ESSAYS, INTERVIEWS & REVIEWS
Ann Veronica Janssens - 2003 - De glijdende blik [NL, essay]
The Gliding Gaze
Some words about Ann Veronica Janssens’ work
1. On blindness, sculptural proposals and continuously moving images
A well-made work of art moves us. Encounters with well-made works of art are experiences. They don’t leave us unaffected. They change us. Something in our head and in our heart starts to shift and once it has shifted we can no longer put the glass closet of our thoughts and ideas back in exactly the same place. Too much has changed. The invisible dust on the linoleum has been disturbed, the day’s last red-gold ray of light is not refracted in the same way any more, the reflection of the interior no longer falls on all the doors in the same way, the closet is indiscernibly distorted, the house is askew, the sun occupies a new place, we go through life in a different way.
No visual art has influenced my way of looking at things quite as much as the work of Ann Veronica Janssens. Without her work and the work of Proust (the dancing dust in a ray of sunshine, the reflection of passing ships in the little glass doors of the hotel in Balbec, the red glowing, sunlit face of a peasant girl selling milk), I would never have seen what I see today. The more I look, feel, listen, taste and touch, the more I realize that every moment is unique. The fragrant scent of the lime tree does not fill the village square every year; the leaves of the pink Firecandle only quiver like insect wings a few times a year; softened by the autumn, the red leaves of the cherry tree point firmly in the same direction just one morning a year, and certainly not every year, because they freeze while a steady wind lifts them all in unison like hundreds of weather-vanes. Soon the winter sun comes to warm them and, battle-weary and torn loose by the wind, almost all of them release their little feet at the same time.
The day my first niece was born, when I left the hospital, three seagulls changed course above my head and the setting sun coloured their white bellies orange. Two weeks ago I suddenly saw the road surface covered with water over a very long distance, not for one second, but for ten, and while I was surprised by the unusual duration and scope of the phenomenon, all of a sudden, for two seconds, the blue-grey sky and white clouds were perfectly reflected on the road surface so that it looked as if a bite had been taken straight out of the horizon and just for a moment, my hands anxiously clasping the steering-wheel, I thought I would plunge down into that blue chasm which had appeared so suddenly. ("A train is like the cinema, a car is like a workshop", says Ann Veronica Janssens.) When the weather is fine, I always watch the fleeting shadows, sometimes abstract, sometimes incredibly life-like, projected onto the white lorries driving along the motorway in front of me. Then it occurs to me that you could also make films simply by walking round with a white screen. That would be a real ‘travelling’! And I suspect that I would never have noticed this without the work of Ann Veronica Janssens. (This morning I even saw two fluorescent ocular spectra. The first was evoked by a green, round object, the second by an ordinary, white, round clock with a wooden frame. If you would like to have a similar experience, turn to pages 134 and 135 of this book.)
It was during my childhood that I experienced the most perfect cinema with wonderful, ever-moving images. I used to play in an overgrown orchard where everything was constantly in motion and the opportunities for discovery were endless. If in a work of art I experience that same feeling of an organic, not statically conceived space moving around me, it is as if I am coming home into a world of true freedom. Few buildings evoke that sense of space. There is room, but there is no space. Good sculptures, paintings, pieces of music and books render the world liveable by making room for its mobility. We need forms to see and think, but we must also be able to let go of those forms if we want to see things we have never seen before.
Earlier this year I read a book in which two philosophers, Bryan Magee and Martin Milligan, discuss how blind and sighted people might have different world-views. Martin Milligan has been blind since the age of nineteen months and has no visual memory whatsoever, no notion of what it means to be able to see. To the disconcertment of Bryan Magee, the sighted philosopher who started the discussion, Martin Milligan declares that he regards the gift of sight as highly overrated. We engage with the world by means of a set of sentences, he says, and even if I can’t see anything, I think I am able to understand all those sentences and use them like sighted people. Bryan Magee’s answer is nothing short of arrogant. Blind people may have the same knowledge as sighted people, he admits, but surely not the same experience? How can a blind person claim to be able to lead a normal life? Milligan’s answer betrays his fury. He describes Magee’s remarks as racist and distorted by a limited concept of ‘normality’, and he persists in what might at first seem a rather strange point of view.
I think both are right, but I admire Milligan for his tenacity and his intuitive conviction that most people rarely use their eyes to see things they cannot already name. In fact they don’t have many more true visual experiences than the blind.
Artists have visual and other experiences in our place. They are the least blind of all of us; people who, often by investigating a matter or creating something, occasionally manage to feel, observe or think things that their contemporaries have not yet experienced. Their works record these experiences or induce them in us.
In his marvellous work about Gogol, Nabokov remarks that before Gogol and Pushkin came on the scene, Russian literature was myopic and that the forms writers saw were outlines drawn by the intellect. They did not really observe colour, but used only those hackneyed combinations of nouns with shamefully docile adjectives that Europe had inherited from the writers of the ancient classics. The air was blue, the dawn red, the foliage green, beautiful ladies had black eyes, clouds were grey, and so on. Gogol was the first to see yellow and violet. Nabokov doubts that before that time a writer, and certainly a writer in Russia, had ever noticed the moving pattern of light and shadow on the ground under the trees or tricks the sunlight can play with the colour of leaves.
This was no chance observation on the part of Nabokov, who was a butterfly expert. Even as a child he had gone looking for butterflies with different body shapes or wing patterns in the forests around the parental home. (There were still lots of butterflies in those days because his uncle had only recently shot the last bear.) In the autumn he would collect maple leaves with his mother and they would arrange them according to colour until they obtained a complete spectrum, with the exception of the blue colours. Nabokov’s eyes and brain were trained to detect minimal nuances and variations of shape and colour.
Ann Veronica Janssens is not the only artist with an eye for the subtle play of light and shade. What makes her work exceptional is her search for continuously moving images and the creation of sculptures that are not conceived as monumental, permanent realizations, but as sculptural proposals for experiencing a given situation in a particular way.
The word ‘proposal’ is not really adequate because it makes us think too much of ideas and does not give a proper picture of the importance of the material execution and the physical experience in Ann Veronica Janssens’ work. The sculptures and interventions are not mental exercises. The artist sets out to involve the spectator in her sculptural proposals both through his senses and through his whole body. At the same time she always seeks to achieve a light-hearted, unintrusive form, in rather the same way that clouds show us the light of the setting sun without perpetually imposing themselves in the same visual manner.
Someone once asked me if Ann Veronica Janssens could draw. “Try to imagine a drawing without pencil or paper," I replied, "made with shapes or materials that are unfamiliar in traditional art and which create an incessantly moving image. She is definitely capable of making such a drawing.”
One fine spring day, I arrived in her garden, where she was busy glueing heat-sensitive film (which changes colour in response to minute changes in temperature) onto black rubber mats. There was hardly a breath of wind. One of the mats lay beneath a plum tree in flower, a sprig casting a shadow onto the heat-sensitive film. An image of the flowering sprig rocked gently, constantly forming and dissolving, across the colour-changing surface of the cushion.
The beauty of this image was that it clearly consisted of a series of separate images that slowly metamorphosized. The foil of liquid crystal ‘looked’ at the sprig by measuring the temperature of its own skin. It served as a kind of slow mirror that offered us a glimpse of the mechanism of our perception and made us admire the speed of our brain.
Between 1987 and 1993 Ann Veronica Janssens made installations out of blocks of cellular concrete or other building modules, borrowed from local builders. In 1989 the terrace at the top of the steps leading up to Villa Gillet in Lyon was extended by stacking a number of concrete blocks on the steps.
The sculptures with concrete blocks are optical appliances which help us appreciate a space, a time-span or a certain sort of light in a different way.
After the end of the exhibition the blocks were returned to the builder. They were not kept and sold. The work of art is not formed by the blocks, but by what they reveal. The objective is the experience, the installation is the means.
One of my favourite works is ‘Le bain de lumière’. It consists of four round, water-filled aquariums. Each sphere captures a slightly displaced image of the outside world, so that the stacked images are reminiscent of a reel of film. The images alter with the changing outdoor light. When you walk past the bowls from left to right, the images shift along with you as in a panoramic shot. ‘Le bain de lumière’ is a film without this rigid, plastic material in which the images are embedded for ever, just as the transparent pavilions filled with coloured mist, show us colour without a visible or tangible support.
The optical appliance is extremely precise, but the resulting images are free. A good example of this is the work ‘Aquarium’ dating from 1992. Floating in a glass tank filled with water and alcohol are liquid silicones which contract into a little sphere that acts as a lens. The sphere is not stationary. Its height is determined by the ratio of alcohol to water in the solution so that it slowly sinks deeper as the alcohol evaporates, and it reacts to vibrations and changes in temperature. The images that are picked up by the lens are in constant motion. They slowly metamorphosize. The sculpture is related to the heat-sensitive films. You might compare it to a cloud that surrounds us and moves with us. It’s a little factory of images.
You cannot control the movements of the little sphere. The same can be said of the spaces filled with artificial mist. Achieving just the right density and the desired colour effects requires the greatest precision, and yet no attempt whatsoever is made to control the images that result. The strength, but also the fragility of Janssens’ works is dependent on this temporary balance. Every experience of the work is slightly different. The sculpture is enriched by the significance of the moment. The time element is a part of the sculpture. Mieke Bal, the author of an excellent essay about Janssens’ work, refers to the “viscous time” she experienced in the mist sculptures.
With the exception of the projections, almost all Ann Veronica Janssens’ sculptures require daylight. The changing light is a prerequisite for the experience. Very often it is the subject of the work. The exhibition in which this was most apparent was ‘Light Games’, where the Neue Nationalgalerie designed by Mies van der Rohe was left almost completely empty. Outside, on the esplanade around the glass museum, was a pavilion with transparent, coloured sides that was filled with artificial mist. If you went into the pavilion, you walked through pure colour, colour that was released from a visible support. The colours were combined in thousands of variations. At the same time, visitors to the transparent museum could walk around with mirrors, they could ride round on bicycles whose wheels were covered with light-reflecting, engraved aluminium disks, and they could enjoy an aquarium with a floating, spherical lens made of liquid silicones.
Ann Veronica Janssens’ use of light and her sculptural approach to space have something in common with the paintings of Jan Vermeer, Emmanuel de Witte and Pieter Jansz Saenredam, where architecture and light form the non-narrative theme of the painting. Another similarity is the approach to the figures, which in the case of the above-mentioned painters are often painted very small, from the side or from the back so that the spectator cannot identify with them and is invited to look at the depicted space and the facture of the painting. In terms of painting, these light-celebrating works led to the oeuvre of Robert Ryman, and in spatial terms to the open spaces of Ann Veronica Janssens.
When I talked about this with Brian Butler, a gallery owner in Los Angeles, he showed me a reproduction of his favourite painting by Vilhelm Hammershøi : ‘Interieur der grossen Halle von Lindegaarden’, a remarkable picture of a large empty room. First our attention is drawn to the splendid rendition of the way the daylight plays with the interior. Then we realize that the painting is dominated by a partial depiction of the ceiling, which seems to make the space tilt because of the slanting lines of the asymmetric perspective. The absence of furniture gives the space a feeling of openness. Hammershøi probably painted an empty space and opted for this slanting perspective to push the interior as the subject of the painting into the background and to allow the play of daylight and the facture of the painting to come to the fore. However, by reducing in an almost aggressive manner the depicted space to a pure vehicle for the light, the painting also acquires an unexpected, menacing atmosphere, in rather the same way that, despite his intention, Warhol’s apparently repetitive series express unexpected sentiment because of their changing precision and tonality.
Ann Veronica Janssens’ work is characterized by a similar combination of openness and aggressiveness, innocence and tenacity, objectivity and sentiment. Objects and spaces become projection screens, the architecture is dismantled, room is made for the spectator, but the new place makes the spectator uncomfortable. "Does this artist actually like people?" someone once asked me during a lecture. I had indeed shown lots of slides featuring not a single person, as if Ann Veronica Janssens makes sterile environments that prefer not to be disturbed by visitors. In a sense that is true. The characters must be removed from the painting to allow the spectator to enter the emptied, slightly altered interior and experience it in a personal way.
2. A concise survey of the work
In 1986 Ann Veronica Janssens made a sculpture which consisted of long, iron strips tied together to form a large, flexible hoop lying partly on the ground and partly held up by an iron ladder. The hoop stabilized the ladder that supported it. When I first saw this sculpture, I immediately felt a threat emanating from its precarious equilibrium. If the ladder fell away, the hoop would come hurtling down like the knife of a guillotine. Furthermore, it was as if the strips were only held together temporarily by the thin wires and the sculpture looked as if it might fall apart at any moment.
This sculpture was created on the spot using materials found in the immediate vicinity of the building. Ann Veronica Janssens has often worked in the same way. She visits the exhibition venue and looks to see how she can best add to it by means of a new approach or a critical comment, to which she can give shape with objects, materials, people or circumstances found on the spot or easily available.
A work created in this way was made in the Arenberg Institute in Leuven. Several loose but intact windows found in the cellars of the building, were piled up on the floor of a small space. The light that was reflected by the windows on the floor was stronger than the light that came in through the window.
Whilst preparing for an exhibition in Bratislava in 1991, Ann Veronica Janssens came across a solitary civil servant forgotten in the cellar. His name was Pavel. With his permission, she took a photograph of him and exhibited it.
Every place requires a specific form. In 1987 at Le Botanique she exhibited a showcase containing six little plates of glass suspended one above the other, in a factory in Mol she removed a large door and built a long wall without mortar, at Le Botanique she covered the rail of a balustrade with clay, at the Museum of Modern Art in Brussels she arranged slanting strips of mirror so that they reflected the parquet floor, giving visitors the impression they were walking on top of a truncated pyramid.
In 1988 she built a balcony-like wall in De Lege Ruimte, she glued a wooden ceiling decoration round the lights in a space in Madrid, she had a monumental, wooden structure span the surrounding wall in a park in Tielt, she raised the floor of Galerie Inexistent with borrowed concrete blocks and she placed a pile of little plates of glass on a window-ledge in Venice.
Ann Veronica Janssens’ work gradually began to display its own signature, recognizable not because of a predictable, fixed form, but a consistent attitude. Over the years she created an ever greater diversity of formal solutions. In 1989 she made a composition for the Provincial Museum in Hasselt consisting of different sized sheets of chipboard spread out over the floor, reminiscent of an abstract cityscape and she showed a glass showcase containing two little plates of glass suspended one above the other creating the illusion of a cube of void. In 1990 she made a new abstract cityscape for the Galerie Micheline Szwajcer, only this time not with chipboard, but with "blocks of polystyrene foam and daylight". Every time a visitor opened the door to enter the exhibition area, the blocks moved a little bit because of the draught. That same year in Clisson she placed a pile of sixteen mirrors on a walled terrace affording a panoramic view. In 1991 at the Provincial Museum in Hasselt she showed a display case containing two plates of glass placed one on top of the other with hollows cut out on the inside; together they acted as a lens.
A bronze pipe that pierces the wall of a gallery to provide a view of the inside of a squat (London, 1993), bird noises in an isolated tree, taken from Jean Rocher’s guide to birdsong (Eupen, 1993), a silver paper square mounted on the wall of a cave to reflect the light of the sun and the moon (Thiers, 1994), a black Plexiglas bowl creating an optical soap bubble (Galerie des Beaux-Arts, 1994), a sculpture consisting of recycled bricks wrapped in silver paper (São Paulo, 1994), sighs (the sound of sighs emanating from eight loudspeakers concealed in the wooden supporting structure of the Ancien entrepôts des tabacs (Dunkerque,1995), a disk engraved with circular, concentric grooves that emits a conical beam of light (‘Grand Disque’, 1996), a conical beam of light projected in a darkened space (‘Representation of a Round Body’, Middelburg, 1996), a museum space filled with artificial mist (‘Muhka’, 1997), a gallery floor strewn with blue pebbles (1997), a bench covered with heat-sensitive strips (Venice, 1999), a plaster model of a white space without corners (Utrecht, 1999), 6,000 coins bearing stickers indicating their value in terms of stardust (0.0025 grams), time (3 seconds of Concorde), silence, (108 seconds), memory (0.7 megabytes), oxygen (44 cm3) and ecstasy (1 minute). (Utrecht, 1999), chauffeur-driven cars placed at the disposal of visitors to an exhibition (Utrecht, 1999), engraved coins (2000), artificial mist coloured with theatre lighting (2000), a mist-filled pavilion with coloured sides (2001), round shapes cut out of coloured paper and stuck onto a wall (2001), the projection of a vertical plane of light suspended in space (2002), the projection of a succession of brightly coloured, concentric rings (2003), etc.
(I admit that such an enumeration is in complete contradiction with the work of this artist, because every intervention is the result of numerous site-specific considerations. But since I cannot describe all the works in detail, I have decided to provide sixty documents and forty photographs about just one exhibition.)
Ann Veronica Janssens has no workshop, because she always works on the spot. In her house, however, you do find samples of works in the making and a large room with a writing table where she formulates her ideas before going in search of craftsmen or experts who can help her execute them.
In recent years Ann Veronica Janssens’ work has increasingly resembled a travelling laboratory, which can be seen as an opportunity to carry out a succession of new experiments. Thus the exhibition space has become increasingly important as the place where these experiments can be tested.
The aluminium disk with concentric grooves that created a conical beam of light (‘Grand Disque’, 1996) led to the projection of a conical beam of light in a darkened space filled with mist (1996), which in its turn led to the mist-filled museum rooms (1997). The museum rooms filled with mist are a dilated detail from the ‘Representation of a Round Body’. On the one hand, they led to the scale model of a white space without corners (1999) and, on the other, to the installations with coloured mist (2000-2001) and to the colour experiments of proposals like ‘Flash Film’ (Rennes, 2001), ‘Playing with your Head’ (Birmingham, 2002), ‘Scrub Berlin’ (Berlin, 2002) and ‘Donut’ (San Francisco, 2003). The engraved coins are the pocket version of ‘Grand Disque’, while the engraved, turning hubcaps (2000) are a mobile version of this sculpture.
Ann Veronica Janssens usually formulated just one or two proposals per exhibition, but since 1999 she has tried to present more interventions at the same time, so that her large exhibitions appear as a spectrum of proposals that develop side by side. The work proliferates and is transformed. It branches off through the museum and the city like a flower propagating underground and reappearing here and there, having changed form, size and colour.
At the same time the artist tries to withdraw as much as possible and to limit and simplify the scale of her interventions. She always goes in search of lightness, humility and caution.
3. An individual touch that is not recognizable by a predictable, fixed form
For Ann Veronica Janssens the main difference between her work and that of the minimalists has to do with the finality of the works. Even if they are considered as watersheds in a wider, spatial context, as is the case with Donald Judd or Carl André, their works are nevertheless associated with a recognizable style and a definitive, static form. Ann Veronica Janssens does not look for a recognizable form, but looks for formal solutions that have no lasting, monumental ambition and are dependent in a thematically and formally elaborated manner on the observation of the spectator and on the moment in time they are observed. All works of art are completed by the spectator’s observation, but not all artists explicitly make this a theme of their work. (A good contemporary example is the work of Mike Kelley, albeit elaborated in a totally different way from Ann Veronica Janssens’.)
The art historian Liliane Dewachter puts it like this: “Ann Veronica Janssens’ point of departure is always reality, she always works in and with the space – whether that space is put at her disposal or chosen by her –, which then actually becomes part of the work. She is regularly referred to as an exponent of minimal art and indeed she also examines the relationship between objects and a specific space, but she is less dominant and more discreet in her interventions. It is more correct to say that she works in a minimalist way, but does not make minimal art. In fact she places what minimalism has given us, the minimalist concept of space and form, in a certain light: with simple means and subtle interventions she invariably manages to breath life into a space whilst allowing the spectator to view and experience that space in a new and different way. Through her installations and interventions she manages to draw our attention to things and situations which otherwise pass us by unnoticed.”
The artist believes her oeuvre is perhaps best summed up by the sculptural proposal ‘Phosphenes’. It consists in spectators being invited by means of a leaflet, a poster or a light panel to close their eyes, to press their fingers against their eyeballs and to enjoy the sparkling and luminous geometric patterns that appear.
The work is light-hearted. It doesn’t impose a specific form or static image. It is more a proposal than a result. Everybody can do it, nobody can appropriate it and it can tip over into insubstantiality at any moment. It is an invitation that flickers just for a moment and then withdraws again.
Another recurring subject is the affinity between the work of Ann Veronica Janssens and the achievements of optical art. Clearly, visual phenomena already studied in depth by scientists have been used by scores of artists since the sixties to make visually surprising paintings, sculptures and installations. In the late sixties artists such as Jesús Rafael Soto and Carlos Cruz-Diez even made spatial installations which remind us of Ann Veronica Janssens’ current spatial colour experiments. What she tries to do is have the ocular spectra work in the space and place them in a different relationship to the spectator’s body. A good example of this is the installation ‘Flash Film’ (Rennes, 2001), where round pieces of coloured paper were stuck onto the wall so that the motivated or receptive spectator perceived a shower of complementary disks.
4. A consistent attitude
What most attracts me to this work is the sensory receptivity, the humility, the precision, the freedom, the humour, the political undertone and the hidden night.
First something about the hidden night. Ann Veronica Janssens’ technique sometimes resembles that of Flaubert, of whom it has been said that he chopped down a whole beech forest to make a toothpick. Then he started building castles with his toothpicks. Ann Veronica Janssens dares just to make the toothpick. That takes courage, ability and perseverance. Each proposal is almost nothing and looks as if it might topple over into insubstantiality at any moment, yet every toothpick conceals a forest, every butterfly a bear. Those who familarize themselves with these works, feel things that are left unsaid, the dark things nobody has to explain to us. Sometimes this is very obvious. The projection ‘Scrub Berlin’ is a painful bombardment of coloured forms which seems to want to prevent us from thinking; it scrapes out the inside of our skull like the hollow of night, causing our eyes to protrude like the restless balls of the seeing wanderer in H.G. Wells’ country of the blind. Many visitors experience a sense of claustrophobia in the mist-filled pavilions and museum rooms. They don’t feel safe. Completely surrounded by coloured mist, you live in a visible night. You don’t know where you are, but it doesn’t matter because all the creatures and objects have been swallowed up. There are no signs any more. You have become skin, and behind your now useless eyes your heart is thumping wildly.
There is something amusing about filling a museum with mist, pointing out to visitors a band of light poised eight centimetres above the floor, producing bird sounds in a park, stacking up aquariums filled with water, suspending in the air a dividing wall by sticking a mirror onto it that reflects the parquet floor, or pushing a bronze pipe – which also makes a nice sound when you hit it with a metal object – through a gallery wall.
For an exhibition in a beguines house Ann Veronica Janssens closed off a building and had the sound of explosions ring out, causing the adjoining buildings and the works of art housed in them to tremble. Making a quiet spot noisy and giving an inaccessible area a presence, are two comical, sculptural reversals.
The poet and painter Walter Swennen once told me that Marcel Broodthaers called a work of art ‘amusing’ if he thought it was good. Ann Veronica Janssens’ work is amusing. It is not ironic or laconic, it is roguish. It has a succulent, sophisticated jocularity, a palatable simplicity, which is elevating in a milieu where pseudo-profoundness, academic blindness and intellectual pedantry predominate.
Ann Veronica Janssens’ humour is subversive, but not antagonistic. With the exception of an architect or two, nobody is derided. It is the humour of a life full to overflowing, tempered by a humility unusual in male artists.
Humility is not seeing too much and not seeing too little. You try to see things in their rightful place. You don’t get in the way. Humility in art has to do with a sparing, necessary approach, adapted to the surroundings. In Venice, a corridor was enriched with a small pile of little plates of glass on a window ledge, during an exhibition in Brazil rolls of brown adhesive tape printed with the words ‘Leisure and Survival’ were handed out, in a museum emptied by Joëlle Tuerlinckx attention was drawn to a band of light eight centimetres above the floor, an all-white museum was filled with mist, and the terrace of a villa was extended with piled up building blocks.
The humble, almost ecological work of art adopts a political stance. As I once wrote in connection with the work of Michel François, politics is the organization of the way private and public life are separated from each other or brought into harmony. Every public action or act of negligence is a political act. The humility and the economy of Ann Veronica Janssens’ proposals say something about the place we are deemed to occupy and how we can turn that place into a space in which it is possible to live. When in 1993 Ann Veronica Janssens was invited by the Brussels Foundation for Architecture to make an exhibition to tie in with the landscape architecture of Jean Canneel-Claes, she and Michel François presented a book of photographs of small dwellings built on a beach by Moroccan divers using material that had been washed ashore. When several years later I wanted to publish a colour photograph of one of those houses and in the caption used the word ‘hut’, she pointed out in a friendly but firm manner: "They are not huts, they are houses". The political value of her work depends on her constantly living up to this power of discernment. It takes a political stand like the nearby voice of Gainsbourg, who publicly evokes an intimacy we usually only share with people allowed to whisper in our ear (in so doing he immerses us in an incestuous atmosphere), or like the streaming images and thoughts of Virginia Woolf that make every supposedly logically-structured argument seem paltry.
I make this comparison with the work of Virginia Woolf because there is also something licentious about the work of Ann Veronica Janssens, something unbridled, which despite the usually minimal intervention, makes the world run in slightly higgledy-piggledy fashion, jumbled up inside and out, blurs borders and makes fixed forms fluid. Orlando can live for a thousand years and during that time can change sex because the literary space makes such a thing possible. The proposals of Ann Veronica Janssens have the same radical quality. Forms are presented, but you know they will be removed later on. She plays, but not without the realization of a nocturnal limit which nobody goes beyond. Having devoted a hundred pages in ‘To the Lighthouse’ to introducing us to a family, including a boy who would like to travel to a lighthouse, in the chapter ‘Time Passes’ Virginia Woolf massacres almost the entire family in the space of a few pages. When decades later the now adult boy finally reaches the lighthouse, the heroin Lily Briscoe can complete with a single brushstroke a painting commenced at the start of the novel. Everything that happens, the misunderstandings and shortcomings, the desires and the passing of time, is visualized through the lighthouse, the optical haven which makes our experiences and thoughts possible and orders them.
Something of this sort happens in the work of Ann Veronica Janssens. The image she shows is not the end of her or our experience, it is the cause of it. The little sphere of liquid silicones floating in a water tank constitutes a sculpture in its own right, but at the same time it also picks up constantly shifting images. It forms an optical threshold which is placed between us and reality to bring about a specific experience. The work of art is a vehicle, a proposal, a means. It is a transition between rigidity and fluidity, between the already known and visible and the as yet unknown or still imperceptible, between ‘space’ and ‘super-space’. “In many of my works,” Ann Veronica Janssens told me, “for example Aquarium or Casa Frollo, there is the notion of a space looking out onto a super-space, a different, unpredictable space, such as the light that filters into every nook and cranny, even to the back of a drawer, or water that disappears indiscernibly only to reappear in a totally different place. That is why I try to effect alterations or transformations that are as inconspicuous and intangible as possible, but which will hopefully broaden our experience through a more or less unpredictable outcome.”
Several years ago, when I was involved in a choreography by Pierre Droulers, I came across the Japanese concept ‘ma’, which indicates a spatial or temporal interval between two people, circumstances or events. In aikido, for example, ‘ma’ refers to the space between two opponents. That space can be differently assessed by each of them, depending on their own speed and the speed of their opponent. ‘Ma’ is also used to refer to the room you can make for someone during a discussion. (I don’t want to answer questions, says Deleuze to Claire Parnet, because questions always drive at an answer that already exists and so cannot possibly lead to a way out.) According to the Japanese author Oshima, in Japan everyday conversations do not follow the question and answer pattern of the West. He gives the example of a discussion that might take place when purchasing a ballpoint pen:
“Good morning, madam, lovely day today…”
“Yes it certainly is, sir, a truly beautiful day, thank you, a lovely day for a walk…’”
“Yes, I walked here; I feel better for that breath of fresh air…”
“And now you are going to buy yourself something…”
“Something for the office, yes, something to write with…
“A pencil for writing…”
“Yes, a pen, but perhaps…”
“Would a ballpoint pen be more suitable…”
“A ballpoint indeed…
“Perhaps a black ballpoint like this one?”
“Indeed, a black one would be good…”
“But perhaps you would prefer a national product?”
“Yes, a national product.”
During a conversation you can try to make room for the words of others. You can try to create an opening, a silence, an expectation, into which their words can slot. ‘Ma’ presumes a recognition of the outside world and the other person. The other person is invited into a space. We make room for him.
This explains how ‘ma’ can also be a ritual. The regularity and predictability of the ritual create an invisible freedom because they remove the need for personal decisions. The clearest and best known example is perhaps the slipper ritual on entering a house or certain rooms in a house. The visitor is protected by the ritual on the threshold of the house. His anxiety is alleviated by familiar gestures, which make room for him in the house he is about to enter. Movements are retarded and become embedded in an established form, which can project feelings of expectation, repose or respect. Eventually even the objects used in a ritual take on the same values.
Many of Ann Veronica Janssens’ sculptures or sculpturally formulated proposals take the form of a threshold between our gaze and the outside world. A few of the thousands of movements around us are slowed down, so that we can observe them. Or the reverse: in an outside world we regard as rigid, an incident sets several things in motion, making them visible to us. The compulsion of the ritual is kept to a minimum, though the magnetism of the compulsion usually remains.
Ideally-speaking, nothing should stand between man and his observation. No lighthouses, no slippers, no delayed thresholds. First our head needs to be rinsed out so that our thoughts and prejudices no longer make us blind. We must be enticed away from our blind way of looking at things by moving something in our surroundings. By adding something small to it. A small pile of little plates of glass, a row of stones, a colour filter. But the things that are added have to withdraw immediately. They are not the ultimate goal, but the means. Once they have served their purpose they must dissolve. The stones are returned to the builder and incorporated into anonymous buildings. The coins are dispersed. The mist disappears through the slit under the front door of the museum or is mopped up by the cleaner.
It is as if Ann Veronica Janssens wants to invite those viewing her work to ‘become eye’. Having ‘become eye’, we seem to merge with the world. But the more we look, the more we realize that what we see is fabricated by our brain. Our look throws us back into ourselves. We do not merge with the world, we stand on the outside, tied to our inside. "In the absence of light", she writes, "it is possible to create the brightest images within oneself." Her spectator shuts his eyes and presses on his eyeballs. He sinks into himself. He looks at the coloured spots on the wall and discovers in the dancing, luminous ocular spectra how his brain gives shape to reality. (Moving images don’t exist, they are a figment of our imagination. We have difficulty accepting this, because we are a life form that came into being reacting to a limited range of radio waves. We are nothing but bodies grown around eyes that want to procreate.)
No one looking at Scrub Berlin for the first time knows what to think. The work consists of a five-minute succession of hundreds of instantaneous images. Each image is made up of a number of horizontal rectangles of different sizes and colours. The video is projected on a screen which covers an entire wall. The flashing succession of images makes it seem as if the rectangles are bubbling up from an endless source and charging down on the spectator. The rapid succession of coloured rectangles put me in mind of an accelerated history of painting, but apart from this anecdotal, would-be humorous explanation, I was left speechless. Later on Ann Veronica Janssens confirmed this impression, when she told me that you could look at the images as if it were a series of good and not so good paintings. Still I think there is more to it than that. The projection is so violent that you can’t keep looking at it without being overcome by a sense of unease. The on-rush of images hurts your eyes. You don’t know what to do with them. Until you realize that this is probably the intention and that what you have in front of you is a machine which wants to prevent you from projecting or interpreting. It is a work that forces each one of us to become eye and to abandon the aids of our comprehension.
“Nothing is more beautiful than a person’s own perception,” Ann Veronica Janssens once said to me, “I try to push this to its limits.” Earlier in this chapter, I argued that, in accordance with good Japanese tradition, Ann Veronica Janssens tries to make space for people. I believe that. Her proposals are the opposite of the narcissistic, authoritarian monologue which excludes the existence of others. The narcissist is alone. He is a hollow vessel without an exterior. He gobbles up the world. There is no threshold between his brain and others. There is no silence. There is no dialogue. The monologue is deafening. Lips don’t exist. Everything is mouth. The fear is deafening. Everything is hollow. Words hurt our ears.
But at the same time you sense how Ann Veronica Janssens’ work can leave some people feeling alone again. Having become eye and ear, they now only hang by the thread of habit to their churning brain, their thoughts fluttering anxiously like curtains in the wind. There is more going on here than a charming little game with light and colour. Because you realize it will never be more than a little game in the midst of a world hanging together like loose, shifting sand onto which we project nice, simplified images until we ourselves are blown apart in the wind.
Montagne de Miel, July 9th 2003