2012 Interview 1

Time, Space, and Existence

A Conversation with Rene Rietmeyer

In: Sculpture Vol. 31, no. 9, USA, Spring 2012

By Karlyn De Jongh & Sarah Gold

Rene Rietmeyer (*1957, Netherlands) creates abstract, three-dimensional wall objects, which he calls “Boxes”. These Boxes address his own, personal existence within time and space. With the formal means of a.o. shape, color, texture, composition, and choice of materials, Rietmeyer visualizes his experiences of a certain region or a specific person he met at a particular place and time. His work is about expressing his own existence, about living a conscious life and creating an awareness about existence in others.

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 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 black and white drawings for many years. Only when I was 25-years-old, I had the courage to really start using color and start painting. Later on, I read texts by the German artist Günther Förg, in which he explained that in his opinion even an object of 5mm deep, can be considered a 3-dimensional item. Förg made me have a second look at my own paintings. More and more I realized that my works, with their 3-dimensionallity, do contain something. They contain me, my thoughts. 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. 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. They became 2, 3 and 4 inches thick. They really became Boxes. 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 prefer using oil paint and wood, because it has such a large variety of ways to work with.

Karlyn De Jongh: 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 considered with the concept of space, your work does not seem to fit this definition. Why do you consider your work to be sculpture? Why is generally speaking the wall the best location for placing your work?

RR: Weiner’s statement that he considers his work to be sculptures is very brave. 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.

Lawrence Weiner uses language as a material and because apparently his sentences refer to 3-dimensional objects, he considers his work to be sculptures. I prefer not to use language for my work; communication through language is always limited to the people who understand the language. Instead 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. My work has a strong relation to the spectator and he is best able to observe my work within the given surrounding, when it is placed on the wall.

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: 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: When you spoke about space at our symposium 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.