Art as a weapon against tears
Gardening and living have so much in common. We plant seeds and bulbs to reap what we sow, not knowing what the result might be. We can only hope that after darkness we shall rise again, just like the daffodils do. - Thomas Renwart
Els Roelandt: Your exhibition GOLDEN HOUR FADED BLACK at KIOSK is based on a poem from 1807 by the British poet William Wordsworth: I wandered lonely as a cloud, also known as Daffodils. It is a light and cheerful poem that touches on themes such as the positive influence that nature can have on people's minds, the indifference with which people nevertheless often regard the beauty of nature, and nature that simply goes its own way, whether or not it interests people. Why did you choose this poem as a guideline for your exhibition at KIOSK?
Thomas Renwart: William Wordsworth's poem has been haunting me for a while—it's always been in the back of my mind. I felt the urge to use it as a guiding principle for a long time, and thanks to this exhibition it has now happened. In essence, my artistry and gardening are in dialogue here, both visually and physically. You and I planted 120 daffodils together in the front garden of KIOSK. It rained all day but we were completely dedicated to planting the bulbs. It was wonderful. And the sun came out afterwards, as if we had praised her with a peace offering of new flowers. You have to be decisive like that in gardening. You have to take time into account: the bulbs have to be planted before the first frost or they cannot become one with the earth that surrounds them. When William Wordsworth lost his daughter Dora, he planted thousands of daffodils on a piece of land with a small hill on it as a memorial, naming it Dora's Field. The place immortalizes both him and Dora. Here a tragic moment is transformed into a place where hope can return. I think my choice of Wordsworth's poem, now and here as a guide, was motivated by a sense of growth. My practice and my garden have grown, which is why I now really understand the poem.
ER: The poem is also about loneliness, but the notion of loneliness is filled in positively here—Wordsworth speaks of "the bliss of solitude." Do you experience solitude as a positive feeling, or even more: do you need solitude to create?
TR: It is indeed a kind of solitude that is present here, and I do need a certain solitude to create. Pamela Wolfe, a New Zealand artist, has written of Wordsworth: "The permanence of stars as compared with flowers emphasises the permanence of memory for the poet." It is a loneliness that is transcended by physical and mental memories. Wordsworth lyrically compares daffodils to stars. The star is similar in form to a common narcissus, such as the King Alfred Daffodil. The star is also a metaphor for those who are physically no longer here, but are still permanently present in our memory. So yes, there is definitely loneliness in all this, but it is surpassed by incarnations. I have tried to translate those special memories into Sacred Memories, a work of about seven meters in length starting with the glory (the ultimate blossoming) and then the gradual return to waiting—the still-broken field. I find this waiting area fascinating because it is meaningless and very intense at the same time. The work is thus a timeline of coming and going, ebb and flow.
ER: GOLDEN HOUR FADED BLACK is the title of your exhibition. Does it refer to the moment when the daffodils will have finished flowering and your exhibition will be over? Your work always balances on the border between the enthusiasm and joy brought by nature—spring in particular—and a certain sadness that I find more difficult to define.
TR: Indeed, the title anticipates the wilting of the daffodils. That is often my most melancholic moment: when I see the edges of the last flower curling into brown tints in the sun. Capturing what is disappearing is at the heart of everything I do. It is an antidote to nostalgia, it’s about capturing small moments of glory, banal almost. The grandeur of banality is one of the purest forms of happiness for me. As an artist I have a kind of scene, and I sometimes think: “Well, I don't have expansive references to philosophers, art, or film.” My work, and especially the work here, revolves around a kind of banality, a moment that could almost pass you by. I like to involve the spectator in this. There is more than meets the eye—an encounter with a flourishing organism is intricately intertwined with so many moments in everyday life: death, life, joy, farewells, celebrations, memorials... You only see what your eyes want to see, and that is what I try to transform. Hence the presence of folds, creases, and pleats. Each fold, each pleat, has an ephemeral inner space, a breathing space where the layers touch visually but not physically. The ephemeral zone between dream and deed. This is the very first time that I am working this out—the daffodils gave me that possibility, as they gave me so much else.
ER: I like that theme in Wordsworth's poem: nature neglected, when there is no human attention because it is always there, it’s banal. But that is also where nature shows its strength: in spite of people, it unfolds itself in all kinds of wonderful and gruesome forms.
For your exhibition at KIOSK, you have laid out a garden with daffodils, among other things. You have also laid out a similar garden at your Gent studio, Nucleo. During the winter months only name plates are visible in that garden, which has a funny effect. The Japanese artist Rumiko Hagiwara turns the naming of plants and weeds into an almost absurd activity, or at least he presents it as absurd. Is the control, naming, examination, and classification of plants (and animal species such as moths and butterflies) important to you? What role does classification play in your work?
TR: Words and image have an eternally absurd effect. Think of Joseph Kosuth's work One and Three Chairs (1965), in which a chair is present physically, as an image and as a word. Recently, Ole Ukena made a version which included the image of Cher (Cher, Chair, Share (Hello, Joseph), 2011). Each word evokes an expectation. The names of types of flowers and butterflies are often very abstract. In floral art, flowers are usually named after people as a tribute, a posthumous honor. The terracotta pot filled with tubers and potting soil is visually anonymous for a large part of the year; you only see a sign with the name of the flower. But that is what gives that simple pot such great value: you know you can expect something. It is an announcement, as if your name is being called out upon your arrival at a diplomatic soiree. And the pot in which something grows must remain that pot. I am fairly obsessive about this: the pot has been given its purpose and so replacing the contents is something I absolutely do not participate in. They belong. For example, you can't imagine anything by the name Little Emma other than a petticoat daffodil, a miniature daffodil in the shape of a tutu,which makes the flower almost a sculpture. Classification is less important to me than the moments of first acquaintance. Drying, capturing on a Polaroid photo, securing in folders and crates, after which work flows out again. Like the series Souvenirs d'un jardinier, which I am working on until the opening of my exhibition at KIOSK—for the time being you can only see green tongues coming out of the earth, but within a few weeks the first packed yellow forms will appear. Each one contains dried varieties from last year. It’s partly my variation on One and Three Chairs. The notes that I make with the Polaroids are often absurd, such as one referring to Céline Dion. They are snapshots taken by a gardener, not curated views. They are also pure moments because I cannot manipulate them—the sharpness of the picture depends on many factors. The camera is the artist here, not me at all. The movement of my finger is simply an action, entrusting to the camera permission to make an image.
ER: Is planting a garden for you an act à la Voltaire’s Candide— Il faut cultiver notre jardin —to see the garden against the background of war, disease, and misery, the place where something beautiful can happen because of you? In paradise, there is no need to create a garden, because everything is perfect there.
TR: For me, the garden is a monument. It has little to do with creating something beautiful in response to the human ego. I think my fascination with gardening can be traced back to my childhood. I grew up partly with my grandmother in Zomergem. Her country house was eighteenth-century—it had survived World War I bombings. When she died in the twenty-first century, the house was demolished and replaced by eight prefab houses. It is a painful thing not to have one's building blocks physically present anymore. Françoise Hardy once wrote a song about it, La maison où j'ai grandi:
Où sont les pierres et où sont les roses
Toutes ces choses auxquelles je tenais ?
D'elles et de mes amis plus une trace,
D'autres gens, d'autres maisons ont volé leurs places
Là où vivaient des arbres, maintenant
La ville est là
Et la maison, où est-elle, la maison
Où j'ai grandi ?
Gardens can be the foundation of an identity. First of all, you have the floral composition that comes from a particularly intimate place. You curate what you like best, a bit like a museum or art collection. Then comes the placement: What are you going to connect or let meet? Will you seek a balance between green and color? Or will you go for a four-seasonsgarden? And then there are the shapes and lines: will you choose the French, Italian, or British shape? You create your own little (im)perfect earthly paradise. A place where a visitor can be something or someone else for a moment, where you can experience a gracious moment. It can sentimentally replace a place that is no longer there, while also changing a place. Building something as a tribute to something else that is gone makes the loss more bearable. For me, that is the essence making a garden.
ER: You have a pronounced preference for daffodils. In the beautiful book On the Necessity of Gardening (2021), I read the following quote by Derek Jarman about daffodils: "Narcissus is derived not from the name of the young man who met his death vainly trying to embrace his reflection in crystal water, but from the Greek narkao (to benumb); though of course Narcissus benumbed by his own beauty, fell to his death embracing his shadow. [...] Socrates called the plant ‘crown of the infernal gods’ because the bulbs, if eaten, numbed the nervous system. Perhaps Roman soldiers carried it for this reason (rather than for its healing properties) as the American soldiers smoked marijuana in Vietnam.” Why did you lose your heart to daffodils?
TR: Isn't it beautiful how many layers there are to something’s origin or meaning? Somewhere it seems to be a punishment for someone who consumes himself, but it is also a punishment of consumption itself. It is mainly numbing that comes to mind, giving an intoxication. But I see it as the way of awakening from the intoxication—hence the first glory after the winter. My eternal passion for daffodils started as a child. I was sick and often could not go to school. I was lonely, I had no friends. And at home in Poeke we have thousands of daffodils. During the Crocus and Easter holidays I was literally surrounded by them. I talked to them, heard conversations—as a child you have a very vivid imagination. They were my friends. Every year they are back, even now, and I still talk to the daffodils—in Ghent too—as if they willgrow better by feeling seen. It was a gift they gave me as a child. In Wales it is tradition to give each other a bouquet of daffodils on St. David’s Day. You wish each other prosperity, happiness, hope, love, and light. It is a gesture of commitment. And then in the US in the 1950s, “daffodil” was used as a term of abuse for homosexuals. Comparing something beautiful with something unwanted, faut le faire. I think the meaning has changed in the meantime, and no longer emphasizes the negative. As earlier, such as in Wordsworth's poem, the daffodil is seen as a star, a compass, a beacon of light. A lighthouse in a still barren landscape. You know that from that moment on, everything will be better.
ER: You studied textile art at LUCA School of Arts. Craftsmanship is important to you. How do you feel about the British Arts and Crafts movement of the nineteenth century? And are there any other influences beyond the English tradition on the way you approach your work?
TR: I have a bit of a problem with the Arts and Crafts movement. At the time of its creation, it seemed a promising utopia. Craft and the arts, use and consumption, material, ornament—all these things were put into perspective. The aim was democratization and worldwide distribution. At some point this culminated in what we know today as mass consumption. Utopias fail when our economic model takes hold. In this they certainly failed. But l'histoire se répète: today we are seeing an enormous revival of handicrafts, ceramics, textiles, glass, and furniture... The Arts and Crafts jacket is back. With the big difference that the ecological discourse is central, and rightly so. Unfortunately, the ecological development of materials has not yet been prioritized—it is a privilege to be “ecological.” I really hope that collectively we can move towards more accessible ecological policies and consumption. It should be a fundamental right and not a privilege. And here I see some points of contact with the original Arts and Crafts movement. I think we can only really speak of a movement when we are able to involve all layers of the population. I find the luxury aspect of ecological products today vulgar. At the moment, they only seem to be for people with time and money. This was the biggest pitfall of the Arts and Crafts movement. That is why my interest is moving more in the direction of the diarist and the documentary. It is not about making the world a better place, but about making us aware of what is and perhaps will not remain so. We have to be careful with nature, which starts with being able to really read and understand it. The closer your subject is to you, the more authentic and lasting your dialogues with people can be. Without fishing, without polarization, responding to the human, opening up and not romanticizing unnecessarily—keeping the necessary distance.
ER: Your grandfather had a textile company. Is that why the step to textile design was so natural for you?
TR: My grandfather, Wilfried Boulez, had started a weaving mill just before World War II. He died four months before I was born, so we almost crossed paths. But my grandmother had kept my grandfather's notes and writings. They are books, completely handwritten, which he started during his studies as an engineer in textiles and long into his active career. It seems that somehow, a little bit, I can continue his legacy. Textiles was not my first choice; I was afraid of studying art. I wanted to study midwifery. But when I stayed in England for a longer period of time during the summer after my humanities degree, giving some sewing workshops, I enrolled for the entrance examination for a textiles course. I was without any experience in making sculpture, so the portfolio I showed to the teachers showed all the cakes I had baked that summer. I never thought I was going to make it, and look—now I've become a guest lecturer at the place I was scared of as an eighteen-year-old. It's funny how things turn out, isn't it?
ER: Literature and language also play an important role in your work.
TR: Absolutely, it is an enormously rich breeding ground. Poetry especially touches and inspires me, such as work by Alicia Gallienne, Louise Glück, Amanda Gorman, Maya Angelou, and Federico García Lorca. Poetry is music without instruments. I also often write myself; these words or sentences are always the starting point for a new work. Words are my coat rack, of the hummus in which I plant small seeds and wait for something to germinate. It also allows contextualization, being able to see through the fog. I need it to understand in retrospect what I have done, why an image came into being. An image often arises intuitively, but I clarify its definition after a process of acceptance. Conversations with people also inspire me immensely—how people empathize and apply their touch, their layer. Recently a woman expressed her wish to have a black-and-white woven narcissus, a new work of mine, placed on her coffin. It gave me goose bumps.
ER: Can you tell us something about the exhibition you made for KIOSK?
TR: It consists of four parts, two that will be inside and two outside. The indoor parts consist of a seven-meter textile work which can be viewed through a circular route. That is Sacred Memories, a timelapse view of the peak of the daffodil bloom, the silent period and the run-up to the return of glory. The chiffon on which the images are printed has been worked with folds, creating new images through layers. Souvenirs d'un jardinier, the second work, is a series of notes ordinary fragments with polaroids and dried daffodils. I started it in November and will continue working on it until the opening of the show. It is an intimate glimpse into the process of gardening and the gardener as the alter ego I assume here. Outside you will find a garden with daffodils, The Daffodil Garden: KIOSK Edition, which consists of 120 bulbs and six varieties, including the Narcissus Poeticus, the poet's daffodil. Woven between these are ten flags having a conversation about regret, supported by an impressive construction by artist Bert De Geyter. I think the thread running through this exhibition is the walk you take both cognitively and physically through your memories, an obsessive holding on to the special period of growth to bloom. The exhibition is a metaphor for the complexity of what it is to be human and how you can take a moment in anonymity, make a small perfect and happy moment for yourself, through the gift of a garden.