Pressed for posterity. A conversation with Myrna D'Ambrosio
Myrna D'Ambrosio visited Thomas Renwart in his studio in Ghent on January 11, 2022 and talked to him about his collections. This interview is part of a broader research project by KIOSK on artists' collections. GOLDEN HOUR FADED BLACK, Thomas Renwart's solo exhibition at KIOSK,is on view until 30.04
Myrna D’Ambrosio: The notion of collecting holds different meanings for people. It may have connotations that not everyone can identify with. Seeing as what you collect is so intrinsic to your artistic practice, I’m curious to know whether you actually consider yourself a collector.
Thomas Renwart: I don't collect for the basic value of money. It's really for, how can I say, the creation of a legacy—when you're not there anymore, your collection of objects can replace or survive you. Because that's what you have when people die. You get an inheritance, paintings or cups for coffee, and it fills in the absence of someone. I think I collect so much... It's crazy (laughs nervously).
MD: Are you very self-conscious about it?
TR: Absolutely. Yes.
MD: That’s interesting, because what you collect is so clearly linked to your work.
TR: I just laugh because everything keeps growing. Yeah... (laughs) because I know that I collect a lot. Whenever I get back from somewhere with new stuff, it's like, oh...! When I had to move studios, I really got an overview of all the things I have. And the question is, can your life be put in boxes? That might be a question for people who move without too much stuff, but I don't think I will ever have enough boxes!
MD: From your reaction it sounds like you put the act of collecting on the same level as that of accumulation. But collecting usually implies some sort of classification or organisation, whereas accumulation could just be seen as an obsessive gathering of things that you may or may not make use of.
TR: For me it's scattered but categorised in very clear streams. Everything to do with daffodils and botanical things. Butterflies and related stuff. And then everything that has to do with craftwork—I have a lot of old books about embroidery. With weaving, a lot of craftsmanship has become lost in the last century. So I also try to preserve things, like an archivist or library, because most of those books end up in the trash otherwise... And they used to be manuals for making something to pass time with, for making something for other people. It's a shame that we forget about all of those important, small little things. And it’s a cliché nowadays, especially through the pandemic, but those manuals really show that we can save ourselves through the beauty of needing only a needle and some thread; you can do everything with that. It’s important that the excess of collecting be reduced to the strict necessity of doing something. It’s so fascinating, why we do it.
MD: Exactly. And collecting is a human instinct, traceable to gathering food and other items for our survival. But in a consumer society the act of gathering is perceived differently: we have so much already, do we really need more?
TR: Yeah, but there’s a difference when you collect things that have been there for a long time—you're not adding to the pile of existing things. You’re reusing or recycling them.
MD: What’s also interesting is how a collectible is often seen as something rare or hard to find. Whereas in your case, besides books and related material, you’re also gathering organic matter. Things that you either grow or just find in nature.
TR: I think that in collecting, there are no rarities. There are things of value, money-wise, but what’s of big value is the emotion. I'm very rich in emotional objects, but not at all financially... (laughs). But I like that little vase I have there, I only put daffodils in it, because my grandmother had a beautiful blue crystal vase which she only used for lily of the valley from her garden. And my mother also still uses it only for the lily-of-the-valley season. If it were to break I don't think it would be replaceable, because the thoughts and the life given to that object were given for specific reasons. And that’s irreplaceable. I just found it. It cost two euros in the thrift shop and it was so beautiful. It's hand-painted, handmade in Italy. There’s something about that moment that you fall in love with something, your love activates it. It's beautiful waiting for an object to be activated in the right moment, in a short amount of time, then putting it away again. You await the presence of an object, and that's a different sort of consumerism. You consume the object just for three weeks in a year.
MD: The most obvious out of your collectibles are butterflies and flowers, but my understanding is that you also collect stamps and textiles—is that right?
TR: Yes, exactly, all those things. With the textiles, I have a few old samples that I bought from Etsy, originals from the US—beautiful things. Then I have related books and magazines; I buy them to learn how to create embroidery pieces. Because I'm going to show my embroideries a lot this year. I write a poem and then I embroider it. For example, this one is wordplay: Lune après l'autre. I can create embroidery because I've read about it. I observed the pieces so that they became manuals for me to create, to build upon the legacy of people who've done it before. I do not invent new stuff, textiles, tapestries, embroideries—it's not new. But the reaction to them is different today: textiles are not what they were two hundred years ago. Colours tended to be only for rich people for example, brown for the poor. And in many places embroidery was only for the aristocracy, because you could only embroider if you had time, money, and were positioned to do it as a pastime.
MD: So you're building a library of knowledge that also adds value to your collected items. All the related material—the books, the magazines—are things that you have intentionally sought out over time, or you came across them sporadically? Did you start buying them when you started your practice?
TR: No, long before. My grandmother was a cross-stitcher, and it was through being with her that I started. And her husband, my grandfather, had a weaving mill. So it was given to me, in visual terms. It aroused my curiosity—as a child who doesn't understand how you combine textiles and thread, suddenly you see something happening on the surface. I always thought cross-stitching was so easy, that you just do a cross, but there's an entire rhythm to it. It's the thing that always has made me the most calm, because of the memory. And it’s also like little kisses. There's a lot of beautiful things about it. It’s like meditation.
MD: Was it through the same grandmother that you were exposed to the world of botany?
TR: Yes, and my mother and my aunt, so her two daughters. My mother had a big gastronomic restaurant; every Monday she and her sister would make thirty bouquets from the garden together, and they always drank a little bottle of champagne. I saw that as a child, and was fascinated by what can be created together. My mother talks about it all the time, because my aunt is developing heavy dementia recently, so she can't make arrangements anymore. The last arrangement she made was with cosmos, a beautiful summer flower; it was so fragile, you could see there was such a struggle, but it managed to get into the vase. I asked a friend of mine back from school to paint it on a copper plate, because the copper will oxidise. So it will wither with time, like her memory, but we will still have the brushstrokes. They also knew all the Latin names because our family is an old French family, and it’s a bit of a posh thing (laughs), but I'm not ashamed of it at all because it's an heirloom.
MD: So you had flowers around you and people around you that used them. What about the part where you start pressing them? How did that come about? That is an art in itself.
TR: I learned it from the best, Her Royal Highness Princess Grace of Monaco! She made a book at the end of her life, it’s one of my most important objects (laughs). I bought it in 2015. I think I started learning just between graduating from high school and going to university; it became such a fascinating thing also because my aunt lost her son at eighteen due to a muscle disease, and she dried all the different flowers from his grave and kept them on a glass tray. It was quite a heavy thing, because you would just see beautiful old dried flowers but they hold this very dark and sad connotation. We experience loss in all kinds of ways; for me, the most painful part of the year is when the flowers wither away, so this obsessive pressing is to keep them from being gone completely.
MD: Do you have a memory of your very first pressed flower?
TR: Yes. I have it framed in my bedroom. I was not yet studying art—they organised an exhibition in the castle in my village, and I participated at the age of fourteen or fifteen. I showed a series of pressed flowers, I was so happy! (laughs) That was my first exhibited work and afterwards I kept them in my bedroom.
MD: I would like to know more about your butterflies. Did you start collecting them during your childhood as well?
TR: In a lot of cultures butterflies reincarnate the soul of a loved one who has passed away. In Mexico, the monarch butterfly flies every day from September until the Day of the Dead, November 1—five thousand kilometres. They come back on the day when they celebrate the dead. It's like what the cow is for Hindus. When my grandmother died in November, two weeks later a butterfly sat on my shoulder for hours and hours. That’s when I was fourteen, I think, and it was a very spiritual moment, her being there. So with the butterflies it's not really about the science, but about folklore and myth. Butterflies are not the most social things in the world, so when something like that happens... This summer I had to go to a restaurant, but again there was a butterfly stuck to me since midday, it didn't want to leave. So I told the waiter we were three.
MD: Do you really just come across butterflies in your surroundings? Is it because you’re hyper aware of a particular item that you tend to find it more than someone who isn't necessarily observant or looking out for it?
TR: The ones that I select are dead, of course—I would never kill them! And yes, everywhere. Sometimes it's freaky where they come, places in the big cities. But the more you become aware of finding them, the more you find them. In the beginning I found so many that it was a hazard. But when I saw the opportunity to make portraits of them, I started finding them even more. It's like, if you really love a Range Rover you will see the Range Rover you love everywhere!
MD: How many pressed butterflies would you say you have?
TR: This year only, I think I found twenty or so. Which may not sound a lot but it is, to find them just like that. People that find them now also send them to me, which is nice; I’m this pompes funèbres, how do you say?
MD: Ah yes, in Italian we say pompe funebri. A funeral home.
TR: Ah, voilà, si! Like a mortuary for butterflies.
MD: I noticed at your current installation at Kunsthal Gent that you also incorporate postage stamps with butterflies on them.
TR: I have a lot of stamps! As a teenager I used to work in a restaurant, like everybody else, and I spent all my wages on butterfly stamps. There's this old little stamp shop in Gent, one of the last left in Flanders and when it ceases to exist no one will take over, no one would be so crazy as to run a stamp shop! Everything will probably end up on Catawiki. When I used to go there with the small wages I got from the restaurant, and I bought the butterfly stamps—they cost so much actually. But I worked with a purpose, collecting stamps from there. I felt so rich, the money being replaced with the little stamps I bought.
MD: So stamps can be quite expensive?
TR: It depends a lot on their geography. A lot of stamps are attributed to an event in time, a commemoration of some sort, the birthday of a royal or head of state. Many historical reasons. And the price varies because of that. These are all declassified because they have been used. They’re like “B stamps,” not considered rare anymore. But the usage is such a beautiful thing in itself—it could have been for a love letter, it could have just been a bill, an invitation.
MD: So in philately any marking decreases the value of a stamp, but for you, the marking adds an additional layer of value.
TR: Yes. It’s a code that often includes a date; it’s really a document of time.
MD: Will this collection keep growing? Do you also buy stamps online?
TR: Absolutely, I will keep it alive—it will never stop. In France there’s a beautiful website where people sell ephemera. Often it's only one stamp, two stamps. It’s really about browsing through people’s private collections. I think of myself as more than a regular collector because I might buy a collector’s whole collection, and my intention is not to resell it, obviously, but to keep it in a box until I think it can come out like it has now. I have woven a few stamps in the past by hand too. It takes like twenty-four hours! You start weaving and you see the borders, the “cookie border”—weaving a stamp by hand is pretty crazy. Visualising a small thing like this by hand also feels spiritual.
MD: That's wonderful. The notion of a collection lifespan is an interesting one; there’s always a first item, but perhaps there will also be a last. What are your thoughts on that?
TR: I think many collections start because of financial reasons, and this has nothing to do with investment or loss of money. Because the return is this—what you see before you. So every ten cents I have to spare, I keep for little things like this!
MD: Thank you so much for sharing, Thomas!