Hans Theys is a twentieth-century philosopher and art historian. He has written and designed dozens of books on the works of contemporary artists and published hundreds of essays, interviews and reviews in books, catalogues and magazines. All his publications are based on actual collaborations and conversations with artists.

This platform was developed by Evi Bert (M HKA / Centrum Kunstarchieven Vlaanderen) in collaboration with the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp (Research group Archivolt), M HKA, Antwerp and Koen Van der Auwera. We also thank Idris Sevenans (HOR) and Marc Ruyters (Hart Magazine).


Ann Veronica Janssens - 2006 - Sculpting Time [EN, interview]
Interview , 6 p.


Hans Theys

Sculpting Time
A few words about Ann Veronica Janssens’ oeuvre

Space and time

This morning I was thumbing through the book Une vague belge by Guy Duplat when I came across a quote from my book The Gliding Gaze (Middelheim Museum, 2003) the work of Ann Veronica Janssens (°1956). This is the passage:

 “Nothing is more beautiful than a person’s own perception", Ann Veronica Janssens once said to me, "I try to push it to its limits". In other texts, I argued that, in accordance with good Japanese tradition, Ann Veronica Janssens tries to make room 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.”

I often begin to understand the work of artists better after I have made a book about them. Making a book – looking for visual solutions for presenting the work – prompts new insights, but often these cannot be expressed precisely or clearly in words so long as the book remains unfinished (of course also because there is rarely time to allow a book to ‘rest’ before it goes to print). If Ann Veronica’s work is more than merely playing with light, what is it exactly? Yes, it is economical, it is modest, political, minimal and poetical, but how would this function? Where does this sombre yet delightful poetry actually come from?

In answer to the question of what we know with certainty about reality, Kant explained to us that we can only look at reality if time and space exist. Without time and space, different and successive observations – let alone thoughts - are impossible. Consequently, the only things we can be absolutely certain exist, are time and space. I am reminded of this marvellously simple, but very important verdict every time I try to explain what it is I find so fascinating about Ann Veronica Janssens’ work. I am reminded of it not only because of the alienating, dream-like sensuality which emanates from the patient way Kant spins his tale, but also because of his dogged distinction between an observable (phenomenal) and a non-observable, more essential world.

Ann Veronica Janssens describes her sculptural proposals as studies or experiments. They are things which impart new insights to her; they provide her with new experiences. And that is also how they are intended with regard to the spectator: they are invitations to new experiences. Experience adds something to what we already know. Or it allows us to experience seemingly familiar things in a new way. There are moments when we are drawn into the true reality, because we are no longer protected and rendered blind or deaf by habit. We see, because thinking is no longer relevant. It is obsolete. It belongs to the past. While our senses and our wildly registering and surmising brain momentarily finds itself in the present.

Because space and time are the condition for making, thinking about, exhibiting and experiencing sculptures, the latter always have something to say about space and time. And in the case of work by exceptional artists, this really does become visible or tangible. We feel how the sculpture relates to the surrounding space, we feel how it draws us into slow, viscous time. By talking about making sculptures in a material way, the sculptural proposal tells us who we are and how we relate to time and space.

Experiencing these works of art requires time, because it is often only the changing light or the changing position or condition of the spectator or the exhibited object that makes them visible. In this way, the works of art make us aware of just how important time is to observation. They serve as Kant’s verdicts, but then cast in form, colour and light.

There are, however, other similarities. Given that we can be absolutely certain of precious little about reality, Kant made us aware of the subjectivity, of the capriciousness and limitations of our thoughts. Something similar happens in the work of Ann Veronica Janssens. As soon as it has drawn us into an observation which extends over time, it makes us feel that reality itself hangs together like loose sand. The works cause our projections to stall, giving us a momentary glimpse of a dark, inexplicable, crumbled, underlying reality. At the same time a powerful sense of wellbeing comes over us, because we experience the beauty of the play of light and the projections it triggers. We marvel at life, because we are more aware of its dark, other side. It is like caressing death, which no longer bites.

If you apply Nietzsche’s words to this oeuvre, then Ann Veronica Janssens’ sculptural proposals serve as an Apollonian veil which evokes the terrible, Dionysian background. The birth of the word makes the night visible for the first time. The birth of the sculpture divides the grey observation into day and night; into a wild, bewitching, horrifying whirl or into a slow transition of one projected image into the next.

Slavoj Žižek writes that the world has become so virtual to Westerners that these days what is real can only appear to us as spectacle, for example in the form of a terrorist attack. “Because it is real, that is to say, because of its traumatic/excessive character, we are unable to integrate the real into (what we experience as) our reality, and we are therefore compelled to experience it as a nightmarish spectre.” Perhaps he is right. Yet I perceive another possibility in Ann Veronica’s work. What is real is evoked by a form of abstention, deceleration and patient observation which defies the laws of banal spectacle.

How and why I think that this is the way things are, is a long story which I can support with scores of examples from Ann Veronica’s oeuvre. The most convincing way to make the reader curious without trying to convince him or her, seems to me to be a reference to what Oliver Sacks wrote about migraines. Migraine is a collective name for many manifestations which often involve a headache, but also visual hallucinations and strange sensations. The extraordinary thing about these sensations, I believe, is that they make the sufferer aware of the precariousness of his observations and thoughts. It is as if his brain is running wild and can no longer connect with reality. Sometimes sufferers see coloured spots or geometrical patterns, sometimes they think they are missing a part of their body, or they just observe a part of reality, not being able to imagine that the unobserved part ever existed. And that is how Ann Veronica Janssens’ sculptural proposals work. They call into question what we take for granted about our observations and thoughts. And in so doing they conjure beauty and truth out of nothingness.

The dream

This afternoon I asked Ann Veronica Janssens what she thought of the above text. After all, the problem with a possibly heightened ‘understanding’ of an oeuvre is that it almost inevitably goes hand in hand with an increased insensitivity to other aspects of that oeuvre which are less easily formulated in words. In the above text I try to explain as precisely as possible what could be meant by a sculptural proposal involving the spectator in time, but in so doing other aspects are of course neglected.

 - Which aspects?

AVJ: (reading) I don’t know if it is a good idea to begin the article with the statement that my work is opposed to a narcissistic or egocentric approach to reality. Perhaps it distracts the reader from the real subject of the article.

 - Do you mean that your work also stems from a form of narcissism?

 AVJ: Personally, I believe that my work is anti-authoritarian, but do you think anybody really cares?

 - That’s something I cannot guarantee.

AVJ: (Laughs.) You write that – because my work only becomes visible with the lapsing of time – it draws the spectator into the “real time”, but is that really the case? Is there such a thing as real time? It seems to me that my work suggests that time can be elastic, intangible and pliable all at once. Your heart beats faster or you catch your breath. Time slows down and you experience a moment’s silence… The notion of ‘real’ time is a strange one to me.

 - You told me that you were invited to the Lyon Biennial and expressly asked to fill a space with mist. The title of the exhibition was L’expérience de la durée (The experience of time passing). What were they aiming at?

AVJ: For them it was really just about the fact that you should take time to look at works of art. That is why they wanted the spectators to arrive at the museum and find themselves in one of my mist sculptures. Because visibility is limited and there are no orientation points, as soon as you enter a space like that, you start to move more slowly and more cautiously. You do it almost mechanically; you don’t need to think about it.

 - Your body thinks in your place and slows down.

AVJ: Yes. Your experience of time slows down because there are no recognizable landmarks or distances. Something similar happens with the projection piece Corps rond (Round Body). It revolves very slowly around its axis and sometimes the turning movement stops so that you experience a sort of temporal dizziness …

          A little further on in the article you also talk about “true reality” (“la réalité vraie”). You can’t say that in French. And I don’t understand what you mean by it.

 - I mean that habit prevents us seeing things properly. We ‘recognize’ them, without really observing or experiencing them. We protect ourselves against the changing impressions in our surroundings. But as a result we actually live in an ‘unreal’ world (a map of the world or mind-set), which to a greater or lesser extent, depending on your mental suppleness, adapts to the changes in the surroundings. In the case of the egocentric person this unreal projection – unreal because it was created by the absence of inner stability and is fed by habit – replaces almost the entire world. Only bereavement sometimes seems to bring these people back to ‘reality’: into a world where time slips past, where everything is constantly in the process of formation and everything eventually perishes. In my opinion your work succeeds in drawing people into that reality, into that experience of constant growth (movement, beauty and transience).

AVJ: Yes, that’s what you wrote in that paragraph about Nietzsche. I don’t really understand Nietzsche, because I have never read anything by him, but I think the paragraph is really beautiful.

 - Your work is of course an extension of a personal experience of reality, but that doesn’t make it egocentric.

 AVJ: But it is true that my work leaves people feeling alone, as you wrote. That’s why I feel my work is less altruistic and modest than you make out.

 - You leave them feeling alone but then in a world which you have opened out. An awareness of time passing gives the present moment a new, added value.

          When the narrator of ‘À la Recherche du Temps Perdu’ describes the almost imperceptible appearance of the shadow of a wrought-iron balustrade as heralding the sun gently breaking through, which in its turn heralds a beautiful day that holds the prospect of a trip to the park and a meeting with the delightful Gilberte, then you experience his attention to the barely discernible as a redeeming fissure in the grey world of habit, where nothing is possible any more, not even a walk in the park or a meeting with an adolescent sweetheart.

          A couple of years ago you told me that you regard your car as your workshop, because it enables you to look at constantly moving images. Michel François once told me that he was sitting next to you in the car when after a while he realized you had been going round and round a square for several minutes. Yesterday Ida De Vos told me how you were suddenly captivated by the little hologram on the chip you had purchased for your mobile phone and immediately set about designing a multiple for Brian Butler. In one way or another you manage to ‘decentralize’ yourself, thereby focusing in such a way that your gaze slips away from the predictable reality and suddenly finds a strange anchorage point where time stands still and reality is given a kind of holdfast, however nocturnal or intangible it may look.

          But to you it seems as if you slip away into a dream?

 AVJ: Yes, sometimes.

 - That’s why I often think your work is akin to that of Guillaume Bijl. There came a time when he began to show his installations in darkened spaces, as if he actually reconstructs images from a dream which flicker briefly in a dark environment. In my opinion that’s why he makes so many ‘Compositions trouvées’.

 AVJ: Those works are much subtler than most people think.

 - In 2004, when I invited you for the exhibition One By One in Beersel, you showed another series of sculptural proposals, grouped in a kind of laboratory. One of these pieces was a lamp casting a green stain of light on a white wall. What interested you was the non existing place where the green light had vanished completely and where the wall stopped being lit.

          When Guillaume Bijl walks through the city, he is struck by all the different ‘sets and stage directions’ which prescribe a certain type of behaviour. Here you have to wait, here you can have your hair cut, here you can buy a mirror, etc. If however you allow the reality of the ‘Compositions trouvées’ to pervade you totally, then you realize that what must subconsciously make an impression on Guillaume Bijl is not so much the observed stage sets or decors, but their edges: the places where they become blind spots, non-decors, colourless interspaces. Where and how do the decors adjoin one another? And what is that black light shining through those cracks there? In my opinion this fascination for the border of the decor becomes visible in the ‘Compositions trouvées’, where objects from different worlds, actually small mini-decors, meet each other in a sort of collision of styles, which makes their edges more visible. The world (at any rate, our way of observing it, of giving it shape, designing or equipping it) manifests itself as a collage, whose cracks might provide access to an underlying, shapeless world.

AVJ: I see what you mean (laughs).

Montagne de Miel, October 28th 2006