To write about art implies translating the meaning of images into words. This is not a simple matter, for images are not unequivocal; they can be ‘read’ symbolically, as a visual grammar or conceptually. A single work of art is never sufficient to permit valid interpretation at all three levels. Since Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations we have known that words and sentences can only be interpreted correctly if we know the linguistic ‘rules of the game’.
The maker of a work of art plays with images and invites the spectator to join in the game. The quality of the ‘art game’ can be gauged by the simplicity and clarity of the rules, by the complexity of meaning (the number of conceivable variants) and the spectator’s enjoyment of the game. To ascertain whether the artist has invented an exciting ‘visual game’, one has to see a series of work in order to learn the rules, to experience the complexity they generate and to explore the varied possibilities they offer. A retrospective exhibition provides the ideal climate for the artist and the spectator to find out whether the work meets these conditions. I would have liked to present a full retrospective of Elsa Stansfield and Madelon Hooykaas, but this was impossible considering the limitation of the available space in relation to the volume of their work. Instead, we jointly chose to show two installations and to produce a new work.
A retrospective exhibition is meaningless unless there is an oeuvre involved. By this I mean a series of works of art produced over a lengthy period on the basis of the maker’s consistent, developing artistic (or other) concept. To me, the concepts of the artist differ little from those of scientists or philosophers. Their concepts all have a point of origin, a thesis capable of implying an order other than what is already known. This relates to my conviction that art is a distinct system of knowledge that exists alongside those of science and philosophy. It is a system that helps us gain a deeper insight into what we generally call ‘the real world’, although without holding out the hope of our ever finding a meaningful, clear answer.
If post-modernism or the information age still has a message, it is that the end of the all-inclusive conception of truth. What we can and should do is to text statements for falsehood. That can only succeed if we bring thinking, feeling and action into mutual connection.
The work of Stansfield / Hooykaas satisfies these conditions. It unites the rationalism of technology with the subjective experience within an aesthetic programme, thereby forming a model that is open-ended without being merely casual: the model of a philosophy of life that strives for Ganzheid (wholeness). Such an ambition is frequently founded in a world-view that is either sectarian or insane. But this possibility is excluded by the modesty with which Stansfield / Hooykaas present their standpoint to public view. What they offer to the spectator is an opportunity to make acquaintance with their findings. Their work is current without truing to be part of the current. Their work is rooted in tradition without being traditional. Their work is forward-looking without being Utopian. The work of Stansfield / Hooykaas is about time, although their time is one that must be interpreted as a cyclic rather than a linear or discontinuous process. My goal here is to pinpoint the rules that unite the body of their individual works. Or, to put it another way, does it embody a concept that is based on meaningful order?
ON PERCEPTION AND THE INSTRUMENTS
Hooykaas and Stansfield travel extensively. Their observations in foreign surroundings often give rise to new works. The transformation of perceptions into a work of art does not however take place during the journey but later. Often they will pay a second or third visit to a place before starting making the actual work. The initial sensations, the impression and the impulse must be tested on the rack of time to discover whether they are really memorable and necessary (and hence lasting). After the passage of time, Hooykaas and Stansfield return to check the retained image against the reality of the place in a different time. We speak of an idea ‘crystallising out’ - a process that takes place in time. This bears little relation to the cult of genius (now secularized into a cult of stardom) of the artists of the last two hundred years of Modernism.
In comparison to the way nineteenth-century artists set down their observations, by sketching or painting on location, the approach taken by Hooykaas and Stansfield bears more resemblance to that of the eighteenth century or even earlier. The privacy of the studio and the distance from the object were seen in the latter period not as a limitation but as a precondition for achieving a meaningful image. These artists were not interested in spontaneously transferring their visual impressions tot the canvas, but sought distance, reflection and observation. Hooykaas and Stansfield suggest that they share this approach by the titles of their works (Personal Observatory, Receiver, Transitions). This attitude of the filtered perception is reinforced in the case of Hooykaas and Stansfield by their use of electronic and other technical devices to objectivize what we see: lenses, video, photography and acoustic or electromagnetic receiver dishes. Many contemporary artists use such devices in a documentary fashion (to bring art and life closer together) but this is not what Hooykaas and Stansfield do. They make the very instruments of perception into the subject of their installation or sculpture. An analogy with scientific method is revealing here: in reporting a scientific investigation, it is not sufficient to state only the results, but the procedure followed must also be described in detail.
I first recall seeing work of Hooykaas and Stansfield in the Haags Gemeentemuseum during the World Wide Video Festival of 1985, although in retrospect I must have seen their work ‘Compass’ in the 1984 ‘Luminous Image’ exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. Standing in a large room, there was a glass cabinet containing a loudspeaker emitting low pitched-tones that made the glass resonate. The wall bore photographs related to Hiroshima. One of them showed a human shadow, burnt into the masonry by the searing heat of the atomic explosion. There were more things there, but I can no longer bring them to mind. What I do remember is a sensation - the shock of discovering that a distant, matter-of-fact, technical-looking representation of the destruction of Hiroshima was capable of touching me deeply. The installation formed part of the series ‘Museum of Memory’, which was eventually to consist of seven installations. At first sight the title is tautologous: museums are by definition places where objects are preserved as reminders of the past. Museums represent the collective memory, while the memory as such is bound to an individual. There are considerable differences between the individual and the collective memory, but my memory has the same structure as those in the brains of other people and shares a collective language of perception and its grammar. The individual memory and the collective memory only become meaningful when they are more than a mere collection of the past. The Latin word ‘museum’ originally meant ‘place of scholarly activity’, a place where we are active, where we do something. Only when the past becomes a ‘place of scholarly activity’, when it leads to activity, does it establish a link with the present.
The works of Stansfield / Hooykaas are actually ‘places of scholarly activity’; or, in more contemporary terms, ‘contexts where research into various facets of the memory takes place’. Probably without meaning to do so, Hooykaas and Stansfield embroil themselves in the struggles of historical scholarship and of art history; in the question of whether there is such a thing as historical continuity, or whether the past functions primarily as a projection of contemporary ideas. They transform these contradictions into a dialectic that defines remembering as a process. Just as they place the perception of ‘then’ in contrast to the perception of ‘now’, we must continually return to the past to scrutinize our conceptions of the here and now for meaning and for changing meaning.
Advanced technology - whether psychology, a brain scan, the telescope or genetic manipulation - probes the hidden inside by changing it into the illuminated outside. The mystery of life is not diminished or cancelled as a result, but we are enabled to free ourselves from falsehoods and superstitions. Art and science have a common task here.
Science and art are systems of knowledge that create models of order. Science does so primarily with words, and art with images and sound.
‘We find order in every area of nature and culture. Both a DNA molecule and Rembrandt’s ‘Night Watch’ express a certain order. The evolution of plants and animals is an ordering process (about which there are over two hundred theories). Running, painting, composing music or poetry, and loving are all based on an ordering system with countless variants.’ (Henry van Praag, Orde en ordening, Rijswijk, 1985)
A striking thing about this statement is that van Praag draws no distinction between order in nature and order in culture; nor does he distinguish theoretical ordering systems from pragmatic ones. His order and ordering systems appear to be connecting phenomena with an underlying structure that is inherent to every facet of reality.
The work of Stansfield / Hooykaas is marked by a balance between nature and culture, between natural and artificial objects: stone-embedded fossils alongside polished diabase rock, brass, lead, grass, a video camera, photographs and projections of landscapes, wind an much more. They all display energy in various embodiments, but the essence of an immanent order and a structure of things remains unimpaired. Here, too, in my view, lies the key to the oeuvre of Hooykaas and Stansfield. They show us structures that present the elements of an ostensibly fragmented reality as a unified whole. If we can find a model that reunites emotion, thought an action, we will be on our way to reconstructing a lost holism.
‘Man understands only what he makes’, the Italian philosopher Vico (1668-1744) wrote. We build computers to learn how our brains function, we investigate DNA to discover the building blocks of life and evolution, we paint surrealistic and abstract paintings to explore the visual language of the unconscious and the structure of beauty and harmony. All these activities can be encapsulated as the organization of human consciousness, as culture. Once culture was joined with nature in the wholeness of the ideal, as a unity of the good, the beautiful and the true. The Renaissance taught us that time and space did not form a closed continuum but were an open, infinite system without a centre. Nature and culture fell apart. They became contradictory standpoints from which we might view the world. On the one hand, this rift gave rise to an unprecedented level of cultural activity in an attempt to domesticate nature; on the other, there developed a growing longing for the security of the holistic universe, for a synthesis of culture and nature.
The philosophical standpoint of this longing could be summed up as culture being the nature of mankind. Little support for this outlook will be found in Western philosophy. The ‘progress’ of Western culture is after all based on the distinction between mind and matter, on the superiority of the human mind to the ‘unconsciousness’ of nature. It is only slowly getting through to us that man is a species that is part of nature; a species that can disappear as easily as it appeared.
Stansfield / Hooykaas present a different, non-Western, model, without repudiating the Western tradition. It is a model that assumes cyclic conception of time and space, but does not exclude a linear conception of time and space. The visual model of cyclic time is a circle. Linear time, as a motion within a continuum of space and time, forms a straight line. If we try to unite these two conceptions, the image that results can be a rising spiral, a funnel or a parabola.
One of the works of Stansfield / Hooykaas, located in the coastal sand dunes, takes the form of a shelter for passing walkers. From inside, you can see the shoreline and, further off, the horizon. A parabolic shield, a dish, protects your back and focuses the sound of the breaking waves. As you sit amid the dunes, some way from the shore, the sound of the sea is very close to you. Behind you there is a steelworks that converts ore - congealed, earthly time - into metal. The surf pounds against the beach. The machinery rumbles continuously. is it the sound of the water or of the machinery that we hear?