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Table of Contents 9

Roel Arkesteijn

The Universe According to Voebe de Gruyter: an Introduction Maria Barnas in conversation with Voebe de Gruyter


I: On Art and Science


Works A—B A

24–25 26 27–28 29 30–31 32–33 34–35 36 37 37 37

The Action of Matchmaking Photons in Bars Ant-holes Apple Sprayed with Insecticide Artists’ Walls Artist’s Frequent Yawning Assemblies of Doubt at My Entrance Au Coiffeur arabe. Overseas, the West Profits from Science and Algebra Au Coiffeur arabe. Commanding Mind to Find Passion; Turning Somebody’s Gaze to the Light Au Coiffeur arabe. Untitled Au Coiffeur arabe. He Suffered Embarking the Dates He Wanted Au Coiffeur arabe. She Has a Nose for Secrets and Feels Free to Tell Lies

B 38 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 45 46–47 48–49 50–51 51 52–53 54 55 55 56 57

The Baldheads Baldhead Brotherhood of Brussels (video) Baldhead Brotherhood of Brussels (text & installation) Baldheads, Oversized Snooker Balls, Eggs, Blueberries in Blueberry Liquor Ball of Paper, Blowing Around in Four Stages Before and After the Party. Before the Party Before and After the Party. Leftovers Being Combed. Blue Hair, Black Combs Being Combed. City Combs Being Combed. Where I Found the Comb BIC. Blueprint Incident Construction BIC BIC Sale BIC (transcript of letter from the artist to Mrs Bich) The Bucket The Bucket. How One Should Treat a Thrown-Away Bucket The Bucket. The Bucket’s Value The Bucket. How One Should Treat a Thrown-Away Bucket (video) Brussels Tax Office Brussels Tax Office. Where Does Your Tax Money Really Go To?

Maria Barnas in conversation with Voebe de Gruyter


II: On the Shape of an Artwork



Works C—D

126 127

C 68 69 69 70 70 70 71 71 72–73 74 75 76–77 78–79 80 81 82 83 84 84 85 86 86 87 88–89 90 91 91 92–97

The Cable Theory. Cross-section of Office The Cable Theory in Waiting Room The Cable Theory. Installation in the Offices of the Drawing Center The Cable Theory. Offices Seen Through String Theory The Cable Theory. Office 1 The Cable Theory. Office 2 The Cable Theory. Office 3 The Cable Theory. Office 6 The Cable Theory. Untitled The Cable Theory Proliferates in Many Office Buildings The Cat that Ran over the TV Guide Calcium Deficiency Chewing Gum. Stored Information Chewing Gum. Chewing, Spitting, Freedom Chewing Gum. The Chewing Gum’s Competitors Chewing Gum. Communism Still Wins Chewing Gum. Formation of Instinct Chewing Gum. Pressure in Space before Explosion Chewing Gum. Untitled (Blowing Man) Chewing Gum. The Chewing Gum and Its Stubborn Persistence Cockroaches in the Microwave Cockroaches in the Microwave after 3 and 10 Days and after a Week The Collectors Wilfried & Yannicke Cooremans in Their Pleats Please Garments Collisions and Atomic Descent in Shop Windows Condensed Anger Crumplings. Crumpling Mechanism Crumplings. Crumplings after Closing Crumplings (installation view, photos and texts)

D 98–106

Darkroom Air – Texts as Images

House With Phone Cut Off How Many Dollars to Clean the Windows?

J 128–129 130–131

Jacket with Dandruff Jeroen and Marjan’s Sleep Times over the Course of a Week

L 131 131 132 132 133 134 134

Laying an Egg in a Stranger’s Neck. Untitled (bike) Laying an Egg in a Stranger’s Neck (text) Light Spots. Catching Spots of Light Light Spots from Laser Pointer and Wristwatch Lighter Shopping Look Blinkie, How Beautiful Looking For a Cat Pee Stain on a Birthday

M 135 135 136 136 136 137 138–141 142 143 143 143 144–145 146 147

Manhattan Mini-Storage Manhattan Mini-Storage: Sun Flowing into Storage building / Sculpture during the Summer and This All Happens in Silence Misty Walks (text) Misty Walks (installation photograph) Misty Walks in 5 Degrees Misty Walks. Sublime Forms with View from 5 Metres Misty Walks (photos & texts) Mocha and Vanilla, the Genuine Averbode Abbey Ice-cream Mocha and Vanilla. Ice-cream Vendor next to a Abbey Monk Mocha and Vanilla. Jos van de Put next to Jos van de Put Mocha and Vanilla. Truck Doors Dividing the Name ‘Jos van de Put’ in Two Parts Mocha and Vanilla, the Genuine Averbode Abbey Ice-cream (slide projection) Money and Microbes My Father’s Shirt

Maria Barnas in conversation with Voebe de Gruyter

Maria Barnas in conversation with Voebe de Gruyter


III: On Art as Thought Model


IV: On Showing Work


Works D—M


Works N—Z


Dead and Not Dead

E 118

N 156–157


Everything Is Wholegrain at Bakery Hartog except the Women Who Work there: They All Have Bleached Hair


F 119 119 120–121

The Flea Carpet Fumigating Pests Fruit from Fuzhou

G 122 123 124

The Game of the Baldheads Girl of Four, Eating Blue Lolly, Collected with Pliers Grandmothers Carpet

H 125


Hard Water

Non-Integration of Muslim Salesmen

Overloaded Chalk at Dam Square

P 160 160 161 162 162 163 163 164 165 165 167–168 168 169

Pock-marked Superintendent at Empire State Building Possible Doubts. Doubts during a Bus Journey (Bus 14 Leuven—Diest) Possible Doubts under the Orange Leatherette Plaster Remembers and Absorbs Plaster Remembers and Absorbs. Release Your Anger on a Gyproc Wall Plaster Remembers and Absorbs. Polish Plasterers at My Opening Plaster Remembers and Absorbs. Plasterers’ Lungs The Production Of Oestrogen Clouds (text) The Production of Oestrogen Clouds (installation view) The Production of Oestrogen Clouds The Production of Oestrogen Clouds. Life is Feminizing The Production of Oestrogen Clouds. Female Clouds The Production of Oestrogen Clouds. Female Clouds over Running Men


R 170–171 172–173 174 175 176–177

Rolled Up Road. Untitled The Rolled-Up Road (photo series) Rolled-up Road (installation) Rolled-up Vision Retired Train Drivers Let Their Environment Shrink with Them

S 178 179 180 181 182 183 183 184 184 185 186 187 188–189

Salesman with a Cold Self-portrait as a Saleswoman with a Cold Secret Export of Stories (text) Secret Export of Stories (video) Secret Export of Stories. Stored Sentences Secret Export of Stories. Cuba’s Secret Export of Stories Secret Export of Stories. Arranging Sentences and Words According to Size Secret Export of Stories. Cuban Story Transmission Secret Export of Stories. Why Was Hemingway Living in Cuba? Section of Kitchen Wall of a Homosexual Living Alone Space in the Forest Space in the Forest. Sleeping Times of Four Friends Stylized Cigar Smoke

T 190 190 191 191 192 192 193 193 194 195 195–196 196

Taking the Buildings with You when Polished into Your Shoes (installation) Taking the Buildings with You when Polished into Your Shoes Transport of Images Transport of Images via Your Forefinger Transport of Images. Business Meeting Transport of Images. In the Classroom Transport of Images. Doing the Dishes Transport of Images. Sightseeing Three Walls Three Growing Trees Three Growing Trees (text) Two of a Kind

U 197 197 198–199 200

Untitled (soap and fingernail) Untitled (bicycle tyre impression) Untitled (urine drawing) Untitled

W 201 201 202 202 203 203 204 205 206 207 207 208–209 210

Wit Water (text) Wit Water Residue in Empty Swimming Pool Wit Water. Untitled Wit Water. On the Way to the Swimming Pool Wit Water. Students Drinking Wit Water. In a Cafe and Raining Outside Wit Water and Bus as a Skeleton (installation with bus) Wit Water and Bus as a Skeleton What Are You Going to Make for this Exhibition? White Moustaches White Moustaches (installation) Wojtek’s Cinema A Wrinkle Can Be just like a Scratch


Z Zen Buddhists’ Bad Breath





Roel Arkesteijn

The Universe According to Voebe de Gruyter: an Introduction For years this book bore the working title Gebakken lucht (Hot air) – a name that, like much of De Gruyter’s work, came into being almost casually. In May 2007 on the occasion of the completion of her International Monument to the Victims of Chemical Weapons in The Hague, commissioned by the OPCW (Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons), the artist gave a well-attended lecture and participated in a public discussion at Stroom in The Hague. During the Q&A session one member of the audience, unsympathetic to the work, characterised De Gruyter’s monument as only ‘hot air’. Although the remark was certainly not intended as a compliment, the artist adopted that judgment as a proud nickname. ‘Hot air is, as a matter of fact, another, earlier work of mine,’ she replied to the annoyed man from The Hague, a gesture typical of the down-to-earthness and humour that mark De Gruyter’s work. Voebe de Gruyter is an artist who makes propositions about unexpected scientific phenomena and other patterns which reveal themselves in everyday situations. Her work abounds with elementary particles: ‘points of concentration, information particles, small units which contain multitudes,’ the artist once explained in an interview with art critic, Cornel Bierens.1 She fills these negligible particles with meaning in her work. She builds a space in which seemingly insignificant situations can be read. In her own words, she creates ‘an environment in which people can turn something ordinary into something special’. There is as much room for the imagination as for a more scientific approach.2 In her Chewing Gum drawings (1994) she visualised her idea that information might permeate something in tiny quantities – that the words spoken by people chewing gum would end up in the gum. Later she developed her Cable Theory – based on an analogy with string theory and spending a lot of time staring at the ground – a theory describing a world which exists underneath office furniture. Above the desks is the World Wide Web, below the world of the cables. As an artist, De Gruyter adopts the viewpoint of the scientist. As in science, her focus is on visualising information which cannot be seen with the naked eye. In her series of annotated photographs, Au Coiffeur arabe, she turns her attention to the floor of an Arab hair-dressers’ salon, where hair clippings form Arabic texts without anyone realising it. Other works are more closely linked to current scientific research. In a series of drawings, the artist paid attention to the in-creasing pollution of drinking and surface water by the female hormone, oestrogen. ‘Life is feminizing,’ she concluded at the end of the series, which includes a scene of men jogging in a watery, cloudy landscape. When talking about her piece The Bucket, the artist stated, ‘the many different shapes of the scratches can be divided up into statements and hesitations, doubts and passing thoughts, all of them ways of thinking.’3 These could stand in for the kinds of thought processes visible in De Gruyter’s work: different ways of questioning the world as it manifests itself to her. Serendipity plays an important role in her very wide choice of subject matter. Mysterious situations and phenomena which occur simultaneously are the main sources of inspiration for new work.



Introduction Not only do her weird and wonderful propositions make Voebe de Gruyter’s work so unique but equally important is the subtle way she goes about it. De Gruyter makes sober and honest artworks free of artistic pretentions. Her primary goal is not to create finished, definitive artworks but to note down her experiences or make suggestions which will offer a different view of the surrounding reality. She doesn’t refer to a foreordained aesthetic or stick to a fixed medium for this – the forms her works take depend on the context and starting point. She might make a video at one moment and a drawing, a photograph, a sculpture or installation the next. Drawings are a constant in her work: primary, simple drawings in which text and image come together; they have the spontaneity of telephone call doodles. De Gruyter’s work often situates itself in the liminal space between appearing and disappearing. Some works exist only as text or as thoughts in the artist’s head. It is probably because of this rather subtle way of working and the formal and thematic diversity of her work, the difficulty of capturing it, that there has not yet been a book or exhibition surveying her work. De Gruyter’s own attitude is characterised by a certain resistance the art world. In her mind there is already so much fine art produced that she doesn’t feel much more can be added, other than a reviewing and recontextualising of what already exists. She resists the definitive character of exhibitions, which suppose an artistic ‘end product’ and which make it impossible to change or transform her work in the future. ‘The work already exists in the idea that it will be made one day. Because of the fact that the work does not directly receive a physical final manifestation, it has a longer life; energy comes free which otherwise would have gone into the physical execution,’ the artist explains.4 De Gruyter’s work can be described as narrative conceptual art. The ‘process’ aspect of her work gives De Gruyter an affinity to the Flemish artist, Joëlle Tuerlinckx. At the same time she feels a connection to a variety of artists, such as Simon Starling, Francis Alÿs and the Lithuanian conceptual artist, Gintaras Didžiapetris – artists who each in his own way re-interprets reality and gives it new form through his work. In like manner De Gruyter can be seen as an artist-auteur. With each new work she rewrites the world and creates a new reality. She is a born storyteller with a strong interest in literature. Her interests include not only scientific treatises like the works of vitalism philosopher Henri Bergson, of the philosopher of phenomenology Maurice Merleau-Ponty or of the physicist Richard Feynman whose Six Easy Pieces, Essentials of Physics Explained offered an opinionated, enthusiastic, commonsensical and jargon-free presentation of physics. De Gruyter’s literary preferences tend towards the fantastic and the absurd. Among her favourite authors the artist lists Jorge Luis Borges, Georges Perec (especially the novel La Vie Mode d’emploi) and a surprising number of Russian writers such as Nicolai Gogol, Mikhael Bulgakov (The Master and Margarita) and Daniil Kharms (I sat on the roof). It is but a short step from the inconsistent logic of Perec’s chess pieces jumping around a Parisian apartment building or from Gogol’s story about a man who wakes up, discovers his nose is missing and sets off to find his independent olfactory organ to De Gruyter’s work.5 Voebe de Gruyter was born in The Hague in 1960. She was named after the then Congolese president, freedom fighter Joseph Kasavubu, to whom her parents thought she showed a strong resemblance at her birth. When she was six months old, her parents moved to the Belgian village of Averbode to escape the clutches of her grandmother – painter Margaretha Feuerstein, a pupil of the renowned Dutch artist Jan Toorop. Her grandfather was Jos de Gruyter, one of the most important Dutch art critics of the period, who 


Introduction in the late 1950s and early 1960s was the director of the Groninger Museum. ‘My grandmother dominated my father and his psychiatrist told him it would be best if he moved to another country (…) My grandmother didn’t seem to mind this, she just took a taxi from The Hague to Belgium. She had other peculiarities. If my father didn’t do what she asked she’d say, “Do it or I’ll go and sit under the table.” And never mind her age (…) she would go and sit under the table.’ The absurdity of such situations and the fact that her perceptions didn’t match those of her grandmother fed into Voebe de Gruyter’s later work. She felt compelled to seek connections in a reality which constantly challenged the laws of logic. ‘If we went to the beach in the summer (…) we had to wear hats and gloves, we were absolutely not allowed to catch cold. And she had her own way of seeing things. When I was staying with her she’d test me. Look at that dress, what colour is it? Then I’d say which colours I could see: brown, red, blue. No-no-no-no, she’d cry, stop, it’s orange, green, purple! All of them colours which weren’t there.’6 Voebe de Gruyter was not the only one infected by the strange reality she experienced at close hand; her younger brother, Jos de Gruyter, has made his name as an artist, producing absurd, humorous videos and installations with his companion Harald Thys. After her mother’s sudden and unexpected death, De Gruyer left secondary school to go to the drawing academy in Leuven where she took lessons in life drawing, anatomy and etching. She finally completed secondary school in the Netherlands and went on to the Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam. At the same time she studied Ancient Greek at evening classes and snuck into philosophy lectures at Amsterdam University. ‘I ended up enormously conflicted and dropped out. For a year I worked on what I thought was art in a squatted studio space. I made only three paintings in total, in a watercolour style, using gouache, more or less realistic, with a Rimbaud poem alongside and titles like Wailing Mask of the Roads.’ In 1992 she was admitted to the Rijksakademie, on the basis of, amongst other things, a photograph of a finger whose nail showed calcium-deficiency spots. The ring on the finger did not have a real stone but a photo of the same stone-like fingernail. During her stay at the Rijksakademie, her work began to take on its current form. This was after a period of producing ‘calculating works’, she recounts – semi-scientific diagrams in which she recorded things like the sleeping times of her friends or the colour of her own urine. At the same time, her work received rapid recognition. A photo of a dark jacket with dandruff was her breakthrough. ‘It is amazing that this is a book,’ Maria Barnas sighed during an editorial meeting about this first monograph of Voebe de Gruyter’s work. She is right. Much of De Gruyter’s work is difficult to capture in book form because of its ephemeral character. The artist went through her complete inventory and everything in her studio archives for the publication. Most of the works on paper were specially photographed or rephotographed. All of the texts in the works presented were translated into English — some by the artist herself. Almost all of the works were provided with explanatory notes. The first conversations about the book date back to 2007, when I worked with the artist for the first time as guest curator of the exhibition Drawing Typologies in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. The book’s structure grew organically. New, unexamined material from her archives turned up all the time, requiring classification. Originally the artist had designed a Gruyterian ground plan as a guiding principle for the book. It laid out her works geographically in built up and undeveloped areas. Then this principle was replaced by an ordering of the works according to a loose chronology and a certain thematic coherence. This structure was based


Introduction on the comprehensive interview given to Maria Barnas for this publication, which was woven through the book like a connecting thread. Ultimately this structure proved difficult to maintain. The development of De Gruyter’s multifaceted work turned out to be too capricious to allow itself to be captured within a chronological or thematic arrangement. For this reason, the selected works appear in alphabetical order. The resulting combination of systematic and coincidental most closely mirrors the artist’s own take on art. The alphabetical composition creates relatively accidental, unexpected connections between works which, at first sight, seem to have nothing in common or were separated by time and space. Furthermore, it was possible to alternate works which, at present exist only as texts, with finished concrete works, without imposing a hierarchy. Given that some of the couleur locale in the artist’s characteristic and often humorous combination of the Belgian dialect with Dutch was too complex to be captured in translation, the decision was made to include the original texts as well as the English versions. Short accompanying texts give information about the origin of the works. The conversations which the artist had with Maria Barnas also have a central place in the book. De Gruyter’s relationship to science, the ways her work takes shape, the artwork as thought model, and the matter of exhibiting her work, are examined successively. A brief list of exhibitions and a bibliography complete the publication. With thanks first of all to Voebe de Gruyter, for her stubborn, unpredictable, always surprising art. In keeping with the spirit of De Gruyter’s work, we should not regard this book as a finished product.

Notes: 1)

Cornel Bierens, ‘Net chips. Een interview met Voebe de Gruyter’, Metropolis M, no. 4, 1996. pp 22–29.


With her approach to art in which existing, seemingly everyday situations take on a strange meaning De Gruyter shows a connection to ‘holistic and non-logocentric vision’ of curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. In Documenta 13 she asked for more attention for things that had not been created as art objects but had come into being not through human action but through natural disasters, for example. ChristovBakargiev speaks in this context of the recognition of ‘the shapes and practices of knowing of all the animate and inanimate makers of the world, including people’.


Op. cit. (note 1).


Conversation between the artist and author, March 2012.




Op. cit. (note 1).





Maria Barnas in conversation with Voebe de Gruyter


On Art and Science It is a mild Spring evening. The man walking beside me says, ‘I am waiting for the hill.’ I could add that the city was dark and he was a big fellow, but if I do not provide the man and the sentence with a more detailed context, they remain blurred and vague against the background of a murky street. What in fact is a mild evening? Warmth is a relative notion. Thousands of light particles vibrate and when they do so with sufficient force, they generate the impression of warmth. But a single light particle on its own has nothing to do with temperature. It is neither hot nor cold. All the qualities we attribute to matter are a result of the way that we describe the behaviour of the most elementary particles. There is the surface layer, the outward appearance of things. You can try and grasp this level by describing it in words. But there will always be something you haven’t described with enough detail and precision, and there will always be an association that you didn’t allow sufficient space for the meaning to crystallize completely. And the more you go into things, the more you zoom in on the details, the vaguer the contours of the whole formed by the minute particles. Thus the notion of a particle alone, like the statement, ‘I am waiting for the hill’, only gives rise to evocative images. Take a closer look. At the end of the street is a slope leading to a bridge. It resembles a hill. The man walking next to me is holding a bike. His girlfriend, who is keen to hop on the back has asked, ‘Why don’t you get on your bike?’ We are slowly approaching the hill. It is a mild Spring evening. The man says, ‘I am waiting for the hill.’ Our understanding of our surroundings requires coherence – a frame within which we can understand the world. Our senses are focused on it, and our perceptions are constantly searching for patterns we can recognize. Anyone, however, who focuses on an object and pays careful attention to its specific features will notice that the surroundings blur at the corners of their eyes. The outside layer of reality disintegrates literally before one’s eyes. It divides itself and is at the same time indivisible because it cannot be captured. Physicist Robbert Dijkgraaf said on this subject, ‘I think that space as we experience it is an illusion. Reality as it appears to us is only a wafer-thin layer of the total reality. I cannot imagine that the world as we now see it is a reflection of the world at the smallest scale. As such, this is speculative, but I suspect that, when reduced to the smallest scale, the world is composed of ones and zeroes. And what we experience as space and time exists solely on our own human scale.’ Voebe de Gruyter does not only study the ideas formulated by scientists like Dijkgraaf; she attributes characteristics to them that she derives from human behaviour. She is continually preoccupied with pointing out patterns, in as far as they are visible, both in human behaviour and at a more elementary level. She suspects the existence of a hidden world behind or under the superficial visible structures and explores her hypotheses in photos, drawings, texts and videos. Her work is a great recording machine that reveals and analyses those domains that attract her curiosity. The Chewing Gum drawings of 1994, for instance, she explored In  the notion that information can penetrate small particles. She imagined





that the sentences people spoke when they were chewing gum ended up in the gum. Figuratively speaking, but also physically, words are composed of sound and sound is composed of vibrations. Vibrations, according to De Gruyter, can linger. When someone on the street spits out his gum, a strong sense of romantic longing can also end up on the street next to a song – just like that, in a spat-out piece of chewing gum. De Gruyter used her fingernails to scratch chewing gum very carefully from the ground and stuck it to graph paper. The gum is surrounded by ‘text clouds’ on a manageable sheet of paper. One text cloud is from a Turkish passerby, another from a cyclist with a Walkman singing along to an English song. The clouds are reminiscent of lobes of the brain, but also resemble stains. They are free-floating forms, given meaning when they come into contact with one another. Here you have a subset of fields which generally don’t coincide and end up even overlapping in the piece. The area of overlap is the most exciting in terms of storytelling. Although the terms and story elements have been shaped by De Gruyter, she doesn’t know herself beforehand how they are going to end. What will happen when the stories coincide is unpredictable. Even on the page, the picture stories have no conclusion, because however carefully they are formulated, they are mainly intellectual: the reader doesn’t actually enter the story as they read it on paper. Most of the stories exist only in the mind and their success depends on whether you are prepared to use your imagination. Voebe de Gruyter’s work is never finished. It exists simultaneously and in various stages of development. It exists in the physical space, which – even if we call it an illusion – is the most real we have at our disposal, and it exists on paper and only comes to life in the mind of the viewer. This multiple presence looks suspiciously like a piece of string, which is a single object but which can take on different forms. The laws and rules that De Gruyter formulates reverberate like strings strummed by the environment and the perceptions of the artist, and crucially, with the inner images of the viewer. Do we learn to be in closer touch with reality as a result? Perhaps. It is more probable, however, that whatever layer of reality we choose to enter on, a new universe opens up if we ask the right questions. Voebe de Gruyter asks these questions and offers provisional conclusions. They vibrate, and they are about to change direction. MB:

VdG: Less back then. I did have a kind of scientific curiosity, though. I’d set to work in a very experimental way. For example, my cat might walk across a television guide with dirty paws and I’d allow my viewing to be guided by the dirty paw prints. The sum of what I watched turned into the structure of a John Cage-inspired story. At the time I also made sketches of my own urine. I kept a week-long account of how many centiliters I peed and what color the pee was. I made a diagram of that too, with colored pencils. It was one of the things that got me into the Rijksakademie. The drawing looked quite formal but had an intimate source. The personal element together with the formal appearance of the work led to some heated discussions during my interview. MB:

Where does your need for structure and order come from?

VdG: I think I need diagrams and ordering principles to balance out the way I experience reality. One thing that formed me as a person and as an artist was the sudden loss of my mother. We were very close. She was hit by lightning on a summer’s afternoon as she was digging up potatoes. She was holding onto a wheelbarrow without rubber handles when the lightning struck. There was hardly a cloud in the sky. But the lightning struck with a very hard clap. I wasn’t there. I’d gone to England for the first time, with my father. My two youngest brothers were home. The clap was so hard, the teacups fell off the table. My mother died instantly. I was fourteen and had decided I wanted to get in touch with my family in England: my father’s cousin. They hadn’t spoken for thirty years. We had just moved to an old house in the country which needed a lot of work. My mother wanted to carry on working while I went to England with my father. I’d bought her a pair of jeans and a Renoir poster. My mother was an artist too. Because it had been my decision to go away, I felt responsible for the turn of events. I learned that the world can change completely from one moment to the next. Major changes don’t announce themselves. You can’t make plans, you can’t predict things. I have come to believe in openness as a result. MB:

Are you looking for a new reality through your work?


Reality is my material. I can knead it, but before I begin kneading, the question ‘what is reality actually made of?’ always pops up. What’s going on with the very smallest particles, the vibrating strings, the atoms which cluster together and the space between them? Knowledge of the physical make-up of what you see has enormous impact on your thought-processes – you discover a new reality behind the surface of the visible. Much of my work is inspired by physical phenomena and theories. Scientists are always specialized in a particular branch, they say you can’t translate quantum laws to this world. ‘We live in a Newtonian world.’ But I see absurd coincidences everywhere, information which is present at several places at the same time. It gets me thinking.


How do you integrate scientific theories into your work?

How did you set about this exactly?

VdG: I had a lot of people around me who kept precise records. A friend of mine, Jeroen, didn’t have much to do and got completely involved in the sleep program I assigned him. He took catnaps of seven minutes and we recorded those too.


Did you read a lot of scientific books at the time too?

What did your first works consist of?

VdG: I’ve always been interested in why and how patterns and structures form. Who or what has determined the appearance of my surroundings? I looked for structure in the whimsical nature of it all, a kind of regulating principle. If I’m walking through a forest, I wonder why the trees are lined up in a particular order, why there’s suddenly a gap. What underlies the particular positioning and spacing? Before I went to the Rijksakademie, I tried to calculate the kind of random pattern you see in a forest. I decided to record sleeping times and convert them into graphs which yielded drawings like the pattern in a forest. MB:





VdG: I read up on string theory for my work Cable Theory, for example. It is a theory about the tiniest particles that exist in modern physics. Scientists say it can explain every physical phenomenon. For a long time, modern physics was made up of two incompatible principles: Albert Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity on the one hand, and quantum mechanics on the other. The theory of relativity investigates the universe on the largest scale; quantum mechanics focuses on the tiniest particles of matter, down to the subatomic. These theories were at the root of the enormous advances in physics over the past hundred years and helped understand the expanding universe and the internal structure of elementary particles, but the two theories were incompatible. String theory, which doesn’t work with separate units like electrons and quarks but with miniscule ‘elastic bands’ which can vibrate in every possible way, changed this. In this model, general relativity and quantum mechanics even depend on each other. It provides a unified framework in which the very smallest as well as the very largest can be examined. I used some things that happened during my research. For example, I was reading the book The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene in the local government offices in Vorst (Brussels) as I sat waiting to apply for an official document. I became fascinated by marks on the parquet floor caused by moving the metal cupboards and desks. Then I noticed the telephone and computer cables coming out from under and behind the civil servants’ desks and recognized the strings I was reading about. I tried to put myself in the place of the people who worked in that office every day and imagined that they must stare at the ground a lot when escaping into their own thoughts. They might daydream they were on a warm island. Instead of taking them to a warm island, I led the office workers along the cords and cables under their desks to the world of strings. Once they knew about string theory, the people who worked there could descend into the coiled-up spaces underneath their desks. The Planck Scale begins under the desk – this is used to bring the very smallest particles into the picture – so that even the ultra-tiny can be examined. On the desks you’ve got the World Wide Web, underneath you have the world of strings. We sit there in our reality in between the two. I took photos in the offices, of the floors and the area that starts under the desks. I encountered a universe of cables and cords and imposed the ideas from string theory upon it. I noted my insights on the photographs using a pencil, and did things like passing a cable through a scientific reproduction of a string. On one of the photos I penciled ‘stretched out as well as coiled-up space’ on the wooden floor. MB:

flash. I see the spots of light as proof of light’s return. The thought that images are already implicit in reality excites me. Like in science, I want to describe the images that occur to me in my own way and use the descriptions to find and identify patterns. My works Wit Water (1996), Chewing Gum and Its Stubborn Persistence (1994), T he Action of Matchmaking Photons in Bars, Secret Export of Stories (2009), and Au Coiffeur arabe (2009) are examples of this. By adopting scientific thought processes I create conditions in which images can come into existence. For the piece The Production of Oestrogen Clouds (2007), I got a lot of information from two bio-engineers at Ghent university. I was inspired by the invisible workings of hormone-mimicking chemical bonds (pops: persistent organic pollutants) and the fact that these particles operate on a large scale and influence us all.

A strange thing is happening here: Planck’s Scale is being equated with human scale. Knowledge that doesn’t tally with what you see leads to a kind of distortion. Do you deliberately seek out the tension between the abstract and the concrete?

VdG: I try to give the intangible a body, like in the piece The Action of Matchmaking Photons in Bars (2006). The work came into being after I’d talked to Professor Kobus Kuypers and he gave me a tour of his lab. I thought it was wonderful that they were researching the restraints of light. It is a way of giving something intangible like light plasticity. The very thought is exciting. The photos I took in the café are real spots of light. I had stuck reflective tape on the people and the interior and took pictures using the






The Action of Matchmaking Photons in Bars

The Action of Matchmaking Photons in Bars


The Action Of MatchMaking Photons In Bars In paintings from earlier times we often see images of arrow-shooting cupids flying around people in love. People then already felt they were surrounded and touched by small ‘tickles’. Cupids were nothing more than the embodiment of matchmaking photons. Nowadays, one can find a high density of matchmaking photons doing the same work in bars and cafés with mirrors. The mirrors reflect the images, but the images you see are compositions of light-photons travelling towards and through you at a speed of 300,000 km per second. During collisions between those millions of repetitive reflected photons, one becomes physically aware of certain images. Some images feel physically better than others. In fact, because of certain collisions, you are more or less prompted in how and where to look. And in this subtle way you are guided to the person you would like to meet .

The Action of Matchmaking Photons in Bars De werking van relatie-fotonen in cafés, 2006 Series of colour photographs 29.7 × 42 cm and 42 × 29.7 cm

The Action of Matchmaking Photons in Bars De werking van relatie-fotonen in café’s, 2006 Text

The Action of Matchmaking Photons in Bars De werking van relatie-fotonen in café’s, 2006 Series of colour photographs

The Action of Matchmaking Photons in Bars De werking van relatie-fotonen in café’s, 2006 Series of colour photographs


The Action of Matchmaking Photons in Bars De werking van relatie-fotonen in café’s, 2006 Series of colour photographs



Artist’s Frequent Yawning

Artist’s Frequent Yawning


Artist’s Frequent Yawning, 2009 Pencil and acrylics on paper 70 × 100 cm




Assemblies of Doubt

Assemblies of Doubt


My “entrance”


= all the white

Cracking floors and crumbling walls; danger of collapse.

assemblies of doubt will rise from the ground after some time and float. This is dependent upon of the curing process.

doubts = all the white

the length Confluence of doubt

Assemblies of Doubt at My Entrance Twijfelconglomeraties voor mijn ingang, 2001 Felt tip pen, acrylics on black and white photo 30.4 × 63.4 cm



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From Action of Matchmaking  

From Action of Matchmaking Photons to Zen Buddhists’ Bad Breath by Voebe de Gruyter

From Action of Matchmaking  

From Action of Matchmaking Photons to Zen Buddhists’ Bad Breath by Voebe de Gruyter

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