Victory, 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!
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.
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