Stanley Brouwn and Hans Faverey
In the work This Way Brouwn, a collection of written directions for getting from point A to point B, there is no route. The blank white paper in This Way Brouwn says it all: it is a sheet on which someone has drawn nothing.The website the-artists.org, which provides biographical information on artists, has a route description of its own. Category B, section Bra-Bru, gives a description of Stanley Brouwn’s work under the heading ‘This Way for Brouwn’. Although Stanley Brouwn is known to prohibit reproductions of his work or of his own likeness, the website leads to a modest portrait of the artist measuring 444 x 595 pixels.Stanley Brouwn is a Dutch artist. He is brown-skinned – although I have never met him, so I will have to make do with this (illicit?) image, which in any case gives no indication at all of the tone of his skin since it is not in colour. In this black-and-white picture of the artist, Brouwn’s face appears white rather than dark grey or black: the contours of his face stand out against a grey background. The high-contrast lighting and the low number of pixels make his face look even whiter on my computer screen than that of Andy Warhol – not the least among palefaces – on the same website. The website’s photographic strategy thus seems to involve selecting whatever happens to be available. Some artists consequently look dark (Stan Douglas, Kara Walker and even Vito Acconci), some light (Marina Abramović, Stanley Brouwn – and myself). In Stanley Brouwn’s case, all dark grey areas on the image except his eyebrows and pupils are identifiable as cast shadows. The rest of his face is completely white. A photographer would term this overexposure. Shining too much light on an object makes it appear white, whatever its original colour. Origins play no part in Stanley Brouwn’s work, but colour – or its absence – does so all the more: when Brouwn presents himself personally to the public, he has himself depicted in white.However, a group exhibition catalogue forces the artist into making a statement of his wish to have ‘nothing published about the work or life of the artist’. In the only instance of which I know where Brouwn did permit this, an extremely brief biography and description of Brouwn’s work in the catalogue of documenta 5 (1972), the information given is misleading. His name is spelled wrongly (Brown) as is the stated place of birth (Paramariko). In the catalogues of documenta 6, 7 and 11, the artist is absent in varying ways. There is one constant: this absence manifests itself as blankness, the blank white space of the book and its paper. This blank space amounts to a statement. It is used to convey something that is absent: information, documentation or a photograph of the artist.Anything that happens within this blank space may be read in a variety of different ways. Firstly, it could indicate a political statement implicit in a silence. Brouwn claims his right to remain silent: he does not comply with the rules but chooses to remain silent about himself. As a result, he is absent. The blank space could alternatively be read as an expression of something that is not susceptible to expression. The blankness is in this case not interpreted as an absence, but as the presence of that which cannot be conveyed in words or images. Whoever or whatever Stanley Brouwn is, his work or his person cannot be depicted by a portrait or by an illustration of his work. So the artist chooses to leave his page uninhabited, keeping all options open. Blank space is in this respect a form of self-reflection; it contains the entirety of an endless series of meanings, and at the same time an emptiness.This emptiness cannot in itself be a form of meaning and cannot be described, because the description of blankness erases itself. A representation of this kind denotes the complexity of both the artist’s personality and his work.
Silence with Words
This problematic relation of the artist to the real world is characterized by a succession of negations, as magnificently employed by the uncrowned king of the symbolists, Stéphane Mallarmé. Born in Paris on 18 March 1842, Mallarmé is widely regarded as the father of modern poetry. In his poems, which are almost invariably impenetrable, mysterious and hermetic, negation occurs in three respects. Firstly, the world is abolished in favour of the word. Writing is in the first place a way of sidestepping reality, only to subsequently represent it by different means through a world of words. Secondly, Mallarmé argues, the poet disappears when he writes. The initiative is passed to the words themselves. Writing is, in his view, a denial of the individual, a kind of suicide on behalf of something that is greater and more useful than the author himself: his work. Finally, meaning is abolished by language itself through the destruction of its normal, everyday meaning.This radical distinction between prosaic language use and poetic language use is essential to Mallarmé’s writing. Normal language aims solely at communication, whereas poetic language focuses all attention on itself. Negation is generally deployed in an attempt to achieve the impossible, to create silence with words. In silence, an idea that is the mirror image of an absence could conceivably manifest itself, as exemplified by the following quotation. ‘The poet says, “a flower”. And then what happens? Beyond the forgetfulness to which his voice banishes all contours (of real flowers), there arises, in the manner of music, as something entirely different from the blooms that everyone knows, as a sweet Idea, the absent flower not present in any nosegay.’ The task is to destroy reality with words so that the idea may be evoked, outside the words, in the blank space of the paper. The idea then vanishes into the same blank space, only to make way for the next idea. The blankness embodies a phase of transition, like a spiritualist’s cabinet, a locus of appearance and disappearance. Mallarmé termed the blank space in his poems a meaningful silence, which was just as beautiful to create as the poem itself. He was, accordingly, the pioneer of the use of typographical blank space in modern poetry. The blankness is here more than a support for the content; it is a means of expressing that which cannot be said in words.The dissertation by Yra van Dijk, Leegte, leegte die ademt (Emptiness, emptiness that breathes), investigates the role of typographical blank space in poetry, as extensively used by Mallarmé, in depth. Someone who reads with an eye for typographical blank space, Van Dijk argues, does not take the coherence of the text as primary but the ‘holes’ that appear in the text. The typographical blank space in a poem is a zone that is both inside and outside the poem. The white of the page carries a content, too.
Brouwn is White
Most of the artist’s solo exhibitions have been accompanied by artist’s books, works of art in their own right in which the world is measured out. Brouwn’s work is always ‘minimal’ and probes the notion of ‘distance’ in what at first sight appears to be an objective way. But his use of a highly personalized system of units (the SB-foot, the SB-el and the SB-footstep) redefines our universal measuring system through the artist’s eyes. The imaginary also plays a role in his work; for example, in the book he made for the exhibitions at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven and the MACBA in Barcelona in 2005. On each page, the artist makes a new prediction about a real distance and an imaginary distance which will intersect on a specific continent at a specific date and time. This prediction serves as a reference to something that cannot be observed by the reader (the exact location of the intersection of the two distances is not stated). The reader has to believe this information or imagine it, something that I myself succeeded in doing instantly. It is striking that the book names the continents (Africa, Antarctica, Asia, South America, North America, Oceania and Europe) without initial capitals. Capitals indeed appear in none of his artist’s books, not even for the name of the artist himself. The sentences in the books come and go, unannounced.Neither is there any punctuation, to give the lines a variable speed or to make it clear that a sentence has ended. Sentences appear to be used as lines of verse: the poet AND Stanley Brouwn are free to choose how language will be utilized. The normal linguistic rules do not apply to him.The book published on the occasion of his exhibition at Art & Project, Amsterdam, in 1978, begins by stating the artist’s name and two lengths (1,000 mm and 879 mm). The book is entirely white and all data are printed in black. The two lengths are repeated on the first page of the book, after which it falls silent; the following page is entirely blank, unprinted, empty. Starting from this silence, two further measurements emerge on the next two pages, after which the book again falls silent. White. The rhythm of information alternating with total emptiness is repeated twice more, after which the book is entirely reduced to silence by the white back cover. The blank space is thus used here as a boundary or transition zone. The blankness is needed to separate one combination of two lengths from the next. The data are first absorbed into the white space, from where they may be in turn absorbed by the reader. Portrait of Spaces, a book Brouwn produced on the occasion of an exhibition in the Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporaine, Strasbourg, in 2001, describes various interior spaces in the museum in literal terms: the length, breadth and height of a room is stated on each page. This book, like all Brouwn’s other artist’s books, is entirely in white paper printed with tiny black letters. The dimensions of a space given in the book are effectively a miniature portrait of that space. Reducing the space to this data, while at the same time making such a literal statement about it, has the effect of destroying the described space, just as Mallarmé destroyed the flower as an object by uttering the word. Only in this way is it possible to project the idea of the described space. The idea itself needs space in which to manifest itself, however: space offered by the white of the page, in which the dimensions of the described space resonate.The works of art and artist’s books by Brouwn are minimal, conceptual works, not poems. But various elements, manners of language use and, especially, the use of an empty, white page, correspond to the way they have been employed in poetry ever since Mallarmé. Mallarme’s blank space and Brouwn’s blank space come about in the same way, where nothing (neither paint, ink nor any other form of colour) is added. We gaze at a pristine whiteness, as Mallarmé would call it, unwritten, unthought, unsullied. It is also used when Brouwn gets personal, however – when the artist is requested to say something about himself. In the catalogue of a group exhibition, for example, he implies that he is not present, and this absence is present in the blank space. Brouwn has been erased without trace. Brouwn is thus white.
Exercises in Disengagement
‘It isn’t relevant,’ the artist says with regard to withholding biographical and descriptive information. However, it is not Brouwn, but Hans Faverey, a contemporary of Brouwn, who says so. Faverey is considered to be among the best of Dutch poets, a ‘Vijftiger’ (the ‘Fifties Generation’ school of poetry) who like Brouwn does not allow his (brown) skin colour to play a part in his work. Faverey’s poems have a reputation for being difficult to interpret. In a rare interview, the poet explains that his aim is to write ‘classic, rather quiet sentences’ whose content is not of importance. Language is thus something abstract for Faverey and his words actually have no meaning. Their meaning has to be destroyed, a tactic he describes as a kind of ‘exercises in disengagement; the elimination of expectations and illusions which ultimately would prove to be misplaced.’ Faverey chooses to use blank space to instigate this destruction. ‘Destruction is creation’, the well-known assertion by the Russian founder of Anarchism, Mikhail Bakunin, resonates in the oeuvres of both Faverey and Mallarmé. Faverey uses this tactic of destruction and creation to develop ‘a poetry that is about nothing other than the (im)possibility of poetry’. The poems are ‘thought-experiments that start with nothing and end with nothing.’ Blank space is read in Faverey’s poetry in the same way as one reads a word. It is so purposeful and explicit that it leads the reader to precisely where the poet wishes to have him: at nothingness. We are back where we started. Faverey himself described this as a movement from nothing to nothing, and in some cases as ‘verdwijnsels’ (disappearings). He evokes things in his text that disappear again by the end of the poem and thus dissolve, as it were, into the blank space of the page, so that the white areas are assigned the role of a site of disappearance. His words leave ‘a trail of disappearances’ behind them. Faverey plays with the way the text is arranged on the blank white space of the page in an effort to give the poem a form and velocity. But he also gives the blank space of the page its own meaning in every possible way: he utilizes line blankness, stanza blankness, indentation blankness, footer blankness, header blankness and title blankness. Furthermore, he often gives his poetry a reflexive, circular form; the poem ‘swallows its own tail’. Before the poems are even there, they dissolve back into the blank white space. The outcome is an emptiness which rings with the resulting silence or non-saying. The blank space is, in this sense, a continuation of the poem. The poem does not stop at the blank space, but merely becomes invisible and inaudible in the whiteness of the paper.(Hoor je me nog?).Zeg mij langzaam na: hoorje me nog? Woorden, door zulkepoeders gehaald: worden zij alvan glas? Wat een afstand.Mij langzaam nazeggen: hoor j-(Can you still hear me?)Say slowly after me: can youstill hear me? Words, draggedthrough such powders: have theybecome glass yet? What a distance.Slowly say after me: can y-(Can you still hear me?): the sentence with which Hans Faverey starts his poem asks the reader if it is still audible when enclosed in brackets. Brackets are not normally used in direct speech; one cannot, after all, say something between brackets. If it does happen, this sentence asks itself, can we still hear it? Moreover, couldn’t a sentence in this form run vertically or from bottom to top, or only horizontally from left to right? It is imprisoned, so to speak, between the brackets. In theory, it could fall or jump out of their confines because it is surrounded on two sides by white space and is thus open, but it doesn’t do so. (It remains, in any case, questionable whether the blank space would allow the sentence to escape if the latter were to run downwards or upwards.) The sentence is held in its place by the brackets, in the same way as a row of stones can be supported horizontally in the air by exerting sufficient pressure on the stones at the ends of the row. Realizing that the sentence is captive in its surroundings and, from a linguistic standpoint, ‘cannot speak’, it is all the more relevant to ask: is the sound that the sentence makes still audible despite its total captivity or ‘enclosedness’?The sound is then gradually attenuated until an almost total silence falls. ‘Almost’, because the last word still resonates into the blank space at the end of the line of verse. You have to listen extremely attentively in this poem, because there is indeed little to be heard, as Yra van Dijk states in her thesis. The main tactic of the poem is to refrain from saying, to remain silent.Can you hear me? Can you see me? Can you find me? That one blank page in the This Way Brouwn series is what the artist repeatedly holds up for our perusal in his catalogues. What direction should we take? There are no instructions. We seek after Brouwn, but we are given no direction or distance and we get entangled in the many possibilities. Brouwn is untraceable, unfindable; we are blinded, overexposed, go this way, to the end of this sentence, where we fall abruptly into an immeasurable white space.