A conversation in November 2018 between journalist Liesbeth Babel (SU) and artist Heyer Thurnheer (CH), both based in Rotterdam (NL)
The conversation started after a nice meal, still sitting at the table.
H. Th.: How did your relationship with art start, Liesbeth?
L. B.: You know, some people grew up with art, for example in the family. Others get involved in art by getting exposed to it in a different environment. They just went to a museum now and then, met artists or an art piece, and then their story related to art starts. For me there was not a particular event. It just started somewhere; I’ve met people who were making art, back then I entered a social scene in which art was important, and I ended up finally living with an artist (Ralph van Meijgaard).
H. Th.: Has art always had a certain attraction for you?
L. B.: Yes, it was part of my social environment. When I came to Holland I started in a quite boring village outside of Rotterdam. The moment I had to take care of myself I got engaged with a group of left wing activists, a scene with squatters, and there was always art around in small self-made exhibitions. That was very interesting because there was no judgement about the work, it was about inspiring each other. And of course some booze and all other forbidden things. So it was quite a period, but with a lot of fun.
H. Th.: So it started with your arrival in the Dutch culture, or was it already part of your culture, where you come from (Suriname)?
L. B.: No, it has nothing to do with my background, it simply didn’t play any role. It had to do with entering Dutch culture, entering a scene, growing up and thinking outside of the box. This means that art was always in the context of political engagement or ideas, and never just art in its own field for itself, but always related to societal questions and to my way of life.
H. Th.: And when you started to live together with an artist – how was this moment for you?
L. B.: We met in a pub one evening, just around the corner of the CBK (Centrum Beeldende Kunst) building. After we left the pub we found ourselves standing in front of the CBK; each of us looking at the exhibition through the windows. We then started a conversation about art and we decided to go to his studio. So when I was standing in front of his work I spoke quite freely and straightforwardly about what I saw. And he was very surprised.
H. Th.: And you already knew that you’re very sure about knowing what you like?
L. B.: Yes, I am quite outspoken about this, I don’t see art, I feel art first and then see it.
H. Th.: To me this seems very special, that you are so direct, so very sure; you describe yourself as somebody who has no education in the arts. You often state ‘I’m not an artist’. but you are always very clear about whether it can be of any interest for you or not. Do you have an idea where this being sure comes from?
I heard that you used to dance a lot. Dancing is also a kind of artistic form – does it ´sharpen your tools´ in deciding what is important or what is less important?
L. B.: I think dancing is a separate thing; for me art is not dancing, it’s more like struggling. In art there isn’t such a thing as smooth movement.
H. Th.: How did you find out about these moments of struggle? I don’t know many people who are not artists who are so sure about this connection of art and struggling.
L. B.: As I see it, as far as I can see it in a broader sense, either you build something and you break it and you rebuild it and break it again, or you break something that is already there, but there is never one way to an art piece. The artists who underwent this struggle bring/provide us a lot.
H. Th.: You studied social science or psychology? How you are so sure about this, or did you read about this a lot?
L. B.: I’m somehow sensitive for human behaviour, human identity,… You know, maybe… I don’t know, the thing is I hardly know happy artists.
H. Th.: Okay, let´s talk about Ralph, when someone meets Ralph he always smiles…
L. B.: Yes, as a human, but as an artist … I know happy humans who are artists but I don’t know happy artists. Maybe it’s because I don’t know artists who earn a lot of money with their art. Let’s stick to the people we know; I know lots of artists/people who are happy people, but they are struggling.
H. Th.: But to be sure about what is the human and what is the artist – this already needs some education; either you figure it out yourself, or you read, or you had an education… or were your parents involved?
L. B.: No, no not at all, I grew up in a country where art was like, you know, don’t even go there because you can’t make a living out of it. So I don’t know were it comes from. I know it is like an undescribed feeling, something emotional, and from that feeling you explore what it is, you explore it again, you explore the real artwork, the object in front of you.
H. Th.: Let’s talk about the social, the societal things. How did your awareness about political and existential questions arise, like the engaged awareness towards social behaviour and art behaviour? You seem very engaged into both the arts and society. Were does this interest in human behaviour stem from?
L. B.: Yes, I tend to be engaged into both. I am always trying to read people, or to read artists through their work. I haven’t studied art, so there is this educational lack of a theoretical approach. So when you go into further conversation, I sometimes lack theoretical context, it is an emotional thing for me more than an educational reputation.
H. Th.: When you start talking about art matters – when Ralph comes home and starts a discourse about art with you, is there a certain entrance or question that makes you go or…?
L. B.: There are different stages when he comes home. Sometimes troubled and stuck, and sometimes there’s lightness and humour. And I know all these stages through the years. There are moments when I have the feeling I have to save this painting from him. Otherwise he will spoil it, because he will overwork it. These are tough moments.
H. Th.: And because you are very aware about these existential things, either in art or in societal questions, I guess you are very sure in thinking about what is an artist and what is somebody who declares himself or herself a non-artist. Can you tell me something about these two different concepts of being an artist or a non-artist?
L. B.: I don’t think I do it myself, artists are doing it too. When, for example, I’m in a group of artists and I introduce myself as a partner of Ralph´s, they always ask me if I am an artist as well. It’s odd – it’s like they ask me if I am part of the ‘system’.
H. Th.: And how would you defy it that you are in a different system? `I like it to be there, I am what I am, I don’t want to be an artist, I am just an observer of things in my range of field´?
If the artist is not in the mode of observing… in what sort of mode is he/she then?
L. B.: For example for the video I made in On Arte, I filmed all the artists with the camera on my cell phone while they were installing their works. I observed the artists observing their art, being busy with their work. I observed the whole environment of the exhibitions and the context of the artists working in the last seconds before the exhibition starts, their final touch.
H. Th.: And what is the role of the artist in your eyes; it is not the observing position but it is a different position. How would you describe it?
L. B.: The role of the artist? Just do what you have to do…
H. Th.: Maybe we can ask what is this, what he/she has to do… how could we translate it?
L. B.: Okay, why am I a fan of Francis Bacon? Because he touches me in every sense, with the darkness, with the shadows underneath the door. Why am I fan of Gerhard Richter? Maybe I’m saying stupid things – never mind, we like stupid things. On the one hand he has this ordering of things, but he also has these beautiful (abstract) landscapes. And both touch me.
You find something of yourself in the work? Yes, for someone in its darkness – a movement to get through all the small areas and to be fluid, very fluid, and someone else is like, you know, let me pick up my cigar.
H. Th.: So you say you are very attached because it can let you experience something where you feel close or you feel like…
L. B.: It’s strange, it’s a different person who has done the work, but I feel quite connected, like with an existential touch. I can connect with this dark side, a light side and a creating side… I think art opens a door for existential experiences somehow.
H. Th.: Are you surrounded by people who are also sure about their position towards the arts?
L. B.: Yes, aware or unaware they consider themselves as artists. But whether is is realistic to think and to live this way… At a certain point in our relationship Ralph was like “Okay I am an artist and I need time to make art, and time to reflect upon it.” But then comes the money part. An artist also has an obligation towards him/herself to manage his/her life, not only by subsidies, living a poor life and counting nickels and dimes because you want to make this art. Eating, living, sleeping, having a life are essential. Otherwise you shut yourself off; it makes you depressed because you can’t spend money, you don’t live (and you don’t sell?).
H. Th.: Is this your statement towards art or artists, like don’t wait, do it!
L. B.: Do it! I still meet other artists who work for their bread and butter, and they are ashamed of it.
It’s tough, the official definition of what is an artist? First, quality is attributed to positions/artists where the money comes from the visual work, secondly when he/she has a position in an art school, and only third is working somewhere else for money. So there is this hierarchy of what a good artist is.
I think it does not matter where it comes from, as long as it gives you independence.
H. Th.: Why do you have no advisor’s office? It seems to me you are a very good consultant.
L. B.: You see it more and more. Entrepreneurship is being taught at art schools nowadays – if you make something, you also learn how to sell it. Artists and money were two separate things – somebody else had to come and give you the money, somebody who supports you. How do you actuallydo that, Heyer, to survive?
H. Th.: As an artist I decided quite early to free myself for the arts by doing a money job. This was very unusual when I started in the sixties/seventies, because there was this doctrine that the artist who wins all the prizes has made it. For me it was clear that I did not want to depend on the system. So I decided to make my money without art – to protect my artwork from this money-driven doctrine.
L. B.: So what did you do?
H. Th.: I worked at a hotel, then at a farm, painted houses, and than I found politically engaged people who were thinking about the difference between economy-defined money and money as a present. Giving money in the arts as a present means there is no expectation, just the freedom; you are asked to do your best for the arts, but you are not controlled by someone because that money is a present. It’s a question of trust. And all the years later again and again I found people who financed a basic income for me and it makes me free to do what I think or I feel that should be done in the arts. Also what I do here (organizing the Borgerstraat publication) is possible because I have this basic income.
L. B.: And were does this basic income come from?
H. Th.: From people who want me to make my best as an artist. They don’t decide what is the best.
L. B.: How did you get there?
H. Th.: This is of course a question of relations, to meet people, to also talk about political systems, about what it means to do something because of identification questions, or to do something because of economical questions. To try out a new political system. Maybe you recognised three years ago I made also work on this basic income idea.
L. B.: My next question: your organizing of publication- and exhibition collectives in Switzerland as well as here in Rotterdam has a price, you don’t manage to make a lot of ‘visible’ work.
H. Th.: I don’t fit in the system that says you have to continuously produce and be present. I don´t follow this idea. I do very few and I just am present from time to time, but I don’t care, because how we see history in a short term or in the long term is not the same. And so to do art is to generate something, and this is anyway done, never mind if many people perceive/sense it or just a few.
L. B.: Do you feel you are more an artist or an artist manager? And where is the balance?
H. Th.: Both, and no balance, sometimes one is more in the foreground, sometimes the other, it develops reciprocally. It’s a complex system.
L. B.: Do you compensate by working with artists and offering them a stage?
H. Th.: I define it as part of my art-work, but we are not used to things like this. To support others for example, try to give others the best possibilities, because I believe in a cooperative system, because we are existentially dependent on each other, so that we can unfold with help of the other. I am very combative in this, we cannot do it alone, even if the system makes us think otherwise. I do this for you in the hope that others in the best case do for me, I always think in these terms.
L. B.: Do you see the art environment as a circular system, more as a system in a bigger system, but as a community on its own?
H. Th.: Yes, I would describe it like this, and maybe this circular system is not circular in the sense of turning around or always being the same. It’s a system in itself, but at the same moment it’s a system in society.
For over a decade Liesbeth Babel worked as a journalist in the Hilversum and Amsterdam area; first as editor at the news desk, later as researcher for documentaries for several television programs. In 2006 she started her own business and since then provides her services to companies in the South Holland area, e.g. Rotterdam Vakmanstad and Knowledge Centre Health Care Innovation of Hogeschool Rotterdam.
Heyer Thurnheer is a contextual artist and organizer of contemporary exhibition platforms and (art and societally engaged) discourse initiatives such as OnArte (CH) and Borgerstraat publication collective (NL).