By Frederieke Beunk
Masha Ru in her studio. Photo by Frederieke Beunk.
With a PhD in mathematics (Eindhoven University of Technology) and a graduation with honours in photography (Photoacademy Amsterdam) you soon think of Rijksakademie resident Masha Ru (RU/NL, 1984) as a versatile jack-of-all-trades.
On the 180th day of the Tzolkin cycle of the Mayan calendar I talked with Ru about her ongoing project: the Mayan calendar, on which she started working during her first Rijksakademie residency year.
Masha Ru, Mayan Calendar, 2013-2014. Photo by Dirk Serpinski.
The Maya used a very ingenious and accurate calendar, consisting of a system of several cycles of different lengths. Partly the so-called Long Count (with days counted from a mythical creation date) was used, and partly the 260-day Tzolkin, the religious calendar. Also in use was a 365-day year, known as Haab, a nine-day cycle and a ‘Katun cycle’ of 93.600 days.
What is it that interests you about the Mayan calendar?
“It all started with my previous project “Life as a function”. Before Rijksakademie I was trying to find a function that would give a description of life and karma. Afterwards I discovered there were already existing formulas based on the knowledge of nature and astronomy, like the Mayan calendar. At the moment I try to apply and check the rules of Tzolkin based on my own experiences; at the same time I’m exploring possibilities to use these formulas in a more general way. I’m interested to research on intersection of personal material with global happenings.
The calendar is a complex system of predictions and repetitions. The repetition deals with feelings and experiences rather than with exact events. This day on the Tzolkin calendar might have something to do with the day 260 days before or 260 days after. I’m trying to follow the rules set up by the Mayan calendar and see if they are congruent with everyday life. Occasionally they prove to be true, however I also see a lot of coincidence.
It is interesting to research the degree of freedom within the stable system of the Mayan calendar. How far can I withdraw from prediction? It feels that when I study the Mayan system theoretically, I will go more and more deeply into it, but I will never reach the core. It is like trying to understand the essence of life.”
It is not possible oversee all the different parts of life together?
“Our life is a labyrinth. The calendar helps to see the labyrinth from above, to get a bit of an overview of life. But I think somehow, as humans we are not capable of getting the whole picture.”
Does this notion have something to do with a religious way of thinking?
“There certainly is an esoteric element in my work and I think the combination of the occult and science can be very fascinating. In modern science we take a lot of statements as axioms. I believe, if we open our mind and question fundamental things, then science can be much more prosperous. Modern science still doesn’t explain everything.”
Masha Ru’s diaries and Mayan calendar. Photo by Frederieke Beunk.
During last RijksakademieOPEN your Mayan calendar was also on view, but in a different composition. At that time you used personal photo material from a mobile phone. Yet, this year you’re working with information from your diaries, the oldest over 11 years old. What motivated your change of medium?
“When I presented the Mayan calendar last year, it felt quite unfinished and I even doubted if I should keep or dispose it. The audience reacted controversially towards my first version of the calendar. It is interesting that the arguments people brought up for appreciating the work were quite similar to the reasons why people didn’t like it: while it felt really private, still they couldn’t be included. It was possible to relate to the pictures, but not to gain a comprehensive view. Nevertheless I hope that my work is more than just merely private pictures. I’m blurring the boundaries between ‘me’ and ‘not me’. I attempt to use private material in order to unravel underlying structures of life.”
 J. Klokočník et al., ‘Correlation between the Mayan calendar and ours: Astronomy helps to answer why the most popular correlation (GMT) is wrong’, Astronomische Nachrichten 329 (2008) nr. 4 (April 7), pp. 426-427.
By Frederieke Beunk
Nickel van Duijvenboden in his studio, photo by Frederieke Beunk.
Consciousness, slowness, uncertainty and the search for existential truth. This is how the work of first-year Rijksakademie resident Nickel van Duijvenboden (NL, 1981) can be characterized. By making art in a critical and literary way, Van Duijvenboden researches the question what constitutes a work.
“To me art is a struggle; on the one hand I want to relate to the context I find myself in, on the other hand I want to revolt against it. My artistic practice follows from resisting a predictable identity. I question this identity and try to disrupt and complicate the path that is set out by society. My work is interwoven with self-criticism, I constantly ask myself existential questions. I wonder why I record everything. I consider my photographs, sound recordings and writings records; they form a precipitate of inner processes.
There have been times when I was in two minds about whether or not I could bear the anxiety of being an artist. However, by the time I applied for the Rijksakademie, I had built up some degree of certainty about a state of despair – a fundamental uncertainty regarding the status of the things I make and the media I use. This uncertainty is also the germ of my practice.”
How does this approach influence your way of working?
My writing tends to be about process. I’m interested in the integration of one’s life and work. Not only my own, but also that of others. I’ve written a number of reflections on art as well as several dialogues with other artists. My approach gravitates towards the biographical and analytical. Mostly there’s a psychological dimension. Some dialogues I’ve had were almost like counseling – for me, I mean, not for the artists.
These last months, reading from personal notes or letters has become a more pronounced activity. When I recite my texts, I seem to stretch the moment in such a way that the audience experiences a manifestation of consciousness. One of the most valuable remarks that I got at the beginning of my residency were from several people who independently said that I create a kind of slowness, a room to think.
My work involves a lot of editing. I’ve been working on a novel since three years, it still needs a lot of work. Here at the Rijksakademie, however, I’m looking for a counterbalance to this meticulous, restrained way of working. I’m seeking a kind of spontaneity; in my photographs, for instance, I’m looking for a picture taken spontaneously, almost unconsciously, that could suddenly become a work.”
A work Van Duijvenboden considers pivotal is Sägewerk Ihrig (2012; see picture). The photo shows an alley behind a sawmill, located in a rural environment. Sawdust lies on the ground. The image comes with an excerpt from a letter (see picture). Sending this letter to the initial recipient created a condition in which the photograph could function properly; suddenly it was possible to display it as an artwork.
Nickel van Duijvenboden, Sägewerk Ihrig, Odenwald / Excerpts from a Letter to H.V. (17—27.VIII.2012), 2012, C-print on aluminium, hand-set letterpress text, photo by Nickel van Duijvenboden.
Nickel van Duijvenboden, Sägewerk Ihrig, Odenwald / Excerpts from a Letter to H.V. (17—27.VIII.2012) (detail), 2012, C-print on aluminium, hand-set letterpress text, photo by Nickel van Duijvenboden.
Within the art context, your work is often defined as ‘working with text’. How would you position yourself in relation to art and literature?
“I don’t conceive of my writing as merely a strategy or concept within a visual praxis. This sort of demotes or negates the writing itself, its subject and style, which is informed by literary traditions and conventions. Amongst a highly specialized art audience, it’s very rare to get to talk about how I introduce a character or how I write dialogue. The subordinate position of text sometimes bothers me. Nobody ever talks about authors who publish through literary publishers, as people ‘working with text’, surely? It’s like saying a painter ‘works with a brush’.
Having studied photography, I initially felt a great distance to painting. But now now I feel strongly connected to painters such as Cy Twombly, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Agnes Martin and other abstract expressionists who gave shape to existential issues. I’m also interested in the historical high point of conceptualism. But I equally relate to certain movements in literature. Frida Vogels and J.J. Voskuil have strongly influenced me. Their work arises from daily reflections and is marked by an uncompromising observation of the self. Voskuil limits himself to perception and his work is deeply psychological. How does a person hold one’s ground?
I nevertheless find it difficult to situate myself within these contexts. In the perception of society you are a literary author if a literary agent publishes your book and it’s for sale at the bookstore. For me, it’s been a conscious decision to work with Roma, an independent publisher of art books. Recently, we published the artist’s book In Two Minds of Gwenneth Boelens. She’s my partner and also a former Rijksakademie resident (RA, 06/07). I edited and wrote the book. I don’t see my role as a contributor, rather as having taken upon myself the textual part of her practice. And it works both ways, of course.”
You once said that writing is a process of increasing awareness, and observation is the starting point. What do you mean by that?
“I write or make art because my curiosity is being roused by something I don’t yet understand. It could be trivial moments that for some reason stay in your mind forever. Through writing, I become aware of something and find out what it is.”
What are your expectations and plans for your residency at the Rijksakademie?
“Instead of overanalyzing my work, I’d like to get more into it and possibly even lose control. Right now, I too often get in the way of my own work. By placing it in a verbal framework, I might restrict it or sell it short. The photographs I make and the texts I write should get space to breathe. I think the advisors can help me with that. I’d also like to figure out which steps I can take next in reading my texts. Is it a performative act? And what’s the right way to present visual source material from my personal archive?
An actual target I’ve set for myself is to finish my novel and make exhibitions at the same time, in a way one isn’t subsidiary to the other.”