Berlin Cosmogony #1: Brussels – Berlin (Rediscovering The Sky)

16 Jun 2020

Fear crept up on us, latching onto every single one of our hearts, rendering us blind with panic.

An invisible enemy attacked the people’s bodies, but foremost, poisoned their minds. From then onward, the people were sentenced to distrust literally every other human being. Those who could, took shelter inside to wait out the storm.

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In those days, I missed the sky. You can hardly see it from our apartment in the center of Brussels. It’s a beautiful place with high ceilings and a lot of charm, but it is very much oriented towards it’s own interior. Off course what we see through the windows is interesting. We can observe the eclectic crowd of people that are our neighbors in all their glory. This, off-course, underlines the notion that they are watching us as well. You can’t see even a bit of green from our windows, no trees grow in our street. Except for a few flowers on one of the balconies across, there isn’t a sign of any vegetation.

The view from our windows does not show us an horizon. To catch a glimpse of the sky you have to stand close to the windows and look straight up.
All this had never really bothered me before. But now it did.

I missed the sky.

One night my girlfriend suddenly pointed out that our living-room was flooded in an uncanny deep yellow light. We went outside and above us saw the most spectacular rainbow I had ever seen. Only a fragment of it was visible in the small strip of sky you can see between the roofs of the buildings. We walked to the square not far from our house and heard the drunks on the corner shouting: “Le Soleil! Il a bu, le soleil!”…the sun is drunk!

Coming into the square the rainbow unfolded across the young summer’s sky, connecting one corner of the square with another. I could now see it consisted of two arches, parallel to each-other. The inner arch was very intense, outlined sharply against the grey sky, it’s colours highly saturated. On it’s inside, the sky was a bright light blue. The second arch seemed to hover somewhat above the first and was slightly less sharp. Between them the sky faded from light to dark grey. The second arch’s outer edge apparently adjoined the cosmos itself, in all it’s mystic glory.

The view left me speechless, feeling small and enchanted like the figure in Friedrich’s Wanderer. Realizing how I’d missed the sky for all those years.

Back in the apartment, I started dipping grey rocks into lacquered varnish,
so I could see the sky reflected in their shiny surface.

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Hope is a biological necessity. Because of hope happy emotions are more powerful than their darker counterparts. After a while the storm lost it’s power and the people emerged again from their hideouts.

In a damaged landscape we found each-other again. We surfaced in a world that seemed smaller, but sharper and more brightly lit. The wonders surrounding us felt more enchanting than they did before. This new world was filled with magic. We rediscovered it as a place of beauty and we truly experienced gratitude again.

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Only a few days later I travelled to Berlin. I would be living there for four months to conduct research and start to work on a publication about my artistic practice. I didn’t know the city very well, having only visited it once, several years prior to this journey.

Traveling from Brussels to Berlin by train hardly qualifies as an epic quest. Yet in light of the worldwide pandemic that held the world firmly in it’s grip all borders were closed and travel without an “essential” reason was still forbidden. I had received official documents that would enable me to travel to Germany. I did not need them.

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“I turned off the flashlight and it was pitch dark, but I didn’t feel scared or lonely. That room was a special place that only I am allowed into. A room just for me. No one else can get there. You can’t go either… And what’s really amazing about this place it that it’s darker than anything could ever be. So dark that when you turn off the flashlight it feels like you can grab the darkness with your hands. And when you’re there in the dark yourself, it’s like your body is gradually coming apart and disappearing. But since it’s dark you can’t see it happen.
You don’t know if you still have a body or not.”

Haruki Murakakami – Killing Commendatore P.252, translated from Japanese by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen, 2017, Penguin Random House

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Since my arrival in Berlin, now one week ago, my perception has been warped to such an extent that time and space are no longer synced up in any way that I’m used to. Time has been condensed and seems to have become twice as heavy, as opposed to space, that has stretched itself to larger proportions. As a result, this first week feels like half a month.
Luckily this perceptual shift also seems to spark a boost in productivity.

I have been reading bits and pieces of an interesting Essay by Mieke Bal: “Serendipity: The Miracle Of Being Where You Are”, published in the catalogue for Ann Veronica Jannsens‚ solo exhibition “Serendipity” at the Brussels museum for contemporary art WIELS, in 2009.

To sketch this from a personal perspective: this show was the main event of the cultural season in Brussels in 2009, the year I graduated from my post-graduate studies in Transmedia. The show got a lot of buzz and like virtually everyone involved in the Brussels art-scene at the time I attended the opening. At the time this felt like a part of the natural flow of things, but today, about ten years later, I feel like this was the start of a circle, that has been rounded when I read this book. If anything, some aspects of my life in 2009 have reappeared. For instance, one of the professors at the Transmedia program is now my PhD Supervisor. But mostly this period in my life, I am approaching 40 (in 2009 I was approaching 30) feels transitional on an emotional as well as an artistic level. and back in 2009, the same sentiments dominated my life. Artistically I must now credit a great deal of influence to Ann Veronica Janssens‘ work.
I encountered her work even more closely when I rented a studio space in a building owned by Belgian artist-duo Sarah&Charles for a while and discovered that she rented another part of this building as a studio and for storage. This place was filled with her work. A colourful story in in itself, the place turned out to be a former aquarium-factory who’s owner almost went out of business because of heavy competition from cheap Chinese manufacturers but managed to save his company by producing high-quality water tanks for the now famous Cocktail Piece works by Janssens. This man, his name is Michel, his wife is called Michelle, reinvented the building as an artist’s studio, and later on sold it to Sarah&Charles.

Ann Veronica Janssens off course is a pioneer when it comes to artistic practices that include the use of ephemeral media, temporality, staging techniques and perceptual manipulation.

In Mieke Bal’s essay I found some notions and reflections that, although they date back more than ten years already, are applicable to some of my recent practices. Some of these notions I had arrived at myself independently, and are in my opinion imperative to the anatomy of Scenographics in visual (installation) art. I would like to talk about three of them here.

For starters she mentions the “principle of the artist always revealing the mechanism behind the miracle”.”(1)

This is an idea that I have referred to in my practice as the “Box Of Tricks” surrounding a work of art, a principle derived from the aesthetics of theatre where it is the technical equipment of the black box that facilitates the magic on stage, a technical shell around the escapist world that is created, always through trickery.

Secondly I would like to underline the author’s mention of the phrase “Matter Matters”. This is how Bal formulates it: “Matter matters because it helps and forces us to deal with the world on it’s own terms”. (2)

Thirdly Bal refers to Janssens‘ work as “an arrangement in space that produces a miraculous experience while simply being a disposition: a discovery accidentally made, then made sensational, in the literal sense of the word, and given to the viewer.” Bal continues: “These sonorous works make visitors aware of the collaboration of the senses, the way one sense perception impacts on another. Thus we discover something about our own bodies as they interact with the world.” (3)

These three statements are exemplary to my own view of the realm of the scenographic and the atmospheric: an artwork doesn’t just occupy space, but uses and reshapes it, it becomes a structural part of it. As well as we do with our physical bodies. In this affect Installation art and scenography are very close cousins of architecture, especially architecture in it’t most haptic incarnations. In one of his lectures Juhanni Pallasmaa argues for the existence of an “Atmospheric Intelligence”. (4)
A much ignored form of intelligence that nonetheless influences our perception constantly. Pallasmaa also refers to architecture as “An attempt to relate the cosmic world with the human world”.(4)
This is exactly what I would include in a job-desription for every artist. Any good artwork, however small is a cosmogony and therefore holds the possibilities of not one, but an infinite number of worlds.

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This is the reason why even a simple, seemingly useless act of transformation can attach an ordinary object to an array of magical wonders: a grey rock dipped into lacquered varnish turns into a gemstone in which the whole world is reflected, including the sparkles in our eyes.

To Be Continued.

Berlin, june 15, 2020

Berlin, june 15, 2020

(1) Bal, Mieke, Serendipity: The Miracle Of Being Where You Are, p17, Catalog Ann Veronica Janssens – Serendipity, WIELS, 2009.

(2) Bal, Mieke, Serendipity: The Miracle Of Being Where You Are, p18, Catalog Ann Veronica Janssens – Serendipity, WIELS, 2009.

(3) Bal, Mieke, Serendipity: The Miracle Of Being Where You Are, p20, Catalog Ann Veronica Janssens – Serendipity, WIELS, 2009. Bal here refers to “The I/You interaction, developed for linguistics by Emile Benveniste in his text “Problems in General linguistics, vol 1, 1966, Translated by Mary Elizabeth Meek, Coral Gables , FL: University of Miami Press. Bal quotes herself for the rework of this theory into a discussion on its visual consequences: Bal, Mieke, 1999, Quoting Carravagio: Contemporary Art, Preposterous History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, chapter 6.

(4) Pallasmaa, Juhani, Lecture,”How Do we Grasp Space and Place?”10/19/11 6:30PM – 8:30PM Wood Auditorium, Avery Hal, Columbia University, Graduate School Of Architecture Planning and Preservation, New York, United States. Found on Youtube.

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