Amsterdam, Apr. 2012 - I've liked Guido van der Werve's work since I saw his solo show at Galerie Juliette Jongma, Emotional Poverty (you can read the article here). I might have caught a glimpse of one of his videos before, but that was the first time I had the chance to actually delve into his poetics, to get a feel of how personal and yet simply engaging his art is. He works mainly between Amsterdam and Finland, even though (as we were exchanging e-mails for this interview) he travels to other remote corners of the world as well, often to undertake hopeless or excruciating endeavors -- like climbing the Argentinean Mount Aconcagua, or running a marathon only to deliver a bouquet of flowers at some Russian guy's grave. Despite the fact that the titles he picks for his pieces may sound tongue-in-cheek at times, Van der Werve seems to have an obstinate seriousness, grounded as far from the concept of “pop” as you can get: solitary physical exercise, Russian literature, classical music, the game of chess. All things that make culture a character-building, long-term reward, as opposed to the compulsively ironic trend that is dominant nowadays. But before you start picturing Van der Werve simply as a self-flagellating martyr to the cause of high art, which is really not the case, read what he had to say below and find out what he's about.
Guido van der Werve, Nummer Twaalf, 40’00”, 4k video, Marshall Chess Club, Mt St Helens & San Andreas Fault USA, 2009; Image by Willem van der Jagt.
Nicola Bozzi: Sometimes your work deals with force of will, the necessity to do things regardless of personal convenience or pleasure (as titles like "I don't want to want to get involved in this" or "Just because I'm standing here, doesn't mean I want to" suggest). How would you explain that?
Guido van der Werve: I think I naturally have an aversion to do basically anything. Some kind of threshold fear that wants to limit me from any kind of task in any range (from going out to the supermarket to doing an ironman triathlon). I always hated this part of my personality and decided to fight it. In that sense my life is kind of sadomasochistic; I only feel good after having done or achieved something. I never really seem to enjoy doing anything in the moment though.
NB: In your solo show at Juliette Jongma, both physical exercise and depression are recurring themes. How much do you think the two things are connected?
GvdW: I think running is a great way to help your mind fight its demons, at least temporarily. Running and sports in general help me clear my mind and stay focused. I'm shooting a film at the moment and on my day off I ran the Rotterdam Marathon. It was great to shake all the stress anxiety and fear off. Fastest marathon I ran so far (maybe because of that) in 3.03.59.
NB: In "Everything is going to be alright" you walk in front of an ice-breaker, in "The day I didn't turn with the world" you are also in a vast, empty, and unwelcoming environment. Is the presence of nature a reference to death and man's daily challenge to overcome it (in a Werner Herzog kind of way) or, in the case of jogging, is it also a way to win fear and, even, relax?
Guido van der Werve, Nummer negen, The day I didn’t turn with the world, video, 8’40”, time-lapse photography to HD video, Geographic Northpole, 2007; Image by Ben Geraerts.
GvdW: I don't really use landscapes to add this kind of meaning to my work. I like landscapes and I like to use them. I usually film a lot of the sky also. In a lot of works the landscapes are also just part of the idea of the film; if you want to walk in front of an icebreaker you have to go to an ice sea and if you want to not turn with the world for one day you have to go to the north pole. I also like to use the places I live, in Finland or Amsterdam. I usually picture myself quite small, to depersonalize myself. I like to provide my audience with an experience in which they can picture themselves.
NB: Given the performative nature of your work, your personal involvement is strong. Still, through cultural references and the language of video art, you stretch out to the viewer, creating a narration he or she can understand and appreciate (e.g. your pilgrimage to Rachmaninov's grave). How important is it for you to connect with the viewer and how do you try and achieve such connection?
GvdW: When I was young I had a lot of heroes, mostly in music and literature. They gave me a lot of strength and I think that if my work as an artist makes any sense, I have to try to be that person for other people. Also, coming from music, the intuitive and direct connection that people have to it is very dear to me. I try to do the same thing in art, by trying to abstract my own ideas and feelings until only a certain mood is left. I think a mood is key to offering an open experience and in this case the work only exists between the viewer and the work. Everybody has their own connection to the work and the work hopefully means something different to everybody that watches is. I think it's great if I, as a creator, become completely irrelevant.
I think this is also the reason why works have to be open. There has to be space for personal interpretations, misunderstandings, and gut feelings.
I think there's way too much emphasis on the verbal in contemporary art, and the verbal is often confused with rational. Words are great, but they can only go so far; a good translator is only expected to keep around 60% of the original content of the book. Imagine how little is left of the original artistic idea if you allow yourself to think about the artwork only verbally, from a very early point.
NB: In "Nummer Elf" you face a mind challenge by playing against chess grandmaster Leonid Yudasin. Is the mission impossible of beating a grandmaster a little like climbing a mountain or running a marathon? What role does strategy play in your art?
GvdW: Well I didn't really play against him, he just helped me create the game for the film. Or he actually created the game for the film, by some parameters I gave him. I like the game of chess but it would take way too much time to specialize in it. I have too many hobbies already! The grand master gave me a great quote once: “The game of chess is too complicated for a Grandmaster to learn all strategies and possible outcomes with his logical, rational mind. Instead, what they do is that they train their aesthetic sensibility, they look for what feels and looks 'right' to them. This part of the brain copes with those complex and quite mathematical chess problems much better than the rational part, in the Grandmasters’ experience.”
Guido van der Werve, Nummer twee – Just because I’m standing here doesn’t mean I want to. Video 03’08”, 35mm, Papendrecht NL, 2003; Image by Ben Geraerts.
NB: You use video a lot, not only to record your performances, but also to build cinematic narrations. What is it that you like about this medium?
GvdW: I have a lot of different interests and things that I like to do and like to add to my work. I never wanted to become a filmmaker, but film is just the medium where I can combine all my interests and skills. It's a very rich medium because, of course, it has sound and image, but you can also add text, cinematic elements, performance registrations etc. It's the contemporary version of the Gesamtkunstwerk.
NB: Your works sometimes involve an automatic, prolonged, or repeated gesture for you to execute. Such self-imposed constraints remind me of artists like Bruce Nauman, for example. What are your main influences or, if you will, your favorite artists?
GvdW: My brother and father are both painters, but I always preferred other modes of expression. I don't really have a favorite artist and there's no one I admire that much in art. I like some artists though, Roman Signer to name one. For duration I think sport is more interesting and I enjoy watching triathletes such as Chrissie Wellington, Chris McCormack and Andreas Raelert for that matter. My heroes would be Chopin, Alexander the Great, Bobby Fischer, Venedikit Yerofeev, Daniel Johnston, João Maria Pires, and many more.
ArtSlant would like to thank Guido van der Werve for his assistance in making this interview possible.