Hans Theys ist Philosoph und Kunsthistoriker des 20. Jahrhunderts. Er schrieb und gestaltete fünzig Bücher über zeitgenössische Kunst und veröffentlichte zahlreiche Aufsätze, Interviews und Rezensionen in Büchern, Katalogen und Zeitschriften. 

Diese Plattform wurde von Evi Bert (Centrum Kunstarchieven Vlaanderen) in Zusammenarbeit mit der Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerpen (Forschungsgruppe ArchiVolt), M HKA, Antwerpen und Koen Van der Auwera entwickelt. Vielen Dank an Fuchs von Neustadt, Idris Sevenans (HOR) und Marc Ruyters (Hart Magazine).


Nadia Naveau - 2006 - The Old King Kong, Stilted and Touching [EN, essay],
Text , 6 p.


Hans Theys

The Old King Kong, Stilted and Touching
A few words about Nadia Naveau’s work

Skin and form

In the main catalogue about the famous Wide White Space gallery, Yves Aupetitallot asks Bernd Lohaus and Anny De Decker what made them decide whether or not they would commit themselves to the work of a particular artist. The former gallery owners replied that their first condition was that they didn’t understand the work. Now that I have resolved to write something about Nadia Naveau’s work, I cast my mind back to that felicitous reply. At last work we don’t understand! At last work that springs from what Luc Tuymans calls physical intelligence, a manipulation of forms, textures, colours, surfaces, volumes and lines, which involves building up and scraping out, covering over and uncovering, holes and balls, blurring or sharpening, endlessly summoning up images and having them disappear again as the dogged consequence of an excessive, albeit usually subconscious awareness of the image-based, non-discursive structure of our intercourse with the largely invisible world we call reality.

You grope your way uneasily towards Nadia Naveau’s work. On the one hand, you have the amusing, artless, oversized toys, the elegance and the carefree coloration of the drawings, the sculptures and the installations and, on the other, you have those rounded, droll, stocky, amputated Boccioni forms, those anonymous, inert Golems, which might haunt a sensitive child’s bedroom like bushes or silent animals, inhabiting the night with their shapeless shadows… The first thing that strikes you when you look at these sculptures is that their skin is different, but that their pieced together forms all have something in common: something kobold-like, bulging, billowing, bungling. There appears to be a dark, hulking inside, I mean, a powerless attempt of matter to become form and, at the same time, there is that festive skin, a tingling, striped, carnivalesque or comic-strip-like surface. How should you look at it; what should you feel and think about it?

Modelled Clay

The hidden characteristic these sculptures share is that they have all evolved from modelled clay. Even the Soccer Ball Head Girls, which are about 250 centimetres high, are casts of giant, clay forms, constructed around a supporting structure of welded iron. Look at the enormous, swollen heads with the bulging hexagons and you realize that the modelling work alone must have been quite a feat. But Smackwater Jack and I Wanna Be a Cowgirl were also modelled. Nadia Naveau then made a silicone and plaster of Paris template of the clay figure before removing the clay. The actual sculpture has gone, like the flesh from an emptied melon. What remains is a self-supporting skin, a shell, a helmet, an armature. Sometimes this shell consists of tinted polyester, sometimes it consists of a layer of Plasticine draped over a plaster of Paris sculpture (as in I Wanna Be a Cowgirl), sometimes of colourless polyester covered with white leather and sometimes it is ceramic. Usually there is something porous about the finish. Some works, like Finding Neverland or a short, stocky dog, were covered with a sandpaper or roofing-like material which is used in model-making to imitate the earth’s surface. Some works are covered with artificial grass or artificial moss. There is even something open about the hard skin of the coloured polyester, as in the light-blue Soccer Ball Head Girl or the pink Shirley’s Temple. The concrete castle seems to have been erected from a stack of flaking blocks of clay. You feel and see the traces of the modelling, you feel the brittleness of the clay, its lined structure, which is sometimes strengthened with an imitation wood structure or with traces of the knife or the wire. Sometimes the skin of those structures reminds you of transected layers of earth, of the strata of canyons, of the layers that make up some paintings, of crystals or of beds of petrified corals. Every sculpture is a monument to the now vanished clay archetype. Every sculpture contains a vanishing, an end, a death. Every figure rises like a colourful phoenix from this loss, like an extraordinarily beautiful sarcophagus from which the pulverized body has long since seeped or been stealthily plundered by zealous rodents.


Another striking characteristic of Nadia Naveau’s sculptures is their piecemeal, collage-like character. The world that shows itself to us (so not the world that is so familiar it escapes our attention) always has something of the collage. The seeming casualness with which a sculpture is put together is what makes us notice it. The seams tear up our view of reality. The same happens in work by writers who mix classical or edifying language with dialect or slang, as Kavafis, Pessoa, Céline, Teirlinck, Louis Paul Boon and Gerard Reve do. It also occurs in the sculptures of Panamarenko, Guillaume Bijl’s Compositions Trouvées, some of Rogier Van der Weyden’s and Manet’s paintings, Koen Deprez’s interiors, Merle Haggard’s or Gainsbourg’s music, the ‘69 duets of Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan, and so on. The poetical, inexplicable attraction of Naveau’s sculptures derives of course from their form and colour, which invariably contain something enigmatic or even fairytale-like, but also from the strange way they are put together. Looking at the legs or feet of the light-blue Soccer Ball Head Girls, I realized they don’t merge smoothly with the upper part of the body, but look as if they have been clicked onto it, like the limbs of a plastic doll. The fact that the legs seem to be only temporary makes the figure look slightly helpless, provisional, homemade and sorrowful; strapping and yet with the legs of a child or perhaps even the feet of a dinosaur. There is something moving about the sculpture like the monster Frankenstein or the amateurishly animated, jerky old King Kong. The creature is ostracized, its head is too heavy, it reaches for a streamlined future but plods along on pitiful, cumbersome, hastily attached ostrich clogs for feet, just like Smackwater Jack who, despite his macho appearance, seems to be fused in perpetuity with his heavy shadow and a large cactus growing out of his side.

I told Naveau about my impressions of the collage-like character of her sculptures, and then I asked her where those upward sloping walls at the feet of Shirley’s Temple came from. It does look as if that sculpture has been put together using pieces of varying origin. I recognize spirelli-like pillars or the flames of an imitation coal fire, bits that recall Maya temples, bits that are reminiscent of a wedding cake decoration in a story of Lucky Luke and bits of modernist, streamlined buildings like the Boerentoren, which suddenly start to look like gaudy buildings such as the Empire State Building or those American skyscrapers onto which an array of decorative pieces have been stuck.

Naveau: “Some parts of the sculpture were borrowed more or less unconsciously from images of Communist Russia, which I found very powerful and at the same time very strange,” Naveau explained. “I think it’s important that a sculpture creates a sense of bewilderment. I like sculptures that draw me, but then have me wondering for a while where I should start, what the sculpture is trying to do. A sculpture must be slightly crazy or strange, a bit mad.
I adore the aluminium sculptures of Thomas Schütte as regards form and material, but also because they provoke a confrontation; whether they are tiny or huge, you can’t ignore them. You sense a good sculpture, there is something tasteful about it; I can’t express it, it is a mix that works without your immediately being able to put your finger on what it’s about. I also think Peter Rogiers’ foam sculptures are very good, and I admire the work of painters like Fred Bervoets, Leon Golub and Henri Rousseau.
What you say about Shirley’s Temple is right. The logic of the sculpture is purely aesthetic. I felt like making something tasty, baroque and ugly. The city of Lokeren invited me to make an exhibition in a park. In a classical sort of way I wanted to start from the idea of exhibiting in a park and I came up with a sort of throne with a monument on top of it. I was thinking of, for instance, the Neptune on Marnixplaats, which I think is magnificent. The flames grew out of the modelling process.”

I tell her I’m really taken with the little balls around the sculpture like the decorations on a wedding cake, which have clearly been rolled with pleasure, but which you also find on the character itself, as a sort of strange, crazy burden – or perhaps they’re just there for the hell of it!

Naveau: “Yes, I felt all those balls gave the sculpture a bizarre touch,” she tells me. “First of all, I scooped half balls from the sculpture, but that didn’t really work. First there was a palm tree on top of it, but that didn’t work either. Then that little figure came and after that the balls. I thought long and hard before casting the sculpture like that, because it is so awful, so ugly, but at the same time it looks good. I love baroque buildings and forms. That’s what it’s about, but at the same time there’s stylizing in it which provides the finishing touch. It’s a successful mishmash. Initially I wanted to make a mountain to put the sculpture on, a mountain covered with yellow, artificial grass, but now I’m planning to put the sculpture on the ground and replace lengths of grass in the park with that yellow artificial grass, so as to create a sort of stylized interplay of lines vaguely reminiscent of the scores of different coloured lines on indoor sports fields.
What you say about that collage-like structure makes me think of how the concrete castle evolved. First of all, the castle consisted of a single piece, but it was much too compact. Its compactness detracted from its effect. Then I sawed it up, so that I could spread out the different parts, like the unassembled pieces of a jigsaw, over the space. The space looked wider. The sculpture became more spatial and more powerful because it consisted of different pieces.”

Sculpting and painting

I talk about the seemingly rough finish of the surface of the sculptures, which is of course not unusual with sculpture, but it also reminds me of the attention painters pay to the texture of their layer of paint.

Naveau: “Yes, I studied sculpture, but it was a painter who taught me the most. He didn’t give me lessons as such, but Fred Bervoets often came to see me in my workshop. His passion was infectious. Later on, when I was preparing an exhibition at De Zwarte Panter, he surprised me by helping me paint a shadow. I had made a large sculpture based on the drawing of the spy from the game Stratego and on the wall behind the sculpture I was about to create a grey area when Fred said: “You’re not just going to paint flat on the wall here?” and began applying a shadow with a small brush, doing one small area after another. It was then that I saw that painters look at things and feel things differently from sculptors.” 

- Even though you just wanted to create a surface that contrasted with the volume of the sculpture?

Naveau: “Yes, of course. I just mean that I don’t want to compare myself with painters when it comes to surfaces. Sculptors and painters are two different animals.
The name ‘Smackwater Jack’ was taken from a song by Carole King about a man who suddenly starts shooting at people. The leather covering was sewn over the sculpture piece by piece. That wasn’t easy. The cover of the revolver consists of lots and lots of small pieces. I measured out the patterns and a girlfriend who’d studied fashion did the sewing. His skin is an enormous loose cover which fits over the form.
After Smackwater Jack I made a large ceramic sculpture. I had already made two large bulldogs using that technique, which are now on show in Ostend museum. Ceramic is a wonderful material. It produces something very worthwhile. It is almost like bronze, a primordial material, partly because you know how delicate it is, how difficult it is to make and that it can so easily go wrong. If ceramic dries too quickly, it breaks up into thousands of little pieces. I modelled Red One Redone I in Limburg, but baked it in s’Hertogenbosch. It cracked a little after baking, but that’s nice! You can’t really predict what the work will look like. It is a miracle. You apply a glaze, the work goes into the oven and it comes out as a shiny coffee cup or an entire service. That’s really great!
The two halves of Shirley’s Temple are not an exact match. That looks good. I also like the bulges in the seam, because of the transparency.”

Birth of a landscape

Finally I would like to say something about Nadia Naveau’s drawings. They made an immediate impression on me because of the elementary use of colour and because of the way they are made up of strips or small areas of colour. However, when preparing this book, I looked at about a thousand photographs of landscapes Nadia Naveau had taken in the United States of America and I recognized the structure and the coloration of her drawings in those landscapes. Yet she had produced the drawings before her visit to the States. It was as if she had looked at the American landscapes through the filter of her own drawings and registered it with the camera when the two grids converged. Of course, that is how all ‘landscapes’ are created. Nature imitates art, as Wilde wrote. The ‘landscape’ as a friendly way of observing what is essentially a threatening or at least a cultureless environment, only became visible after the paintings of the same name were created. I had already learned to look as some artists do, but I had never experienced this with landscapes. It was a magnificent experience, and one I would like to share with you through this book.

Montagne de Miel, March 22nd 2006