Stijn Van Dorpe

Life in Proximity to the Arts – A Collage of Thoughts


I am sitting in the movie theatre watching Red Psalm, a movie by Miklos Jancso that I had picked out almost randomly from the Ghent Film Fest program. With only 26 long shots of complex and strongly stylized choreographies, Miklos Jancso portrays a phase of socialist history. The film shows the birth of the Agricultural Workers’ Association at the end of the nineteenth century, the period of the ‘First International’ and the bloody recession that followed. The film is an ode to the revolution, to a collective awareness of the necessity for organized resistance. It does not leave me unmoved.

While I am watching the movie, I am well aware of the setting; 1/ there is the dark space and the seats all turned in the direction of a bundle of projected light 2/ there is the film with a static structure of ordered images and texts that clearly propagate values that today have almost completely lost significance. The film could be read as a reversed Hollywood movie as it strongly appeals to emotions, yet aims to arouse sentiments that challenge the status quo rather than affirm normative ideals 3/ there’s the audience sitting around me. I cannot look into their heads, I do not know how they perceive the film. I ask myself which political parties they voted for in the municipal elections a few days earlier. How many of them voted for the radical left?

“Life in proximity to the Arts”
A collage of thoughts

I was walking in Rotterdam at the Dordtselaan when a window of a modest row house attracted my attention. A vase with a bouquet of only white flowers was flanked by a white crochet curtain and framed by a white window. The decoration was not particularly different from the decorations of the other houses, but it was the whiteness of this homely spectacle that let my thoughts wander off to something I had experienced some weeks earlier. It was in another city, this time in Frankfurt, that I had visited the ‘Museum für Moderne Kunst’ and had seen a vase of fresh white flowers that was on display in one of the white, clear and spacious museum rooms. Bouquet IX was one of the works in the extensive solo-exhibition of the Dutch artist Willem de Rooij. I had found out that Bouquet IX was a temporary sculpture based on a brief description and a list of all the flowers of which the bouquet should consist. The work has to be re-fabricated with flowers from local flower shops every time when it is exhibited; the work thus only exists when it is on display. Crucial in the work of Willem de Rooij is the museum or gallery as a very specific cultural space. It is precisely the absence of that space that prevents that the domestic window display that I witnessed in Rotterdam turns into an artwork. We of course already know this since the work ‘Fountain’, an urinal with the inscription ‘R.Mutt 1917’ attributed to Marcel Duchamp (who claimed to be the author); but that with increasing certainty has to be attributed to Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. Outside the museum the urinal is nothing more than an anonymous sanitary object. Artists today tend to be indeed very aware of the magic power of the museum or gallery-space. They often intuitively count on it or make use of it more consciously when they bring in everyday objects, movements or ideas. But the power of these preset art spaces (in the broader sense of mental and institutional art space) tend to be also easily underestimated when propositions of artists (art pieces) are exposed to full life, its dwellers and course of events.

In the early nineties in Oudenaarde, the small provincial town where I grew up, Jan Hoet, the former celebrated Belgian art curator/patron, had recommended the local service club that wanted to place an art piece in the town centre to opt for a sculpture by the Belgian artist Johan Tahon. The sculpture can be described as a standing anthropomorphic figure with two slightly spread legs, a torso without arms and a distorted animal-like head from which two diverging bars depart. The art piece clearly presents itself as a (almost classical) sculpture, a human/animal/alien-like figure made out of bronze, yet it was contested by many of the local people. They only designated it as ‘art’ in an ironical way and condescendingly called it ‘Piet snot’ (which one could translate as ‘Snivelling Pete’, as if the two bars are snot ropes coming out the figure’s head). In Flemish ‘Piet snot’ is also used in an expression to designate a situation in which someone feels or is described as useless or meaningless. Some will argue that the mild upheaval that had been created in the town by the statue’s presence is already most valuable, because at least people have been talking about the sculpture. However, I would argue that causing a stir is not enough in itself. Isn’t there a lack of space to meet and relate to the artist’s initial intentions or get access to the sculptural and plastic, aesthetic language of the work? Many public artworks fail to add new views and values on life or to awaken unknown sensibilities in public space. Especially if they are vanguards, they are often too weak or too vulnerable to be exposed in full life. They get overruled by dominant values and accompanying opinions and, in the end, they only seem to get used to confirm the status quo.

Jacques Rancière repeatedly points to the importance of the museum (or the art space in general), the (movie) theatre, the book etc. as spaces of separation, where distance can be taken. He argues that the ability to take a critical distance leads to the emancipating and political effectiveness of art. “[A] revolutionary worker´s body “, he even writes, “is not shaped by revolutionary paintings” (the revolutionary message of an artwork) “but rather by the possibility to see art in the neutral space of the museum…”1. The argument behind this is the importance of allowing the creation of opportunities to separate the body and mind from forms of life to which one is bound by norms, from standards that appear as natural rather than as cultural conditions. It is very challenging to see how Rancière connects the emancipation of the working-class to the (often perceived as elitist) idea of the museum. In his early research (‘La nuit des prolétaires,’ 1981), he reflects on the nineteenth century workers’ spare time cultural and political production and activities. Later, Rancière keeps on using the figure of the nineteenth century worker to elaborate his emancipatory project. He is interested in the moment upon which the worker disrupts the framework (or the place) in which he is defined (embodied) or defines (embodies) himself, to find new passions that don’t fit his situation, to create a body that is destined for something else than domination. These alterations in the framing of bodies are caused, according to Rancière, by different ways of looking. Different ways of looking lead to a separate, emancipated existence that can be compared with the separate existence of art pieces in a museum. In a museum the representations are disconnected from a specific destination. Sacral objects or aristocratic paintings, once shown in the museum, are no longer embedded in their religious or royal origin and no longer confined to a prescribed way of seeing them. Because these representations are moved to the ‘neutral’ space of the museum and exposed to the same ‘indifferent’ gaze, the museum is a place where mainstream forms of life can be challenged. Rancière calls this process and ability of the museum, which refers not only to a specific type of building but also to a form of apportioning the common space and a specific mode of visibility, its aesthetic distance or aesthetic separation.

Different than in all other museums—which can according to Boris Groys rather be conceived as graveyards of things, things showed in the modern art museum get, in their separated existence, a new life as an artwork2. This dynamic can be understood from the work and democratic ambitions of the historical avant-garde. Many of these artists turned against the 19th century museum and the values that were reproduced there and, on the contrary, wanted to shape a democratic art that had to become part of full life. A good example of this is the black square of Malevich. The black painted square floating against a white background can be understood as a frame that stands for the essential and basic qualities and characteristics of a painting and thus can include all possible paintings and imaginaries. Through this reduced form, Malevich tried to save the art of painting itself by breaking with its aristocratic ideological background and smuggled it along the constant changes of cultural trends into the new communist society. Nevertheless, it still needed the separate space of the museum to simply be seen. The plain, basic signs produced by the avant-garde were and still are invisible in full/daily life because their appearance is too reduced and therefore too feeble. The modern museum with the white cube as prototype can even be seen as the heir of the avant-garde’s democratic dream, albeit a dream that is only realized very partially. The modern and contemporary museum can indeed be read as the empty place (in contrast to the aristocratic museum) that explains life as the space of pure imagination, where things shown in it start a new life as an art piece.

In his bundled essays ‘The Logic of the Collection‘, Boris Groys describes the dynamic of the modern and contemporary museum and the art apparatus in general, as an effective place where subjectivity is produced. By the subjectivity of their creator, artworks show, again and again, deviations from what is already in the collection of the museum3. New art pieces distinguish themselves as forms of individuality from other art pieces that are already made and that as such are acknowledged by the art institute. Yet Boris Groys does not situate the true political character of the art apparatus in these individual deviant expressions, but in the logic of collecting these forms of subjectivity and in the social spaces that are built around them. He does not seem to be concerned with what is shown, but with the fact that different, shifting art positions are brought into the art space and are shown there. ‘When ascetic or conceptual art is shown in large numbers, one pursues a different path to a bright, expressionist painting, etcetera‘4. For Groys, it is the collection space itself, the space where we collect and show art that ‘becomes the major object of perception, the true artwork’. He argues that ‘the structuring of this space is executed through the collective work of expansion and transformation of the collection in which artists as well as curators, private collectors, gallerists and critics take part on an equal basis’5. Thus Groys situates the political meaning of art not so much in the artworks themselves, but in the whole mechanism of the collection, in the carrousel of ever new artist positions shown to the world by means of exhibitions. People gathering around these artworks on the openings of exhibitions provide the social space with a format for politics to unfold. Groys turns our attention to the collective operation and nature of the art space. This is a revealing perspective because it makes visible the democratic legacy of the avant-garde. Today this legacy is expressed in a less utopian way than what the avant-garde had in mind, but approaching the art space from its collective focus shapes a perspective that contrasts starkly with the individuality which is often associated with the contemporary art event and which is so inherent to our Western liberal society. It is a perspective that raises interesting questions about the current state, meaning and political effectiveness of the art device. What is it that makes art politically effective? Don’t we have to think as artists, instead of focussing on ever new formal variations of art pieces, on the imagination and creation of new alternative social spaces for the art that allow for a renewed democratic potential?


Recently I was attending a series of lectures at the Beursschouwburg in Brussels organised by Caveat, a collective research project reflecting and acting on the ecology of artistic practice. Ben Kinmont, an American artist who has been working in between the art space and the non-art space, used the word ‘third sculpture’ based on Josef Beuys’ term social sculpture to describe his art-practice. Beuys invented the term social sculpture to embody his understanding of art’s potential to transform society. This sounded very familiar to me because I often tend to use the term ‘third spaces’. The usage of the word sculpture by Beuys and Kinmont however is more related towards a social building principle, while I approach ‘third spaces’ more as spaces to resist. Although its difficult to estimate how accurate, utopian or naive my interpretation of this term is, it can be useful as a tool for my own art practice and for questioning the current democratic scope of the art and the art space in general.

For me ‘third spaces’ arise through relational actions and find their place between people. They are in-between spaces which sojourn in between the institutional art space and other places created by society, and thus attempt to break through the classification of territories which is a manner to decide who can speak about what. I assign them the ability to replace and to widen the perspective on what is and what isn’t seen and heard. Nevertheless ‘third spaces’ are strongly connected to the museum because they render existing places and situations into spaces of showing. But contrary to the institutional ‘neutral’ white cube, which historically hides its ideological framework, intervening through ‘third spaces’ always means launching a consciously ideological process that makes forms of equality tangible and brings them into practice. The politics of creating ‘third spaces’ only in the second place lies in their unique achievements, but mainly shows itself as part of a bigger whole. When we approach ‘third spaces’ as an organic collective of many similar practices that generate alternative social spaces for the art, they can shift the ecology of the art field as a step to shift society.

1 Jacques Rancière, De geëmancipeerde toeschouwer, Octavo publicaties, 2015, p.66
2 Boris Groys, De logica van de verzameling, Octavo, Amsterdam, 2013, p.13
3 Boris Groys, De logica van de verzameling, Octavo, Amsterdam, 2013
4 In ‘de logica van de verzameling’ Groys writes; “wordt er in groten getale ascetische en conceptuele kunst geproduceerd (of getoond), dan slaat men elders de weg in naar een bonte, expressionistische schilderkunst enzovoort”, p.45
5 The Logic of the Collection, Nordisk Museologi 1993, p.86

Stijn Van Dorpe

Stijn Van Dorpe is a Belgian visual artist who infiltrates through different methods of cooperation in realms of urban, social, pedagogical and political contexts – often in places where the word ‘art’ doesn’t necessarily evoke many images or generate lots of resonance. In his work society (as a construction) and art (as an institutional field) are facing each other in a mutual interrogation.