Sjoerd Westbroek

Art is where the heart is

When I first read the question that forms the starting point for this publication, asking for experiences of closeness to art, it immediately triggered me. In an environment in which everyone is heavily invested in something – which is definitely the case in the field of art – closeness is presupposed but not necessarily scrutinised. Then, however, the more I thought about it, the more complex the question became. I am still not sure whether I fully grasp all its ramifications. Proximity and distance indicate, first of all, a spatial relationship, as in standing next to something, or being far away. However, perhaps this spatiality in a literal, physical sense of the position of objects in relation to each other, is subordinate to a feeling of closeness or distance. An affective quality, the possibility to be changed by a person, an object, or an idea. That physical and affective proximity do not necessarily coincide becomes clear when looking at human relationships in which one can feel close to a loved one who is not physically present, or, when the more unfortunate opposite is the case. This is all pretty much common sense. It gets complicated when thinking about where exactly to situate the thing we call art. Or, maybe better: the thing I call art, as I do not feel I am in a position to make any claims about where art is in general. I can point at instantiations of art: a work, an exhibition. And I can identify places for art: a gallery space, a studio, and so forth. Perhaps I could even describe the time of art. I wonder though, does an artwork exist as something waiting for me to encounter it in an appropriate space, thus creating a sense of proximity to art? Or is it the other way around? Does the proximity to the thing in front of me, that others before me may or may not have identified already as a work of art, allow me to perceive it as art? Are closeness and distance the metaphorical indicators of a partly personal affective economy that create and support experiential domains such as art? If this is the case, then, even though common sense physics probably do play a role in feeling close or distant to something, in the end it boils down to one simple line: art is were the heart is.

In my case, perhaps a sense of proximity to art only truly developed when I started understanding the things I did not as having a job, but as building a practice. When I use the word practice I mean a totality of activities, which often display a certain degree of coherence. They are related, perhaps in a sense of these activities being able to befriend each other. There is sympathy between them, a capacity for resonance. For me, having a practice means having a sense of direction through the things I do, feeling a certain agency in determining how it moves forward. Studying art, especially later on, while doing my masters at the Piet Zwart Institute in Rotterdam, helped me in developing the sensibilities needed to understand what the things I worked on could become. For me, affinity with works and practices of others is usually situated in that space of becoming, of things still being able to go either way. Above all, it was through making things myself, that I learned to understand what I find valuable in what others have made.

Having said that, perhaps, in the end, I am actually more of an observer than a maker. This may sound strange, as I produce a lot of physical objects, such as drawings. I cannot imagine not making things. However, I make things, first and above all, to look at them. I place something outside of myself, in order to observe. A simple, single line on a sheet of paper may or may not be enough to do this. It can keep you at a distance or it draws you in, often time and again, inexhaustibly, without fully disclosing the inner workings of this mechanism. A practice that I keep going back to is Silvia Bächli’s. My first encounter with her work was during the 2009 Venice Biennial, where she exhibited in the Swiss pavilion. At the time I appreciated the show, but it also stayed a bit at a distance. I am not sure why exactly this was the case. However, it stuck with me and slowly I came to understand the brilliance of what she does. A painterly line might enter the space of the drawing from above, coming down as it were, before stopping abruptly somewhere in the midst of its flight. It is not clear whence it came and how long it has flown before it arrived here, but it has an immediate effect in how the line captures the movement and how it brings this process of appearing to the front. It makes the line materialise as on a stage, a presence in the shared space where I happen to be as well, just by coincidence. On the sheet of paper, the line might meet another line, or even several others. Usually they connect, while remaining recognisably separate. They are together, but never fully join, and remain a multiplicity. Together they form a shape, but not as outlines of a concrete object. Rather, the shape is maybe a fragment, an edge of something of which we do not get an overview. I could not describe this in any other way than being in proximity to something I can sense but do not know yet – and maybe never will.

For me, this not being able to get an overview is an interesting place to be, and it gives an urgency to quite a formal approach to image making, which I find extremely inspiring. The image opens a space where positions are partial and temporary, as are the relations they engender. It reminds me of the possibility of starting from a desire for intimacy, rather than an assumed existence of an Archimedean point, the position from which a totality can be perceived. By saying this I do not wish to plea for abolishing distance. As I already described above, I believe there is always some distance involved in making and observing things. Proximity in an absolute sense means a thing is literally part of you. I make something, because only then can I reflect on what an idea actually means once it’s out there, in the world. On a more practical note, it might be good, sometimes, to take a bit of distance from things you prefer not to be affected by. I am aware of the fact that some of the concepts I use are very general, especially ‘affection’. The constraints of this short, personal reflection on proximity do not allow me the space needed for a more theoretical exploration of the things I bring up. However, I feel I can justify my lack of rigour by thinking that maybe for now a sketch of this space where are ideas that are not fully crystallised yet is sometimes enough to create the possibility for resonance with other ideas, things, persons.

Sjoerd Westbroek

Sjoerd Westbroek (1979, Rhenen NL) is a visual artist who lives and works in Rotterdam, where he is also a lecturer at the Willem de Kooning Academy and Piet Zwart Institute.

Caption image:

Kitchen Painting, 2018, acrylic and ink on viscose, 110×78cm