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ABOUT KOEN WASTIJN.
Koen Wastijn has always been interested and inspired by the classical history of art.
“What fascinates me is how past civilisations translated their reality into art and the ideology behind it .
Nowadays, it is to a large extent advertising which translates reality into images: it is omnipresent, but does it really translate the ideology of our time ? Where does art stand in this respect ? What was its role then ?”
The analysis of painting and images forms a point of departure for Koen Wastijn's art and painting plays a primordial role in his early work. He and his artist partner Johan Deschuymer base their abstract paintings on the identification of colour fields. They explore in them the binary language of cool, distant, minimal images.
During a visit to Sicily, the discovery of an early-renaissance Annunciation painting by Antonello da Messina, inspired them to analyse both its pictorial and iconographical elements. The 15th century iconography is translated through and into modern images deriving from contemporary movies, photography and painting. Technological processing of images enters into their artwork through the use of cold, black-and-white photocopies. The use of the photocopying machine allows for a more complex form of a minimalist manner of working. At the same time, art becomes accessible again to a large public through the use of a technology well known to all.
In a subsequent step from two- to three-dimensionality, objects are laid on the photocopying machine. In regarding the very action of copying as art, this three-dimensionality is at first reduced once again to two-dimensionality. Such copying of objects as art exemplifies in a minimalist form the process of translating reality into images.
Wastijn & Deschuymer also introduce animals in their work by letting live rats run over the copying glass (‘BRUSSELS BOOGIE WOOGIE’). Placed against the immobility of objects, these live animals stand for the dynamism and the spontaneity of life. The artists have control neither over the movements of the rats nor over the mechanical reproduction of the machine that, after all, merely copies and in doing so records a random position of the animal.
This random factor, which is part of the work, links it in a paradoxical way to their initial interest in ancient painting. For them, it is as if they were trying to capture energy in a magnified detail of a painting by Flemish Primitives, painters that are renowned for including very detailed information in their pictures. While the use of the copying machine stands for the reproducte possibility of an artwork, the use of the rat as a unique living being completely undermines this very notion of mass ‘reproduction’.
The establishment of a link between man, machine and animal coincides with the introduction in contemporary art of new ways of thinking about animality and this triangular relationship. The confrontation of the rat with the copying machine illustrates this in a concrete and direct manner.
“It reminds me of our project called the ‘PACIFIC PROJECT ‘ in Tokyo in 1995 . Early in the morning we bought big fish in the Tsukiji fishmarket, took the subway to the Canon head offices and placed them on the bubble jet copier. While changing their positions on the glassplate, we were sampling the images, as if the machine became alive. So it worked the other way round - the machine seemed to make the fish move around and mutilate them ...
that was during the period the French performed their atomic tests in the Pacific ...”
Many technological inventions have become prosthesises, improvements or completions to the human body; and these derived from animal capacities such as flying, submarine swimming, etc. Furthermore, in our present society of mass consumption many products are identifiable because of the image of the animal they use as a marketing device. Animal brand names are symbols for capacities and qualities that are ascribed to particular products, which are often artificial extensions of the human body. Animals also are used as emblems, to the point that some animal names will evoke or replace the product's actual denomination. This is the case with product names such as Puma, Jaguar and Reebok. One aspect connected to this phenomenon is the so-called 'second degree nature'. In this commercial strategy an ersatz-nature seems to be created as an attempt to compensate the systematic disappearance and exploitation of nature. Through the association with the animal, the commodity itself receives a second nature.
“Animal logos touch upon a deeply hidden emotional memory in the subconscious of the consumer ..but then again what about a brand such as Panda, advertising salami and sausages ...?”
This creates a cynical paradox. The vanishing of nature, of some animal species, will precisely have the effect that their value will increase. As a consequence, even more money can be made on that scarcity if not absence, which reveals the perverse relationship humans have with nature.
“The border between Uganda, Rwanda and Congo is a place where this becomes apparent. Tourists drive from far away to reach that special area to watch the gorillas (which are half domesticated anyway by the food they are given) .
These people desperately want to see what is left over of these human apes , before they have completely disappeared ..it is perverse ...”
The appropriation by man of the animal world is something present in all ages and cultures. Animals were used as emblems in heraldry or had pronounced symbolic significances in the iconographic lexicon of different cultures and peoples. A jaguar nowadays is the trademark emblem of a luxury car, but possesses equally a particular significance in shamanistic rituals in the territory of the Amazon. Certainly, the jaguar as a creature projects dominance.
“Guahibo shamans in the South American jungle keep a special hallucinatory drug in an empty jaguar bone..they pretend , once the drug is working , that they change into jaguars ...
One can also mention the importance given to the jaguar in the Maya culture ..”
The use of animals with a particular aura of power indeed reflects a selective association with them.
The animal is physically represented in the brand logo, but often in a stylised, surreal or idealised form such as in Puma and Jaguar logos. The Puma and Jaguar trademarks not only refer in name to beasts, but also in image. They have been turned into concepts. The name as well as the brand icon stand for idealised perfection.
“During a long stay in Malaysia, I was taking pictures of people wearing the puma brand, knowing that a lot a their clothes were pirate versions of the real brand ...you could buy them on a lot of markets for almost nothing..I liked the idea that the brand had in a way created its own virus ...”
The pose adopted in the Puma and Jaguar icons equally is an idealised posture which has only few bearings with any natural posture of the animal. The puma is more of an artificial creature than a real animal.
“We quickly found that the Puma logo was an idealised and designed version of the real feline body. So for the sculpture, the taxidermist used two dead pumas (which of course died for other reasons) in order to make one ...it was a kind of Frankenstein creature..”
Incidentally, as is the case with Frankenstein, one is confronted with the idea of the un-dead. Nowhere else is this more clear as in the stuffing of dead animals; which attempts to give them or parts of them (the skin) the resemblance of life. In these necessary three-dimensional works featuring taxidermic animals, Koen Wastijn sees the possibility to incorporate the anecdotal into the general and to give back a certain particularity and identity to the dead animal.
“The strong beam of light on the 'real' puma projects its shadow on the wall , creating a ‘platonic’ tension between the sign and the physical presence of the cat...
I tried to reconcile the two ..”
The actual puma that was used for Wastijn 's piece ‘PUMA’ came from a circus, where the artist spoke to the tamer and caretaker of the deceased animal and also saw its living sisters.
“In my videopiece ‘PUMA’ , I walk around in the memory of the stuffed puma ,its past .
So I filmed her sisters in the cage and talked to the tamer, Lionel .She had been living with him for the main part of her puma life ...It became a sort of biography of the animal ...
Besides, watching these felines jump confirmed my analysis that when they do not jump to entertain, they do so to sell clothes, shoes or perfume .”
The jaguar that was at the core of the piece ‘JAGUAR’ came from a private zoological garden. The piece was not stuffed . The skeleton was reassembled in the position of the car-logo and chromed.
“The sculpture ‘JAGUAR’ is partly an x-ray of the consumer ideology ... a sort of revenge ..
The videopiece ‘PRODUCT PLACEMENT’ deals with the confusion the word ‘jaguar’ arouses : is it the car or the animal ? I cut and pasted several parts of movies in which the luxury car stars. Most of the movies are so called film noirs where violence, drugs, prostitution..etc play an important part ..
The car symbolises a way out of an asphyxiating civilised life ...back to the wild adventure ..”
Most of the teeth of the feline were gnawed away. The chromed skeleton animal had to receive artificial claws.
“This reflects the post-mortem business when an animal of that size dies ...quite often the skeleton and the fur are sold separately, which always leads to the discussion about the claws ..do they go with the fur or with the skeleton? My skeleton did not have the claws ...
Cleaning an animal to its bones is real sculpture : you take away material.For the piece’FRESH KILL’, I cut away the meat myself (see the video ‘LION CUT’) and later I had the skeleton cleaned and whitened (a process in which the fat is sucked out of the bones ). I then had the white bones colored industrially.
I thus had created a mutation from the real animal to the clean image of itself.”
Synthetics, aesthetics and ethics, incidentally, create another field of tension. All three elements are included in the artworks, mutually affecting each other. Providing illusions of life permeates the work of Koen Wastijn. ‘CAT PAINTING’, a work based on a series of several flash coloured cat skins, illustrates this in an explicit graphic manner. The cats were given a cartoon-like gaze through ceramic eyeballs in their skulls. This gaze gives a humorous, albeit somewhat cynical, twist to the work.
“I wanted to give the cats a look on the afterworld , to give each one of them a character.The piece is a cross-over of a certain realism (with all its details) and Tex Avery style ..
People often behave strangely in front of the piece . They were either extremely amused or either really offended...turning themselves into caricatures..”
People sometimes display a greater affinity with some animal species and behaviours than with others. ‘REDBACK’ is the brand name of a typical Australian working boot without laces and with elastic bands attached to both sides. The Redback, however, is one of Australia's most feared venomous spiders that bears a characteristic red spot on its back. The use of a venomous insect's name for a commodity seems strange. Reebok, the sport shoe brand, at least stands for a gazelle and thus a combination of strength, elasticity and elegance. However, the redback is no ordinary spider, it is a spider which has gained mythical proportions in Australia. Without ever having seen it, the name alone of it strikes terror in people's minds. Redback as a name appeals strongly to the imagination. The word encompasses the passionate colour red and bears reference to the outback, the remote Australian desert regions. The spider is depicted on the pull-elastics of the boots. However, the colours were reversed: it is the spider that is coloured red and its famous spot on the back, black. It is as if danger is neutralised in this graphic process and the insect is subjugated to human will and force. Especially pungent is the detail that the logo was also placed onto the rubber sole, whereby the redback spider is continuously trampled upon, a sarcastic metaphor for the ultimate absolute dominance of man over the miserable creature.
This typical Australian work footware, however, is a localised product, contrary to a series of brands which are known on a global level. CAMELS ARE CIGARETTES can for example be understood by a large number of people all across the globe as a slogan regarding cigarettes. No further questions... The statement SPIDERS ARE BOOTS however is utterly senseless outside Australia, just as LIONS ARE SUPERMARKETS or ELEPHANTS ARE CHOCOLATES make little sense outside Belgium. The degree of absurdity of similar citations depends upon the location of a particular concept. These slogans or theorems were screen printed on wooden panels in colour variations that bear connotations with the animal-brand names to which they refer.
Yet, they expose the absurd and exemplify this inherently twisted element in the concept of using animal nouns to denominate objects. The logos and trademark names of all these animal products , which can be found in supermarkets all across the globe, are united in a fictive zoological garden.
Another aspect in the human appropriation of the animal kingdom is the entertainment industry. Taking as a starting point Herbert Marcuse's visionary dictum that the future entertainment industry will have to work full power if people have to remain satisfied in a world of increasing free time. A series of three-dimensional works question the position of the animal in this industry.
“These pieces also probably question the position of contemporary art and philosophy towards the mediatized entertainment industry . The one-way shift from the one into the other is a typical phenomenon of our time.In my opinion art has been sucked in for a large part at the expense of a more existential content ... Dealing with people addicted to happy endings, is a hard job ..”
The indoctrinating effect of show business is equally subjected to close scrutiny. Lassie, Flipper, Fury and Skippy , famous animal superstars, incarnate more often than not a surrogate for a particular absence or desire. They replace a missing family member or human contact, or a human quality. In Lassie, the paramount animal hero, the hero is a dog, a domesticated canine that scores high in the hierarchy of domestic animals. It is indeed an animal that stands very close to man. Dogs have been regarded as the symbol for loyalty for centuries. We only have to think of the Gisants, the monumental tombs of medieval, 16th and 17th century noblemen and women and clergymen on which a dog as the symbol of eternal fidelity was carved at the feet of the stone statue of its deceased master. It seems here as if the canine literally absorbs the tragedy of man. In this context of the hereafter it concerns more particularly the relationship of man to God. Yet it is a dog which as a petrified eternal custodian seems to be the main mediator in this sacral relationship.
The concept of Lassie, which knows many predecessors in movies (see 'Rescued By Rover' (1905)), is a phenomenon that is certainly not peculiar to modern times. The animal as hero is equally reduced to a concept. A longhaired Scottish Shepherd's dog or collie has since the many Lassie sequels,effectively become 'Lassie'. According to Hollywood legend, several collies were present at the set of the 1943 classic 'LASSIE,COME HOME' in which a very young Elizabeth Taylor plays a major role. However, no dog was able to meet the strict requirements of the film director. Eventually one particularly troublesome dog called 'PAL' (nowadays better known as a famous dog food brand) was chosen out of many to interpret Lassie, more, to become Lassie. Anecdotal evidence has it that all the following sequels of the famed Lassie were filmed with descendants of Pal, the first in a line of dogs with a 'blue filmblood' pedigree. The dog in the movie exhibits super-animal and superhuman qualities, such as a pronounced sense for justice, a flawless sixth sense of distinguishing between good and evil.
LASSIE, the artwork, is inspired by a part from the movie 'Lassie, Come Home' in which the dogged hero, who was able to escape from the property of the count who bought him from an impoverished family, emaciated and wild, finally returns home through the pouring rain.
“Before he stuffed the Lassie piece, the taxidermist had stuffed a wolf and maybe that is the reason why the Lassie has more of a ëwolf-lookí than a ëdog- lookí. I was very happy about the result, I did like the idea of this highly domesticated dog ‘turning back into a wolf ‘ during his long journey..”
Lassie's homecoming coincides with the solution of the family's problems. The stuffed collie as artwork was given white ceramic eyes, a symbol for the non-individualistic and at the same time the non-animality of Lassie.
“The Lassie piece is a classical dog sculpture . I chose the plaster eyes because it aroused the feeling of ‘just not having been sculpted in stone’
Glass eyes in stuffed animals keep death alive ...I am not interested in death as a final issue .”
Each leg rests on its own long and slender socle. This can be read as the representation of the precariousness in the famous returning- home- scene in the film, but also of the many hardships of the drill that the animal had to endure to be able to feature in this film. As much as this sculpture demystifies Lassie's concept, it is also a monument, an ode to Lassie.
“Lassie and his other animal friends are reminiscent of the cold war era .
During that period, lots of animals were trained to perform all sorts of things : seals were placing magnet bombs under ships, dolphins had cameras tied to their flippers ....
The cold war era also produced lots of movies with pessimistic views on a revengeful nature: hordes of communist ennemies, huge spiders coming to destroy the world, superkiller sharks, remakes of ‘War of the Worlds’....
We can’t be all the same, we need aliens to be scared of the unknown .”
In the case of Skippy, the dog is replaced by a kangaroo that is able to imitate the most improbable (supposedly human) actions, such as playing the piano, communicating via a radio transmitter, etc.
“For a lot of parts where Skippy used his paw to perform certain tasks, such as switching on the radio, they used a cut-off stuffed paw of a dead roo ..', so I was told ..”
What all these animal heroes have in common is that the real creatures that have to incarnate those stars do not belong at all in this fictitious world. Fiction remains a construction of humans for humans in which the actual animal becomes fictionalised.
“My video TRICKY TIMES has a very mechanical underlayer. Each of the animals has been 'sped up' according to its life expectancy-coefficient (a kangaroo lives longer than a dog and both live shorter compared to a human average life-span) ...
The acceleration of the movements in my view reflects a certain expectancy we show in life, an impatience and obsession with being efficient ...
The speed results in both stories, Lassie and Skippy, becoming one. The content of one is a blueprint for the other, the Australian screenplay copies the American...”
The appropriation of animals, the attribution of supernatural qualities to these animals, to fictionalise animals, to implicate animals in human society is undeniably an idea of all periods and cultures. Western animal heraldry is anchored in Christianity, but the mirror of divinity was also held up to animals in Ancient Egypt, in pre-Columbian cultures ans also in Africa . Not only were animals implicated in Ancient Egyptian society through mummification, but they were also taken along to the hereafter.
Nature is a symbol for what we are. We belong to nature as much as nature does no longer belong to us. Yet, man experienced over and over again the need to create an ersatz nature, a fact that implies animality in man. Compared to animals, however, man is a being that continually withdrew itself from natural laws.
This fascination for animals finds perhaps precisely its origin in an element of recognition in which we appear to perceive our own past.
Georges Petitjean/Koen wastijn
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The Big Sleep
Vredig ligt het kleine bronzen dier , de jonge neushoorn nog van geen hoorn voorzien, als ware dit een symbool voor de nog niet verloren onschuld , op de grond, ver weggedoken in een eigen wereld. Die wereld is die van de schemerzone van de irrealiteit, een wereld waar de tijd tijdloos is en waarin de dingen nooit zijn wat ze lijken. Door in die wereld te verkeren, gewikkeld in een eeuwige, versteende slaap, negeert het kleine bronzen dier het omliggende volstrekt. Dat de basis voor dit vredig slapende dier als sculptuur dan ook een afgietsel van een dood dier zou kunnen zijn, is hier eigenlijk niet relevant. Het komt niet op de eerste plaats. Deze wetenschap reduceert immers de figuur tot een reÎle finaliteit die ooit was , tot het haast banale van de dood. De kleine bronzen neushoorn wordt hier echter een individueel, affectief personage met een apart verhaal.
Als uiterst minutieus gedetailleerd beeldhouwwerk herinnert de sculptuur aan de bronzen van de 19de en vroeg 20ste eeuwse animaliers. Deze dierenbeeldhouwers streefden naar een hyperrealistische weergave van dieren met eenzelfde oog voor detail dat men ook kan terugvinden in sommige dierentekeningen van Albrecht Dürer. In onze contreien voorzag Rembrandt Bugatti, één van de beroemste dierenkunstenaars, de Antwerpse zoo van talrijke bronzen. Deze jongste zoon van de befaamde Italiaanse meubelontwerper Carlo Bugatti verbeelde de dieren nooit gewelddadig noch hulpeloos, altijd met grote gevoeligheid en respect. Zijn stukken zijn werkelijke homages aan deze dieren die hij zijn ‘vrienden’ noemde. Bugatti stond dan ook bekend als een mensenschuwe, zachtmoedige figuur met een hekel aan geweld. Geconfronteerd in de eerste jaren van de Eerste Wereldoorlog met het teveel aan menselijk en dierlijk , verschillende dieren uit de zoo werden afgemaakt of kwamen om door gebrekkige verzorging , leed, maakte hij in 1916 op 32-jarige leeftijd een einde aan zijn leven.
In het geval van The Big Sleep is deze titel ontleend aan de gelijknamige Hollywood misdaad-prent van Howard Hawks (1946) en is de tussenkomst van de kunstenaar minimaal. Het grote verschil schuilt juist in het toelaten van realiteit in het werk. De beelden van de animaliers zijn noodzakelijk en inherent fictief. De plastische vormen zijn realistisch genoeg, maar uiteindelijk telkens weer nagebootst en geherinterpreteerd, dus fictief. Dit werk, in zijn gelijkenis met het werk van de vroegere dierenbeeldhouwers, weerspiegelt de 19de eeuwse bourgeois zin voor genoegzaamheid die op zijn beurt uiting vindt in de pompeuze interieurs van die tijd, maar levert daar gelijktijdig sterk commentaar op.
Echter, en op nogal ironische wijze, heeft het dier in The Big Sleep, ondanks en dankzij het betrekken van een zekere realiteit die vervolgens gefictionaliseerd wordt, een groter fictief gehalte dan de volledig nieuw geschapen 19de eeuwse bronzen. Ook dit bronzen sculptuur, alhoewel het uitgangspunt verschilt, creÎert een nieuw verhaal dat niets vandoen heeft met de reÎle context waarin zulke dieren overleven. Het overstijgt echter de betrachting van een fictieve realiteit te (her)creÎren. In dit geval gaat het om de dood zelf die door de slaap gerecupereerd wordt. Volgens de Joods-Franse filosoof Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) is de onmogelijkheid van ooit nog te kunnen slapen de beste illustratie van wat de hel is. De dood die hier verbeeld wordt als eeuwige slaap van vrede is in die stelling het tegenovergestelde van de hel. Rembrandt Bugatti zou het ongetwijfeld goed gevonden hebben.
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The Big Sleep
Peacefully, the little bronze animal, the young rhinoceros, which does not have a horn yet as if this were a symbol for its retained innocence, lies on the ground. In a world apart, it lies ensconced. This world is the twilight zone of unreality, a dimension where time is without beginning or end and where things are never what they seem. Being in this particular world, sheathed in its eternal, petrified sleep, the little bronze creature ignores its surroundings. That the sculptural basis for this animal ‘enwrapped in peaceful sleep’ might be the mould of a dead animal is not relevant here. It is not of primordial importance. Indeed, this knowledge reduces the figure to a final reality, to the almost banal reality of death. The bronze rhinoceros is instead an individual, affective character with a story apart.
As a minaciously detailed sculpture, it is reminiscent of the nineteenth and early twentieth-century bronzes of the animaliers. These sculptors strove to achieve hyperrealist renditions of animals, showing a concern for detail similar to that found in the drawings of Albrecht Dürer. Rembrandt Bugatti, one of the most renowned of these sculptors, provided Belgium’s Antwerp Zoo with numerous bronzes. As the youngest son of the celebrated Italian furniture designer, Carlo Bugatti, Rembrandt Bugatti represented his animals with great sensitivity and respect, never as helpless creatures. His sculptures are no less than homages to animals that he considered to be his friends. Bugatti was known to be a shy, gentle character with an intense dislike of violence. Confronted during the early years of World War I with enormous human and animal suffering – several animals in the zoo were either put to death or perished as a result of poor care – he committed suicide at the age of thirty-two in 1916.
The presence of the artist’s hand in The Big Sleep, a title inspired by the similarly named Hollywood classic by Howard Hawks (1946), is minimal. While the sculptures of the animaliers are inherently fictitious, a degree of reality is allowed to infuse this figure. The features of the antique bronzes are indeed realistic enough. Yet, these sculptures remain imitations and re-interpretations, and are thus in first instance fictitious. In its semblance of the oeuvre of sculptors past, this contemporary example reflects a nineteenth-century bourgeois sense of sufficiency that in turn finds reflection in the pompous interiors of that period without missing the opportunity to provide a sharp comment upon it. Curiously enough, the animal in The Big Sleep, in spite of and perhaps because of introducing a certain reality that is subsequently fictionalised, possesses a greater degree of fictional narrative than the nineteenth-century bronzes. Notwithstanding a strong difference at the start, this bronze sculpture is able to create a new story that has nothing in common with the real context in which these animals survive. It transcends the practice of striving to (re)create a fictitious reality. In this particular case, it is death itself that is being recycled in sleep. According to the Jewish-French philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas (1906 – 1995), the best illustration of hell is never again being able to sleep. The ‘death’ represented here as peaceful eternal sleep is therefore the opposite of hell. Rembrandt Bugatti would no doubt have liked The Big Sleep.
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