2007 Essay


Text as presented during the symposium Time at Arti et Amicitiae in Amsterdam, Netherlands, 15 June 2007

(Published in: Peter Lodermeyer, Karlyn De Jongh & Sarah Gold, PERSONAL STRUCTURES: TIME SPACE EXISTENCE, DuMont Verlag, Cologne, Germany, 2009

Depicting self-experienced and non self-experienced time

We humans perceive time only as a result of memory. If we had no conscious memory, we would not be aware of time at all, we would only see the Now. The result of having memory and the creation of our way of measuring time causes our perception of time to appear as a line. Mathematicians, physicists, philosophers and others have made statements about space being finite and time being infinite, but to me it seems as if Time and Space themselves, as well as Existence, are all infinite.

I am an artist, not a philosopher, and unfortunately my lifetime is simply too short to focus on both directions equally good. So I decided to concentrate on expressing my thoughts, myself, in objects and not in writing. Therefore I will not explain here my philosophical thoughts about time, but rather explain how time is expressed in my works. I express not only the time I have experienced, but also time I have not witnessed myself. My installations do not just represent me, they are part of me. My works are often classified as minimal- or non-representational art, but they are not. Although I admit that for communicational reasons I have used the word non-representational myself, I am of the opinion that each work of art represents something, even more than just itself.

My works have become the way they are because of many influences from the past. Knowledge and experiences have formed my intellect, and my work is also influenced by my personal and emotional condition at the moment of their actual execution. Some artists claim that their work is purely intellectual, and others claim they are purely emotional artists. Both influences, emotional and intellectual, are indeed present in my work and me. The separation between the emotional and intellectual is another discussion, but these tendencies exert both a great influence on me and my work. They are strongly related to the time and space I exist in.

Expressing the present and the past

The closest my objects come to something called ‘expressing the present’ is when I execute the actual manual handling of the physically present construction of the object. At the actual moment of execution, my emotional constitution adjusts the decisions I had made earlier on. Variations in color, the amount of and the way in which I apply material on the carrier, are for example influenced by my emotional condition during the object’s execution. These emotional influences are mainly momentary. Of great influence are, for example, my surroundings and my personal constitution, whether I am hungry or if I just had sex and am tired but satisfied. Many of the decisions about how my objects turn out are made long before the actual execution. The decision about how a series of Boxes will look like is a conscious choice of my means of expression. Certain colors, materials, textures, shapes and compositions express for me certain thoughts and emotions. By connecting them to the subject, I am able to express my intellectual and emotional relationship to the subject. Knowledge about material, color, size, surface-structure, composition and space. Knowledge about the thoughts of other artists I communicate with, but also the know­ledge about thoughts and works of artists who are already dead. Knowledge about us, mankind, about the world and the space and time we live in. The thoughts standing at the origin of the intellectual decision about how to construct my work come from somewhere. That origin is to be found in the time that has passed.

Roman Opalka, who sits here next to me, is older than me. He lived before I ever started my life and before Roman, there were other humans. As a human, I am capable of creating an awareness about ‘Time which has passed’, but in order to create that awareness, I need knowledge and there just isn’t enough lifetime to collect all the knowledge I would wish to collect.

How little do I know about the time before the earth existed, about the origin of the earth and the beginning of life. I know a little more about the era when dinosaurs inhabited the world and for me it is not hard to imagine that once dinosaurs probably walked where I am now standing at this very moment. At that time humans did not exist. We, Homo sapiens, came much later, perhaps about 200.000 years ago, and it looks like it took us roughly another 150.000 years before we developed the first cultural aspects. This would mean that, Homo sapiens existed probably 150,000 years without cultural things. From this period we have not found evidence of anything, having to do with music or art. All those cultural acts must have only started an approximately mere 50,000 years ago.

It was communication which mainly helped us to develop. Wri­t­ing seems to be the most crucial of all human skills. The, up to now, oldest discovered writing only dates from 5,500 years ago. Communication seems to be the key to so many things. But although we humans have become capable of managing very complex communications, in order to reach as many humans possible it remains wise to use a language, words and sentence constructions, which have a fair chance of being understood.

We communicate not only through spoken language and writing, music and gestures, but also through our paintings and objects. Humans express their thoughts in the paintings and objects they make. These thoughts and the knowledge expressed create an awareness about us as human beings, and the way in which we are able to communicate. But without written statements by the artist, or without having spoken to the artist in person, we will never know what the creator really meant with the works he or she created, and even then, transporting thoughts and emotions honestly and sincerely, remains difficult.

During the last few thousand years many paintings and objects have been created, but it seems to be just the last 150 years where artists have been looking for other goals for their creations than just making religion-related works or representing visually experienced or imaginary scenery. Around 100 years ago, an abstract language in art appeared with people like Kandinsky, Malevich, or later with Mondrian and Barnett Newman. It was Frank Stella who created more or less by coincidence a framework, which made his painting look like an object. The nature of what painting was indeed changed. Painting no longer had to merely depict an image or simulate a window. A painting now became an object in itself, a physical entity in a room. Surrounding all the creations, abstract thoughts had developed. Donald Judd for example, tried to depersonalize his objects. Although he failed in this attempt, his thoughts and all the know­ledge I gained from such people who lived before my personal, consciously experienced time, have helped me in creating my own thoughts about all the formal elements I use to make my works.

Time and my work

I was born in 1957 in the Netherlands. Many events have taken place since then, but it took several years for my brain to reach the level of development where I was able to realize that those events actually happened. It took time and effort to consciously become more aware of myself and my surroundings. That awareness of consciously experiencing my own existence will hopefully continue to grow.

To live my life within art, contemporary art, was an intellectual decision I made in 1993 while living in Greece. Listening, reading, observing, discussing, as a human being, I have learned and continue to learn from others. It is a combination of adopting know­ledge and adding my own thoughts to it.

In 1996, I lived for a while in Vallauris, in the South of France. With the little money I earned from selling my work, I went to Paris, to the Centre Pompidou, to look at Roman Opalka’s work. At that time three works by Roman Opalka were being shown there. I sat in front of his works, while Polish numbers came out of the speakers. He tried to explain Time to me and I tried to understand. Ten years later, in 2006, again in France, I stood with Roman in his Octagon, discussing Time and now, on 15 June 2007, we are both speaking here in Amsterdam, aware that soon I might witness that Roman will not be able to continue painting infinity, because some day he will die.

Robert Rauschenberg told me that when he was younger, he believed that there was not enough world for him to discover and now, conscious of the fact that he would soon die, he said; “I am running out of time.” It is this awareness, of how short my own expected Life-Time actually will be, that made me decide to create the best possible balance between a professional life that is as challenging as possible, experiencing as much as possible in this world, and enjoying a sexual life that is as interesting as possible. Time itself does not stop. We just cease to exist.

Time in my work is expressed in the choice of color, in the choice of shape, size, surface, composition and even in the choice of the materials. These choices are always made in relation to the subject I have chosen for that particular series. These choices are made emotionally as well as intellectually. In order to express the emotions I wish to express, and in order to communicate with the spectator, I have to have at least some knowledge of abstract language. Take color, for example: the thoughts about color came from people such as Goethe, Itten and even Wittgenstein. Their knowledge helped make it possible to use color for communication more consiously. So when I choose a color, the choice is always a combination of my momentary emotional condition and of the knowledge I gained about human thoughts made in the past. But not only color, also other elements such as shape, texture and material can be used to communicate and it is all these things I can make use of. This is not only because of the knowledge about how these elements have been used in the past, but also because of the knowledge about how most humans respond to these elements. With my consciously taken choices, I express myself and my awareness about human history and the history before humans, my awareness about Time.

In 2001, I lived for some months in an area of Germany called Saarland, which is a coalmining region close to the French border. I always claimed that you could see the coalmines in the genes of the people living there. It was such a dark feeling. For the Boxes I made there, I wasn’t able to choose any material other than heavy steel, but as a person very much alive and living in that surrounding, unwilling to be sucked into that society, I gave it a powerful presence. On one side I painted red oil paint, human life.

Here in the next hall, I am also showing Boxes with the title “USA, New Orleans, May 2002”. While driving by car from Miami to Los Angeles, I stopped off in New Orleans, experiencing the city, and I remember being disappointed. So later, back in my studio, I chose black and then I chose a shape like a coffin. Now, years of time have passed and meanwhile, disaster has struck New Orleans. The know­ledge of what happened in the time after I created my objects has changed the meaning of them. While creating an object, only thoughts and knowledge of the past can go into it, but after the object has been made, through the passage of time, the meaning of an object changes. As time passes, new thoughts are created, we add our newly acquired knowledge to the objects we observe.

Just a month ago I created an installation of Boxes called “Life”. For these Boxes I choose the color red because it is human and has a strong presence. I chose the size, compact; and I chose the material, ceramic, because ceramic lasts a long time, longer than wood. Within all their formal elements, with all their subjectivity, these ceramic Boxes represent all my thoughts, me as a total entity. These Boxes, “Life”, are proof of my existence. They capture my awareness of the time I could not witness myself as well as my personally experienced Life-Time. And, after I myself have died, each “Life” Box will continue to exist and communicate.

Questions from the audience

Valerie Laxton: How satisfied are you with your paintings?

Rene Rietmeyer: My work is always the maximum result of what I am capable of at that specific moment in time and space. Sometimes I’m very tired and I just cannot create anything better, or sometimes my arm hurts so much that I am unable to work like I would want to, or maybe I had to work in a very small studio and could not create larger works. Whatever the circumstances and the limitations are, I always try to attain the maximum result. Therefore I always have reason to be satisfied with the outcome.

VL: So you never feel that you have to commit suicide because…

RR: No, and that is a nice feeling. I look at my work and I can see the situation, the time and the location where they were made. I remember that I went to Japan and as usual I was totally broke. The paint became very thin, the canvas had a very cheap quality and the wood and I got thinner as well. That was my first ‘Japan Time’. Later, in Germany, I had some money and could order 107 steel Boxes to be made and put thick oil paint on them, but I also remember having worked for weeks in a cold garage in the Netherlands, where it was just 3° Celsius (38°F). I had to put my oil paint on a little heater so that I at least could get the paint out of the tube. And then there were times when I worked in August, in my Miami studio and I was trying to not let too much of my sweat drip into the oil paint because it mixes so badly. My objects become what they become. Always. Each Box I make is a honest result of me, my existence at that moment in time and space, an object from that specific time in my life.