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 (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).


Tamara Van San - 2014 - De la force d'attraction des pyramides [FR, interview],
Interview , 6 p.


Hans Theys

On the Appeal of Pyramids
An interview with Tamara Van San

- What would you like to say today about your work; what would you like to see published?

Tamara Van San: That the meaning of non-figurative sculpture is often approached in a superficial way. For example, I sometimes hear it said that neither my work nor I is critical or profound enough. Anybody who says such a thing cannot read forms and forgets that ways of looking at things and thinking about them change constantly.

- When Henry Moore went to art school in Leeds, they had to hire a sculpture teacher specially for him. Sculpture had been declared dead in the United Kingdom.

Van San: Of course my work doesn’t stem from an interpretation of ideas or themes taken from books and gradually developed. First and foremost it has to do with whether or not the form is new. What interests me are ideas relating to form. As Eva Hesse asked: will the work eventually hang, lie or stand? And you can add: which material and which technique shall I use? For example, Eva Rothschild remarks somewhere that she used sculptured hands to hang a sculpture to avoid having to use nylon thread. The solution may not be elegant, but it is an answer to a fundamental question for a sculptor who wants to use the whole space, so not only the floor and the walls but also the ceiling. For example, I have mounted sculptures on bent reinforcing bars hooked into screw eyes, or straight from the roof construction so that the sculpture itself became the hanging system and was self-supporting because it consisted of strands of wool soaked in plaster.

- In 2006 you stabilized a sculpture by puttying one end straight into the wall.

Van San: That’s what I mean. You are concerned with forms, with formal solutions, not – or hardly at all – with art historical, social or political matters. At least not explicitly. Even if you think about the place of your work vis-à-vis all the art that already exists, about the equality of the sexes or the degradation of the environment, the main thing is always finding new formal solutions by thinking through action. How do you get people to experience more than a negative emptiness when looking at a non-figurative shape? How do you guide the viewer’s eye? How do you trigger emotions, thoughts, images and stories so that sculptures seem to speak? Eva Rothschild, who often works with triangles, pointed out that geometric forms such as triangles, cylinders and spheres existed before people did. When I read that, egg-shaped boulders, desert roses, crystals, minerals, plants, fish, rainbows or star systems immediately spring to mind. What makes the shape of a pyramid so appealing? Not a social or political concept. Why can’t its effect be spiritual, emotional or sensory? I often work with circles and ovals. For Hesse they didn’t refer to the infinite. But for me they do. The form influences the way you experience the object. There is something pure and untainted about geometric forms, which leaves us free to look at them. So you can also say things by deviating from these forms, by corrupting them, making them distorted or clumsy. You create a kind of confusion or astonishment so that people pay more attention to them.

- There is often something disturbing about the form of your works. In some cases the waywardness of the material seems to defy the way we view and think about things.

Van San: How do sculptures speak? By resembling, but above all by differing from other things in terms of form. Then there are the artist’s personality and motives. We have something to say, even if we don’t always see that as ‘content’, but as an urge or a necessity. For example, I believe the fact that I am a woman is important. Our work is conditioned by numerous circumstances. We are driven by things which affected us as a child or as an adult. That applies to all artists, I think, even if it is often unconscious or, conversely, the artists are so conscious of it that they shake off that particular influence altogether or go the other way and make a theme of it. When I was eight, my mother disappeared for a year, without anyone telling me where she was. Events like that mark you. They can make you an anxious child or an anxious adult. However, Bourgeois said that it is impossible to state publically that your work is fuelled by fear, because it might prevent people looking at it closely and drawing their own conclusions. You almost have to protect the openness of your work by keeping quiet about things. Only what do you keep quiet about? Everyone is conditioned by the way they deal with their fears. And yet it is important to realize that for yourself your work can sometimes serve the purpose of keeping a chaotic world at bay or creating a manageable world (even if it still looks chaotic or absurd to outsiders). Hesse said that her fears evaporated when she was working. I have the same experience. She also made lists. On the face of it, an innocent enough activity, but no doubt also a way of trying to introduce order.

- The sculptor Michel François described a part of his oeuvre as an ‘inventory’: that might just be a list, but it could also be putting things in order.

Van San: Actually this also happens when you allow your work to interfere with a space or with other artworks: a spatial structure develops that can change, enrich, strengthen or weaken the individual meaning of the works. Like this book, for instance. There were scores of possible variations, with different images or texts.

- You mentioned negative emptiness just now. What do you mean by that?

Van San: I see negative emptiness as an absence of tension, of poetic expressiveness. Positive emptiness is potency. Openness. The possibility of recognition… I used to compare my work to music. Now I would prefer to describe it as structured silence. Or as noise. I regard the apparent intrinsic emptiness as a form of spiritual openness… Lucy Lippard thinks we are attracted to artworks because they make us nostalgic.

- I think that’s right literally, if you translate ‘nostos’ as nest, and nostalgia as a wistful longing for one’s original home. People like to recognize themselves in a work, but then covertly.

Van San: Yes, you have to take a roundabout route, otherwise you produce garden gnomes. Kitsch. If you look at my work, you’ll see that I constantly repeat certain formal, material or technical themes. Yet I make unique objects. If one drops, as it did this week at a fair, you realize that it is irreplaceable.

- What do you mean by tension?

Van San: A sort of confusion, friction or contrast must develop between the geometric and the organic forms. Both within the work and between the different works. I don’t make straight cubes.

- The sculptor Bernd Lohaus didn’t either. That’s what distinguishes his work from that of Carl Andre. With Lohaus you feel forms which want to surpass themselves, which have a sort of transcendental effect, for example by wanting to be a square or a cube.

Van San: You see the same with Phyllida Barlow and Eva Hesse. Generally speaking, a sort of magical transformation of materials, forms and colours takes place in art as a result of which we sometimes experience new things. Material, form and colour: that’s what you do it with. But also by positioning the works in the space and vis-à-vis each other. Artworks start to dialogue with one another, they complement each other. They are fine on their own, but they also like to be in groups. They are not afraid of each other. What is missing in the one – line or softness perhaps – is provided by a work a little further along which might be hard, closed and square. Sometimes you create rhythm by almost exaggerated, dogged repetition, for example by hanging lots of what appear to be circles and ovals in a space. That’s how meanings or stories come into being.

- But each work must be autonomous?

Van San: Yes. Each sculpture poses the same challenges: how do you get your material to speak? For example, I recently twisted Knead It epoxy and immediately ended up with an unexpected form which I could not have made any other way. Then there are the colours. Rothschild says that colour destroys the purity of the form. I don’t agree, even if it does sometimes appear to be that way. For example, I made a number of black or dark works because I had the impression that the bright colours I used prevented people seeing the form. But you immediately realize that darkness also evokes meanings, as in Céline (2010) and Bad Mother (2014), which I regard as two of my most powerful works. But colours are certainly a form of material. All the colours have different qualities. They can mislead us when we look at shapes, but that way they demand greater attention, like an anomalous or confusing form. Staring at a grey cube can be simpler. Colours make looking more complicated. You can choose to make easier work, work that is less surprising or frightening, but I have chosen to astonish, to communicate my own astonishment at things. If I want one thing, it is the chance to arouse and retain the viewer’s astonishment.

- Which artists’ work do you admire at the moment? And why? I know that you collect, look at and read books about the work of some artists.

Van San: Yes, artists like Jim Lambie, Jeff Koons, Brancusi, Hans Arp, Dewain Valentine, Sterling Ruby, Richard Jackson, Martin Creed, Berlinde de Bruyckere, Mary Heilmann, Richard Hughes, Aaron Curry, JC, Ugo Rondinone, William O’Brien, Jean-Michel Othoniel, Roni Horn, Lionel Esteve and Daniel Arsham (for Pixel Cloud), usually people I feel an affinity with, who look for the same tone in their work. I also read the texts and sometimes I find a confirmation of things I have already thought, which gives me the courage to go on working. Not because their words and experiences are always very encouraging: Eva Hesse and Louise Bourgeois can be quite depressing. They want to be loved, particularly Eva Hesse. They describe all sorts of fears, such as the fear of going round the bend or the fear of being abandoned. If they are not working or being useful they feel like ants or insects. ‘Never stop working’, Bourgeois wrote. Today her work is regarded as extraordinary, but most of her life she found it hard to believe in herself. As I said, Bourgeois wrote that it was unusual and even undesirable to speak about fears in the art world, while she regarded fear as the subject of her work. Bourgeois wrote that she was abandoned by her mother. Eva Hesse’s father also abandoned her and her mother jumped out of a window, but they hid that from her. Quite apart from those underlying motives, I am mainly interested in their sculptural approach. Sometimes I am struck by the similarities with my own work. Not because they influenced me for often I only become aware of their work once other people have pointed out similarities to me. Take Lynda Benglis, for example. I am not that familiar with her biography yet, but she makes magnificent ceramic work which is almost nothing, which looks like a test. Then there are her things with candle wax or bee wax, very beautiful work of which I don’t understand how she made it, and the works she creates by throwing pigmented latex onto the floor. Or Katharina Grosse who paints straight onto walls.

- And sex?

Van San: Yes, sex always comes into it. Hesse claims not. But Benglis holds penises in front of her. And we know Bourgeois and Sara Lucas. But just as Bourgeois doesn’t want it published that her work is rooted in fear, you can hardly say or write anything about sex without your work being reduced to that. But other things come into it too. Benglis, for example, went in for scuba diving, as I do. She says that diving changed her perception because of the loss of gravity, that it changed her sense of rhythm. So you are pleased to find companions, but you are angry because they did things twenty or thirty years ago that resemble your own work. With Karla Black I had a similar experience. Someone said that one of my works made her think of the work of Black, who also makes hanging, floating things or scatters things on the floor. But you have to consider not only the similarities but also the differences. As you wrote somewhere, art is the world of difference. Artworks demand the right to be anomalous, different from everything that already exists. Therein lies one of their most important qualities: that they crystallize the dream of being different. So encounters with those other artists are both encouraging and disheartening. It is sometimes said of my work that it lacks consistency, but for me it is about being true to myself, using materials I can afford in a consistent way. You fold them or uncoil them, you make holes in them, you stack them up or scatter them. In the end it is up to the viewer to give meaning to a work. All we can do is try and make things which are as close to us as possible.

Montagne de Miel, 30 May 2014