THE APOSTASY By Jan Van Woensel
"All the work of an artist is the realization of a self-portrait. But very often it is unconscious. Very often, you don't realize that you reveal yourself that much. It is only afterwards that you see the work, and you say, 'Oh my goodness! I know what I meant. This is simply very revealing. It is a self-portrait!' Now, to reveal oneself is always embarassing. Some people refuse to reveal themselves.” (1)
Invited to write about the artwork of Jonas Vansteenkiste my first thoughts lead me away from a Eurocentric approach to his concepts. Browsing through the artist's growing oeuvre I noticed a certain absence of man. Although represented by the many architectural, thus man-made, elements in the artworks, he isn't present. I found a poetic beauty in that aspect and it reminded me of a couple of things that crossed my curatorial path.
I remember visiting the first survey exhibition of South Korean artist Do-Ho Suh at Serpentine Galleries in London in 2002. There, I was immediately fascinated by the now well-known scaled replicas of his Seoul and New York City homes. They were crafted with diaphanous silk and nylon thread and installed suspended from the gallery's ceiling. These homes were both bright and abandoned. They evoked feelings of melancholy and longing in which both physical and emotional presence and absence were ultimately intertwined. The silk structures presented only the basic elements of the homes that the artist inhabited and further showed no traces of living. Here too, as in the artworks of Jonas Vansteenkiste, man appears absent. And his situation of not-being-there is tangible. Asian art often comes with a sense of brilliant, transcendent lightness. They are true masters in letting silence speak. I recognize a similar sentiment in the artwork of Vansteenkiste, for instance, in his film noir décor-like “House Morphings” (2013 to date). Wondering about the possible whereabouts of the protagonists in his artworks, I thought about the subjects of invisibility and temporailty. Do-Ho Suh's scaled homes appear like ghosts mimicking the actual places where he lived. Although altered from their original scale they are large enough to walk through. They offer the visitor a spatial experience of their own.
This level of intimacy steered me to the 2004 multiple awards winning film “Bin-jip” (which means: “empty house”) by director Kim Ki-duk. The story follows a lone drifter who trespasses into people's homes for shelter. To give something in return to his unknowing and absent hosts, he washes their clothes, mends their broken appliances and leaves the next morning without taking anything. One day, his good-willed yet law-breaking wanderings went wrong and he ends up in prison awaiting his trial. The young man successfully escapes by patiently practicing the art of invisibility; keeping out of eyesight of the penitentiary guard within the limited space of his prison cell, walking silently behind him in a sly, shadow-like choreography, synchronizing every move of the guard. Remarkable about the drifter's behavior is that he studies and comprehends the psychology of each home he invades as well as the confined space of his prison cell.
I recognize similarity between such heightened attention and sentiment for space in “Bin-jip” and Jonas Vansteenkiste's film “Mr. House” (2017) in which a narrator lets us in on a story about a man who wants to read houses. At night, he waits in front of a house of his interest, he observes the site, patiently waits until the owner leaves and then sneaks in to explore the traces and the echoes of life lived there. Again, there is a certain loneliness that comes to surface in the artist's work. “Mr. House” wanders from place to place to observe the impressions of the life of other people while remaining unnoticed and detached himself. Like a harmless parasite he feeds on the everyday behavior of strangers and like in Kim Ki-duk's film, they too are unknowing and absent hosts. This remarkable and so far unattended removal of the self moves around like a shadow in Vansteenkiste's works. There's tension between the homes he builds in his sculptural works and the tangible absence of an inhabiting protagonist. There's an inability for attachment present in the oeuvre of an artist who is focused on the spatial and psychological margins of life within life itself. The dreamer, which could be used as a moniker for the artist, never comes home.
The themes of “home” and “private and public space” that persistently run through the oeuvre of Jonas Vansteenkiste have been part of my curatorial interests as well. Recently, in the international group exhibition “The Homecoming” I focused on the impossibility of belonging to a place from the perspective of the existential drifter. The artworks circled like satellites around this theme, each one of them presenting their own rather grim perspective on the matter. The project showcased six of Vansteenkiste's well-known “House Morphings”; installations of mirrored, scale model houses, spray- painted in monochromatic dark grey, sparsely lit by a single desk lamp, elegant, theatrical and haunting. Erased of color, they resemble Alfred Hitchcock-like décor o r scenery from Dirk Braeckman's photographs, the artist whose world seems permanently shadowed. According to Vansteenkiste, these morphings were created after settling with his partner and touch upon the dynamics of union and division, and dependence and independence in a life lived together. The houses, that look like train table model houses and are designed in an architectural style uncommon to most Flemish regions, are glued together, maybe suggesting the idea of coexistence. Yet, they are mirrored and tilted to sit more or less balanced on one side of their saddle roofs. They are uninhabitable, to say the least. They accumulate both an inward and an outward movement. While their bases are secured, their roofs stretch the farthest away from each other. “The attic and the roof are metaphors for the dreamer. The dreamer constructs and reconstructs his memories, like we use our attics to store our memories”, the artist writes on his website. Here, we touch upon another leitmotif in Vansteenkiste's oeuvre: the indication of boundaries.
While there is always a dynamic energy at work between people in all forms of relationships, the most intense kind is experienced in the intimacy of the relationship with a spouse. In their live film and music performance “Drift”, partners Leah Singer and Lee Ranaldo experiment with these boundaries interactively. Singer, a Canadian-born experimental filmmaker and photographer, projects images and film clips from her computer while Ranaldo, one of the original founding members of Sonic Youth, creates noise and soundscapes on guitar and adds spoken words. The two intensify their interaction by responding to each others' on-the-spot contributions to the performance; sometimes theatrically overpowering the other, sometimes allowing nihilistic silence to take stage. “Drift”, which they ran from 1991 to 2005, is continued in their similar improvisational performance “iloveyouihateyou”. The physicality of a live performance always has the ability to take things to a more intensely experienced level. Vansteenkiste's performance “Us” (2008) is a good example of such. In the photographic evidence of this live work we see two young females standing faced towards each other with a white pillow between them. This pillow, strapped around both of the performer's heads is locked between their faces. Their features are obscured by it. Captured in this unusual codependent situation, they can't move without the compliance of the other. Their intimate and symbiotic existence is quite literally suffocating on a physical level as well as psychologically exhausting. Sisters Naomi and Ira performed “Us” at several occasions in Belgium, one of which ran for an hour and marked the so far longest time the performers endured their bondage. Talking about the indication of boundaries this work is a pivotal piece in Vansteenkiste's oeuvre. With the exception of only one other example of an artwork, “I'll Be Your Mirror” (2003 – 2016), the artist instrumentalizes real bodies in “Us”. This stands in contrast with the rest of his work in which man is perpetually left off scene. To make his undercurrent message critically addressed, this work demands physical support. The women who help realize “Us” engage in a performance in which endurance and private space are put to the test. The pillow, to which the artist carefully allots positive qualities, becomes their trap. I asked Naomi Kerkhove about her experiences.
“Performing “Us” is intense both physically and emotionally because you can't do anything except standing straight while being strapped to someone else's head. It really messes with your balance. We were engaged in a for the audience imperceptible fight to keep ourselves standing in the right position. It also forces you into letting go of your self-awareness. We found ourselves in a meditative state. If we
weren't able to do that we would have gone crazy. During the performance, Ira and I became one without having physical contact. Apart from the intimately close presence of each other's breathing into the pillow, “Us” provoked a bizarre spatial experience. We became one sculpture rather than two human beings. The passing of time is tangible at first but also that awareness fades away after a while. The audience functioned as our only reference in time and space.”
By the introduction of art techniques as varied as video, installation and performance in the critical contextualization of “Mr. House”, “House Morphings” and “Us”, it has been my mission to uncover Jonas Vansteenkiste in his multidisciplinary habitat. Although the artist gained significant attention in the art world for his scale model houses and larger installations of similar structures, the total spectrum of his work eclipses that often singled-out image. His psycho-architecturally motivated artworks cover multiple contemporary subjects that should be seen in a wider perspective. Disregarding the differences in their aesthetics and seen through the lens of psychoanalysis, his work bears conceptual similarity with the funereal poetics of Felix Gonzalez-Torres. The uncannily tangible absence of man in their artworks certainly binds these artists, as well as, their thematic focus on intimacy and loss which both source from their personal lives. It is a true statement that many of Vansteenkiste's art pieces carry down-hearted autobiographical motivations that hide under an appealing skin. This level of indirectness might not always be necessary but it successfully contributes to the audiences' identification with his works and moves it away from certain emotional exclusivity. Such well-played ambiguity can also be recognized in Gonzalez-Torres's works in which his multivocality resonates themes including politics, gender, identity, loss and disappearance.
In addition to Gonzalez-Torres's conceptual and ephemeral artworks, Jonas Vansteenkiste also refers to Louise Bourgeois as another of his idols. In our communication he carefully addresses his troubled relationship with his father, which irrevocably sheds a different light on the recurrent use of the motif of the house in his oeuvre. Whereas Bourgeois is known for expressing her father-related aversion overtly, Vansteenkiste alludes to the subject with hesitation and caution in conversation and perhaps even more so in his artwork. With this greatly untouched and maybe even, refuged, new subject simmering in the back of my head, I stumbled upon the collaborative artwork “Bang bang (my baby shot me down) (2018)” which he created with artist Veerle Michiels. It shows the fallen, decapitated and mutilated head of Christ that once sat on a full-body concrete sculpture that probably belonged to a local church or chapel. According to the artists it refers to the existing dynamics between creation and destruction; power and vulnerability; and trust and betrayal. Louise Bourgeois's detailed and sexually explicit writings about the destruction of the father can be brought in direct connection to this demystifying work of iconoclasm by Vansteenkiste and Michiels. In their own words “Bang bang (my baby shot me down)” is illustrative of “a moment of destruction that we all too often want to ignore or do not want to remember.” Are the collaborators really only talking about the worldwide historical phenomenon of cultural icons being forcefully erased by enemies and aggressive reformers as they outlined in the introduction to this artwork? I can't be convinced. Besides, the artists incontestably introduce themes of lost childhood, relational conflict and heartache into this dialogue by the appropriation of the title of Cher's 1966 hit single and consequently by looking closer at the bitter narrative in the lyrics of that song: “Now he's gone, I don't know why, and 'till this day, sometimes I cry, he didn't even say goodbye, he didn't take the time to lie, Bang Bang (...)”. Could there be an analogy between the disgraced Christ and the ill reputed, missing father who's not living up to his parental responsibilities and the artist's retributive emotions that could arouse from such situation? In anthropological studies the father is profiled as being the healthy bearer of values and ethics. Jesus Christ, the fallen son of God and historically the most devout conveyor of all that is good from a Christian point of view has been simultaneously grieved over and idolized in the form of places of worship, monuments, artworks, pilgrimages and prayers throughout centuries.
In our Western world he became the allegory for good treated badly, which brought sin upon us all. Is it a far-stretched assumption to consider an undercurrent between the exposed fallen and damaged head of Christ in the artwork “Bang bang (my baby shot me down)” and the personal relationship of the artist with the father? Could the physical and emotional absence of the father cause loss of faith (in him and in what he represents) like it was the case in Louise Bourgeois's jumbled personal life? Does this explain the tangible absence of man in the oeuvre of Jonas Vansteenkiste? To respect the artist's hesitancy towards the subject I will further leave it in discrete obscurity.
“My childhood has never lost its magic; it has never lost its mystery; and it has never lost its drama”
Jan Van Woensel is an independent curator, art critic and musician based in Plzeň, CZ. He is a faculty member, researcher and curator of international projects at Ladislav Sutnar Faculty of Design and Art at University of West Bohemia and in-house curator at Jan Dhaese Gallery, Gent, BE.
Bob Szantyr (editor) is a visual artist based in NYC, U.S.A.
(1) From: Interview with Vincent Katz, first published in July 1995 in The Print Collector's Newsletter, vol XXVI, no. 3 and republished in Louise Bourgeois, “Destruction of the father – Reconstruction of the father; Writings and Interviews 1923 – 1997; Edited and with texts by Marie-Laure Bernadac and Hans-Ulrich Obrist; The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, in association with Violette Editions, London”, page 313.
(2) From: Louise Bourgeois, “Destruction of the father – Reconstruction of the father; Writings and Interviews 1923 – 1997; Edited and with texts by Marie-Laure Bernadac and Hans-Ulrich Obrist; The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, in association with Violette Editions, London”, page 2.