It is disappointing that we seem to observe the world as through a membrane

Arnhem, March 27, 2001

ML: It strikes me that the titles you give your drawings often refer to things that don't attract that much attention at first sight or shed new light on the meaning of what you're portraying.
MM: Yes, the title is often an important part of the drawing, especially because the drawings have been created within a language.

Can you expand on that?
A drawing often begins as a visual image in my head. I then fire words and images on to it at a very rapid pace, which creates all kinds of associations. As soon as poetry is born within this combination, I start to draw it. I use the titles to bring the viewer a little closer to me.

I'm wondering if you always identify physically with the people and animals you portray.
Although I do identify with the drawings, I actually want to be thinking inside the drawing, and I think it's really fascinating that this is possible. After all, drawings are often composed only of a few small gestures on a sheet of paper. All that's left is black powder, which can evoke a special language for the viewer - a language that isn't just made up of words and can touch things that are important in life - all this in a relaxed and free manner.

Do you also treat your spatial work like drawings sometimes, or does a drawing sometimes resurface in that work?
Yes, in the sculpture Reduced Night Scene with One Beautiful Stone (Reduced to 88%), for instance. This is a glass display case that houses a small landscape, actually a small part of a cross-section of a garden. With several things, I made a small arrangement. I then laid a rope on these things like a drawing that had fallen prey to the force of gravity. Afterwards, I recreated this entire scene, reduced it to 88%, and covered it with a thin, black 'night layer'.

So night lies on the objects like a thin membrane...
Yes, and I feel that all the light that falls on this nocturnal scene belongs to me.

You mean the light between this thin night layer and our eyes - actually, all the light around us. That's interesting: an illuminated nocturnal scene that still remains 'night'. Could you tell us something about the title?
The title implies that I thought one of the stones wasn't beautiful. It's strange and fascinating to think that a person can't find a particular stone beautiful or one stone more beautiful than another. Since I reduced everything to 88%, the original garden scene in my garden wasn't lost; instead, it was slowly rained out and swept by the wind. Therefore, this work is a cross between a drawing and a 'true' photograph, but ultimately, it's more about something instinctive, about melancholy, the fading of youth, the Titanic.

But where do drawing and sculpture overlap for you?
In this case, I made a kind of drawing with the rope over the objects, and to me, the way this rope lies on these things has a kind of melancholy similar to that which my drawings sometimes depict. But actually, I think it's apparent from this example that for every work - whether it's a drawing or a sculpture - I create a kind of 'thought structure' that allows me to construct a particular emotion in poetic form.

Why do you want to create sculptures?
Once you've realized on a deep level that there are empty spaces in the human world in which you can show things in their naked form, you just can't let go of that idea anymore. It's magnificent that such a phenomenon has taken shape during our evolution. It's generally accepted that this space exists within, as well as right beside, our world. In this window-like, conjuring space, you can place things or allow them to happen. Art allows us to experience things in their naked form.

Tell us about the first time you experienced this.
I have a simple example; in a way, it's actually quite complex, though. When I was about 19 years old, I lit the back end of a match and then blew it out. The sulphur remained intact. I laid the match down in front of me on the ground and stood up. All of a sudden, there I stood: a human being before a man-made object on display. I could start talking about Duchamp or Donald Judd, who exemplify this idea of nakedness. I feel that, as an artist today with such an enormous world available to me with all its history, I can only really use that empty space as a conjuring space. I no longer have to focus on art per se.

So as an artist, you view your own person as a focal point in which all of history can be united. That's very beautiful. But how do you impart this experience to the spectator?
When I create things, the spectator is not present; I create everything for myself. If I had the public in my head, I would be a designer creating something between the creator and the viewing public, which prohibits the creation of depth. Art is about comparison.

You mean the comparison between two worlds. You actually serve as the first and only gauge for the works you create; consequently, the spectator seems to gain very direct insight into your thoughts and actions. But in reality, it's always the spectator who forms these thoughts. Something still hovers somewhere between the creator and the spectator.
Art takes place in a space that has the power to allow you to experience something in your head in a certain way. Many people also want to look at that thing in such a special way in that empty space. This happened, for example, when I showed a work in a supermarket during Sonsbeek 93. The piece simultaneously occupied a supermarket and the artistic sphere. In these types of spaces, it's interesting to see that two kinds of viewers exist.

Shoppers and art aficionados, you mean. I'd like to talk a bit about one of your latest pieces. In this work, you have placed a broom that has been sawed down through the middle, between which fives have been inserted, in a bare, isolated space. What happens next in the viewer's mind?
I just completed that sculpture two weeks ago, and it was built from ideas that were the logical result of my earlier work. What happens in relation to this work is something I still find quite complex. Outside the context of art, it's an absolutely insane image. It conjures up the idea of a person who has sawed the handle of a broom completely in half lengthwise and has clasped a bunch of fives between the two halves. One of the things clasped between the broomstick - I'm describing the sculpture now - is a newspaper that is made up only of fives. Five green nails have been hammered into the left side of the broom and five red nails into the right side. The maker of the broom has mounted a small group of fives on the largest red nail. Actually, my purpose in creating this sculpture was to make the maker visible.

As well as his successive ideas or actions.
Yes, this sculpture inspires the viewer with an image of the maker. The viewer equates the maker with Mark Manders.

That's true, though, isn't it?
To a certain extent, but for me, the artist Mark Manders is a fictional person. He's a character who lives in a logically designed and constructed world which consists of thoughts that are halted or congeal at their moment of greatest intensity. It's someone who disappears into his actions. He lives in a building that he continually abandons; the building is uninhabited, in fact.

So the inhabitant actually hides in things. Your work isn't about you; it isn't autobiographical?
Yes, that's right. Mark Manders the artist is an over-concentrated, neurotic, poetic person. My work is just as personal or impersonal as Judd's. It's a construction that creates and develops itself. I myself serve that self-portrait. When I decided in 1993 to allow this fictitious Mark Manders to be obsessed with the number five, I also suffered because of it, of course.

Why was it something you wanted then?
I was fascinated by the idea that something outside your body has the power to make you think of something specific. If, for example, there are five sugar cubes outside your body and you see them, your mind forms the number five. It's unbelievably beautiful that our brains work in such a way. I noticed that it seemed like I was looking at the world outside myself through a dull membrane; I perceived only a very small occurrence of the fives consciously in my daily life. I decided in my Self-portrait as a Building to build a transparent closet in which all of the fives I would ever come across from that moment on would end up. I thought it was interesting that, because the world was full of fives, I would no longer be able to control my thoughts. Like a machine gun, the world fired fives at me. It was frightening. But after time, I discovered that the fives exhibited a kind of beautiful coherence; like a chorus of the purest voices, they sang five to me. Sometimes, though, they could also differ beautifully from one another.

It seems to me that your building works the same way. Actually, just like the fives, it's an investigation of and an ode to thinking.
Yes, it's a self-portrait that hangs between the viewer and me. The self-portrait consists of objects that relate to language and time in a complex way - not as simple as a five. They're images that appear clearly in the spectator's mind but are difficult to grasp hold of. The Mark Manders of the building is actually assembled by the viewer; I am not responsible for the image that the viewer has of that Mark Manders. It's an image that says just as much about the spectators themselves.

It's as if the spectators are archeologists who are reconstructing something.
Sometimes my work also has literal connections to archeology, or rather to history. In A Place Where My Thoughts Are Frozen Together, I set out to attach a human femur to a coffee cup. I thought it was interesting how the cup has gradually acquired a handle during its evolutionary process. I ended up giving the femur a small raised bump so that, together, the cup and the bone could hold a sugar cube. It looks like something has grown out from inside the bone in a way comparable to the relatively slow process whereby the handle of the coffee cup evolved. I think it's beautiful how both of them, powerless and armless, hold the sugar cube.

In 1992, you also created a new version of the Venus of Willendorf, didn't you?
Yes, I enlarged the original statuette by 0.02 mm per year. In this age-long growth process, a number of bumps have developed on her stumpy feet - the beginning of several toes. She's also become a bit fatter, and, thanks to the Greeks, she stands upright in a contraposto position in the display case.

How does writing relate to your visual work?
It is a part of it, of course, and it's also something practical. For some works, it's good that they exist only in language, and sometimes sculptures don't seem feasible at first from a practical point of view.

Could you give us an example?
One example of such a image is the night that yearns for space and immediately creeps into your shoe when you take it off in a meadow at night. This type of image seems difficult to translate into a spatial object; that's why it's found its way into my collection of poems. Later, I realized that the night always enters the shoe by the same entrance when you take the shoe off. This has been happening in the same way since the very first shoe was made. But if you glue the shoe completely shut, make a new opening at the toe, and then attach a funnel-like construction to the opening, you've easily created a new entrance for the night.