Currently on view at CCMechelen in Belgium is the extroardinary and aptly titled show BRIGHT. Incorporating the works of six international artists into a ‚total installation‚, the space has been transformed into an adult-sized wonderland of color. The ignition point of the show was initially the dire state of our current world political situation, the show is really an exploration into how the philosophy of Absurdism can be translated into art.
I spoke to the show’s curator, Samuel Vanderverken and two of the show’s artists, Stephan Jaeschke and Arthur Stokvis— all of whom I already knew from their times spent in Leipzig around 2012. We discussed how the show was conceived, their strong artist network (that kind of started during their simultaneous times in Leipzig), and Absurdism as an artistic way of life.
Humanity has advanced, when it has advanced, not because it has been sober, responsible, and cautious, but because it has been playful, rebellious, and immature. -Tom Robbins
I remember all of you from Leipzig and I got to sort of experience a lot of how the three of you came together. Maybe I experienced Arthur professionally the most because he was working in the Pilotenkueche, but Stephan did that awesome show at Malibu Beach Club and Samuel did at least one presentation at Halle 14. I consider each of you individually to be exceptionally interesting artists, but I also remember some of the exchanges you guys had at the time. I really smiled when this show was announced because I saw kind of connections with the stuff you were all talking about and working about back then….
Stephan: Two years ago, I organized an exhibition called INTELLEKT und HUMOR in Leipzig at Westpol a.i.r. Space. My wish was to go in a direction of a ‘total installation’, an exhibition as a playfield for the viewer. I thought about, which artists that I knew, are open for such an experimental approach and can work together in an open process. I invited amongst others Arthur and Samuel. I trusted on their skills to take it not to serious and play freely with the context and the space. So for me this was the real starting point to work together with them on shows in the future!
Samuel: Throughout that year in Leipzig, I further developed my ideas on Absurdism, the philosophy that in my opinion now connects our ideas and work. I did a show called Gute Fahrt at Demmering74 at the time, which was seen by Sebastian Denda, the ‘Spiritus Rector’ (also at) at Westpol a.i.r. Space. He later made the connection between my work and Stephan’s. Maybe Leipzig is a place that attracts people with a similar way of looking at the world– but that’s just a speculation. In Leipzig, I met the painter Lorenza Diaz from Basel, who is a mutual friend of Arthur and me, and I did talk with her about Arthur and his work from time to time. But it was in 2008 that I participated in an exhibition in Leuven, Belgium, in which Arthur took part as well. We talked a little during the construction of this exhibition, but we only met again in 2015 at the exhibition INTELLEKT und HUMOR that Stephan mentioned before.
It’s funny, I know Stephan Jaeschke’s work from Arthur—he took me to see it at the Masters Class Exhibition at the Werkschauhalle.
Arthur: For me, that time in Leipzig contributed a lot for this show. At first I connected to the work of the others. I fell in love with the bad-taste glitter paintings of Stephan. And later on, with making that show with Stephan and Samuel, I connected with the DIY-mentality– to really do it as we want, not making another boring ‘correct’ show, but to make it full and fun and give it all we have. And living in Leipzig together in this kind of splendid isolation where all that matters is work was very important to me.
How did BRIGHT come about? How did the idea start?
Samuel: I think the idea started to form at that exhibition “INTELLEKT und HUMOR” that I mentioned earlier. Stephan mostly curated good friends and connections, and it was Sebastian Denda who suggested Stephan to look into my work as, for him, my work could be connected to the concept of this exhibition. That’s when Stephan contacted me for the first time. I was very enthusiastic about the whole idea, and the artists included, and I was more than happy to contribute.
At the exhibition in Westpol I met Bonno (Van Doorn), and I also met Arthur again. Unfortunately we were only able to spend one evening together as I had another show around the same time in Belgium and I had to get back to build it up. But I guess the exhibition of Stephan laid out the foundation for other projects. In 2016 Bonno and Arthur co-curated the exhibition No Cover Image at Arti et Amicitiae in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Although I didn’t take part in this exhibition, I saw it as a follow up of the exhibition at Westpol. This exhibition brought the works of the participating artist closer together in one installation. Seeing the images of this exhibition I had some kind of ‘Aha-experience’. (Smiles) For me, it looked like an exhibition that had to be made today, or something I always wanted to do without realizing it. I made a promise to Westpol that, if I would find a budget and a space, I would make an exhibition in Belgium. But as I was working on my development as an individual artist, it just didn’t happen. Then one day I saw an open call for the Belgian Pavilion at the Venice Biennial. That’s when I decided to write a proposal that continued on the ideas of Stephan’s, and Arthur and Bonno’s exhibitions. For this application I had to partner up with a Belgian art Institute that wanted to showcase the same exhibition if it were to be selected for the Biennial. The Cultural Centre of Mechelen engaged itself in promising that. Eventually, even without being selected for the Biennial, the CCMechelen allowed us to develop this project in their beautiful spaces. The title of our proposal for the Biennial was Critical Brightness, which stood for the following: ‘CRITICAL’— ONE: Judging acts, works, statements, theories, etc. and TWO: Very serious and decisive / essential. ‘BRIGHTNESS’— ONE: the relative amount of light or dark that is given a surface by the amount of light reflected by it, and TWO: A bright mind: A bright, enlightened spirit. Eventually, during the preparations for the exhibition in Belgium, we decided to simplify it to BRIGHT. Being ‘bright’ doesn’t necessarily need to be a critique; It’s rather a possible state of mind and way of working.
I like this dance between primitivity and intellectualism in the show. It’s kind of underlined by this title—BRIGHT: it’s so primitive that it’s intellectual; it’s so intellectual that it becomes primitive again—Absurdism…
Stephan: For me, the logical development of our complex world is a steady approach of intellect and ignorance. Through too much new information and images we delete the old ones step by step. By their multiplication we invalidate them. In my opinion this is not absurd, it is rather funny. So the title of the show in Leipzig, INTELLEKT und HUMOR, was quite right.
Arthur: Yes, for me it’s about the attitude to go against this mainstream way of making art shows where its all about getting some super serious message over to the public in A4 handouts in a clean, dead environment. This way of making art is so terribly descent and ‘good’ and I think it’s boring, because physically and visually nothing happens.
Samuel: For me, recently, ‘Absurdism’ and ‘wonder’ somehow became two interchangeable terms. Instead of saying That’s absurd!, when looking at the current state of the world or just looking at our daily surroundings, one could also say That’s wondrous!. Our inexplicable place as human beings on a planet floating somewhere in the universe, and our awareness of this, is both ‘absurd’ and ‘wondrous’. (The former being more negative, incomprehensible and critical; the latter more positive, accepting and bright.)
How did each of you get involved in participating in it? Aside from Samuel, obviously. (Smiles) What role did you, as artists, (as well as the other artists involved) play in developing this show and deciding what artwork to use?
Samuel: For this show, I wanted to work with people that shared a similar worldview. Since I had been part of the show that Stephan did in Leipzig, and I had seen images of Bonno and Arthur’s show in Amsterdam, it seemed obvious to me to ask them for this project. With Warre (Mulder) I already did a few shows before and I knew he would be a good match since we have many common interests. Sofie (Ramos) was a less obvious choice. I only knew her work for two years and only from the Internet, but her work seemed to fit very well within the concept, so I decided to invite her as well.
Stephan: I can say that it was a grass-roots democratic process to develop the exhibition. We chatted very much, exchanged pictures and ideas and agreed a lot in advance. In the exhibition room itself we helped each other building up and some works had to be postponed to build a coherent parcours.
Arthur: Yeah, through Bonno and Samuel I got involved– so you can say friendship played a major role here. Choosing the artwork went in a very fluid, enthusiastic, anything goes way. With the goal not to get your specific work on a kind of center stage, it’s to let the works play together. (Smiles)
Samuel: In September 2016 the functionary of culture, Anne Van de Voorde, and the Director of CCMechelen, Koen Leemans, green-lighted our project. They also gave us the freedom to develop the project as we saw it– within the given budget of course. (Smiles) From that moment onwards, until the start of the construction, we have constantly been in touch online. At the outset of the project everyone had the freedom to develop whatever they wanted, and everyone was free to comment on each other’s suggestions. But eventually we had to bring the whole thing together, and, as the initiator of the project, I made the final decisions. I think by writing the proposal for the Venice Biennial, we had a good starting point to find common ground and to get to know each other.
How much are the other artists in the show involved with Absurdism?
Samuel: In my opinion, this idea and way of working is what unites all artists involved in this show. In 2012 I co-curated a project in Belgium with Warre Mulder and Geert Koekoeckx— another Belgian artist. The project was titled Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space. As a starting point for this show, we used a text I had written after reading The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus— his essay on Absurdism. After this project, it took me a while to let the idea of Absurdism really sink in; although I already had a similar world-view before getting to know this philosophy, it was only a after reading it that it started to influence my work.
Samuel: The freedom this theory evokes is both liberating and terrifying– as anything becomes possible. It challenges you both as a person and an artist to really engage in life and art, to constantly explore unknown things in any direction, in the knowledge of never coming to a conclusion. Moving from one thing to another. This constantly pushing forward, piling up experiences and ideas and confronting them through working, weighing one thing against another. I think we all find meaning in this persistent movement, and in being surprised by what comes out of it; by what the world and art has to offer. Also with Sofie Ramos, again whose work I only just discovered two years ago, and only online, there was this similar connection. I quickly found out, after talking to her on Messenger, that most of what she was doing boiled down to the theme of absurdity. So she seemed, and eventually also was, a good match for this show.
Stephan: You can call it Absurdism, Rejection, Complexity. Our existence is so contradictory– we fly to the Mars and take photos of our food. We let people starve and buy art or paint to paint. In my opinion, it’s the possibility of the art to thematize this: Who am I? Who loves me’ What am I doing?
Arthur: I think for me the love for Absurdism starts with working with one foot in the painting tradition and the other in this post-punk nineties, bad-taste, trash. To create a world outside conventional morality, a kind of upside down world, where bad becomes good, ugly becomes beautiful. In the work, seemingly innocent shapes get an aggressive political quality and happy motives like the smiling ghosts can suddenly become repulsive. I like to play with this push and pull effect where the work attracts you and pushes you away. For example, the massive use of florescent colors gives the works a beautiful aura and cheap tackiness at the same time. It creates this kind of low budget mysticism. (Smiles)
Looking at the show visually, it feels like a few massive components came together to make it happen– like it was conceptually built out of Lego bricks or something… It is so well-constructed, it would have worked really well at the Venice Biennale…
Stephan: Maximum color and shape and texture as large and loud as possible. BOOOM! (Laughs)
Arthur: I think here it really helped that painters put the show together—it’s really full on effect, visually.
Samuel: We all live and work far from each other, so it was quite a challenge to put this show together. Even more so, as it wasn’t our goal– as you mention– to create a ‘classical’ group-exhibition. We laid the conceptual groundwork for this exhibition by writing the application; then, I drew a 3-D sketch (in SketchUp) of the spaces. I sent this to the other artists– together with pictures and a video of the space– so they had an idea what it looked like. A private Facebook group was created to make it easier to communicate. In this group, we initially posted what inspired us and on which projects we were working separately.
Samuel: The first real decision we made for the exhibition was to create a carpet for the space that would bring the whole thing together. Ten proposals and two months later, I made a design on which most of us could agree. This was the toughest decision we made. During this time proposals for other works came in from each artist, and once the design of the carpet was decided on, some of these proposals responded to this design. At the beginning of 2017, I combined all elements and ideas in a clear and summarizing pdf-file. From then on, everybody worked separately in his or her studios to finish the work that needed to be done before the construction on site.
How much of the show was done before and how much of it was created there?
Arthur: We had a very intense two weeks of building up– a lot of the works– the murals and The Tower of Hornville were made on the spot.
Samuel: Half of the work was done before we started the real set up. Sofie, Arthur and Stephan knew they would make wall paintings– although not yet clear what they would look like. Arthur and Stephan would bring some big paintings on canvas, Bonno would bring big sculptures and– together with Arthur– he was going to construct a ‘painting-tower’ (The Tower of Hornville’, Warre would make a construction on site with wood, where his sculptures would fit in and I would, next to my small paintings, create four big paintings on wooden panels to cover one wall. Three weeks before the opening we started with the construction. The first week I laid the carpet, which took me four days, together with two assistants of the CC. From the second week onwards the other artists arrived to install their works in the spaces. Sofie decided to work with the colors of the carpet and to continue the design on the wall. On the back wall, Stephan spray-painted a giant interpretation of a Matisse on which he put some of his paintings. On the left wall, Arthur made a wall painting with patterns in fluorescent yellow on which he glued cutouts of little ghosts. The ‘painting-tower’ was built, the sculptures installed, Warre made his installation, and I hung my wooden panels over a wall painting and suspended my smaller paintings on PVC-panels from the ceiling. Some other paintings of Arthur, Bonno and Stephan were spread over the space and all of a sudden, BRIGHT was a fact. (Smiles)
Stephan: Some paintings and drawings were transported to the exhibition venue and planned in advance by Samuel where they found their places in the show. I created the large-format wall painting on the spot, with acrylic spray paints. I made other painting-objects from fabric and carpet rests on site. I spend ten days in Mechelen and we worked lots of hours each day.
Samuel: Overall, the set up was hard work, but it was a blast. Working closely together for two weeks, and spending the evenings together was really inspiring. We all stayed at the Holiday Inn Express hotel in Mechelen, which made it really comfortable as well. We also had great support from the technicians of the CC who helped us a lot in finding the best solutions for the installation. Of course, there were a few discussions as well, but I think that’s unavoidable. In general, we really had a great time. (Smiles) And what’s more important: we really made a wonderful show together!
SHOW CLOSES 04. June 2017.
BRIGHT — Group Exhibition
(25/03 – 04/06/17)
An international and ‘total installation’ initiated by Samuel Vanderveken.
Artists: Stephan Jaeschke, Warre Mulder, Sofie Ramos, Bonno Van Doorn + Arthur Stokvis
Cultuurcentrum Mechelen / Minderbroedersgang 5 / 2800 Mechelen, Antwerp, Belgium/ Th – Su 13 – 18 h
Photos: Copyright + Courtesy of Samuel Vanderverken + the Artists, all photography by Frédéric Leemans ©