Your excellence, Frau Doctor Nauhaus, ladies and gentlemen, thank you for the opportunity to share a few thoughts with you on the work of Bosch and Brands.
When exposed to art – particularly new art – we usually find yourself in lack of words. We feel the urge to say something in response to a new impression. Why is that? Why do we seek company for a museum visit? Today you can find websites that help you find a companion for roaming an exposition. Is it because we just like people around us to be social with, or is it because we are in need of words? We seem to need to talk, find language to express what is hitting us.
With words we introduce concepts, and concepts allow us to think. To find words in order to express what we see is a way to get some kind of control over what is happening around us / with us. Words in that sense are a form of empowerment. Literally “coming to terms” with what is happening. We explain what we witness, and in doing so, create a sense of order.
Thinking about esthetic experiences runs through the whole history of Modernization, from the late middle ages to the present day. We translate an experience into concepts chancing the stuff of experience into words. In a Hegelian sense we are transcending the material state of the object into a presentation of “Geist”: language. Hegel considers this as the core of art.
For sure: the use of words can be helpful in an exhibition. But it can also be a mixed blessing. We can all bring to mind the picture of museum visitors spending more time staring at an explanatory piece of text stuck to the wall, than taking in the actual work. This is a typical picture of Modernization as a socio-historical process, and Modernity as a term referring to an art historical period roughly during the 20th century. We translate, transfigure, to language.
As it so happens, Jeroen Bosch stood at the beginning of that Modernization process. Creating works that where not merely illustrating the Word of God, but adding text to it through his imagery. What I mean to say is that his pictorial language was not a one on one with the Holy Scripture. Remarkably enough, It left space for interpretation. It was Modern. It did not just represent the logos of the Church, it followed its own logos. Language in its own merit, idiosyncratic, that is building a language of its own with singular meaning. And you can just imagine how the Nassau’s in Brussels would invite their guests to their art collection, and how they would open the triptych and fix their gaze on the faces of the beholders: the amazement in their eyes. This was revolutionary, talk of the town. Bosch’s works were conversational pieces, calling for word, calling for comments, for interpretation.
It is hard for us now to realize how revolutionary it was back in the days of Jeroen Bosch, that a painter was not merely reproducing images, confirming the divine idea behind our existence, but adding language to it: pictorial – to begin with – from the side of the artist, and, as a result, interpretative language from the side of the beholder. Art is not just a craft, but some sort of special language.
In time and space Bosch lived within a stones throw from Martin Luther, who literally opened the bible for the layman by translating the holy language covered in ritual and secrecy to common words in vernacular. You could say from hermetic hocus pocus to shared understanding of even: from clerical aristocracy to we the people. The logos was at the center of democratization and the birth of civil society.
Bosch is at the cradle of modern society in the way he is personal and ambiguous. The most impressive example of this must be the centerpiece or The Garden of Earthly Delights. Life as a spectacle, a presentation of what incarnation is, life on earth, splendid, silly, crazy, blissful.
You can very clearly distinguish pictorial semantics and grammar in the work. Bosch uses symbols, metaphors, metonymy, irony. Your eyes automatically follow rows of people, strings of birds. The work is a narrative. We can read it. And maybe in extension, we think the world is a narrative as well.
Where is Sjon Brands coming in?
Bosch’s birds symbolize the flow of time and also the occurrence of danger and diseases. Brands’ birds – at least his early birds that are on show here – are far more goofy. His birds are strange and fascinating. They have a sense of exposure, nakedness. They do not speak in sentences, they speak in sounds: they tweet, squeak, chirp and roar.
Let me explain this.
If Modernity started in the late Middle Ages with artists like Jeroen Bosch, It culminates in the 20th century with artists like Sjon Brands. I am talking about Modernism now: the crisis of language and meaning. The unmasking of language: too conventional to be truly authentic, too blunt to cut through to truth. Art was, after all, supposed to be all about truth in beauty, beauty in truth, right? This translation business, maybe, was not such as good idea to begin with?
This crisis is to be understood as a brake up in art history: on the one hand we see artists moving more and more in the direction of the conceptual, for instance the artist Marcel Duchamp, or the movement Abstract Expressionism; on the other hand you can think of someone like Kurt Schwitters and later Fluxus artists, who tried to undo meaning.
You can witness the break-up of language in poetry as well: the paramount of the word. Poets stuttering, producing sounds, hushing up all together. The 60’s and 70’s were full of it.
Two parallel worlds exist next to each other throughout the 20th century and into the 21: Conceptual Art (what Tom Wolfe called “the painted word”), and an iconoclastic world full of deconstruction. I see Sjon Brands as an heir to the latter. In his work he tries to reach beyond the word, challenging his craftsmanship, reinventing techniques and inviting serendipity as a procedure to uncover. Literally exposing the unpredictable, that which is not inscribed into the material object, showing what the object can be without being meant to be so.
Sjon Brands never speaks of concepts, never speaks of meaning when relating to his work. He is curious about materials, shapes, techniques, crafts. His workshop is a pseudo organized area where he collects hundreds of strange bolts, fittings, bottles, brass objects – often Baroque or Biedermeier – that used to have a function and a well-defined purpose. Having lost that purpose, being disposed of, Sjon Brands picks them up again and uses some of the characteristics of the objects for a completely new purpose. Just by tilting a jug it can become a helmet or a shoe. All of a sudden objects manufactured for a very specific use get a second life, and become something entirely different. There is no method because every new object requires to be examined on its own unestablished merits. A lamp fitting can be dramatically outdated for atmospheric lightning; it can revive as a perfect woman’s thigh in the hands of Sjon Brands.
Thousands of shapes lay there waiting to be matched with some other flop sided shape to become something entirely new, to live again.
This work is void of concept, void of meaning. It precedes the structures of the word. It is truly senseless. But far from stupid: it shows us ways of thinking with other means.
Here is a strange coincidence: what Sjon Brands does with his recovered materials, is what he does mentally too. He uses the movement of thinking with other means. That is in the truest of meanings what poiesis is all about: playing with structures, revealing rudimental / fundamental fitness. Do not be fooled: creative impulse is ruled by discipline, it is not a happy go lucky mish mash of attempts to create something. It is subjected to the skill and proficiency of the forming hand and eye.
No doubt that Sjon Brands is indebted to Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau. Schwitters’ collected items too where stuck together in a new context. The difference is serendipity. Schwitters proved that anything could be used in a work of art, anytime, anywhere. Brands’ point is that the discovery of a new structure is the product of something that is not instrumental: we cannot do it, we cannot provoke it; it does to us. It happens, it creates itself, so to speak.
It is one of those coincidences that Johan Huizinga, the historian who introduced us to the early modern society of the late Middle Ages with his famous book Autumn of the Middle Age was also the author of Homo Ludens, a book on the function of play.
All that I have mentioned above to characterize Brands’ work fits remarkable well in the concept of the Homo Ludens (the playing man).
Play, Huizinga says, is a necessary condition for the generation of culture. It precedes culture in the way that you do not have to be human to play. Dogs play. Sjon’s dog Herman can be proof of that.
Play is free, it is not “ordinary” or “real”, it creates order, is order in a sense. As soon as we change the rule of play it stops existing. If you play you have to stick to the rules. Play protects its freedom with the use of self-imposed rules. Huizinga claims that in the absence of play-spirit civilization is impossible. Now, this book was written in 1938, a very unplayful time.
Sjon Brands is playful now. He is a performer, in essence, putting together odd birdlike creatures like Commedia dell’ arte figures, and making them act in a wordless universe. His birds are all part of some sort of theater. In his first exhibition of the birds that you can see here, he added a 32 track sound system that gave voice to the birds as well. No need to say these sounds were collectibles.
In the context of the above it must sound improbable, unbelievable that Sjon Brands and Dorith van der Lee as Theater of Lost Time have indulged themselves in poetry for over the last ten years, learning by heart more than seven hundred Dutch poems. This could hardly count for a speechless artist you would say. But if you hear Brands recite poems he is not investing meaning into his words, but sounds. He sort of hums the poems more focused on interval and rhythm, on tonality than anything else. He works with material in the shape of words; the meaning, to him, is play. Just check the names of the birds that are present in this exhibition. They are not non-sensical, they are pre-sensical.
The same goes for the incidental poetic work that Sjon Brands has produced. The shapes of words are present again, but they are put in play like a bird’s song.
Listen to this: existing and non-existing words are put together in a sequence. This is the order of play before language. See: Dîfjesminiaturen
Ladies and gentleman, for a long time I have held the position – in reference to Kurt Schwitters’ poem Anna Blume (“Anna Blume hat ein Vogel”) – that Sjon Brands was the lucky owner of birds. Sjon Brands hat ein Vogel.
But that would be rather obstructive for the possibilities of his work. If someone is cuckoos, you tend to ignore the person. So instead, I would now want to stress:
Sjon Brands ist ein Vogel.