Hans Theys is a twentieth-century philosopher and art historian. He has written and designed dozens of books on the works of contemporary artists and published hundreds of essays, interviews and reviews in books, catalogues and magazines. All his publications are based on actual collaborations and conversations with artists.

This platform was developed by Evi Bert (M HKA / Centrum Kunstarchieven Vlaanderen) in collaboration with the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp (Research group Archivolt), M HKA, Antwerp and Koen Van der Auwera. We also thank Idris Sevenans (HOR) and Marc Ruyters (Hart Magazine).


Guy Rombouts - 1998 - Cowboys, Knights, Circus Artists and Other Extra Terrestrials [EN, interview]
Interview , 13 p.


Hans Theys

Cowboys, Knights, Circus Artists and Other Extra Terrestrials
Monica Droste and Guy Rombouts in conversation with Hans Theys

Rombouts: I was born in Leuven and bred in Geel. My mother was a stationer and my father printer-publisher of a weekly local newspaper called ‘Het Nieuwsblad van Geel’, that has entered its 145th year. My great-grandfather, who was a foreman, took it over from its founder.
It was nice to live in Geel, with its famous home care. I found it great, as a child, to bump into grown-ups who behaved completely unpredictably. Like this Dutch lady who made the most fantastic hats with fruit, twigs, birds, and many other things. Every time I saw her, I would inspect the new contraption to see what objects she had been using this time.
              I still find it a shame that fewer and fewer patients receive home care. Leading psychiatrists all over the world had just cottoned on to the fact that the Geel method worked wonders, when the system was being downsized. According to me, this was mainly caused by industrialization and traffic. An increasing number of couples both went out working, so there was nobody left to take care of a moony character at home. Many of whom were fascinated by cars. They loved to direct the traffic. One man loved to jump from behind this huge tree. The main road from Geel to Kasterlee used to be tree-lined. It was quite common, as you drove along, to see this chap jump in front of you, always from behind the same tree, pretending he was trying to commit suicide. He had devised this special toreador technique for it, which allowed him to avoid the cars in the nick of time. All the locals knew they would never hit him, but tourists regularly complained, and he was eventually boxed up. Next to us lived an electrical appliance retailer, who built his own TV broadcasting station in the fifties. He had plans for making local broadcasts. He was also shut away. His name was Henri Borstel. He had a bike with a saddle that was much too high and rusted solid, so he had tied a block of wood to each pedal to be able to use this bike anyway.

Droste: My Dutch is not entirely up to scratch. I don’t feel a hundred per cent comfortable speaking it. I should speak Dutch with Guy more often.

Rombouts: That won’t be so easy. (Laughter.) At times a ‘yes’ is all you’ll get out of me. Which makes it difficult, of course… It’s the ideal way to sabotage conversation.

Droste: Guy and I always speak English together.

Rombouts: Broken English in my case.

- How did you end up in Belgium, Monica?

Droste: I was very lazy and didn’t want to work eight hours a day. So I decided to become an artist. I wanted to be free. When I was small, I wanted to do everything for one week. One week of being a tram driver. One week of being a firefighter. And then I said to myself: if I become an artist, I can do all of that, alternate all professions… I’m from Warsaw. My mother is an architect, my stepfather was a painter. My parents knew everybody in Warsaw. Which seemed way too easy to me. When I said I wanted to go to the academy, my stepfather rang up this professor he knew. When I said I wanted to go into the theatre, my mother rang a good friend of hers who ran the theatre school. I wanted to get away from Poland to prove that I was able to actually do something myself. It was very hard. I ended up in Belgium because I had met somebody who told me that finding a flat in Brussels was easy and that life wasn’t too expensive there. I had tried New York, but couldn’t afford it. Everything costs money there, schools, etc.. The Belgians are open to people coming from other countries. They aren’t as chauvinistic as the French or Germans. The chauvinism in Poland had disgusted me and Germany was out of the question. The best choice seemed Belgium. The Belgians are more open. Because of the two languages, people don’t hear that you grew up in another country either. When you speak French, they think you’re a Fleming. When you speak Flemish, they think your mother tongue must be French.

- Germany was out of the question…

Droste: My mother’s grandmother was French. Her side of the family looked to France for everything. My father’s family was more geared to Germany. My grandfather on my father’s side was as good as German, he even studied in Germany. He lived in the Prussian part of Poland, in Poznan, the biggest Polish town west of Warsaw, between Warsaw and Berlin. My father’s family was very strict and disciplined. When my parents split up, I opted for my mother. My first partner, the father of Manka (Monica’s daughter), was a Jew, as if by choosing him I were making a statement against my father.
            All through my youth, life and thinking in Poland were highly influenced by World War II, which we were virtually ‘force-fed’ at school. In primary school we were told the most terrible stories. Later we were taken to Auschwitz and Majdanek. I was fourteen at the time. We were made to watch this film with thousands of skeletons. It was terrible. In Auschwitz they only showed a film, but in Majdanek they had kept the camp exactly like it looked after the liberation. In Auschwitz you still had this brick section that had been built for the Red Cross, but in Majdanek, which was a much smaller camp, all you saw were wooden barracks. That is where I felt what it really must have been like in a camp. There was this heap of human ashes and we were forced to walk over it. That was terrible. I refused to walk over or touch the ashes. Theirs was much too brutal a way of conveying the message to the children.
            We could also travel to Russia for free, but nobody did it. It would have made us feel like traitors. Now I wouldn’t mind going! At school you had the party members’ kids. They wore suits and red ties. They did go on holiday to Russia. Everywhere there were two camps, also among the teachers. There were the pro-Russians and the anti-Russians. The history books were telling a pack of lies. Our parents knew this, but they never talked about it, for fear their children might have problems at school.
            At the end of World War II there was this rebellion in Warsaw. The Polish government had fled to England when the war broke out, but we also had a communist government in Russia. Both camps had a secret army in Warsaw — mainly 18- and 19-year-olds. When the war was over, both secret armies rebelled against the Germans. The Russians were on the other side of the river, waiting until the Poles and Germans had destroyed each other. When everything was over, they ‘liberated’ Warsaw. All of Warsaw had been razed. They had even been fighting in the sewers. Did you see that Wajda film? ‘Le canal?’ Lots of people died then. Tapta and her husband were in that army. They were both captured by the Germans and taken to a camp. Fortunately, they were treated like officers. Later on, they emigrated and came to live in Leuven.

Rombouts: Her husband was a really nice man.

- The Russians also killed two thousand Polish officers in Katyn…

Droste: … among whom my grandfather on mother’s side. My grandparents were large landowners in what is now Byellorussia, I think, in the Ukraine. That is where my grandfather was arrested in 1939. He had gone to my grandmother to tell her to pack their things, that they would flee the Germans. That is when the Russians came to arrest him. My grandmother and the children were hidden in an air-raid shelter my grandfather had built. They left it at night and my grandmother asked a farmer to take her to Poland across Russian territory. She paid him with a ring.

Rombouts: They did have a Swiss account, but the shock erased the code from her mind. They were very rich before the war. We have a photograph in which Monica’s mother and uncle can be seen playing with a monkey. They are holding him at hands and feet and swinging him like a hammock.

(He goes to look for the photograph and comes back with a pile of books and a biscuit tin full of photographs.)

Droste: That’s a nice one, with that ice-skating rink.

Rombouts: Yes.

Droste: Next to their car…

Rombouts: Cocteau writes that looking at photographs is like falling down from a high building and catching a glimpse through every window.

Droste: Saint-Nicolas… Santa Claus…

Rombouts: Some sort of communist version of Father Christmas.

Droste: Yes, in the communists’ palace.

- You often make works of art based on your alphabet, the Azart. What does the word Azart mean, in fact?

Droste: It obviously refers to AZ-Art, but the word is also the old spelling of the French word ‘hasard’, which means coincidence. There is something coincidental about the shape of each language. There is no link between the shape of a word and the object to which it refers. The shape of the letters in the Azart does have a visual origin. The ‘a’ stands for angular and the ‘h’ for a hairpin bend, for example. And since in our Azart, we link up the last letter of each word with the first, we are able to draw figures that occasionally do express the concept of the object in question. You never know in advance what shape a word will yield. At times it is a scary shape and you think you’ve come up with a monster. Cancers… (smiles) At times we spend ages trying to find a nice shape!

Rombouts: Yes.


- When you first come across it, your work seems rather hermetic and serious.

Droste: Our texts are free and playful, but hardly anybody ever reads them, which gives people the idea that it must be serious stuff. The work we have just made for the Brussels metro, for example, consists of lots of word games. Onomatopoea like vroom and broum, a number of palindromes… Next to the dark hole of the tunnel, we have written the palindrome ‘Was it a cat I saw?’, with the sentence in the shape of the cast shadow of a woman. Other palindromes form silhouettes of cowboy-like creatures, knights, magicians, circus artists and other extra-terrestrials. Is there a serious message behind this, Guy?

Rombouts: I wouldn’t call it a barrel of laughs myself.

- One of your first exhibitions consisted of an alphabetically arranged series of 26 three-letter objects. A fez for the letter ‘f’, a mat for the letter ‘m’, a net for the letter ‘n’, a pie for the letter ‘p’, a yen for the letter ‘y’, etc.. Marc Callewaert describes what happened at the end of the exhibition: ‘When the exhibition was over, a car stopped in front of the gallery, a naked man walked in and started removing the lot. He put the yen in his mouth, the fez on his head, stuffed the smaller objects in the net, rolled up the mat, and left the premises.’

Rombouts: I once drove to Geel (the town’s name means yellow in Dutch) with a Chinese friend whose name was Oey, a Chinese word for the colour yellow. His skin was yellow, his name was ‘yellow’ and we were driving in a bright yellow van. Four times yellow.

Droste: Five times, since you were a Chinese too.

Rombouts: Yes, once, in primary school a boy in my class called me a ‘Dirty Chink’. He came and stood right in front of me, a few millimetres away from my nose, looked me straight into my slit eyes and said : ‘Dirty Chink’. I didn’t mind at all, because I wanted to be a Chinese anyway.

Droste: Because you had this uncle in China.

Rombouts: An acquaintance of a friend of my father’s… During a talk at the Hasselt prison I once wrote the word ‘inside’ around the word ‘outside’ on a board. One of the prisoners recognized the prison’s ground plan in the pattern. “Look, that’s the prison governor’s office,” he said, “and these are the toilets.” I still can’t decide whether he was having me on or not.

Droste: When I first saw the alphabet, I was fiercely against it. “People don’t need this,” I said to Guy. “You’re trying to impose it on them.” To which Guy replied : “You are right, but all alphabets are random impositions on people and reality. They have nothing to do with reality. It’s like

projecting a political map onto a landscape.” That got me thinking about words and it seemed important to me that each word in the Azart would be closed shape, a semantic island with which you could express yourself. I used to think that words were very precise, but upon my Azart encounter, I realized that we all associate our own meaning with words, so that each word acquires a relative meaning.

Rombouts: Words have a shape. They are semantic containers. They are boxes that are filled with our personal history.

Droste: Words change meanings.

Rombouts: The same words can have a different content. Each person fills in the words for himself.

Droste: We try to make our interpretation of a word clearer, but by the same token it also becomes more romantic, cowboylike and emotional.

- Could you give an example of an Azart-word you are pleased with?

Droste: The words ‘Tao’ and ‘Tau’, forming a circle that looks like a sphere. They have an endless shape that is both complex and simple. There’s also this yin and yang feel about them, with both halves separated by the ogee of the ‘o’.

Rombouts: (From the kitchen.) The sentence ‘Form is void and void is form’. We cut away the sentence in white cardboard, and hung the cut-away letters next to the cardboard. It makes clear how every form stands for a void.

Droste: The idea behind that work has become clear, but the final form could have been better. It was just an attempt… Another work I quite like is ‘Living, Learning and Reading’. I’m not sure about the word order. Together they draw the picture of an instrument that is used in masonry.

Rombouts: A trowel… Anyone care for some soup? (He brings two bowls of soup, consisting of bits and lumps of dozens of different vegetables.) Are you familiar with Stefan Themerson’s work?

- No.

Droste: The classroom that was exhibited in Gent, was a sentence from his book ‘Logic, Labels and Flesh’.

Rombouts: (Coming back from the kitchen.) Ever heard of bonito flakes ? Would you like some in your soup ? It’s dried fish. There’s cheese too if you like. (He puts a board with tiny sandwiches and a chunk of sheep’s cheese on a small table between me and Monica.)

Droste: ‘Sub-atomic events harden into the objects we sit upon, and abstract nouns acquire the solidity of a table.’ The chairs in the classroom are the words of the sentence and the tables the abstract nouns.

Rombouts: I’ll get the book.

Droste: It was my first Dutch sentence. We went to the exhibition twice a week, to talk about our work with the people who were interested in it, and I had to explain what the sentence meant.

Rombouts: Themerson used to have a publishing house in England. He left his publisher’s list to Jaco Groot later on. This is a book with drawings by his wife. They worked together.

Droste: They’ve made films together.

Rombouts: He also wrote an opera and some novels.

Droste: When we met, Guy was mad about Themerson and Gombrovicz. He was in love with the Polish stuff.

- Could you tell us more about the recent stains exhibition in Berlin?

Droste: The exhibition consisted of one stain per letter, and the stains were made with materials that are supposed to do exactly that. Asphalt for ‘a’, blood for ‘b’, cognac for ‘c’, lipstick for ‘l’ and rust for ‘r’.

Rombouts: All the materials were applied as naturally as possible. I put some lipstick on my mouth, for example, after which, apparently drunk, I fell asleep against the wall and slowly slid down. The blood was in a syringe. I tried to get the air out of the needle, but pushed a tad too hard, so that blood was squirted onto the wall.

Droste: In Diepenheim, near the German border, we made a letter garden. Initially, these were two-metre high concrete letters, but the people living in the neighbourhood protested because they had lost their view of the square. So we sawed the letters in two, and each letter is double now. The letters can be read from above. We call them surface letters. The actual letters are used as sides of a plane, that is created by repeating the letters two or three times. The ‘h’, in the shape of a hairpin, is used twice, which produces some sort of oval or squashed lozenge with two rounded angles, and the ‘w’ is used three times, yielding a triangular surface with jagged edges.

Rombouts: A triangular petit-beurre biscuit.

Droste: Once the letters had been sawn in two, we painted them black and white, thus creating a mirror effect.

Rombouts: It has become a labyrinth for people not taller than one metre.

Droste: It’s a playground for children; there is a school on the other side of the square.

Rombouts: The letters are at a stepping distance from each other, so you can walk across them.

- Likes slabs of stone in a river.

Rombouts: In winter the square is used for ice skating too. It was built in such a way that it slopes slightly towards the middle, and can be filled with water.

Droste: Now they’ve asked us if we can come up with a way of reading the letters from above.

- A long pole with a camera?

Rombouts: A fishing rod.

Droste: Or a flying mirror, held by balloons. The mirror can fall to smithereens, though.

Rombouts: And when the sky falls in we’ll all be wearing blue pointed caps. Let’s make a mirror of armoured glass! And hand out helmets to the visitors.

- I once saw a showcase with coloured, glass letters of yours?          

Rombouts: They remind me of sweets from the Fifties, with those poisonlike colours.

Droste: When we went to Venice for ‘Aperto’, we wanted to make a work in situ, with locally available materials. We ended up having a craftsman from Murano shape coloured-glass letters for us. The week before, he had been chucked out of the Casino on the Lido for mala fide practices, but we found him charming.
            Each letter had a tiny device for hanging up. Later on we made a structure with glass tubes, it looked a bit like a boat, and hung the letters inside it. On the left there was a black wall, on which we wrote the word ‘cat’ in white, and on the right there was a white wall on which we wrote the word ‘dog’ in black. We also played with contradictions.

- The letters are in the colours of your colour alphabet?

Droste: They are. ‘A’ is aquamarine, ‘b’ is burgundy, etc.. The work you saw is a multiple, with letters that were cast in a mould. In the original work, we shaped the letters ourselves with that corrupt croupier.

Rombouts: (Shows a few drawings.) This idea was never executed : the morse alphabet in phonetic script, in the shape of dee-da-dee. In the Azart it looks like eggshells with their heads cut off. The D’s big bow, and the knobbly sides of the ‘e’ or ‘a’. It could become a homage to Marcel Broodthaers. (He shows a thick alphabetically arranged portfolio). This is an alphabetic collection of alphabetic lists of you-name-it. Rivers, for example. ‘A’ is Amazon, ‘b’ is Brahmaputra. We could write these rivers’ names in full in Azart, thus coming up with some sort of fanciful river shape.
           This folder contains lists of eighteen-letter words, alphabets, attributes, books, chemical compounds, contexts, drinks, elements, flowers, food, mammals that are not to be put in the same case because they might pester or eat one another, nutcases, orthodox ornithologists, plants, precious stones, professions ending in -ist like florist, dentist and copyist, etc..

Droste: In Gent we once made a drinks alphabet. ‘A’ for aquavit, ‘b’ for buttermilk etc.. Everybody was sick the next day. We’ve made the flower alphabet already. Postcards with the names of the flowers on them.

- Guy made several exhibitions with a collection of 1001 objects. What was the link between these objects?

Rombouts: They were all things that have costed eighteen franks and that incite you to say ‘Ah’ upon seeing them. They were hung on pieces of string. The result was one huge tassel of strings. When the exhibition was over, I wound it up until it was completely taut. Anny De Decker has a film of this. When I let go of it, the tassel spun faster and faster, and finally unfolded like a derwish. Making the most surprising, tingling noises in the process.

Droste: We made various other exhibitions with objects that were somehow linked to an alphabet. Each object, for example, corresponded to a musical term: acuto, bizarro, cuperto… An alphabet of musical terms. Each term consisted of as many objects as there were syllables in it. The word ‘acuto’ was made up of a sharp disc hanging on three pieces of string, one yellow, one blue and one red. We had draped a jumbled tassel of thorns on the disc. For the word ‘bizarro’, we had to look for new, strange objects for each exhibition.
            In Charleroi the first floor consisted of hanging objects only, which together formed the word ‘letter’ in the sense of a written message or part of the alphabet. It was like a forest of objects. On the walls around it hung large drawings with each time a portrait of the letter - ‘ashtray’ for ‘a’, ‘bottle’ for ‘b’ etc.. The second floor contained only three works. The pyramid you saw in Cologne, a Whitman poem, which we wrote on the skylights, one letter per window, and hanging, iron letters that cast huge shadows on the wall at the back. Very empty. A pyramid, skylights and shadows. The room downstairs was chock-full. It was a nice exhibition. All the visitors had a very clear preference. Prune and Tapta loved the empty space and Marie-Puck the full one.


Droste: (To Rombouts.) We promised we’d do something for Tapta.

Rombouts: Now that you mention it, but I don’t remember what exactly. An exhibition?

Droste: A booklet. One page, and you already had a good idea.

Rombouts: I did, yes. I must have put it down on paper somewhere. All I have to do is find the paper.

(We’ve stopped moving, for we are buried under books, photos, drawings, portfolios and food which Guy has been systematically fetching during the interview. On his knees, next to a wobbly stack of books, a black tomcat stretches and spins. The sun pierces through the clouds and throws a yellow patch of light on Monica, who is sitting up in the white bed. We listen to music by Robert Crumb, Marino Marini and secret fiddlers. Monica keeps time with her arms up in the air. She’s laughing. The soup is delicious.)

Montagne de Miel, November 8 1998

Dedicated to Manka and Cyriel.

Three days after reading the final version of this interview, Monika died.