Someone who has read me before knows of my aversion to ‘installation art’ and ‘performances’. You know – those pretentious contraptions ‘that make you feel Time’ or ‘that make you experience Space’.
This does not restrain me from being occasionally perplexed, faced with – yes, of all things – an installation. This time it hit me in the Vishal in Haarlem. A wonderful low structure, built against the old cathedral which adorns the market place. Regular exhibitions are held here, not always of the same quality.
Now it is sporting a masterpiece by Ronald van der Meijs, an artist who – without my knowledge – in 2015 won The Vishal Art Award. This exhibition is his prize.
Upon entering, you first seem to be absorbed into a great void. Quite often the long hall is filled with works hanging or standing. Now however you get the impression that you’re not welcome. In battle order a series of cannons is positioned in such a manner that you think they are focused on you – ready to go off.
Thanks to the upstairs windows, though, they shine with an attractive matte gray sheen.
In the background you observe a kind of sofa – is what you think. On each piece of artillery there is a burning candle. The moment you approach ‘the thing’ you notice a strange humming that gets more intense as you come closer. It appears to be a symphony escaping form turn out to be lying organ pipes buzzing.
The pipes get their breath from a pump hidden in that ‘sofa’, pushed through a beautiful maze of ventilator shafts. Thus they sing softly.
On closer inspection, something which this intriguing machine invites you to do, you learn that over each opening of the organs there is a movable slide attached to a metal thread. You immediately suspect that the pipe’s tone will change with the extent of its opening.
Once closer to the construction you observe the following:
Because the candles’ fat is burning a way at the top, a special little shaft around the candles with a spring inside is contracting, thus by way of an ingenious system of beautifully designed wooden sliding mechanisms, pulling the metal chords, opening the slits and thus changing the sound. This, all very, very slowly – you actually have to be present for hours in order to listen to the whole concert.
By the way – a symphony? Perhaps this is not the right word. We listen to what – unintentionally – is but a cacophony of disjointed sounds.
The airflow in the Vishal, the difference in heat at various places due to the upstairs windows and perhaps other factors, such as two ladies who with their elegant and warm shapes cherished a candle temporary, ascertain that these candles do not burn in synchronicity.
This can be seen here.
In economic theory – one may think of Marx, Sombart and Schumpeter – there is talk of ‘creative destruction’. Mao also believed that destruction may create something out of nothing. Let a thousand flowers bloom! Could this be what is to be ‘seen’ in this synaesthesia of light, air currents and sound?
The true art lover will probably be looking for so called references. I will offer him one. Once, right after the opening of the new ‘postmodern’ museum in Mönchengladbach, I saw an installation made by someone not all that beloved by me – Joseph Beuys. Too much free-floating anthroposophy in his work…
However, that installation was a masterpiece. Masterful because for the observer it was clarifying decay in all its splendour; great also because the installation could only perform its trick by decaying itself. A kind of Tinguely, a self destruct…
But whereas Jean Tinguely’s self-destruction is all explosive – his ‘device’ going wild and already moments later ending in one great mess – Beuys managed to provide an image for the inertia of decline. Much stronger than Tinguely his work appealed to our humanity, to the fragility of life and to the often imperceptible but progressive decay of mind and body.
A block – a cubic meter of animal fat, coarsely cut and grey-white looking – lay on two wooden beams. Beautiful to look at, especially because a thick, curved and bright red copper wire was edging over it. After the first glance you could see that in the meantime the copper thread had in fact become trapped in that mass of fat.
Slightly heated by a small battery into which its ends were tucked away, the wire melted itself down into the fat, slowly opening a little chasm on top. As with the installation of Van der Meijs: You had to spend weeks inside the museum, sitting attentively in front of that block fat; only then you would have been a witness to the impermanence of both matter and yourself.
Silly associations and references are often involved in nutty postmodern art critique. I hope not in this case. Indeed, it is precisely the transience of our fragile and precarious existence that the installation of Ronald van der Meijs recalls. His cacophonic sounds sing an ode to our own incomprehensibility – in this case, stripped of all anthroposophical drivel and pseudo-philosophical so typical for the Beuyses of this world.
Both ear and eye are confronted with our own decay.