Getting unhinged. On the work of Mark Manders

I have to start with a confession: it is difficult to write about the work of Mark Manders. There are several reasons for this I am sure, but the strongest might be the timelessness of his work. A timelessness he consciously aims for. And one he achieves. His works can both be old and new, from this day and age or from times immemorial, they might have been finished yesterday or a hundred years ago, they are pre- and post industrial at the same time. Or in his own words: “A work of art should be unrelated to time. Although it’s made in a specific period, it should be capable of moving through time and relate both to art from ancient times and to something still to be made. (…) I sometimes feel like a time traveler who should have made things a hundred—or three thousand—years ago. I intend making a work that should have been made in the Middle Ages.”1

As a result, capturing the essence of the work by Manders is difficult. Or maybe it is not so much the essence that escapes us, I assume we feel and sense essence in a bodily and precognitive way, as the fact that we cannot inscribe Manders into a school, genre or period. This makes his oeuvre footloose, in the sense of free and independent. As if we are trying to hold on to a wet piece of soap.

So here starts my difficulty: I am holding a wet piece of soap in my hands, now it is on the floor again, darting away and I am scurrying clumsily behind it. One solution to this predicament would be to detail his career, a career that brought him recognition first and foremost abroad and not in his mother country the Netherlands, maybe not fully until he represented the Netherlands in 2013 at the Venice Biennale with a highly successful installation that catapulted him back into the Dutch art scene. But the career angle is clearly insufficient. There is so much more to an artist than his career.

Another option would be to simply describe his work, the technical mastery of materials he has achieved over the years that allow him to create sculptures that look like wet clay, even years after they have been finished, the many recurring shapes and objects in his oeuvre: incomplete human bodies, heads pressed between planks, animals, everyday objects like sugar cubes, pens and tea sachets, floor plans, or the ways in which the reconstruction of his studio, including the tools and objects that happen to be present, is becoming more and more part of his installations. But this approach feels unsatisfactory as well somehow. Describing his art works (or any art work for that matter) is very important but there is more to Manders’ work, and that “more” escapes us when we only rely on the descriptive.

Another route would be to detail his Self-Portrait as a Building, the overarching project of an as of yet fictional building on which Manders has been working since 1986 and in which all his works as well as the artist Mark Manders “live” or reside. The aforementioned timelessness of his work is also a key characteristic of this fictional building: “The building is fiction, but everything inside exists in reality. The building is like a gigantic stage set frozen in time with lots of rooms that all seem as if they have just been abandoned. There is no distinction between works of, let’s say, fifteen years ago and a work I finished yesterday.” ((Mark Manders on his Self-Portrait as a Building in Reference Book, p 16.)) Needless to say I considered focusing on this project as well, it is after all his life’s work and it provides the writer with a tangible structure to hold on to. But I didn’t want to trap the metaphorical piece of soap inside this house. It would end up on the rim of a washbasin or bathtub. And the circle would be closed.

So my proposal is a different one. I want to revert to a master class on art criticism that my late father, the Belgian writer Dirk Lauwaert, gave twenty years ago2. I was too young to be present at that time, but I can rely on the detailed notes taken by the Belgian theater critic Johan Reyniers.

Lauwaert was a writer and critic of film, fashion, visual arts, theater, dance, photography whose work is characterized by a personal, deeply engaged style that deliberately avoided the philosophical or scientific strands of art criticism3. He wrote, as he termed it, a sensual, personal critique in which adjectives and metaphors played a major role. Erudite without being intellectualistic. Lauwaert belonged, as Manders, to no school; maybe he was his own school, always non-conformist and non-pragmatic. He operated, in that respect, alone, truly free and independent. This position, it might be worth to note, is not one I can hold onto myself. Like many of my contemporaries, I am not truly independent and pragmatism all too often creeps into the decisions I make.

The master class Lauwaert gave took place over the course of several days in 1994 and there are four major themes he covered: the necessary solitary and independent position of the art critic, the profession of art criticism and the related problem of judging and finally the role and function of the critic in society. Not all of these topics will feature as heavily in the text below but there are some claims Lauwaert made that resonate surprisingly with the life and work of Manders. Through a reconstruction of Lauwaerts opinions on the task and métier of art criticism, I want to get closer to the work of Manders, and, and this is a crucial point, I want to try and take the reader along with me in the crossing of this river between audience and artwork4.

Loneliness by necessity

One of the best sources on the work, life and thinking of Manders is the already quoted from Reference Book published in 2012 by Roma Publications, the publishing house Manders co-founded with Roger Willems. This book of more than 500 pages chronicles Manders’ works, his writing and also contains an interview with Manders by Nickel van Duijvenboden that details beautifully how Manders lives and works. He works hard, makes long days, and lives rather isolated on the Belgian countryside. He hasn’t been to a bar in ages.

This loneliness, if Manders would even consider it lonely?, is not a choice but a necessity for an art critic. Being an art critic is making the opposite movement from creating solidarities. Rather, one needs to create isolations and avoid being included in a group, a scene: never follow your generation to a bar. No school, no trend, no period should be able to claim you. Manders’ work cannot be claimed either, and this is exactly what I was struggling with in trying to grasp his work. If you do let yourself be claimed as a critic, you fall into the trap of writing slogans and propaganda and rather than having a critical relation to the artwork, yours becomes a promotional one.

I often have drinks with artists, follow them to bars so to speak, but I can admit, with a certain relief now, that I have never met Manders. We exchanged two very brief emails in which we tried setting up an interview but that never went through because of conflicting agenda’s and maybe because of a certain hesitation on his part. Explaining his work would make the bar of soap less slippery, and maybe that is not what he wants to happen.

Although many art critics will claim that you cannot write about an artist without having seen his studio, the place of work, without having talked through an oeuvre, Lauwaert seemed to be saying the very opposite. Keep a certain distance. Be engaged but don’t become too entangled. Don’t become a “kingmaker”, a role that will be awarded by the art world but that takes away your one and only currency as an art critic: critical engagement.

So what could then be the relationship between critic and artwork? Lauwaert talks about “une relation amorouse à distance”, a distanced amorous relationship. You love but never get too close, you look, glimpse and maybe even spy but never touch. There are no mathematical rules to find the right distance between the need of engagement and the need to be and stay reserved. Intuition is what we need in finding the right distance between artist and critic. 

Funnily enough, the construction of the third-person Manders by Manders, as well as his choice to live and work in a small town and not in Brussels or Amsterdam for example, seems to preempt this very seduction of critic and artist to become too close. Van Duijvenboden, who interviewed Manders at length for the Reference Book, describes the barrier, and his wish to cross it, between Manders and the outside world as follows in the introduction to his interview: “I had wanted to gain more insight into the person ‘behind’ the character. (…) I was curious about the extent to which the Self-Portrait as a Building is an autobiography, and whether I would get to see something of the man Mark Manders.”5

The interview ends with the question whether it is important or not to know something about the person behind the work. Manders answer is telling: “With good works of art it’s irrelevant who made them. When you stand in a space with the work and you lose yourself in it, then the maker simply no longer exists. It’s purely about you as a person looking at a work of art, what you feel, experience and think. Everything else should simply disappear.”6

A bodily durcharbeitung

Feeling and experiencing an artwork makes the artist in a sense redundant, Manders seems to be saying. The experience becomes central, not the name, fame or autobiography of the maker. I am convinced my father would agree. Rather than explaining an artwork, which is not the aim of art criticism because in the act of explaining we extinguish, neutralize, reduce and do away with the artwork, art criticisms only justification lies in bringing across the experience of the work, in the vital (sensory, bodily) rather than theoretical or intellectual durcharbeitung of an experience.

The work of Manders will often force you, by its very nature, to rely on your vital experience. Trying a theoretical or intellectual angle on his work is very hard; it will leave you frustrated because the work is done injustice to and you never feel as if you were able to grasp the essence of what Manders’ work is about. This was made very clear to me when the first visitors were allowed to enter the Dutch pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Almost everyone was touched, without being able to explain exactly why, by the one-legged girl stretched against a table, the studio-like setting hidden behind almost but not quite transparent plastic, the various heads big and small, the dog with a mouse strapped to its belly. The work is not aiming for our lacrimal glands but reaches our hearts via ways left previously unexplored. The experience of the work of Manders is at the core bodily and sensory, not cerebral or academic. Then again, the work is not free-floating or woolly/sloppy. It is extremely precise and contained. The bodily and emotional characteristics of his work do not in any sense mean that the works are wild expressionistic burps of emotion.

For the Biennale catalogue that accompanied this presentation by Manders, I was asked, as were many writers, to write a brief text on one of his works. Here as well, albeit more unconsciously at that stage in my thinking about his work, I fell back on memories, emotions, the impulses the work awakened in me. Manders’ work simply seems to have that effect on people. It speaks to us in a very primordial and elementary way.

In the durcharbeitung of an experience, art criticism operates in the domain of the nuance, the in-between areas, that which cannot be named but has to be approached via the comparative way of point and counterpoint. The piece of soap introduced at the beginning of this text should in this sense not be such a big problem; it might even be a necessity. Through the slippery nature of an oeuvre, and as such of any art-critical argumentation and claim, the opposite of what is present, should always be just around the corner. This introduces the play of point and counterpoint, the hesitation and imbalance that are needed to keep art critique open and dialogical.

So rather than explaining art, bringing an experience across is central, rather than stating claims, hesitation should be let run its course. Don’t try to hold an argument in your hands and squeeze to keep it firmly in place but let it run wild, let if fall to the ground and pick it up again. What Lauwaert calls “un fil conducteur” (connecting thread) will bind the text together and ensures that the reader isn’t getting lost. Because Manders has such a strong fil conducteur in his oeuvre, the Self-Portrait as a Building, the pull is always there to let both red threads overlap: the one in the oeuvre and the one in a text. I think it is safe to say that my fil conducteur has turned out, against all expectations, to be a piece of soap. A piece of soap that at first made me feel nervous and clumsy but that is gradually morphing into an asset rather than a weakness.

Getting unhinged

Having an eye for details is a key aspect to art criticism Lauwaert stated. Details in an artwork are never trivial, they are the specks of dust in the eye, that which creates confusion and lifts us out of our hinges, not in the sense of making us mentally unbalanced but rather in the sense of setting us free. This is, ultimately, what art is about, he said, unhinging the viewer.

It is hard to imagine where to start describing the overwhelming amount and finesse of details in the work of Manders. There is extreme precision and condensed energy in the works (in the previously mentioned work Mind Study where a one-legged girl is strapped to a table, you feel the potential, the tension of her being launched or catapulted into space, for example) and it feels as if everyone, every thing, every little detail in his works is keeping still while we are looking. As soon as we turn around, they let their arms down, do a little dance, giggle and start talking amongst each other or simply return to what they were doing before you walked in on them. You cannot imagine that these materials, these life forms he created, can keep up that precise pose for more than ten minutes.

Take for example a work without title from 19987. What we see is a plastic bottle half filled with sand on which rests a little wooden plank. On one outer end of this plank a rather nondescript plastic tub and a standard plastic throwaway cup, both filled with sand, are holding their ground. Running from their end of the piece of wood to the other end, is a thin iron stick that, when followed to its source, turns out to be the long tail of a mouse, or rat, or an imaginary little creature with pointy snout and stout legs. The animal is hanging from its end of the wooden plank: facedown, as if crashed and taking a delicious nap. All is peaceful, all is quiet. But one moment of inattentiveness, and the mouse will be running havoc, spilling all the sand and trying to get his tail unstuck from the little plank. And if that doesn’t work, simply dragging it around with him. Why not? You never know when you can use a thing like that to smack a cat.

What enforces this feeling of stilled energy in Manders’ work is the fact that all the individual pieces are part of Self-Portrait as a Building. They are not simply art works, they are the living and breathing inhabitants of a building: mice, people, floor plans and furniture-like objects.

Manders’ works have the ability, in their strangeness (no human seems to be complete or well-proportioned for example), their uncannyness (imagine the cave-like hallways or the sinkholes in the floor), their sweetness (strongly present in dogs carrying little animals strapped to their bellies) and their elusiveness (think of the factory-inspired installations that do not expose their nature nor function), to lift us, as viewers, out of our hinges, to set us loose. But the works themselves are also constantly on the verge of getting undone, shaking themselves out and continuing their lives in Self-Portrait as a Building. ((There is a more complex relationship to “getting unhinged” in the work of Manders. In the interview with Van Duijvenboden, he talks about his interest in psychology, which stemmed from witnessing his mother, during his youth, suffering from psychoses. He further talks about the deranged world we live in and the creative space that opens up: “Our entire world, the way we’ve constructed it, is so complex. It’s certainly a collective neurosis. It’s no more strange than the world that I make. It has everything to do with a state of derangement. That’s the area where you can create works of art.” Reference Book, p. 46.)) No wonder Manders prefers solo presentations for his work as these offer the best conditions to set such a stage.

The inability to live in this world as it is

Lauwaert found that art deals with the artist’s, but also our, inability to live in the world as it is. Art is an indictment against the world and a way of not accepting it as it is. But art is also very much a tribute to life. 

Manders takes this one step further we could say. In the text The Absence of Mark Manders, written in 1994 and reprinted in his Reference Book, he writes about the “realization that life is taking its course, even without you” and (and here he refers to himself in the third person) that “Mark Manders has inhabited his self-portrait since 1986”. “Walking through my building, I get confronted everywhere with deep arrest, it is terrific, the things over here surmount my momentaneous thinking and are familiar to me, I never get bored.” ((Reference Book, p. 9.))

In trying to deal with the world as it is, Manders created a parallel world in which things are as he desires, creates and designs them. He is paying a magnificent, larger than life homage to life. One in which everyone is invited to enter. And there are, so it seems, two versions of this world: the fictional one filled with very real-life works and the real one in which he lives and works. His studio/house in Ronse, and its kaleidoscopic, maze-like qualities are described by Maria Barnas in Reference Book: “Mark Manders shows me an astonishing number of corridors, rooms, cellars, interlinked spaces, sheds, attics and outbuildings. Some have been renovated, others are still being rebuilt. Many look as if no-one has touched them for years. The building where Manders lives and works used to be a weaving factory. It looks like an old industrial castle. In the garden is a vinery, with a luxuriant jungle of plants. Wild shoots protrude through holes in the glass. It’s like a head with too many ideas in it.”8

If art is indeed an indictment against the world and if art making is indeed a way of handling our inability to live in the world as it is, then Manders found a brilliant way of dealing with this. He created on the one hand a parallel world, or system, in which every viewer can reside and that is shaped according to his ideas and rules, and on the other hand he created a world for himself in which he can reside, take a step back from the “real world” we live in and work, in all freedom, on this fictional building that provides an alternative to the world as is for everyone who encounters it.

Christopher

My father started his master class with the metaphor of the figure of Christopher. Christopher was allegedly 2.3 m tall, had a fearsome face and wanted to serve “the greatest king there was”. After he roamed the earth, he ended up serving Christ by carrying people over a dangerous river where they would usually perish in the attempt of crossing it. After some time, a small child asked to be carried across. During the crossing, the river swell and the child became very heavy, so much so that Christopher could barely make it to the other end. When they finally reached the other side, Christopher told the child that he thought not even the whole world could have been as heavy as him, to which the child replied that Christopher had not only carried the whole world on his back but also Him who created it.

As the figure of Christopher, the art critic also has to cross a river between his experience of an artwork and those who are reading the text. Carrying on his back not the king but the critic’s memories of how beautiful the art work was, how extraordinary it is that someone – the artist – called into being, created something that would otherwise not have existed. Doing justice to this improbable, but also unpredictable existence of something, is the reason to be an art critic. In this sense, being an art critic is a vocation. Just as much as being an artist is one. Nevertheless, the distance between these two roles exists, has to exist and allows for both of them to function, to perform, to add something to the world.

Never give everything away, Lauwaert told his students. Never aim for or reach perfection. There always has to be more to be told. With Manders there is no risk of reaching perfection. There is no use in trying. There is simply too much to the work and there will always be so much more to tell, to carry across the river. Every attempt at capturing his work in words feels like a failure. Or maybe, to put it more positive, these feelings of never being complete are an advantage if we keep in mind that hesitation, contradictions, opposition should always be present in a text in order to keep the writing and thinking about art open and dialogical.

The slippery piece of soap I was trying to hold on to has become somewhat less unpredictable but it is still on the verge to slip away and skitter down the bathroom tiles. The difference being that it no longer feels as a disappointment or a shortcoming but rather as something that we have to embrace. If you follow the piece of soap through the hallways of Manders’ work, you might end up in a dark cave-like hole underneath a house but you can also reach the top of a factory tower and see the stars. In both cases you are set free, lifted out of your hinges.

  1. Mark Manders in an interview with Nickel van Duijvenboden, Reference Book, Roma Publications, 2012, p. 32. 
  2. Lauwaert is mainly known in Belgium and the Netherlands. His writing was hard to translate and has therefore not been read as widely outside of the Dutch-speaking community. 
  3. A certain confusion of individuals resulting from one Lauwaert writing about another Lauwaert is not alien to Mark Manders. He often refers to himself in third person in his texts. Manders is as much a character created by the artist as a real person of flesh and blood.  
  4. Unless otherwise stated, all references to this master class stem from the notes of Reyniers and are loose quotes of what Dirk Lauwaert talked about during these four intensive days. I am very grateful for Reyniers’ diligent note taking and generous sharing. 
  5. Reference Book, p. 29 & 30. 
  6. Reference Book, p. 46. 
  7. An image of this work is part of Reference Book, page 81. 
  8. Reference Book, p. 437.