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.