eikel.jpgWorks of art in public space as memory stones.

 

                photographs of the mentioned works of art can be found at http://www.bkor.nl/


My father was entombed on a sunny day in autumn. He had become an old man and his death redeemed him from hellish pains. But I am putting you on the wrong foot: it is not my intention to tire you with reflections about my father. I am going to assert something about artworks and their relation to a small act I performed after someone had said applicable things about the diseased, the coffin had been lowered in the deep and there was not much more to do than going home. I stooped and picked up a little object.

 

In most homes wanders a shell or pebble somewhere. It dwells seemingly heedless on a windowsill or half hidden behind a vase on the mantelpiece. Or just in some drawer. Those objects are called memory stones. Usually they represent a pleasant event: a beach walk with a loved one, or a successful holiday.

 

The inclination to take something along and link it to a memory is so widespread that I imagine it is an aboriginal quality. Maybe it stems from the times our distant ancestors dared themselves on the plains and made a fixed habit of walking upright. On their wanderings they carried a stone artefact or a thorny branch to defend themselves against predators. But it could have been an object that was not of direct utility. An oddly formed piece of wood from a place where they had felt save, or found cool drinking water. A mussel or small bone left over from a meal that caused a pleasant sense of saturation to a usually hungry stomach. Thousands of years later someone cut an image of his prey in the bone with a flint shard, to keep the memory vivid, or maybe to better share the experience. Visual art is not an issue yet; it is still about projecting impressions on existing objects.

 

In my case it was an acorn. Like I told you, it was autumn and the ground was covered with acorns. I could have taken the one next to it, but it was this specific acorn that ended on my desk. Anyone who saw it in my pencil box could have guessed that emotions were linked to this randomly chosen object. But one could not know that it represented grieve and resignation after a final farewell. After all, those feelings are not in the object itself, but in my brains. This tiny thing outside my head makes dormant memories reach consciousness again. Every time it catches my attention it inflicts sensations that took place in the past. I see the marks of hurriedly removed vines on the gravestone. I smell mushrooms and hear grinding footsteps on gravel. I also make up events. I fantasise that the crooked oak tree that disrupted the whole family tomb was planted years before the Russian revolution. In the time that some members of the family reckoned themselves to be part of the better-situated bourgeoisie and a distant great uncle decided to manifest that by purchasing a modest burial cellar. Next to kings and artists he too longed for a little bit of immortality. The tomb had not been re-opened for almost a century when it also became my father's last resting place.

 

In the course of time the acorn burst and dried out. It must have crossed my eyes hundreds of times before I abruptly realised that works of art too are a kind of collective and sublimated memory stones. We assume that the emotion caused by a piece of art is the same that anyone else experiences with that particular work and it gives us a feeling of solidarity. With the sculptures installed in Rotterdam in the decades after the Second World War these emotions were importunately guided; they should be war memorials. Promptly action groups lobbied for specific heroes and victims: the resistance fighters, or the soldiers who died defending the bridges over the Maas, or the people who were deported to concentration camps. Yet the most beautiful monuments represent the horrors of war in a more general manner (Ossip Zadkine: City without a heart), or the tension between the misery of the war and the wish to go on with your life. (Mari Andriessens memorial on Stadhuisplein)

This guiding of emotions already indicates that with a collective memory stone more complex affairs are at stake. In the case of my acorn there was a simple interaction: I project emotions of an exceptional day on an object and each time I look at it, I am reminded of that day. Even when those memories will lead a life of their own and hardly resemble what really happened, they are my feelings that are recalled by watching that object and nobody else influences them.

 

When an artist creates a work - whether or not commissioned - his or her emotions are put in it. The way it will be expressed is influenced by the concepts about art at the time of creation and whether the artist confirms those ideas or chooses to deviate. Conveying a certain emotion or notion will be the main goal but the work also needs to be well constructed. Zadkine's representation of a man has two legs, but a ‘tree trunk' had to be added for stability. Ossip managed to turn the necessity into an advantage. It gave the sculpture even more spatiality and swiftness. But the trunk still does not fit in completely.

 

Not until after the artist has considered and solved all the problems he or she is confronted with and the artwork is completed, the spectator will be presented with it. And then something remarkable happens: we do not get served a ready-made emotion. We have to do it ourselves. Fair chance that our interpretation is not what the artist meant it to be. In the case of an abstract sculpture the freedom we have is bigger than with a statue with a clear title. The emotions we get by attentive observation of an artwork are never isolated, they are related to former experiences and those are different for each person. The unsuspecting passer-by will see the sculpture in a different way than the one who knows more about it.

 

Once the artwork is placed at its intended location, there will always be people who are offended by it and demand it will be removed. But after some time habituation becomes attachment and the work becomes a depot of thoughts and associations. Some art works clearly invite us to do so, for instance Jeff Wall's Lost Luggage Depot with all those rusty suitcases and bags at Wilhelminapier. We accept that we all turn it into our personal memory stone and it gives us a good feeling that the work is our common ownership. We also get attached to the space where the artwork is situated.

 

Some of the memory stones have become roaming boulders. The painting by Mathieu Ficheroux, a portrait of Multatuli with his beautiful remark "seen from the moon we all are the same size" went around the block. Monsieur Jacques (Oswald Wenckebach) had the privilege of observing many construction sites. Rodin's "L'homme qui marche" kind of walked all over the city centre and I am still a little shocked when I do not see Picasso's concrete portrait of a girl near the former Bouwcentrum, although I know it has a better spot now next to Boijmans Museum. And some day Gnome Buttplug by Paul McCarthy will sure end up and the Doelenplein where it was meant to be originally. When I walk along the Westersingel and pass the cubistic sculpture by Umberto Mastroianni (indeed, the uncle of Marcello) I am automatically reminded of the former hall of the Central Station when it was not yet littered with more useful things like ticket machines and stands with souvenirs. The work was called "Gli Amanti - The Lovers" but a councillor at that time thought it too immoral and changed the name in "Het Afscheid - The Farewell" Talking about directing emotions. He had better called it "De Ontmoeting - The Meeting" because many lovers including myself have dated there.

 

I promised not to tire you with memories of my father, but now I would like to mention that he was a biologist. He often indicated that qualities get lost when they do not have an evolutionary advantage. Usually physical attributes were indicated like the tails of apes or the surplus toes of horses. Talking about inheritable behaviour or hereditary character traits was taboo in the second half of the last century and even if it was talked about, it was called ‘instinct' something that preferably would not occur with humans. That characters can be manipulated by breeding is especially evident by dogs. With wild wolves the overly affectionate behaviour of golden retrievers or the undue aggression of pit bulls against their own kind would quickly be selected out because it impedes the functioning of the individual within the group, and so its chance for offspring.

 

The argument that behavioural characteristics should be inheritable when they commonly occur - this contrary to cultural conduct - induced to me a dilemma. Because what kind of evolutionary use does the desire have that occurs in all cultures for matters that rise above the daily struggle for life? Even when you believe in intelligent design you cannot explain why people spend so inconceivably much time on seemingly useless acts. Among other things enjoying or creating art.

 

Let us please never make art useful. Works of art may be justified economically and be traded like a refrigerator or a holyday trip. But let us please not believe that the aim of visual art is to stimulate the economy. Works of art - and that certainly applies to sculptures in public space - can have a social, religious and even political function, but let us please not believe that it is the justification of their presence. Art may give a certain space in town more distinction or probably some rest in an otherwise hectic life. Okay. But is that all an artwork is allowed to induce?

 

Most of all I would like to believe that works of art are sublime memory stones. Representations of not too sharply defined emotions. Of artists and you and me. When at the moment I observe it, it will be my personal memory stone. Most of all I love sculptures that are not instantly advertising their presence. I look at them because they are there and not because they are screaming for attention. Four small living trees raise Giuseppe Penone's enormous bronze beech trunk at the Westersingel, and the work is so naturally fused with its surroundings that its modesty makes it impressive. And time plays such a beautiful role in it. Every season and every year the work will look different.

 

I would like to mention examples of works of less famous artists at less prominent places in the city, but there is a fair chance you would not know what I am talking about. Together with buildings that have a special emanation the artworks form a network of memory stones which makes the city precious in its totality. Your mental map of Rotterdam and the affection you feel is not the same feeling the city evokes with me, but it has a resemblance, and that creates a bond. Therefore I would like to mention one more sculpture that few people know but still is in the centre of town. The nice thing about it is that it does not consist of solid matter. In the water of the Westersingel bubbles of air pop up regularly and together they form the text: "no matter, try again, fail again, fail better" (Job Koelewijn) I cannot imagine a more beautiful motto for experiencing art in the city.


 Marcelle van Bemmel under the pseudonym Pauline Valentin: an essay on the occasion of the Hans Baaij prize 2006