The artistic desire of remembrance on the joint work of
Veerle Michiels &
Lieven Van Den Abeele
Of Late, Veerle Michiels (b.1965,Deinze) and Jonas Vansteenkiste (b.1984, Kortrijk)
Have been working together on a series of artworks that were commissioned as part of the first World War commemorations.
They recently created Fragile Memory (2015)(1) for the exhibition ART-Traces in Langemark-Poelkapelle, a work in which they bolstered a war memorial with sandbags. For the exhibition entitled Warum? in Zonnebeke, they made a replica of a bunker fragment out of Papercrete, a composite of concrete and shredded paper, entitled Anachronisme (2014)(2)
Their strongest collaborative work within this context, which was not only their most spectacular but also their most layered, was created for the exhibition Private Shelter.
For this third instalment of freestate, which was realized in 2014 within the framework of Gone West, an artistic platform to commemorate the First World War, They built a wooden skeleton of a classical villa, with porch and gabled roof, around a First World War bunker in Raversyde(Ostend), a site that was strengthened and expanded during the Second World War.
From this one might deduce that Michiels and Vansteenkiste have a particular interest in war, or the war memorial. In so doing, one underestimates their joint oeuvre. The subject of their work is not the anecdote of what is remembered, but the study of the function and mechanisms of art as memory, and how to make this visible.
Whereas Jonas Vansteenkiste, as a visual artist, makes use of theatrical elements, Veerle Michiels, who comes from a theatre background, has recently evolved towards the creation of autonomous objects. For Façade (2012)(3), she photographed the fronts of some seventy shops that her father had visited in the 1970s as a lingerie and stockings salesman. The most striking façade was reconstructed to scale in a theatre, whereby it was transformed into a kind of stage-set that not only evoked the history of a particular building, but also of her deceased father. The installation was thus akin to monument for a specific type of architecture, much of which has already lost its retail function and is set to dissappear over time. But it was also a memorial to her father, who became visible through his absence.
Although the motif of the house has a recurrent presence in Jonas Vansteenkiste's work, his emblematic performance Us (4) seems particularly pertinent to the interpretation of his recent collaboration with Veerle Michiels. Commended during the pre-selection jury for the Canvas Collection, and presented in Bozar in 2008, the work takes the form of an object that is activated by two people. It comprises a single cushion fastened onto the faces of two participants, as a result of which they simultaneously become connected to, but separated from, each other. Nor are they able to see one another, because the cushion also conceals their eyes. The two near-identical female models that first wore the cushion faced each other's mirror image. The title of this enigmatic, almost surreal work-Us (we)- is indicative of the individuality of the whole, and of the union of two individuals. The performative character of the work enhances the dichotomy between the physical presence of the two bodies and their introspective attitude.
It is a tempting idea to stage Jonas Vansteenkiste's performance within Veerle Michiels her "Décor", since the tension between the visible and the invisible is a constant in their mutual work. The moment that one shows something, something else is hidden from view. The windows of the abandoned shop look outwards, while Vansteenkiste's figures turn inwards, yet the viewers have no clue as to what runs through the minds of the models, or what once took place behind the façade of the dilapidated building.
"Nothing in this world is as invisible as a monument. They are no doubt erected to be seen- indeed, to attract attention. But at the same time, they are impregnated with something that repels attention." -Robert Musil
Monuments traditionally played an important role in consolidating the shared ideals of an individual community. They were part of a general process through which (national) identity was both formed and defined. By Preserving collective memories, the community of which Musil speaks is largely the consequence of visual inurement, the latter is primarily the result of the sterile formalism and the hollow rhetoric of (war) memorials founded on platitudes. Because the monument is unable to show the essence of what it recalls- an essence which is essentially invisible because it touches upon the horrors of war and the personal suffering of the individual- this artificial construction is doomed to remain immune to ' attention'.
In order to be visible, the monument must become a work of art once more.
To return To Raversyde. Unlike traditional First and Second World War memorials, these bunkers are remnants of historical events and thus natural monuments in themselves. The only question is: what do they commemorate?
By using them as the basis or a departure for an artwork, they are not only reactivated, but also subsumed within a broader context that far exceeds the boundaries of space and time. Because the artist speaks for himself and not for the community, because his work arises from the inner necessity of an individual and not from a collective guilt, because his creation is the result of his own experience and not of tradition or perception, and because it serves art instead of propaganda, the monument loses its immunity to 'attention'.
When the monument's abstract symbolic value is tested not only against the personal testimony of an empathetic artist, but also against the customs of the arts, its true meaning is once again revealed. In Veerle Michiels and Jonas Vansteenkiste's work, the monument becomes a metaphor for art and the predicament of the artist, who faces the dilemma of having to delve into his private reserves of memories, emotions and desires in order to give the public form to his relationship with reality, mankind, the world and its history. He seeks equilibrium between the intimacy of his art as creation and its public character as a cultural product, between the viewer and his inner self. How can he reveal his innermost feelings without losing his authenticity, and how can he safeguard personal meaning without lapsing into clichés? By testing the limits between the public and the private, and between the communal and the individual, Veerle Michiels and Jonas Vansteenkiste also examine the boundaries of art.
The link between what, in reality, needs to be recalled and remembered, and how this happens, has found its proper form in contemporary art. Itis not born out of a vague myth or a collective delusion, but form the commitment of the artist.
The house has long featured as a motif in the oeuvres of the two artists. As a subject, this universal image is a reflection of both the cosmos and the initimacy of life; it is a place of love, family, birth and death. In our own culture, bricks are the expression of our individuality and diversity. They allow any citizen to build a monument to his personal freedom. For the artist, the studio or study is a place of creation, reflection and consolidation. And for each one of us, the home is both familiar and uncanny.
The artwork, layered and ambiguous, is the antithesis of the one-dimensional monument, with its unequivocal meaning. Are we talking about a tomb, with the bunker as a prison, and the house as a gravestone referring to the home, the country or the family of these victims? In this case, the monument harks back to the past. At the same time, it points to a new and better world that will be built after the war. The house is still not finished, but the skeleton has been put in place. The shape of things to come has already been outlined.
For Veerle Michiels and Jonas Vansteenkiste the "monument" is not only about memory but also desire. It not only reflects the past, but also absorbs the future.
Unlike the static and closed nature of the traditional monument, which is mostly monumental, that is to say grand and impressive, a sincere dialogue solicits not just the attention of the beholder but, more importantly, his personal commitment. The openness and permanent renewal of this endeavour is reflected in the transparency and ephemeral nature of their work. The contemporary artist no longer designs monuments to the past, but searches for new opportunities to erect memorials to the future.
Lieven Van Den Abeele
art historian, art critic and curator.
He teached contemporary art history at the École des Beaux-Arts de Bordeaux and at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent.
(1) Fragile Memory, 2015.
(2) Anachronisme, 2014.
(3) Façade, 2012.
(3) Façade, 2012.
(4) Us, 2008.
(5) Front, 2014.