Harry Boom: After the studio of Brancusi (Ohio, USA), 1991; installation, chronium plated racks, ceramics, wood, glass, light Harry Boom


Mireille Houtzager

Posted 6 July 2013

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Mireille Houtzager

In the visual arts of the past hundred and fifty years the means, the media by which art is made, plays a leading part.
Was the past particulary devoted to skilful material expression and imitation - a beautifully painted velvet, a glass cup in oilpaint, a satin cushion in marble or bronze - then this 'almost like the real thing' in modern art is exchanged for the concrete, 'real' material.
The pictorial portrayal of a subject is being forced to give way to the representation of the image. The advances made by photography, and subsequently by radiography, as a faithful, so-called scientific truth, have proceeded to deliver the final coup de grâce, opening up the way for the offensive launched by abstract art and, subsequently, by conceptual art. It is no longer the visible which is to be made tangible and/or visual; instead, it is the invisible, the inexpressible, which needs to be portrayed. In the slipstream of these developments, there arose in many artists between 1875 and 1925 a need to cease portraying things in terms of materials, imitating them in bronze, marble or a mixture of pigments and other media, and they needed instead to use those materials in a direct and concrete manner. A direct result of this is to be found in collages, compositions and installations involving the unadulterated use of different materials.
In the meantime our indestructible longing for the 'real thing' has been generously compensated by the newly developed media such as photography, moving pictures, television, video and later on the technology of plastic surgery, the laser- and computer-scan techniques.

In the course of the Twentieth century, in this way, space is created in which the concrete materials and media are given back their (original) magic and imaginative power: materials as the means by which images and messages are conveyed.
In Post-Modernism eventually the given room led to a process of 'material-metabolisme' that could be lifted up far beyond the borders of its own inherence: the well-known quotations, blown-up and enlarged in improper material. Bernini's classic Baroque busts in stainless steel, chocolate, glass, plaster, porcelain, embroidered in cross-stitch, or - just as usual - simply painted with pigments and medium, or once again casted in plastic or 'real' bronze. But in this cyclic story that bites its own tail, the new 'real thing' could never be of the same 'reality' as before. [How, who and what precisely is the phenomenon 'Michael Jackson'?]
In a century in which everything has become upside down, inside out and inversely proportionaly multi-dimensional and multi-interpretable, the 'real thing' no longer is to calibrate: there are no more litmustests to determine the truth (if ever there have been any).

In this materialistic age of media and materials certain materials - depending on time, trend, fashion or discipline - score higher on the (art)ladder than others. When we take the axioms for granted that art and styling are presenting a mirror of time, then materials and media offer us a more subtle and interesting 'physical' mirror. In accepting this fact we do no more than force a door wide open, a door to a big pitfall in wich deep down a brood of vipers is hidden.
Let us please - (with Robert Hughes) - be nothing if not critical!

Where materials are concerned, I personally have a preference for transmutable, flexible, multi-connotational, transcendental and fragile materials. Materials which are closely linked to the essential characteristics and principles inherent in the matter of which they consist (and from which they originate). For me, therefore, textiles and their related materials have a definite 'something', as do glass and its related materials. And this - as I see it - accounts for the views expressed in this article. That 'something,' incidentally, is a rather emotional, personal thing; to put it another way, it is based on a complex love-hate relationship. The reasons why I 'love' it also represent, at the same time, the source of my feelings of hatred towards it.

What is the matter with this indertimateness of that certain 'something'?

From time to time, materials which are beautiful, aesthetically pleasing and seductive inspire feelings of loathing, especially when they are used in the wrong way, as is all too frequently the case. The material itself continually gets in the way, as it were. It is mostly too obtrusive, or its presence is too 'arty-crafty'. It misses its target, in so far as that 'target' is to be regarded as the production of a visual work of art or a pictorial design.
[Let me make myself quite clear: we are not concerned here with the glass used in milk bottles or containers or window panes, or with any of the other functional aspects of glass design, which are, or should be, primarily aimed at performing a utilitarian role. The subject with which we are here concerned is the visual arts, the design work which they involve and the qualities which they possess.]

In speaking about art, one cannot ignore the question of its content or (to put it in more old-fashioned terms) its message, idea and/or concept. When talking about art, we constantly need to bear in mind the need or urge to create something, to disseminate it and to impart it to others. With the Romantic movement in the 19th century, which saw the genesis of autonomous pictorial art, there began the triumphal procession of the autonomous, individual idea or concept, and with it that of the autonomous artist commissioning his own work and prevailing over the craftsman's skills, mastery and control over (or, in actual fact, transcendence of) his materials.

The 20th century convincingly demonstrates the line, proportion and scale along which, between which and within which this new, modern art has evolved. It has - to use a visual image - become a sort of wavy, wobbly balance beam, supporting, at one extreme, artists such as Marcel Duchamp (the patriarch of conceptual art, the art of ideas) and, at the other, artists such as Joseph Beuys (the father of material art, the art of materials). They are both dead, so the following remark can be shouted with impunity from the rooftops: they made it pretty difficult for the rest of us - established and budding artists and designers, art historians and art critics - somehow to secure our own place, to establish our own position, on that beam, that imaginary line.
The theoretical conflict between those two parameters has made ours an extremely interesting century, and, as regards the visual arts, a provocatively confusing one, because we can trace from the works of Duchamp a line leading to a conceptual art which no longer needs to be created (according to Lawrence Weiner), whilst the direction taken by the works of Beuys leads us, ultimately, to three drops of honey, a small lump of fat and a little piece of felt: how can that be termed art? Whilst I firmly believe in the mathematical logic of line, fortunately I know better: the nature of art is such that it admits of no single solution or outcome. Art -no matter what idea or concept underlies it- must invariably be given concrete actuality; in order for it to exist at all, it must be given material form, visualized, realized and made flesh. Otherwise, it will take the form of language (literature, poetry) or music; but those forms of art also serve as vehicles conveying a consciously communicable concrete and/or spiritual content. Or else nothing emerges, so that we are left with a void, in which case what we are dealing with is not art. The metaphorical balance beam evoked above, whilst sometimes appearing to lack stability, nevertheless maintains a perfect equilibrium: its two elements, namely, on the one hand, the concept or idea and, on the other, the particular materials used, cannot exist independently of each other.

The confusion, and also the complexity, which this involves - as illustrated by my 'love-hate' relationship - arise from the fluctuating wobbliness and the inexorable blurring which occur. The present century has seen a permanent decline in the fervent desire to hold on to the tried and trusted disciplines (of art) and the absolute confidence in the traditional skills of the craftsman which were so prevalent in the last century. The demarcation lines between the different art disciplines have become blurred, or have even been completely eliminated. This process is not in fact as revolutionary as some art critics believe: artists and designers in the past worked in turn as architects, portrait painters, sculptors, theatrical designers, costume designers, dinner-service designers, confectioners, textile designers etc., according to the wishes and requirements of those commissioning work from them. The idea of the artist as homo universalis accords perfectly with the concept to which we pay tribute nowadays: the autonomous artist is a welcome guest in the fields of carpet design, the creation of exclusive footwear or the design of sets of glasses. Museums and art institutions have leaned over backwards in the last twenty years to fill their exhibitions, oriented according to the disciplines involved, with the works of numerous artists who would prefer not to be troubled by any knowledge of the disciplines in question, and are thus laymen. There is nothing new under the sun, as can be seen from the work on which Leonardo da Vinci was occupied at the end of the fifteenth century.

We are concerned here with developments to which independent visual artists have, by and large, taken like fish to water; by contrast, in the case of certain (material) designers trained in the disciplines of the applied arts, those very developments have led to an identity crisis which has left deep -and still visible- marks of frustration. In order to particularize and delimit in greater detail the sphere under consideration, I propose here to deal with areas of design which are linked exclusively to the materials used in them: ceramics, glass, precious metals and textiles. Incidentally, these are precisely the areas of design which have been hardest hit by this - in my view, outdated - conflict of identities.

Leaving to one side the historically determined developments which have caused this -the Utopian nineteenth-century ideal of the creative artisan resisting the inexorable advance of industrialization - an irrevocable question urges itself upon us: "How can this have come about?" After all, such tortured souls are seldom, if ever, encountered in other art disciplines: Picasso, Matisse, Ernst or Schwitters did not suffer sleepless nights worrying about whether they were betraying their identity by switching in turn from painting to the construction of three-dimensional designs using glass, cardboard, bicycle saddles and car components, or designing the scenery and costumes for a prestigious, avant-garde theatre or ballet production, whilst at the same time working on designs for magazine covers, ornaments, leaded glass or tapestries.
Why is this? Does training play a decisive role, dictating a possible mental approach to one's method of working? Has the stale, outdated controversy surrounding the difference between applied, decorative and autonomous art still not been laid to rest? Or is it the material itself which, time and again, keeps getting in the way? I sometimes think - in a mood of desperation - that it must do.
There is clearly 'something' about the extraordinarily beautiful material involved (be it glass, pottery, a precious metal or a textile) which ensures that all other factors (form, content, concept, idea) are forced to yield before it. There is undeniably 'something' about the tactile craftsmanship involved in the act of creation which is so absorbing, and demands so much concentration and so many hours of work, that the rest is so easily forgotten. The result, when it takes the form of yet another turd made of glass, ceramics or textiles, often inspires, in a blood-curdling way, feelings of irritation. "Just look at it, isn't it beautiful, isn't it clever, isn't it lovely?," coo the insiders, as if they were talking about some baby regarded as the wonder of the world. After all, a turd remains nothing more than a turd; none of this, or hardly any of it, has anything to do with art. (But you can put it in a tin can, as Manzoni did in 1961, with his work "Merda d'artista"). There is 'something' about the training of young, budding artists and designers in certain disciplines relating to materials that subsequently ensures that they become handicapped in their development as artists and/or designers. Clearly, therefore, there must be 'something' which occurs with, and in, the training which they undergo. In any event, I myself am firmly convinced that this is the case. It is that conviction which sets the tone for my own activities in the field of art education, as head of, and lecturer in, a department devoted to the discipline of materials.

What does this mean in practice?
By way of reply, I constantly tell my students: "Materials are sacred as long as you dare to treat them in a heretical way." Every material speaks its own language, has its own way of expressing itself, possesses intrinsic values and qualities. It you don't understand that language, if you are unable, as it were, to read and write it, you will never be able to make a proper job of using it to represent an image.
A material cannot be used indiscriminately or simply interchangeably, in place of some other material. Every idea, concept or message demands, in the process leading to its 'visual realization', the application and use of the right materials in the expression of its concrete form. If a work calls for the use of glass - on account of its transparency, its ability to catch the light or give off reflections, or its capacity to cut or to wound - then glass is the material which must be used, and not, for example, ceramics, cord or silver. If the idea or concept calls for a heaped or piled-up structure, please do not even think about attempting some other tour de force of artistic skill or craftsmanship. A visual work must never become a showcase for its creator's skills, as if proclaiming to the world: look what I can do! look what I know! If that happens, the end product will cease to be a visual work of art or design and will merely be a fairground attraction, presented as a demonstration of craftsmanship (in the use of materials), or - worse still - an amusing "thingummyjig" to be placed on the mantlepiece or in the display-case of an average camp interior from the 1990s. Materials are sacred, provided that you venture to handle them in a critical and heretical way and do not allow yourself to be seduced by their beauty into the stupid trap of creating something which, in terms of the materials used, amounts to so much rubbish. And who can say whether your idea or concept may not call for the use of more and/or other materials and media? Listen attentively to what your own concept is saying, read the handwriting of your design with care, and transform it, using the right materials and media, into a visual work. Let it be an image which compels people to stop and reconsider it; let it be something other than merely clever, beautiful, attractive, amusing or ugly.
Art can never confirm anything or provide any answers; it must prompt questions and generate confusion, or simply bowl you over.
As Goethe said in the late 18th century: "Zum erstaunen bin ich da" ("I am in this world to be amazed").

It is all so simple, so why do we make such a meal of it? Harry Boom, an artist, friend and colleague who died in November 1995, tried years ago to explain to a class of first-year students, who had become hopelessly confused about the history of art, exactly what visual art entails and involves. He did so there and then, with the help of an earthenware plate, a sheet of paper, a small table and a pencil. He took the plate, placed it upside down on a sheet of drawing paper and drew a line round it with the pencil, saying: "look, that is now a two-dimensional design, or, as it would formerly have been called, a 'still-life drawing'." Next, he placed the plate back on the table. "Look," he said, "that is a three-dimensional design, and it should in principle be possible - in view of the material used to make it - to call it a 'ceramic design'." He then threw the plate onto the floor, smashing it to smithereens. "And that," he said, "is a 'spatial design', because, in creating it, we have involved the surrounding space as its environment." Next, he tore the sheet of paper into pieces, saying: "look, if I only had some glue and another piece of paper, that would be what is customarily called a 'collage'." He then built a structure composed of the fragments of earthenware and the pieces of paper. "Look," he said, "that is now an 'assemblage' or 'installation', and if I had invited the public to see it in a gallery or museum, it could have been a 'performance', or - if it occurred once only - a 'happening'." Finally, he demolished the temporary installation, lay down prostrate on the floor and covered his body with the remains, saying: "look, that is a form of 'body art', which could easily - provided it were well choreographed and staged - be developed on the stage into a form of 'living theatre'; and if I had recorded it all with a video camera, it could be a work of video art or cinematographic art."
He subsequently repeated the exercise, but in a more complex way. The props originally used were supplemented by a damask table-cloth, drinking glasses, bottles, sand, water, glue, paint, a bunch of flowers, plastic refrigerator trays, a red cabbage, potatoes and a video camera. The whole thing was organized, produced, set up and presented by him in a highly individual and special way. But the point of the story is quite clear: it shows how simple this all is and, at the same time, how complex.

Talking about conclusions and quotations:
"If any conclusion can be drawn from the developments which have occurred in the visual arts over the last hundred and twenty years, it is not, in my view, that art has distanced itself from perceptible reality, but rather that a multiformity of starting-points and types of content has evolved. The multiformity which now exists in the visual arts is to a significant extent determined by freedom in the choice of materials, and above all the freedom and mentality applied in handling and working with those materials." This is a quotation from an essay composed for a catalogue produced on the occasion of a Textile biennale held in Belgium in 1982, already nearly sixteen years ago, and it was I who wrote it. The title of that introduction, "Return to Go", reflecting that devastating moment in the game of Monopoly when you have to go back to square one, still appeals to me. I find that I have come to adopt, ever more strongly, the idea that we are experiencing not so much "The Shock of the New" - as Robert Hughes suggests in his book of the same name on 20th century art - but rather a "Shock of Repetition".

The extraordinary thing is, quite simply, that whilst we are constantly exhorted to learn from the lessons handed down to us by history, we time and again believe, with extraordinary naivety, that we have to re-invent the wheel, that we must once again sharpen up our old battle-axes, in order to defend our own métier by fire and sword against the nasty, threatening world outside. This is an extremely painful admission of weakness, which we would do better to forget, or to bury, with a mixture of embarrassment and amusement, in the "Museum of the History of Old Crafts", that term being freely borrowed from the title of an installation presented by the former East German artist Reinhard Zabka in the Gemeente Museum, Arnhem, in 1991.

I should like to end with a further quotation from the same 16-year-old article: how prophetic, or nonsensical, has that conclusion proved to be? I will leave it to you to judge for yourselves what the answer to that question should be.
"In order to provide an account of the state of affairs today (in 1982), it is necessary to look back over the important international exhibitions held in the past years. This is because the museums and galleries are coming to be regarded, more and more, as providing a criterion for what constitutes art, in so far as the answer to that question has not already been decided. By taking stock of the situation, we can chart the often dynamic multiformity which now exists. At the same time, however, such a stock-taking clearly and painfully reveals its inherent limitations: the safe refuge offered by recourse to techniques and materials, the nostalgia felt for old crafts (back to William Morris), the neo-romanticism of an artificial personal symbolism, the transience and insubstantiality of decoration, the harking back to the great stylistic achievements of the past and the obligatory variations on the model of the 'master'. In order to express this, art criticism employs such terms as 'Neo-Classicism', 'Neo-Academicism' or the expression 'Post-Modernism', much bandied about of late; I personally prefer the term 'Neo-Eclecticism'. Although such a conclusion is perceived by many as negative, I should nevertheless like to emphasize in this connection that a 'Return to Go' approach can also mean a deepening process, a new analysis, an examination of the roots of pictorial art and a fresh stimulation towards creativity in that sphere. The removal of boundaries in the realm of visual art and the revolutionary new freedom in the use of materials represent processes which can lead to the opening up of fresh possibilities. Whatever these may be, and whatever the methods, materials, techniques or media employed to achieve them, the starting-points are already visible: they involve design by reference to personal values, standards and contents. The criteria in that connection are, and continue to be: quality, the right mentality and the tension between form and content and between content and materials/materialization.
The adventure is only just beginning."

What more is to be between Heaven and Earth remains to be seen in the 21st century (if we survive the crisis of the millennium that is).
In a speech-making BBC documentary some years ago, a bunch of scientists, historians and artists of exellent reputation were set to discuss the near future. Their conclusions -to summarize a comprehensive and extraordinarily interesting discussion - amounted to the definite conviction that we unavoidable are heading straight towards the New Middle Ages. Transportation and literal relocation will be unaffordable in the long run, the workability of the super-technology becomes unacceptably expensive and the enforced priorities will set its progression at risk and its end near. The (primarily) virtual reality of these new-born hermits will be dominated by the IMAGE.

Mirror, mirror on the the beginning and at the end was and still is the image.

@ Mireille Houtzager, 18-10-1998 – 05-07-2013
Part of the original version of this article appeared in the Catalogue State of the Art and Glasbulletin 1/97.
Translation: James Benn, Luxembourg

1969 -1971 School voor Middelbaar Beroepsonderwijs, Deventer; docent.

1971 - 2003 Academie voor Beeldende Vorming, Tilburg (HKLT, Faculteit der Kunsten, 1978/ tegenwoordig Fontys Hogescholen, Hogeschool voor
de Kunsten, 1992).
Docent, stafdocent, hoofddocent afdeling Textielvormgeving, afdeling Theatervormgeving; begeleider afstudeerpraktijk (academiebreed).
1972 - 1974 Koninklijke Academie voor Beeldende Kunsten, Den Haag; docent.

1974 - 1980 'St. Dionysius' scholengemeenschap voor MBO, Tilburg; afdeling: leraren-
applicatiecursus Textielvormgeving (tweedegraads avondopleiding).
Docent, coördinator, hoofd opleiding.
1979 - 1980 Stadsacademie voor Beeldende en Toegepaste Kunsten, Maastricht;
(tegenwoordig Hogeschool Zuyd; ABK-M); docent.
1981 -1984 Jan van Eyck Academie, Maastricht; postacademiale werkplaats Theatervormgeving; docent.

1982 -1987 Koninklijke Academie voor Kunst en Vormgeving, Den Bosch; docent.
2003 - 2006 Hogeschool voor Wetenschap en Kunst Sint-Lucas, Gent, België; departement Beeldende Kunst, afdeling: Textielatelier; docent.
2004 – 2007/01-10 Fontys Graduate School (Fontys Hogescholen, Eindhoven).
Medewerker FGS: Masterprogramma's (ontwikkeling en coördinatie); lectoraten/ lectoren; promovenditrajecten en onderzoek.

2004 – 2007/11 Academie Beeldende Kunsten, Maastricht; (ABK) Hogeschool Zuyd.
Docent afdeling Textiel-, Mode- en Theatervormgeving (vervanging/detachering).

2008/10 – heden Gastdocent: Academie voor Beeldende Kunsten, Maastricht, Hogeschool Zuyd; op basis van 1x per maand een overkoepelend ‘Horen & Zien’ college (3 uur) voor 2 afdelingen en 4 klassen, aan de hand van brede, overkoepelende thema’s. (DfA).

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: Seagram New York 1955/58

Performance Project GSM by De Maatschap Internationaal, 1998 at the opening of the exposition State of The Art, Eindhoven, NL; based on the the sky line of NY. The Building Seagram by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1955-58) was the inspiration source

Design and construction: Jan Doms
Glass handling: Jan Hein van Stiphout
Video: Christel Frints
Sound and composition: Soundscapes - Peter Hofland
Performance: Jan Doms, JanHein van Stiphout, Christel Frints, Shyama Sewpersad

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: Seagram New York 1955/58

Concept State of the Art
Click here to download the file "Manifestation_State_o_Word98.pdf".
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