Ten questions

An interview with Yvette Deseyve, curator, Gerhard-Marcks Haus, Bremen

You have worked exclusively with each other since you were at university. By personality, artists are often individualists. Apparently you have decided against an individual creative approach. What does collaboration mean for you?

Our collaboration does not impede individual creativity; it is more of a redoubling, and perhaps even more than that. For us collaboration means drawing each other’s attention to things and phenomena around us, engaging with each other, intensively and continuously coming to grips with the other person’s views and standpoints, and coming up with new thoughts as a result.

Creativity is traditionally equated with the Dionysian forces, being expressed for the most part through individual physicality. Your design process, though, is based on a dialogue. What consequences does that have for your works?

Creativity is fundamentally difficult to localise. Is it a brainwave, or does it come from the gut? Whether creativity is expressed in individual physicality or not, we are unsure. Sometimes to a greater and sometimes to a lesser extent, the execution of artistic ideas has been delegated to others; and not just since concept art.

For us many decisions are taken in the situation, as a reaction to the moment, the quirks of the material. That has less to do with physicality than with the work process, which cannot be broken down into design and execution and which mostly progresses fluidly, of its own volition, from one sort of work to the other. In this process there is always a moment of chance, and also inconsistency, which influences everything planned. There is a constant stream of new ideas and thoughts, which then become more concrete in a dialogue between us. This dialogue is reflected in the installations: There we let the individual elements communicate with each other and give rise to the most varied associations and meaningful relations. The ensemble in an exhibition is always one possible combination but the works can also be arranged differently and set new dialogues in train. For us this also reflects the constant need for reorientation in the present day, in which nothing is definitive.

The point of departure for your work is always the observation of nature until finally it culminates in an artwork. How can the transformation process of nature into your art be described?

Observations of nature and our environment are certainly an important departure point for the artistic work. We search for a foundation of aesthetic figures and archetypal forms and their variations, and attempt to discern and demonstrate that things have an order. Our intention is not to classify things definitively but to let the eye roam as widely as possible. We record our observations in drawings and photographs. In a perpetual process of metamorphosis, the continual development of one form into the next, sculptures emerge, which we arrange with drawings and photographs into installations. Within the artistic transformation processes, questions arise and answers are found, or we stumble on something entirely new. It could be said that something grows – and that brings us right back to nature!

Another point of departure is the material. Constantly engaging with new materials is something that we have grown to enjoy. We explore them by playfully working and changing them: folding, stacking, layering, pinning etc. For us, the material used and the sculptures resulting from it also manifest the fragility and transience of our environment. Mostly the sculptures consist of industrially fabricated materials but at the same time they abstract natural phenomena; in doing so they point to the fine differences between seeing, knowing and recognising. Everything could equally be quite different, because there is not just one reality; reality always takes shape in the eye of the beholder.

The art historian Aby Warburg (1866–1929) assembled his picture atlas ‘Mnemosyne’ in an attempt to explore the hidden associations in pictures and to extract picture patterns. What possibilities can be put at the disposal of art production by such an analytical approach?

His procedure is sometimes helpful for organising collections of imagery. In our case, however, it is usually less of a scientific than an intuitive process.

Your search for primal forms and structures begins with the concrete object. How can the intangible world of ideas be integrated into this concept?

The individual elements of our installations are linked with one another on the level of form and/or content. They revolve around dialectical oppositions like nature and culture, similarity and difference, perception and recollection. How do we perceive the world? As it is or as we construct it? Why do we recognise something? And why do we remember? We are also interested in the complex of forms, symbols and their meanings, both archetypes and visible phenomena.

Can the primal forms that you extract, which are based on a concrete object-sign structure, be deciphered in other (cultural) contexts?

Aside from a certain universality of signs and symbols, at the same time there are individual and culturally influenced perceptions. In this way our works are certainly read differently in different contexts and augmented with other ideas or contents.

Could you describe more precisely the relationship of your works to the immediate environment, the context?

Our sculptures adapt in a certain way to the given spatial realities and are often directly connected to them. Each time they are set up, they look slightly different: larger or smaller, more broadly fanned out or shunted together. We are interested in mutability, in openness to the unfamiliar, in transience and renewal. We also see this openness to transformation processes as a necessary quality of society. Thanks to their adaptability our sculptures are also mobile. In the last few years we have travelled a lot, so it was important for them to be easy to transport. Many of our sculptures, including those in this exhibition, can be dismantled or folded down to a manageable scale.

Your work is aesthetically and formally reduced. Can your art or today’s art in general still be thought about in terms of the categories of figurative and abstract?

They do not matter greatly to us as categories. The point of departure of our works is the world in and around us, and this consists of visible forms and abstract ideas. Formal and aesthetic reduction involve concentration on the essential; the installative composition in the exhibition room gives rise to a multiplicity of layers. Object ‘O.036/4’ consists of thin, angled, finely balanced rods. Various associations come to mind on viewing it: with which images and recollections stored in memory do we compare what we see? The lines could trace an opening blossom or a volcanic crater, or represent the legs of a giant spider. On a more abstract level it is about motion and balance – opening oneself up, aspiring to new heights and falling back down, spreading out in the space.

These aspects are also taken up by the other works. The wall work ‘O.054’ was made in the summer of this year during a stay in Japan. The individual paper strips consisting of black-and-white prints call to mind brushstrokes in calligraphy or cascading water, and hint at the passing of time, at impermanence. In form and colouration the pink paper objects ‘O.048’ are like blossoms or vases that could be water receptacles, with a radial structure that seems to spray out their content.

The sculptor and designer Max Bill (1908–1994) voiced a very rigid plea in 1944 when he advocated art that came into being ‘without external borrowing from natural phenomena… in other words: not by abstraction.’ Do you share the idea of ‘images’ that are only existent in the imagination, which are realised through artistic production and translated into concrete forms?

We do not believe that images can exist only in the imagination and without relation to the outside world.

How do the different artistic media of photography, drawing and sculpture relate to one another in your work?

Our drawings often seem like photographs, our sculptures like drawings – only larger and voluminous. We treat the different media with equal value; the individual works communicate with one another; associations arise. In order to keep the space for these associations as wide open as possible, we use a numbering system in place of titles.

We think it is important to reflect about forms and structures and their relationships in nature and culture, society and our environment. We want to make clear that for all their apparent diversity, things relate to each other perhaps more than we are often aware. At the same time the installations remain fragmentary, in the same way as our recollections and the world in general are. And even if everything is related to everything else, everything also somehow stands alone, because there is no single all-embracing sense; nevertheless we try to bring a certain sense and order into the chaos.Yvette Deseyve (en)