2009 Interview

Rene Rietmeyer



By Karlyn De Jongh, Sarah Gold and Peter Lodermeyer   Aug-Sep 2009

(The following text was published in:  Peter Lodermeyer, Karlyn De Jongh & Sarah Gold, PERSONAL STRUCTURES: TIME SPACE EXISTENCE, DuMont Verlag, Cologne, Germany, 2009, p396-401)


Rene Rietmeyer (* 1957 in the Netherlands). In his work Rietmeyer addresses the awareness of time, space and existence by means of his variable installations of Boxes.


Sarah Gold: Since 1997 your body of work consists mainly of “Boxes”. Why do you make Boxes? Could you explain the concept of your work?

Rene Rietmeyer: My works, my Boxes, do not simply reproduce visual representational images of a subject. The emotionality and subjectivity of my concept are an expression of my own existence and personality. I create an atmosphere that mirrors my very personal subjective thoughts about the subject.

My Boxes create an atmosphere. They transport my emotional and intellectual relationship with the subject using form, color, texture, composition and a conscious choice of the material. Whether my work is visually attractive or not is not relevant. My objects mirror my thoughts concerning life and thereby, at the same time, also say something about me, my life, regardless whether the result is aesthetically attractive or not.

My work is therefore more than just an abstract reproduction of perceptions; it includes my reflections, my existence as a human being, as well. The dialogue with my own works heightens also my own awareness of my existence as part of this world. It is an encounter with myself, with me as a person, with my past and my reflections. My work is nothing other than the proof of my existence. Not much different than the 30,000-year-old handprint of the painter in the Chauvet cave in France.

Peter Lodermeyer: You stated that already in 2000, during our very first interview. Why is it important at all to provide proof of your own existence? For whom? For what reason?

RR: I never said that it is important to provide prove of my own existence, not for me, not for anybody else and it is not even important to prove anything for any reason. I simply acknowledge that my works are a proof of my existence, nothing more, but also nothing less.

SG: You seem to have always lived an unusual and interesting life, and you are seemingly much more occupied with existence than other people in general. Where does this awareness about life come from? What does your own existence mean to you?  

RR: In general, awareness seems to be a combination of observation and the conscious reflection upon the observation, with the capability of handling language and language itself, as tools. The capability to be aware seems to be dependent on the development stage of each specific human brain. Partly I educated my brain, but mainly I am just lucky that I am able to be aware of, to observe my own, at least for me, precious existence.

Karlyn De Jongh: If your work is, as you say, ultimately the proof of your existence, to what extent can people know you through your work? And—conversely—to what extent can people know your work through you?

RR: That statement has not much to do with how people can know me through my work or vice versa. However, having an encounter with me or my work will give of course a better insight into the other entity, be it my work or me. My work and I are so close to each other, the similarities are obvious, therefore, if you encounter my work, you can sense me, you have me.

KDJ: When you say that your works are a ‘proof’, what do you mean? Do you want to say, “I was here”? Is it possible to prove your existence? Why do you want that?

RR: I never said that “I want that”, I only stated that, since my work carries so much of me inside, my work as an existing entity therefore proves that I exist, and after I am dead, it proves that I once existed. That is not even a question, that is very obvious. And, I do not create my works in order to say “I was here”. They do that by themselves, without being made for that particular reason, they do that just by existing.

KDJ: What does the proof-character of your work say about time? Are you looking at your work from a future perspective?

RR: The proof-character of my work says nothing about time, but as much as I am looking at my works in the present, I look at my work from a future perspective. It must be interesting for the people who are close to me now to encounter my work when I am dead.

KDJ: You have said that you make your boxes primarily for yourself. But when your boxes are ‘proofs’, it seems you require another person to prove it to. Is not the other then of great importance?

RR: It is interesting to communicate with another person through my work, but that does not mean that the other is “of great importance”, or that I require another person to prove anything to. When I look at the works I made, I look into my past, into the life I lived. Even for me, myself, they are the proof that I, at those times in history, existed. The works I make are also not made to ‘prove’ anything, they are just an expression of my thoughts about my existence in relation to my surrounding.

KDJ: The concepts ‘time’, ‘space’, and ‘existence’ are important to you. You often speak about an awareness or consciousness towards them. Why is it so important to you to be aware of these concepts? To be aware of your time, your existence, your space, is that about an awareness of the verge of life and death?

RR: An intense consciousness about Time, Space and Existence puts your own existence in a larger perspective, shows you how small you are, makes you realize the importance and beauty of being alive and makes you aware and accept the ‘finalness’ of death.

KDJ: Now, because of this publication, you have not been able to paint for some time. How do you look at these interim moments? What do they say about your existence, your life?

RR: I really like creating my works, my Boxes, I have experienced many beautiful years in my studio. But, the scale in which I would like to communicate with other people does seem to need also other forms of being present. Therefore I had decided to initiate and give some of my lifetime to this project. But it was not only giving, there is a lot to learn, I gained knowledge and had, especially with you and Sarah, many beautiful experiences, all together, an enrichment for my life that has influence. I myself am looking forward to my new series of Boxes.

KDJ: In your speech for the symposium about Existence, you say, “There is no reason why we exist.” At the same time, you seem to be a very driven person and want to make something out of your life. You have even often told me that you want to live as long as possible. And that, if it would be possible, you want to live forever. What does life mean to you?

RR: Being alive, sensing Life itself, is a fantastic feeling and stimulates many possibilities for activities. Being aware that there actually is no reason for our existence does not exclude that we could, or even should, do something beautiful, something good, with our existence. Life is precious and should not be taken for granted; having encounters with the world, with other living beings can be fantastic, if you are capable of seeing the beauty in the ‘otherness’. There is so much to see, so much to experience, life is much, much too short; it is a pity that I will have to die.

KDJ: You posed the last question in my project Unanswered Questions to On Kawara. You asked: “Could you have done anything to get more satisfaction out of your own existence?” Why is this an important question? What is your own answer to this question?

RR: I think everybody should ask that question to him or herself over and over again, and then have a good look into the reality of your own existence. If you are really satisfied, fine, if you know you could have, should have, then, if still possible, take the consequences and do it. And, yes, although I am living an interesting life, I could still do several things to get more satisfaction out of my own existence and I am trying hard to make that happen in reality.

KDJ: There are three things you often mention as the most important things in life and that you have to take care of: work, traveling and sex. You said you did not want to speak about sex in this interview. Why is that, when it is so essential for your existence? Is that too personal?

RR: I always stated that I like my life to contain an interesting professional life, traveling and experiencing many countries and cultures, and an interesting sexual life. Because I, together with my partner, often have erotic encounters with other women, my sexual life seems to be different than that from many other people, and although my sexual life is an important part of my existence and NO question is too personal for me, I thought it would be better in this interview to focus more on other aspects.

KDJ: You seem to have an openness towards other people. At the same time, you often claim to speak from your own knowledge. What is so particular about this knowledge when you are so influenced by the world around you?

RR: My knowledge is created by influences, input, from the world around me, in combination with my own intellectual capabilities and is therefore a very personal knowledge. I am aware that my so-called knowledge is very subjective and limited, but it is all I have as a tool in order to act and to create. Staying open and being open, to and for other people, makes sure that I stay flexible, keep learning and have a chance to communicate honest and sincere.

SG: Staying flexible as a person has been always an important factor for you. Is that one of the reasons that you lived and worked in so many different countries? How does the moving from different locations add to your personal and professional life? Has it ever been a negative experience? Also, how do you translate these experiences into your work?

RR: I always thought that, if one stays living in mainly one specific place, it seems unavoidable that one looses, or does not gain, real flexibility and understanding for humans from other cultures. I therefore created my own nomadic way of living and my professional life expresses that. I never had any negative experiences in that sense, I would rather refer to some experiences as being challenging experiences; therefore my work mainly has an optimistic feel to it.

KDJ: You have a flexibility in your installations and adjust to situations and other people all the time; you seem like a chameleon. Can you speak about ‘you’? Do you require that flexibility from the other person too?

RR: If you want to achieve certain goals, while working in many different countries and with people from many different cultures, that requires that one adjusts to their ‘being’, I cannot expect from the other the same. That may seem like a chameleon-like behavior, but that means for sure that I do not have to give up, or even loose, my own identity. Adjustment, being flexible, is part of me and is therefore also part of my installations.

KDJ: Roman Opalka made a big impression on you. It seems to me that your understanding of time is a little different than his and that you take time in the sense of ‘your time’, how time relates to you, your life-time. Is that correct? How do you see ‘your time’ in relation to the ongoing time Opalka addresses with his work? Is this ongoingness of time an issue for you as well?

RR: I like Roman Opalka as a human and I respect his thoughts and his work, but everybody’s understanding of Time will at least slightly differ. I relate to Time naturally mainly in relation to my own life-time, and my thoughts do not differ with Roman’s thoughts when it is about the ongoingness of time, and both Roman and I are very aware that our personal life-time will come to an end, but I will die and my life-time really comes to an end, my life-time stops, Roman however, he will die and go into infinity, because he will not hear anybody, including himself, saying, “Roman, you are dead”.

KDJ: You always put a lot of stress on the importance of communication: art for example, is communication for you. It seems you want to transport the message, no matter how. How important is the meaning of the message in relation to the form? Can you put beauty aside?

RR: In an interview called Existence, which I gave in 2000 I stated that my works “express my existence as a person and they do just that. They do not want to be objective, pleasant, beautiful or ugly. No, they are as they are.” I have repeated my thoughts several times since then and I have not changed them until today. And yes, I do want to transport a message, no matter how. The meaning in my message I find so important that I am trying to communicate it not only through art, but also in writing.

KDJ: It seems important for you to ‘spread’ your works and your thoughts. Why is that? Why do you want to communicate your existence, your thoughts?

RR: In all the parts of the world where I have been, I meet people who are not happy with the way they are living their lives. I cannot change their circumstances, but I can have influence on the way they think, and that change in the way one thinks can either make you satisfied with your current situation or may give you the strength or the knowledge to change your life.

SG: You say that you “construct” your Boxes. What is the actual construction of your work? Is that the intellectual aspect, or is it the manual labor, the making and the painting of the object?

RR: My Boxes result from the combination of many elements, from the original subject experience until the final manual handling. I like to call this combining from parts “constructing”, because it is much more than just painting the surface of an object.

SG: Your works, although they always have a box-shaped form, vary with each different series. What do you want to express by the different sizes and shapes of your Boxes? 

RR: With the conscious choice of size and shape you can express many thoughts and emotions, similar to what one can do with color, material, etc. If you meet Joseph Kosuth, you can only come to the conclusion that he represents a strong block shape, and not too small; and staying in Ireland, Ballingskelligs, seduced me to the only time I used a curved shape. Go there and you will feel it.

SG: Not only your Boxes itself, also the installations of your work vary in size. In addition also the spacing between the Boxes can differ a lot. Does your work mean to interact with the space it is placed in? Are there set rules for how your work has to be presented? Or is the owner of your work ‘allowed’ to interact and place your work to his or her personal taste?

RR: When my Boxes are placed in a space, the interaction with the space is of great importance. The size of my installations and the space in between the Boxes always depend upon the space they are placed within. There are no pre-set rules. It all depends upon each specific space. Preferably I myself have the main influence upon displaying my work, but on occasion other people have proven to have refreshing thoughts about how to place one of my installations.

KDJ: Your boxes are a reaction to a space or place, such as your Venezia boxes are a reaction to Venice. When you exhibit these works somewhere else in the world, does that have an effect? How do the places where you exhibit your boxes, or the provenance, relate to the ‘original’ place or experience?

RR: My works and what I have put in them stay the same, whenever and wherever my works are, it is just the way in which they are perceived that changes by time or location. The relation between the place where my works are exhibited and the place, which was the origin of the creating of these works are of no importance in order to observe my works.

SG: Is there a meaning or ‘message’ you want to transport to the person who encounters your work? And if so, what would you like to transfer or communicate?     

RR: At first glance it may seem that my Boxes solely transport my emotional and intellectual relationship with the subject, but the message and their meaning go beyond that. Spoken in a few words, the message is; encounter your surroundings as aware, conscious and open-minded as possible, and the meaning; I, Rene Rietmeyer, at the moment of the creating of this specific object, lived, each Box is a sign of: there has been a person, living a life.

SG: When you look at your works, which are like personal-time-documents, how has your work changed through the passage of time?

RR: From the content point of view, my work has not changed at all, only the subjects and I myself have changed and that has influenced the visual appearance of my work. At this point in time however, I am not capable of making conclusions about what these differences in visual appearance mean, in regard to my own personal development through the passage of time.

PL: Is the desire to leave something behind for posterity—works of art that will ‘survive’ you, not just a variation of the old fashioned 19th century concept of the artist’s search for posthumous fame? I have never understood this. When Van Gogh died he didn’t know that he would become famous. For him it just didn’t make any difference. Why not just accept the temporality of our lives and our art works as well and only work for the here and now?

RR: My work is not about the desire to leave something behind for posterity. If my work is about ‘desire’ at all, it is the desire to communicate. To communicate with the people whom I do not personally encounter while I am alive, but also after I died. I do not like the acknowledgement that my life will come to an end, but of course I had no other choice than to accept that, and with that, I accept the temporality of my words and art work as well, but that does not stop me from liking it, that people will encounter me through my works after I died, I am sure Van Gogh liked that, too. I can only witness events as long as I am alive. Therefore I do not care about posthumous fame, and I work for the here and now, but already now I am pleased that people will think about what I had to say after I am dead. Fortunately I am not dead yet.

PL: According to the German Foundation of the World Population (DSW), there are currently more than 6.81 billion people living on this planet, with a growth rate of 227.030 people daily. In light of these numbers I have my doubts about the importance of producing something lasting, and about the concept of ‘self-expression’ as well. Is ‘self-expression’ a luxury product?

RR: I am very well aware that I cannot reach many people and that I can reach people only for a very, very short moment, as well as I am aware about the relativity of the importance of what I am doing, including my art work as well as my project Time · Space · Existence, but there is nothing wrong about wanting at least to reach a few people. And, yes, fortunately I am in the position to not need constantly to be occupied with surviving. I can survive with little and therefore, I do have the luxury to spend time with ‘self-expression’. But having a healthy ego does not mean that I consider myself or my works very important, but my works and this project do enriches the lives of those people they reach.

SG: You once stated in an interview that your work gets influenced by your physical and mental condition, which depends upon a lot of factors, for example, if you have just had sex or not. Do you feel, now you are getting older, the changes? Mentally—physically? How do you see your own existence in relation to your work today compared to the time that has passed? 

RR: I must admit, now being 51, it feels as if I do not have the same physical power anymore as 10 years ago. I am hoping that when I again can return more often to my studio, instead of working much too much at the computer, that my physical strength will at least return close to what it was. Unfortunately, time is not my friend, although mentally I feel myself still getting stronger. I wonder when that will change. My own existence in relation to my work has not changed anything, I still feel very comfortable with my thoughts and the outcome, I still respect my own work. I can look in the mirror at any time.

PL: When we looked at our portrait photos for the publication, both of us realized that we have really grown older. Do you allow your works to grow older, too? Are they getting better over time?

RR: Looking in the mirror and seeing the decay which is coming over my body and slowly also over my brain, is something I cannot stop. I therefore accept and see the beauty in that decay. Same as when I look at the works of art I made years ago. They are growing older too and, perhaps, because they are not in the stage of decay yet, getting ‘better’, and that is beautiful to see. In addition, although knowing that many of my works will survive me long after my death, if I live long enough, I think that I will also witness and be able to enjoy seeing my own works slowly fall apart.

PL: I think a lot about the concept of encounter that stands central to the work of Lee Ufan. Our Time · Space · Existence project is in a way very much about encounters, too. Is there any particular encounter from the time we spent working on this book, which has been so impressive that you could imagine it might have impact on your future work?

RR: More or less everything I encounter has influence, and, yes, there were several events which have an above average influence on me and therefore on my work. The several meetings with Roman Opalka, the confrontation with the person Toshikatsu Endo and his words, the straight discussions with Joseph Kosuth and the pleasure of working with Karlyn De Jongh, all these encounters will for sure have indirectly an impact on my future work.

PL: In hindsight it seems almost like our interview in the first Personal Structures book (2003) had already formed the nucleus of Time · Space · Existence. There we talked about On Kawara and Roman Opalka and the awareness of time. What about the awareness of space? Is there a crucial experience you have had with space?

RR: I did not have any specific crucial experience with space, its importance for me and my consciousness about it, have slowly grown over the last 15 years. The more you are occupied with a subject matter, the more you learn about it and are able to create an opinion about it, the more you are aware of your thoughts about it. Being occupied with the project Time · Space · Existence has additionally intensified these subjects’ influence on me, as a person and in my work.

PL: You talk often about the emotional perception of your artworks. The new media the young generation grows up with today will sooner or later change our visual culture. Computer game manufacturers advertise by supposedly adding ‘emotional depth’ to their games. Do you think that artworks (paintings / objects) can compete with these media in the future in terms of aesthetic and emotional experience?

RR: The apple and the pear do not compete with each other, I make apples and I like them. In this particular case you mention, there has been created a new fruit, but it still is not a competition. They co-exist.

PL: Have you ever had the wish to transcend time, space and existence with art? Can you understand that Ad Reinhardt’s ideal was to create “a pure, abstract, non-objective, timeless, spaceless, changeless, relationless […] painting”?

RR: Being able to transcend time, space and existence with art is wishful thinking by some artists. I am not capable of doing that and therefore do not wish to do so. Ad Reinhardt’s ideal is not achievable, at that time it might have looked as if it was, although I do hope he did not mean all he said so literally.

PL: The end of this book contains statements contributed by different people on the subject time, space and existence, which were not to exceed 40 words in length. Could you now, at the end of the Time · Space · Existence book project, only a few days before the printing process starts, give us a 40-word-statement concerning what you have learned in all this time about these three themes?

RR: There seem to be as many different thoughts about Time-Space-Existence as there are different humans, there are no answers, just personal opinions, and these opinions seem to enrich people’s lives.