Text of the catalogue ‘Gegronde’ Beelden.
It is not easily overlooked: a loam object shaped as a gothic
vault, more than two metres high and nearly five metres wide. Behind this
colossus are others - three, four? They are of varying sizes, one being
only a metre high, as if the rest of its loamy torso is within the earth’s
surface. Does the earth so intensely long for contact with heaven that
it lets itself extend towards heaven in the shape of a cathedral? The objects
are, however, already situated in a church. High above the loamy forms
glimmer the real gothic vaults in their fifteenth-century transparent magnificence.
Is it perhaps that the earth objects to such human arrogance and claims
backwhat is rightfully its own? Or have humans themselves finally recognized
the essence of their being is neither on earth nor in heaven, but in between?
Questions such as these are evoked by a larger than life sculpture by Joos Clijsen. Especially for the Bergkerk at Deventer she constructed an installation derived from the existing space. As is well known, such installation art is called site specific sculpture in modern art history. it came into being as a result of the American Earth Art, where artists made works in and with the earth, and its European counterpart Arte Povera. Clijsen, who was trained during the height of these movements, was attracted by the earthly tendencies and the use of unorthodox sculptural materials such as zinc, tar and loam, a preference which is manifested regularly in her works. Seen in the light of her personal development, this artistic background has now resulted in the presentation of two monumental sculpturalinstallations, the one in the Bergkerk and the other in the garden of the castle Het Nijenhuis near Heino. Both installations are made of loam and are related to the surrounding site. In the Bergkerk, Clijsen copied five of the gothic vaults in loam, in the garden of Het Nijenhuis she lets a large lawn be occupied by one hundred and fifty large-scale models of fossilized animals, each about one metre in length and fifty centimetres high. The earthly tendency is easily recognized: not only is the applied material derived from the earth, but the contents are as well. The vaults seem to disappearslowly into the earth, while the fossilized animals are excavated from primeval layers
This exposition evokes an experience of a definite physical character; nonetheless, in an environment which is so charged with culture as a church, it is inevitable that the displayed works of art be construed in a - more or less religious - cultural context. Since ancient times religion has supplied explanations and meaning for phenomena in the human society which are incomprehensible to many people, while the arts often were used to perform a didactic and supportive role. Through history the arts have extricated themselves from this subordinate position, while contemporary visual art has taken over portions of the ontological function: in modern society art can help to integrate new developments or stimulate a critical awareness of involved problems.
In Clijsen’s work, the symbiosis between art and religion also has a personal aspect: her father, a designer of church windows, used to take her along as a child on art historical trips to many European churches. “Fragments of these experiences are still present in my work”, says Clijsen, and points to subjects such as earth, heaven, and the effects of light, for instance, in a combination of lead and blue water coloured paper (p. 14), a drawing like a floor plan of a church (p. 15), or domes as part of a sculpture (p. 13).
In 1995 a work titled Saenredam came into being. A favourite subject
of the Dutch seventeenth century painter Pieter Saenredam, the interior
of a gothic church, was reproduced in a contemporary sculptural version
(p. 7). The rarefied transparency of the gothic construction is translated
into the metal frame, which, like a three-dimensional drawing, expresses
the ribs supporting the vault. The vault itself, however, which in the
gothic church used to extend as high as possible, is now brought down and
simply placedon the ground: God no longer towers sacrosanct above people.
Although the artist struggles ironically with established institutions,
apart from the theme of art and religion, she also defines the traditionally
problematic relation between sculpture and architecture by playing with
architectonic elements in her works. Especially in relation to church architecture
sculpture has undergone an eventful history. Well known, of course, are
the iconoclastic furies, when complete church interiors were destroyed
for ideological reasons. Less spectacular, but at least as interesting,
is the history of statues outside of churches, in particular cathedrals,
where sculpture developed from a narrative element as part of the church
wall into an almost freestanding, independent statue. In Saenredam, which
is displayed as an object of art in a museum or gallery, the relation between
sculpture and architecture is somewhat conventional in a contemporary outlook:
the problem is brought up in the work itself, but in content the sculpture
has no inner relation to the surrounding space, as in other works by Clijsen.(
The present installationin the Bergkerk, for instance, has no conventional
aspects whatsoever. Here the artist again brought the vault down to the
earth, abstracted as a mental form materialised in sculpture. Man is no
longer an invalid creature gazing up at a symbolized heaven, but he has
climbed the roof of the church, soto speak, to project his visual experience
on the floor below. But that is not all: one of the sculptural vaults has
been placed on its side, so that the static impression of the church interior
is subverted. The monumental installation suggests a strong movement, which
is confirmed by some monumental drawings in black ink and charcoal on the
Concerning the problem of sculpture and architecture as well as the theme of art and religion, the loamy vaults unleash a revolution: the sculpture is not only involved in a relation with the surrounding architectural space, but a part of that architecture, namely the vault, has become the sculpture. In the context of art and religion, art no longer assumes a subordinate position to illustrate and confirm the religion, such as church windows. Here its position is critical; moreover, the art undermines rigid traditional thinking.)
The exhibition is extended in the installation in the garden of
the castle Het Nijenhuis near Heino. Like the buildings, due to its classical
design and perfect upkeep, the garden of Het Nijenhuis has an appearance
of controlled aesthetics. However, in Clijsen’s installation nature rules
in its most uncontrolled freakishness: between the delineated pathways
marches a colony of Leanchoiliae, prehistoric animals from the era of the
Cambrian explosion, described by science as ‘Fossils of invertebrates
with a soft body’. Originating from a biotope of the ocean floor and dating
from about 570 million years ago they appear on the earth’s surface near
Heino just in time to join the current fin de siècle nostalgia.
In Clijsen’s installation the Leanchoilia functions as a pars pro toto for the scientific discovery and interpretation of fossilized animals which were found in 1909 in the Burgess Shale, a mountain pass in the Yoho National Park in British Columbia. As a result of this discovery, in 1989 the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould wrote the book Wonderful Life, in which he makes an ardent plea for the phenomenon of contingency. According to this theory, all life on earth, including human life, is a result of minuscule and accidental circumstances. The Leanchoilia is extinct, but a contemporary of the Burgess Shale, the Pikaia gracilens, has developed elsewhere into a precursor of the vertebrates from which man eventually descended.According to Gould things could have been different, even so much so that no intelligent life whatsoever would have occurred, not even by the time that the sun will have burned out and all life on earth will have disappeared.
Human life is accidental, says Gould, there is no such thing as a divine plan, not to mention the concept that man was intended to be the crown of creation and to rule over nature accordingly.
For Clijsen, who met Gould’s ideas, so to speak, while rooting around in the earth, the theory of chance was a recognition of her own creative views. “My attachment to the earth also gives an awareness of the temporal character of people’s existence in the universe”, she explains. As a result of this conviction she created a series of works entitled Pikaia, a reference to the most primeval form of human life. Although these works are still abstract, they display new impulses, visualized as revolution and a movement creating inner space (p. 6), or they connect an ancient biblical symbol of communication, expressed in the title De Stenen Tafelen (The Tables of Stone), with an utterly topical subject, the sign @ in an email address (p. 21). The Leanchoiliae near Heino have been given an almost naturalistic form. Together with the vaults in the Bergkerk they confirm the developments in Clijsen’s oeuvre: they make a strong statement for change and renewal of the artist’s personal artistic activities as well as of outdated structures in society.
Irene de Graaff