I’m not a gambling man by nature, never quite understood the allure of the blackjack table or roulette wheel. But when Aukje Dekker invited me to a game of Stick or Twist I couldn’t resist.
The game starts at 150 euro. Dekker’s ante is an empty canvas. When she adds something to the painting my deposit increases by 50 euro. At every stage she asks me whether I’ll “stick”—in other words, buy the work as is—or “twist,” and go for another round. It’s like playing chicken in an artist’s studio: the painting is the truck hurtling down the road, only coming into focus the moment you’re about to be hit. The big difference is that avoiding collision is not necessarily desirable; at some point you have to decide when the work is done and the result is worth the investment.
Value creation in the art market is something Dekker has been playing with ever since art school, often linking it to matters of authenticity and meaning. Her first show at Gallery Vriend van Bavink in 2011 consisted of 24 nearly identical paintings of a boy playing a sousaphone. What are these handmade and thus unique works of art worth?, Dekker asked. Does this value increase or decrease when a work of art is multiplied? A year later she presented 20 abstract paintings she had produced by mechanically following instructions. For the show she priced the canvasses according to how tasteful she herself considered them, starting at 50 euro for the ugliest and 1,000 for the prettiest. At the opening, the works costing 50, 100, 150, and 200 euro were sold within one minute.
(left) Stage 1, where Maartje Wortel dropped out. (right) The author chose to “stick” at Stage 6.
Stick or Twist also addresses the market and value, but it is even more about art production, or in this case, co-production. For the project Dekker enlisted some 20—well, what to call them?—players, participants, partners. She invites them to visit the gallery where she’s painting to see the work in progress. Discussions ensue, suggestions are made, veiled but probing questions are asked about the following stage. But Dekker never reveals what her next step is going to be. It’s sometimes as frustrating as talking to a financial advisor who lays all responsibility with you, the investor, since he can’t say whether tomorrow’s market will be up or down. Novelist Maartje Wortel is the first to bow out, at stage one. On the Mister Motley blog about the project she admits the entire process inspired a certain cowardice in her. She ends up with a canvas that is hardly a promise of a painting. As the stages commence more participants drop out. Some have reached their financial limit; others can’t bear the stress any longer. I, myself, decide to stick at stage seven, in retrospect maybe for the wrong reasons. Stage six had disappointed me: the work had lost some of its previous mysteriousness, and when stage seven meant a return to that atmosphere I pounced on it, afraid it might get lost again.
Painting this many identical pictures for individuals she knows or gets to know, feels like a cross between simultaneous chess and gourmet catering, Dekker entrusts me when I visit her. She’s got three assistants working for her. Especially in the beginning, production is fast paced and almost industrial. Dekker’s not “Bob Ross-ing,” though. She experiments with techniques and composition, allows herself to make mistakes and have to double-back. Before she starts, she has a pretty good idea where she wants to go during the first five stages. After that she’s more or less winging it. Two overlapping trapezoids form the groundwork for a scenography that frames two ladies in piece suits. The scene is built up step by step until by stage five the figures have faces. Steps six to nine basically involve breaking down the picture again, deleting elements and making others more abstract. Until Dekker comes to a point where she honestly doesn’t know where to take the image next—tellingly, one figure is shattered like a broken mirror.
Stages 9 and 10: In Stage 10, Dekker embeds the original canvas (50 x 60 cm) into a larger one (90 x 122 cm).
Next, Dekker places the original 50 by 60-centimeter canvas inside a frame three times larger. It’s a bit of a stalling technique, since she doesn’t want to abandon her two ladies. When no one sticks at the following stage, a minimal adjustment, she is forced to be radical. She has to give up the figurative elements, which functioned like a safeguard, and floats off into abstraction. At this point, she later says, “my partners have become my opponents.” The balance of power seems to shift. Dekker no longer is the almighty creator daring us to take things one step further. She’s just as much in the dark as we are. From stage 12 to 14 one participant drops out per stage, leaving one final contestant.
Stages 17 and 18: The final patron “sticks” after Dekker signs the painting at Stage 18.
And she’s not budging. Several stages go by, the work evolving into a Kurt Schwitters-like composition before sobering down to the point of being almost minimalist. On the brink of desperation Dekker emails her last patron to ask what her expectations are and she answers: whatever you, the artist, want. But this is not how Stick or Twist has been devised. Quitting or moving on should be the buyer’s choice, the artist feels. Still, Dekker strong-arms the last participant into surrender by signing the work on the front, something she’s never done before. This step 18 turns out to be the last. After a little over a year Stick or Twist comes to an end.
All 18 stages in succession.
One could imagine a sequel to Stick or Twist. It could even be an income-earning model, but Dekker is reluctant to take it in that direction. She’s toying with ideas, though, she admits. Double or nothing could be interesting, speeding up the decision process by upping the ante exponentially at every stage. Or applying the concept to a different medium, film for example, starting with the credits and adding scenes as you go along. Whatever form it’d take, there’s one precondition for Dekker: participants should never become regular buyers, passive consumers. All parties should have something at stake.
(All images: Aukje Dekker, Stick or Twist, 2015–2016. Courtesy of the artist and Gallery Vriend van Bavink)