This interview was originally published on the Motel Spatie website
Willeke van Ravenhorst is thirty three, from a place just outside Arnhem (Veenendaal). Two years ago she completed ArtEZ, having previously studied in England and Amsterdam, teaching and writing. Now at the Kuenstlerhaus in Dortmund, she reflected on the evolution of her visual language and on her work at Spatie from April to June 20, 2015.
VARVARA: Why do you make art?
WILLEKE: Good question, Jesus. I used to always make drawings ever since I was a little girl, and I guess I’ve always been making stuff and building stuff. Later I wrote a lot of short stories and poetry because I studied English and education, so I was very focused on languages. I became a teacher for four years, but started really missing creating, because I didn’t have time for it like I used to. A teaching job takes too much out of me. Art school was a way to focus, and I wanted to find what my language was, my visual language.
V: What happened to make you realize that you would pursue it?
W: Oh gosh, it’s really a personal thing even though, harsh as it might be to say, I stay as far away from emotions and psychological things with my art as I can because I just think they have no place in it.
My father died when I was 23, very suddenly. I had an image in my head of a huge cupboard. Everything was in order, and then it completely broke down and everything was on the floor. I had no idea what was real and what was not, and what was supposed to be where. It was about identity. I started thinking “So what’s really me?” and the only thing I could think of, was the only thing I always did.
V: What were your stories about?
W: I would make twists. Short stories often have these twists at the end. That’s what I really enjoy, playing with the language and also playing with expectations.
V: Do you want your audience now to go on a journey?
W: I think so, actually. I’ve always worked with threads, which start somewhere and end somewhere, and you have to kind of follow them, with your eyes or with your body, so in that sense I suppose it’s a story. There is always this time element. But what I try to do is to make sure that the installation is continuous, and it doesn’t start or end anywhere. Or, I try to suggest it continues, for example, through a wall.
V: Let’s talk about the project at Spatie. In negotiating the politics of space as an artist, what is your responsibility to people who experience your work?
W: At Easter, the beginning of my Spatie stay, there was an informal conference. There were six German artists that came there and it was them, me, Claudia, and some guests. That was the start of my working period — two days talking about the politics of space, squatting, property, ownership, who owns the city and all these political ideas. I started realizing slowly that I’m also dealing with this in my work. Before, I thought OK, I work with abstract space, and it’s a little bit philosophical, not practical or political at all, like there’s no direct line to reality. Although somewhere I was trying to tell people that reality is really subjective.
When they were talking about all these ideas, I realised I interpret space. But by interpreting a space, you almost grab it, own it, maybe even steal it. Isn’t that what ownership is? When I think about it now, I think I’m colonising space, and I really don’t like the idea of this.
It was a really loaded project. The idea was that I would start with the Easter journey. These people would be sitting and talking, and there was one space in Motel Spatie where I could work while they talked. I was so fascinated by this talking that I didn’t start working. I was talking with everybody all the time. The first thing they did was make a space for me. They put up walls, and I would work within these walls. That was really interesting, because it didn’t feel right to me.
The first thing I did when everybody left was take down all the walls. It was kind of scary, but I couldn’t work like that. I wanted to react to what was there. Everybody that was working there, in all the workshops and studios, had to pass through my space. I became like a barrier. At first I was very timid.
Later it was decided that I would do an exhibition with a local street artist for a bike art route. He wanted to use all of the window space, including the window space in front of my installation. We had a discussion about it, but just to make sure, before he could do it while I wasn’t there, I stayed there all night and made my installation reach all the way to the windows!
Motel Spatie Installation, 2015
The installation was going to be there for two weeks, but that became two months. People got so annoyed with it because every time they walk to the kitchen or the toilet they had to adapt their movements. It was a barrier, but it was really doing something with the space. You can’t walk past and forget it’s there.
V: How do you approach a piece knowing that others will experience it?
W: I always thought I made the work for others to experience, but I’m wondering whether that’s true. All I know is that when I finish an installation I am thrilled, like something entered that should have been there before. We were just talking about it being a story. I’ve compared it with those films where they rob a bank or museum. They have this spray that they spray in the room to make these infrared lights visible. On the one hand I am making the invisible visible, but on the other hand it really wouldn’t be a work if there weren’t people moving through it. I often film people moving in my work. It’s really fascinating how the movement changes with people reacting to something that’s only a suggestion. I put one wire out, and people react towards this little thread as if it were a metal door.
V: What happens when you enter a space you’ve never been in before?
W: Most of the time I get really excited and can’t stop looking at the corners and lines. However, sometimes there’s a space I can’t work in, and nothing happens. It’s too full of something, like some kind of atmosphere.
I did this project in a war bunker in Arnhem. When I walked into it I felt like I walked into a wall. It was completely full of information. I couldn’t see the space for what it was beyond its connotations, history and all this other information I wasn’t interested in. I was too distracted to think about the form. In its mathematical form, the space was a cuboid, and this was what I wanted to highlight. So I solved the problem by making two other minimalistic mathematical forms in it with wires, hoping to draw attention only to this.
Geheime Bunker, 2014
V: Is an installation in an historical place more difficult than a space more historically ambiguous? The Shopping Centre that Spatie occupies is an historic structure, and was designed originally as an ideal space. How did you react to this context?
W: I was thinking about that in the bunker. There had been a fire, so all the walls were black and grey, there was fungus, and a lot of other levels of visual information. I came to Germany now to the Ruhr area because I really want to work at these old factories. I don’t think about history, but about the idea that the factory is so weirdly proportioned. It’s not made for humans. Every nook and cranny in this building was made for a specific purpose that is now gone. So the only way this building looks the way it does is because of reasons which have been taken away.
To me, this historical “ideal space” at Spatie does not really apply anymore, because I reacted to it as it is now. More than any other space I’ve worked in, I reacted to its social and territorial meaning. It’s used by a certain group of people: the artists that work there, schoolkids, people who come to eat at Mallemoere, and other visitors. This is what I was working with. I asked: How can I keep this space open, but claim it to create something which determines how all these people move through it?
My fascination with spaces I can explain simply. If I have one straight line as the horizon, all the air above this line doesn’t mean anything until a person comes and puts in four walls and a roof, and suddenly there is meaning inside and outside. How is that? I want to grab this meaning, so I change it, even though I’m also kind of owning it. It’s the best I can do in the direction of understanding it.
V: Can you tell when an audience is affected by your work?
W: It really depends on the people. This is why my project at Spatie was so cool because there are a lot of children there and they are just perfect in how they interact with it. They are the only ones who understand it. They use it. In art galleries people don’t use it. They’re afraid they can’t touch it or it will break. Spatie is really interesting because not only the children use it but also the Spatie artists—it was really funny. In an art gallery, there’s this idea of high art you can’t touch, but here, every day something would happen. The first day Dennis (artist from the Locatie spatie collective) made a big spider out of cardboard and put it in the middle of the installation. The next day Marije (from peoples kitchen Mallemoere) had done laundry and then she used my installation to hang it! Something like that was happening all the time. I thought it was really interesting because of course it’s also about their attitude towards art like this. It’s a good way to approach it.
There were always these things going on. I was part of an exhibition with Spatie of street artists last winter that was called a trash party. Everything had to be broken down at the end. It’s like sand painting. Once they finish it, they destroy it.
Let’s talk more about this ephemerality in your work.
W: I came to ephemeral art because of that Easter conference. One of the guys that was there was Balz Isler, a really interesting performance artist from Switzerland. He told me he’s going to do kind of a performance next week at a conference about ephemeral arts, and wanted to do it together. They asked him to give a lecture about a project he did, but he told them it would be so boring to just stand on stage, talking, that he should actually react with the audience during the conference. This is intuitive for him, but a really big step for me, although I feel like my work is already moving into the direction of performance. Directly reacting to certain situations makes sense in this respect.
Ephemeral art is a movement of artists who make temporary works partly in rebellion against the art market. I began doing this while in the academy in my second year. I used to always paint pretty pictures which everybody loved, but I got so annoyed with it because the only thing that people could say about it was “It’s just like a photograph” or “I wish I could do that” or “You are so creative.”
You could never have a conversation about it. You couldn’t get through this wall of weird value. I thought, I’m not going to make pretty pictures so that someone can hang them above their couch to match their curtains. I have to stop doing this now and try to create images which people can interact and communicate with.
From 2D I went to 3D, and instead of using traditional materials like oil paints I went to unconventional material. And then from figurative I went to abstract. I consciously went in the opposite direction to create a realm in which I could communicate.
V: How are you going to navigate the art world now?
W: Because of my Mondriaan grant, I am obliged to enter Prospects & Concepts at Art Rotterdam. I’m really curious what’s going to happen in the year leading up to this.
V: Is the art world sustainable with ephemeral works?
W: I think there are two separate worlds. One is the art market, and the other is the inherent art world, and they have nothing to do with one another. And they shouldn’t. The art market is like the housing market. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a house or a painting, it is all about adding money and value. The value of art is not in its products or in its tangibility, but in its ideas. So yeah, I think it is sustainable with ephemeral art because it’s about ideas you can’t grab anyway, so you don’t need products. I think it would be really good for the real value of art for people to see the difference between the two.
V: It’s often hard for people to see the difference. They don’t know how put a value on experience.
W: Art is just a purely human thing. It’s natural to question the world around you. I’m not saying everybody should be an artist, but I wish the audience would just recognize it as this thing that lets you interact with the world.
V: How has being at Spatie changed you? What are some of the questions that have arisen for you?
W: There were so many projects during these two months, with kids, there was a band, and all these other things going on in the installation. I like that. It had a role to play, every time. It opened up the possibilities of what it could be. It’s there to act. That’s what it showed me. It was very much used. I want to go in this direction. I used to think there is life, full of responsibilities, groceries, and rent, and then there’s art. But now it’s all the same thing.
I suppose it’s a stupid question: “What is it about?” When I’m making it, I’m not thinking about it rationally even though I’m a really rational person. When I’m making an installation it’s just in another realm of thinking. I have this idea that maybe it’s not so much about the installations, but about the body moving through the space. Maybe that’s what the installations are—just a trail of a performance that I did.