On the hunt for good inspiration
Zuzanna Rachowska in conversation with Gert Verhoeven. Spellbound, Gert Verhoeven's upcoming soloshow at KIOSK opens 17.04.2021.
ZR: Wiggly Balloons filled with whisky swinging on a transparent seesaw, bony shrimps bouncing and colliding with soft boneless pig heads. These are just two examples of your 3D animations in Spellbound, a series of seven animations (2020). The images used here are so hallucinatory and dreamy that I can't help but ask about your source of inspiration.
GV: It all started with my many doodles. Since I left art school, I've made an enormous amount of sketches in notebooks, on pieces of paper, and even on beer coasters. I call my notebooks “cahiers” and they are not as beautiful as Moleskines. They are more like children's notebooks that you can buy in shops for less than 50 cents, with dogs, small cats, and rabbits on the cover. I used to carry them with me all the time, in case I wanted to “capture” ideas quickly, or record projects that came to me spontaneously, sometimes at night.
ZR: That reminds me of Francois Truffaut's interview with Alfred Hitchcock, which you told me about. To Truffaut's question whether dreams can be a useful source of inspiration, Hitchcock answered with a story. There was a screenwriter—probably Hitchcock himself—who thought that his best ideas came about during his sleep. In the morning, when he woke up, he was convinced he had had a great idea for one of his next films in a dream. Of course he couldn't remember the idea. That's why he put a piece of paper with pencil on his bedside table for the next night. The next morning he found he had had another great idea during a dream, but he had forgotten it again—fortunately, this time he had put down the idea. He rushed back to his bedroom and read the note: “Boy meets girl.” Hitchcock concludes that what seems to be a brilliant idea at night is scorched when the sun rises into a paltry and trivial thing. In many films, a girl meets a boy. Isn't Spellbound also the title of one of Hitchock's thrillers?
GV: I went through exactly the same thing with my cahiers—that's why I told you that story. Hitchcock's story reveals to me exactly that ambiguity in the creation of the work of art, and especially the ephemeral nature of the artist's inspiration. When I look back at my sketches, I am sometimes ashamed because I no longer know what I meant. There is always a discrepancy between an idea and its realization. I tried to understand and archive my cahiers of “unreadable” sketches, even though I didn't remember what that brilliant idea behind it was. Just like in Hitchcock's story, I found out myself that having an idea is not enough, and that archiving it can be a very stupid activity.
ZR: Moments of inspiration don't function with a normal logic. They are transcendent, uncontrollable, and irresistible, aren't they?
GV: Inspiration might be something special or not special at all, but above all it’s something that no one fully understands. That is obvious. It is also very abstract. Louise Bourgeois once said that having an idea is like trying to catch a fly in the air. You have to be damn quick to catch them. Otherwise they are gone. It's similar to Hitchcock's anecdote, maybe? Apparently inspiration is something that comes as fast as it goes.
There is a very deep gulf between the idea and its realization. Why doesn't anyone see that? This whole problem questions the myth of the artist. With Spellbound I initially tried to make realizations that try to escape the “idea” as a starting point. In fact the artist never has full control over the creative process—that was my other observation.
There is a very nice video about the late Jan Vercruysse by the late Jef Cornelis, or maybe I am confusing the video with one of the many conversations I had with Jan. He tries to explain the meaning of art. He compares the meaning or truth of the work of art with the flame of a candle. In this metaphor, an artist is like a small mosquito that flies and dances around the flame. The dance of the mosquito is cheerful, but when it gets too close to the fire its wings burn, and immediately the dance ends. Maybe this is what I do when I make art? I dance around the truth? Unquestionably the artists I like most are those who behave like crazy dancing mosquitoes.
ZR: Can you trace the origin of inspiration? Is it the result of a conscious focus on a specific subject, or is its origin unknown to you?
GV: For me, inspiration is certainly not transcendental. It is simply a matter of clearing the mind, or an acrobatic circus of that mind. We forget Alexander Calder too much today, don't we? Gilles Deleuze said that inspiration comes at a time of exhaustion and despair, when looking for a new solution, or because nothing works anymore, or because we are just bored. For me, an idea is a tool. When the old tool is worn out or no longer usable, we take the new idea and try it out to see if it works. The new idea makes further action possible, and at this point the action is the most important thing.
ZR: I'd like to take a moment to look at your scribbled notebooks. Do you keep all the cahiers with sketches of your ideas, or just a specific category of them? Do you classify them in any way?
GV: I've been collecting notebooks with scribbles and doodles for years. Sometimes I have made a selection of the most important of the last ten notebooks and collected them together in one booklet. The rest was rubbish, not worth keeping or possibly producing in the future. The process also frees my mind. I always had and have too many ideas. I can't keep track of them all, but archiving them is funny, and in hindsight totally ridiculous. Hence Spellbound.
ZR: How do you determine which of these ideas are worth keeping track of, or working on?
GV: Which are the best ideas to keep, you mean? I think the most surprising ones. They must have that spark of fun pleasure. I take “fun” very seriously—if I don't, I quickly get bored. When I see a good work of art or read a good book, even a sad book, it makes me laugh, sometimes even to the point of shedding tears of sorrow.
ZR: Does that mean that a good idea is one with a pinch of humor? Should it make me laugh or amaze? I think humor falls into the same category as inspiration. To paraphrase Louise Bourgeois, humor is a different kind of insect, also difficult to catch and vivisect.
GV: There are different kinds of humor. I'm not interested in sarcasm or cynical jokes.
ZR: Sarcasm always brings some inequality in an interaction. I think someone who uses irony or sarcasm finds themself superior to others. You seem more interested in naughty or disobedient humor.
GV: Yes, it should be naughty, but not malicious or bitter. More importantly, humor is a means of escaping representation and certain dominant ideologies. It is the result of displacement, a change of certain optics and positions. Imagine: you are a Polish princess and I am a Flemish farmer. I tell you something, a little , that makes you laugh. For this fraction of a second, as a princess, you forget your context and your position. Humor makes us equal and more human again.
ZR: What was the path from a doodle to the final work of art in the case of Spellbound? As I understand it, this series of videos is about the gap between an idea and its realization, its final form.
GV: It struck me that in my notebooks there is always something peculiar that returns: lightbulbs for example, or balloons or bags filled with whiskey or other spirits. Swings too, and carousels. There are also onomatopoeias, as in comic strips: “ping,” “bang,” “splash.” On closer inspection, they all indicate that I have an idea. They are like those speech bubbles with a picture of a lightbulb above the head of the smart guy or girl, meaning something like “they remember something”. I decided to realize this doodles in 3D animation, in collaboration with Alfred Campenaerts of Salty Lemon Studio and 3D animator Filip Antonissen. But by trying to represent “the idea” over and over again, I feel like I'm trying to escape from the idea. Spellbound, in other words.
ZR: Do you often collaborate with others in realizing work?
GV: Yes, I usually work with people, or people work for me. I work with people who can compensate for my lack of craftsmanship. Sometimes I don't have the right skills to realize my ideas. In the end I find every medium boring. But every medium needs a good idea and vice versa. An idea in itself is actually nothing—it's like a balloon.
ZR: I have the impression that you are excited about the unpredictable nature of collaboration.
GV: I like to be surprised by the results of someone's work, but at the same time I want to manipulate methods for making things. I like to go against established rules of craftsmanship. I also use cheap readymade objects in my sculptures and combine them, for example, with precious materials such as bronze.
ZR: Like in the series of sculptures LALALA (2020), in which you use plastic potties?
GV: This series consists of eight pieces, named after seven Siamese twins and a man married to one of the twins: SABAH and FARAH, JAGA and KALIA, SITA and GITA, SHIVANNATH and SHIVRAM, MOHNA and SOHNA, RADICA and DODICA, MARIA KLARA and MARIA EDUARDA, GANGA and JAMUNA and JASSIMUDDIN AHMAD. Each statue consists of two or four pots cast in brass, in the way the twins initially grew together (two pots) and, for some of them, the way they are separated later (four pots).
ZR: But unlike most sculptors in metal, you decided not to remove the casting channels. The casting channels became an integral part of the work of art, as a kind of external skeleton that holds the pots together.
GV: I had these sculptures made in a casting workshop in Sofia, Bulgaria. I like the way they work there. There is a kind of roughness in their method of making statues. Not like this part of Europe, where the relationship between an artist and the maker, the bronze caster in this case, is often very hierarchical and cordial. For the people I worked with in Sofia, it is not about making art—producing the object is the essence. They produce sculptures like they would a car or a vehicle. I like the fact that the pouring channels that connect the pots are so imperfect and scruffy. I commissioned similar sculptures in the Netherlands, and the pouring channels were so disappointingly sturdy and perfect that I didn't like them as much as the ones I had made in Bulgaria.
I like the shape of the LALALA sculptures. They are like jewels, fragile and sublime on one side but rough and imperfect on the other. They are like bodies that connect and detach, that dissolve and merge into each other. They are like two souls in one body.
ZR: But why did you decide to use potties? Don't you find it inappropriate to use such banal objects to depict real Siamese twins?
GV: The use of potties has nothing to do with sacrum or profanum. I don't want to laugh at Siamese twins or joke about them. I read a lot of personal stories about them, and I was surprised how happy they were. In spite of the pressure from the medical world, most of them didn’t want to be separated. Sometimes they are so persistent that even when one person died, the other did not agree to be separated from the deceased, which of course led to their death also.
The choice of potties was, to a certain extent, a rather arbitrary one. I use ready-made plastic moulds instead of wax when casting in bronze (using the lost wax method). For me, those objects are also Freudian, of course.
ZR: Why Freudian?
GV: According to Freud, defecation is the first truly traumatic experience in a child's life. He describes it as a fear of losing your own body. I like Freud as the extra signifier—not the real Freud, but the Freudian doctrine as a cliché at the top.
ZR: How do you want to exhibit these sculptures
GV: I want to place them on a kind of aquamarine carpet. I have a specific color in mind, the color used in operating theaters. This specific color does not tire out the surgeon's eyes and evokes the feeling of flesh and the human body. It makes the images more physical in my opinion. Moreover, I like the way the patina and oxidation of the brass look on this background. Coincidentally the colors are almost the same. Because of the green patina the brass becomes the same color as the green elements in an operating theater. The blood turns green, you see? And the sculpture seems to sink into the pedestal or in this case the carpet.
Next to the sculptures I want to place jars filled with pickled turnip or cabbage. In a way they imitate these large jars with body parts or embryos floating in formalin, which can be found in anatomical museums or seventeenth-century Wunderkammers. They try to preserve life.
ZR: You like mixing orders, seriousness and absurdity. One example of this is the name of the series, LALALA.
GV: “LALALA” is a nonsense word, but I like it. I noticed that most Siamese twins, who are mostly female and from India, carry names ending with “a.” As I said before, I named the images after Siamese twins. To the combination of two names I added the name Elina, the name of the woman responsible for the production of my statues in the casting studio in Sofia. Then you get MOHNA and SOHNA and ELINA. Then LALALA is not far away anymore. You don't hear the names anymore but just mainly the letter A. "LALALA" is musical of course and sounds better than Gert Verhoeven, doesn't it?
ZR: LALALA is not the first series in which you experiment with both mass-produced objects and precious materials, along with the process of making a sculpture.
GV: That's right, in one of my recent series of sculptures for example, Kamasutra (2020), I used plastic laundry baskets. I made sixty-four bronze sculptures with them, as an analogy with the sixty-four positions from the Kamasutra. I use the lost-wax method, but instead of wax I use plastic baskets and tubes that melt as easily as wax.
The result is a kind of amorphous body covered with a turquoise-blue skin. The specific color was caused by an accidental chemical reaction between the plastic and the hot bronze. During the making of the sculptures the burnt-plastic bronze became like the bodies in Pompeii transformed by lava.
Kamasutra, like LALALA, also seems to be a body-oriented, physical series. Nowadays people forget that the Kamasutra was an ancient Indian Sanskrit text about sexuality and emotional fulfillment in life, written by the little-known Vatsyayana. The text is as spiritual as it is sensual. For the author of the Kamasutra, the body is as sacred as the soul, mind and body are on an equal level. In modern times the text was reduced and vulgarized into a book of sex positions, such as The Kamasutra for Dummies, Kamasutra Training, or The Cosma Aqua Kamasutra—completely alienated from the Kama Sutra as it was created. But that's what I like about it.
ZR: I like the fact that you decided to give all sixty-four sculptures from this Kamasutra series German titles, like: DIE ZWEITE, WEIT GEÖFFNETE STELLUNG, DIE HOCHGERUNDETE STELLUNG, DIE STELLUNG DES GEFÄHRTIN DES INDRA, DIE UMKLAMMERNDE STELLUNG, and DIE SEITLICHE STELLUNG. In my opinion the German language is very precise, a perfect tool for giving very clear, almost technical instructions. On the other hand, I feel it may not be the best language to express feelings. Did you want to play with a similar contrast of spirituality and physicality in the way you present this series?
GV: Indeed, I want to play with this contrast between the sophisticated interaction of bodies and some sort of modern workout, aerobics. That's why I want to present the sculptures on yoga mats next to towels with the embroidered word Kamasutra.
ZR: Your creative process never seems to stop. You work on a large number of series at the same time. Moreover, the process of creating a work of art remains open. You keep adding new elements—like the jars of pickles to the LALALA sculptures or towels to the Kamasutra installation. Within the series you create new ensembles. Are you suggesting that the process of creating artwork can never be completed or finished?
GV: The process never ends. Even in the museum or the cemetery, things keep changing. And authorship remains dynamic, shared with the viewers and their interpretations. That is also a reason why I work in series. The combination of two series creates a new interaction that creates an extra dimension. For example, at my upcoming exhibition at KIOSK I will show two series of works: video animations and sculptures, Spellbound and Whiskey Ikebana. They are very different in form, but both play with the theme of whiskey, or spirits. I am curious about how the two series will interact with each other.
This text is based on two conversations between Zuzanna Rachowska and Gert Verhoeven, carried out in Brussels on 13 and 23 November 2020.
Gert Verhoeven is a conceptual artist based in Brussels. He uses various media including sculpture, drawings, and video. He studies and explores the creative process by working in series and collaboration with others.
Zuzanna Rachowska is an independent curator.
 The anecdote comes from a 1966 book by François Truffaut about Alfred Hitchcock, originally released in French as Le Cinéma selon Alfred Hitchcock.
 Jan Vercruysse, 1990, a film by Jef Cornelis—an interview with artist Jan Vercruysse (1948-2018) that took place in June 1990. Rather than talking about individual works of art, Vercruysse reflects on subjects such as artistry, the relation of the artist to his work, and the position of the spectator.
 Lost-wax method, also called cire-perdue, is a method of metal casting in which a molten metal is poured into a mold that has been created by means of a wax model. Once the mold is made, the wax model is melted and drained away. A hollow core can be effected by the introduction of a heat-proof core that prevents the molten metal from totally filling the mold. The lost-wax method dates from the 3rd millennium BC.