Gijs Milius - 2015 - Dissolving Obstacles [EN, essay]
Some words about meeting Gijs Milius
Gijs Milius (°1985) invites me for a stroll through a little park that’s hidden between the towers in the North Quarter of Brussels. It’s used by people of all ages. The weather is nice, the park visitors are happy and friendly. However, what makes this place special for Milius are the yellow-painted monumental concrete remnants of an unidentifiable construction, and the unusual grass covered hills behind which the adjacent office buildings arise. It’s as if we were standing on a papier-mâché model. Not because the towers seem big, but because they seem small. Everything seems to fit. We walk through a beautiful, dense, three-dimensional collage, feeling free and uplifted. As we sit down, watching ten year olds ride their bikes through a fountain, Milius tells me a joke about two men who think they recognize each other from across the river Seine in Paris. In the end, when they meet on a bridge, they both prove to be wrong. The development of this joke involves an elaborate description of the men’s walk through Paris, which I fully relate to because I left Paris only a few days ago. Milius however, doesn’t know this. He just enjoys taking me through a spatial narrative. Why this detailed precision? It’s clear that both heroes direct themselves to the historic center of the city, but in vain. One walks South, coming from the eighteenth district (Montmartre), the other walks North, coming from the Quartier Latin. It’s like a reversed story by Kafka, where the heroes try to leave the city, secretly impeded by the never mentioned hills around Prague. I found out later that Milius lived in Paris for several years. Not in the historical center, of course, but in a hideous suburb. The heroes of his joke seem to do better, until they prove to be someone else.
The visit to the park and the consequent unfolding of the joke remain with me as I’m looking at a painted sculpture in the exhibition space of B.A.D. Entering the room, we are confronted with a vertically erected painted wooden surface occupying almost a complete section of the room, nearly touching the ceiling and both walls. The outlines of the surface form a potato shaped silhouette, slightly reminding us of a peanut shell. Then again, on closer inspection the shape might rather be defined as ‘trying to look like a potato shaped silhouette’ because the borders seem to be indecisive. The same impression holds when we look at the painted surface, which looks like a faint imitation of a Richter-like deviation from a ‘Nymphéa’ by Monet. This overall effect is broken by three or four sprayed stripes suggesting volume or movement. We can also walk around the sculpture and appreciate the wooden construction supporting it, including an old shoe serving as a wedge. As such, the sculpture-painting reminds us of a theatre prop. Indeed, not so long ago Milius created a theatre prop with a cut out wooden shape painted to look like a bulging nose. In this new painting, however, no depth is suggested, except by the sprayed on lines. “I used a bad spray paint,” the artist tells me, “that’s why the chrome doesn’t really cover the surface”. This remark reminds me of Pierre Bismuth explaining to me paintings by Sterling Ruby. “They seemed to be sprayed from too far away,” he said, “so that the paint seemed to have barely reached the canvas”. Milius tells me that Sterling Ruby’s work is always on his mind. I don’t tell him I discovered recently that Ruby’s mother was Dutch, which might partly account for Milius’ fascination (he is Dutch as well), because I start feeling what his work must be about, and I’m excited. I don’t want to bring his work back to my world, I would like to be able to start drifting with it, away from the center of Paris, back to the suburbs, where our worlds meet in another way (Poverty, be it stringent or ‘decent’, as the Dutch writer Gerard Reve coined it, tells you things that the rich will never know.) and back to the future: to new ways of seeing and showing.
Milius, who grew up in the Dutch city of Utrecht, tells me about the shopping mall called Hoog Catharijne. He doesn’t know that my favourite aunt lives nearby, and that I visited this mall before he was even born. In a tunnel under this mall, he tells me, used to live drug addicts in abodes made out of cardboard boxes. He loved this place, which was called “cardboard city”. He is also very fond of the progress-minded seventies architecture, which today is replaced by nostalgic interventions. Let’s open up the sewers again, for they used to be such picturesque brooks!
We leaf through his magnificent drawings. Recently he organized an exhibition of drawings made by other artists. It seemed inappropriate to show his own drawings as well, he tells me. His stories reveal him as an empathic and astute observer of the artwork made by his friends. He generously, but minutely shares his impressions about works by Nicolas Bourthoumieux, Douglas Eynon, Bram Boomgaardt, Gauthier Oushoorn, Angel Vergara and many others.
I look at three painted pieces of wood put together to form a clumsy imitation of a handle from a subway train. The piece is attached to the wall of his studio by means of two elegant wooden pegs loosely resting in two drilled holes. (You can’t see this normally, I saw it only because I removed the sculpture from the wall.) The contrast between the stylized pre-Attic object and the refined, though nonchalant, way of attaching it to the wall tells us more about the status of the object. We have to take it seriously, because it doesn’t do so itself.
Milius shows me photographs of sculptures he recently made. ‘Mindscape 2’ is a rectangular wooden volume of 4,5 meters long, resting on small wheels, so it can be easily pushed aside. He didn’t intend it to be used as a bench, but it is. “For me it’s a 3D painting,” he tells me, “leading the life of a parasite or a tumor. It doesn’t look too much like art. It’s not supposed to look like something, it just has to occupy a lot of space. The surface is painted. I used to paint graffiti, so I attach a lot of importance to the way I use spray cans or acrylic paint. The potato painting we saw earlier was “clouded”: that’s what I call a semi-transparent way of covering a surface. If you use low-pigmented paint you can create transparent layers. And if you use certain caps, you can paint without revealing the gesture. You cannot paint elegantly with a spray can without making kitsch or cartoon-like paintings. I tried to finish the potato painting in a messy way, but without it becoming something that a child could have done.”
In Milius’ oeuvre we meet objects that want to subtract themselves from reality: sculptures that don’t want to be sculptures, paintings that don’t want to be paintings and songs that don’t want to be songs. At the same time, his paintings have the most intricate surface, his sculptures are well made and his songs move us. Milius’s trade is to remove obstacles or to create obstacles that remove themselves. He cleaves through Paris as a hot knife through butter, he knows the maze, he knows the slopes (he used to be a skater), he knows where to hide. In his dreams, I imagine, the police are following him, but they cannot imagine how he gets from one place to another. In my dreams, I climb trees and houses.
Actually, Milius told me about a recurrent dream in which he tries to explain to a friend that he knows racism is determined by the patterns we use to screen the world. Who you are is determined by the way you grew up, not by your colour, of course. But the way we see the world is also determined by the way we grew up. Sometimes, therefore, we might wish to be invisible, never to have grown up and never to have existed, just to be able to fit.
Montagne de Miel, 22 August 2015