“Who are we? Where do we come from? What are we doing here? Where are we going?”
The exhibition, named after an ominous painting by Robert Zandvliet, features 40–50 artworks which individually and collectively encourage us to reflect on who we are, our relationships to others and how we will be remembered long after we are gone. The artworks show us how, over time, artists have depicted humans, our emotions, feelings and instincts.
“We live in a world of progress: we know more and are capable of more, we live longer than ever before; maybe one day we will even achieve immortality. At the same time, we humans struggle with feelings of emptiness, loneliness and fear. Once, religion and ideology provided guidance and assuaged our doubts. Nowadays, we rely on self-help books, doctors, philosophers and coaches — but above all, on ourselves.
Artists in particular dare to face down the fundamental questions of existence. In fact: the very essence of art might be found in diffusing that existential, human fear. Art can hold up a mirror to mankind. This mirror is sometimes quite direct, raw and confrontational. And sometimes indirect, enshrouded in layers of meaning.”
The following artworks are ones which I found the most interesting in terms of following the exhibition concept.
The painting after which the exhibition is named, Stage of Being, by artist Robert Zandvliet (b. 1970, Netherlands), is a haunting grey painting with an unpainted section in the middle resembling a very crude human silhouette; although we can just about recognise a person, Zandvliet keeps a balance between abstraction and figuration. Working in a similar way to a Rothko painting; this piece draws you in through its scale and simplicity; it almost feels like a recognisable landscape whilst also being totally alien. Zandvliet’s work often focuses on abstract landscape, especially those which have no horizon.
Thomas Struth’s (b. 1954, Germany) photograph of the cathedral of Milan, Mailänder Dom (Fassade) Mailand, is an epic shot of the largest cathedral in Italy. The tight crop used by Struth emphasises the scale of the building; the people in the foreground are dwarfed in comparison. These people are also just as much the interest of the photograph though; they are sitting down, talking, walking by on their phones, reading etc. Struth is interested in capturing images of our time and in particular the relationship between us and our environment.
John Armleder’s (b. 1948, Switzerland) work often focuses on ‘the present moment’ and frequently examines the context in which art is displayed; viewing the exhibition and the museum as a medium in their own right. This piece, Spark. Spark. Spark. embodies this as the reflection you see only exists in the here and now by virtue of the people who see themselves in the reflection of the 98 convex plexiglass mirrors which make up the artwork. The reflection in each individual mirror is distorted, curved and stretched in a slightly different way; not much but enough to notice. The repetition, distortion and work as a whole is a fragmented representation; just as people have different personalities.
Rebecca Horn (b. 1944, Germany) creates work which looks beyond the obvious and accepted arrangement of everyday objects; re-ordering things in a way that is unexpected. Her piece, Marriage Upside-Down, consists of two small tables attached using hinges, balancing together. The title, Marriage Upside-Down is a reference to human interaction. It is a marriage between two objects connected yet still distinct from one-another. It is a metaphor for a relationship between two people in a relationship who despite being together, can still retain their own individuality.
When thinking of artists who explore human existence through the human form, Antony Gormley (b. 1950, UK) stands out. Gormley uses various materials and methods to replicate his own human form in clear and abstract interpretations. Here, Mass, is made from welded stainless-steel rods which resemble a spider’s web when seen from close-up however when viewed from distance it is clearly recognisable as a human. Gormley’s work is about scale and in particular how the human scale relates to the larger world.
Jeppe Hein (b. 1974, Denmark) is an artist interested in interactive sculptures and installations combining elements of minimalism, conceptual art and humour. Please… is a wall filled with neon words which encourage us to take action by shouting at us to ENJOY, RELAX, STEAL (not), DANCE, TOUCH, but in a friendly manner by the use of the word PLEASE. The bright words and what they say are telling us to not deviate from the system and force us to turn away from our individual thoughts.
Condensation is a sculpture by Henrique Oliveria (b. 1973, Brazil) consisting of ten identical mattresses in a cube form with their insides hollowed out and a twisted shape inside. Inspired and moved by what he saw in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina in 2005 where hundreds of domestic, floral patterned mattresses lay scattered everywhere. The cube of mattresses in Condensation has been hollowed out, as if eroded by memories; the stuffing has been reshaped into a loose cloud, floating around in the cavity space.
Ai Weiwei (b. 1957, China) is an internationally renowned contemporary artist known for his sculptures, photography and installations which often focus on social, political and cultural issues. His longest-running project is a series of ancient Chinese Neolithic (5000–3000 BC) earthenware vases adorned with hand-painted Coca-Cola logos, he has been doing this since 1994 and titling them all Coca Cola Vase. Ai sees this as a way of removing the vase of its original identity and turning it into a contemporary object; in doing so creating a collision between the two contradictory worlds and creating relics from his own civilisation.
This work and others in the series can be seen as a comment on the consumerist lifestyle that exists in society today, will all the branded content we see and buy these days become pieces of history for further generations?
Tracey Emin (b. 1963, UK) rose to fame in the late 1980s/early 1990s as part of the Young British Artists along with Damien Hirst (b. 1965, UK), Gavin Turk (b. 1967, UK) and Marc Quinn (b. 1964, UK), known for their use of shock tactics, use of throwaway materials and wild lifestyles. Her piece, I Promise to Love You, is a neon sculpture in the shape of a heart with the title’s words in a hand-written style text inside. The intimate nature of the hand-written text in contrast with the loud, red, neon light; it feels human and honest but also machine-made and fake. Tracey Emin’s work constantly is very personal; unapologetically putting her own life on display with her art – it shifts between love and passion to depression and destruction.
French artist, Jérôme Touron (b. 1967) has produced 117 rulers of varying lengths and materials such as wood, cardboard and metal. From a distance they all look functional and accurate, however when viewed from up close they are almost all useless as they start at the wrong number, the increments are incorrect, they aren’t straight, etc. This piece of work, Règlement, refers to the human urge to measure and quantify the world around us; we attempt to gain control of things by applying numbers to everything even if these things are not necessarily the truth.
This was one of the most interesting exhibitions I have experienced recently; it didn’t necessarily have any big name artists as the main focal point and a lot of the artists on display where new names to me; but this didn’t matter. The curation and overall message of the exhibition really made me think and pay attention to each artwork to understand the vision of the curator. I also believe strongly that the physical context of an art gallery can enhance your opinion of an exhibition or artwork, of which Museum Voorlinden certainly does. The gallery is a pristine building with real attention to detail, add to that its setting as a modern building surrounded by nature and the fact that it was a glorious summer’s afternoon when I visited. All these factors made for a perfect combination and a great experience.