Hutte #1, Jonas Vansteenkiste 2019-2020
Expulsion - Adam and Eve thrown out of the Garden of Eden
Stone age hut / tent with sticks and animal skins
Stone age hut / tent with sticks and animal skins
The Last Judgment (Il Giudizio Universale)
Luc Tuymans | Lamp, 1992
La maison abrite la rêverie,
la maison protège le rêveur,
la maison nous permet de rêver en paix.
Building a shelter certainly has to be the activity for which we ingeniously pushed ourselves to the limit in the earliest stages of life on earth. Nowhere else was the necessity more compelling.
Banished from paradise, mankind now felt extremely fragile under the starry sky. Or for the less mystical persons among us: evolution obliged mankind to defend themselves against the elements, without any layer of fat or hair. As soon as there was more or less mention of a society, we experienced the need to isolate ourselves from time to time from the annoying or downright dangerous "others" with a wooden or stone sheath in order to protect our vulnerable soul: the house.
We came up with windows to look into the world from the inside and shutters to exclude too much of that world if desired. Over time, society sometimes became as bleak as rainwater or a spring storm. A home shuts out unwanted glances and secures intimate relationships under an insulated bell jar. The house is the conversion of our ego, if you will, with windows and doors as surrogates for body openings. In our reserved culture, unsolicited invading is an attack on the private sphere, which can be interpreted as a quasi-physical offense.
Gravity is the biggest obstacle for every builder. Mankind was looking for effective soil, pouring foundations in it, came up with frameworks and learned in time that perpendicular walls in a sturdy material can best support this structure. Trial and error finally supported the archetypical wisdom that every toddler easily sketches in a few lines: a beam with a gable roof as the foundations of our house. It may seem absurd how that archetype stubbornly is clung to in a time of wireless connections and raging technology.
In his exceptionally captivating TV series "The perfect home", Alain de Botton was rightly surprised at the conservatism in housing concepts. Drive through any European subdivision and you will pass by a lot of stone anachronisms: fermettes, rectories, "Georgian" mansions or cottages. They are built with the latest technology, but externally they do not rhyme with our time. It seems that we have started living in our own lies, translating our illusions into cement and compaktuna.
Breaking down the false certainties and the constructed identity of the house has become a constant in the work of Jonas Vansteenkiste. His purpose is to unravel the structure of the house, both materially and mentally. A stripping of personality in a pile of stereotypical structures or representing neon signs as hollow dreams. Quite a few 'sacred houses' are knocked over in this oeuvre, not in the least the deceptive feeling of security, sweetness or cosiness.
With the title "Hütte" for his recent installations, Jonas Vansteenkiste hammers an etymological nail that holds together several layers of meaning. Middle English, Old French, Dutch, Frisian, Danish and even Yiddish (hoyt) know forms of this word, going back to Germanic, Proto-Germanic and even proto-Indo-European languages. It means "cover" or "conceal" and can serve as a meager house (the hut as is known to us), the skin that covers us (skin) and something that hides (to hide). As the ultimate limit of our body, the skin is the largest human organ. It is our "interface" with the environment. It literally holds us back and it is the surface that presents us to the outside world. Consequently, it provides a grateful metaphor for our personality.
Our collective consciousness is brimming with hair and skin stories directly or indirectly related to the loss or violation of identity. Horror is never far away. I think of the flabby skin of the skinned Bartholomew on Michelangelo's The Last Judgment (according to many a hidden self-portrait of the painter). The most famous story is undoubtedly that of Achilles. Hoping to harden her child's skin like steel, his mother alternated heating with immersion in the cold Styx. Achilles, who thought himself invulnerable, defied the gods with his swagger and self-assuredness. The small spot of unreached skin, where his mother took the little one by the heel, eventually became fatal to him. In myths or saints' lives, the stripping or piercing of skin signifies a far-reaching and humiliating punishment. Morality and integrity begin at the skin, that last membrane that separates ourselves from the others. Emmanuel Levinas saw the beginning of ethics in the disarming, naked sight of the other.
Frederik Van Laere
Thetis Immerses Son Achilles in Water of River Styx, Antoine Borel (1743-1810)
Nazis who fabricated lampshades with the skin of camp prisoners had nothing else in mind but the complete negation of their victims’ value as individuals. Without skin, you didn't even exist in their minds.
Direct, pure, honest contact with the outside world goes through your skin. The sense of touch is extremely basic. Other senses have a "linguistic" detour to the brain: the interpretation of what you see or hear or the expression of your thoughts is an indirect, learned and cerebral way of dealing with reality. A skin, on the other hand, is the most subconsciously controlled organ on our outside, which uncontrollably reflects what is going on inside: goosebumps, blushing, rash. While no living soul sometimes doubts your words or your gaze, a detector can read a lie through the sensors in your pores. In his constant analysis of the given "house" or "home", Jonas Vansteenkiste is now getting under our skin, looking for the tension between the unfathomable hiddenness of the individual and what he shows in his social appearance. A person does not enter this world with a readymade ego.
Didier Anzieu, who builds on the theories of Freud, called the skin a "psychic envelope". A self-image is created through a succession of tactile experiences with the surface of the body. The first "other" that a baby feels is its mother. In the consciousness of a child who has been released from the mother's breast, the boundary between the self and the world is still briefly within the safe shell of a parental home and its surrounding garden, with which the world has coincided for several years. For an adult, who has left the nest and for whom a house has become exchangeable, only the skin remains as the ultimate border, whether or not wrapped in clothes. You can compare it with leaving an egg, where the reptile at one point bites the shell, or even eats it. Afterwards, the animal remains vulnerable and steps into the world as an orphan while gradually growing its own armor. Sooner or later an irrevocable break will emerge between the child and the nest. That’s also the way it should go. Jonas Vansteenkiste refers to the writer Georges Perec. When he suddenly stood in front of his parental home on one of his descriptive wanderings, he said: "Je ne suis pas rentré". The egg was broken forever.
For the design of his strange 'Hütte', as a child of his time, Jonas dug into the artificial, man-made and thus cultural interpretations of 'skin': a wide range of carefully selected types of leather and simili (synthetic) leather, sewn together by hand to form a cluster, suspended from an industrially manufactured metal rod or hook. In this way he cleverly swings us back and forth between a very basic, almost ritual aspect of animal skin and the contemporary distance from fake materials. The artist refers to the cradle of architecture: the 'covering' with animal skins or tissues. Theorists such as Gottfried Semper or Adolf Loos saw the origin of the house in that "flaccid hut" or "second skin", while fixed walls were only added later. But there's more. Vansteenkiste's hut seems to coincide with the identity of its resident. He carefully chooses the colors ranging from light brown to pale pink and mid-tone colors for a subtle suggestion of bare human skin. Here and there, sewn-in classic windows or doors on a modeling scale remind us that this "skin" is actually abandoned architecture. The convergence of the terms "house" and "skin" take on the strange sight of a cloak that was hung away. Where is the creature that so casually left his last defense here? Is it irrevocably solved, or did another ‘outside cloak’ grow silently under this skin, like a butterfly squeezing itself out of its cocoon or a snake getting rid of its old scales from time to time? Can the "Hütte" symbolize the artist, who in all his disarming vulnerability exposes himself to the world completely and may even succumb to it? Or does he operate cunningly and take on a different form as a strategy from time to time, like a new building for the imagination?
Frederik Van Laere
Frederik Van Laere was art historian and scientific worker at P.M.M.K (Now Mu.zee Ostend) Now he is curator of several shows an Cuesta in Tielt (BE) an exhibition of contemporary art in dialogue with the city and his inhabitants. He is also a artist & writer about contemporary art.
Translator: Dieter Vantomme