ESSAYS, INTERVIEWS & REVIEWS
Patrick Van Caeckenbergh - Ingenious Cutting [EN, interview], 2009
Interview with Patrick Van Caeckenbergh
Patrick Van Caeckenbergh (°1960) receives me in his cigar box: a box made of Meranti plywood, which has been built into his house. The walls, floor, ceiling, a bed, bookshelves and workbench are all made of the same material and almost entirely close us in, as if the artist were able to keep out the chaos of the world in this way, or as if he wanted to keep his own imaginary world from spreading out indefinitely, escaping all boundaries.
When I bring the conversation around to Oliver Sacks, whose work would undoubtedly fascinate him, he stiffens. When I tell him that Oliver Sacks sees himself as a disciple of Alexander Luria, he enthusiastically begins to speak. Luria is part of his clearly demarcated world. Van Caeckenbergh tells me that one of his first sculptures was an answer to a book by this neuropsychologist, about a man who remembered everything and was consequently no longer able to live a normal life.
Patrick Van Caeckenbergh: ‘When that man read a menu in a restaurant, he immediately tasted and smelled all the different dishes he had ever eaten. He heard all the conversations that he had had in restaurants and saw all those restaurants before his eyes: a gigantic, simultaneous, synaesthetic confusion that stopped him from functioning. I wanted to free that man, so I made a kind of hat for him, with hundreds of little drawers, the way people used to represent memory. Inside those drawers are things that he could use in order to survive, such as fishhooks, candles, beans and rice. Beneath them, you also find pepper, salt and soap. At the top is the feather duster, for cleaning. This way, the man was ready for a pilgrimage, a noble clearing out.’
- Actually, you dream about becoming the man who sees everything at once, like the protagonist in Jorge Luis Borges’s story, ‘The Aleph’.
Van Caeckenbergh: Every morning, I dream of being able to see an overview of what I have made in my life in a single synoptic glance. For that reason, I try to design genealogies. It is difficult, because whenever I discover something new, I have to revise the whole thing all over again.
- Would you like to tell us something about your early years as an artist?
Van Caeckenbergh: I graduated from art school without showing a single work. I did speak about other things, for example about the technical drawings made by my grandfather, who was a blacksmith. I also once gave a lecture at the Museum of the History of Sciences in Ghent. I showed slides and talked. I had a friend who studied philosophy and who once took me along to the university. There, I discovered that you could sit in on any class you wanted to. That was how I became acquainted with subjects such as neurology and art history.
All those years, I lived in a factory building, in which I had built myself a small cabin to live. The structure consisted of two massive bookcases connected with a wide plank, which was laid across the next-to-last shelves and served as a bed. You could close off the open spaces with curtains. Artists heard about it and came to visit me. Sometimes they brought their students with them. I got to know a lot of people that way, and in the end, I graduated on the basis of my “living box”, which is what it ended up being called. Personally, I did not see it as an artistic project. It was just a way to be able to live in that big factory. After that, things often happened in the same way: people would see something and want to exhibit it. Every year, in June, a few people came to the art schools in Ghent in order to select the three best students. Those students could then exhibit during the summer at De Vereniging, which was then still housed in a town house. That was how my living box ended up being exhibited, and it was also how my next work came about: a house on wheels and a sculpture representing a horse.
This is how that happened. Because I was exhibiting my living box, I no longer had a place to live. I moved in with my parents for a few weeks. I landed there as a kind of anthropologist, observing them in a new light. My father had an unusual passion, which involved picking up small objects and storing them in a shed. A rusty, bent nail would be hammered straight again, sanded, oiled and put away in a little box with a label on it: “Nails, 0.5 to 0.8 mm”. There were hundreds of these boxes. He also saved small boards, which were arranged vertically alongside one another, on shelves. What was so strange is that my father never did anything with all these objects. I never saw him make or repair anything. When I moved in with my parents again, something unusual happened. My father was seriously ill, so my mother felt they had to have a telephone, in case of an emergency. The telephone cable came into the house through a hole in the wall and extended for about a meter. “Father,” my mother said, “we need to be able to put the telephone down on something.” I looked at my mother, with the telephone in her hands, and then looked at my father. He went and sat down and looked at the wall, at the telephone, and at the wall again… Ten minutes, fifteen minutes, a half hour passed. Then he stood up and went to his treasure trove. When he returned, he was holding a little plank exactly the size of the bottom of the telephone. It fit perfectly! He held it against the wall and said, “This is where it should be.” In that one moment, everything came together and it all seemed to make sense. My father was a ‘bricoleur’ as defined by Claude Lévi-Strauss! It was a magic moment! I suddenly understood what I had to go out and tell the world. I suddenly had a message that I wanted to convey. Soon thereafter, my father died. Then I made that second little house, a kind of maquette of my parents’ worker’s house, which I mounted on a cart.
- The experience of that little plank showed you how you could live as an artist and still be loyal to your father?
Van Caeckenbergh: Yes.
- I suspect you might have discovered the world by leafing through the ‘Artis Historia’ books? (Books on all kinds of subjects, for which you could save illustrations to paste in, a kind of democratic culture that, because of the implication that you could use them to save money, appeared in the homes of families who otherwise did not buy books.)
Van Caeckenbergh: We did not have any books at home, except a mail-order catalogue and a Winkler Prins Encyclopaedia that my mother let herself be talked into by my first grade teacher, who sold encyclopaedias on the side. Because we had no place for books, the eight volumes of the encyclopaedia were in amongst my toys, next to the comic books. Because of that, but also because I still could not read very well, I approached the encyclopaedia as if it were a comic book. Some of the illustrations were incredibly fascinating – a big purple illustration, for example, of a drop of water and all the microscopic life going on inside it. It looked like an abstract painting. I asked myself what it could possibly be. Then I read, very slowly: d-r-o-p o-f w-a-t-e-r. Later, I used that illustration for the cover of one of my books.
- Your sculptures often begin as maquettes. It is hard for me to imagine larger versions of them being made by others. Where are they built?
Van Caeckenbergh: Here, at home, in the garage or the sitting room. We make a bit of space for them. But the actual making of the sculptures only takes about five percent of my time. Here, everything is about words and language. My work is very conceptual. I am not involved with matter and materials, but with thinking, writing and studying. I try to acquire knowledge, to work through as much knowledge as possible. It is a huge amount of work. I also have a very slow rhythm, comparable to people who write novels. Pamuk, for example, talks in terms of projects of five to ten years. That is the rhythm that I can also keep to, as a person. Every five or six years, I try to finish something… That creative process is a very inert process.
Pamuk and Sebald are the only more or less contemporary authors I read. My library stops at Thomas Mann, as it were. I have naturally also read Louis Paul Boon, but I found it too overwhelming. It was as if I were reading things and re-experiencing them at the same time. It was too close to me. I come from Aalst, in East Flanders, from a working-class family. My literary trajectory is very intuitive. I simply follow the writers. I have not read a lot, but I know the things that I have read very well. Flaubert, Valéry, Roussel… I go about it genealogically. I seek connections: Dostoyevsky, Dante, Cervantes, Montaigne, Pascal, Goethe, Eckerman, Stendhal, Flaubert, Proust, Thomas Mann, Pavese, Canetti, Calvino, Broch, Foucault, Mircea Eliade, Sebald… All that reading and writing is a solitary activity, but there are still encounters taking place, with authors and with characters. My library is a sounding board. It seems to sing, but actually it is a spoken song, a chant, a recitative. The books speak with one another, and it sounds like a song. But I am a captive of classical literature. It is a fatal instinct…
- Did you paint this tree yourself?
Van Caeckenbergh: Yes. In the last three years, I have drawn 32 trees, I think. Recently, I saw that I had drawn the same tree twice, without realizing it. When a work like this is finished, it is usually leaves the house immediately to be sold by my gallery. I never see them together. Now, the drawings are being brought together to be exhibited at Museum M in Leuven. It was because of that that I discovered that I had drawn the same tree twice.
- Why not exhibit them together? They could never be identical – certainly these doors cannot be the same. Seeing them together could be exciting.
Van Caeckenbergh: Yes, because maybe they really are identical! That would be a payback! Trees have always fascinated me, not only in the physical sense, but also as family trees, as genealogy. Trees are like houses for me. That is why there are doors in them. The drawings look hyper-realistic, but they are the result of improvisation. It is like free jazz: once a couple of notes have been set out, the rest is improvised.
- Would you like to tell something about how your library is organized?
Van Caeckenbergh: It begins with the stars, with cosmologies, fairy tales and the discovery of the Earth: I adore stories about and by discoverers. Then come anthropology, ethnology and the more biological side of people, animals and plants. After that are architecture, magic, the sciences, chemistry, alchemy and cooking. I enjoy cooking, every day. At the bottom, there is a section with books on folklore. If I do something, I try to do get to the heart of it. I set off on etymological wild goose chases that can take days or weeks. There are also encyclopaedias and literary works.
- The last bookshelf is filled with cigar boxes, arranged on their sides, like books, or like your father’s groups of planks.
Van Caeckenbergh: I was given all those boxes. Viewers often think that I make my work from objects that come from flea markets, but that is not the case. Many things are given to me by people in the village, who know the things I am passionate about. There are other objects that I simply buy new. If they ultimately look dog-eared, it is because I have played around with them so much, or have carried them around for a long time. Having said that, I have to admit that I am very fond of old, weathered objects. They bear traces of erosion; they have something erotic about them.
- What is inside the boxes?
Van Caeckenbergh: [Picking one up] This box is full of pink cheeks.
- Illustrations of blushing cheeks, cut out, then pasted at the four corners with bronze-coloured photo album corners, like gilded frames. They are mini-paintings. They are strange. I have never seen blushing cheeks quite like these. Where did you find them?
Van Caeckenbergh: In catalogues with photographs of porcelain dolls. The mounting corners are the only thing left from photo albums that people have given to me. I have to cut away a lot, as a censor. I isolate the cheeks from their original context.
- How did you get interested in these blushing cheeks?
Van Caeckenbergh: I wanted to illustrate humbleness. For me, humility has something to do with shame. You are ashamed about what you do, but you still try to be yourself, even if that means that others reject you. Veering away from the norm may seem like arrogance, but sometimes you have to be humble enough to accept yourself the way you are. If someone is not allowed to do something, but gets caught in the act, then he or she begins to blush. That blush is a lie detector. Later, I found Darwin’s text about the expressions of emotions in people and animals. Animals do not blush. I once made a self-portrait that showed all imaginable shortcomings: a fat stomach, a hunchback, a harelip, buck teeth, flap ears – all kinds of deformities that are considered ugly, but when they are all put together, they evoke something sympathetic, something likable. The blushing cheeks are a part of that.
People like Mendel and Darwin give me courage. Did you know that Gregor Mendel published his first article in a magazine about pigeons and that he was happy about that? And Darwin! Twenty years after his most important discoveries, he still did not dare speak about them with his wife, who was very religious. He was ashamed of what he had discovered, of his secret life. When I read that, everything fell together for me in a beautiful moment: his own shame, his essay about the expression of emotions in animals, Mendel, and my own attempts to be true to myself by keeping everything small. Shame is important.
It also has something to do with slowness. I think we have to be slower in dealing with the world, slower and more humble. People with a slow, humble, intimate approach to the world often have great influence. Here, something can lie around for three or four years, then suddenly you grab hold of it and it suddenly, spontaneously finds itself next to something else, where it belongs. Things often happen that way: the work flows out of a simple gesture, a small movement, a faint scent, a gentle touch, a little taste, a mundane interaction with life, in the rhythm of your family. It can be unspectacular: a newspaper heading, a comment by your daughter, a question from your neighbour. Suddenly all the senses unite and things immediately click together.
Montagne de Miel, 29 November 2011
Translated from the Dutch by Mari Shields