ESSAYS, INTERVIEWS & REVIEWS
GERLACH EN KOOP - 2007 - A Badly Fitting Mirror Image [EN, essay],
A Badly Fitting Mirror Image
Some words about the work of gerlach en koop
The work of gerlach en koop is very special: beautiful, clever, mysterious, reserved and sensual in a refined manner. It is an art of equilibrium, drawing fine wrinkles in the image that we drape over reality every day, a form of practicing attention. It is work that apparently could only originate on the border of southern and northern cultures: rational and sensuous, conceptual and material, witty and serious, inspired by literature but with a well-executed plasticity. What we see here is a held-back, scintillating plasticity that remains as dregs from thickened conversations and other adventures. I am glad that I got to know this work.
The apparent mirror image
Wednesday, August 29, 2007. I saw a very beautiful exhibition in The Hague today. It was situated in the front rooms of the former cellar space of a wide building. This space is visible from the pavement, because a part of the floor was taken out over the entire width of the building. Originally there were two separate cellars, which are now connected by means of two openings. The artists closed off these openings, so that the spectators are given the impression of standing in front of a solid wall. The intervention is essential, because through recreating the original division between the two cellars, it creates a kind of mirror image. The apparent mirror image is a recurring theme in the work of these artists.
In every space there is a grey table on which we find two finished, ready-bought jigsaw puzzles of different size and on which we recognise what seem to be identical photographs. Only on closer inspection it turns out that they are two different photographs, made within a short interval of each other. (We recognise the same people and clouds that have moved ever so slightly in the interval.) There are two tables, on which two jigsaw puzzles are placed each. The table in the first space contains horizontal puzzles, whereas there are vertical puzzles on the table in the second space. The puzzles are laid down next to each other, pushed against the bottom and left-hand side of the table. Placed over the puzzles are two sheets of glass that each cover half of the entire surface of the table, thus creating a double bipartition. On the one hand there is the apparent doubling of the jigsaw puzzle photo (with matching scale change, because the puzzles are not the same size), whilst on the other hand the entire surface of the table is split in two by the sheets of glass. In that way a fine visual shifting or rippling of the picture occurs, that reminds us of another work that is being exhibited entitled Six shoulders, three mugs and three plants (don’t take any notice of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor). The work is a found book cover that was printed on the front and reverse side with the same photograph. To the left and right of the spine however, the photo was not cut exactly in two, resulting in a strip being printed twice.
A small drawing of a window with curtains and house plant, that they found on the left bottom corner of an open file, is reproduced on a great white sheet, that is displayed beneath a picture of the file.
In every space there is a white electricity flex from which the actual copper wire has been removed, so that a long, empty, double cable is left.
Two brown trays with a damaged corner are situated on the wall, next to each other. The first tray is original; the second is a duplicate that, after much practice, has been given a highly resembling damaged corner.
The theme of the apparent mirror image returns slightly altered in the theme of the negative space. In one space of the current exhibition we find three white volumes that are reconstructions of the empty spaces behind one volume of the Van Dale dictionary of the Dutch language (a through i) in three different bookcases. In the other space we find similar white volumes, which are actually scale models of the volumes that were used to close off the partition wall between both halves of the cellar space. The three paper sculptures that give shape to the negative space behind the three volumes of the Van Dale dictionary have arisen from an intervention in the library of the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, entitled art books (beside the art).
For this intervention they pushed all the books in the library backwards on their shelves, so that the books no longer aligned at the front, but at the back. By doing so, the library’s minimal architecture was given an almost invisible, but certainly tangible, frayed appearance. The library looked more like that of a private house, where people often shove the books to the back of the shelves to create space for little objects in front of them. In public libraries the reverse is generally done, because the titles on the spines are more legible that way. The library in Eindhoven was given more air and less (hidden) darkness. What the artists did was simple, physical, visual and politically inspired in a funny way. At least, that is how I felt it. To me it seems like a beautiful, poetic, soft and at the same time radical disruption of a glossy functionality.
Irony, consensus and irony
I need to tell you something about irony. I do not like irony when it implies a condescending attitude (like with Duchamp) or negativity (the so-called saying the opposite of what you mean). ‘Irony’ means that you say something different than you appear to be saying, without giving a clue about your real intention. What does this notion add to reality? It repeats the feeling of the child that can only guess at the meaning of words it does not understand. Sometimes, this misunderstanding results in a feeling of insecurity. Every ‘meaning’ of words has something ironic about it. Words have a tangible shape, but that shape does not cover the meaning. Something is escaping. In that sense, a metaphor results from irony. The beautiful thing about irony is that you can say things that are true and untrue at the same time. If Gerard Reve stated on television that the Russians ate children, then of course that was not a true statement, but still it was true. I once read letters by Flaubert for months. The most fascinating parts were the pages on which he corrected poems by Louise Colet, because for me it was often impossible to see why he found a verse good or bad. It comes as no surprise to me that gerlach en koop sometimes quote from his Dictionnaire des idées reçues (Dictionary of Received Ideas). It has been a long time since I have read this book, but I remember that it contained many ideas of which I did not understand what was ‘received’ about them. gerlach en koop used such a cliché as a title for one of their exhibitions: ‘Concessions? Never make any.’ At this exhibition we could see a doorpost marked with two lines indicating the lengths of both artists. The distance between both lengths forms their scope. The part of the doorpost between the marks was sawed loose and removed during the exhibition. Afterwards it was replaced invisibly.
‘Many people took the title of the exhibition seriously,’ according to gerlach en koop. ‘As if you can live or work without having to make concessions. In any case, we can only work together if we are prepared to reach a consensus. Our entire life consists of concessions. The difference between us two is our manoeuvering space.
Perceiving and seeing (the duplication of reality)
One of gerlach en koop’s beautiful publications contains the translation of a passage from a novel by Jules Verne, which was left out by the Dutch translator in spite of the fact that it said ‘unabridged’ on the title page. It concerned one of the many enumerations that appear in this novel and that were very common in the nineteenth century, but were perceived as annoying at a later date.
(In Les testaments trahis Kundera remarks that the first thing translators or conductors leave out is usually the most essential part of the piece of art they are working on.)
Three hundred years ago, or more, when I was a student at university, I tried to demonstrate the difference between the original Quixote and the many shortened and vulgarised versions y pointing out a gradation in the opening line of the famous eighth chapter of this novel (About the good fortune that the brave Don Quixote experienced in the frightful and never dreamt of adventure of the windmills, besides other events, worthy of unforgettable remembrance.) The sentence goes as follows: ‘At that moment they sighted thirty or forty windmills, that are situated there in the fields, and when Don Quixote saw them he said unto his servant...’ In the original version Cervantes uses the words ‘descubrir’ and ‘ver’, or ‘perceive’ and ‘see’. In the adaptations this apparent repeat is always lost. This novel is, however, continuously about the difference between what can ‘really’ be seen and what Don Quixote thinks he is seeing.
The very first work made by gerlach en koop together was a picture postcard with the image of a lost painting by Jan van Eyck (with corrected perspective) that we only know from a copy that was painted by Willem van Haecht, as part of the painting A Gallery Portrait of Cornelis van der Geest (1628). The Jan van Eyck painting, Woman doing her toilet pictures two ladies. One of them is naked (even though she is wearing slippers), the second one is dressed. A ball mirror reflects them both. Maybe they are the same woman. What we do not see is the empty shell: the clothes that are elsewhere without the body of the naked woman. In the left of the forefront there are empty overshoes, which emphasise the absence.
‘Every work of art is the mirror of another work of art,’ writes a fictitious author who is being quoted by Perec in the short novel. A Gallery Portrait. ‘A great number of paintings, if not all, do not get their significance until in conjunction with previous art that has simply been copied, partly or completely, or is assimilated therein in a referring way.’
I quote this sentence, because I think it must have appealed to gerlach en koop. In this way they comply with literary tradition that took shape amongst others in an essay by Borges about Cervantes’ Quixote. The Quijote consists of two parts. In the second part, that was written and published later, Don Quixote meets people who have read the first part. The theme of the double experience of reality that was already expressed in the many different adventures of Don Quixote and his companion is duplicated yet again. The ‘authentic’ reminiscences of Don Quixote are always out of keeping with the reminiscences of the readers who read the first part. Borges compares this adventure of the duplicating experience with Shakespeare’s Hamlet, because Hamlet stage-managed a play in order to find out the truth about his father’s murder. Borges sees in these mirroring duplications an infinite tumbling that absorbs the reader in the realm of fiction: ‘If the characters of a fabrication could also be readers or onlookers, such inversions suggest that we, their readers and onlookers, might be fabricated too’.
We are talking about an ‘infinite tumbling’, because the abyss that opens in the novel can be infinite, as appears from the story quoted by Borges from Thousand and One Nights, in which Sheherazade tells the king, who is being stringed along with the thousand stories, his own history, in which of course she describes herself telling the stories, etcetera.
gerlach en koop do not only make beautiful publications, they are also acting as anti-publishers: it is their intention to take off the market all copies of a certain book. In this work there is also an infinite progression that reminds us of the paradox of Zeno.
I do not think that visual arts can derive their strength and effect solely by literature. I also think that this is not the intention of gerlach en koop. I rather think that their work is akin to the many reflections and variations of form that we find in work by Belgian artists such as Marcel Broodthaers or Joëlle Tuerlinckx (and Dutch or international artists whose work I am not as well acquainted with) that occasionally connect them with the literary tradition. Form remains the aim.
When we look at the aluminium ruler that makes us think of a frieze (because the blue and red pattern of the King peppermints is repeated dozens of times) blue and red pattern of the King peppermints) then this reminds me of the ‘infinite’ reflection that we in Belgium know from the mirrors at the top of the stairs of the home of the architect Horta. In reality this reflection is never infinite, because what we see is a sort of diminishing sequence. In this fine work by gerlach en koop we meet a perfect reflection, in the form of a measurable series. The endless regression is the inspiration for a new measuring staff that takes it place in history beginning with the Stoppages étalon by Marcel Duchamp, and has found a number of handsome variations in the Measuring Staffs by Joëlle Tuerlinckx.
The length of the ruler coincides with the maximum length that could be made. The gauge is the same as an aluminium cube that was published as an erratum at the intervention in the library of the Van Abbemuseum.
The most impressive thing about gerlach en koop’s work is the combination of maximum erudition and a minimal, held-back form. Literature is reduced to its essence, which is silence. No noisy arguments, but a careful sliding forward of puzzling images, wrinkled into a clear shape.
Conclusion without ending
The artists told me that they would like to wander aimlessly in a city, but that they never can. That is why they have chosen the finding of torn off corners of posters as the pretence aim of their wanderings. Their wish resembles the statement of the Belgian painter Walter Swennen, who once stated that he dreamt that he could paint ‘no matter what’, in analogy with Lacan, who corrected Freud’s instruction to his patients ‘to narrate whatever crops up’ by inviting them to narrate ‘no matter what’. Even though we try to move aimlessly, we will always meet our own phantom images. Our reality is a closed off hall of mirrors in which tautologies and all kinds of guises create an illusion of diversity and freedom in the way of dreams. We are locked up in our way of looking and the limited number of things that we can see. However, at the same time the stories and the guises and the costumes and the masks are so diverse and their number so infinite that we will never be able to explore them all and will forever chase our phantom images.
Montagne de Miel, 10 October 2007