Essay by Dr. Arie Hartog, director Gerhard Marcks Haus, Bremen
About a year ago Mirjam Veldhuis and me were discussing a text I was to write on her work. I knew her sculptures from 2004 when she had an exhibition in our museum in Bremen and now she sent me a number of images of new work and a text: a text by Italian artist Lucio Fontana. Of course it is risky for a contemporary artist to send a text by a famous colleague to an art historian, as the first question that poses itself will naturally be: what does Veldhuis have to do with Fontana?
The first answer to that question is quite simple. Fontana has made wonderful ceramic works and has always managed to distinguish himself from ceramists. Indeed, the text in question starts with Fontana’s statement that he is a sculptor rather than a ceramist. Ceramics is not his field of interest, he works with it. The same attitude is characteristic of Mirjam Veldhuis. The second answer is more complex and I will try to reach it indirectly. As it happens, Veldhuis’ sculptures have something to do with fetishism. Nothing dirty, but a very basic need of man. And she goes on where someone like Fontana could not.
Mirjam Veldhuis’ sculptures are things, images, that are strange and remain strange, and for this reason can only be in this condition. Photos can hardly give an impression of her oeuvre as all traces of the making process are lost in them. I think this is also why artists like Mirjam Veldhuis are not so well-known: this work is not about looking nice on photographs (incidentally, the reverse is true for most famous contemporary sculptors).
Scanning the works with your eyes you keep finding elements that indicate, simply put, that the hand or finger has run through the clay. I think it is theoretically important to realize that such a sculpture can only be understood when it is seen ‘in reality’. After all, while actions are not visible in photos, they are in clay. The traces visible in the photo are more photogenic, but traces in clay are more direct.
Let us take another look at the works themselves. The core concept is attention: when we allow ourselves to be won over by this work we find traces and these traces set us thinking. However, we should not take attention as I am now going to look at a sculpture of Mirjam Veldhuis’, but rather as a particular work drawing our attention in a particular room.
Examining this work with some knowledge of twentieth-century sculpture, one discovers that composition does not play a large role here. In a composition, each element is subordinate to a larger whole, which means that the larger whole is more important than all separate elements taken together. There is a distinctly European flavour to this: the search for the definitive solution to an image. By reverse reasoning this means that the viewer can continue his tour as soon as he has grasped the composition. This is why European art history always starts with an analysis of squares and triangles.
We are now getting to the core of the problem: the artist creates a composition and the viewer understands it, following the ancient idea that a work of art is a kind of visual telephone between two people. The artist wants this and the viewer understands it. There are artists, however – and Mirjam Veldhuis is one of them – who make objects that work in an entirely different way and subvert the whole idea of a visual telephone still dominant in our culture.
The work of art is not there until it is seen, and as soon as we stop looking we have no clue whatsoever as to what we can take home with us, no triangular composition or the like, only a memory of an experience which is no small thing, on the contrary: it is something extremely valuable.
In Europe art is traditionally linked to knowledge, but of course it is nonsense to still expect this today. Does this mean that we are denying European art history? Certainly not, for taking in the work in all its strangeness, one discovers that it is about tension, failure, liquid, stacking and sticking, rubbing and pushing, but totally lacking in what we might call ‘machogeste’. After all, the ‘I am different, oh so different’ attitude evident in much contemporary art is nothing but an attempt to convey a simple idea. Fortunately, this attitude is absent here. And this is where her more fundamental ties with Fontana lie. When this sculptor made ceramic sculptures in the 1930s and 1940s, these were anti-sculptures that rebelled against European tradition, even though he acknowledged its beauty. Nowadays this seemingly negative tradition can be continued in a positive way. This is the position from which Mirjam Veldhuis
is able to work: even failure may produce something beautiful.
The intention is rather to present the viewer with a special form of amazement. It is a known fact that amazement is far better than surprise. After all, a surprise will be forgotten by tomorrow.
Understanding that the thing, Mirjam Veldhuis’ sculpture, only works when you really look at it, means that to a certain extent we must attribute the status of fetish to it. Qualities that are not inherent to a fired, moulded piece of clay, are perceived in it anyway. They take on meaning by the very fact of drawing attention. In other words: it is not the viewer who makes the piece, but the piece that makes the viewer – not imperatively, but subtly. Indirectly, all these works turn out to have content, an atmosphere, a thought that takes the viewer along. This means – and this sounds more woolly than it actually is – the viewer must allow himself to drift, get rid of his irritation and realize that at a certain level, art without spectacle may be all the more art because of it.
Dr. Arie Hartog