How art connects. Diving within with Karolien Soete.

Koen J. Van Damme
Nov 23, 2018 · 12 min read
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© Karolien Soete — ‘Self portrait’

We met each other virtually on Insight Timer, an app used by people who meditate. The fact that she is a visual artist, has a daily meditation practice just like me, and Frederic Demeyer wrote an article about her visual work a little over two years ago, encouraged me to invite her to discuss artistry, meditation and transience.

How long have you been practicing transcendental meditation?

I meditate daily since 2001. For me this is really a necessity. I have long searched for a conviction and therefore walked different philosophical paths before I ended up with meditation. I am a true hermit by nature. My house is my little cave. I have close friends, but not many. Meditation can be done anywhere and anytime. You do not have to go to a church, synagogue or mosque. You can do it everywhere. For me that is the attraction of meditation for a large part.

On Insight Timer your baseline is “I close my eyes in order to see […] relying on the unconscious to create […]” To what extent does daily meditation influence your art creation?

Trying to capture this unconscious flow happens rather spontaneously. Consequently I have great faith in what comes to me. When I am sitting in front of a blank sheet of paper, a book or in a room, I go to myself for a brief moment to allow me to enter all sorts of things with an open heart. I think that’s just magical. Pre-sketching is rarely used, unless it involves a complex work that requires some preparation. I see something empty, come to myself and then something appears that I can trust 100%. At least at that very moment (laughing). Afterwards the doubts kick in.

Your daily meditation practice influences your work because it makes you create on the basis of a blind faith in what you are dealing with at that moment. You sort of capture you stream of consciousness of that moment. This is clear in terms of substantive choices for your work. If we reflect on recent work such as “crumpled memories”, for example, which is highly procedural in nature, how do your choices unfold here?

That’s trust again. Intuitively knowing that at that moment you have to do the things that lead to this manipulation of the material. I had just made that big painting. I gazed at it and thought, “This is not it”. I wasn’t satisfied. Something was missing. The disappearance of things has always been central to my work. Working on that theme for years made me kind of familiar with this. But to attack such a freshly painted, beautiful shiny cloth, I had never done that, never even thought of it. My camera was nearby at that moment so I could record everything. I went there intuitively, pulled it off the wall and started to manipulate and crumple it. Afterwards I thought to myself: “What have I done now?” It just happened to me. The feeling of trust came back later. It has been given to me somehow, so it will be okay. It is a process. In retrospect, doubts and alienation will overtake you. On the other hand, I felt a great relief. When I saw the crumpled cloth, I knew that this was it. This is what I wanted to say. That makes me very happy. In my mind, however, the thought arises of how I could ever sell this type of work. How does this show in a gallery? I do not think about that during creation. I should know better maybe.

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© Karolien Soete — ‘Memories’

Then your work might not be as powerful and authentic as it is now?

That’s true. During the creative process, this way of thinking is not present.

You created work that was perceived well abroad. Addis Abeba, Albuquerque, places in Spain and Istanbul were all settings for ‘Talking Walls’. What’s the story behind that?

The films I made, were very successful internationally. They have apparently made an impression (“Talking walls”). Numerous small-scale film festivals have shown this work, it was even discussed by certain film professors in Istanbul, psychologists thought about it (laughing) which I think is great, but these are not exhibitions, of course.

© Karolien Soete — ‘The Empty Chair Dialogues’

In this work ‘Talking walls’, the films are the result of a long process that seems to go in different directions. You do not immediately see how long it takes to make this film. How do you work here?

I enter a building and close my eyes for five minutes and then I start. There is nothing when I start, except the interior of the building itself.

No storyboard or something like that?

No, nothing. That is very exciting, of course. A challenge too. Only in the evening when I transfer the images, I see how the movement actually happened on the screen. During the process this is not possible.

Pure improvisation.

That’s how you could put it. It is both a frightening and a liberating feeling.

I read on your website that this type of work you also take into account the verbal contribution of the visitor. How is that exactly? What is the value of that?

There are two types of films: those that I make in-house and these on behalf of cities. In the latter I find it very special to chat with people from that city or neighborhood to process their stories in the videos. That was mainly for cultural centers in different cities. The films in house, which are so well received abroad, are the result of a process that I completely experience in space and time and where the result is only seen afterwards.

With the work ‘Crumpled memories’ you allow visitors to interact with your work. What kind of meaning does this add to the work?

Last month ‘Jardin de faire’ took the fair 2018 place. That is an exhibition in the P.C. Dr. Guislain with works by patients and external artists. I had set up my work there in the garden shed. Visitors and patients entered and did something with my work. One day the cloth was neatly folded when I came in, the other day it was hung on a beam so everyone could see it. At another moment it was completely crammed into a corner. I thought that was fantastic. For me, this form of action-reaction is therefore extremely important. In the work that I making now with those soap hands, decay is again the central theme. The ephemeral is always there somewhere. Things disappear. I like it when people interact with my work. If that means they ‘destroy it’, than that’s the right thing to happen.

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© Karolien Soete — ‘Touch me, please touch me’

Does your work become more valuable to you because of the interaction that viewers have with it?

If you speak to the people who have wrinkled the cloth or treated the soap hands for weeks, you notice that it moves them in a way. It goes deeper than just looking at the work. People tell me those things. They are actively involved in the cause of the decay. It also makes me reflect on living in general. With great respect for people doing their things, many lives involve a great deal of routine. Getting up, bringing children to school, working, getting children out of school, possibly a hobby, sleeping and so on. For me it is meaningful to see that my work in a way gives meaning to people. They have more contact with reality, even if it’s only for a brief moment.

Does this provide people with a certain degree of control? Or am I digging too deep now? With the transience literally in your hands, are you more interested in the essence of things?

Something like that. And so we actually return to meditation and coming back to yourself. I see so many people around me who have completely lost it. My work is my way to give people an initial impetus to reflection. It must come from within the people themselves. You can not force them to get closer to themselves, but I can give them incentives through my work, which may lead to some insights.

I found a number of works within the Talking Walls series very compelling. Such a medium also resonates easily with the viewer because our visual visual culture is very receptive to this.

Deep down everyone recognizes the risk of flattening out in life. That is also quite normal. It does take some courage to break this. Meditation can help. You see your environment differently if you actively bring yourself to yourself on a daily basis. You will experience things differently because you know more about who you really are. Ego and masks are difficult to let go, the confrontation with yourself is not easy, but it changes the game if you do.

What work are you currently working on?

During the last couple of months I exhibited a number of small pieces each time. My ultimate goal is to show the whole story, the path I have walked. I like to create within spaces. It is not just a cloth that hangs on the wall. I like to give viewers an experience from one room to another, to illustrate the path even more. If it is clear enough, I would like to show everything at a given time, together. The last exhibitions (‘Crumpled memories’) were only fragments. In itself also beautiful, a part of a memory that stands alone. I am waiting for the moment that I think I have enough to show the full story.

© Karolien Soete — ‘Crumpling’

When will be that time?

When I am ready to show everything.

When the time comes and you have an idea how you want to show this, any idea how to do this?

That is a good question. The most ideal and fantastic situation arise if a city of organisation lends me a building for a few months. A house that has all the rooms that are needed, preferably no clean environment. An old mansion or something. Something that has had its life for years. Seeking my way in such an environment seems like a nice adventure.

Not only time and memory are important concepts, so space is also essential in your artistic process. To what extent does the neighborhood (Brugsepoort, ed.) have an impact on your artistry?

I am a hermit who likes to stay at home. On the other hand, I would never be able to live in a shack in a forest. 50 different nationalities live here. You always see and hear other things. I once counted how many Dutch speaking people passed here during one afternoon. I counted 5 out of 40. The rest spoke another language. I liked that. I find that very attractive.

World citizen in the Brugsepoort…

That is true. I think that’s really special. That influences me unconsciously. Seeing and hearing new things. Many people are singing when they are outside. It is a very bustling and beautiful district here. There are all kinds of neighborhood initiatives that respond well to this. I like to live here.

I see a postcard standing by Caspar David Friedrich. How important is nature to you?

The Bourgoyen are nearby. I go for a full tour every morning, that takes an hour or so. I do that every day. It is certainly important to me. I am very fond of routines. I get up at 6 am in the morning, coffee, meditation or walking and then I go to work in my studio. In the evening I go back and anjoy some down time. I do that every day, even in the weekend. It gives me a stable basis.

Has your way of creating developed in a certain direction over the years?

By doing ‘Crumpled memories’ I have come to the conclusion that I started very figuratively. After a few years I started looking more and more at the essence of things. Visualizing the creased canvas for example. For me that’s a sign that my work is increasingly going from the outside to the inside. I personally find this internalization enriching. What I also learned after being involved with ‘Crumpled Memories’ for 2,5 years is that my films were very visual and had an open end. I do not think that as an artist I have to decide how people look at my work. I think that this openess is important. On the other hand figurative work is in itself very informative for the viewer. My later work is different here. The less I give, the more the essence comes up, the deeper and more intense the work becomes.

For the viewer?

… the work could be … for the viewer.

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© Karolien Soete — ‘Sensory Faculty’
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© Karolien Soete — ‘Sight’

Do you indicate at an exhibition whether and how people can interact with your work, for example with the work during Jardin de faire?

I put a making-of-film in the garden house by which visitors could see how I made the canvas. Setting is important here for various reasons. If I had not exhibited my work in that garden shed, but at the Museum Dr. Guislain, for example, no one would have touched it. That is a completely different setting. In the garden shed, where previously patients met and went for a smoke or to chill, suddenly my somewhat alienating work was found. That setting is of course more inviting for interaction than a museum, for example. It was already ‘owned’ by a group of people before. I consciously chose that.

Do museal settings have certain limitations in this sense?

What I always regret is the large distance. You may look at it, but you can do no more. For me that is a loss. You deny something to people. It depends heavily on the form you want to use or on the intentions of the artist. For me this is a conscious choice. You must also be able to deal with the fact that people touch or manipulate your work. For me personally the best exhibitions are those where the artist invites the viewer to participate actively. For example, at the Rinus Van de Velde exhibition at SMAK, the artist uses props in the exhibition space. You can walk through them as a viewer. That approaches what I mean here. I miss that with many artists. We create a work of art. We stick it against the wall and that’s that. It’s ready. So there’s a distance. For me that’s just the beginning in a sense.

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© Karolien Soete — ‘Hands’

Is this typical for the visual arts?

For me that has always been a very important aspect. Long ago, I also was a singer. If you are on a stage, you must capture the attention of the audience at that very moment. That moment disappears after an hour or so. You expose your soul to an audience that stands there. The bridge is there for 100%, as intense as you can transfer it yourself. Those people go home and they do not forget this. You gave them something which they cherish. When you go to an exhibition, you perceive a work between a hundred other works. When you look at it more closely. People often go through an exhibition very quickly. What I could offer people when I was still singing, I want to give them with my visual work. I try to recall that interaction and direct connection with the spectator by giving the visitor the opportunity to touch the work, for example. That can be done in different ways. I sometimes try it with sound, opening up work in different registers because I want to resonate with people somehow.

Is this the essence of your artistry and by extension of all art worthy of the name?

Not everyone can be affected in the same way. Sometimes it is a piece from one of my films that resonates with memories of people that makes them cry while others are sitting in a book. Not everyone can be hit, although it is my silent wish (laughing).

Ghent, 9/11/2018

If you want to learn more about the visual work of Karolien Soete, visit

Published earlier at The Art Couch Belgium.


Art criticism from within.

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