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Essay April 25th, 2017

I’d like to be a poet

By Laure van den Hout

Words in mirror image.

The right word in the wrong place

 And the wrong word
in the right place.

Robot words.

Words to stitch onto dream togas.

Hans Arp, Words (fragment), 1961
Translation: Tony Langham & Plym Peters

From: Hans Arp, Gesammelte Gedichte: Gedichte 1957-1966

“Of course”, I heard one visitor say, “It looks so real. That’s because of those little fingers. Did you see them? They all move so elegantly, quite separately from each other, as though they’re playing the piano in the air.” Of course, I’m also struck by her supple joints, shiny white leather boots, neatly combed hair, scantily clad body and bird mask. Of course, Female Figure is primarily a seductive, robotic female figure. And yet it’s something else that attracts my attention: her language and her speech, and in particular that one sentence: I’d like to be a poet.

The reason that the words “I’d like to be a poet” are striking is because they deviate from the rest of Female Figure’s sentences. In fact her use of language – apart from a number of pop songs which can be heard as a playback – consists predominantly of statements. She says things like: “I’m gay” and “This is my house”. Or she recites a succession of phrases so that it seems as though she’s talking to herself or to her creator: “Say feeling love / Just say feeling love / Okay / Feeling love / Okay now what should I tell them / Tell them / Touch is love / Say touch is love / Touch is love / Touch is love / Now close your eyes / Now close your eyes / Now close your eyes / Close your eyes / Close your eyes.”

Instead of being something, the sentence “I’d like to be a poet” expresses a desire to become something.  Moreover, Female Figure wants to become something very specific. A poet. A real poet. A creator rather than a performer, a subject rather than an object. If you analyze the sentence, both the phrase “I’d like to be” and the phrase “a poet” reveals painful human emotions, viz: desire and significance.  A desire for significance. In this context it’s interesting to note that the etymology of the word poetry goes back to the Greek word poiesis, which means to make or create. Giving something a meaning (also) entails allowing something to become something different. It involves stretching a context or even creating a context.

Reading poetry means looking for meaning, again and again. Poetry disrupts our normal relationship to language; its basic motivation is to confuse our experience and our understanding of language. It kneads our brain and messes with the linguistic framework that we use to understand the world and with which we can translate this understanding and pass it on to others. It brings reality closer by expressing it, and at the same time it emphasizes the yawning gap between words and reality precisely by expressing it. In poetry we are aware that the words we use in our daily lives suddenly mean more and can communicate something different.

In his poem Worte, Hans Arp (1886 -1966) – artist, writer, poet and one of the pioneers of Dada – connects things that we may know, such as walks, mountains and flowers, to the word “words”. Arp comes up with all sorts of combinations: “words on walks”, “words from the mouth to the abyss”, “word to fish for in troubled waters”, “words from floating mountains/ or if you think this is pretentious / words from cloud mountains”. Arp seems to want to examine the relationship between the idea of “words” and words which express things (which in a sense reflects something from reality).

No matter how many words Arp comes up with, and no matter how he characterizes them, they constantly slip away. It’s like the sky or a meadow in an impressionist painting: blue brushstrokes or white touches which we then interpret as the sky, blobs of brownish white in the grass which can also suddenly turn into a herd of cows lying in the meadow. It requires us to interpret them and constantly throws us in at the deep end. There’s not just one answer, and you continue to see both sky and brushstrokes, both cows and thick blobs of paint.  Our own meaning, our own interpretation. The responsibility of looking.  This is also shown by Arp’s “dreaming flake world”, “superdoll words”, “flower words of superdoll flowers”, “words with ancient trains coughed up by their centrifugal salad shaker”, “balmy words” and “brook words”. They take you back to your own observation, to your own reading of the word. In the words of the poet Martinus Nijhoff (1894-1953): “Just read it, it doesn’t say what it says.” (Just look, you don’t see what you see.)

Before I go any further I’d like to explain that it’s not my intention to pronounce on what poetry can do. What fascinates me is an artist who creates a robot sculpture and makes her say that she would like to be a poet. In this context I’d like to reflect on the fact that although her movements make her look real, it’s actually the words ‘I’d like to be a poet’ that make her human.

When reading poetry becomes a search for meaning, purification, understanding, despair, an absence of belief, confusion and wonder, it’s an experience which makes you feel profoundly human. She shows something that’s not yet available on demand: the ambiguity of a creation. Wolfson’s animatronics are not simply unambiguous either. This is clear from the remarks of the visitor who said that she looked so real because of the way in which she moved her “fingers”. By “real” he appears to mean physically real, or perhaps even human. But it is a robot.

In an ARTtube film which shows in particular the work Colored Sculpture that was exhibited during MANIC / LOVE, the first part of his exhibition in the Stedelijk, Wolfson remarks about animatronics: “There is something about movement and there is something about gravity that makes me, and what I also believe the viewer, to become present in their own body. That you actually have a kind of physical reaction to these things.”

This awareness of your own physicality also plays an important role in Female Figure. I recognize what the visitor describes: seeing the precise movement of her fingers, it corresponds with the feeling of moving my own fingers in the same way. Her other movements have the same effect. I can feel the swaying of her hips in my own body.

Even though Female Figure has hinges where we have shoulders, and even though she’s connected to a mirror with a rod, the movements she makes are credible. This physicality evokes human associations.

You could extend the awareness of your own physicality to a consciousness of your own humanity, of being a human being. In this respect the facts that the animatronics talk – i.e., their language and speech – also has vital significance. Just as the movements make you aware of your body, the words (language) make you aware of your mind.

Language emphasizes the human desire for meaning. By naming something it becomes real, while it did not exist in that way before.  For example, Female Figure becomes gay with three simple words. The space she occupies becomes her house with four simple words. With language we can profile ourselves, create a world for ourselves. Speaking is creating, seeing. However, when someone says only (“I am”, “This is”) and does not express a desire (“I’d like to be”), he or she does reveal a mental world but seems less human. Wolfson clearly understood this and had Female Figure desire something. The nature of her desire is crucial in this respect. Wolfson did not choose for Female Figure to express an instinctive, and therefore animal desire such as lust, which would have been quite logical in view of her sexy dance moves and her outfit. Instead Wolfson gave her the desire to create something, and even had her specify this: “I’d like to be a poet”. This multiplicity of meanings, for a robot to desire to become something, and actually to be able to create something itself which can be understood by others – in other words, which urges others to become creative by attributing meaning to it – is what makes this statement fascinating and Female Figure human.

 

 

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Exhibition Exhibition April 20th, 2017

“My mother is dead. My father is dead. I’m gay. I’d like to be a poet. This is my house.”

By Michelle Schulte

Thus begins Female figure by Jordan Wolfson, just before “Applause” by Lady Gaga starts playing. According to Wolfson, the robotic figure is a sexual object and the work addresses “the violence of objectification”. Without being aware of this, the viewer can already feel it when standing in the gallery with the robot.

She is a blonde woman dressed as a hypersexualized pop star: she wears a semitransparent skirt through which her underwear is visible, thigh-high boots, and long gloves. She is completely in white, the color of virginity. Her body appears dirty, but the reason for this is unknown. Her face is concealed by a mask of a witch’s face — this symbolizes infertility, according to Wolfson, while the movements her body makes simply scream fertility. Because her face is hidden, it feels as if the mask makes her more of an object rather than a person.

She is attached to a pole — as if it forces her to keep dancing. Even when no music is playing and she addresses the audience, she continues to dance. From behind the mask, her eyes constantly follow the crowd in the room, unnerving the viewer. She is fixed in place, and her audience cannot leave. She is continuously “performing” for the public. And, as a spectator, the viewer can do nothing. Read More »

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Uncategorized August 13th, 2012

kuvva x stedelijk presents

We have some fantastic news! Kuvva and the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam joined forces by celebrating creativity together. The Stedelijk will curate upcoming designers for the monthly “Stedelijk Presents” series. Giving talents a platform in the Kuvva digital art gallery streamed to you. The first curated talents are the duo Staynice from Breda, The Netherlands. Kuvva had a great chat with these guys and will introduce you to them. Excited to know what Stedelijk is going to Present next month? Download the Desktop App and keep an eye on the Kuvva blog!

Website Staynice
Interview Staynice on Kuvva

Uncategorized February 16th, 2012

Your anecdote about the Stedelijk

Does the name Stedelijk Museum recall any memories? Unforgettable anecdotes of your first encounter, an exhibition you visited or a specific work in our collection? Please share your personal story with us here or send it to n.snijders@stedelijk.nl before March 9, 2012.

Texts should be 50-200 words (Dutch or English). The most remarkable ones will be published in a book about the Stedelijk Museum. Winners will receive a hard copy. We are looking forward to receiving your contributions!

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Uncategorized February 3rd, 2012

A spectacular feat: transporting a Schnabel to Venice

Special, low-floor art transport trailers equipped with climate control and air suspension systems are a rare commodity: there are just three in the whole of Europe. They allow huge works of art (up to 335 cm high) to be transported vertically. And that was just what was needed in the case of American artist Julian Schnabel’s 1981 painting, The Unexpected Death of Blinky Palermo in the Tropics. In its 446 x 29 x 319 cm crate, it just fitted into the trailer.

Recognizing the importance of the event for Julian Schnabel and Museo Correr, the Stedelijk Museum had gone to every length to cooperate on the artist’s Venice retrospective, Julian Schnabel. Permanently Becoming and the Architecture of Seeing (4 June – 27 November 2011).

Paintings are always transported on their stretchers if size permits. If not, they are occasionally rolled up for transportation, but this always entails a risk of damage. The precarious condition of this particular painting, done on velvet, meant that it had to be transported vertically on its stretcher.

First, the rear of the work was covered by a special backing board (made of 5 mm thick polypropylene hollow core sheeting). Then the space between the support and the backing board was filled up completely with foam planks (5 cm thick Ethafoam), mounted onto the backing board using nylon book screws. This produced a vacuum which ensured maximum immobilization of the painting in transit. Finally, the work was mounted in a protective wooden transit frame and wrapped in plastic sheeting for additional protection.

The tailor-made wooden crate was rendered watertight by a layer of gloss paint and a rubber seal on the lid. Travel crates made by the Stedelijk in-house are always equipped with shock absorbers in the corners. So the painting was well packaged for its long and complicated journey to Venice.

Once the crate was unloaded on the outskirts of Venice, it would still have to be maneuvered through the narrow pedestrian streets of the town to its final destination. To achieve this, Marc Bongaarts – the Stedelijk’s Head of Technical Conservation Art Handling – devised an innovative kind of light-weight transportation system. This consisted of four one-sided aluminum supporting arms, capable of adjustment to different widths. These were equipped with heavy swiveling castors fitted with pneumatic tires to absorb shocks and vibration. Four M10 bolts were used to mount the supporting arms onto the crate and the arms were fastened together at the bottom by a thick aluminum strip. This ensured that the case could turn on its own axis and pass smoothly over the uneven surface of the Venetian streets.

After a journey of around 1350 kilometers, the case arrived on the quayside at the Tronchetto boat terminal, Venice’s freight transshipment point. Amid fruit and vegetable boats and countless artists bringing their work to the Biennale, the Schnabel was carefully winched out of the truck and loaded onto the largest freighter available in Venice. The vessel then proceeded to the Piazza San Marco, where a crane was used to winch the case up into the air before the astonished eyes of crowds of tourists. With the case suspended just over the boat deck, Marc and his Italian assistants mounted the transportation system onto it. The painting was now ready for the final leg of its journey.

The transportation system was designed in such a way that the width between the casters could be varied. Even in the narrowest position, for example on the landing stage, the case stood stably upright. The system permitted the Schnabel to be wheeled safely to the Museo Carrer, guarded on each side by an escort of no fewer than eight people. At the foot of the museum’s long staircase, the painting was removed from the case and carried up the stairs, still packed in its transit frame and plastic sheet wrappings, in the presence of Julian Schnabel himself.

Once the work had arrived in the gallery, its condition was checked by two restorers (Louise Wijnberg from the Stedelijk and a restorer from the Museo Correr), who prepared a joint condition report. The painting was found to have suffered no ill effects and looked magnificent in its prominent position by the main entrance – ample reward for the time and trouble that Marc and his department had taken to ensure a flawless transport operation.

At the end of the exhibition, the painting was successfully repackaged and brought back to the Stedelijk Museum by the same method.


Photos: Marc Bongaarts and Louise Wijnberg

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