Blind to the Beauty

How can Oguta remain like this? We have this little paradise waiting to be cultivated. But we all run away from it for selfish gain. We turn our faces away as the waste of daily living is dumped into the lake. We fear to swim in the beautiful Blue lake because we have dredged deep into the heart of the earth. We fear for what lies deep within the troubled waters. The lake lies wasting in the dying sun while we are making plans to replace it. We return home with forex to build our shallow swimming pools in our backyard, and empty the dirty waters into the lake. Why won’t the lake be mad, and carry away the children of erring parents? Why won’t the forsaken lady seek her revenge? The water lily grows long and serpentine underneath, dancing in the slow waves, waiting. Nature will pay us back with what we give to it. Who will swim in the lake with me? The dredger in Umudei village. The litter at the shore. No one swims in the beautiful lake anymore. They travel on it to the neighbouring villages to trade. They stack bags of cassava pegged to the bottom of the lake for days, washing away all the cyanide and smell. That is why our akpu does not smell. That is also why Ihu Ohamiri stinks. But we are happy when we eat our cassava. You would think that you are eating pounded yam. The lake carries away all the stench.Every Christmas now, a church holds an end of year crusade in Mgbidi, a village on the road to Oguta. Their members wear this fluorescent yellow coloured posters that burn the eyes in the harmattan dryness.It is long since our people went mad. The ancestral gods have gathered dust at the corners. Worse, they are now firewood at mother’s kitchen. We found a new religion. We also found oil. Now nothing else matters but these two… not even other natural resources that our fathers lived on. No, oil is king. On Eke, the traders line up to buy produce from those who live across. Oguta people do not farm around their homes. Our farmlands lie on the other side of the lake. So Oguta looks more like an estate without greenery. The local governments in Nigeria have lost their autonomy. The state governors control the local governments. The people at the grassroots live with their waste, they live without social amenities like electricity and pipe-borne water. We live on borehole water that we must make to survive. We are our own government. We are no government. We know no government. We do things our own way. There is no way we can continue this way. We are blind to the beauty that is ours. We live like strangers in paradise. This is the new history we are writing for the children.

The Family House

Our home in the village sits at the crossroads where 3 roads meet. So it must be a magical place to live in. I remember waking up on some mornings to find a basket full of sacrifices on the road. My young friend Nonso is a thriving native doctor. I must ask him why this is important. The sacrifices seem to have reduced, since I put a strong searchlight in front of my house. I needed to light up the area, as some young vandals had come to steal the battery from the NDDC solar lamp post. Apart from playing soccer, people come to the field of Trinity High School to learn to drive. I have taught some friends on this field. The cattle sellers drive their cows to graze here also. From my vantage point on the second floor, I drew inspiration for some of the images in my series of paintings A Thousand Cattle, Two Hills. As night falls, people come there to smoke weed, etcetra… The vast space has allowed me to enjoy working on larger canvases. My latest canvas cannot even fit into the door to my studio, so I have to paint outdoors. I am free here. The spaces are for flying. The air is light. The lake is nearby. This is truly home.

To Build, Work= Effort over Time

In this Q and A session, Mathijs discusses the purpose of it all, the mystical Louis Kahn, Russian Constructivism, of Hybrids, work in progress in a functioning library, and reasons (or not) To Build, among other things. 
AN: What is your sense of Structure and Space?
ML: Well in my opinion there is no such thing as ‘mere space’. We humans always, in one way or another, see space as having particular characteristics.  Space comes with rules, with identity, which a set of parameters what we perceive this space to allow us to do or not. And each space tells us how to behave in it.
AN: In this project at the library, your work seems to question these parameters.

You use space as though to counter the set rules? 
ML: Well in my opinion there is no such thing as ‘mere space’. We humans always, in one way or another, see space as having particular characteristics. 

Space comes with rules, with identity, which a set of parameters what we perceive this space to allow us to do or not.

Each space tells us how to behave in it
AN: In this project at the library, your work seems to question these parameters.

You use space as though to counter the set rules?
ML: Yes and no. I am aware this is a difficult answer to your question. The thing I am building in the library has really no purpose at all. And I think it is a good thing I am allowed the space in the library to do so. I could also get space at FNB (First National Bank) I think, if I would work them for some time.

But there it would serve a very clear purpose, it would be the same structure, FNB loves Art, but I would most likely be tool for their PR department; same story in Maboneng, where Art is instrumentalised for gentrification.

In the library I can do something without it being instrumentalised.

So the library itself is not really setting up many rules for how I should use the space.

I can build stuff there that will be mostly incomprehensible for viewers at first sight.

AN:  Where does your work seek a connection, then?

With your audience here, I mean.

ML: I want to build stuff that escapes the ‘question/ answer’ paradigm
AN: Create a void in the subconscious?
ML: I want to connect to my audience by building something of which they will think: this somehow suggests a purpose, but hell: we can’t figure out what purpose

But it clearly must be good for something this thing these people are constructing, because it is highly complex. There is tremendous effort being put into it. They work for weeks- it must be good for something, right? Otherwise, why all this effort and why this very complex design!
An: TO BUILD underlines the basic definition of Work. Work equals effort over time.

Internationally, what do you think about the architectural structures around?
ML: I love Louis Kahn (the American modernist architect)

When I was visiting a friend in Boston, the only time I ever was in the States, I visited one of his buildings- the Philip Exeter Academy.

There are some small similarities between how he handles geometric shapes and my approach.

His buildings are a sophisticated balance of simple geometric shapes.
AN: “A great building must begin with the immeasurable, must go through measurable means when it is being designed and in the end must be unmeasurable”, he said.
ML: He’s a bit of a mystic in his speaking I think.

I never really understand the guy. But I do understand his buildings when I walk around in them.
AN: But surely you understand ‘Architecture is the reaching out for the truth’?
ML: What could that mean!

With Kahn I see a man that sketched simple geometric shapes, and then somehow, mysteriously creates order in them of the most fascinating quality.
AN: You said it- he speaks about the spiritual air of a building.

The Philip Exeter Academy has those crisscrossing lines similar to what you do in your work
MA: Yes.

I really recognize something in how he deals with space.
AN: What do you think of Antoni Gaudi’s architecture?
ML: I’ve never been inside any of his buildings. I know the images, but for my taste it is perhaps too organic.

I see the quality, and the buildings must be great.
AN: Ok. Your work emphasizes geometry.
ML: But I always like straight Modernism or Art Deco leading up to it more.
AN: Like the Bauhaus?
ML: I am very fascinated by Bauhaus.

Also, the hybrid they tried to make of all disciplines.

Russian Constructivism.
AN: Hybrids. I think that is what your installation/performance is all about
MA: I think you are right. I am not an architect, but people always ask me if I am one, or an engineer.
AN: Hybrid life in the 21st century
MA: What would that be- hybrid life nowadays?

The way I am handling that now is really new for me.

This is the first project that really puts the centre point of my project outside of the installation itself.
AN: The beauty will be to sync all into a ‘whole’ body of work.

Is there a possibility of relocating this work in other spaces?
ML: The system, the wood grid, can be done in many places. But the connection it makes with the location is site-specific. Not to say that the library location is completely unique and one of a kind.
AN: But it is
ML: Well it might be, yes.
AN: Because you can never replicate the library anywhere else, with the people flowing into the building, its location, etc.
ML: Exactly. There are similarities with earlier projects. The one in the shopping mall was similar, but certainly not identical
AN:  Of course, that shows a rhythm.
ML: It is difficult to find locations, as I want to use. I need a public place that allows for a mix of my work and the location. But I also need some sort of a retreat in that space- to be able to work in relative quiet.
AN: That precludes open spaces outdoors
ML: The problem with open spaces will be: my work will become a sculpture, or a monument.
AN: Apart from being created in a place of ‘too much’ external?
ML: I need some sort of intimacy for my work. Wide-open spaces don’t provide that.
AN: What is the duration of this installation/performance?
ML: We started on the first of February (2017), and the process will continue until the end of April- 3 months.

Building up the work, making it more complex, but also taking it away again. There will be no moment when the work is finished.
AN: Construct, deconstruct, show voids.
ML: It takes another breed of artist than me to make a piece that will stay where it is.
AN: Are you making any connections between the installation and the primary function of this particular space? The Library?
ML: Well… it is a very open place. There is the studio, which operates in the limelight of the library system. It is there, it is hidden a bit, it is not very official, but it is there. And it is open to society in the best way possible in that building (the Johannesburg City Library). Also, it is free-no entrance fee. Everybody can use a table to study there. I also like the fact that therefore access to my art will be free. It is a place to explore ideas, to encounter stuff you were not looking for but stumble upon when checking the books.
AN: Your work brings in ‘noise’. Do you think it does not detract?
ML: We are in a peculiar spot in the library. The big open spaces we use are ‘half there’. They are in-between the old library and the new parts built into it in 2012. We are strangely very visible but at the same time a bit out of sight. We do any noisy work before opening hours, or in a nearby studio. 
AN: Ok. The joining is done in plain view?
ML: Yes, but that is very quiet work. And we are in a very deep space. The people studying are not disturbed
AN: Your work is full of repetitions, of hexagonal shapes, crisscrossing lines

ML: Repetition it is, yes.
AN: Interceptions, and optical intrusion on space. What other elements play on what you are doing?
ML: The use of wood. That has its own will, and it is handwork. It is precise but not.
AN: Wood-organic and a bit pliant. It’s a very basic material to build with.

ML: More basic would be clay
AN:  Do you nail the joints?
ML: Everything fits together with bolts and nuts. We drill holes and fix parts together with bolts and nuts- like meccano.
AN: Will the structure be freestanding, or cling to the interior of the library for support?
ML: We will lift it, with hoists. I would prefer to connect with the library walls, but the building is very fragile. So I think it will be more or less free from the walls. But I will do my best to connect to the actual library building to avoid a structure that appears to be detached from it.
AN: Thanks, Mathijs. We are done for this set. 
From a chat on Facebook Messenger, 10am, February 16, 2017

For The Artist, Process is Priority

dsc00045Victory, they say, begins at Alkmaar. And so it was that Mathijs Lieshout was born in her. Alkmaar is a small city in Northern Holland with many well-preserved ancient buildings and once the home of Jan Wils, a founding member of the De Stijl, an art movement dedicated to creating a synthesis of Art, Design and Architecture. And Mathijs has grown beyond those principles. His work interrogates the fusion of form and function, in the framework of time.

“I see my projects as a performance, then as a monumental piece of sculpture- performance/ installation art, maybe”. Mathijs affects space with a sense of separateness from the human co-tenants; being structures whose sole reason for ‘being’ is in questioning the intentions of its builder/ maker. The work, by its presence, thus speaks.

In earlier times in Holland when they thought to build structures that implied a positivity about living, a transformation of the human spirit and more idyllic notions, one can fixate on their master Piet Mondrian and his compositions. Balancing primary colors, Piet sought out the keys to the universe. The individual lost his significance to the laws of harmonious cohabitation.

Mathijs’ work utilizes Process and Product as elements. Working with artists from other fields of art, they create an ambitious piece. His works reflect some of the key ideas in De Stijl- architecture, urban spaces, industrial design, music, poetic form interlaced with the mundane hum of daily living in these times.

Despite all these ‘memories’ one may associate with his work, the artist has ‘zero memory of the city (Alkmaar) He grew up in Obdam, a former municipal in Holland. He had the typical Dutch childhood- lived in an average-sized village, and played outside a lot with the neighborhood kids, who also attended the same small, local school. There were lots of space outside to play in, and very few cars. Most of the villagers worked in the local factory. But ‘I wasn’t very aware of what everyone’s parents actually did for work’. One can relate to the heady feelings that come with boyhood, those days when life was all about play!lego-1dsc00044

For every boy his age, there should be Lego days (the popular brick-building toy for children) Yes, Mathijs played with Lego ‘non-stop’! Those are his recollections of building anything. ‘I was always designing things in my fantasies’. There were moments when he had to make decisions about whether to build something with Lego, or just sketch that thing. The back and forth crystallized his process of visualization, planning and execution, to move from the place of dream and fantasies to create three-dimensional form.

To buttress an unending curiosity and explorative energy, he usually ‘worked like this- build one version, then build a better one, then another one, until it (the work) was to my satisfaction!” Even now, the experience working as an artist is similar to his boyhood days of playing with Lego. “ I still do (this)- version 1, version 2, and then continue creating prototypes and improving on that”. Beyond play, the artist thrives on trial and error, allowing for accidental ‘ endings’, if one must put a lifespan to the creative process used in an artwork. The thing is to ‘build stuff, see how it works in reality, then adapt and improve. I have an ideal image, often a design or sketch somewhere, or in my mind. I try to get close to (achieving) that. But it is not a one-way traffic- the ideal also changes”.

The word ‘improve’ in reference to his work implies the ‘existence’ of a ‘perfect idea’. Improving as an active verb fits well into any assessment of Mathijs Lieshout’s work.

Presently creating another of his monumental installations/performance at the Johannesburg City Library (check out the introductory essay –www.nsoforanthony.wordpress.com/2016/07/19/mathijs-lieshout-conquering-voids/), the artist will be recycling materials from ‘studio sketches ‘ made in 2010.’ I never really managed to do everything I wanted to achieve with those’, he said, referring to the past. In 2010, he owned a huge studio in the port city of Rotterdam. The walls of the studio were 6 meters high!

From preliminary sketches, one realizes that the webby, hexagonally shaped morphs that suggest a bee’s nest was not intended primarily for habitation. It is more ‘ a room within another’, a dedicated space. The traditional use of architecture flows into the extremes of visual aesthetics. One comes to the question, ‘what is the building for?’

Initially, Mathijs just wanted to surround himself with elaborate wooden grids. ‘ Like a magnificent wooden web, my plan was to make these incredibly dense, compact modern morph. I woodwork myself inside the construction, and from it create rooms, interior spaces and people would make houses inside it by cutting away wood, much like cutting in a very dense forest’. All this seems to be an autobiographical reference of a man reclaiming new spaces that he sojourns in on the journey through life, traversing continents, recreating comfort zones in Wonderland.

‘I had this crazy idea of an imaginary world entirely filled with a wood grid. As the work proceeded, that original idea got lost. When the team (that worked with him on a project) leaves, building stops. It seemed to me that the work was not complete anymore’. He has created ‘finished’ works in the past. Presently, his works’ main focus is on the process, rather than the finished product.

It was around 2011 that he noticed the new ways that his audience engaged with his work process. Everything is a continuum, open-ended. In 2012, on a residency in Kosice, a city in Slovakia, Mathijs preferred a workspace in a hallway and on a staircase instead of the expansive, abandoned factory space that the facilitators of the residency had provided (go to http://www.mathijslieshout.com/citadela for a video of the residency)’ There is nothing wrong with the retreat of a big white majestic art space. But the last project I did in such a space seemed pointless to me at the end. There is something about art spaces that sterilizes art.’ Buildings mark different eras of human civilization, the fusion of cultures that also happened as nations interacted, fought wars and were conquered. Man has the pyramids of Egypt and the Mayan dynasty, Stonehenge, the ancient Benin Wall, the Great Wall of China, etc. Mathijs would like that the memories of building his work remains in the minds of all his collaborators.

This project weaves through a part of the library. The artist enjoys the interface between his work and the human buzz around the space. That is added motivation. Nowadays, Mathijs rarely leaves the Central Business District (CBD) of Johannesburg. He lives in Anstey’s building, on Joubert Street, and also runs the 13th Floor Gallery on the same building. The Johannesburg City Library, site of his present project, is within walking distance, so also, is his new exhibition space for the 13th Floor gallery, located at Commissioner Street.studio

One has a mental picture of reading while hanging from the wooden structure, a thought that the artist wouldn’t mind happening.

He has held several sensitization exhibitions at the library to prepare the minds of the public for his project. Students and other library visitors have enthusiastically logged in, and started following his work online.’ My work often leads to conversation’. That could happen with him or with the artists assisting on the project taking questions from the audience. Also, the artists allocated studio space in the library have become ambassadors of the project.

So, what should Art do for us? ‘There are so many ways Art can inspire’, he replies. ‘In the best possible scenario, if I really do my job perfectly, and everything goes as it should, (then) I hope my work could inspire that the parameters of the world are not fixated. They are not a given. That (idea) sounds abstract. Unfortunately they are there and you would have to deal with it. And if people want to make you believe different, (to claim) that this is how things are done- that is never true!” Again, the flashes from the days of playing with Lego come to mind. Just like stepping through the looking glass.

Also appears on the webpage-http://www.mathijslieshout.com/tobuildblog

 

Mathijs Lieshout: Conquering Voids

FB_IMG_1468832997334Man has that strong compulsion to build, to bring something new to fruition. Man here refers to Mathijs Lieshout, a Dutch artist presently residing in South Africa. He moved there when his wife Marieke got a job there.

Mathijs worked in a room with Meghan Judge, a South African artist. There were many artists working in different media and styles in the huge studio space on the third floor of Anstey’s Building, 59 Joubert Street. Mathijs struck me as a very busy man, with sheets of tracing paper and partially coloured papers filled with dark, straight lines scattered all round the smaller cubicle. Looking closely, the drawings reminded one of architectural sketches.

Mathijs Lieshout was more interested in the process of building, than with building with a function in mind. He would go into a finished building, and literally occupy the void within with his structure/work. As a student, his works for the university’s coursework went counter to what his professors were used to. And as with many institutions of formal learning where new knowledge struggles, he flunked his fourth year courses. Not to be deterred, he moved to the Painting section where the head of the department seemed intrigued by his ideas.

In that period, while his classmates were interested in making paintings in the traditional sense-as something that can be collected and shared amongst individuals, he turned his studio into an art gallery of sorts and invited his classmates to display their work! In a sense, his student work was more interested in recreating the process and relocation of artworks, than with the making of art. The result-he studied Painting without creating one painting for review! Yes, he still graduated formally as an artist. Talk about artists getting artistic license! Education became what it should really preach- a flexible use of established criteria to analyze new data, without stifling it with outmoded ideologies.

Since then, the happy fellow has moved on in life, building process-based structures that look like gigantic nests in spaces- a shopping mall, an open forest, etc. The performance of building fixates his mind, like a theatre performance solely preoccupied with putting up a good show, irreverent to the morale. The message is in the process of building.

A year ago, when he arrived in South Africa, he tried working in Pretoria but felt the vibe of the city was not inspiring enough. He kept on returning to Johannesburg, walking around the spaces. He finally settled there, and soon started making sketches for an upcoming project at the Johannesburg City Library.

The huge library is housed in a 1930’s Italianate building designed by John Perry. The collection grew from the initial contributions of a group of prominent South Africans in 1889 to have over 1.5million books in its shelves. For the artist, it has an extremely rich cache of art books, and is called the Michaelis Art Collection. The library also had a small studio for artists attached to its façade. Mathijs Lieshout had found his space! He started working with the young artists there- Bongi Nxasana, Mongezi Ncombo, Lungi, Thumi, David etc. There are more names, as some of these artists come and go freely. Its all well. First names would suffice, for now. The artists have total freedom over the work they produce. They take responsibility. That is the flexible relationship that Mathijs prefers when working with students.

After a while, he and his friend George Togara decided to open an art gallery to help promote and sell the works of these young artists. They found the ideal space for their budget. The gallery is called Togara and Lieshout, on Arts On Main, Maboneng. They are open only on Sundays with the rest of the market, but he hopes to stay open on other days in the near future.

In the interim, Mathijs got approval from the library to build two structures in the spaces between the 1930 building and the renovations of 2012. The initial drawings are on display to the public. It shows a structure made of light, treated wood, joined in shafts rand rising from the ground floor to spiral across the elevators. One can imagine it- a maze of ochre wood waving in the air, breaking the overhead light of bulbs into sharp shards of broken light. The imagined space conjures an idea of sound being distorted by the interference. The artist takes advantage of the space that the architect has left off.

Mathijs Lieshout’s work, by its mere creation, counters the notion of building with reason, or functionality. This references some of the structures built in certain ancient civilizations whose function or purpose are yet to be fully understood. We can only speculate. So does Mathijs, questioning the space, engaging the voids. That is important enough.