VIVA KUILBOER by Oscar van den Boogaard
The landscape I lived in was a toy landscape. The life I lived was a toy life. Now I was happy enough to realise this, I was able to look at that landscape and myself and understand why things were the way they were. I could then stop being a toy myself and lead an authentic life, real life, a life in which, freed from strange perspectives, from the pressure of the past and an imposed conscience, I could allow myself to be led by my own curiosity, of which I could not explain the origin, but which I knew was the only source that could truly take me forward and which I wanted, yes, I wanted to get to know its mystery with my whole soul.
Oscar van den Boogaard, Bruno’s optimism, prologue to Oceanic Longing (Oceanisch Verlangen, 1993)
The artist is in New York and I’m allowed to go into her studio. She has left the keys for me in an envelope. I enter with some hesitation. To step over the threshold is to become weightless. To become an astronaut in a new cosmos, light and clear, apparently innocent. There is no hierarchy, no up or down. Everything is equally important. A photo on the wall. A couple of pencils on the ground. A sketch. A doll. A marble. A plastic guitar. A Polaroid photo. A note.
The artist’s studio reminds me of the life-sized jungle paintings by Rousseau. Impenetrable, without focus. Each square centimeter looks at you just as intensely. A jungle of wool, felt and paper.
In the distance I see a familiar figure. The Pink Panther (Suckers and fuckers and stupid retards, 2010). Soft, pink and despondent. He rests his elbows on his knees. Next to him, his loudspeaker made of fabric. He is doomed to be quiet and soft. His rage and sorrow have imploded. He sits on a bed of blankets. Next to the huge head of a cute teddy bear, decapitated. There is no blood oozing from his throat. Innocent stuffing is all that sticks out. Blankets everywhere. Light blue, orange, yellow. Folded or cut into strips in bags. Blankets give warmth and comfort. They remind you of the past. When things were better. When things were worse.
Why does the artist have this obsession with warmth and softness? To smother the rage? Look, there in the cupboard on the other side of the wall is the headless giraffe folded up between two shelves (Beim Schlafengehen, 2010). What has happened for this innocence to be so defiled? The cross-section of its neck consists of growth rings in friendly colours. As if the artist is stubbornly trying to present even that which is terrifying as something lovely. I see brightly coloured landscapes on the wall, made of pieces of felt in a wooden frame. Patchwork landscapes, pretty and soft. Near them there is a postcard of an equally brightly coloured patchwork landscape by Egon Schiele, the Austrian painter whose main theme was death and suffering. Leaning against the wall next to them is a ladder on which a broom is standing, pointing towards the ceiling. It is as though the broom is holding the ceiling up. Little red blankets act as soft buffers (untitled, 2011). Can the sky come crashing down at any moment and crush the earth?
I am standing eye to eye with a life-sized, dark brown horse. This must be the pantomime horse the artist told me about. I would like to touch him, he looks so soft and friendly. He has no eyes yet and sticking out from under his legs are two women’s feet with varnished nails (Us V Them, 2012). At this stage the horse still looks like a costume in which the artist and a colleague are hidden. A way to leave the studio after two years at the HISK without being noticed? It doesn’t seem easy to me for two people to be one horse. It demands the utmost coordination and sense of rhythm. Being one together. Isn’t that what love makes one long for and what reality makes impossible?
I notice a scribbled note to the left of the door. Written in pencil, it says ‘My greatest desire to see the deepest blue of the sky part IV’ and ‘70 slides of blue skies’. In front of it is a slide projector on a stand and on top of it a pale blue telephone. As blue as the deepest blue of the sky. On the dial, an empty rectangle, which seems so significant in the cosmos of the artist. Above the blank rectangle is the logo of a house on fire. Below the empty rectangle, a sinister black cross. The telephone is completely silent (not a work, collected objects).
Next to the telephone on a blue cylindrical pedestal made of paper lie three compasses unanimously pointing north (Looking for a certain ratio, 2011). What unanimity. The artist wants to determine her place in the cosmos. Because otherwise she would be completely lost?
Here and there in the studio stand grey metal radio masts. Miniature versions of reality. They make you feel like you are observing reality from a great distance. They are metaphors for sensitivity. Electromagnetic waves are received and sent. Connections are made possible. Reaching across the emptiness of existence. Perhaps across the boundaries of death and life. My eye falls on a Polaroid of an antenna (Antenna, 2009). The black silhouette of hands clenched together. The outstretched forefingers hold a nail between them representing the top of the antenna. The light is gloomy. The end of the day, or maybe actually the beginning. What is the antenna contacting?
On a stand a little further along are three walkie-talkies (untitled, collected objects). In the 1960s and 70s, long before there were mobile phones, they were every child’s dream. They suggested that in the future you would never have to be alone. You would always be connected with other people. Next to the walkie-talkies, four tin cans stand casually in a row. Children who didn’t have a walkie-talkie pretended they could make a telephone line with tin cans joined by a string. You had to talk so loudly that the other person could hear you directly.
I am starting to get used to my weightlessness. Toy globes of all sizes loom up around me. I float past My greatest desire to see the deepest blue of the sky part III. On the window, a piece of blue transparent plastic, stuck on by the corners with four pieces of tape, behind it the sky. My greatest desire to see the deepest blue of the sky part I, a Polaroid of a cheerful garden chair pulled upwards by brightly coloured balloons. The Polaroid has already become a little faint. The colours have faded. As if it is a memory. The chair with the balloons is a reconstruction of a true story about an American truck driver who always longed to be able to fly. A dream that was never fulfilled because his poor eyesight meant he could never become a pilot. As a small boy he had once had a plan to realise his dream and one day he decided to put the idea into practice. He went to the army surplus store and bought some weather balloons, filled them with helium, tied them to his garden chair, loaded himself with sandwiches, beers, a radio and a camera. He also took a shotgun to shoot the balloons when he wanted to come down again. His idea was just to float above his garden a bit but as soon as his friends cut the rope holding the chair down, he soared like a rocket to a height of around 4600 metres. Rigid with fear, at first he didn’t dare to shoot the balloons and when after a while he did, he lost his gun. For a long time he floated around until he slowly came down and ended up in an electricity pylon. When he made it to the ground he was arrested and fined for breaking air traffic laws. But nobody knew which. When asked why he had done it, he answered, “A man can’t just sit around.”
On another wall I discover My greatest desire to see the deepest blue of the sky part II, a series of Polaroid photos of a sky-blue marble held to the light. The closer the camera approaches, the darker the blue becomes. It is impossible to capture the heavenly blue. And if it is captured, time will fade the colours on the Polaroid.
I suddenly spot a postcard of a soft red squirrel. He has just jumped off one branch and is about to land on another. A squirrel in flight. The pinnacle of vitality. And also of domesticity. Because later, when he has gathered enough nuts, he will creep inside his nest. He is his own blanket. What security!
I go and sit at the artist’s desk. It is like a craftwork table, full of brightly coloured pencils, scissors and other drawing material. My eye falls on a sheet of paper with a bluish purple stain in water-based ink. Perhaps it is not a stain but a cloud. Next to it there are phrases written in pencil, joined together with arrows. At the top I read, ‘to leave a mark, to leave a stain’. Below, a number of sentences written one beneath the other and joined by arrows. ‘Desire to be understood.’ Above ‘understood’ is the word ‘clarify’. Other sentences that catch my eye are ‘I want to explain why’, and ‘I am obsessed with where it all comes from’ and ‘I am obsessed with the position’. From there an arrow leads upwards to ‘where the stuff is coming from’. Below this floats ‘not about something’ which is connected by a downward arrow to ‘a place, a moment’. At the top right of the paper, a number of phrases. ‘Say hello & wave goodbye.’
My eye suddenly lands on the artist’s flag. The same colours as the test card on the television made of felt (Transmission, 2006). Half of it is sky blue. The other half is divided into half pink, the other half is divided into half yellow, the other half is divided into half orange, the other half is divided into half green and purple (Declare independence, 2011). This flag hangs still in the empty universe where no wind ever blows, and where compasses, radio masts and telephones diligently try to make contact. What with? With the past, the future, death, life.
In On Making Manifest, a compilation of the manifestos of a number of HISK candidate laureates, the artist shows a virtually empty page. The title is Tuning my work. Beneath it, the headwords under which her work aims to establish a place for itself
I think the artist is concerned with grasping the ungraspable, comprehending the incomprehensible. Saying the unsayable. Transcending the unbearable weight. Being able to encompass endless space.
Living life to the full. Touching the heart of the world. Being an artist.
I remember the artist’s rocket (Expedition: in search of the echo of the big bang, 2007). A rocket made of felt and plush to take her into the cosmos.
It doesn’t matter that it can’t really take you into the cosmos. What matters is the intention, the desire.
I remember the exhibition Invite Someone in 2011 with work by the first-year HISK artists and their artist partners. The artist showed a slide projector on the ground projecting a small square of white light on the wall (Illuminate, 2011). I stood with the artist looking at it. She said, ‘I find the light so nice and woolly’. I have never met an artist before who would describe something abstract and conceptual as ‘woolly’. Conversely, she would also describe the blankets and pieces of fabric in her studio as abstract and conceptual.
When I stand up from the desk, I catch sight of something lying on the floor that seems to be moving. An extension cord coiling like a snake. The plug is hungrily looking for electricity and the four sockets in the caterpillar-like extension block yearn for contact. In the artist’s studio everything is connected and nothing wants to exist without the other. It is one big artwork resonating the longing for a glittering future without obstacles in which you never have to say goodbye to anyone and in which death and pain have been done away with for good.
As an encore, a memory of the worst thing I’ve ever done. I close my eyes and go back to the first classes of primary school. Two streets lead to my school. One is light and cheerful, the other dark and frightening. In the dark street lives Walter, a moron who pushes little children into a pit and gets driven round by his mother in a red sports car. I narrow my aperture to the afternoon on which I decide to head home along the dark street. I walk in the shade of the trees between the houses and the parked cars, terrified that Walter will jump out. Suddenly I hear a voice. Between the cars a small boy is sitting on the curb. He has a box in his lap. He asks if I want to look. I look round because I’m scared he’s Walter’s stool pigeon. The boy passes me the box. It’s a peep-show covered in pale blue paper. Cautiously I look through the hole. I see cotton wool, cotton wool, cotton wool and a bluish light. ‘It’s heaven’, the boy says joyfully. In a reflex action I put the box on the ground and trample it under my feet. I run away through the dark street towards the light. Behind me the boys crying grows. It grows and grows.
Translated from the Dutch by Michael Blass
From the publication: ’About waves and structure. Behaviour, disagreement, confidence and pleasure’ 2012