Room, Constructed to Provide Persistent Absence

Toronto, January 29, 2002

ML: In the room you reconstructed in Toronto, I was struck mainly by the inhabitant's almost frighteningly clinical absence.
MM: Yes, I wanted to create a room through which the viewer could walk without really being present in it - as if the room could only be viewed from a distance, like in a shop window. Everything in this room points to the presence of an inhabitant, but at the same time, it feels like only absence can exist in the room.

So there's always a 'double' absence in this room. A void is created and constantly fed.
This room consists of words that have been converted into distant objects into which the inhabitant has receded. All the works in this room have been created to evoke an image of this inhabitant, and all the works are subdued; but a kind of hysterical thought pattern continuously resurfaces in the immurement of the room.
The iron chair, for example, was created through a combination of design processes employed during the last century, but these processes have been pushed so far and amassed to such a degree that the resulting chair consists purely of formal ideas with hardly any physical connection. The inhabitant is imprisoned in each element of the room and is freed again only when a visitor reads the objects. When the room was finished, I undressed, took out my lenses, and wedged the bundle of clothes - including my shoes and lenses - between the chair and the bed.

I'm continually struck by how closely you and the constructed person Mark Manders are interwoven.
Naturally, this room ultimately consists of my own solidified ideas, just like the human world. The streets of Toronto are also made up of jointly solidified ideas. Look how that street post stands beside that sign. This room was created exactly in the same way as that street, the only difference being that we can only view the room from the outside because it's a work of art. So the room and the street are similar in that they are both thought-out constructions that have undergone an evolutionary process. Except that the street doesn't inspire most people with fear or astonishment, since we have become completely familiar with the complex, and actually absurd, idea of the street. Another difference is that streets throughout the world have come about in accordance with practically the same laws. The street is an amalgamation that has evolved from an infinite number of ideas and decisions made and implemented by countless individuals over many generations. The rooms in my self-portrait are based on the world around me but have been assembled in such a way as to evoke the interior world of an individual.

Can you talk a little bit about the pen that hangs above the hole in the figure lying on the bed?
First of all, the figure has been reduced to a body that one could hardly imagine capable of movement. The body has no arms and is completely at the mercy of its surroundings. The body has the same texture as the mattress and seems almost submerged in the bed. On the side is an iron construction that has been affixed to the body with small straps. A ballpoint pen hangs from this iron construction above the opening in this horizontal figure. The powerlessness exhibited by the figure and the position of the pen seem to arouse a permanent state of mutual desire. Between the nib of the pen and the opening in the figure is a focal point that stretches out in time toward an endless moment. This focal point seems to want to bring the figure to life but at the same time, actually emphasizes the dead, non-narrative aspect of the object even more.

The hysteria that lies imprisoned like a seething thought pattern in the silent objects of the room can also be found in Drawing with Vanishing Point.
This drawing is a projection in which thought processes can be read. By thought processes, I mean, in simple terms: I put my pencil to the paper, make a curve to the right, and then take my pencil away. After completing the first aspect of this drawing, I converted it into a perspective drawing in which each clearly defined mental decision returns to a vanishing point by way of a line of perspective. Because of the vanishing point in this drawing, it seems as if this image is projected from this point. The representation of a horse balancing on four balls is found in a landscape composed merely of scratches. It seems to be projected from the paper. I think it's interesting that the decisions you make in your brain have immediate repercussions on paper in the form of lines and scratches that, together, form a staggeringly precise construction. This drawing seems to me to portray the essence of consciousness in a complex way. The drawing actually consists of a vanishing point and a point of projection - a splendid contrast from which a particular reality springs open which hangs in front of the drawing. Because we can read these lines as a comprehensible depiction, the drawing is made visible to us. The fact that the image which emerges is that of a wild horse caught at a fleeting moment of balance immediately makes clear to me the relationship with the working of the conscious mind. I also relate this piece to Wednesday Box, which also clearly presents an act: the laying of an object in a cardboard box. The object that has been laid in the box is a cross between a thing and a body. I tried to create an extremely simplified body which shared very few points of reference with the human body but which does have one anatomically correct detail - namely, the hip bone. I tried to infuse the body with a kind of 'subcutaneous tension'. I imagined that it was a continuously falling figure, a falling body without arms. I think it's beautiful how the viewer's own body relates to the body in the box; you become extremely aware of your own size. It seems like a kind of landscape to me, actually. The sculpture as a whole has a disturbing quality. I think it's important how your own body relates to an object. The piece with the tea bags is enormously effective physically by its placement. At a certain point, I had an overwhelming urge to say something beautiful; in a frenzy, I ran to the supermarket and bought about ten packs of tea. Then I worked for a long time on an arrangement of tea bags, which finally seemed to say something. It most resembles a 'languageless' word, but an emotion still speaks from it. I know beyond a doubt that this is absolutely the best possible arrangement of five tea bags.

How does this work relate to Parallel Occurrence, which was placed next to it at the exhibition in Toronto?
They both have a common connection to language. Both pieces have been constructed as a kind of word or phrase. In Parallel Occurrence, a series of objects concludes with an envelope that has been attached to a hanging fox. The piece as a whole makes me think of moving from one house to another. I used three newspapers to protect the table from the iron chain that was used to hang the fox up. In contrast to the tea bags that I bought in the supermarket, I discovered that if I was going to use newspapers in my work, I would have to make them myself. Ultimately, two of these newspapers became widely circulating, freely distributed local papers. These are blind newspapers in which only the number 'five' has been printed. (pp. 100, 104)

You combine everyday objects so naturally with the objects you make yourself and you treat both kinds of objects equally. It's strange that these everyday objects, like the tea bags and the packs of sugar, seem to take on a totally different exterior in your work. They acquire a new value, one that their manufacturers could hardly have anticipated. Seeing these objects again in the supermarket is also strange; they seem appropriated by your work.
I'm still keen on appropriating a number of other objects, but it's very difficult getting things into my building. Naturally, I want to incorporate as many things as possible from the world in my building.

Of course you've added many objects to the rooms that house the enormous collection of fives. It's clear to me now how the tea bags came to be in your building, but why did you decide to include a pack of sugar?
That's a fairly complicated story and has to do with the making of the book Coloured Room with Black and White Scene (p. 106) that I completed in 1999. I wanted to create a book, and I started by putting a selection of about seventy English words that rather interested me in alphabetical order. I then tried to make as many phrases as I could with these words. In the book, these phrases are presented like horizons on the page. Sometimes, they're literally landscapes, sometimes small, cinematic focal points like 'Falling Earring' - a frozen moment in language - around which many possible cinematic images swarm. I worked out one of the phrases in this book by means of a series of photographs: Coloured Room with Black and White Scene. Actually, though, it was relatively arbitrary that I worked out this particular phrase in this way; theoretically, I could have done it with other phrases or words. Actually, I ended up composing several phrases; one of these was '82% Reduction of an Action that Probably Never Took Place Before'. For years, I had wanted to let an event happen at a reduced size, and it's nicer to choose an event that has never happened before in the world. I first considered letting an accident happen at 82%, an accident with reduced objects, but then I decided that it would be better to reduce a thought process. I decided to place two things together, and I looked for two objects that are often in close proximity to each other but have never before been brought together anywhere in the world. The union of these two objects also had to be beautiful when it finally occurred. I ended up reducing an LP and a pack of sugar to 82% and then placed them together. That's how the pack of sugar came to be in my building. I think it's beautiful that the packaging is in between the grooves of the LP and the sugar. Sugar is made up of tiny, chunky diamonds. I wonder what sound actually sounds like after it's been reduced to 82%. And there's a difference between reducing a record with music by Bach or something by Stockhausen. Later, I composed the phrase 'Reduced Night Scene with Broken Moment' with these criteria. I decided to have an event take place in a landscape - actually, in a detail of a nocturnal landscape. I sawed off one-fifth of a reduced LP, and I raised the record a bit, laying it horizontally in the landscape a little less than half an inch from the sandy bottom. I then let the sugar fall along the edge of the sawed-off record. Because the moment that the sugar falls is broken, you actually get two kinds of sugar: the sugar that falls on to the grooves of the LP and the sugar that falls on to the landscape and almost merges with the grains of sand. Neither kind produces any sound, and everything has been reduced to 82%.

The series of photographs entitled Coloured Room with Black and White Scene from the book of the same name consists of a room filled with an unbelievable amount of things. Later, you created another version of the phrase 'Coloured Room with Black and White Scene', though, didn't you?
Yes, I was interested in recomposing the same phrase in a totally different way. In the second version of this phrase, a subdued quality is prevalent. Of course, the black and white still life which is composed partly of chicken broth and which has been converted to the precise shades of gray - just like in a real black and white photograph - is the focal point of this room. I think it's good that this room continues to exist in reality, while the other lives on only as a photograph. Additionally, this room contains a figure lying flat; I combined as many stylistic characteristics as I could from as many cultures as possible - for example, Greek, Etruscan, Egyptian, African, Asian - to form a logical body. I then stuck several objects under one of the arms of the body, which slightly raises the arm. It seems to confirm the lifelessness of the image; at the same time, though, the movement of the arm actually seems to instill the figure with life. Beside this body lies a lump of clay, of the same material, which has been aggressively clenched by a hand.

Should the floorplan Inhabited for a Survey (p. 26) also be seen as a kind of body?
Yes, perhaps so. I made this floorplan in 1986 from all the writing materials I had at that time. These served as the basis for a written self-portrait, which was formed collectively by seven people in a building. It was to be a book without a beginning or an end that I would always have to continue working on. I thought it was interesting that it was a dry, formal floorplan, in which no movement whatsoever could be observed. I wanted to project a mental self-portrait on to this, where everything would take place only in language. But I became more and more fascinated by the physical manifestation of the floorplan: how I stood there before it as a human being; how tall I was in relation to the things on the ground; how the changing light transformed a ballpoint pen so dramatically; that I could come closer to an eraser with my eye and what happened then inside my head. This zooming in created a breathtaking cinematic experience: I could move over these objects, and they would dictate my thoughts with their colour, language, form, and their indescribable, physical, mutual coherence. Finally, I concluded that making a self-portrait in language wasn't the right thing to do. The world itself is more complex than the world of language, which has been embedded in the world. I decided to write the book not with words but with objects and to embed the self-portrait in reality like an imaginary building.

One of the things that later came to occupy this self-portrait was the piece Fox / Mouse / Belt. Can you tell us how you came to create this sculpture?
I made it in 1992; actually, this work originated from a series of three separate words. The word 'fox' consists of a jumping fox that I froze in the middle of a leap. I caught it at a moment in time. I then fastened a mouse, which, generally speaking, could disappear into the stomach of the fox a bit later, to the fox's stomach with my belt. With a simple gesture, I took this 'unit', which took place in mid-air, and set it down on the ground, whereby the sculpture sank even deeper into motionlessness. Consequently, the moment seems to occur in a continuous present or outside of time. The stylization creates an unbelievable standstill without a 'before' or 'after'. During this period, I was also fascinated by the fact that living creatures can disappear into other creatures as food, sometimes even when they're still alive. At the same time, I wanted to create a sculpture in which a human act could be clearly distinguished. I wanted to commit a kind of double murder, in which a love of some sort surfaced. I ended up painting the sculpture to look like it was made of wet clay. For this reason, it exhibits an extreme, vulnerable nakedness, and it seems as if you could just press your fingers into it at any time. This is the only future moment that the sculpture seems to capture.

This sculpture looks like it was made of wet clay. How important is the material and the use of that material to you in each of your pieces?
In the case of figurative sculpture, like this piece, clay is simply the most basic and natural material to use. I wanted the spectator to stand before a work that looked like it had just been made, the exterior of which was of wet clay. It's of no importance whatsoever that I first had to fire the sculpture in a kiln, then cast it in bronze, and finally paint it to look like wet clay. I don't want to use my material symbolicly but in a more actual and direct way. I don't want to say: 'This material stands for this or that meaning or for this or that personal interpretation of the meaning of the material' because that creates an annoying and evasive illustrative rebus that requires too big a detour around language. I prefer to use reality and its rich infinite vocabulary.