VENICE BIENNALE 2011
By Karlyn De Jongh, Sarah Gold & Valeria Romagnini
As published in: De Jongh, Karlyn & Sarah Gold, PERSONAL STRUCTURES: TIME SPACE EXISTENCE 2, Global Art Affairs Foundation, 2013
Rene Rietmeyer (1957, Netherlands) is about “Time-Space-Existence”. Rietmeyer creates “Boxes”: abstract, three-dimensional objects, which are presented mostly on the wall in multi-part, variable installations. Rietmeyer dedicates himself to making visible the subjectively felt effect of cities and landscapes, as well as of persons. This comes about with the purely abstract formal means of color, form, material, surface structure, composition and the installation in space. His work is about expressing his own existence, about living a conscious life and creating an awareness about existence in others. As he says: “Ultimately, my work is nothing other than the proof of my existence.”—Rene Rietmeyer lives in Venice, Italy.
Sarah Gold: Your artistic career started like most artists ‘traditionally’ by which I mean 2-dimensional drawings and paintings. But you have developed and since many years you create these abstract, 3-dimensional objects which you call ‘Boxes’. How and why did you develop into this direction?
Rene Rietmeyer: Like many Dutch artists, I started with making black and white drawings. It was probably, because I did not have the courage to use color. I was just not brave enough. I made these black and white drawings for many years. I finally tried to really use color when I was already 25, and started painting. Of course, I also read the texts of Frank Stella about his early work as well as Donald Judd’s thoughts about Stella’s work. More and more I realized that my works do contain something. They contain me, my thoughts.
As a reaction to the thoughts of these artists, I started to see better and better that the ‘paintings’ I made are in fact 3-dimensional objects. I started painting the sides, too. After moving my main studio to the USA in 1997, the same happened to me as what must have happened in a sense to Stella in the early 50s. I bought wood at Home Depot. By itself, this wood had a thickness that was much larger than the wood I would regularly buy for a painting in Europe. Just by using the cheap, available wood, automatically my works became much thicker. I noticed what was happening to my work and continued with it.
Knowing the thoughts of several American artists, gave me the courage to ‘just do it’: to step over the tradition of my culture and just do it. In 1997, for the first time, my paintings became deeper than an inch, 2.5 cm. They became 2, 3 and 4 inches thick. They really became Boxes. I referred to my work myself with the term “Boxes”, even though I avoided using this term for a long time. After I saw a catalogue from Kenneth Noland called Doors, I had the courage to stand behind the word “Boxes” as things that contain something.
The five sides of my Boxes are more or less equal. In the beginning, I only painted on these, canvas stretched over wood, Boxes; later, I constructed them out of many different materials, such as steel, ceramic and glass. Although I still like using oil paint and wood, because it has such a large variety of ways to work with.
Karlyn De Jongh: The installations you created for the Venice Biennale 2011 were painted in and made for the space where you exhibited them. In principle your work is not site-specific, in the sense that the work is not specifically about or referring to the location it is made for. Rather the installations referred to other places, such as Naples or El Hierro. To what extent are you influenced by the space you work in? How much did Palazzo Bembo in Venice, Italy, influence your installations?
RR: First of all, the Boxes, the series I construct are themselves in the strict sense of the word never site-specific. In my works I express my emotions towards certain regions or people, a series can refer to places, such as Naples and El Hierro. The series itself is as it is; its topic, its formal means do not change, they belong to the series, not to the space in which the installation eventually will be placed. So, there are two big differences here. I create a series of—let’s say 50 or 100—Boxes that refer to a person, a city or an area. Secondly, there is the placement of these Boxes within a space. This placement is preferably very site-specific. I see the site, measure and ‘feel’ it. Then I decide which installation, the amount of Boxes, the position of the installation, the distance between the objects. These decisions are all made specifically for that particular location.
In the case of the Venice Biennale, I created my objects within that space. But the decision of what these four different series would look like in terms of color, shape, texture, material and size, had been made before that. It had nothing to do with the room where it would later be placed. I had already created the series in my head; I only executed them in that space. The reason why I painted them there was practical: all four series were painted with oil paint. With the thickness I paint in, it would have taken 6 months to dry for the work to be transportable. I had no time for this, so I painted these series in the space and hung them wet on the wall.
My works, each series, not being site specific does not mean that the circumstances, the space in which I create them has no influence on the creation at all. My work is being influenced by all factors which have an influence on my being and therefore in this particular case, the space of Palazzo Bembo did have an influence.
KDJ: In his sculptures, Lee Ufan is concerned with the relation between the ‘used space’ (the space his stone or metal plate take up) and the ‘not-used space’ (the remaining space of the gallery). Both are equally important to him and both have an influence on the experience of the sculpture. In your work, there is the space between the Boxes and also the penetration of the Boxes off the wall and into the space. What does this not-used space mean to you?
RR: I think I am very close to Lee Ufan here. For me, the space as a total is one. My Boxes within the given space are part of the space as a total and create a certain atmosphere within that space, with that space. Just as the stone of Lee Ufan penetrates the space, occupies a
certain amount of space and has a certain amount of space around it, so do my Boxes. The space around my installation is therefore very important as well. I find it difficult however to state that it is equally important, because I do not think you can measure that. What you can say is that my works are clearly present in the space surrounding them.
KDJ: When I showed the German artist Gotthard Graubner your installations in our exhibition PERSONAL STRUCTURES at the Venice Biennale 2011, he was intrigued by the 3-dimensionality of your work, but he did not agree with the placement of your works on the wall, “too high”. Why do you not place your works lower or—like in some works by Donald Judd—let the installation reach to the floor?
RR: When Graubner places his artwork, he wants that the average spectator looks down to it. He wants that his art feels humble and you—the spectator—feel this humbleness. Graubner also seems to have said once that “you look up to God and not to an artwork”. I do not agree with him. I like to place the mid-level of my artwork easy 4 to 6 inches higher than what is in most parts of the world considered as ‘museum height’. I like placing my work higher, not only because people have grown since that height was defined, but also because I want to go beyond that. I want that the spectator has to look slightly up to my work, it underwrites the feeling of respect. I like it when, not only my artworks, but all serious artworks, create this slight feeling of respect by the spectator. Yes, strong works can get this respect also when they are placed lower—even on the floor. But I found that this respect is easier gained when you have to stand straight in front of it and look slightly up. Having said this, I do have made several installations which started just above the floor.
KDJ: Lawrence Weiner once told us about Ad Reinhardt’s definition of sculpture: “the things you trip over in the dark.” Although he makes text installations on the wall, Weiner considers himself to be a sculptor. Also your work is remarkable in this way. Although your Boxes are 3-dimensional and you are very concerned with the concept of space, your work does not seem to fit this definition. Why is generally speaking the wall the best location for placing your work?
RR: Lawrence Weiner statement that he considers his work to be sculptures is very brave. An object is by definition always a 3-dimensional thing. But all these concepts and definitions can be discussed endlessly. Lawrence uses language as a material, I prefer not to use language for my work. Lawrence even makes works in languages which he does not speak himself, communication through language is always limited to the people who understand the language. I prefer using objects displaying a set of formal means to communicate, because I believe that in this way I can reach a wider audience.
It is of course, always possible to defend or explain your own position. I, in my position, prefer to leave the word ‘sculpture’ and not use it to describe the items I make. I prefer to refer to myself as someone who constructs 3-dimensional objects. Of course, you can trip over them and there are many other reasons why you can consider them as sculptures, especially when they are made of steel or glass. Even with the changing definition of the word sculpture over the last 100 years, for me, however, the word ‘sculpture’ still mainly refers to a manual activity, which most often does not apply to the objects I make. So, even with the generally accepted definition in mind, I consider my work only partly as ‘sculpture’. I prefer describing my work as being ‘3-dimensional objects’ constructed by me.
The reason why my work is mostly placed on the wall has mainly to do with the angle in which you observe the installation. My work has a strong relation to the spectator and he is best able to observe my work within the given surrounding best when it is placed on the wall. For sure, there are times and locations when placing my objects on the floor would be better—or perhaps even on the ceiling, which I have never done so far. Without doubt, however, the wall is the best position for my 3-dimensional objects.
KDJ: In the New Museum in New York in 2009, you spoke mainly about the “perspective of space”, not about space in general. The experience of a space, seems for you to depend more on the people you are with than on the location itself. In your recent installations you also make a combination in the title between a location and a person that you were with at that time. When you paint a work, for example Miami Beach or Houston, does the specific location itself have a meaning to you? Why do you associate your work with a specific location? Why not simply leave it out? Also: When you want to heighten a certain awareness in the visitor about his own Existence in Time and Space, does the specific location the work is based on still matter when it is displayed in an exhibition?
RR: First of all, I think that space in general will be very difficult to discuss, because all the space we encounter is our own personal perspective of that space. We can theorize about space. But space eventually is what we personally encounter, that is how we feel and perceive space. So, the personal perspective of space is what space is about in our daily existence. Having additional knowledge however, physical knowledge, about space, is good to have. Knowledge about space taught by astronomers or physicians has of course also an influence on how we perceive space. But I am, my work is, about the personal perceiving of space. The discussions about space in general these days are so specialized, that my understanding cannot cope with many of these complicated facets. Of course, I read some Einstein and have looked into Space- Time, but the truth is: “how little do I know.”
The people I am with are part of my space and therefore have a great impact on how I perceive the space. It makes a difference if I am in a white cubic space, without doors or windows together with a beautiful sexy woman, or with a hungry lion. My perception of the same space will be very different. I express myself at a specific moment within time and space, my existence on that moment. Since I am often at different locations, I do express those locations. My work is about the location I mention in the title, it is about me experiencing that location. You can say that these works are like ‘landscapes’. The works that have the name of a person are like ‘portraits’. Often my titles have the name of a person and the surrounding. The surrounding has a big impact on how a person is, how he expresses himself and how you perceive that person.
I use the title as a reference for the spectator to follow my thoughts. For me, a title is not necessary, but I like it when the spectator can follow me and understand how I, Rene Rietmeyer, felt at that particular moment when I experienced Miami Beach or El Hierro. It shows the viewer that a different location brings along a totally different feeling and way of expression. This forces him to realize that a different location brings along a different awareness about your own existence within time and space.
KDJ: Several years ago, in the first development stages of PERSONAL STRUCTURES, you ‘tested’ the main themes of Time, Space and Existence on Joseph Kosuth. He advised you to take “location” instead of “space”: “Location, location, location…”, he said. In your work you address different locations and, at first glance, you do not seem very concerned with space in general. Why did you ‘overrule’ Kosuth and chose for “space”?
RR: Kosuth was indeed more focused on ‘location’ being a very important aspect. In my opinion, location is only a part of space: space is so to say ‘bigger’ than location. Location is very important, but space is more ‘overall’ and includes many locations. In my work, I address different locations, because that is me at a certain moment in time and at a certain position, location within space. My discussion with Kosuth about space and location has not finished. Kosuth did not move; I did not move. I did not ‘overrule’ Kosuth, but for my project I chose Time, Space and Existence.
SG: As the initiator of the international art-project PERSONAL STRUCTURES, which presents artists who are concerned with the subject matter of Time-Space and/or Existence, what do these subjects mean to you and how are they integrated in your artistic work?
RR: I think that since thousands of years, many humans started trying to ask big questions about who we are. Our own existence is a very interesting, but very large question. Over the millennia, we humans have come up with many different answers. And even now, depending if you are born in China, Africa or the USA, you probably have a different “answer” regarding your existence. It can be influenced by various religions or no religion at all.
Time, Space, and with them, cultural background, religion, etc., they all have an influence on answering questions about your own existence and about the existence of mankind as a total.
I think that this question about our own existence, my personal existence and the existence of mankind is the basis, the core of my artwork: the awareness that I exist in a certain moment in time, and a location in space. This awareness about time-space and what this means for my personal existence and that of mankind, that is what my work is about. It is not that this is ‘integrated’ in my artwork; my artwork is this awareness about time, space and existence.
KDJ: You seem to have quite quickly developed to your concept of the Boxes, which you maintained for the past 15 years. When you look at your oeuvre, are there certain Boxes that mark a transition? How do you see your artistic development? Or is it more like in the work of Roman Opalka, where the continuation of the artistic concept seems to be the development in the work?
RR: In the mid-90s I started to be seriously concerned with contemporary art and influenced by the books I read and the artists I met, I created my own thoughts, my own theory and concept. That went very fast, in a period of two years. It went through many stages. Once I found my concept, my thoughts. I started to only fine-tune them, which is since the summer of 1997, since then it did not move so much anymore. I could give it a stronger intellectual backup, with examples out of art history. I refined the use of my abstract language and the formal elements, my awareness grew over time, my capabilities to use color, shape and material more consciously became bigger. But there were no big changes, no Boxes that “mark a transition”. None. There are no special marking points. It has been a continuous expressing of my emotions with the formal means of color, texture, material and size ever since. Opalka was much more a voluntary victim of his own concept and could not have another kind of emotional expression. He had a very strong concept, but mine is more complete, more complex. Opalka really only focused on time, you could then also claim that he was focusing on existence, but that was never his goal. When he came up with his concept, the consciousness was not there that it was about existence. Consciously, it was only about time. My concept is consciously about time, space and existence, my own existence and the existence of other people and my surrounding. The fine-tuning in my concept, you cannot call that a development. I exist as a human being, and yes, I do change. Development is mostly seen as a linear development, like an improving, like a searching towards something, trying new things.
I do not have to try new things; I express myself as I am at this point in time. Perhaps I am more complex or complete, with more knowledge than ten years ago. To call that a development is a large word. Unfortunately, in the artworld development is mostly seen as one style following up another. There is no need for that at all. There are too many artists now that have shown that development should be seen totally different than it was 100 years ago in the single artist’s careers and art history as a total. People like Lee Ufan, Opalka and me execute their concepts. That’s it. That is what they do until they die. In my work and that of Lee Ufan you can see a personal development, a growing older. I, today, am a different person than I was ten years ago or that I will be in ten years from now—if I am still alive. That is all the development to be seen. There will be no further artistic development in that sense. Only an expression of my thoughts today. These thoughts will not be exactly the same as time passes. There are always slight changes as humans change over time.
KDJ: In 2002 you initiated the project PERSONAL STRUCTURES and worked the past 10 years to make it grow. You decided to focus on this group of artists rather than on your own career. Why did you choose this path?
RR: I started of course, by just being occupied with myself. Eventually, when I had done that for 5 years, it went very well and my career developed fantastically. At the same time I realized, that someone who makes the type of art I make, will not easily achieve a sufficient enough level of influence on other people.
My work is not spectacular. At first glance, it does not look amazing and does not attract you by a first view that easily. I knew that if I would continue by myself, I would reach only few people. That just did not seem enough to me. I looked at other artists, such as Bram Bogart, and thought: If I would now work very hard in my life, I might reach the importance and presence of a Bram Bogart. That was not enough for me; I wanted more than that. I thought that when I create a group of artists around me, that then people might listen and might notice us much more easy. And they do.
KDJ: Looking at your glass-installation Venezia at the 2009 Venice Biennale, Joseph Kosuth commented that these works of yours are “too beautiful”. For many collectors, it is an important aspect of a work that it is aesthetically pleasing to them, that they like to live with the works in their collection. Beauty is subjective, but you sometimes make Boxes that address a—for you and in the broadest sense of the word—not beautiful location and as a result you claim that these Boxes are also not aesthetically pleasing. Why do you choose to make Boxes after experiences of cities that were not beautiful? Don’t you want to forget about those? Or is an artwork that is visually too beautiful, a danger for its concept?
RR: In my life many memories are of the strange, the weird, the so-called ‘not beautiful’ experiences. I remember so well those unusual sexual experiences, which were not beautiful at all. The beautiful sexual experiences I may have partly forgotten. My work is about things that make a strong impression on me, regardless whether it is beautiful or not. My concept is in no danger what so ever. I am executing my concept regardless the aesthetics of the result. Too beautiful, too ugly, it does not matter. My concept is to express the experiences I experience, with all formal means that I can handle. This concept cannot be broken; it is regardless of the kind of experience. As long as I express my experiences, I follow my concept.
KDJ: So, you choose experiences that are remarkable in your own life, but what do you want to say to the viewer in this respect? You do want to make him more aware about his own existence.
RR: By expressing my own existence, by showing the viewer my own existence and how I express my own personal experiences I hope that the viewer relates to his or her own existence and starts to contemplate about his or her own existence and how they experience certain regions or persons in life. I want them to see that when I am so conscious about living my life and experiencing the experiences I had, I hope that also they learn to be more conscious about what they experience and try to see more clearly their own existence within the environment in which they are.
So, in first instance I want to express myself. Then I want to show other people how I express myself and I hope that from that on they consider more about how they experience and perhaps even could express themselves. I hope this will lead to a larger awareness about their own existence. I think that by showing how aware you are about your own personal existence, it might have an influence on other people and they might then look more carefully to their own existence.
KDJ: How is for you the difference between ‘you 15 years ago’ and ‘you now’ with regard to the intellectual value in your work?
RR: There is no change. The main intellectual underwriting, the basis of my intellectual backup has been created in the spring and early summer of 1997. It has been refined over the past 15 years. Details have been added, but the main content has not changed at all. My works from that period and looking back to spring time 1997, it has not changed. The intellectual backup has become better. I have a better foundation, because I know more about other artists. But it has not changed. And also the emotional value of my work for me personally has not changed. Today it feels basically the same as 14 years ago. Of course, when I look at the works I made around that time, they have an emotional impact. But the works I made last week, they have also an impact on me. There are differences from series to series; some have a strong impact on me and others a less strong one. But it is not counted by the year, but by the series. So, I cannot say that my relationship towards my work either intellectual or emotional, has changed over the years.
KDJ: Your work shows ‘you’. Although you lived most of your life outside of the Netherlands and have had encounters with people from all over the world, it seems you are still very Dutch. When looking at the Dutch tradition of painters, you seem to fit very well in the line of Van Gogh, De Kooning and Mondriaan and even Schoonhoven. To what extent is who you are influenced by the culture you are brought up in, or even the time that you did not experience yourself? Do you think, when you would have been born in another part of the world, that you would have expressed yourself in a similar way as you do now?
RR: I am a product of my culture. I think there is no denying. I traveled many countries and lived in many countries and all these situations must have had an influence on me. But, yes, I am probably still very Dutch, even though I left the Netherlands when I was 21 years old and only briefly came back around my 40s. I am part of my surroundings and part of my genes, just like everybody else. I think that, would I have been born and grown up in a different culture, let’s say Saudi Arabia, for sure I would have expressed myself differently. Emotionally and probably also intellectually, I would have been a totally different person.
It is an illusion to think that one really only, totally creates oneself. For a large part, it is your genes, the way you are built, and for a very large part also your cultural surrounding, which forms you as a human being. That means, the thoughts I think are probably not so much from myself, but are probably more a product between my own personal relationship and my own personal exposition with my culture, with the knowledge and the things I see and learn. We are not that unique by ourselves. I think we are a product of learning about our surroundings. When I would have been grown up in the jungle, not knowing anything of what I know now today, I would have felt and acted much different and I think especially the emotional repertoire that someone has to express him or herself, is largely influenced by the culture you are surrounded by. I have seen in myself how I acted as a human being in Greece, it was different from how I acted being in the Netherlands. Also emotional expression has to do with communication with the people around you. In order to communicate with people, you have to find the right type of language. In different cultures, you communicate differently emotionally in order to communicate well. You adapt even your own personal emotional way of expression.
KDJ: Visualizing experiences that happened in your life, in your work you are mainly focused on the past. At the same time, you are someone who is very aware of how short life actually is and seem to think often about the possible number of days that you are still alive and how this number is decreasing every day. What does your future mean to you? How do you feel about the moment that you will paint your last Box?
RR: I have less and less lifetime and I am so aware that I have to hurry up… I have to hurry up with regard to my artwork, my personal life, in everything, in experiencing. It is like I once said, when I told you about my meeting with Robert Rauschenberg: “I am running out of time.” Everybody, no matter in what age you are, should immediately understand that you are running out of time. Time is very, very limited. There is no reason why you should hesitate in experiencing new, other things and there is no time to waste in creating. You have to create and do as much as you can within your lifetime as fast as possible, because it is so short. You are dead within a “second”. This awareness should push us. It is sad that I have to sleep every night. I would prefer to stay awake, always and never die.
KDJ: Your work shows ‘you’ and you see your Boxes as proofs of your existence. According to you, how does Existence relate to Time and Space?
RR: We exist within time and space. Existence is everything and infinite and everything exists within time and space themselves being infinite to. You cannot be outside of time nor can you be outside of space. As Einstein taught us time-space, space-time is one, you cannot be outside. Everything, the whole cosmos is time and space; everything exists within time and space: me, you and my artwork.
KDJ: During your life, you have lived in many different countries all over the world, from Japan to the USA. In this way, you are like a nomad. Before you die, you will probably not be able to see as many places anymore as you would like to. How do you feel about becoming older? Are there specific places you would like to paint?
RR: There are no special places that I would like to paint, from which I would like to construct objects. I construct my work according my existence and it is fine, whatever I experience, although I would have liked to experience endlessly. Time is not my friend; time is definitely my enemy. Dying will be a very sad moment in my life, because I wish my life could continue forever. It will not; I will die.