The Charm of the Poetic One-liner
Interview with Guido van der Werve – The Charm of the Poetic One-liner
No other Dutch artist has caused an international sensation as quickly as Guido van der Werve. The maker of elegant rhythmical videos with a clear relation to music succeeds in sustaining the beauty of an idea throughout narratives that are as romantic as they are mad. When I visited the Dutch artist Guido van der Werve (b. 1977, Papendrecht) at his Bushwick, Brooklyn studio in early August, he was working on a three-part film that requires the construction of (among other things) a house, an observatory and a chess board on four legs that doubles as a piano. Some of these components were near completion, others still gestating. The chess table’s chassis was sound, but the floor nearby was littered with loose string, planks and a cluster of piano hammers. Another piece of wood – a section of the soundboard – was propped against a drill press. The walls were a window into Guido’s mind: long, indecipherable lists of chess moves (A3, D6, B7,…); diagrams of houses and observatories; postcard images of the San Andreas Fault and Mount St. Helens shot from a variety of angles; photographs of felled, leafless trees, volcanic ash, a dusty path in Bakersfield. Guido was dressed head-to-toe – as he always is – in black. He is tall by American standards (average for a Dutchman) and his arms are surprisingly covered in freckles. Though on film he’s consistently deadpan, in person he is quick to laugh. Guido and I have been friends for several years, but this was the first time I had ever thrust a tape recorder in his face, or prodded him with so many questions about the roots of his work. In catalogue essays and the press, I’ve seen it compared to that of Bas Jan Ader, the late Dutch filmmaker and performance artist whose sensibility, like Guido’s, combined elements of slapstick, self-satirizing alienation and romanticism. Guido often films himself, symbol-like, against settings that recall the sublimely beautiful, death-haunted landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich. And the melancholy music that figures so prominently in his work – and which Guido has recently begun to compose himself – owes an evident debt to the Romantics, particularly Chopin. Guido likes Ader just fine, but he doesn’t cite him – or any other visual artist for that matter – as an influence. In fact, as I learned from our interview, Guido was experimenting and tinkering with reality, concocting poetically improbable scenarios and attempting to solve the unsolvable long before he knew the names of any of these artists, or started making art himself.
Let’s start by talking about your latest project. How did it originate?
‘I was reading all these books on composition and chess, and somehow they got a bit mixed up. I thought it would be funny to change a chess board into a mechanical piano in the key of A minor. Each move makes a note. You push the squares down and underneath there’s a mechanical piano, which, as you can see, is in pieces right now. I’m still working on it.’
Did you write a score for the chess game? Or is it like some loose John Cage thing where you won’t know the score until the chess game is played?
‘No, it’s a specific composition. It opens with a chess move I really like, called the “King’s Gambit Accepted”. When Boris Spassky used it to beat Bobby Fisher in the first World Championship, Fisher left the scene crying like a little baby. [laughter] Then Fisher spent a whole year writing an entire book about how to defeat the King’s Gambit. The book was so full, nobody played it anymore. But it was used a lot in the 19th century and some people say it’s the most romantic opening, because you expose your king side right away. Usually in chess you build up slow, you know? Whereas this is a dangerous and daring strategy, half-suicidal.’
When you moved here last January, you told me you were planning to study with a Grand Master at some chess club off Washington Square Park. It sounds like you’ve learned a lot since then.
‘Yeah, the Marshall Chess Club on West 10th Street. I think it’s the oldest one in the States. That’s where Marcel Duchamp went when he was living in New York. Fisher was also there a lot. I was looking for someone to work with on this chess variation, the King’s Gambit, so I looked at the bulletin board at the club where all these Grand Masters advertise. That’s how a lot of them make a living, by teaching. So I phoned up this guy to ask if he had any time for new students, and I heard this massive Russian accent, which I thought was really funny. And then when I met him for the first time, I realized he was this full-on Orthodox Jewish guy. We chatted a bit and he asked if he could see some of my games. I showed them to him, and then he looked at me and said [affecting a comically thick Russian accent] “You play chess like Hezbollah.”’ [we both laugh]
So I guess you were really aggressive.
‘And not much work in the preparation, let’s say. He liked the fact that I was playing very aggressively because he said that’s the first thing you need to have as a chess player, but then you have to have strategy as well. Which I didn’t really have. Here, I’ll show you a picture of him.’ [Guido googles Leonid Yudasin]
Oh, he’s in Wikipedia! He’s kind of big-time, huh? Are you going to play against him in the film?
‘I haven’t really asked him yet, but I hope so. You know how in chess you have the opening, the middle, and the end game? Well, I’m writing a composition which has three movements, and the whole film is going to be a triptych. It’s based on three unsolvable problems, and the first one is actually tuning a piano.’
There’s a lot of piano in your work. Not just on the soundtrack, but also on-screen. When did you start playing?
‘We had a piano in the house. My mom played, and my brother did, too. I had my first lessons when I was 7 years old maybe?’
So you were playing piano when you were 7, taking chess lessons when you were 9 – when did you start making art?
‘Probably when I was 22.’ [we both laugh]
Had you always been interested in visual art and never tried?
‘When I look back, I think I was much more into music and literature and poetry, which I’m still more interested in than the visual aspects of art. I was never totally blown away by paintings.’
What was the literature you loved?
‘We had to read a lot of Dutch literature for school, but I don’t like it so much. Most of the Dutch people are Calvinist or Protestant, kind of repressed, and a lot of writers are dealing with that. It’s all about social interactions – heavy, muddy books. But I remember when I started to get into contemporary Russian literature, that’s when I really felt a click. They were about all these, like, totally insane, fucked up alcoholic megalomaniacs. And that appealed much more to me than these repressed mini-lomaniacs, you know?’
What’s that word again?
‘It’s not a real word. Or micro-lomaniacs? [we both laugh] But of course I’m generalizing like hell.’
How did you get involved with visual art?
‘When I was 5 and people asked me what I wanted to be, I always said an inventor. Later on, when I was 16, I got all these parts and I made my own moped. Just that boyish stuff. So I decided to study industrial design at the technical university in Utrecht. But the problem was it’s a university known for rocket science and physics. I mean, I was always pretty good at mathematics, but this was a little too much for my taste. So I quit after two months and decided to do the preparatory year of the conservatory in Rotterdam for jazz and blues. My playing skills were okay, but there was all sorts of other stuff you need to know, like how to sing scales. I really lost interest and most of the year I was just hanging out in pubs with my friends, and by the end I had no idea what I should do. I always had this obsession with Alexander the Great, so I decided to study classical archaeology in Amsterdam, and I immediately began to feel at home there. In fact, I kind of divide my life in two parts: when I was living in the shithole where I’m from, and when I moved to Amsterdam. Anyway, I did that for a year, but archaeology just wasn’t for me. Then I started to think about the industrial design again – I thought maybe I should do that in art school instead, because there’s less math and you don’t have to work in groups, which was something I really hated. If I want to make something work, I should be the dictator, you know what I mean? [we both laugh] I got all these assignments to build up some portfolio. I was always painting and drawing a little bit, but nothing really remarkable. I mean, I really stink as a drawer, I can’t draw anything.’
Is that the reason you decided to choose film as your medium?
‘When I was 15 or 16, I went to a theatre school on the weekends. I had a lot of fun doing that. And when I was playing in a band, even when I was playing piano, it was always nice to perform. I liked the action of me doing something, but I didn’t like to do it live in front of an audience. So I asked my friends to make a simple video registration of it. That’s where those works come from.’
One of my favourite works is the one with a walking pigeon. Is that from the same period?
‘Yeah. I was just hanging out somewhere in Amsterdam and staring at this pigeon walking by and I thought: It’s so fucking sad in a way that they have to move their head every time they take a fucking step. [laughter] It looked really painful, almost. So I made a thing that would push my head back and forth every time I took a step.’
It looks like something out of a Beckett play. You know, ‘I can’t go on, I must go on.’
‘Maybe he walks in a way like Beckett describes it, how it’s sort of abstract, or a metaphor for struggle. But I also like to keep that very unclear. When I saw this pigeon walking by, I thought: This is a great metaphor for the mood I’m in. I didn’t know exactly why. I just knew it was.’
It’s more intuitive.
‘Yeah. Like thinking about a perfect sentence or a perfect action to sum it all up. It’s just a gut feeling. I think that’s why I like music so much. It’s intuitive but direct at the same time. When people are coming out of a concert – if it’s good music – they’re just touched, you know? And then they take that and go home. They’re not talking so much about what this music means or that they didn’t really understand it. This was something that I never liked about visual art, was that you have to understand it first, you have to contextualize the artist or whatever in order to get some idea of what the work is all about. I always thought it should be more like music.’
Some of your films are also really funny, really dry – but in a very peculiar way.
‘Well I really like silly things. I remember when I was growing up, I loved to watch Monty Python, and in Holland we have a lot of dry humour. Do you know the Swiss artist Roman Signer? He’s in his 60s or 70s. I never saw this one specific work – maybe a friend of mine told me about it? Anyway, he made a work with his father, who was this really fat 80-year-old guy, and he took him to this idyllic Swiss mountain landscape and put him in a little tent and hung a microphone over his head. He hooked it up to two massive speakers, waited till his father fell asleep – and the snoring of this 80-year-old guy was just bouldering through the Swiss landscape! [laughter] He makes these great one-liners.’
Are you interested in making one-liners?
‘In a way. My way of thinking is a bit … I don’t know if it sounds pretentious to say poetic, but I kind of like to say everything in one sentence. So in that sense, I’m interested in one-liners, because it’s nice if you can sum it all up in just one action. The last work on the North Pole was also a very simple idea. I went there to stand exactly on the axis of the earth for 24 hrs. If you stand still, you would have turned one circle counterclockwise. Then I thought it would be funny to stand there and turn the other way around. The movie is called The Day I Didn’t Turn with the World. I like these simple ideas because they are very open. I think if you can bring it down to a core, it’s something that more people can relate to. Whereas what a lot of artists are doing that I don’t really like is, they take a simple idea as a starting point and try to make it more complex. And in the end you get a very confusing fur ball of stuff which nobody really knows what to do with. This kind of mystification is something I don’t really like in art. If you end up with a very clear thing, then that’s far more mystique than if you try to cloud everything. You have a lot of people who are doing things right, just by their gut feeling, but then they think they need to explain everything and rationalize every step of the process. I guess my work is a little more approachable. Is wet the opposite of dry?’ [laughter]
Moist, Guido. Your work is moist.
‘But you know what I mean. I’m going for some kind of minimal core, but I’m not afraid to add a little oil to the fire.’