Back to My Project
Finally back to work with this project, after more than a year working with drawings and commissioned portraits for Trelleborgs Museum. This might have created some emotional and conceptual distance which I hope will have its benefits.
I will change direction.
I am working at a solo exhibition at Trelleborgs Museum where I plan to show large drawings and some large sculptures. Some of the drawings are akin to the drawings I have described earlier in this text, but transferred to a much larger scale. For the sculptures I plan a different technique. I have been thinking how to circumvent my habitual way of working—pictures as a basis for sculptures in clay—and came up with the option to work at a much larger scale. This automatically will bring another material into focus. With ceramics I am bound to the size of a kiln to fire my work; at home I have a kiln of 60 cm in height, for larger works I have to go to a specialised studio. But these large sculptures bring complexities handling them and they are very heavy in weight. So, I have been thinking of using papier-mâché and metal netting, which will allow me to work on a much larger scale without the problems I encounter using clay. Hopefully this method will bring other opportunities as well.
The sculptures will refer to human vulnerability and as before I will use pictures from victims of war. (picture) For this new series I will refer to French soldiers from WWI who where severely wounded in their faces but survived - "Gueules Cassées" or "Broken Faces". However, I will try to move away from a concrete and direct translation from my reference material. Instead I want to make large scale, more or less abstract 'heads' and I will try to mimic burned flesh with mixed techniques using textiles, plaster, papier-mâché, stearine and wax, inspired by Berlinde de Bruyckere and Magdalena Abakanowicz.
I will start with small-scale sketches to investigate this new approach.
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I find it extremely difficult to let go of the way of working I am so accustomed to. Working with a small sketch I should just put down some rough lines and go to the next sketch, but my urge to detail is very strong and hard to resist. (picture) The next sketch will be more abstract.
Making small scale sculptures brings forth working with detail; I tend to go for these details and make it a sculpture in its own right, but this sketch should be no more of a hint of where to go.
Yet, I simply love detailing these small sculptures. Details bring such an intimacy.
Working with a new and abstract sketch, I enter immediately a realm of fear: How to proceed? Can I do this? Can it be interesting in any way? As a result I am postponing my work, procrastinating, trying to find ways out, surfing the internet, writing.
What is it that I fear? Am I afraid of loosing control? Do I fear to prove that I can't work in this abstract manner?
I took a picture of a shrub (common juniper) since it reminded me of the form I want my abstract sculpture to become (picture) and I am mounting small pieces of clay onto stones so they can stand upwards, (picture) pointing me in the direction I want to go. I will try different options: more or less away from an actual head. It will be a form that is not a head but is referring to one, a form that is balancing and vulnerable, it can fall—and fail.
Keywords: Battered, Stabbing, Mutilating, Patching up—this piece has a relation to "Self-portrait battered" from 2011.
I realise that this abstract stone-like sculpture is not what I want. It should be more distinct. My piece can be abstract or distorted, but I think I want a more face-like appearance. I don't want it to become nonfigurative.
Let's face it: I am using a method of finding form. I might continue to develop the abstract form another time.
Once again I am into making sculptures of war victims, "Broken Faces" or 'gueules cassées'. (picture) These man are gravely wounded in what can be seen as the most visual, vital and basic part of their identity, in the area where this identity displays itself most clearly to the outer world, the part that is most difficult to hide: the face. Their outer appearance is severely distorted, sometimes obliterated; these wounds reach so deep that we no longer can get a clear image of the identity of its bearer, these wounds have thereby changed their identity. (Or do we have to speak of their former identity?) We do not longer perceive a persons face, but his wounds. This person has become raw flesh. Flesh that inexorably visualises and reminds us of our own vulnerability and death. Something we don't want to bear witness to. We turn our gaze, leave the wounded self with its suffering and continue with our own lives. (Van Eecke, 2007)
My question is: Why am I once again involved in this type of content matter? What is my fascination with these wounded men? It both fascinates and intimidates me, it confronts me with my own fear. Susan Sontag says that we are fascinated by these images because it reminds us of how brutal reality can be, while at the same time we are relieved because we realise that it is not us who is the victim, but the Other, we are only spectators paralysed by this drama. "So far as we feel sympathy (…with the victims…), we feel we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering. Our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence." (Sontag, p 91) How can I translate this content into sculpture?
A new attempt, after the sketch that didn't become abstract at all. I start sort of rough, with the intention to make a piece that becomes more abstract. But where I find it no problem to make an abstract drawing, I find it extremely difficult to make a sculpture that is abstract. This is my third attempt of a portrait of a guy who lost his lower jaw, using pictures of different stages in the surgical reconstruction of his face. Until now I used the picture where the reconstruction is completed, but for this new piece I will use the picture where the wound is fresh and one is looking at a gaping bloody hole in place where used to be a jaw. This offers me the opportunity to work very detailed with specific parts of the face and make undefined meat on other parts. It will heighten the contrast between normal, undamaged parts of the face and parts that are obliterated. (picture) By doing this, I create a figurative sculpture with a part that has an abstract notion to it, both formally and metaphorically. My 'abstraction' needs to have a function. I find it hard to make it just for the sake of it.
So, after a week of sketching I have decided to use a sculpture I have made in 2011 as a basis for my first BIG HEAD. A portrait from "War against War!" ("Krieg dem Kriege!"). This too is a portrait of a man who has lost his lower jaw, but they have 'restored' his face with the knowledge of plastic surgery from the early 19th Century. This face doesn't look devastated at first glance, but is clearly mutilated if you take a second look. It is not as abstract as I thought I would go, but I consider this to be my best option. Let's see where I land.
I woke up last night in fear that I would not be able to fulfil this project. My daughter came in and woke me up and immediately I started to think about all the possible difficulties with this project and that I cannot deliver an exhibition in four months. I feel pressed to produce a good and interesting show. Now that I am awake, it is not as bad as I thought, but it gives an indication that I am getting nervous for my show. Do I have enough time? Can I deliver? Will the chosen technique hold?
I plan to make a sculpture using a framework of metal netting on which I will mount paper mass with the help of cloth. I came to think of paper mass since I saw my colleague sculptor Jone Kvie using this material to produce sculptures that are both thin and light-weight. (picture) I will make a paper mass of toilet paper and wallpaper glue and add plaster into this mixture. After some experiments and working with a small scale commission for Trelleborgs museum, (picture) I know that I can add up to 50% of plaster into my paper mass. The result is a papier mâché that dries faster, is much stronger and has an almost white surface, which makes it is easy to paint.
I make a rough form in metal netting which I enforce with steal wire. (picture) On top of this metal I mount a glass fiber mat with smaller holes than the metal netting to make the paper mass stay in place. (picture) For this purpose I also use jute cloth.
I have started to cover my piece with jute cloth. (picture) Until now I have used jute to mount the paper mass on my sculpture, but now I want see how far I can go applying just jute cloth on my piece and seal it later with stearine.
I kind of like the expression. It looks freer and more remote from what I usually do. (picture) I noticed that I started to mimic clay with my paper mass, but that was not my intention—with jute I don't stand a chance of coming even close to the expression of clay and that is the whole objective for this project. As a result of working with jute this face looks 'patched up', and that is what I was after.
I have worked much faster than I thought I would, partly due to working with jute cloth instead of paper mass; I am nearly finished and that is fantastic and comforting. I means that I will have time for a second BIG HEAD and all the rest.
Back in the studio.
I've finished my BIG HEAD, went on a holiday, made "Monolith", a fully abstract sculpture that is referring to a head that I will show at my exhibition in Trelleborg—and now I am ready for a new piece, another BIG HEAD.
I am very pleased with the first BIG HEAD, it really changed my way of working/thinking and this change happened unexpectedly, unannounced and in the blink of an eye. I tried to speed up the process of making my sculpture and applied jute with only glue—no paper mass—and suddenly I saw the possibilities for a change. This time I listened to my guts and continued working with jute instead of the intended method, with a surprising result. I like the expression of this sculpture very much: It holds a feeling of vulnerability while the size makes it impressive and massive. (picture)
For the new BIG HEAD II will roughly sketch in clay to determine the form. No detailed eyes, ears or noses. But for some reason it is easier to let go of all these details, they don't matter anymore since I cannot make any details with jute cloth and glue. The detailing of these sculptures takes place on another level where the individual threads play a role and the materiality of jute cloth comes with it's own expression.
Can I make such a simple conclusion as this: due to traumatic experiences with psychoses as adolescent, I am inclined to work with artistic themes involving human vulnerability, as a form of recuperation, with the intention of healing myself. These wounded men stand for wounded souls and more specifically, my wounded soul. Due to my psychoses I have to make these kinds of works to heal myself, while I work in my studio to keep in balance.
Louise Bourgeois states: "I have been to hell and back. And let me tell you, it was wonderful." (Bourgeois, 1996) I think this is a deeply cynical and disgraceful remark, yet I think it is interesting since Bourgeois implicitly claims that her work is of a very personal nature.
But even before my psychoses, my work had an autobiographical touch. Formally it was abstract and dealt with contrasts: open-closed; dense-loose; introvert-extravert; convergent-divergent—oppositions that still play a role up to this day, at least in my abstract works. Nevertheless, despite their formal appearance, my early works were linked to how I felt during my adolescence and early adulthood: socially uncomfortable, inhibited and insecure. These early pre-psychotic works are, just as my later works, personal and have autobiographical elements; they were exploring my psyche and sexuality. Subjects that I found too difficult and shameful to articulate in spoken language became accessible working with visual art, through a non-verbal form. Now, after 30 years of working with visual arts, I can articulate these contents in spoken language. Art has made me grow as a person.
I realise that I cannot finish this project if I don't make a sculpture in wood, as first intended. As it is now, without a decent conclusion, this project is watering down, from a concentrated and focussed start to a text diverging into various elements and topics. Although this mirrors the way I work, I need to scrutinise it and refocus. I have achieved my goal—working in a different way and in a new material and this text follows and articulates this process—but I do think it is more satisfying to complete the circle and finish my project as I intended from the start.
Carving in wood is new to me. I have carved in stone and in sand (picture) but never in wood. I started yesterday and already destroyed one chisel by striking a hidden nail. In a way cutting in wood is similiar to carving in sand. In both techniques you initiate the work by building up a volume in which you start to carve. With sand sculpture you compress sand in a mould, making a block in which you can carve. With wood you glue together bits and pieces until you have a block of a desirable size. Stone is more predetermined, you have to take as it is—or choose another block.
I have started cutting and I think it is going very slowly. I have to work my way in. Clay is much more flexible and receptive. This slow process might become interesting!
It actually never comes into my mind to make art that is not object based. I love the handmade artefact. I think that the non-material based works of Tino Sehgal—social interventions with an art public (for exemple These Associations, performed at Tate Modern)—can be very interesting, since they are so radically different from object-based arts, but I could never make works like that. It is simply out of my reach. I find myself belonging to a generation of artists who are concerned with the object in whatever kind of form. I realise that I belong to a group who is criticised by a new generation of artists. I am a white middle class male artist sitting in my enclosed studio, staring at my belly button, looking for new ways in my process and I realise that if at rare occasion a new insight reveals itself, it is a small change, maybe relevant for me, locally, but irrelevant in a bigger international art context. Nevertheless, I seam to be able to make work that is appreciated and can touch people on an emotional level and for me that is very relevant and enough reason to continue with my object-based work.
Just as it is with sand sculpture and stone: you have to dare to go in, make progress inwards. Penetrate. Now that I have gotten to know my tools, I experience this carving, cutting, infiltrating, invading and penetrating work to be cathartic. It triggers some kind of relief. When I worked in stone many years ago, I had the same experience. I thought that it was the physical work that made me have this feeling, but maybe it was the act of penetrating and invading (this new territory) that induces this feeling. Interesting. I compare it to my drawing, where the actual physical work at its best transcribes an emotional condition that takes form as drawing, as if the act of drawing releases an emotional energy that transfigures into my drawing, transcendentally visualising this energy.
For some reason I think it is difficult to work my way into this sculpture. I use my clay model (picture) which I am basically copying to my block of wood. On my model I see where all the facial features are, where the nose starts and ends, how wide it has to be and the exact location in relation to the eyes, eyebrows and mouth. So when I transfer these points to my block of wood, I know exactly where to cut, but, for one reason or another I am still at the surface and hesitate to go in. I think it has to do with the fact that there is no return if you make a wrong cut, which makes me cautious. Clay is much more flexible and easy to correct.
What, for Heaven's Sake am I doing? I am cutting in wood, but every fifth minute or so I'm drawn to the computer. The computer that I am hooked to, that takes a far too big a space in my daily activity. This is modern life: if I only have contact with my Facebook and Instagram accounts and if I can read my newspaper, I feel save. I long for deepening my work, I long for being in the studio, having time for reflection and contemplation—but instead I fritter away my days in a Facebook-incubator, checking my status all the time. That is what my sad days are about. I am sick and tired of it.
My lack of concentration is certainly increased by the slow process of cutting in wood, which takes even more time since I run away from it. I am procrastinating and postponing. I seem not to be too interested in cutting this portrait in wood. But I am also insecure about how to proceed: will I cut away too much? Will I be able to make a good sculpture at all? This is my first piece in wood. Will I allow myself to fail?
What I actually want to do in my studio is: sit, focus, think, draw and write! Instead I am doing this painfully slow handicraft of cutting in wood. What is interesting is that I am doing sort of the opposite to what I long for… but that's nothing new to me. Frustrating.
If I want to finish this project with Börje Lindberg, as well as the accompanying text, I need to make this piece in wood—or decide to quit for a reason. Nevertheless, mechanically copying an existing sculpture doesn't come near to the artistic renewal that I had in mind. I will try to see it as a study, as an expansion of my artistic repertoire, while reflecting on it in this text. Maybe then this woodcarving becomes meaningful, because up till now I am only struggling with a new technique.
I feel serious about quitting this sculpture. I have put a lot of energy in it and I think it is frustrating that it never will be good. It will remain clumsy and amateurish. I know that I cannot expect too much from working in a new technique for the very first time and I don't think that I ought to produce a masterpiece right away, but while woodcarving in itself might be interesting, I certainly cannot find new perspectives in copying a sculpted head that I first made in clay. This might be a wrong path. I can persist, convincing myself that I have to finish a project that I have started—just for the sake of it—but that's a waste of energy and a conservative attitude. I would rather focus on things I want to do. Progress can come from an insight that a chosen path is wrong.
This doesn't mean that I will stop working in wood altogether. I feel triggered by cutting in wood and I just got the beginning of a feeling for the tools, but I think that copying an existing sculpture is not the right way to go. If I want to work in wood, it might be better to have a proper block of wood and cut it en taille direct, just as it comes and see where it leads me, just as I do with some of my drawings. That could open up new perspectives.
So I come to the perfect solution for a failed wood sculpture: put it in the fire!