seconds of history
Art is the medium per excellence for transposing a person’s sensations, mood, emotions and reflections in a form that stimulates the senses. The aesthetisation of society has blurred the distinction between reality and art. Art no longer places itself in opposition to the world, but has become a part of it. Only by continuously devising new languages can art still raise a barricade against the public space, which is increasingly characterised by a standardised visual spectacle imposed by the crafty dominant capitalist ideology. Art, formerly autonomous, has been driven back into spaces organised especially for that purpose. It has lost its connections with the outside world, causing it to be perceived from the viewpoint of the museum, and no longer from a perspective on public life. How can an artist today show an efficient and relevant reaction to a society and a civilisation that is becoming more globalised by the day? If artists are not capable of averting the threat of being assimilated, they can at least slow down the eye and the mind. What contribution can art make these days, in content or in form, to offer a contemporary answer to the rampant aesthetisation of society? Should art take a stand? Should art oppose conceptual homogenisation? Is art capable of keeping the memory alive of an art that conferred meaning on society? The contemporary artist depends on grants, institutes, subsidies, the right middlemen, a gallery, and the institutions that direct the circulation of art commodities. Artists who stand up for a project and defend an opinion and a point of view on the position of art and the artist are sanctioned. That is paradoxical for a closed art world that is otherwise characterised by a progressive political attitude towards the outside world.
In this text, I do not take a neutral position with respect to the artist Jan De Cock. On the contrary, ever since his first tentative but indicative steps on the art scene, I have known him as a young and intelligent artist and a staunch friend, who has never stopped surprising me, with every new project, with his clear-cut and mature views on his activities in the art world. What is so very remarkable is the ‘space’ he always manages to claim and organise for himself. Jan De Cock’s artistic production avoids narrow-mindedness, smallness and ‘artistic pettiness’. He most definitely belongs to the real world and he uses his broad knowledge of the history of art and architecture in developing projects that cannot simply be defined as traditional works of art. His art could be perhaps best described as ‘causal’. His projects are ‘looped’ together, as if he were ‘writing’ his oeuvre. It is not just a linking together of loose fabrications that are given an artistically pleasing form. With his outspoken defiance, his worldly and frank presence in the art world has been a strong and noticed one for several years now, alert to every sign of complacency and apathy. He condenses his cultural baggage in impressive installations which invariably ‘house’ examinations of the production and perception of contemporary art. A touch of nostalgia is always to be found as well, not in a regressive form, but as a surge of energy that suffuses his art with a desire to ‘improve’ on existing circumstances and situations. Young artists are no longer interested in a utopia, but focus on small parts of reality which they try and bend to their will and/or provide with a service. Today, the artist’s commitment is closer to home. The pub, that favourite haunt of idealists, has been traded in for the trendy lounge bar with its insistent drone of music, where harsh reality is toned down and faded out into a make-believe world.
In the course of discussing a number of his installations (some of which I commissioned myself), I would like to circumscribe the unique position of the early work of Jan De Cock in the contemporary visual arts.
The work of Jan De Cock is based on a number of parameters. To start with, architecture is often very strongly present as the support for wooden sculptures and constellations. In this respect, one may state that he proposes exhibition models that ignore the existing, specific context of exhibiting art, but are simultaneously full of explicit references to it. He queries the concept of the ‘white cube’ by conceiving constructions that are both sculpture and architecture at the same time. That is why it makes sense to speak of ‘monuments’, because they combine references to the history of the exhibition venue, the history of exhibiting art in general, and his own work. The latter appeared very early on in his installations, in the form of framed backlit Cibachrome prints. A monument gives shape to an active memory in a language designed to impress. In a sense, a contemporary monument takes the spectator back to a lost sense of grandeur, in the same way that a traditional monument commemorates a historic event from a monumental distance and in a manner that commands respect. A monument invites one to enter it, draws one to the heart of its message, creating a mythical-humble tie with the subject. With Jan De Cock, you get a similar ‘methodology’, with the spectator walking inside the work of art and being reminded, at the same time, of being in the midst of a ‘constructed’ place that is inspired by a thorough study of the history of that same place. This permanent and built-in ‘duality’ in the work of Jan De Cock – in which the spectator, on the one hand, experiences an autonomous installation in the art context as a detached monument/sculpture, and on the other hand, once inside, loses all sense of direction – means that this kind of art generates a dual and double-edged perception. His work fits in with the ideas of the French artist Daniel Buren on the issues raised by art in situ/ex situ. The concept of in situ art has been clearly explained and elucidated by Buren himself in an interview with the French critic Jérôme Sans: ‘Très simplement et principalement, un travail non seulement en rapport avec le lieu ou il se trouve, mais également un travail entièrement fabriqué dans ce lieu. D’ailleurs, les premières utilisations de ce terme dans mes cartons d’invitation ou autres le faisant précéder par le mot “fait”.’ Jan De Cock makes work specifically for the place where he is invited, and, after manufacturing the elements in his workshop, assembles these prefab pieces on site. Compared to the transportable ‘cabanes’ of Daniel Buren, Jan De Cock goes much further in rejecting the concept of moveability, with the only exceptions so far being his recycling of minor details and the repeated reuse of his illuminated Cibachromes in other installations. Consequently, he situates himself at a singular place in the completed story of modernism, without giving in to gratuitous Spielerei or reverting the endless repetition of a superficial spatial gimmick. His production sides with the work of major artists such as the aforementioned Daniel Buren, Dan Graham, Mario Merz, Michael Asher and Thomas Schütte, but also Thomas Struth, René Daniels, Atelier van Lieshout, Jorge Pardo and Günther Förg. This list is not a case of name-dropping, but a general indication of artists whose ideas are parallel to those of Jan De Cock, in the sense that they too wish to develop an oeuvre that consists of a relevant ‘loop’ of works and interventions. The remembrance of art itself, and the insertion of one’s own busy artistic development into a discourse with both internal and external relevance to broadening and deepening meanings, is also a recurrent theme in the oeuvre of Jan De Cock, which continually circulates from the past to the future. His method is ‘all-in’: the artist temporarily takes over the function of an institute and determines the organisation of the space and the circulation. His work is clearly no ‘gallery art’, with the exception of his illuminated Cibachromes and the series of framed photographs entitled Temps Morts, which may end up in a collector’s living room, albeit only on condition of following the artist’s instructions. His production is ‘against design’: the installations are thoughtfully designed and well made, and they testify to a great desire (as big as Panamarenko’s overweening poetic wish to fly) to build an ideal place where art and architecture are joined in a meaningful union.
The exhibition at Argos in Brussels – Jan De Cock’s very first big show – already featured wooden structures that were interconnected to form a chain of rooms where videos were shown. With a bit of imagination, he was alluding to the ‘primitive hut’ that also plays a major role in the work of Dan Graham. Just like in his installation at Strombeek cultural centre (1999) – which, due to the ‘loose’ nature of the sculpture, became a perfect open site for children, who loved to clamber about in it – a monumental wooden dolly track dominated the entire space. In Strombeek, Jan De Cock covered parts of the concrete walls of the cultural centre with rough whitewood timber. The security camera was incorporated in the installation: a matching shape was carefully cut out of the striking wood covering to make room for it, so that it was elevated to the status of an exhibition object. Because of the curiously seventies-style architectural context of the cultural centre – an exponent of the fancied utopia of the democratisation of culture that gained hold in the late sixties – the centre was a perfect location for this project. In both places, especially in Argos but in Strombeek as well, the cinematic aspect of Jan De Cock’s production was evoked in a complex yet revealing sculptural manner.
The re-creation of a space became the basic concept for Jan De Cock’s contribution to ‘Beeld in Park 2000’ in Etterbeek, of which I was the curator. In the proposal, the invited artists had been explicitly asked to find a way of breaking out from the relative seclusion of the intimate little park and establishing an organic relationship with the neighbourhood that tended to ‘watch’ from behind the safety of the fences around the park. Together with the other artists, which included Jef Geys, Anne Decock Van Raef, Jean Bernard Koeman and Herman Maier Neustadt, Jan De Cock came up with an extraordinary and impressive proposal, which even initiates thought would be quite impossible to achieve, after its first conceptual elaboration. The concept consisted of moving the entrance to the exhibition (though a small green gate) to the former gateway of the Hap Residence, which housed a social services centre at the time. The historic relocation of the entrance to the house, and therefore to the exhibition, eventually afforded visitors an extraordinary view of an enormous picture window, completely ‘filled’ with the green of a splendid large shrub. The tone of ‘Beeld in Park’ had been set. Right from the beginning, Jan De Cock put the green on display, turning it into a ‘pretty picture’ that even claimed pictorial qualities. At the same time, this ‘entrance’ was an apt and succinct statement on art and nature. The enormous wooden pavilion fitted in perfectly with the plain and rather austere white-painted buildings lying behind and around the Hap Residence. The simple wooden construction was architecture, and it looked as if it had always been there. On the inside, the module served as a counter, a cloakroom, a lookout for the attendants, and, via the two small doors, as an entrance hall to both the well-kempt park where the exhibition was held and to an area of ‘wilder’ and more peaceful grounds, mentally a bit further removed from the works of art. Jan De Cock’s contribution to ‘Beeld in Park 2000’ was so complex and inspiring because it was so many things at once: it functioned as an autonomous, minimal wooden sign within the exhibition, it was the organisational heart of the event, and it was an interior space in which an abstract sculpture was presented to the public. In that new space too, the eye was led, quite literally, towards the window with the green shrub, by means of an impressive dolly track, and very explicitly, there was even a dolly lying on the wooden floor. The cameraman had gone out for a minute, and the cinematic gaze was entirely up to the spectator. In fact, once the exhibition was over, the module actually served as a set for a film, demonstrating the extent to which Jan De Cock considers a work of art/construction as a medium for multiple goals and purposes. The erection of the structure, at almost unbearable temperatures, took two months. There were innumerable hurdles to overcome with the municipal and regional authorities, and the financial implications exceeded the budget of the exhibition. Jan De Cock demands creativity from everybody! His single-mindedness demands a completely different attitude from collaborators and cultural workers towards the active filling-in of the concept of art. It was clear that, by working for months to realise a work of art, he was essentially forcing the organisation to think along with him and reflect on his particular methods. During the construction phase, the artist and the curator, working in consultation, both assume the role of ‘entrepreneurs’, who need to conspire and stick to a strict organisational schedule in order to realise a ‘different’ and major work. It is striking, though, how Jan De Cock manages, without relying heavily on official funding, to bring such large-scale productions to a favourable conclusion. It is clear that the artist has to be a keen manager these days, capable of negotiating with public-spirited industrialists and bankers willing to give young artists a helping hand. This inspired combination of intelligence, organisational talent, diplomacy and technical skill is typical of Jan De Cock. Ever since ‘Beeld in Park 2000’, his work has attracted attention in top contemporary art circles in Belgium and abroad.
His contribution to ‘Beeld in Park 2000’ bore the rather enigmatic title VERTIGO or the era of free catalogues - part 2. This title is already the first subtle reference to reconstructions of sets for films no one has ever seen. His play on the words ‘era’ and ‘area’ clearly hints at his intention to shift and alter the relations between place and time. Waterloo was his very first reference: a mythical place where Napoleon’s defeat is commemorated. Jan De Cock’s videotape shows a buzz of activity around the conical mound of the Waterloo monument, with a lot of running about and lugging of scaffolds and planks without any clear purpose. Art has everything to do with loss. This is a thesis that Jan Vercruysse has been defending for his entire career: first comes loss, and then the world. The film that was shot after the exhibition on the ‘set’ of ‘Beeld in Park 2000’ was one that ‘enlarged’ the war media. It immediately became the starting point for a series of works (figures) entitled collateral damage, alluding to the military euphemism for innocent war victims. His magnificent contribution to ‘Beeld in Park 2000’ was a large-scale exercise in rethinking sculpture and installation and their transformation into architecture as well as in reversing the aura of a work of art in the direction of a service-oriented and democratic space, without harming the singular and complex construction method involving many different woods, producing a place that could be called ‘constructive’ in both the literal and the metaphorical sense.
Already in 1987, Thomas Schütte stated, in connection with this, that ‘the involvement of function in a work of art is no mean achievement for the contemporary artist and that the concept of improving the world remains an interesting one’. Schütte went on to say that he always aimed for ‘strong art’, to meet ‘a need for space-filling, physically overpowering art that produces an effect merely by its presence’. That is also how the art production of Jan De Cock is to be understood: its compelling spatial presence has an impact that gives way to mental and intellectual reflections and associations. There are quite a few artists who try to manipulate exhibition conditions or turn them into the main subject of their oeuvre. Blinky Palermo took the space itself as the subject for austere geometric paint markings that exhibited the architectural space as a sculptural identity. In the same vein, there are the murals by Günther Förg, who often combines colour with monumental photographs of historically important ‘austere’ architecture. Around the mid-eighties, the Dutch painter René Daniëls made brilliant paintings and drawings in which blossoms and quaysides became metaphors with which he cited titles from his oeuvre and thereby placed the work in a particular history, represented as a diagram. Working along this line, Daniëls even conceived of exhibition structures of which the white walls formed an organic-seeming blossom. He also painted ‘dream’ exhibitions in bright colours and in a shape of which the minor shifts in perspective reminded one of a bow tie. The German artist Thomas Struth made a magnificent series of photographs taken in the world’s most renowned museums. His pictures of museum rooms recorded busy moments, when visitors engage in an almost physical relationship with the exhibits. Recently, the Austrian Heimo Zobernig installed, in K21 in Düsseldorf, a kind of rough ‘shelter’ made from the ‘wild walls’ taken from the previous exhibition of the work of Rodney Graham, that had just been disassembled. The shelter had a roof (!) for the projection of one of his video films. A radical concept was devised by the Cuban-American artist Jorge Pardo when the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art invited him in 1994 to hold an exhibition. He decided to build a house, which he later (from 1998 onwards) used as his permanent residence and studio. The work of art literally remained standing and served to live and work in. Among these artists, whose interventions, in my opinion, have had an indirect influence on the work of Jan De Cock, one artist in particular stands out: Marcel Broodthaers. His art, which embodies the desire for a presentation of a different kind, remains a historic milestone. The emblematic work Salle Blanche (1968), which Broodthaers installed in his furnitureless apartment, was a sharp gibe at the negative impact of the ‘white cube’ – the neutral white art space. On the walls, he had written words referring to the museum and the art market and their ‘hierarchies’. In that sense, Marcel Broodthaers’s use of the ‘popular-taste’ concept of ‘decor’ is an unmistakable reference to the contrast with the museums and galleries that cloak themselves in an aura of value-freedom and unworldliness, symbolised by the internationally standardised neutral white of their walls. Jan De Cock also produces ‘decors’, which become platforms for reflexive walks with constructed sculptural obstructions. In more recent work, they are infiltrated by professionally framed photographs which, in a series of 24 images, indirectly refer to Broodthaers’s Une seconde d’Eternité - d’après une idée de Charles Baudelaire. It is a strange little film, exactly one second long, in which the artist’s initials, ‘MB’, appear in a flash. Marcel Broodthaers: ‘Sur le modèle Narcisse j’ai voulu d’1 seconde (24 images) pour moi seul. (Je me regarde dans un film comme dans un miroir). L’idée me suffisait...’ The critical institutional interfaces of Jan De Cock’s work with the current state of modern and contemporary art makes his production flexible in time. His work thereby becomes a forum for discourses in references to art, architecture and cultural politics.
As part of the project ‘Grimbergen 2002’, Jan De Cock was faced with the challenge of working in the extremely difficult context of the Museum voor Oudere Technieken (Museum of Old Techniques, ‘MOT’ for short), which is housed in a typical specimen of Flemish vernacular architecture. On the first floor of this educational museum, an entire presentation is devoted to the history of woodcraft and carpentry. For De Cock, this setting established a link between the history of woodworking technology and his installations, which mainly consist of wooden constructions. The rich array of tools on display in the museum’s innumerable cases, ranging from chisels, saws and screwdrivers to all kinds of drilling tools, including the most fantastic models, is meant to facilitate the telling of stories of the technology of yore that has almost vanished from living memory. Faced with this swarm of ‘like-minded’ objects with their pretty little labels, Jan De Cock immediately picked up its vague formal similarity to the installation Musée d’art moderne, département des Aigles section publicité by Marcel Broodthaers, shown at Documenta V in Kassel. Broodthaers’s installation consisted of framed and numbered photographs, crates, slide projections and empty frames with the eagle as the central MB motif. ‘Fiction makes it possible to capture reality as well as what is hidden behind it’, Broodthaers said about it in the text of Documenta V. Visitors to the MOT in Grimbergen find themselves in a fictitious, imaginary world, rather like a stage, emphasising the link with the ideas of Marcel Broodthaers. In the rear section of the MOT, Jan De Cock inserted a module that greatly improved the atmosphere and the appearance of the museum and its presentation of exhibits. The rather stuffy old-fashioned museum was instantly transformed into a modern museum. With simple interventions, the many display cases were raised on wooden platforms, creating the impression of a pavilion. A new low wooden ceiling hid the raftered roof from view, so that visitors were less distracted by it and were able to pay their full attention to the collection in the display cases. The disappearance and, in fact, reversal, of the heavy rafters, was quite remarkable. In Jan De Cock’s new structure, the roof was turned into a bizarre detail that, observed in its display case, became an exhibit in itself. The heavy ‘Flemish architecture’ became a museum object for a while. Visitors who cared to look up were also able to see a few small cut-outs in the new wooden ceiling, through which bits of the roof showed, proof that they were still inside the MOT and had not been entirely ‘cut off’ from it. This went so far that visitors could catch a glimpse of the method used by Jan De Cock for putting up the temporary ceiling without hammering a single nail into the untouchable wooden roof construction of the Museum of Old Techniques. This goes to show that Jan De Cock even thought it worthwhile to ‘musealise’ his own working method via a viewing hole in a display case. A long, narrow slit offered a view of the green grounds of the museum where Atelier van Lieshout had placed a series of facility sculptures from AVL-Ville. When you looked through the slit, you had to watch out for a shallow ditch, lined with red wood, that had the effect of a psychological barrier on the visitors’ behaviour. The MOT was given a relevant ‘upgrade’ with which the artist advanced a statement on the museal qualities of the local museum while simultaneously placing ‘his’ art in the service of a general improvement of the service.
Very subtly, he managed to heighten his well-delineated module with numerous references to architecture, photography and minimal art. At the entrance of the figure stood a kind of module/seat structure reminiscent of the modernist architecture of Walter Gropius and, in particular, Mies van der Rohe. In the first place, one is reminded of buildings such as Philip Johnson’s Glass House and Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House and his Pavilion in Barcelona, buildings that are completely transparent, and many of which were conceived as places where art and design were to play a major part. The public character of transparency, which was taken up in earnest later in the work of Dan Graham, was, in the example of Mies’s Pavilion in Barcelona, based on vaguely nationalist grounds. This brings us to an absolute masterpiece by the Canadian artist Jeff Wall: Morning Cleaning (1999), a monumental Cibachrome transparency of a photograph taken in the early morning of that very same pavilion, featuring a window-cleaner, a man who actually does the job every day, just after he has finished lathering the enormous glass window. The suds obscure the view of the female figure by Georg Kolbe standing just outside the window. It seems an everyday scene. The care taken to arrive at a perfect composition keeps Jeff Wall’s art level-headed. Wall makes detailed photo compositions that are connected to the historical fault lines in the history of painting created by artists such as Courbet and Manet, just like Jan De Cock keeps an eye on modernist architecture and on the work of Marcel Broodthaers and Daniel Buren, to name only two.
De Cock’s work in the MOT in Grimbergen bathed in the light emitted by a large empty light-box, a strong light that created complex effects which not only caused the collection items to reflect one another, but also made the visitors meet other people in dialoguing mirror images in unusual places. The absence of a picture in a spot where one would have expected a Cibachrome was like a negation of the reproduction. The introduction of illuminated Cibachromes is a constant element in the recent productions of Jan De Cock. These recurring backlit transparencies place each new installation in the context of the distance covered by the artist in his artistic career. In a place- and context-determined installation, which is difficult to reconstruct at a later date, the principle of a photograph as a ‘souvenir’ is to be interpreted as a documentary record, a visual inventory, a way of recording successive artistic steps. In contrast to the strictly archival status of the ‘photo souvenir’ of Daniel Buren, Jan De Cock lends his photos an extra dimension by taking them from angles that visualise the personal perspective of the artist with regard to his own work. Not that he wants to present an ideal visual point of view. What he wants to offer is a view based on the experience and appreciation of the maker/artist. However, again in contrast to Daniel Buren’s ‘photo souvenirs’, Jan De Cock’s Cibachrome transparencies do find their way to the art gallery circuit.
The commitment of the ‘receiving organisation’ determines the margins within which the artist is able to radically change the normal routine within the institute, divert it and improve on it, thus subjecting its presentation platform for contemporary or other art to a critical evaluation of the requirements of respecting the quality of the exhibits. Denkmal 10 at Stichting De Appel (April-October 2003) in Amsterdam was conceived as a long-term project with a short and vigorous start-up phase of only ten days. Jan De Cock transformed the whole of De Appel into an intermediary zone, alien to its surroundings, of autonomous and self-sufficient interventions and highly enjoyable reflections on the existing architecture. From room to room, from transformation to transformation, visitors were taken though the story of how De Cock stands conceptually midway between autonomous art with roots in the ideals and ideas of modernism and art that relates to the needs of present-day museum-goers. Austere sculptures, some allowing entry and others closed, in which light and space had free play, perfectly alternated with installations with a more utilitarian function, such as a video space and a cleverly built-in library, reflected the committed preoccupation of Jan De Cock with making art that has solid foundations in reality. No hazy mystifications here, but ‘presentations’ that are deeply rooted in the history of modernism and constitute an alertly critical artistic comment on the generally poor quality of the organisation of public space and on the lack of commitment on the part of contemporary artists to this important social process. For the first time, he also presented his Temps Morts, a series of neatly framed photographs of places that, in his view, appeal to the heroic imagination. He is not just interested in places with a museal quality (such as the site of Brancusi’s Endless Column in Romania), but also in extraordinary social housing and in particular public places, such as the Ravenstein gallery in Brussels, that are linked to inspiring and community-building architecture. With this photo series, Jan De Cock is not only letting the public into his personal interests, but is also showing his predilection for cinema, and in particular for the artistic production of Marcel Broodthaers. The series Temps Morts consists of precisely 24 pictures, an implicit homage to Marcel Broodthaers, whose film Une seconde d’éternité (1970), with its 24 film sequences, lasts exactly one second and immortalises his initials, ‘MB’. In this little masterpiece, Broodthaers gave the critical and self-mocking vanity of the artist an unparalleled cinematic form. Jan De Cock avails himself of strategies from the past to develop an individual language that unhesitatingly monumentalises his views. Although his thinking and work always refer to the history of art, he still realises his ideas to the full, and with a keen sense of sculptural monumentality, at a tangible and visible level.
At Stichting De Appel in Amsterdam, he achieved a sophisticated symbiosis between all the issues he has been investigating and probing for years. Never before in his early oeuvre has he given the concept of beauty a better form. The play of light created by the reflecting surfaces off the many different kinds of ‘artificial’ wood was a brilliant image of a totally ‘different’ experience of De Appel, and during the first ten days of the Amsterdam project, it was a visible tour de force that made an indelible impression.
It is clear that Jan De Cock’s young oeuvre is one that reaches into the heart of the malaise of the museum and gallery circuit. What I mean is that museums and art halls have increasingly turned into machines that seek artists who fit in perfectly with their interpretation of concepts or collections. The artist has become a puppet of the system, which is held together by a broad international consensus and by the discreet banishment of artists with overly outspoken opinions on art and its relations with institutes, art criticism, the public and society as a whole. The malaise runs deep, because the content of these artists is banned. Just like the economic system, museums are permanently producing a surplus, and are forgetting to take care of (that is: curate!) the ideas that always precede a good work of art. The current malaise is also hitting so hard because of the weakness and narrowness of the ‘reflexivity’ that is produced in our institutes. This creates a snowball. Add to that the far-reaching popularisation of art reviewing in our media, and it is clear to any observer that most contemporary art has sadly and inevitably allowed itself to be drawn into the system of value-free entertainment and display.
Jan De Cock makes art that is anchored in reality and makes statements about the way we take it for granted that the presence of art in our lives is confined to places that are cordoned off and financially maintained for that purpose, such as museum and art centres. He does so in a loud voice, not just for his own sake, but also to break open the public discourse and turn it into a broader reflection on contemporary art production.