Is it Art, as Usual?

Bart Verschaffel


Magritte: "Que voulez-vous, ce n’est que de l’art..."

Duchamp: "On fait ce qu’on peut"


Jan De Cock strode into the art world with all the self-confidence displayed by employees of a gas or telephone company, when they arrive unannounced, walk right into your flat, and start shoving the furniture around as if they owned the place, just because they’ve got a job to do. De Cock does not sit and wait alone in his studio, surrounded by the works he has made or planned until a gallery holder, critic or collector comes by and shows an interest, so that he can gradually gain public attention and then eventually end up in the museum. He does not wait until someone else decides to publish a book about his work. He is an entrepreneur who takes charge of his business. He makes his own books and resolutely heads straight for his goal: the heart of the art world, the museum. For the artist who is able to make the museum into his workplace has already struck home.


De Cocks works in situ, but his art is not site-specific, just like the workmen who install a heating system in a building do not make site-specific installations. They arrive to perform a particular task; they are professionals who do what they are good at; they are ‘specialists’. It is, quite simply, a part of their job to adapt to the specific circumstances of a particular building. But these workmen do not ‘respond’ to the site. The specific circumstances of the location may set the preconditions for the job, but they are not a question to be answered, nor a point of departure. In exactly the same way, De Cock arrives on the scene with his material, his tools and his team, to make his work, without it therefore becoming an ‘intervention’, or a commentary on the situation. His work has the status of an autonomous statement, which supplements and occupies an environment – an existing building, a place where art is gathered.


De Cock brings along his own outil artistique: fibreboard or formwork panels and simple carpentry tools. These materials are store-bought, standard-size materials. De Cock does not use planks or beams sawn from a tree trunk, but varnished panels of pressed woodchips and glue. This material has been cut off from its mythical origin and its associations. It does not have the effect of ‘wood’ versus ‘stone’ or ‘steel’, for instance, as in ‘natural’, ‘organic’ and ‘warm’ versus ‘artificial’, ‘dead’ and ‘cold’. In other words, the material is not laden with meanings or connotations. It is ‘neutral’. Moreover, it is a modern, industrially manufactured material. It smells of the factory and of machines. No-one has touched or signed it; it has not been ‘enriched’ by sensitivity or by contact with the hands of a master. It is material without depth, without secrets, without history. The finishing layer varies in colour, but the hues are all in the same range and are not in contrast. In other words, the material is relatively homogenous. The only contrast that embodies a distinction of meaning is that of the uniform, smooth plane versus the narrow sawn edge: at these edges, the surface that is closed, ‘skin’ and ‘exterior’ differs from the narrow edge that reveals the ‘flesh’ or the ‘interior’ of the material. The sawn edge is clearly the product of a violent act, and of the decision to saw along precisely that line. Moreover, the rough, naked edges suggest something that is not (yet) ‘finished’.


The construction elements are panels and openings in panels. The register of operations performed with this material is very restricted. The boards are cut along straight lines and the rectangular pieces are then stacked or combined. All corners are right angles. There is no skilful variation with the saw. No irregular shapes, no obtuse or acute angles, no arches, no curves. As a result, the construction elements used are always interchangeable. Since all the parts have the same thickness, there is no visible hierarchical distinction between heavy or load-bearing elements and light or resting elements. De Cock does not work with beams or columns. The primeval form and mythical basic image of construction – the column, the tree, the symbol of the connection between heaven and earth, the erect human figure – is absent. All elements, including those which are vertical, which de facto bear the weight of the construction, are segments of a panel, pieces of a plane. No single part has a reserved place; in principle, every part can be used or reused elsewhere. They have the equality of lines and planes in geometric drawings or Constructivist collages.


With this material and these principles, two kinds of constructions can be built: buildings or objects, that is to say architecture or furniture. In the first case, the construction creates a well-defined space, a kind of ‘inside’ that befits the scale of the body, that can be entered and explored, either in real life or in the mind’s eye. The structure becomes a building, architecture, it gives room to things and space to move in, with an ‘exterior’ that occupies a place in the world and can be seen from a certain distance. A cabinet or chest is a sub-category of this formation: a kind of simplified structure that replicates the approach of an ‘architecture inside architecture’, but on a scale that is smaller than the body, adapted to the size of household goods and the grip of the hands. This second type of structure is an object: a compact and impenetrable volume that does not contain space and carries its function and meaning on the outside: a chair or a bed, a hallstand or a shelf. Architecture and design of the twentieth century – for instance the work of Gerrit Rietveld, several Russian Constructivists and the Bauhaus designers – have demonstrated how both architecture and furniture can be made according to the same principles and using the same materials. This approach allows for the making of light and open homes in which there is hardly a sense of ‘mass’. However, in between or beside architecture and the object or piece of furniture, there remains a ‘third’ option. Question: what is a structure that is neither architecture nor object? Answer: art!


De Cock works in situ, on the spot. As long as he is working and hammering – such as during the months preceding the exhibition at Tate Modern – it seems as if he is busy making architecture. It all starts with setting up a construction site, which does not look any different, at first sight, from the workshops and temporary structures that appear whenever workmen start renovations or restorations. De Cock’s carpentry causes the same kind of inconvenience in and around the building as when workmen do their jobs in a building that stays open for the duration. And he creates the same kind of strange situations and unsettling confrontations that appear wherever manual work is done in spaces intended for intellectual work; confrontations between very diverse sounds, clothing and actions, between the distinct regimes of ‘dirty’ and ‘clean’. Meanwhile the intellectual workers watch in fascination as someone makes something. The whole of De Cock’s activity radiates purposiveness and method, practicality and efficiency, know-how and insight, in short: professionalism. While his structures are under construction, they even look as if they have something to do with maintenance or facilities, as if they are preparations for a specific finished end. They look like formwork for concrete, before the concrete mixer arrives or before the wall is poured; or they look like unfinished carpentry waiting for a covering, like a partition or a false ceiling, in the same way the body of a car is fitted over a chassis, which solves the puzzle of what all those holes and hooks could be for. All this lasts until the day De Cock and his team remove all the spare bits, sweep away the dust, pack up their tools and disappear, without having ‘finished’. And then it transpires that this was what they were working on all that time. The fact that they have taken all their equipment away and tidied up behind them, means that this is not a work in endless progress. The structure that seemed to be on its way to eventually becoming ‘architecture’, turns out to be a construction that is ‘finished’ as it is. If this was the intention from the start, then – in hindsight – the realisation dawns on the spectator that the team’s purposiveness and efficiency, and the impression given by the workers that they knew very well what they were doing, were misread. It seemed as if everything they did had a good reason, a professional motivation, but now the truth is revealed. The technical appearance of the thing is a misunderstanding. There is no real reason why a panel is placed just so and no other way, no real reason why those holes are exactly this big or this small, or why they are placed where they are. There never was a program or function against which to measure the accuracy of the construction, or which made the construction necessary and understandable. And so this is not architecture, but art. As long as the work is in progress, it gives every impression of being a building, but what was thought to be a rational and motivated construction, appears to be as devoid of raison d'être and as personal as the ramshackle, impressionist constructions of Kawamata. They are self-willed, like every brushstroke is free and random.


Perhaps Jan De Cock does not make architecture, but furniture? Conceptual art and minimalism have produced ‘objects’ that mean nothing or remain silent, that are neither image nor functional object, but stand in space as objects-that-are-not-used (and therefore: as obstacles). However, De Cock’s constructions do not autonomise into objects in that way, not even when they have the size of objects. In most cases, they are – literally – stuck to the floor or the walls, and can therefore not be seen or thought as freestanding, autonomous things. They attach themselves to the building or to its interior, they lean or rest on furniture that belongs to the permanent fixtures of the room. When the construction does look rather like a chest or room, and acquires an object-like character (as is the case with some of the works in Tate Modern), the space inside those objects is further filled according to architectural construction principles. Thus, the structure never becomes shaped matter or sculpted ‘mass’, but remains a box in which the principles of the exterior are endlessly repeated in the interior. The insides are packed full of panels, offering views of other panels and blind surfaces. These works almost seem like huge toy building-block structures, do-it-yourself kits, condensed architecture. If one were to pump empty space into them, would they become buildings?


What can be the purpose of this art, an art which does not make images and does not even want to make objects? What can it accomplish? Jan De Cock’s work succeeds in steering and determining the gaze of his spectators. He makes looking devices. This is achieved by blocking and screening views, by the precise placement of his objects, by using holes and surfaces to create a frame that cuts out an image from a view, by leaving slits and holes that absorb the gaze and fix it in a depth. The meaning and value of these operations, of which many examples can be found in the work of many artists of the 1980s and 1990s, needs to be determined anew for each project. Certainly in this respect, the method and work of De Cock can be compared with those of Daniel Buren. However, the specificity of his ‘artistic tools’ implies that De Cock always (also) relates to the architecture, and not only, or even primarily, to a spatial, institutional and/or social situation or ‘environment’. And yet his work is never the kind of object or work of art that situates itself in space and clearly relates to the architecture as an antagonist. Does his work truly open up an intermediate space, a margin? I do not think so. De Cock does not open any ‘possibilities’. He certainly does not free any space that could subsequently be used or filled by others. He does not release anything, but controls everything, and himself fills the space he creates.


A Denkmal by De Cock is not art, in the same way that vermin is not an animal, and mildew not a plant. The interventions of De Cock are architectural parasites: they are like an ethereal, light and smart substance that proliferates on and around architecture. In contrast to many plant and animal species, mildews or ‘moulds’ produce no clear forms, have no limbs and no bodies. Moulds can be perceived as endless building processes that keep developing according to an internal elementary architectural logic, without there being a beginning, a middle or an end. From close up, they display a bizarre, abstract, fascinating simplicity. They suggest regularity and purposiveness, but their order and precision do not serve any external purpose, nor express any intentionality. But the fact that a mould appears and flourishes in a particular place betrays the nature of the environment. De Cock’s art is indicative, it acts as an informing agent, it is a marker and a gauge.