? Hendrikse investigates the boundary of the image (the imagination by the actor of what cannot be clarified) and the expression of a role (which becomes partly self-expressive). When the actress accesses Jonker’s whole imagination, she is no longer an actress but an interpreter, perhaps even a creator. What Hendrikse is constructing are the conditions for the feasibility of a new guise for the plausibility of Ingrid Jonker. Hendrikse creates the context for a situation where ephemera, such as impressions, absences, affects, movements, gestures, mimetic memories, etc., can be displayed to perfection by the performers he invites to reenact them. And it repeatedly becomes clear that new gaps appear at every new suggestive interstice. An older actress remembers Jonker’s skin and how she moved – elements that can no longer be verified, but which the other younger actress tries to imagine. It is precisely and exactly this interaction, the discursive shift of Jonker’s spirit, that keeps her alive.

Hendrikse performed a similar investigation of the life and work of the Cameroonian poet, Louis- Marie Pouka-M’Bague (1910–92). Pouka-M’Bague held limitless admiration for French literature and supported the French colonists, leading him to move to France in 1947. In the 1950s, he left France deeply disappointed and returned to Cameroon. This disillusionment can be felt in Hendrikse’s installation ‘A Vague Uneasiness’ (S.M.A.K., Gent, 2010) and draws from Pouka-M’Bague’s searching, questioning style of writing. Inside a closed showcase, slides of the landscape taken by colonialists are projected; on the wall closest to the showcase, pictures that the artist took of Paris following the poet’s notes are also projected. These pictures are interrupted by text fragments about travel, imagination, expectation and estrangement. What is significant about the text fragments is the use of ‘we/us’. The figure of Pouka-M’Bague inspires an artwork that triggers a philosophical reflection on the gaze, the relationship between photography and sculpture, between the recording of a moment and an ‘exact’ monument that responds to memory and the lack of the gaze. In another installation, Hendrikse systematically removed all the European figures from a series of early colonial landscape photos taken in Cameroon. Further in the exhibition space there is a wooden construction that literally looks like a viewpoint: a sculptural obstacle that obscures the way and the view, with a small opening to the side that one could not fit through. The visitor is forced to look for a different entry point, via other museum halls to see ‘the other side’. The loss of sight suggested in the series of photos is reshaped into the construction of a cut viewpoint. After a detour, what the visitor discovers on the other side is a grey monument that has the exact shape of the small opening next to the viewpoint construction. Both structures act as distancing devices. One could argue that the assimilation with the West effectively began when Pouka-M’Bague lost his faith in the superiority of the French occupier and an unease entered his work, which drove the poet back to his mother tongue. Can a person be colonised by post-colonialism? Can one be seduced by the thing that has been taken from you? Alienated in a postmodern sense, Pouka-M’Bague has been elevated to the rank of pioneer of Cameroonian literature. Do ‘we’ – but who are ‘we’? – see the alienation of this poet in our ‘own’ alienation? When can we claim this for ‘oneself’?

In the performance ‘The Last Acquisition’ (2007), Hendrikse turns to the figure of the ex-mayor of Antwerp, Lode Craeybeckx (1897–1976), a member of the Flemish Movement and a Socialist, who built up the sculpture collection of the famed Middelheim Museum in Antwerp, and founded the city’s Biennial in 1951. In their article ‘De beeldhouwkunst zoals zij was in openlucht’ [‘Sculpture as it Was in the Open’, De Witte Raaf, 1995], Koen Brams, Ilse Kuijken and Dirk Pültau give an extensive account of what happened during Craeybeckx’s political regime at the Middelheim:

The success of the first exhibitions for sculpture in the open air in London and Arnhem as in Antwerp were the leading argument to declare the event ‘open to repetition’ […]. The most difficult point is the manner in which Middelheim was managed with regard to the devastating political meddling of which the purchasing policy – from the very first purchase to the final one – bears witness. In 1950 Craeybeckx personally dragged La Luppa of Arturo Martini through the town council and in 1995 the same council approved, with a lot of effort, the purchase of a piece of art by Lawrence Weiner: these are but two anecdotes of numerous comparable ones…5

In 2007 Hendrikse asked if it were possible to reduce the Middelheim to a single image, to a performance in the form of a final speech where the past and present ‘meet each other’ and become one (archival) image, a doubling that encompasses all the different viewpoints involved in the Museum’s history. The performer in ‘The Last Acquisition‘ states:

‘We become the object when we approach it. We become this object. A piece of stone or bronze, or any other material. The body secretly copies it. But how does that work? Can we empathise with materials? What does it do to us? Do we lose our identity for a short while, do we pour our identity into this object? Can an object direct us, does it have power over us? Is it good or evil? Does it have any intentions at all?’ Later the performer says: ‘I am part of an intricate network of power that can make him say things … that determines his moves … His human qualities get lost in the shuffle … His body can be a carrier of nearly anything. His existence is a non-existence. […] Soon you will not be able to understand him anymore … I withdraw him from this time, this very moment (instant). Those people didn’t come here on your account. I believe they didn’t even see you. Soon this paper will be filled with words that become your testimony … The only way for you to survive here in this park is in an archive … a depot. You can’t make me write an eternal script. You are captured … Your existence is elsewhere … Enough now, I leave you.’ 6

This performance was the first step towards the fictional closing of the Middelheim Museum by way of a radio play titled ‘Middelheim, The Interviews’ (2008), in collaboration with the Austrian National Radio ORF and the sound piece ‘Middelheim, The Inverted Park’ (2008),7 which was exhibited at the sculpture park of the Künstlerverein Malkasten in Düsseldorf. The radio play begins with the words: ‘Good evening and welcome to today’s programme where we take you to Antwerp’. The dates and facts seem to be real, but have been fictionalised to influence the actual facts and create new ones. The radio play takes place after the imaginary closing of the Middelheim Museum in 2018, but it first sounds like a programme from the early 1950s (when the Middelheim was established) and later as an in-depth BBC report. The listener understands that not everything is ‘real’, that this is a construction, although the listener easily goes along with the story. The format appears to be plausible; only some jumps in time remind us of the transition from fact to rumour and from rumour to fact and fiction – as in H.G. Wells’ ‘The Island of Doctor Moreau’ (1896), Adolfo Bioy Casares’ ‘La Invención de Morel’ (1940), Alain Resnais’ ‘L’année dernière à Marienbad’ (1961), or Hendrikse’s ‘All Thoughts are Prey to Some Beast’ (2011) about the Dutch writer Frederik van Eeden and the anarchist colony he established in the woods of Bussum in the Netherlands. Fiction is closely aligned with the con- struction of reality. It is a shifted version that opens and closes like a curtain without one having to look outside during the action per se. As the action unfolds it suddenly becomes clear that one was standing outside all along, as if one was observing the gesture of someone else, but performed by oneself (or vise versa). In his work, Hendrikse shows the potential conditions of manipulative constructions that find their shape through personal perception, and which find themselves alienated by it too – becoming ‘an object’. Moving, shifting and removing are unique qualities to perception, but are also unique to the in-between space, the in-between time of/in the artworks that Hendrikse provides with a new space, one that does not coincide with the truthful or illusionistic representation of observation.

 

1. Mauro Pawlowski & The Grooms, ‘Tired of Being Young’, Black Europa, Future Archive Networks, Pias, 2004.

2. This sentence functioned as one of the a guidelines for the actresses Nicola Hanekom and Grethe Fox in Hauntology of Smoke and Ochre and for performer Carola Bärtschiger in the performance Moving Through Secondhand Sources, 2009.

3. Paul Hendrikse, Poster, installation of a lamella-like wooden wall with a series of nine different silkscreened posters on paper mounted on the wall. Made in collaboration with graphic designer Sarah Infanger, 2009.

4. Dirk Lauwaert, ‘Een feit is steeds een kopie’, De Gelaarsde Kat, Koen Brams, Yves Gevaert, Brussels, 1996, p. 175– 183.

5. Koen Brams, Ilse Kuijken and Dirk Pültau, ‘De beeldhouwkunst zoals zij was in openlucht’, De Witte Raaf 58 (September–October, 1995).

6. Excerpt from the text of The Last Acquisition, 2007.

7. Middelheim, the Interviews / Middelheim, the Inverted Park, 2008, with Elena Cooke, Ida De Vos, Davis Freeman, Joris Kestens, Martin Nachbar, Guillaume Robert, Nikolaus Gansterer, Paul Hendrikse. Text: Paul Hendrikse, Sound: Nikolaus Gansterer, Music: Stefan Geissler, Sound mastering: Martin Leitner.