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

Guy Rombouts - 2018 - Liefde is bling [NL, interview]
Interview , 3 p.


Hans Theys

Love is Bling
A Conversation with Guy Rombouts

Guy Rombouts (°1949) is standing next to me. We are looking at an inscription on the gallery window. It is written in Azart, a self-devised alphabet in which the shape of each letter refers to the first sound of the name of an item in that shape. The letter referring to the sound ‘m’, for example, has the shape of a meander. The l-sound in Phoenician was shaped like a primitive heel (a spiked stick) called ‘lamed’, probably related to the Dutch ‘lemmet’ (blade) and the French ‘lame’ (razor blade).  ‘Over the years, our alphabet has gradually broken free from reality,’ Rombouts tells me. ‘Azart takes us back to it.’ Because the letters of Azart also have their own colour and can be joined, the inscription on the window creates a motley silhouette. The elegance and evenness of the letters in crayon betray the steady hand of an accomplished draughtsman or sculptor. The inscription reads: ‘Love is bling’.

Rombouts asks me how my right arm is doing, which was in a plaster cast last time we saw each other. This leads us to the subject of accidents involving hands. Rombouts reminisces about how, one day, his father’s hand almost got caught in a printing press because of a loose cuff. ‘Luckily he was able to reach the control panel with his foot…’ For a brief instant we enjoy the relief associated with this memory.
‘There used to be a factory in Ghent that made paper for newspapers,’ Rombouts carries on. ‘It was done in massive, round vats inside which hovering knives crushed the wood into pulp. One day one of the employees fell into a vat and was mauled. Production wasn’t even stopped. He’d completely vanished anyway, swallowed by the paper. Remember how the paper of newspapers had tiny splinters in it, which you could pick out? Every time I did that, I thought about that man…’
We keep silent for a bit. ‘It sounds like a recurring bad dream,’ I say, or an urban legend which touched a chord… You went to Ghent to study typography, the plan being for you to take over your father’s printing business.’
Language is a strange thing,’ he replies. ‘Why is most of the workforce forced to work?
We enter the gallery and look at a displayed alphabet consisting of a line of beautiful, old-fashioned, small objects whose names consist of three letters. The objects are put in alphabetical order, so that the accidental spelling of their names determines the shape of the total sculpture. Each object evokes associations and dream visions, but also surprises with its inherent beauty, patina, unexpected appearance. Together, they take us on a thrilling, sculptural journey.
In the next room we come across another beautiful sculpture: 26 pieces of black cloth inside which an object can be hidden. They are hanging on a black thread, so that they can be suspended in a variety of ways. It’s a tactile alphabet, which was exhibited at De Appel in Amsterdam in 1982. Some pieces of cloth bear beautiful decorations, like button holes for example. I ask Rombouts where the cloth comes from and how the shapes came about.

Rombouts: The entire sculpture consists of bits of my father’s wedding suit. I took it apart with my mother, who transformed it into pockets and added new seams.

- In 1982? When you were already living in Antwerp?

Rombouts: Yes.

- You went back to your parental home, where you and your mother cut your father’s wedding costume to pieces?

Rombouts: Yes.

- You used to tell me how, in your twenties, you went through a rough patch because you couldn’t choose between being an artist and taking over the printing business and your father’s newspaper. I always felt that devising the Azart alphabet was a subconscious way for you to be an artist yet stay loyal to your father’s dream.

Rombouts: That’s possible.

- On a conscious level the Azart alphabet has its roots in a frustration  over the contingency and inadequacy of language.

Rombouts: Indeed.

- One of the things that saved you, is the discovery of the Wide White Space Gallery, where you came across the work of Marcel Broodthaers for the first time. It made you realize that what you already had been doing with words could also be considered art… I can see why adolescents find the inadequacy of language frustrating. Children must, after all, be noticed and understood by their parents in order to survive. But a man like Broodthaers? Why did he feel the need to be understood?

Rombouts: In my opinion that’s the very essence of poetic genius. You want to convey something but you’re obsessed by the silence that must be broken to do so… You just pointed out the exquisite bloom of a Cornus Aurora, which seems to be floating on the tree top like a flock of waterlilies. After which we watched the tree in silence. As far as I’m concerned that kind of silent watching is a form of communication that predates language, which in its turn calls for readers who can read between the lines. True understanding predates language. Language comes at a later stage.

- Sometimes, our convictions are rooted in forgotten experiences.

Rombouts: As you know, I grew up in the village of Geel, where out-of-the-ordinary people lived with ordinary families; even people from England or The Netherlands whose families paid to have them live with Flemish families.

- So when you bumped into someone in the street, you didn’t know if he or she was ‘normal’ or ‘’different’? And when you got to know them better, those words lost their meaning?

Rombouts: I think so, yes.

- Not only are you fascinated by language, you are also a gifted maker of images and sculptures. Might that fascination be traced back to something that occurred in your youth?  

Rombouts: At the print shop, we created the titles of the newspaper with large letters made from crosscut pearwood. To me, a first way of visible writing consisted in aligning these beautiful objects… But I also enjoyed helping my mother with window dressing.

- Your mother had a shop?

Rombouts: She sold stationery. As well as the Nieuwsblad van Geel, of course, published by my father. Every time there was a new issue, people would queue up outside to be the first to read the adverts.

- Did you have a dedicated place in her shop?

Rombouts: I sat under the glass fronted counter. I saw everything from inside that aquarium and could follow every conversation. My mother also painted. The artist Gerard Herman once sent me a reproduction of a Spanish still life, in which he thought he recognized Azart letters. I knew the painting, because my mother had copied it. It hung in our house…

(He shows me the painting.)

- The painting also contains the depiction of an orange peel: another recurrent element in your work.

Rombouts: You’re right.

- You almost got mauled and swallowed by the paper, but your mother broke you free.

Rombouts: I think you can certainly put it this way.

Montagne de Miel, 6 May 2018

Translated by Nadine Malfait