Waste Not, Want Not: Rob Voerman by Tabitha Piseno

Rob Voerman’s sculptures rise from the wreckage, each one the phoenix of a modern age.

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Rob Voerman, A Permeable Body of Solitude, 2012. All images courtesy of the artist, Upstream Gallery (Amsterdam) and C24 Gallery (New York).

“And in our own time the bricoleur is still someone who works with his hands and uses devious means compared to those of a craftsman.”
—Claude Levi-Strauss, The Savage Mind

Rob Voerman is a bricoleur. His work nudges global collective memory with a generation’s worth of material history. A whimsical pile of remains of a machine age, industrial revolution, pieces of bygone eras that form a hybrid of heterogeneous meanings and interpretations—pieces of car parts, cardboard boxes, colored glass, wood, clothing, jewelry—which when compiled together, transform into a kind of temporary architecture that makes wreckage more captivating than structure. The ways in which he compiles such materials into precarious structures also dictates how viewers can interact with his installations. Voerman recently exhibited his work in the group show Kaleidoscope with Shannon Finley, Grazia Toderi, and Canon Tolon at C24, where the particular interior architecture of the gallery informed the dimensions and materials he came to use for his featured sculpture, “A Permeable Body of Solitude,” where, at the opening reception for the exhibition, some viewers posted up inside the sculpture like voyeurs to watch the gallery’s crowd. At the 2012 Armory via the Amsterdam-based Upstream Gallery, viewers could enter Voerman’s “Dawn of a New Century” and partake of single shots of whiskey. In other iterations of this installation done abroad, viewers were invited to do the same—take time in his post-apocalyptic, untenable structures by enjoying conversation, drinking booze, and smoking. Voerman himself is constantly at work navigating his practice. This Spring, he completed the first of two 3-month residency interims at the International Studio & Curatorial Program (ISCP). Voerman will return for his second interim in 2013; a solo-show will be presented at the C24 gallery in Chelsea.

Tabitha Piseno What role does place play in altering the meaning of your work?

Rob Voerman It is not so much the spaces that really alter the meaning of the works, but [space] alters the shape. The meaning of my work is more shaped by my own ideas, but also what happens in changing societies around me that happens in my country. I’m sort of shaped more by these things—what I read in papers, and what I see around me.

TP When you say space affects the shape of it, do you mean that the particular architecture of a space dictates how the sculpture will develop?

RV Yeah, I build a small-scale model of the space they will be in and then I make a small maquette model, and from there I start. I know approximately how large it will be, and then I’ll also make a plan to take it apart and get it through the door.

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Upstream Gallery booth at the Armory Show. Installation of Dawn of a New Century, 2012. 

TP It’s a modular process?

RV Yes, it’s all bolted together. I first start with an inner structure with wood that you can connect with bolts. It’s all made of elements that you can take apart and it all fits through a door, because my studio was very small. I also find it a challenge to find these solutions.

TP That process seems apparent in your 2D works, as well. It seems that they are also modular in a way.

RV Well this large one for example, “Thistlegarden,” is made out of two pieces of paper about seven by three-and-a-half feet, and because the printing press has its limitations I make the two parts separately and later on assemble it together so you don’t see the lines. In a way printmaking is a bit comparable to sculpture in a way that contradicts with painting where you have to make sort of a plan in advance especially with large sizes.

TP Yes! And yet, there’s always room for surprises!

RV Yeah, I always allow myself to surprise myself. I mean, even this print came out totally different than what I first expected. While building layers, it’s really like sculpting or like modeling with clay—you add a piece and then say, Hey no, I should continue this way, instead of that way.

TP With the sculptures, there is also a relational aspect of it. When people go inside the pieces there is also another layer of function to experience.

RV Yeah, the outside is very much contradictory to the inside. From the outside, it looks very closed, a bit hostile even. You have these large, dark windows staring at you, and from the inside it’s completely the other way. It’s kind of a capsule, everything is dimmed, the light, the sound. I even noticed that people who don’t know each other always start talking and communicating with each other while inside.

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Inside Dawn of a New Century, Rob Voerman. Upstream Gallery booth at the Armory Show, 2012.

TP Yes, I noticed that happening at the opening reception for the exhibition Kaleidoscope, which was really great. I think it was Ken Johnson who wrote a small snippet about your work in the New York Times Armory review this year; he used this wonderful phrase referring to your sculpture—”20th-century Constructivism turned into post-apocalyptic hive making”. I loved that. Do you identify with that lineage of 20th-century Constructivism?

RV With the piece in the Armory, yes definitely. I was referring directly to the Dutch architect Gerrit Rietveld who was part of De Stijl, so it definitely is also a comment on the times we are living in now. That era of De Stijl, the beginning of Modernism in a way, was sort of dominated by grand ideas, almost utopian ideas that people were able to now create a new world through architecture, design and new industrial techniques. At this time, it’s totally the other way around, it’s kind of almost cynical; it’s all fragmented, we don’t know anymore what direction we are moving in. Also it’s more complicated through globalism in the new media. You can have an opinion about this, but you get so much information nowadays, it’s impossible to have one clear opinion because everything is connected. I was referring more directly—in that piece—to the ideas and expectations of modernism.

TP Is that why there were available shots of whiskey in your sculpture, too?

RV (laughter) Yes, it gives it a little bit of anarchistic touch to the work.

TP That thread consistently runs through your work—that thread of anarchy.

RV Yeah, a little bit. I’m sort of undermining existing rules and structures, absolutely, yeah.

TP I like how there are also references to Buckminster Fuller, Ecovillages—domes where an insular utopia is attempted.

RV Yeah, and also hippie architecture in a way where the craftsmanship is over-decorated, or built with freaky designs. It’s a little bit referring to that, and on the other hand it’s quite dystopic also. It allows different associations, like a slum or homeless shelter, a sort of fragmented church, or a spacecraft.

It’s sort of made from the elements of our society. In that sense it’s kind of romantic also to create a hideaway and to look at society from a distance. I guess that’s also a personal need of mine to sort of create these spaces. I think a lot of artists make these things purely for themselves.

TP When you mentioned globalization very briefly earlier, do you see these pieces representing a commonality to societal changes around the world, or is it more specific to the Netherlands, or is it sort of an American commentary?

RV First of all, I don’t start a piece directly. Let’s say I make a work about globalization, it isn’t until later on that I start to analyze the work more and see where it came from. I am really shaped by what’s happening in my country, Holland. It used to be a quite tolerant, quite broad-minded, and I now I see that it’s completely going the other way—really like anti-Europe, anti-immigrant, anti-art even, anti-artist.

TP How does that manifest itself?

RV It’s sort of a well of a lot of anger. I think it’s partially due to globalism. A lot of people aren’t able to deal with it the fact that their environment is changing, that people coming from other countries are bringing other influences, and it’s affecting the villages and local small businesses—some shops are closing—so, I think the anger is partially due to that. It does affect my work in a way. Last year, I organized a protest, an occupation of the Rijksmuseum and the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam, because they are cutting 50% of their budget for the visual arts. It’s sort of shocking. It’s not only happening in Holland, it’s happening all over Europe, in Denmark, Sweden … they were once quite liberal countries, but now it’s all changing.

TP How is the reception of your work in Holland?

RV Actually, it has been quite good. For example, my solo show at the CoBrA Museum had a lot of visitors, and I was really overwhelmed by the positive response from normal people coming there. As soon as they knew I was the artist, they were coming up to me, congratulating me, coming to me, and asking questions.

TP So they relate to it, then?

RV Yeah, I noticed in my work relates to quite broad groups of people. Even like the guards at the Armory Fair—they loved it! They took photos, and I think that’s quite a big compliment. And globalization is definitely in it; fragmented associations refer to the state in which we are now. What is the overall idea? There is none.

TP Are there economic hardships that are creating tension in Holland?

RV Yes, but it’s not as bad as Italy or Greece of course. It started a couple of years ago, like ten years ago slowly with the assassination of this politician, and since then Populism came up more and more. It does shape you in a way. Not to be moralistic in a way, you read the papers, what is going on in the world. These dark windows in my sculptures for example—you can watch people, but people can’t see you inside. It is a kind of surveillance, a play with watching to be watched.

TP Did the sculptures come as an actualization of the represented structures in the prints?

RV I always work on different things at the same time. It could be that I work on a print and a sculpture at the same time. The prints are not studies for sculptures, but it’s just that [through making prints] I can represent my ideas in sculpture, in a physical way, to relate to it physically.

TP The installation of your sculpture is specific to interior spaces. I noticed on your website, that you have a proposal for an outdoor installation called, “The Thistlegarden Project.” It looks like it could be really extraordinary, especially that these kinds of ideas of yours are being interpreted into something site-specific.

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Proposal for the Thistlegarden Project. Courtesy of Rob Voerman. 2012.

RV I can also see myself doing projects more outdoors, in neighborhoods particularly. I find it interesting to step out of this safe gallery/museum context now and then, and really put your work at stake—to see how people in public deal with the work. It’s an interesting challenge.

“Thistlegarden” is based on the idea I have with the thistle garden, which I want to execute someday in the coming years. It’s sort of a larger visualization of such garden with a large pavilion. I hope to really make it someday. There is a museum in Belgium interested, so I am going to make a plan for that to see if it is realistic. Otherwise it would be perfect for Biennials, to work on this project. It’s not a project that must be realized in the next year; it can be in ten or twelve years. It’s kind of funny because I studied landscape and garden architecture, and it comes back into my work again through the back door unexpectedly sometimes.

I really like thistles as a metaphor, especially in these times, because it is sort of an anarchistic plant. There’s even a law in Holland that you can’t grow them or plant them, because farmers don’t want them. They are harmful for agriculture, so no one wants them, but they are strong and don’t have any boundaries; they fly around, settle down especially in poor soil, or disturbed soil, so [the thistle plant] is kind of the ultimate immigrant. It’s almost a bit cynical. On the other hand, it’s a beautiful, strong, and adaptive plant. I really like this metaphor; my idea is to create it as an abstract explosion—to plant it in lines or patterns.

TP Like a grid?

RV Yes, and it’s quite cynical to plant these wild thistles in a very structured way. These gardens used to represent power, stability, strength, for kings, and so on, while my version of the garden will disintegrate in a way after about a year, so it represents temporarily improvisation—anarchy! The pavilion will be like my sculptures—built with found materials, and there should be a lot of drinking and smoking inside!

TP You really are an anarchist! (laughter)

RV (laughter) In real life I’m not so much, but in my work, yeah.

TP What are you working on at the ISCP?

RV At the moment I’m just organizing getting the sculpture stored from the Armory Fair, in order to get things sent back to Europe. When I come back, I will start with new work. I have a few commissions in Holland, a solo show in a museum in Holland and I take part in a show in a museum in Santa Barbara. Next year I’ll be at ISCP for another three months, and later that year I will have a solo show at C24 Gallery. I’m very busy; it is fantastic.

Tabitha Piseno is an artist and curator currently living and working in NYC and Providence, RI. She is the Co-Founder of Richard Keller (R.K.) Projects, an experimental exhibition platform that conducts nomadic exhibitions and performance-based projects. Her most recent curatorial project was exhibited at the Perry and Marty Granoff Center for Creative Arts at Brown University.

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