Kunstenaars moeten een ander terrein opzoeken als een strategie om te overleven’. Interview met Jan van Grunsven / ‘Artists should seek out a differen

Camiel van Winkel: Your activities as an artist would seem, to some extent, to be geared to a contextual analysis of the exhibition system. What is the ratio of exhibition models to architectural models in your work?

Jan van Grunsven: In retrospect, I see my work as an ongoing study involving increasing numbers of different aspects. I started with large drawings of spatial constellations with tables. From there I went on to what the Germans call Wandbilder. At that time Blinky Palermo was an important reference for me. The paradoxical thing about his installations is that they are condition-endorsing, and at the same time open to what is taking place in the world outside. My interest in the problem of activating a wall by the location of an object has resulted in involving the exhibition space as a physical component. Originally I saw the space purely as an aesthetic problem, but later I began to approach it with the components from which it is made. My interest was in the consequences for the use of the space.
At some stage I realized that the area of a gallery is not free of values. I began to make connections between the economic and the architectural contexts. It was confrontational to discover three years later that Michael Asher had already laid open these connections with merciless precision, in 1974 in a work in which he removed the partition between an office and an exhibition area. The operation was simple enough, but so accurate and aggressive…
Meanwhile I had carried through the contextual focus to the level of the exhibition itself. At that time I was asked whether I could make a work in the context of a group exhibition. The first exhibition model was the result, for `Sharp Cut’ in De Selby (Amsterdam 1989).  The architectural models form an enlargement of the architectonic implications of the older work: the exhibition space as such is placed in an even wider context, that of the outside world.

Mark Kremer: That sounds like a roundabout route. Palermo’s installations establish a link with the outside world in a subtle yet explicit way, whilst you focused your examination inwards to start with –  at the exhibition `machinery’.

JvG: I think at some stage I turned away from a belief in the strict autonomy of the work of art. My field of operations became one entailing an emphatic demonstration of the dependence of given conditions. For example, my contribution to `Allocaties’ was a dialectic architectural model, in which the two parts, although absolutely identical, acquired a contrasting effect because of their location. As an entity, the model did not have an autonomous status either. Its rationale was derived from its purpose and from its visual focus: the economic circus of the Floriade horticultural exhibition. In order to convey that dependence, the sponsors’ and subsidizers’ names were listed on a wall in both parts. When the Floriade was dismantled, I insisted that the architectural model be dismantled too. I refused to give it another purpose.

MK: So this was also aimed at exposing the exhibition machinery.

JvG: Yes. One of my reasons was the irritation I felt after a visit to the `Metropolis’ exhibition in Berlin. Art and money have always been related, of course, but when you see it displayed so unashamedly in a German-American alliance… That experience played a part in the effectuation of the rows of seating in the architectural model which suggested there would be a show.

MK: But if that realization bothers you, what can you do about it, apart from analysing it? How do you give the situation an incentive to change? And another question: How do you expect to reconcile this critical attitude with your almost romantic use in past work of red lead, with its focus on immateriality?

JvG: Two years passed between the work in which I used red lead and the first exhibition model. It is a fact that the first work, the installation at Villa Arson in Nice (1987), did not have that critical implication, nor was it meant to. The area overlooked a sunny terrace. I put in a wall which entirely blocked the view and was covered in red lead on the side on which the light fell. The wall made a concession: it wanted to demonstrate its `raison d’être’ by way of its need to reflect light – the intense glow which the red lead spread through the area. That contrast between a material component which blocks the view and an immaterial component which is received in exchange, was the most important thing. I was concerned with the problem of an added object which displays its dependence on the space in which it has nevertheless been placed as a Fremdkörper.

CvW: You see your work as an ongoing examination that is constantly redefining itself. What are the latest conclusions and the ensuing steps?

JvG: I no longer make exhibition models. When I started, I had not realized that the visualization of the given conditions within a group exhibit itself forms a new context within which the other exhibitors’ works are inevitably seen. For me that was a perverted situation, and I became hopelessly entangled in that discovery.
Since then I have been particularly engaged in the developments in architecture and urbanism which reflect an awareness of future changes in the programme of public space. I think we need to redefine how we deal with that public space. It merely sounds like a formal, logistic problem, a matter of physical planning, but I tie it in with a changing understanding of the collective element: alongside an increasing massification and collectivization, there is a process of individualization and differentiation taking place in society, due particularly to growing inter-cultural influences. The museums would seem to be ignoring these problems, and becoming entrenched in their nineteenth century conditions.

MK: Are you suggesting that artists should seek out a different territory?

JvG: Yes, as a strategy for survival.

CvW: We might talk about the Rietveld exhibition which you and Arno van der Mark designed at the Centraal Museum in Utrecht (1992). You were both involved as artists.

JvG: We were probably only invited because we could be expected to supply a different visualization. The museum assessed our proposed exhibition design purely on its aesthetic aspects, and in the end had no desire for a dialogue with us in any shape or form. At crucial moments they stalled. The idea was to generate a free ground plan, in which all the items would follow one after another – as grand gestures: a wall full of drawings, a floor expanse full of chairs… But the division of that collection into historically-balanced themes destroyed the edge to our arrangement.

MK: What radical essence in your proposal was not realized?

JvG: The desire to strip the work of art history-related  interpretations. We wanted to link the work to its own description so literally, and so overload it with its context that it could be disconnected visually, and hence relinquished to experience. The monograph which was published for the exhibition was used as a `vehicle’ for Rietveld’s furniture, although all the reference material – drawings and models – should have been presented on the wall behind glass panels. In addition, we had expected a different entrance, round the back. From the start we insisted on knowing how the chronology of the work would be approached. We wanted to arrange the chairs chronologically, keeping the concomitant drawings and models separate, in order to create two directions. The idea was to make the entrance in the middle of the series of rooms, so, when you came in, you could go either left or right. That would have achieved a `loop’ effect, and new connections would have come about, fortuitously, organized by the material itself, or by its location. The final arrangement into thematic sections may well have been of educational value, but why not limit the art history to the catalogue, and disconnect the actual exhibition from everything that has been said and written about Rietveld?

CvW: So your original arrangement did not allow for the fact that visitors would be addressed by two different voices – i.e. the official voice of art history, and, cutting through it, your own critical voice?

JvG: No. It is interesting to speculate on the extent to which the `subordinated’ position of our programme was still clear. Maybe we backed the wrong horse in that respect –  not so much theoretically as effectively.

CvW: In some respects your work leans towards design. That might have been a reason for the Centraal Museum to call you in.

JvG: Yes, I know exactly which works were the reason for me tobe asked. It was mainly on account of a specific aesthetic quality, as well as its unemphatic nature. The work merges in so easily with what a museum might do with its resources that it is as good as unobtrusive. It is not demonstrably art.

MK: You were expressing a burning need as regards the artist’s `task’. Did your exhibition last year in the Vleeshal at Middelburg meet that need?

JvG: Yes, in a way. As always, there was a pretext, with a realistic component. In view of the completeness of the Vleeshal’s interior, I decided that my addition should be very low key and possibly only consist of texts. There was an additional consideration, in that the Vleeshal had originally been a meat market, not only where people came to buy meat, but also to swap news – a perfect example of a public place. Nowadays it is semi-public: it has set opening times, and what is `on sale’ is inaccessible for those without the relevant prior knowledge. I wanted to return this public venue, which now only exists in people’s memories, to the town of Middelburg, and bring Middelburg back into that hall, as a kind of exchange. For the poster that was distributed as an invitation and also hung up in various public buildings, I used the cover of the regional telephone directory, but instead of the aerial photograph used in the directory design, the poster featured a photo of the empty interior of the Vleeshal. The names of all the towns and villages in the district were put on the doors to the hall, which meant that the entrance functioned as a visual duplication of the picture of the interior on the poster. In the exhibition area itself, enlargements of all the pages of the Middelburg section of the telephone directory were presented.
The work was affected by the idea that if art is involved for public places, there is also assumed to be some public interest. What is the public’s position in it all? Does the public consist of passive visitors or of participants with interests of their own? Can you activate them? I discovered that it always makes a greater impression to read one’s own name than someone else’s. It is a strange psychological effect: no-one else pays attention if your name is included somewhere, but you think that that one name is conspicuous. I opted for the telephone directory in order to call in a network that has taken over the communicative function of the market hall, and because I wanted to make public information which in fact was already public. You are playing with something that is a sensitive issue in the Netherlands: the right to privacy.
During the opening, some interesting duplications came about. People came in, recognized the set-up, and went to check whether they had  been included too. After that had been confirmed, an odd kind of embarrassment or irritation followed, because all that information had been divulged, as if the visitors were only just realizing that they could be rung up by anybody. In a modest way the work had an effect, certainly in a small-scale community like Middelburg. Word-of-mouth caused people to visit the exhibition who otherwise would not have done so. And yet it was more of a theoretical model rather than actually being aggressive. The work was intended to demonstrate a possible principle, an exchange model for inside and outside.

MK: To what extent is the idea of public space still tied to a specific place?

JvG: The idea of place is so susceptible to change that I can no longer believe in its static projection. I prefer to refer to implementation or annexation, as one does with a virus. A virus is nothing on its own, it depends on a body which it can enter; there is an infection, an incubation period and a manifestation. If you project that analogy onto an urban design model, the idea of a location proves, basically, to be an idea of environment, and terms like centre and periphery are no longer appropriate. The place is no more than a temporary transit position within a network. My concept of public space fits within those terms.

CvW: Is your commissioned `Proposal for art in Velserbroek’ important in that context?

JvG: Yes. And, compared with the work in Middelburg, it has a more aggressive impulse.

MK: You suggest turning a site in the public space of the small town of Velserbroek into a free zone. In or close to the town centre, it would then be bought from the town council, privatized and returned to the public in the form of a town square.

JvG: It would be a transfer of a public area to all the inhabitants of Velserbroek who would thus acquire possession of the land. The zone will have to guarantee a fundamental accessibility to all the inhabitants, now and in the future. The community will be able to make suggestions for a possible use, to which there will be no restrictions, as long as it is temporary. An organization might be set up to run things on behalf of the inhabitants. The proposal will be financed by a number of banks and investment trusts which have invested in Velserbroek’s development. In exchange, each of them will have a metal plate in the ground in with their logo engraved on it.

CvW: Won’t that make an institutional impression?

JvG: It gives sponsorship a pointed presence. I see those financial institutions as the true clients of Velserbroek, because they decide what is economically feasible in the area. It does not matter if it looks as if the zone is their gift to the inhabitants. My signature as the artist, or the very fact that it is a work of art need not be in evidence at all.

MK: What is the reasoning behind the proposal?

JvG: It is related to my criticism of the urban design scheme for Velserbroek. You can view the town centre as a model copy of a historical centre: the concentric form is not the consequence of the natural growth around an original infrastructure, but the illustration of a centre derived from a historical model. The urban structure is determined by a functional division; the sub-sectors have been fitted into a functional scheme. And that makes wide-ranging development impossible. Tolerance is restricted to the requirements considered feasible by the authorities. In a situation like that there tends to arise the need for an undeveloped area.
The proposal comprises a physical intervention in the public space as defined by social, economic and legal factors. For me, it was essential to make the parameters – such as the formal contribution by all groups and bodies that might be involved, including legal matters relating to rights of ownership and municipal by-laws – part and parcel of the proposal.

CvW: Your proposal calls on the potential and requirements of individual citizens. Yet you might allow an organization to run the project, to which the individual responsibility might be transferred.

JvG: I want to force a compromise with those who are responsible for designing the public domain. My proposal calls on individual interest, which should be linked to a collective responsibility. That paradox is the focal point of the question of how public the public domain is.

MK: When would you consider the proposal to be a success, assuming it is put into effect?

JvG: It is a polemic proposal: its importance can lie in the intervention as such, the consequences of which are unpredictable. If no actual use is made of the site, I shall have to acknowledge that the need for a public area cannot be captured in this form, which could have physical planning implications. However, if the proposal does succeed in arousing all kinds of latent needs, a new quality will have been realized within our urban culture. It might take five years or more before it can be said to function properly. In that respect the proposal is essentially a bid for the future.

On top of the world: Nieuwe modellen in de beeldende kunst / New models in the visual arts