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.

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Guillaume Bijl - 1998 - Op stap met Guillaume Bijl! [NL, essay]
Text , 7 p.


Hans Theys

On the Road with Guillaume Bijl !
A joyous visit to the old countries

I. Introduction

‘Many misinterpretations of my work have been published and keep pursuing me,’ says Guillaume Bijl. ‘For example, it has often been written that I make anti-art. My work is critical. I make fun of institutions, of our civilisation, of our habits, but why should I oppose to art?’
Bijl has just stood up to fortify his arguments with elegant gestures and the trailing dancesteps of a streetfighter. He is wearing a black suit, a white T-shirt and rimless spectacles with oblong glasses. From time to time he strikes back his long grey hair between hand and thumb. It is as if he is standing in a niche: in a doorway rounded off from upside. I am sitting at a modest kitchen table, which is just a couple of metres off.
‘Why do they think I am making anti-art? Because of my project of art-liquidation for which I had written a pamphlet in which I declared that the gallery or the exhibition hall in which I was exhibiting, had gone bankrupt and had been replaced by the authorities by a so-called useful institution. After a couple of years, I omitted the accompanying text because it did not really add anything essential to the installations. Yet people keep remembering this text without realising it dealt with a liquidation by the authorities. In fact it was meant as a tribute to art.
Bijl steps out of the doorway and approaches the table to light a Camel. He has big, graceful hands and long fingernails. I understand exactly what he means, because when in 1989 he talked to me for the first time about his Four American Artists, a travelling exhibition with the paintings of four fictitious artists, I initially thought as well that these exhibitions were meant as a parody on modern art.
‘I am not parodying art’, Bijl continues’, ‘but a trendy way of dealing with art. Furthermore, it was very agreeable to create and exhibit these works. Wim Beeren once wanted to buy one of them. He was furious when he heard that it dealt with fictitious artists. Why? He had better bought the entire installation in its context at the same price as the painting he already had intended to buy. But I am used to these misinterpretations. I started in 1979, the time of Cucchi, Chia and Clemente, big, loud paintings. My work was entirely invisible. It was too realistic. Too situational. I had ‘no style’. I showed ready-mades. When Mark Hostetler of Furkart in 1984 gave me the opportunity to set up a lamp stand at the art market in Basel, other gallery owners went for the director of the fair to have me thrown out. One of the biggest opponents of my installation was Gallery Zwirner, which sold work by Picabia and Duchamp. Such an art fair is basically just a big trade market. I like to fill a stand with lamps, as if I have come to the wrong fair.’
Bijl lights another cigarette and disperses his eyelids to small clefts. ‘Four American Artists refers to the inexhaustible army of epigones that show up every era, in this case at the end of the eighties, to be exhibited by lesser galleries that cannot afford to show the big guys. It also refers to the habit of exhibiting artists together because they come from the same country, even if they do not have anything else in common. Everyone knows the phenomenon: group exhibitions entitled ‘Six Spanish Painters’ or ‘Ten Australian Sculptors’. But I was also fascinated by the affixing of the right adhesive letters on the wall and the windows of the gallery, making the décor work: ‘S full-stop Roberts’. It was peculiar to notice that the design or the colours of particular lamps in my lamp shop indirectly originated from modern art, constructivism, the Style, etc. Still, it was not my intention to use this as a parody on art, it just stemmed from the shapes of those lamps.
Another misunderstanding about my work is that my ‘Compositions Trouvées’ are not as strong as my big installations. It is true that they have no situational pretence. However, they are also stereotypical images of our civilisation. Sometimes they are big and situational, sometimes they are small so that one can rather consider them as still lifes or sculptures. Yet the aesthethic value which I try to simulate with an unusual kind of alchemy is but filled in afterwards by the art audience.’

II. Description of some works

A scientific exhibition on the history of means of transport entitled ‘Mensch überwindet Distanzen’ (Man Conquers Distances) contains several stands, fenced off by red, green, yellow or other beautifully coloured partitions. In each of these stands, a vehicle or other important object is exhibited, such as a boat, a coach or a stuffed horse, sometimes at its full size, sometimes scale models in show cases, sometimes on pictures, mostly accompanied by the required explanations. The stands, which are decorated with palms, bear inscriptions in white, adhesive letters, such as ‘Eisenbahn’ (railway), ‘Strassen und Wege’ (streets and roads) or ‘Automobile’ (automobiles).
On the lawn surrounding a museum, statues in plaster, socles, small pillars and vases are exhibited as in a garden decoration store, where one can value the statues in their ‘natural environment’.
Part of a Roman street is being lain in an open-air museum, as if the street has been uncovered by archaeologists. A metal rail enables the visitors to muse on past glories while leaning on the elbows.
A small round square is being constructed on a stretch of grass next to a dug lake, adjacent to a newly created Dutch town. In the middle of the plaza, one notices a tiny pond and on the edge of it there are two metal lampposts, getting narrower to the top, each of them provided with white balls. At other places, similar squares are being constructed, each of them with lampposts, sometimes furnished with a bench, a flower tub or a modern sculpture.
A museum hall with an auburn parquet floor is being converted into the dormitory of a mental hospital. Beds are posted along the walls. A crassulacea in a plastic flowerpot with fake bronze fittings is standing on a small table, a crucifix is hanging on the white walls, a sanseveria peeps up from behind a white folding screen, the TV is standing on a thin-legged fifties’ table.
A museum hall is being converted into in a party hall, where two rows of set tables are awaiting the arrival of a new politician and his supporters. A big German flag is hanging near the end of the hall, where the politician will address his audience, as well as a poster with the portrait of the politician. There are also some flower pots with green plants. The walls have been covered with slogans such as: ‘Neue demokratische Partei’ and ‘Die neue Hoffnung’ (The new hope).
An oblong exhibition space is being converted into a rifle stand.
Other exhibition spaces are being reconstructed into a gymnasium, an atomic shelter, a business in eastern carpets, a fair where caravans are sold (‘Caravan Show’), a travelling agency, a driving school, a supermarket, an art school, an auction hall, an antiquarian bookshop, a business for formal clothing, a curiosity cabinet, the apartment of a Viennese composer or a TV-studio with the scenery of a game show.

III. Four kinds of work

Guillaume Bijl has subdivided his oeuvre in four groups. The first category of works is called the ‘Transformation installations’, which he describes as ‘a reality in unreality’. With this ‘un-reality’ he refers to the above mentioned pamphlet he wrote in 1979, in which the government proposes to shut down art spaces on account of their ‘unfunctionality’ and to have them converted into useful, social institutions. The first work of this group was a driving school. It was followed by a fitness, an auction hall, a supermarket, etc. Bijl calls them critical, archaeological tales which have been brought into vision by a distance-creating alienation.
The second group of works Bijl calls the ‘situation installations’, which he describes as an ‘unreality in reality’. The situation installations are usually interventions in reality in response to an art manifestation. In fact, they mock our expectation patterns: they mock the things we do or do not find obvious. In this way, stuffed birds were set up at different sites in the city of Kassel during Documenta IX. One year later, on both sides of a Dutch-German border crossing, a sign was put down with the inscription: ‘No naturism’, while in a nearby customs house some pictures of naturists were hung up. Another intervention consisted in the placement of some bicycles and a notice with the inscription ‘No bicycles’ at the airport of Montréal.
The third group is formed by the ‘sorry-installations’. These are absurd assemblages in which Bijl ‘messes about’ with respect to his own form. One of the first sorry installations was the placing of a fake horse in a cart on the property of a manege.
The fourth group consists of compositions that nearly always bear the name: ‘Composition Trouvée’. They are reconstructions of a number of objects found in reality as such. They are present-day archaeological still lifes that are related to the big installations as sketches to big paintings. Anyone who is a little acquainted with the work of Guillaume Bijl, immediately realises that many of his works belong to several of these four groups. The situation installation ‘Composition Trouvée’ from 1991, in which some decorative garden sculptures are placed as a continuation of a tawdry city park most probably differs only from a strict composition trouvée in its size. The situation installation ‘Horizon Systems’, in which a high-tech firm was accommodated in an empty space in a Madrid shopping centre, only differs from the transformation installations in the fact that no cultural exhibition space was converted. In this way, the expectation pattern of the spectator is broken in a different way. (Although this depends upon the spectator. The ordinary passer-by would not have noticed anything peculiar, except that a new business had been installed, yet this would also be the case when a gallery had been reconstructed.)

IV. The right tone

What is essential, however, is not the observation that these works of art can be smoothly subdivided in one of the four groups, but the fact that the spectator feels what Bijl considers to be fundamental. Anyone who saw him engaged in supervising the preparations of an exhibition knows how much pleasure he experiences in finding the right materials or setting the right tone. I remember his cheerful excitement during the building-up of the ‘Documenta Wax Museum’. In spite of a cooling installation, the wax fingers of the dolls had been melted by the burning sun on the windows. Replacing this melting material by polyester was out of the question for him, although the risk prevailed that the fingers would melt again. To Guillaume Bijl, it does not come down to creating an illusion of realness, but to make the illusory of reality felt. It is amazing how our environment seems natural to us, although it consists of carefully studied or constructed settings in which our barren and absurd scenarios are supposed to take place. Afterwards, certain ridiculous habits such as wearing elephant trunks can make us smile. However, at the moment itself? As Bijl remarks, this requires some sort of ‘distance’. In the background of a picture (1), where one can see a conspicuous stuffed crow on a lamppost high above the heads of the passers-by, one observes a shop-window in which big traffic signs with exclamation marks demand the attention of passers-by for the special qualities of nylon stockings, which have been placed on a row of plastic legs, cut off at the knees. This is an absurd composition trouvée, yet it strikes none of the passers-by.
In many of Bijl’s installations one feels a similar ludicrousness, which becomes visible through the absence of human diligence. Under the usual circumstances, we will always respect a sign saying: ‘Please wait here for five minutes and when still nobody shows up, ask for information at the cloakroom’, because we suppose that there will always be some reason for this procedure. Whenever we meet a similar notice in a work of art by Guillaume Bijl and we are for the good settlement of an awkward official problem not depending upon the goodwill of some servant or director placing notices everywhere, then we realise how sheepish we usually execute these scenarios. Sometimes Bijl adds a little extra and does not only install a notice, forbidding us to put up a tent, but he also places some tents next to it, such as in the community park of the village of Bornem in 1989. It does not surprise me that this installation was pulled down by the local population after a week.
The ‘tone’ of Bijl’s work lies in the creation of distance and humour without adding anything to reality. Perhaps it is exactly this which he gradually discovered: the less he adds to reality, the stronger his work comes through to the spectator. Let us have a look at the composition trouvée in Vienne. Even the mere foolish symmetry makes me laugh. It has something liberating. It makes one feel that all this force, all those arrangements and rules, all that bad taste is grounded in minimal tricks that everyone can learn to see through. En then I haven’t even spoken about these priceless penguins! I would like to invite anyone who thinks they are far-fetched to have a look at any zoo, where the exposition of real animals is constantly being alternated with animal sculptures, made out of plaster, cement or marble or composed of plated reed and blossoming violets, all of them ‘placed in their natural environment’.
A similar work is the metal elevator door, adorned with copper name-plates, which has been installed in a private home without stories belonging to a collector. Here the emptiness and the nonsense have gained forceful shape, exactly as in the work where a hotellobby has been put up in the entrance hall of a bank. What makes this work so splendid is the fact that the architectural terror and pretence are not contradicted, but intercepted just as a judoka makes use of the movement, the force and the weight of his opponent. The demonstrated objects or compositions do not necessarily need to be considered as ugly either. Each of them owns its visual and stylistic dynamism which Bijl tries to show up as good as possible. From a commercial or pragmatic point of view, the shapes of the metal elevator door and the hotel lobby or the decoration by the firm Horizon Systems are functional and necessary. However, one feels the mockery in these installations, yet no acidity. This is critical work, but then especially in this sense that it creates a distance, hence suggesting more options. Things are less fixed. One can remove them.

V. Showing is displacing

In its essence, showing something is nothing else than displacing it and putting it within the scope of a spectator. Nearly all great works of art have come into being by displacing something, by doing something unconventional or unusual. The continuous bombardment of alternating impressions and the inconstancy of our turbulent brain makes us long for order, repetition and recognisable forms. Within habit, one notices nothing. We hear and see what we already know and as long as nothing shifts, we live in our heads. Artists turn about our way of looking at things, thus creating a kind of moiré-effect.

The English critic David Sylvester writes (2) that Magritte once argued that the displacement of objects has its greatest effect when they are objects one is acquainted with. The more acquainted the objects Magritte combined, for example a giraffe and a wine glass, the greater the mystery his paintings evoked. To Marcel Broothaerts, Magritte was an important painter because he had released art from the ‘aesthetics of the painting’ (3), meaning that Magritte made images in the first place, images that would have been less visible because of the exuberant attention for the formal and material aspects of painting. The painter Roy Lichtenstein, who became well-known in the sixties with paintings that were almost mere enlargements of images found in existing comics, declared that it was difficult not to be seduced by the subtle distinctions of the ‘better painting’. ‘The closer my work comes to the original, the more threatening and critical the contents’, he said. (4)
One of the strengths of artists in all media in the second half of the twentieth century,’ Sylvester writes, ‘has been that they seem to have believed that less intervention is more: they set things in motion and then let them alone, not trying to control them, but allowing them to take their course and their chances.’ (5) Sylvester says this with reference to the films of Andy Warhol. At first sight, these films are mere registrations of what actors wanted to do before the camera. They are characterised by a stylistic minimalism and an aversion from ‘expressivity’. One hundred years before, the French writer Gustave Flaubert had tried something similar in his novels ‘Madame Bovary’ and ‘Bouvard et Pécuchet’: describing reality as accurately as possible and adding things of himself as little as possible to it.
But even though the works of Flaubert, Magritte and Warhol were characterised by techniques where subjective susceptibility, master-hand and brushstroke had apparently disappeared, still one can notice a new colour, tone or language coming into being with these artists, stemming from particular, formal peculiarities. Magritte tried to recall the mystery by the conjunction of every-day objects, Warhol and later on Marcel Broodthaers make use of an apparent repetitivity to create shivering images (for example in ‘Red Race Riot’ or montages such as ‘Ma Collection’) and Proust demonstrated how Flaubert’s so-called wrong use of the ‘imparfait’ translated a new world view or experience of life. ‘Flauberts imparfait’, he writes, ‘which is so new in literature, changes the outlook of things and creatures completely, like a lamp that has shifted its place, like the arrival in a new home or like the looks of our old home, nearly empty in the middle of moving out.’ (6) ‘In Flaubert’s work things have their own existence, just like people,’ Proust also writes, ‘since it is reasoning coming afterwards, that ascribes to every visual phenomenon external causes that were not incorporated in our original impression.’ (7)
Bouvard and Pécuchet are copyists. Their problematic adventures take a start when they stop copying and want to start living an ingenuous and creative life. Flaubert invariably described his own literary occupation as ‘the delivering of copy’. Bijl shows us parts of our reality by copying them or reconstructing them at unexpected places or by adding something unexpected or incongruent to an every-day environment. If we do not feel involved, for example because we are not fitness-fans, we find his work very funny, but sometimes his works make us feel uncomfortable as well, as we feel trapped in our own imitation of the most exotic and foolish conventions. His best examples are most probably the works that are connected with cultural tourism.

VI. Cultural tourism

Tourists do not take part in the events they observe. They do not have any real experience. Bijl’s installations seem to suggest that we live in a world where experience is impossible, since our look founders on polished settings. This feeling is strengthened by the absence of employees or other people that belong to these settings.
Near the end of the seventies, Bijl devised a series of projects which he called ‘Treatments’. These projects were never executed, although they are at the basis of his later work. One of these ‘Treatments’ was the ‘Army Treatment’ of which a basis sketch was published in the voluminous black book on the work of Guillaume Bijl (8). Its purpose was to decorate the subsequent rooms of a wide space, e.g. of a museum, as specific spaces, each of them fulfilling a function in the ‘Army Treatment’. The museum visitor was to be received in the ‘Registration room’ where his or her identity would be checked and where personal details would be registrated. Then employees (carefully dressed and instructed actors) would accompany the visitors from hall to hall, where they would undergo successively different treatments, until they had received a full army treatment, execution included.
The principal disadvantage of these works lay in the necessity to hire actors, thus making the treatments some kind of performance or alternative plays.
Recently, I saw on television how broad-shouldered free-lancers taught employees from banks, restaurants and warehouses how to behave during robberies, making use of veracious simulations. In order to do this, a bank, a snackbar and a lingerie store had been built in a big barn. One of the broad-shouldered free-lancers told the journalist that his pupils were ready for reality when they stopped wetting their pants during training.
Which actor would have been able to wind up a treatment in a major museum by compelling an apprehensive collector or other art lover to uncontrolled defecation or summary execution? Bijl’s treatments would always have been just an ‘as if’. The employment of actors would have diminished the veracity of his installations. That is why one often finds in his actual works a notice, explaining that the proper activities of the travelling agency or the recording studio take place beyond the opening hours of the museum or the gallery in which the installation is located.
At first sight, it seems as if only the decors of the original ‘treatments’ have been kept, but to my opinion, Bijl’s works transgress the original idea from which they started. Instead of trying to stage a fake treatment, the artist tried to make the treatment ‘visible’ by presenting its attributes as authentic and bare as possible.
Perhaps this could be compared to Marcel Broodthaers’ use of inscriptions such as ‘Défense d’entrer’, ‘Au delà de cette limite les billets ne sont plus valables’, ‘Propriété privé’, ‘Enfants non admis’, ‘Vestiaire’, ‘Direction’ etc. These notices and legends present themselves to us as archaeological remnants that testify about absurd habits that are lost or have become invisible, such as presenting sizeable and warm clothes while entering an art temple or forbidding someone the passage to some piece of land, owned by one single person. In the same way as notices and signs refer to absent spaces and rituals, do Bijl’s installations ‘speak’ of the expectations and habits of absent people. He shows what people occupy themselves with, by omitting or removing them.
‘Shadow of a Mallarmé whom I did not understand, I am a tourist,’ Broodthaers wrote, ‘the light of the city grips me with beautiful images. At last, I got into bed, in black and white. I make cinema as a spectator.’ A tourist watches. A tourist always wants to be somewhere else, because he never is anywhere. In the ununderstood reality he only recognises that which he already knows. He sees nothing but his own reflection.
Hardly anybody knows how the wind comes into being, how a TV works or how migratory animals succeed in orienting themselves. We live as tourists in settings which others have prepared for us. This is why Bijl made the right decision in continuing his ‘treatments’ without actors. We ourselves are the actors who repeat the same texts over and over again and carry out the same movements. We do not need a government to have us ‘treated’, because we already do it ourselves, especially when we act in the amazing scenery of our own cultural tourism.
It is remarkable that hardly anyone is passionately absorbed in the possible solutions to common physical or technical problems, yet nearly everyone feels attracted to fake religious experiences such as attending sports manifestations, watching soap operas or superficially admiring the accomplishments of art and science. As spectators of Bijl’s works of art we behave as tourists, as we do not actively take part in anything. Then how do we feel when these works show us sites which were specifically designed to satisfy our craving for cultural tourism?
Bijl already showed us a history of eroticism, five historical chairs, among which the chairs of Oscar Wilde and Alfred Hitchcock, the room in which a Viennese composer spent the last years of his life and then passed away, a fragment of a Roman road, a curiosity-cabinet, 235 important and less important photos from the second half of the 20th century, the above-mentioned summary of the history of transport, and the three installations that are exhibited in Recklinghausen: ‘The Stone from the Universe’ (a didactic exhibition about a gigantic meteorite), ‘The History of Prehistoric Man’ (represented by three tableaux: the fire, the fight with the bear and the making of cave paintings) and ‘Eight Historical Lederhosen’.
Some years ago, I read in an essay by the Belgian writer Mark Holthof (9) that the colourful check patterns of the Scottish kilts, by which one is supposed to identify the different clans, is based on a book called ‘Vestiarium Scotticum’. This work, patched together with fabrications, was published in 1829 by two brothers called Stuart, who later tried to claim the English throne and were shown up as swindlers. One day, when I met Holthof I had only one question on my mind: Was the Scottish kilt truly a romantic fabrication or had Mark Holthof really made up this demystification in true Borgesian style? Holthof assured me that Scottish folklore was indeed based upon inventions by two 19th century fantasist. When I told Guillaume Bijl about this, he had trouble believing it, even though at that time he was preparing his exhibition ‘Eight historical leather pants’. I do not know myself what to believe, but as both possibilities sound equally fantastic and amply satisfy my need for cultural tourism, I cherish myself in the faint-hearted charm of indecision.

Montagne de Miel, 30th March 1998 

Notes :

(1) Depicted in Liliane Dewachter (Ed.), Guillaume Bijl, Muhka, Antwerp, 1996, p. 87.
(2) David Sylvester, About Modern Art, London, 1996, p. 208.
(3) Catherine David and Véronique Dabin (Ed.), Marcel Broodthaers, Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume, Paris, 1991, p. 52.
(4) Quoted by Lucy Lippard, Pop Art, New York, 1966, p. 90.
(5) David Sylvester, About Modern Art, London, 1996, p. 389.
(6) Marcel Proust, Sur Baudelaire, Flaubert et Morand, Editions complexe, Brussels, 1987, p. 70.
(7) Ibid: p. 68.
(8) Guillaume Bijl, Uitgeverij Kunst en projecten, Zedelgem, Belgium, 1991, p. 31.
(9) Marc Holthof, De kleren van de prins-gemaal. Over kilt en internet, in De digitale badplaats, Halewyck, Louvain, Belgium, 1995.