ESSAYS, INTERVIEWS & REVIEWS
Joost Pauwaert - 2021 - On anti-dreariness, ripping off bandages and mechanics [EN, interview]
On anti-dreariness, ripping off bandages and mechanics
Conversation with Joost Pauwaert
Close to the city of Ghent, sheltered by ancient trees and interconnecting waterways, is a secret place where at the turn of the 19th century wealthy grocers built opulent villas where they could come and relax with their mistresses at weekends. One of these ‘pleasure palaces’ houses the workshop of Joost Pauwaert (b. 1985). In the grounds of the house, partly shaded by fifteen-metre-high maple trees, while looking for a doorbell, I come across the suspended, almost two-metre-wide serrated enlargement of a table saw blade. In the first room I enter, I find a suicide machine: a robust wooden construction, consisting of a chair, a pedal drive system and a large axe. There is something droll about the machine, perhaps because a single turn of the pedal would most probably be enough to perform the definitive incision. A little further along I find a marathon carriage without wheels and lying next to it, somewhat dazed, the gleaming black leather harness, carefully polished by the previous owner. Then I enter the heart of the workshop, which is heated by a roaring, tubular gas burner.
On the workbench are scores of old hammers, some fitted with new handles. On the floor is a heavy anvil, which has been attached to a massive spring by means of a wide tension belt. Next to it is a cannon: a 1:2 scale replica of the Gribeauval 4-pounder. Pauwaert tells me that he wants to use the hammers to make a work for a wall. Three different rows of hammers on a carousel would hammer in rotation, the different length handles differentiating each blow. Initially he also wanted to attach the anvil and the thick spring to a wall, but he fears the walls are not strong enough. “I’d like to make a flying anvil”, says Pauwaert. “It would have to rest on a strong spring which I can tighten and release. And then I would build a large funnel to catch the anvil.”
We walk over to an adjacent space. On a table is a maquette of the Barbé Urbain Gallery. Behind it I see a large metal funnel. Pauwaert shows me a tin anvil he cast himself. He puts it down somewhere and shoots with a pistol. I don’t see exactly what happens because I’m filming, but the little anvil does fly through the air and lands in the funnel. Then I see two metal plates displaying the impact of a cannonball in the middle, and on the back an elegant bulge.
Joost Pauwaert: I’d like to exhibit plates like that as sculptural proof of cannon fire. But of course they would also have to be fired for real. For the upcoming exhibition at Barbé Urbain, I want to fire two cannons simultaneously in the hope that the cannon balls hit each other. The gallery is long and so really lends itself to this. On one side I will have to build a twenty-centimetre-thick concrete wall with a steel door. People will be able to view the exhibition and the display, then they will go outside and I will fire the cannons. At the moment I’m carrying out tests in the cellar to make the firing more precise. The bullets are a bit smaller than the barrel so that they don’t get stuck. But consequently this allows a margin on the trajectory. I am also considering making bronze bullets, so that they can dent each other. But first I have to learn to shoot more accurately.
- Where do the cannons come from?
Pauwaert: I made them. I had the barrels turned, but the rest is my own work. The wood came from an old wardrobe. The wheels from the marathon carriage in the entrance. After studying at the academy I got into conflict photography, in Palestine and China among other places. I enjoyed it, but there was a sort of imbalance between taking the photographs and all the rigmarole that was entailed. After that, I went and worked as an apprentice to a cabinetmaker. And suddenly I was in great demand as a joiner, which left me with no time for art. Five years ago I called it a day.
- Your cabinet-making skills are apparent in the suicide machine.
Pauwaert: Yes, that was my first sculpture. I like to make everything myself. Unless I don’t have the right tools, of course. I don’t have the equipment to turn a cannon barrel. And the enlarged saw blade you saw outside was cut out with a plasma cutter. I don’t have one of those here either.
- You are treating the blade so that it rusts?
Pauwaert: First I tried with nitric acid, but that only works once. Now I spray the blade with a mixture of hydrochloric acid, water and a dissolved copper wire. That was recommended by someone on Wikihow.
- The saw blade will rotate at eye height?
Pauwaert: No, lower. At hip height. The displacement of air means it will also dance slightly, I think.
- You like movement?
Pauwaert: I find most exhibitions extremely dull. I once saw a Chris Burden exhibition, which I thought was beautiful. And the Jean Tinguely exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum. In your big book about Panamarenko you write that we all have bandages round our heads and that art can sometimes rip them off. That passage seemed to have been written for me.
- Do you collect pistols?
Pauwaert: No, I bought this pistol because I want to make a pinball machine which uses a pistol rather than a spring to launch the bullet. The case will then fill with smoke.
- Did you know that Panamarenko also made a pinball machine?
Pauwaert: No, I didn’t. Which works did you make with him?
- I welded the submarine.
Pauwaert: Those lovely wide welding joints are yours?
- It had to be watertight. So I spread three wider and wider layers one on top of the other. Do you know Danny Devos’ work?
Pauwaert: Yes, but I make work more for the oh than for the ah.
- As I see it now, what is specific about your work is the anti-dullness, the ripping off of the bandages and a love of mechanics. They are the qualities of a good photographer. Could it be that you are still a photographer, but work with a different sort of technical camera? Or should we look at it in a different way, and were you this person before you became a photographer? A film-maker perhaps? A dancer? A future dancer/film-maker/photographer? Someone who couldn’t sit still?
Pauwaert: I find Leo Copers extraordinary. And Chris Burden’s ‘Beamdrops’. And his ‘Samson’: a large jack connected to two timbers placed against the walls of a gallery. Every time a visitor passes through the turnstile, the jack clicks to the next position. You feel you could bring the building down.
- If they give you a free hand.
Pauwaert: That’s why I’m so pleased to be working with Barbé Urbain. An institution would never give me such freedom. Later today I’m going to carry out a few tests in the cellar. You’ll have to see that! Gun smoke so thick you can’t see your hand in front of your eyes, the taste of sulphur and saltpetre in your mouth, smarting eyes and tickling lungs, holes in the wall, debris on the tiles, the ground trembling with each shot. That’s the experience I want to take to the gallery.
Montagne de Miel, 1 April 2021
Translated by Alison Mouthaan-Gwillim