The interview takes place on a rainy Saturday in the artists’ studio in the Amsterdam Jordaan area. The artists constantly complete one another’s descriptions of their work. Sander will begin to speak and Witte is ready to offer additions, or Witte says something while Sander thinks. One talks fast and easily, the other pondering and with hesitations. I have presented the two artists as one voice here, as a team, just like they create their works. The artists are still in the middle of their working process. The exact form of the installations, how they will be installed and how they will be titled is to become clear over the course of the following six weeks. We talk about the collective experience of performance and the silence of sculpture.
Theater and sculpture
Theater is a thread that runs throughout our work and lives. Sander was trained as a composer and was involved in the stage arts and musical theater. Witte took up choreography alongside visual art at [the art academy of] Arnhem. We started out making dance performances, so in that sense theater has been a presence in our work from the very start. Those dance performances also included sculptures, but they were light architectonic forms and the dancers moved around them.
After years of making performances and films, we began creating sculptures as well. We wanted to do something with our hands. And because we like the stillness of sculptures. With performance and film, you’re always following the narrative. You need to invest time in order to follow it and identify with the performers. The stillness of a sculpture gives you the opportunity to walk around it and observe it from different sides. Your pace and course determine the experience of a work and exhibition. We found this experience lacking in our performances and videos. A performance exists only by grace of the audience and the actors. A sculpture is always there, even when you aren't.
Yet there are still many things in our sculptural works that are related to theater. One of them is the human size of our sculptures, nearly always human figures. The body is our frame of reference. When you’re looking at something, you’re always comparing it to your own proportions. If visitors are looking at human-sized sculptures, a sort of mirroring comes into play that makes them co-players or actors on an equal footing in the work. We wanted to utilize this insight. We view the sculptures as actors executing very slow performances. Apart from being modeled after people from our environment, and therefore in a sense portraits, they also refer to a more theatrical gesture or a particular expression.
The material defines the duration of a sculpture’s performance. We liked that idea: looking at sculptures as theatrical pieces that last for a very long time. The viewers always change, and the same applies to the role and significance of the sculptures. They may still be there in 300 years, as testaments of our time and ourselves. In contrast, when you see a performance you know this is happening now, in the moment, and that it will be over soon.
The Floor is Lava
When you enter Marres you will climb immediately onto the roof, and if you then go up the stairs you’ll arrive at the intimate inner world of the living room. The house has been turned inside out. The rooftops at the start of the exhibition function as a stage for a few isolated sculptures, as well as for visitors. It refers to the notion of the city as a theater, while also symbolizing flight. Sometimes you go out onto the roof to enjoy the view. In that case it’s about watching. But on a rooftop you can also put yourself above and beyond things. If you’re standing on a roof in Amsterdam you don’t hear the madness of all the locals, day-trip visitors and drunken tourists. For a moment you step away from all that, and this distance makes you see things differently. An exhibition works like that. It puts something between quotation marks.
From our studio we were once watching rooftop workers installing solar panels. One of them was working on a panel, another was making a phone call on the edge of the roof and then gazed into the distance. To our eyes this was already a scene from a theatrical play. Only later we realized that many artists have painted the view from their studios. This is typical of our work. We notice something that stands out to us both and it becomes an image. This can be someone staring at a screen for a long time, or someone walking through a station. Some of these images stick with us, without us knowing exactly why. We investigate them. That research is very associative, bringing us new images and insights that stick to the original image like snow to a snowball. Our work of art then concludes this process.
The work offers us a way of looking at the city with a theatrical gaze. For The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other (1992), Peter Handke sat down on a bench on a small square in Trieste and described everything and everyone passing by. He turned this into a theater play. A woman walks by and then a hearse shows up, driving behind her. This changes your perception of that woman, although she doesn’t have a clue.
In a Flickering Light
Our work always flows from one medium to the next. A film can become a performance, a performance a sculpture or a script. The performance How Can We Know the Dancer from the Dance (2016) consists of a choreography spanning six months in the main hall of Utrecht Central Station. By executing it over and over, that work obtained the character of a sculptural installation. Our sculptures, sometimes wearing the same clothes as the actors in that piece, arose from this.
The installation In a Flickering Light is in a way the documentation of the eponymous performance. For this performance, we made hidden camera recordings on the Loop video fair in Barcelona, where art videos are shown in hotel rooms. Looking at those recordings, we were struck by the flickering light of the screen illuminating the bodies draped across beds and chairs. You’ll see that while they’re watching, only the face and the head are activated. The body is dormant, or paralyzed. It reminded us of people hunched over their phones, as if they want to fall into it head first. A symptom of the addiction to the screen. The desire to disappear. That observation was central to the performance, in which you only see the faces of people watching a movie.
While we developed the performance we were already thinking about a series of sculptures on the same theme. We had made sculptures before, for which we created the heads separately from the bodies. Effectively, they became masks. Masks are very dual things. They hide the face while also expressing something. In the theater masks are used to indicate specific roles: a farmer, a priest, a ghost. The 17th-century German-Austrian sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt created busts that you could also consider masks. He isolated himself in his studio, making nothing but self-portraits with contorted expressions in front of the mirror. He then placed them in front of his windows in order to ward off evil spirits. Sometimes we think of Messerschmidt's grimaces as selfies. In a way, screen addiction is also an addiction to the self-image.
BAK and the Centraal Museum in Utrecht asked us to create a work in response to the performance What Is The City, But The People? (2018), in which the artist Jeremy Deller created a portrait of that city. In the work, 200 Utrecht residents walked across a runway on the central Jaarbeursplein square. We visited the rehearsals and the runway, where a group of people was representing the city of Utrecht. We wanted to create a more detailed portrait of several people and decided to film a series of still lifes at their homes. Thus we created portraits of them through the objects they surround themselves with.
All homes look somewhat alike: everyone has a coffee maker and a television and many people have cats. But in this work you also see scenes in which someone bashes two bottles or crawls across the kitchen wearing a mask. Those scenes are based on the protagonists’ memories. It is something that does exist, but is not usually visible. It reminds us of an earlier piece, Het familieportret
(The family portrait), in which we had the ambition of portraying an average Dutch family. If you then come closer, however, these families turn out to consist of unique people, each with a story of their own. We realized that there isn’t really such a thing as an average family.
We are not artists who create works about ourselves. The portrait takes up a central position in our work. That requires a sense of transportation into sometime or someone beyond yourself. The core of making a portrait is that you, as an artist, are no longer the only one capable of judging whether something is good. You must do justice to the reality beyond yourself. We engage with people, meaning that we also have to take them into account. You don’t want to create a caricature or stereotype. It has to be more than a projection of ourselves. It needs to show that we’ve really listened.
In The Thief we create for the first time a series of sculptures inspired by a concrete event. The event took place some years ago in Oldenzaal [a city in the east of the Netherlands]. An elderly woman stole a wallet while she was in a store. The images of the theft were put online. They went viral and caused many hateful reactions. As a consequence the woman committed suicide. We find this course of events exemplary for the way images tend to live lives of their own on the internet. The justice system is based on carefully weighed sentencing, but public judgment is not bound by these conventions. No one can control it.
We start by dissecting such a story and then shape it in terms of dramaturgy. We first identify the players. There is the protagonist, her family, the woman whose wallet got stolen. The police is involved, the Public Prosecution Service decides what should be done with those images. There are the people who manage the website on which the footage is published, the advertisers who keep the website in the air and have a financial interest in content going viral. Then there are the people consuming the images and responding to them. We give a dramaturgic shape to these various positions. One question, of course, is how to present the people commenting on the footage. We have put together a cast of people from our direct environment who modeled for the sculptures in the story. They function as the actors of this new narration. So on the one hand you’re watching portraits of people, and on the other you are experiencing a collective story.
We have spent much thought on the relations between story and image. You might think that if you want to tell a story it’s better to work in a linear medium, such as sound, film or a book. But there is also a tradition of stained glass windows and genre pieces, for example, that tell a story in a different way. The visitors are situated in the middle of a story, and can experience all events and characters at the same time. This affects the manner in which you perceive the story. Of course there are different levels of interpretation. The perspective of a child, for example, in a direct and physical response to size, color or sound. But there is also the possibility of giving it more thought and finding other conceptual layers. When visitors see so many figurative sculptures placed together, they will probably assume that a story is being depicted. But they might only find out later which story that is.
We leave traces of the making process in the sculptures. Those traces are the result of the working process, which has the character of a performance that can only be executed a single time. This way the work keeps a certain openness that suggests this outcome is only one of many possibilities. Godard stated in an interview that he wanted to make films that constantly make you feel as if someone could be hit by a car. To us, an artwork is not locked into a world in which things are ordered and definitive, but in an environment in which coincidence exists.
In any case you need to aim for a certain incompleteness and fragmentation when you are portraying people, because a person can never be fully captured in a fixed material. We create a beginning, and it’s up to the viewer to finish it. The work of art only comes into existence in the mind of the viewer.
The screen plays a role in each work, but we didn’t plan it that way. All works were created in the same period and have influenced one another. When you analyze our society, you can’t ignore that it is dominated by screens. In The Thief
they are not only witness, but also a medium of transmission and an instrument of penalization. In Seven Addresses you see televisions on which you see living rooms that, in their turn, also have screens in them. For us this is not so much about what can be seen on the screen, but rather, as In a Flickering Light suggests, about the persons watching it. The work The Floor is Lava acts as a sort of counterpoint, offering the possibility of a brief escape from the world of screens.
The Floor is Lava is a children’s game, but people also know it as an online hype in which you must get your feet off the ground within 5 seconds. To us, the title also suggests danger: liquid (hot) earth. Choosing such a title before the work is finished becomes a benchmark. We feel that this title has influenced our work without being able to directly explain it. The artist John Baldessari has a photograph with a man in front of a palm tree. He’s put wrong underneath it. Of course that makes you wonder exactly what is wrong. A good title is at odds with the image: it keeps you wondering what the work is really trying to say.