By Frederieke Beunk
Second-year Rijksakademie resident Smi Vukovic’s (Canada/Serbia, 1979) work underwent a notable transition during her first residency year. Where she formerly used abstract Rorschach looking imagery she now increasingly converts her work towards a more figurative idiom. She combines body transfers – direct prints of her body – on photograms and on various sorts of textiles with poems. Her work has an ambiguous appearance and doesn’t reveal itself at first sight. In an attempt to raise a corner of the veil I met Vukovic at her studio.
Smi Vukovic in her studio. Photo by Frederieke Beunk.
When I enter the room the first thing I notice is a play of sunrays on scattered plates laying on the floor. The plates are covered with dust and partially mirror the works on the wall. On one wall white sheets contain indexical signs of forearms. A red curtain hides a work from view. Textiles playfully hide part of works, revealing more clearly those sections that are visible. I look at her work and my curiosity arouses, what do these veils conceal?
Over time, your paintings have evolved from largely flat objects to works that are increasingly part of the space; physical structures.
“The former paintings I made were more of recordings of actions on a material, then cut in pieces, shuffled, stitched together and last of all stretched on a frame. I didn’t really stick so strictly to the medium of painting. You could say it was some kind of an object already. At a certain point I started to feel repulsed by what it becomes when put on a stretcher.”
Smi Vukovic, The proverbial erasure of cultural legacy I, 2014. Photo Frederieke Beunk.
Your work consistently makes use of the hand, an integral part of the body when it comes to human interactions, how did that idea start?
“Some of the visual elements I currently use are extracted from the photos I took during the Civil War in Serbia. Recently I rediscovered these images and although one of them was a completely white negative, I started scanning it and parts of an image did become visible. It turned out to be a picture of people in a procession-like order taking out furniture and documents out of the Parliament to keep it safe. There was a hand surfacing from the dark background that appeared to expand beyond the context of this picture. It could be photosensitive capture of some kind of fresco - or like a ghost. I took it out as a key, connecting to the rest of my work. The hand is a very powerful symbol and emotionally charged. It’s very human. In fact it’s the first image mankind ever made.”
In what way should we look at your body transfers? Do you consider your body as a ‘pinceau vivant’, as an instrument to apply the paint on the textile, as for example the painter Yves Klein did?
“I don’t use my body as brush. The meaning of these draperies is spiritual in suggestion. I would rather think of the textiles as shrines and perhaps make a comparison with the Veil of Veronica, a relic of a piece of cloth, which, according to legend, bears the likeness of the face not made by human hand.
The photograms are a negatively way of transferring images, such as directly transferring my body on photographic paper. I also like the reference to prehistoric bog bodies, mummified bodies that kept conserved in peat bogs for centuries and every now and then disturbingly unearth into our time raising all these questions.”
III. In The Sun
Now it’s easy for us
We got rid of the flesh
How wonderful it is
to sunbath naked
As for me,
I never got seduced by
those rags either
I’m crazy about you
naked like this
Above is one of the poems Vukovic integrated in her work. It gives a surreal and obscure impression; two human bones that find each other in afterlife and having a funny, somewhat black humoristic conversation about how glad they’re to get rid of the flesh.
What role does this poem plays in your work?
“Vasco Popa (Serbia, 1922 - 1991), a well-known World War II poet wrote it. I feel drawn to it because although it’s not directly political it’s inspired by history as well as by folk tale surrealism and local mythologies. Popa is ridiculing death while looking it straight in the eyes. A recurring topic in his poems is a transition from abstract to figurative and from abstract to words. As I was reading it, it occurred to me his words somehow perfectly consisted with my ideas and work. It’s very existential.”
Where does your interest for history originate from?
“I grew up in the heart of Balkans, sometimes even considered the “darker parts of Europe”. Every bit of the ground witnessed countless shifts of history, and nothing is as it seems. I perversely enjoy the lack of wider popularity of this region. Recently I was drawn to explore the leftovers of history by naturally following the flow of river Danube from my native Belgrade to notoriously archaic Eastern Serbia. Trying to put my earliest memories “on trial”, I revisited an archaeological site of Lepenski Vir, one of the most visually expressive Mesolithic settlements, where my mother worked as a researcher when I was a child. I walked around fireplaces and burial grounds and saw river gods carved in stone with fish-like faces and burial postures of skeletons with crossed arms and legs. This fluvial prehistoric culture made a huge impression on me.”
How does this integrate into your work?
“I built an emotional relationship with humanity’s universal questions and strong abstract imagery as a carrier for such convoluted concepts around meaning and existence. Recently, topics that inform my work include folk-tale surrealism, collective histories, and memory loss related to historical trauma.”
Smi Vukovic’ studio. Photo Frederieke Beunk.
Your work consists of many layers that overlap each other in a play of veiling and unveiling. This idea of stratification seems to expand in the different shapes and materials of the objects you use and also in a more conceptual way of hidden and revealed stories. Eventually you also added semi reflecting mirrors.
“I just started using this sort of false report mirroring like each of this objects on the floor are reflecting one of the works. In an elusive way. The black mirror on the ground evokes a distorted and dark appearance. While experimenting with a variety of materials such as Perspex to make a mirror I realized it isn’t possible to make a mirror without a transparent layer. It’s impossible to make a dark mirror.”
Smi Vukovic, Fragmentary emotional States of matter, 2014. Photo Smi Vukovic.
And the dust on the mirrors?
“After a while of experimenting the mirrors got dusty. I intentionally didn’t remove the dust, appreciating the way it distorts and veils the reflection.”
Smi Vukovic’ studio. Photo Frederieke Beunk.
You also started to use different kind of textiles in your work, for example the bronze or golden one?
“I came across some lenticular postcards from the 80’s. We all know these printed images with an illusion of depth or a movement; the image being dissembled at first and then the illusion of it being brought back as a whole, produced by a layer of many lined lenses. Everything you put before that layer is two-dimensional. I expanded this idea of three-dimension layering of textile by a final coat.”
Our conversation comes to an end. I pass my eye over Vukovic’ work in her studio again: the poems, the body transfers, and the veils. To me her work can be seen as multi-faceted polygons which don’t reveal themselves that easily.
Interested in Smi Vukovic and her work? Please find more information on her artists’ page on the Rijksakademie website.
 Excerpt from Vasco Popa’s Bone to bone.
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.