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Renaming the World: An Interview with Michael Tedja
by Edo Dijksterhuis

Amsterdam, Jan. 2014: Few contemporary artists are as productive and versatile as Michael Tedja. The speed at which he paints and draws is nearly frantic; his output is enormous in quantity and size. But that’s only one aspect of his artistry. He has recorded music and lectures, published two novels and regularly submits essays to national and international magazines. Besides this he is active as a curator, runs a publishing company (DFI Publishers), and has over the years become a fixture in the Amsterdam poetry scene.

Tedja is a total artist. And the subject of his art is just as total. He absorbs the entire world, digesting and transforming it into sounds, words, or images. His art is a running commentary on politics, social issues, the art world and its commercial machinery, the media, the power and impotence of language, and his own identity as an artist of Surinamese descent living and working in the Netherlands. His style is intense, some might say overwhelming or even intimidating. His tone of voice effortlessly shifts from poetic to bitingly angry or from contemplative to militant activist.

Snake, the critically acclaimed 2013 solo exhibition at the Cobra Museum in Amstelveen, showcased Tedja’s art in full depth. A four hundred page catalogue presenting a more permanent insight in this artist’s ever expanding universe is due in the coming months. In the meantime, Tedja has published an essay on curating and yet another volume of poetry, Tot hier en verder (Until here and further on) (IJzer, Utrecht, 2013).

Michael Tedja, Out one big king, Oil paint, photos, plaster on linen, H 300 cm x W 600 cm, 2002-2012; Collection of the artist / Photo: G.J. van Rooij.

Edo Dijksterhuis: Would it be too early to proclaim 2014 to be your year of words?

Michael Tedja: Yes, I think so. Language and text have always been important to me, just as important as the visual component of my work. They cannot exist without each other. Early on in my career the words were a kind of support, a commentary in the sideline of my paintings and drawings, but after having done it for so long now, the writing has become autonomous. Since my first novel, A.U.T.O.B.I.O.G.R.A.F.I.E. (Vassallucci, Amsterdam, 2003), I call myself a writer as much as a painter.

I’ve realized that in writing I can comment on art without having the objects at hand. That’s a real asset – it enables one to go abstract, fully conceptual without intermediaries. See, even most conceptual art still has a physical form or refers to it. For me, that doesn’t take it far enough. I want to push the envelope. Text is – besides the physical presence of a book of course – totally dematerialized.

ED: So how do language and image, text and painting relate to each other within your body of work?

MT: The writing and the painting come from the same source, even though they have become autonomous. When I paint, it’s always connected to a concept, language sublimated. I’m not one for a barbaric method of painting. Karel Appel’s ‘I’m just messing about’ is not for me. Everything I do is thought through down to the tiniest details.

In a way painting is an enlargement of writing, but with colors and layers added. The two-dimensional space is traditionally typified as a window on the world. But it’s also an object in itself. To objectify that two-dimensional space, that’s writing. Because I know the constructive ins and outs of language, my painting in turn can really be about painting, about material choices, sticking things together, physically handling paint and canvas in my studio.

ED: The latest development in your painting has been to incorporate all kinds of objects in your canvases, really outrageous things like bicycle wheels and shoes. It goes beyond the type of collages with photos and paper you’ve done before and lends the works a three-dimensional appearance. What is driving you to do this?

MT: A bicycle in my studio is just a bicycle. It’s an archetype with a fixed meaning. But when I apply paint to that bike, it becomes a medium. It changes even more when I mount it on a canvas. Then its function is destroyed completely. It becomes as formless as paint. Actually, what I’m doing with these objects is the reverse of painting, which is creating form from something formless. It’s a time consuming process. It really takes a long time to strip an object of its original meaning. But I like to think things all the way through until they are no longer what they were. Of course, this is what a poet does as well. He destroys the functions of everyday spoken language, words that have been burdened with clichés. The poet hands language back its power by undermining platitudes and coming up with unusual signifiers.

Michael Tedja, The fun paintings of Polke, Mixed media on paper, H 29 cm x W 21 cm, 2011; Collection of the artist Photo: H. van Beek.


ED: Your exhibitions, which you mostly curate yourself, are always visually high-powered affairs. You bring truckloads of paintings and drawings into a space and hang them really close together. It seems almost impossible to take in an individual work. The context of the entire oeuvre seems to almost physically impress itself on the observer.

MT: You can hang an individual work by me on a wall, of course, but you’ll have a hard time explaining or even describing it. My work is always about the philosophical framework. You cannot just read one aphorism by Nietzsche and understand Also sprach Zarathustra. You have to see the work as a whole.

At art academy a teacher once tried to explain what makes a good painting. But that’s not what I wanted to know. I wanted to know what a brilliant painting is. But that the teacher couldn’t tell me. In the dictionary I then found a very literal definition of brilliant, referring to a diamond cut into fifty-eight facets catching the light from fifty-eight different angles, uniting these beams in its heart and reflecting them again in fifty-eight angles. That’s exactly the way my paintings come to life. A lot of ingredients go in, held together by something simple. And the finished work radiates in all directions.

ED: You are extremely productive. How important is speed?

MT: It has become more important over time, especially after I’ve joined the High IQ Society, a society for the intellectually highly gifted. Members challenge each other all the time with tests and mathematical puzzles which have to be finished within a limited timeframe. It’s rather competitive.

In my studio I set myself tests now as well. It’s like brain gymnastics. At some point I bought a large stack of paper sheets, laid out all materials I could find – half a liter of ink, charcoal, stumps of chalk, all kinds of left-overs – and defined a task and a limitation. Every day I did this. I had to, for example, make twenty-four drawings only using three pieces of chalk. And quite often I had no idea what to do. Then I would draw a dot. And twenty-three other dots, but in different positions. And that became a really nice series. One shouldn’t be doing this too often – that would invite mannerism – but for me it was a way to crack open the concept of what constitutes a drawing.

With that stack of paper I made series of sixteen, of twenty, of twenty-four. In the end I had produced 818 drawings. And I realized that I had effectively created another novel, organized in chapters and purely in images.

Michael Tedja,Mental fight- an anti spell for the twenty first century, 2005, Installation at Locust projects Miami USA; Photo: L. Projects.


ED: A lot of your work radiates a strong sense of criticism. You fulminate against the art world and society. At the same time you’re very much part of it. How do you deal with that paradox so close to the heart of your art?

MT: It’s a struggle, I admit. For a long time I was convinced I could reconcile these opposite forces within me. But I’m no politician. I’m an artist. And in art the main question always is: what does something mean, and why? Once you have clarified that, you start undermining. As soon as I am part of something or some group, it’s not interesting anymore and I have to move on. It’s all about creative destruction, also of yourself as an artist.

ED: A pretty emotional affair, I would think.

MT: Sure. For me making art is an intellectual exercise driven by intuition and how those two forces collide. My intuition is staying in contact with who and what I am. I don’t blanket everything with rationality and that’s why my work has a certain energy. It scares some people; they proclaim me to be confused. Yes, I gobble everything up and use it for my art. But it’s not a power game; I don’t want to take possession of everything. And in the end it results in beautiful things.


Edo Dijksterhuis 



ArtSlant would like to thank Michael Tedja for his assistance in making this interview possible.


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