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.”
by Frederieke Beunk
Cheng Ran in his studio, photo by Frederieke Beunk.
Today I visited second-year resident Cheng Ran (CN, 1981) in his studio at the Rijksakademie. We sit down in two large old-fashioned armchairs. I look out on a year’s study: a dozen parts of a deconstructed black grand piano are standing against the wall. On the ground lays a project Ran is working on: an assemblage of Dutch brochures and magazines from the Seventies and Eighties that he found by chance in some road trash. Ran can’t read Dutch, but his assistant helps him.
Experiences Ran didn’t have yet or skills he doesn’t masters, fascinate him. Under the pseudonym Wojtowircz Fog he has published the novel Circadian Rhythm (2013). It’s a detective story in which he takes up motifs and quotes from his earlier works. According to Ran it is badly written, however it’s not so much about the story. The work is meant to be a total experience in which you could read the book on a toilet in the exhibition space. During RijksakademieOPEN 2013 special excerpts from the novel with clues of the story were exhibited around the public toilets of the Rijksakademie. Ran is interested in the combined action of location and reading.
Cheng Ran, Chewing Gum Paper (filmstill), 2011, single channel video with sound, 3 min 10 sec, photo by Cheng Ran.
Ideas for his videos, installations and novels he finds in daily life, music, youth culture, and European art house cinema. In China, he spent days and nights with friends who play in a band. There his idea arose for the video Chewing Gum Paper (2011). First you hear the sound of a drum, then you see screwed up silver chewing gum wrapping papers and bouncing on the vibrating drum surface. Martin Luther King’s four words from his famous speech ‘I have a dream’ (1963) resound repeatedly in a distorted and hypnotic way. The viewer very quickly gets a sense of recognition by the canonical words. By a second encounter, the serious undertone of the words seems a bit out of place in combination with the playful wrapping papers. Ran plays with the idea how sound can affect the way you look at an image and vice versa.
He is receptive to new ideas he gains from unfamiliar cultures, like the Dutch culture. As student at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, Ran became acquainted with Western art. Reading Western texts and theories, a new world opened up for him. China before 1989, the year in which modern Chinese art started to develop, is for Ran miles remoted. He rather focuses on Western culture and finds it easier to translate it to a video work than Chinese culture. He rather focuses on what the European culture has to bring him during his residency, than relating to Chinese politics, as so many Chinese artists do who are well known in the West.
Ran’s first-year stay at the Rijksakademie greatly affected his work and the way he reflects on it in different ways. In his work he concentrates on the experience of human interaction and the relationship of citizens to society. He lets himself be inspired by Amsterdam and its inhabitants. For hours he walked through the city and observes the daily habits and interaction of passers-by. He is interested in the story of the city and her inhabitants. When the sun is breaking through, he likes to go to the Oosterpark writing a novel or listening to musicians.
But also technical aspects of his work changed. Before his arrival at the Rijksakademie, Ran filmed his video with a digital camera. He had a lot of inspiring conversations with technical specialists and developed his technique in the media workshops. Here he learned how to work with super 16 mm film. Ran says in China it is almost impossible to work with this kind of film of the lack of special cameras and places to develop these films. Last year, he made seven new films, but he also expanded his work from video to other media such as installations, sound works and novels. He points out that the contact between the resident artists is very professional: there are a lot of in-depth discussions which made him look at his work in a renewed way. Ran: ‘The atmosphere of the art scene here is quite different than the Chinese art scene.’ Although the technical aspect of his work gained a high degree of development, for Ran the most important change becomes visible in the way he looks at his work and the new perceptions on his work which he has acquired during his residency.
This year he also would like to explore super 8 mm film. The idea for a new video came from the many junk emails everyone receives in his email box, but never reads. In his new video he would like to recite the emails as poems. In his coming novel he will focuses on the effects of language barriers on his work and his communication about it. Despite his limited mastery of the English language, he’s planning to write the book in English directly. Furthermore he would like to make a full length movie, currently he only makes short films. For his last residency year at the Rijksakademie Ran has still enough ideas.
More information you can find on Cheng Ran’s artist page.
by Taya Hanauer
A woman with a white hat will enter.
She will stand by the door for a moment.
She will appear pale.
She will be self-assured and kind of sexy.
The man will experience a déjà vu.
The woman will sit near the door.
She will be ready for anything really.
She will seem friendly on the outside.
She will clear her voice.
The above is an excerpt from Zhana Ivanova’s (BG, RA 12/13) script which was given to the audience as part of her performance piece “all the players” during RijksakademieOPEN. Watching the movements of the silent actors, the audience attempts to follow along with the script in hand. At one point, it becomes obvious that the script is quite peculiar. At times it describes an action as one would expect a script to do (“she will sit near the door”), while at other times it points out a judgment not otherwise made by the viewer or an experience not otherwise perceptible, transparently dictating to the audience what to see (“she will appear pale” or “the man will experience a déjà vu”). Ivanova’s performance piece plays with the audience’s perceptions and expectations in this way, providing an odd script which makes the audience question what is going on in a scene which hangs somewhere between familiar and strange.
The performance took place in a specially built room inside Ivanova’s studio, and emulates a waiting room scenario with chairs along the walls, a standard green plant, and a side table with water glasses. It begins with two characters sitting in the room, seemingly waiting, later two more characters join them, and the scene loops every 15 minutes, with the actors switching roles. Like in a typical waiting room, the characters do not talk to each other, and appear to be waiting for something else and more important to happen. This waiting room situation, where time is usually experienced as wasted is the focus of this piece. Combined with the script given to the audience, the emphasis of this performance is directed towards things that are not consciously noticed or imperceptible in such situations considered lacking in significance, such as nonverbal communication, internal thoughts, and arbitrary actions. With this emphasis, Ivanova’s performance switches between the roles of expected visibility, fading into the background actions that are usually visible and expected to be so, such as speech and climax events, which in this case refers to the expectation that something will indeed happen, that what has been waited for will arrive or that the characters will speak to each other.
The usage of the script itself is a manifestation of the aspect of bringing to visibility things that remain unseen or unnoticed. The script is commonly perceived as a guiding outline for actors to follow, a skeleton for a performance but incomplete in itself. Here it is brought out of its usually hidden place and given a powerful role in creation of action and perspective. The script is so significant here that without it, the audience would not be able to follow the actors, they would not be able to ‘understand’ what they see. This dependency on the script brings the audience inside the boundaries of the performance, as the role of the script is transferred from scripting only the actors to scripting the audience as well.
The scripting of the audience also through the specific content dictating perceptions or judgments, and bringing out elements which are commonly overlooked or unseen such as arbitrary actions and internal thoughts, and the audience’s dependency on it in order to gain entry into the performance, gives way to another sense of reality which intertwines ‘real life’ and the staged performance. Specifically also the lack of verbal communication between the characters and the at times unusual demands of the script from the audience’s perception (for example “she will be self-assured and kind of sexy”) all recall the many unseen aspects of daily life, the complexity which lays below the obvious and the visible; the unshared thoughts, feelings, and actions which constitute our existence. In this way “all the players” can make daily life appear mute without a script. A mute environment in which people remain isolated from each other with unshared thoughts and unnoticed actions. This relation to life gives an unnatural yet familiar feel to the performance and creates an awareness of this recognizable part of daily life which has no voice and cannot have a voice expcept for an imposed one in a setting which is necessarily staged.
The stylistic qualities of “All the Players” seem inspired by what Martin Esslin has termed “Theatre of the Absurd” which refers to a sense of purposelessness, incomprehensibility, refusal to conventional language, play with the audience, and a general existentialism which points towards the “illusion of what we thought was life’s apparent logical structure[i].” “All the Players” incorporates such elements and is similarly a complex fragment but more abstract in its usage of plot and characters than the playwrights originally grouped under this heading. Ivanova’s “All the Players” emphasizes these specific qualities through the reduction of elements to complete purposelessness, existential isolation, and play with the audience, in a waiting room scene in which ‘nothing’ ends up happening, the character’s thoughts and actions arbitrary and uncommunicated, and a script upon which the audience depends in order to ‘see’ these arbitrary things which go unnoticed. A script that dictates perceptions, points towards the isolation in life, and is in itself a symbol of reversed roles of visibility, making the audience question what it is that they have just seen.
[i] Martin Esslin, “The Theatre of the Absurd,” The Tulane Drama Review 4.4 (May 1960): 1-15.