ESSAYS, INTERVIEWS & REVIEWS
Guy Rombouts - 2011 - Goed, snel en helder wit [NL, interview],
Good, Fast and Bright White
A Conversation with Guy Rombouts
Guy Rombouts (°1949) lives in two adjacent, interlinked town houses. The two staircases in this fairy-tale abode take visitors on a never-ending voyage of architectural discovery past tens of thousands of piled up, amassed, classified, positioned, resting or hanging objects that include hundreds of graceful sculptures, assemblages, stacks and mobiles. Rombouts collects spherical objects, to name but one example, among which over a hundred pétanque balls piled up in two wondrous stacks. There are marbles all over the place, in a variety of colours, glass types and formats, but also nondescript creations involving glass objects such as carafes, domes, saucer and bottle stoppers. Other items include chains, assorted branches and twigs – often with thorns – dried, curly orange peels, one grass-stalk hanging at an oblique angle, bobbing feathers, springs, wire chimney brushes, dartboard score numbers, cages, a hollowed-out tree trunk, scissors, seeds, nuts, cymbals, bells, clocks, xylophones, Jew’s harps etc.
Most items are frangible assemblages, thin veins that gather space around them. As a whole, they evoke a world of variance, of diversity, of ever-changing and gracefully rampant coagulation. The assemblages seem to be the fruit of a chance encounter. They often have holes in them into which things can be hooked – a petrified sea sponge with porcupine quills, for example. It is nigh on impossible to describe the elegance of these hundreds of creations. They exude a strange, lively lightness you rarely see at exhibitions; in the same way the ensembles Ann Veronica Janssens experiments with at home would look presumptuous in a museum environment. It is on the basis of those works that, years ago, I started referring to Guy Rombouts as this country’s best sculptor. My opinion may be unimportant, but I did recently hear how, upon visiting M HKA, the sculptor Anthony Caro told Flor Bex (the museum’s director at the time) that Rombouts’ sculptures had made the biggest impression on him.
Rombouts tells me how, in the Sixties, he impressed girls by telling them how as a boy, he would sit on a stool at twilight and dangle his young member inside the perianth of a black tulip until its slowly closing petals held it softly in their grip; how certain small birds feather their nests with cat down; or that, as a child, an acquaintance of his from the tropics said he worried his hair was falling out really fast until he realized a large spider had nested by his bed and was pulling out strands to plump its nook. Or the story of a man from a far-flung Chinese region who had emigrated to the US and was kept in a mental institution for thirty years because the psychiatrists were adamant his incomprehensible dialect was a fool’s babbling. Or two personal acquaintances of Rombouts who were served two actual horse eyes in the south of Italy after trying their best to order two eggs sunny-side-up for breakfast. (In Dutch the word ‘horse eye’ can also mean an egg sunny-side-up.)
Rombouts was born during the autumnal equinox of the year 1949. He grew up in the Flemish town of Geel. In a chat we had in 1998 he told me how the place’s tolerance towards oddly behaving human beings may have steered him in the direction of a liberty that was to shape his personal oeuvre and general approach to life.
Rombouts’ father owned a printshop which his own grandfather had taken over – after first working there as a foreman himself – from its childless owner. Rombouts’ father also published a local newspaper called Nieuwsblad van Geel (Geel Gazette). Rombouts initially trained to be a typographer, with the idea of treading in his father’s footsteps and continuing the printing office and paper. He told me he was in two minds about what to do until the age of thirty.
If there is a specific point to this text at all it is my conviction that, in the end, Rombouts never really did choose; in the sense that by creating the aphabet Azart, he managed to be an artist and remain loyal to his father’s trade at the same time.
Two things I have learned today strengthen this conviction. Fifteen years ago, while looking at a hazel, Rombouts told me he owned a piece of land strewn with hazel. Today, as we talked about a peacock feather Ann Veronica Janssens brought back from Bali for me, he told me his father kept peacocks on that piece of land and that, at one point, it had more than fifty birds living on it – all of which needed to be fed in winter. ‘Did your father feed them?’ I asked, ‘… as the perfect excuse to get out of the house.’ ‘No,’ Rombouts answered, ‘my parents went together. They were a very happy couple…’
The second thing I learned today is that at barely sixteen, Rombouts filled notebooks with carefully composed graphic and typographic brain waves, abstract drawings, literary references and other bits and pieces that paved the way for Rombouts’ current work, as well as the Azart.
Rombouts: I never looked at it that way, but you might have a point. In the final years of my father running the Nieuwsblad van Geel, I contributed quite a lot to it myself. You’re forever chasing copy. I found it fascinating, but was overwhelmed by the realization that whatever you said had been said before. I had no idea what I could possibly add each week. We are all being ‘bombarded’ with news yet ‘underinformed’. We hear lots of news, but are given little information. I find it hard to compete with that kind of world…
Peacocks sleep in tree tops for fear of tigers. When they are still small ong and cannot fly themselves they try to keep a wobbly balance as the large birds soar up to their perch. They are unable to fly in a straight line so their flight takes the shape of a steep spiral, which – as it turns out – is a huge waste of energy since there are no tigers here, which they don’t know, of course. In the Middle Ages peacock meat was a delicacy. I’ve never eaten any. Have you?
- When did you first devize, discover, invent the Azart? Was that around your thirtieth?
Rombouts: I don’t remember exactly. ‘78 or ’79, I think. How old was I then?
Rombouts: It was a kind of eureka moment. I clearly remember jumping on my bike to go and tell a barkeeper friend about my invention.
- You once told me your father never wrote what he really thought.
Rombouts: He was going to use the very last issue to vent everything he had never been able to say, in some kind of last anarchic issue. But this bid came in from a man who wanted to buy the newspaper’s title, and money won. (Laughs) The paper celebrated its centennial in 1953. A massive party was thrown, which I remember well. Floris Prims, Antwerp’s city archivist at the time, and a contributor to our paper, gave a laudation. He was a staunch anti-fascist, and a belgicist (unitarian). My grandfather narrowly escaped being executed at the start of World War II over the content of the paper’s last pre-invasion issues. He was arrested and taken to Turnhout, standing on the footboard of a car. He was sixty years old. The fact that he was fluent in German saved his life. The paper was banned during the war. To this day, freedom of communication is by no means self-evident, even less so in times of increased political pressure.
- One of the things I wanted to discuss with you today, is the Internet. You occasionally send me links to interesting sites or beautiful short films. Now I understand this springs from your work at the paper.
Rombouts: Yes, that endless quest for copy, which I have always found fascinating. Coming up with something demanded constant effort. Now things simply land in your lap.
- What made you decide to be an artist?
Rombouts: I was an avid reader at sixteen. I was also fascinated by letters. I made tiny books, a bit like a madman focusing on minimal things. I was a loner. Discovering the Wide White Space Gallery was like coming home. It stopped me from taking my own life.
- As a youngster you wrote the following on a blank sheet of paper:
‘Kn k alsjblf de klnkrs trgkrgn? Dank u.’ (‘Pls gv m bck t vwls. Thanks.’)
Rombouts: Yes, the link with printing is obvious.
- Another youthful work is an assemblage of tiny objects you found on the beach. Together, they form the sentence: ‘Wat zal de zee al opwerpen?’ (‘What will the sea throw up?’)
Rombouts: I found them in the tide line during a seaside holiday with my mother. Little shells and sticks. There was also half a pencil. Narcisse Tordoir bought that work.
- I’m leafing through a small linen-bound notebook with squared paper which you made when you were sixteen. It’s more of a linen-bound booklet than a notebook, actually. I’m not sure what to call it. Each page holds a drawing, a graphic find, a quote, an observation… Some are literary references: ‘L’herbe rouge, l’oiseau bleu, les amours jaunes.’ Or sentences such as: ‘Wat ge denkt, dat wordt ge.’ (What thou thinkest, thou becomest.) All through the booklet you also reflect on the graphic potential of the primary colours red, blue and yellow. For the invitation to your current exhibition in Dendermonde you used those very same colours to distinguish between the various locations. The continuity is striking… I love this plan: ‘Rode en blauwe schoolschriftetiketten bestaan al. Gele drukken?’ (Red and blue exercise book labels already exist. Print yellow ones?’ Or this:
dollop of butter
Rombouts: Again red, yellow and blue, in rainbow order. I’d change the order today. It’s more practical to start with the plate, then add the soup and the butter. (Laughs)
-You once had an exhibition around an alphabet consisting of food.
Rombouts: In De Appel in Amsterdam. The exhibition started from the Allegory of the Five Senses by Theodoor Rombouts, which is in the Gent Museum of Fine Arts. A menu with gilt printing helped you find your way around. There was this long table with an alphabet of three-letter food stuffs (in Dutch). Aal (smoked eel), gel (home-made gelatine), ham, uur (udder), nek (a chicken neck), lof (a single endive leaf), vla (flan), mop (a kind of biscuit), wei (the watery part of milk that remains after the formation of curds), cru (good wine), zee (pure sea water, sold by Lima health foods) and so on. All of which were available in abundance on opening night. The exhibition consisted of a line-up of various containers, each holding a sample of one product. Fresh samples were added every day. I went round at night and finished the leftovers.
The smells were captured in bottles with printed corks on them. Does the name Harry Ruhé ring a bell? If you ever want to contact Wim T Schippers, you have to go through him. He recently told me he is planning to write a book about art and food. He saw my exhibition at the time and asked me if I had any photographs. I actually have a photo with him on it, but I never answered him. I couldn’t find the photos.
- An alphabet of flavours – that reminds me of Des Esseintes, who composed dream tableaus with essences. Actual smells taking you to a world of unbridled suggestion.
Rombouts: I love the passage in Gulliver’s Travels where scholars have a discussion by showing each other objects.
- In one of your works you form the names of music movements with objects.
Rombouts: X and Y. An alphabetical list of directions in music is moulded into a long row of objects. Each movement is written by means of a combination of objects. It was exhibited a second time at M HKA, during an exhibition about the ICC arts centre. Each term holds as many objects as there are letters in the name. Most of the items don’t have a name, they are just oddities. Martelando consists of metal objects made with hammers, elevato is made up of things expressing an elevated feeling when they converge, bizarro consists of bizarre things. The work was exhibited in Dublin once, where someone made a very detailed drawing of each object and compiled them in a booklet.
- A huge chunk of your work starts from the Azart, an alphabet you created yourself. Its letters have shapes resembling objects of which the name starts with that very letter. The letter ‘h’, for example, resembles a hairpin, ‘i’ resembles an inlet, ‘r’ is rhombic.
Rombouts: I looked for names of recognizable lines without intersections; one important characteristic being that the lines start with the same letter in French, English and German as well.
- You know that Chinese people don’t know the word ‘hairpin’, so they cannot read your alphabet. The Azart is not a language, but an alphabet, a way of translating sounds, names or concepts into images. The idea was to create an alphabet that would be concretely readable. By using the lines, you can give shape to the named thing.
(Rombouts takes a yellowed jotting pad and quietly, confidently starts writing in flowing lines. I recognize the letters of my first name. He writes my name three times. The first time it forms a landscape, the second time a figure and then a house.)
Rombouts: Chances are you will be able to shape a word into a form that makes sense. At times the first attempt is spot on, at others you need a couple of goes. The result can be quite surprising. The Azart also rid me of my fear of the blank page. No more Horror Vacui… I’ve never written down that expression. I wonder what shape it would be… (He starts drawing/writing.)
- What fascinates me about the Azart – and your website makes that abundantly clear – is that it can generate an endless number of shapes, even more so because each letter is also associated with a colour of which the name starts with that letter. By devizing the Azart you stayed true to your father, in fact, which I find moving. You didn’t choose between printing and being an artist but entwined the two instead.
Rombouts: Maybe. What really scared me about living the life of a printer or publisher of a local paper, was the fact that you weren’t free to make what you wanted. If, in an opinion piece, I likened advertizing with Farmer Vranckx dangling a carrot on a stick in front of his donkey, we received letters from three different farmers called Vranckx who felt ridiculed.
- As an only son you were predestined to take over the printing works. You read a lot, you loved being a printer and you made drawings, typographical designs in which you felt freer than in the paper.
Rombouts: But I couldn’t show them to anybody. I didn’t know anybody who worked along the same lines, until I saw the work of Marcel Broodthaers at the Wide White Space Gallery.
- How did you find your way to the gallery?
Rombouts: My girlfriend, Linda Greeve, worked there.
- You exhibited there yourself, later on.
Rombouts: In 1978. The gallery no longer existed, but Anny De Decker still published art editions. Two friends, Philippe Van Snick and Jef Somerlinck, wanted to make a magazine. We never got beyond the first issue, which I printed myself.
- Your first solo exhibition was at Ruimte Z, where you exhibited a row of objects whose name consisted of three letters (in Dutch). Aal, bol, col, das, els, fez, gom, hak, iep, jas, kam, lok, mat, net, oog, pil, q, sla, tol, urn, vla, wig, x, yen, zin (eel, sphere, collar, tie, bradawl, fez, rubber, heel, elm, coat, comb, lock, mat, net, eye, pill, q, lettuce, top, urn, flan, wedge, x, yen, sentence/sense. You painted the words on the window, so they could be seen together with the objects. During the closing event, you stepped out of a taxi naked, entered the gallery, got dressed, picked up all the objects and left.
Rombouts: Buying an eye wasn’t easy. I went to buy a glass eye and the lady behind the counter picked one whose colour would match mine. ‘But you still have your eyes,’ she said, flummoxed. The Dutch word for the letter ‘z’ was zin (sentence, or sense) and the sentence in question was ‘Ik heb geen zin’ (‘I don’t have a sentence / I don’t feel like it.). The first thing I did upon entering naked, was put the eraser in my mouth so, if anyone had a question, I could point to my full mouth. I then put on the skirt. The lettuce had wilted and I put it inside the urn.
- In 1982 you had another exhibition that revolved around objects, this time at Zeno X Gallery. In 1979 you spent an entire Sunday (from 8 to 12 and from13 tot 17) keeping a paving stone wet.
Rombouts: With a thin Chinese paint brush.
- The exhibition was called ‘Duizend-en-één dingen van achttien fr. vermomd als alfabet’ (One thousand and one things costing eighteen francs, disguised as an alphabet). The invitation consisted of quotes from 26 books, alphabetically organized by author (Adé, Boon, Canetti, Dagerman, Eliade, Faulkner, Gombrowicz, Hildesheimer, Isherwood, Jarry, Koestler, Lautréamont, Meyrinck, Nabokov, Ouspensky, Pavese, Queneau and so on.) Inside the gallery you had divided the objects into 26 groups with which you built letters. The letter ‘z’, in Dutch, consisted of: zeef, zangboekje, ziekenkasboekje, zinkpoeder, zwemvlies, zegellak, zink, zakje, zeilwedstrijdreglement, zakagenda, zaag, zeepbakje, zoethout, zeefdruk, zilverpapier, zandvorm, zelfklevende etiketten, zakkalender, zeewier, zoutvat, zoom, zalfdoos, zemelen, zeep, zonnebril, zwemvlies, zeefdruk, zwei, zeep, zwerfkei, zeep, zijdepapier, zool, zakdoek, zeel, zakomslag, zelfklever (sieve, song book, NHS registration book, zinc powder, flipper, sealing wax, zinc, small bag, sailing competition rule book, pocket notebook, saw, soap container, liquorice, silk-screen print, silver foil, sand-mould, self-adhesive labels, pocket calendar, seaweed, salt cellar, zoom, ointment box, bran, soap, sunglasses, flipper, silk-screen print, bevel square, soap, erratic block, soap, tissue paper, handkerchief, rope, book sleeve, sticker).
Rombouts: Another exhibition at Zeno X, one year later, was called ‘La grande exposition de l’A’. It consisted of 1001 objects that might elicit a ha or an ah when you come across them. Initially the objects were placed on the floor in such a way that they left a large blank space in the shape of a letter A. I attached a piece of string in the shape of a lasso to each object, so visitors could try to hook one. Sadly the strings became entangled, which soon made the fishing expedition impossible. That’s why I ended up winding the string round the objects, making a postive ‘A’. Then I dangled the objects on a rope from the ceiling in the blank shape of an ‘A’. One day I wound the bundle around itself lengthily and let go. It started twirling back on itself and opened slowly like a dervish. Anny De Decker, who had brought a Super-8 camera along, filmed it. It was a beautiful image. The sound was even more wonderful: the incredible, indefinable tinkling of hundreds of objects made of glass, metal, wood, cardboard and paper. When the exhibition finished, the objects were back on the floor and people could try and hook one. On this photo you see John Körmeling having a go.
- There is a photo of you and Panamarenko next to his De Tomaso, just after he bought a few of the 1001 objects.
Rombouts: Yes, I’m probably the only artist ever to have sold anything to Panamarenko. (Laughs) There is also a book depicting all 1001 objects, all of them numbered. I copied them one by one, A3 size, and compiled them into a thick, square book which Frank Demaegd bought, together with the remaining objects. I would love to see the lot exhibited together again… As I tell you this, a beautiful sentence from Karel van Mander’s Schilder-boeck springs to mind: ‘Het is een kunst goeie soep te maken van raapstelen’ (It is an art to make good soup from the green of cabbages.)
- Why do you find this a beautiful sentence?
Rombouts: It illustrates that you don’t make art in a void. You largely build on what already exists. In order to make a good soup, however, you have to add a personal touch. Stealing isn’t enough. Take the world of fashion and advertising, for example. Some things in fashion and advertising are more fascinating than some art, of course. You mustn’t generalize.
- I love the following sentence: ‘Mes zonder lemmet waarvan het handvat ontbreekt’. ‘Knife without blade that lacks a handle.’ It is the title of one of your works. Another title is Goethe’s alleged last words: ‘Mehr Licht’. The work itself is fantastic: a small withered tree with horizontally pruned branches is standing upside down on the floor, roots facing upwards and supporting a parched clump of earth, itself still in the shape of a flowerpot. Bits of soil that have twirled down form an artificial shadow, in which you wrote the title in Azart. If any more soil twirls down, it will erase those words. It reminds me of your work ‘Leegte is vorm, vorm is leegte’ (Emptiness is form, form is emptiness), in which you exhibit cut out words as well as the remaining, negative shapes. Or a 2008 performance in Brussels, when you wrote words in water on the pavement outside the Palais des Beaux Art. Another beauty is Matisse’s words, which you reproduce in a catalogue: ‘I dream of an art devoid of some disquieting or attention-seeking subject… Something a bit like an easy chair’.
Rombouts: The work by that title consists of thick drawing-paper clippings that form words and have been hung on one nail, like copy in a printing-works.
- I’m not sure I understand…
Rombouts: Any incoming material for the printing works or the newspaper was skewered on a hook – two pieces of steel wire shaped into two G clefs.
- In 1984 you exhibited at the Apollohuis in Eindhoven.
Rombouts: I exhibited a clock whose face was rimmed with the letters of the alphabet. The three hands occasionally came together to form a three-letter word in a European language. I made photocopies of those positions and put them on the floor. Anyone who liked a word could buy a copy. Not the wisest decision, it turned out, since the entire exhibition had sold out by the end of opening night.
- Yesterday you sent me a recent interview with François Morelet which you found on the Internet.
Rombouts: An interview in Le Monde to mark an exhibition at Centre Pompidou. Morelet was ahead of his time, yet like a true gentleman he never claimed that honour. I also found out that Robert Filiou made alphabets. Lots is happening out there, which some people sense and pick up on.
- Several of your works can currently be seen in Dendermonde. Which ones?
Rombouts: The Beguinage will have a monumental, iron sculpture consisting of all the letters of the alphabet. Each link consists of a supine letter linked to a floating double by means of two-meter vertical rods. Each letter corresponds to a colour, in Dutch. The ‘f’ is fuchsia, for example. Seen from above the sculpture forms a question mark. The dot part consists of the word ‘dromen’ (‘dreaming’, also the letters that form the name Dendermonde). The other letters of the alphabet form the curl. The work is entitled dromenabcfghijklpqstuvwxyz.
- Which in its turn reminds me of a performance by Bernd Lohaus, where four people recited the alphabet in four different languages and each participant replaced the starting letter of the used language by the name of that language. As in: ‘a, b, c, Deutsch, e, f’ and ‘a, b, c, d, e, Français, g, h’. Which created a time lapse in the enumeration.
Rombouts: In the library you can see the white alphabet pyramid which was made for a play by Bart Meulemans and Willy Thomas, entitled Dokter Zero op een Ziggurat (Doctor Zero on a Ziggurat).
- In 1995 I helped Marie-Puck Broodthaers set up the work at Das Belgisches Haus in Cologne.
Rombouts: That’s when you realize how heavy it is. (Laughs)
- Penck was there. He also lent a hand.
Rombouts: It’s a very heavy and fragile work. Probably the first piece of art in Belgium made out of MDF… In Huis Van Winckel I intend to cover the floor with Colombiers. That’s an old French newspaper format. The space measures 13 by 31 meters. I will write a letter, word or sentence on each sheet, thus creating new surfaces. I will put heavy objects on the corners, as they used to do in China to stop paintings from curling up. I will probably use real negatives. Three corners will be pinned down, so the sheets can waft up as you walk past. A number of schools and art academies have encouraged their students to do something with the alphabet. I will help them present their creations. As you know, I love writing on windows. I think I will draw a few temporary things on the library windows and Huis Van Winckel.
- How do you suggest we wind up this chat?
Rombouts: So much to do, so little time! Luckily, there are the writings of Patricia De Martelaere. There is a beautiful interview with her on the Internet about death, done by a student (Maurice Timmermans). Let’s finish with a sentence by Themerson: ‘Good, fast and bright white is a process, an event, a happening.’ And with a verse by Jan Emmens: ‘Sta ik toevallig stil, dan heet dat het standpunt dat ik inneem.’ (If I accidently happen to stand still, this will be called my standpoint.’)
Montagne de Miel, 21 March 2011
Translated by Nadine Malfait