The Reality Sandwich / EN
by Hans van Houwelingen / 2006
Xue Mu was one of the students at the Dutch Art Institute who enrolled in a master class named Reality Sandwich. Although the true meaning of the word Sandwich in the title of the project only became clear to me in due course, the Reality aspect of it really appealed to me.
Initially ten to twelve students were given the opportunity to do research and come up with a proposal for an artwork on the campus ground of the Twente University. What was exceptional about this was that it was a real assignment. Not the usual theoretical, fictitious assignment you would expect from a learning institute, but an assignment with substantial preconditions, financial backing and an art committee that would examine the proposals and would decide which one will be realized. The Vastgoed Groep Drienerloo commissioned the DAI to set up the project. There were plans to install four pumps on the Twente University campus that could bring up the underground filter elements from a cooling-water treatment installation for a new block of buildings. It was the client’s wish that those pumps should look like a work of art.
The DAI asked me to coach this assignment in the form of a master class because most of my work takes place in the public domain and I have had a lot of experience in that field of the visual arts over the years. At first glance, there is hardly any difference between a fictitious assignment and a real one. After all, when an artist is conceiving his work, he does this almost autonomously, after which the client only has to give the go-ahead and have it executed.
However, nothing could be further from the truth: in this case, the artist is really put to the test. His or her ideas have to compete with all the forces generated by society. In the case of a real assignment, playfulness and imagination, which have free rein in the protected environment of an art school, become the straw at which the artist clutches in order to avoid being overwhelmed by all the other things that come into play.
Besides the client who has to pay for everything, but who usually is not an art expert, there is an art committee that is knowledgeable, but has no power. In our culture of consensus there is a great shortage of people that are willing to go out on a limb, and as a consequence there is a lot of indifferent art around that doesn’t really matter to anyone. This assignment was particularly complex because the work also had to fulfil a technical function. Seven artists actually completed the workshop and handed in a proposal. Ultimately, Xue Mu was chosen by the client to execute her proposal. Apart from her work as a graphic designer in China, this was her first introduction to ‘art in public space’, as it is so eloquently called.
The client’s choice for her ethereal design, Rocking Chem-Lolly, surprised me. Using the kind of animation technique she was familiar with, she displayed her work against a garish, sugary background. The effects and impressions that it produced were apparently more important to her than its hardware, let alone how the pumps would operate.
She wasn’t interested in pumps: they looked like they could barely bring up anything. And she also wasn’t interested in making an artwork that relates to its surroundings and derives its meaning from it. I felt something new was happening here. She was the first artist I had met who simply wasn’t concerned with those artistic truisms.
She pointed out other artworks that were scattered over the campus ground. “I know that most of them were made by great artists, but they just stand there, expressing their meaning. And as so many art objects as such already exist, it won’t make too much sense to bring another similar one here, not for me, nor for the environment. In that sense I prefer to bring a work which is actually made from ‘nothings’, and will be about ‘nothingness’, and I wish it could be functional much more direct, and touch a deeper part of people’s sensation.” As she explained, the elements that would make up Rocking Chem-Lolly were: lucid, diamond, candy, blood, antenna, nerve, shy, cheerful, playful, wave, flow, rhythm, fragile (outward), rigid (inner), presented from glass and stainless steel. “They are not a set of objects, but our sweet strange fellows.”
I gradually began to understand what Xue was looking for, and now I saw the quality in her proposal. My own keenness suddenly seemed a little conservative at the edges and I realized that I was caught in a pragmatic rut. At the same time it became clear to me what the word Sandwich in Reality Sandwich meant. I had to coach a student through the realities of art in public space, but how on earth could we ever execute this particular reality?
Bringing in a metalworker and a lighting expert brought no relief. Overly pragmatic thinking only led to complex and very costly solutions. Later I understood that we were looking for a translation of Xue’s design that was much too literal. I am convinced that even if a technical solution had been found, the work still would have been a failure. A very disheartened Xue stood by and listened as a bunch of men tried to make something out of her ‘nothing’. The many restrictions imposed by the materials probably intimidated her, so she made a second design that, although it pleased the client, had lost its whole ethereal aura.
She asked for another six months delay after her final assessment so that she could start over and make a third attempt. I think she was beginning to realize that coaching wasn’t all it was cracked up to be and that only she could act as director of every detail of her reality’s reality. What followed were six months of toil and perspiration. Dozens of scale models, made from wire, pieces of plaster, glass, chewing gum, molten wax, lines, and all kinds of bits and pieces finally led to the presentation on 14 November 2006 of a design that oozed nothingness. It was called Celebration.
What the model represented was a work that could only be described as ‘floating’. It looked like a fountain of scraps of paper and trinkets that didn’t seem to matter, showing just a hint of the pumps that looked like they were drooping and not made for pumping.
In my view, it would have been a beautiful work. It was as unrelated to its surroundings as an artwork can be, and it wasn’t weighed down by meaning. And… this work could actually be executed.
But that wasn’t the end of the realities. All the hard work that led up to this beautiful proposal was stripped of its reality in barely twenty minutes. That was all the time the client and his art committee needed to realize that this wasn’t the kind of art they were looking for. Xue knew that, but what she didn’t know was that a client and an art committee would need only fifteen minutes to shake off their baffled expressions, ask a few routine questions, retire without any further discussion, and come to a decision without consulting the artist.
A week later, the committee wrote in its recommendation: “…The abk advises the client against the further execution of the third design by Xue Mu. The artwork does no relate to the surroundings, which particularly where this specific site is concerned, should be seen as a missed opportunity… Although the design is stunning, the committee has grave doubts about its spatial qualities, which are largely determined by the surrounding architectural and natural elements. After all, Xue Mu is an artist whose career has just started and we cannot refer to earlier executed proposals…”
Xue’s way of working and thinking made a great impression on me. She is one of those rare artists who aren’t focussed on creating a conventional artistic product, but who battle their way through life in wonderment, leaving behind a trail of artisticity. The unchecked stream of thoughts, ideas, stuff, and junk that she leaves in her wake have convinced me that she is a very talented, classy artist who is fraying a path for herself. Her way of working does not initially lead to a typical work of art; she instils meaning on the tiniest trinket and at the same time demystifies the greatest painting. I think this is an artistic reality that will ‘sandwich’ many art lovers in the future.
Translation: Walter van der Star