How did we get here anyway? Tangential thoughts on The Sea Awaits Your Return and other works by Erwin van Doorn and Inge Nabuurs
By Charles Esche
(published by Intertekst)
It’s easy for older Europeans to complain these days. The old social certainties are gone now, even the values they stood for are no longer held in much respect. For some in the Western half of the little continent, it has been a hard 25 years. The end of the Cold War meant the end of old Europe’s protected enclave status. No longer under the keen eye of US paternalism, the welfare state was not tolerated as a necessary evil any more but seen as a waste of potential profits. New capital from East and West had little truck with social cohesion and grabbed its chance. They managed to discredit the idea of equality and justice and weakness and socialism. There wasn’t even much resistance to their demands; all moderate progressive forces had just run out of energy. Yet there were many losers amongst the loyal manufacturing and service workers whose dedication was no longer desired, and they felt the pain of their loss.
By now, this is an overly familiar story and it is not one that offers much for a younger generation. It’s impossible for youth to only bemoan their fate, so the 90s people took up a new style and an inevitable disregard for the dreams of their parents. It seemed a good step forward; out of the mindless tedium of collective politics and into the rich undergrowth of self-fulfillment. And it worked; for a long time, almost 20 years in fact, almost a whole generation.
It’s not so clear what art could offer in this period, given that it was fully integrated into the system. Art became normalized, another lifestyle product with added personality, a niche form of personal identity building. The dreams of an avant-garde died along with the dreams of a society with a purpose. It was good that struggles were only about personal ambition now, it made things easy and everything seemed fine, and anyway what was not to like? Only the old guard complained about insecure jobs, invasive technology and too rapid change – for the youth it all meant speed and excitement; more choice, more freedom and less rigidity. The most successful artists of the era are perfect illustrations of society’s progress. Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Wade Guyton just kept getting bigger and (by definition) better – they danced with the top fashion models and drank with the richest oligarchs. In fact, it is hard to imagine a better historical time to be a famous artist. Rembrandt, Michelangelo or Picasso had nothing on this lot.
Of course, much of this narrative is still in place today. The art market is still flourishing and the same names sit on top of the sales league tables. So, it’s too early to consign the first years of the 21st century to history…and yet I wonder if I am right to detect a new wind blowing.
There are only weak signals of course; if they weren’t we’d all have jumped on the bandwagon by now. But a few Delphic signs make me stop and think. One of those little signs is the work of Erwin van Doorn and Inge Nabuurs, largely unrecognized though it is.
Their first major installation. ... but now it needs to be done..., was based on the life and travails of Erwin’s grandfather. Already it’s a counter-intuitive subject matter, a reference beyond the welfare years to the great conflict that more or less did away with Europe – on one historical reading, we’ve just been playing in the ashes since 1945. More than just the subject matter though, the work itself felt out of time. Much of it is in darkness, there’s a theatricality that is unfamiliar to Dutch art though some parts could be straight surrealism while others recalled actions from the 1960s. It also had an earnestness that was mixed with cynicism and remains hard to track: objects were treated symbolically; they reoccurred in different forms; they had obsessive marks on them, they were old; and there was a weird religious undertow to it all, from penitence to a kind of mundane redemption. Maybe it is related to the fact that neither Erwin nor Inge went through formal art school training. They are steering blind a bit in terms of the rules of art and that often makes their work much more affective for anyone who encounters it.
The latest installation, The Sea Awaits Your Return, is similar in scale, yet takes off into different uncharted waters. This time the dark maze is more extensive and entry to it only really makes sense if you take a test beforehand. The test is pop psychology, giving you the chance to choose objects that determine your personality. Each one of the 8 personality types are then visualized in separate booths. The images are again off kilter – they are strong and convincing, but kitsch. The references to memento morie are serious but reckless, almost too easy. Yet above all we are sucked into them and cannot help but read them symbolically and personally through having committed to doing the test. Are people really so vain? It seems so. Touch their sense of individual identity, and given the last 25 years, they seem to succumb in an instant. At least that was the experience in the Gdansk exhibition. Or maybe it is because the work seems so unpretentious in its simple request that people are waylaid by it and open up. Or maybe it is because you just have to scratch the skin of a European and you find guilt and a bad sense of karma. In all events, the work and its reception feel like a step in a new direction; a step towards a different relation with a public than either admiration or participation. If we want to make a comparison with the big, bold turn of the century art, then this feels like putting people to the test rather than embracing them and asking questions about the system of art’s circulation and how it might it reach out to find a genuine engagement with people’s histories and psychologies.
There is much more where this kind of work comes from I believe. Erwin and Inge have many histories to mine, whether in the Netherlands, Indonesia, Poland, or further afield. Their kind of direct, thoughtfulness needs support from other artists and curators if it is to prosper. Still just maybe, it’s the start of art going somewhere else than where we all have been already.