Why dwell in the Blue Mountain I laugh without answering Silence of water and blossoming flowers World beyond the red dust of living Li Po (701 – 762)
One summer’s day I am talking to Ron Bernstein, a friend of Ine Schröder’s, on the Annex site of the Van Eyck academie in Maastricht. We are talking about Schröder, who like him was a resident at the academy years ago, and meanwhile we are looking at garden sprinklers. As the water from the perforated nozzles revolves in circles, it forms a hedge that moves systematically across the flower garden. We express our appreciation of the sculptural gesture that such sprinklers can make. What makes them sculptural is the idea that sprinklers are planted in their surroundings without being influenced by them. They are created by a product designer to keep on making the same pre-programmed movement. They are close to the ground, but are unable to interact with nature in the way that living organisms do. Only through human intervention can sprinklers be set so that the ground receives no more water than it can take.
A museum is a similar system. It always ‘works’ according to a fixed pattern – but does it know when it should let nature take its course? And, with the spluttering sound of garden sprinklers in the background, a conversation about Schröder, museum intuition, and time follows.
Schröder was the kind of artist that learned by doing, impulsively and without any planning. In between her explosive, creative power and the museum’s thoughtfulness is the unbridgeable phenomenon of the museum’s production time. This is a period of some three years that covers the contemplative run-up to an exhibition on Schröder’s intuitive way of working, in which it sometimes took her just a few minutes to make something. She was a mystical individualist who was not guided by events in society, and was able to put her own artistry in perspective. Unlike many other contemporaries she had no high expectations of her career. She was not hostile, or paranoid. Rather than quietly hoping that people around her could do anything for her, she often literally cared for others. She was realistic in her expectations of everyday life, including her work process. She understood the flexibility of an artistic thought, and when the energy of an action had run out. She knew that the world was not waiting for her to do anything, and that she was doing things no- one had ever asked her to do. Rather than lug her work around from gallery to gallery, or push it in any direction, she followed a particular current that she referred to in her sketchbooks as ‘vital energy’:
‘Loving small things – people, animals, plants – maybe it’s proliferation. Preferably not, but if there’s no other way, I’ll try to adapt, like I’m again doing now. Always a process of discovering myself, always probing whether or not I’ll be happy.’
This probing of happiness was not some figure of speech, but was actually a material and physical affair involving wood or fabric, although it could also involve sitting at a table for days on end, with a pencil in her hand and a piece of paper in front of her. In her studio, Schröder sought happiness by seeking the resistance of tangible materials, as if she were using gravity and the passing of time to test her state of mind. In that sense her working process was a daily exploration, in search of a balance between the manageable contours of her studio and the boundlessness of the outside world. After each test, successful or not, the results of her search flowed back out through the apertures in the wooden palisades. Her objects were never made to bear the burden of a final statement.
Given that energy flow, there was nothing radical or rigorous about Schröder’s decision not to keep her works intact. It was a consequence of her sober lifestyle, and her desire for new energy was quite simply greater than her desire for fame or possessions. This attitude to work was the basis for the paradox that the museum created in this exhibition: because Schröder did not seek the limelight, the museum is doing it instead. Her practice did not exude any particular museum-like quality, did not prove itself on a large or international scale, and was called to a halt early on by the temporariness of life on earth. The museum wants to elaborate on this relatively short life, because Schröder’s work so effortlessly describes the present, and has interfaces with the experiences of young artists. Here the museum seeks a balance between responsibility for the work and desire to translate it into contemporary terms. And, in the Van Eyck Academy garden, I too am looking for the point at which her footsteps cease and mine begin – for casting Schröder in a particular light is like running a flower garden without having green fingers. I want to water her, but how can you tell how much water she needs?
If written in Dutch, Li Po’s poem Red dust could have been a page from one of Schröder’s sketchbooks. It touches the essence of her note on the presence or absence of happiness, and offers a glimpse of her worldly-wise philosophy of life, close to nature and unadapted to the standards that a society imposes on itself. It’s no coincidence that Po was a Taoist: Schröder’s life and work echo this ancient natural philosophy, even though she herself may not have been aware of it.
Tao is a nameless thing, It means a path or a way, and is described as the origin and the destination in one. Yet it is not bound to any form, and can only be approximately understood. For Taoists it is important to love the things around you by abandoning any attempt to control them. You don’t interfere in other people’s future plans, you have no opinion about the weather, and you don’t try to come across as an indispensable part of the whole.
Modern interpretations of this philosophy are marked by a detached attitude to life in which your personal happiness is less dependent on material things, status and expectations. Although detachment sounds like a prohibition, it is in fact an instruction. Letting go should lead to a life lived to the full, in which the individual merges into the natural order of the world. Although Taoism is about detachment, its challenge is not to throw everything of value overboard. It calls on people to accept that all facets of life – both material and immaterial – are quite simply interwoven. So a detached life does not by definition mean living without company, or without cherishing material things, but aiming for a life in the full awareness that there is always something going on that influences your state of mind. There are always social, political or economic factors that make it possible – or impossible – to cherish people or things.
The increasing interest in the Western world in beliefs such as Taoism is connected with the impact Schröder’s archive has had on the curators of this exhibition and a new generation of artists and art-lovers: we seek a role model with a sense of intuition.
In one of the few films in her archives, her intuition is just beneath the surface. It is a recording of a performance by Schröder in Puen d’r Vuurmond, sjat in Maastricht. In the film we can see her moving briskly back and forth between knotted pieces of fabric, string and other materials, while an actor declaims a monologue. She pegs a piece of fabric to a washing line, then looks at it doubtfully and rather unhappily for some seconds. Just as she is about to turn away, she decides on the spur of the moment to give the fabric a flick of her hand. The piece of fabric remains there, folded over the washing line, and Schröder is already moving on to her next action. In her sketchbooks she prepared herself for such actions by noting in strong pencil strokes and keywords what was to be done:
stretch string fold up piles of fabric toss over shoulder peg to washing line sweep together bits of wood
The instructions that can be seen in Schröder’s notebooks, photographs and films were intended for herself. But her numerous tips are now the last hope for a new generation that, through Schröder, seeks to come closer to nature and leave earthly concerns such as fame, fortune, success and power behind, in return for a sense of balance that is hard to put into words.
What is striking here is the difference between the time when Schröder was doing this and the present day. She cast off pressure to perform at a time when she could not create a digital footprint for herself, or piggyback on art institutions’ promotion machines from her isolated studio. She was not financially dependent on her art, but only because she embraced the relatively meagre conditions of a life-with-less as her reality.
There are many arguments that can explain the pursuit of such a simple life, ranging from spirituality and health to striking a better balance between life and work, financial stability or reducing stress and consumption. What such desires have in common is that they are based on a wish to get everything out of life, while having as few possessions as possible. Schröder was no stranger to such a wish. Although she gathered a great deal of material around her, it was interchangeable and of indefinable value. Once she had completed a work, she would ask herself if there was any point in keeping it physically present. It would stand on a shelf in her studio for a while, so that she could look at it and thing about whether she still felt inspired by it. But her usual answer to this question is easy to guess, if you compare the wealth of her archives with the rare event of coming across physically surviving works of hers.
Not only can the general public and artists learn something from Tao, but so can the Bonnefantenmuseum when reflecting on itself as a place where objects are kept and displayed. A thought experiment about attachment thus suddenly makes us aware that the Bonnefantenmuseum is a product of Western culture and history; and the West has more than once been accused by the Eastern world of a lack of access to true knowledge. Perhaps this is why we are drawn to Taoism as we seek a new relationship with the museum. Detachment could raise us to a higher level as viewers of art, given the three kinds of people that Taoism roughly distinguishes: those who will do anything to survive; at a slightly higher level, those who go into raptures about art; and at the top a small group of people who are able to detach themselves.
Although Tao is all-embracing, and hence embraces the museum, Taoists may be offended by a comparison between the two. Yet I find it interesting to think about the museum as a nameless place. No more historical ballast, no vanity, no overweening desires – for Taoists are also quite clear when it comes to desires. If you have no desires, you see their mystery; if you do have desires, you see their form. And I think this is the very question the museum should be asking itself: is it the mystery of Ine Schröder that it desires, or her form?
The analogy between Tao and the museum can be taken further. Tao is unutterable, and if you talk about the path, or the way, you do not name the path itself. Is what you call the museum not really the museum? Does the word ‘museum’ only express a movement – going with the flow of genuine reality? Physical objects are playing an ever smaller role in the life of the museum, which in twenty- five years’s time may no longer even exist in the physical form that we now know. So it is not so hard to imagine the museum in the transition from form to mystery, as an unused, inactive void – because you can often only see what is happening when nothing is happening any more.
With Tao as its compass and Schröder’s archive as its guide, the museum is embarking on a transformation. From a rational tradition we are now appealing to the intuition of the museum machine. With Schröder’s explosiveness in mind, the curators of this exhibition are trying to postpone or even avoid a judgement about their own actions, in an attempt to make Schröder’s impulsiveness tangible.
The museum is thus asking itself a fundamental question not just about its own form, but also about the future of curating. The curators of the exhibition will soon be drawing their ground plans, in which like practiced Taoists they try to let themselves follow their consciences, without regard to rules or conventions. They are going with the flow, which in Tao is expressed by the oxymoron wu- wei: action without action. The concept expresses the realisation that movement and transformation are crucial to a fulfilling life, but that rest is also always required.
Taoists use water to emphasise the notion of wu-wei – for water always yields, taking on the shape of the container, and so is open to interpretation. It is unpresumptuous, it is gentle, and yet it wears away mountains. It feeds plants, and enables fruits and flowers to mature. And with this idea in mind, I cannot help thinking that tomorrow’s curator will be a swimmer – someone who does nothing, yet leaves nothing undone.
A swimmer cannot really describe what he does to keep afloat. I find a starting point for the notion of the curator as a swimmer when I visit Schröder’s home and studio, where her partner Ben now lives. Hanging above a built-in bookcase are three of her coloured wooden mural palisades. They vary somewhat in height, and I’m struck by how the objects are distorted by the prominent perspective. When I ask Ben about this, he immediately takes one of the works off the wall. He turns it round to reveal a number scribbled on the work in pencil. Schröder often did this on the back of her works: a number indicating a particular distance from the ground. This was supposedly the ideal height at which to hang it, and served as instructions for entering her world of spatiality, lightness and transparency. But Ben, who often built he heavier structures, feels free to ignore these instructions. And why not? For it is hard to think of Schröder – who never judged, and who embraced her own unreasonableness as a working method – as someone who would burden her survivors with a constricting approach to a number she had noted down so hastily.
And yet it is very tempting to rectify such instructions in the museum, for all the alterations made by the museum are held under a magnifying glass. But something that doesn’t bother Ben at home is a full-fledged art-history discipline and a new museology that seek to see such exhibitions in terms of an undervalued woman, so that the museum should display as little authority as possible in order to make clear how much value it attaches to rectification of history. But perhaps this keenness to obey Schröder’s instructions is unjustified – for even her mural palisades are hung at the supposedly ‘wrong’ height, almost squashed up against the ceiling, it turns out that her work by no means has to depend on her own instructions.
Schröder’s instructions can also be seen as invitations to weigh desire for form against desire for energy. If you hammer a nail into wood, you may loosen another strip. You can’t just hang up the fabric without making a hole in it. If as a curator you are willing to acknowledge the unreasonableness of your own choices, then conflicting timelines – such as the time when Schröder threw a piece of fabric over a washing line and the time when the Bonnefantenmuseum produces an exhibition about her – need not rule each other out. Complementary and independent, the two methods form reality, just like light and dark, shape and amorphousness, yin and yang.
The two timelines reflect the many paradoxes in life. Life is easy to understand, and yet no-one understands it; people are able to act by not acting, to know by not knowing, and to give expert answers by keeping silent. Just like Schröder, the museum can lead from behind.
Translation by Kevin Cook
Published in Uncorrected Proof, 2019. ISBN: 978-90-72251-79-4, commissioned by Bonnefantenmuseum Maastricht.
This text was written for Timo Demollin’s solo exhibition ‘Constant Continuity’ at Punt WG Amsterdam 2017.
Before writing the mark up for the museum’s website, the developer drew up a grid with boxes inside of it. Each box is a container again, for placeholder images and “Lorum Ipsum” paragraphs. Later on, they will be replaced by the actual content retrieved from the database. The grid exemplifies the mise en abyme of HO2006/1-169, a segment of the museum’s collection consisting of 168 boxed artefacts, stored on shelves inside the museum depot. His grid helped the developer to lay the foundation for a code that frames HO2006/1-169 in a digital display. His code becomes a distribution system that covers the space in between the database and the public.
The developer needs to decide what names to give to the boxes in his grid. This is important, as some elements in code language are more semantic than others. A <header> element for example, differs from a <div> in the way that both the browser and the developer know what the <header> might be, and where it goes on the page. A <div> can be anything. If the developer would only use non-semantic elements, the Internet would become an exclusive encounter of hypertext documents interpreted by browsers. They would only be displaying arbitrary content to the user, beyond the developer’s control. The reusable and general <div> — short for division — doesn’t seem like an attractive choice. A <header> mimics the top of a page, whereas a <div> is self-referential and difficult to control. It makes the <header> more likely to appear on a museum’s website than a <div>. Should the developer go with the semantic option, it would reflect the bureaucratic systems of the institution, and enhance the authorship that the museum has tried to avoid. In digital and physical realms of the museum, semantic or meaningful distribution systems became prejudiced devices that broadcast the argument that cultural objects are important enough to maintain.
The <div> on the other hand, has a voice of its own, communicating all kinds of potential meanings, going around the institution’s preferred frame. But even the <div> doesn’t leave the object untouched. Whether the developer choses the specific arrangement of the museum or an unspecified one, every distribution of HO2006/1-169 exposes it to a reckless moment that challenges its current condition: when a museum’s data is siphoned off little by little, the experience is always transformative.
Our relationships with objects are built displacement upon displacement, until the illusion of some sort of coherent trajectory rises in our minds. In the case of HO2006/1-169, the object travelled between exhibition spaces in wooden frames that divide the imagery into pragmatic segments, matching the dimensions of the truck for efficient transportation. Upon their arrival, the pieces were carefully re-edited onto the museum walls before showing them to an audience. This process of singling out and joining back together reminds of the tray in which the objects from the database are collected and delivered at the front office. The tray is part of an automated storage and retrieval system, commonly used in warehousing logistics but a relative novelty in museums. It’s easy to see why its use is appealing for museums, as it maximizes storage space and cleverly replaces the human hand. But as a consequence of reducing personal involvement, this system doesn’t raise self-critical questions, nor does it reflect on its raison d’être. Instead, it preserves the storage room as much as it fails to carry it over into the future. It’s a high-tech futuristic system, used for an ancient principle of preservation. This discord between preservation and neglect is further amplified by the very nature of the inventory itself: HO2006/1-169 is a set of woodblocks — now muted objects, once turning every printed copy into a representation of the referents. In prints, the narrative is cut from the object and travels in unexpected ways, without supervision of the institution.
This confronts the developer with a difficult task. If he starts to feel like he is losing control, the museum will fear that things might disappear, which is exactly what can happen to H02006/1-169. It can withdraw from the public after boxing up on itself. Its audience will be redirected to representations, mediated by tangible and digital containers within the museum’s infrastructure.
It is in moments of temporal meaninglessness, like the developer’s grid, that the question emerges whether we should spend so much time defending the value of semantic, meaningful elements, at the cost of the non-semantic, meaningless ones. Why do we assume that title cards stick closer to the meaning of the object than inventory numbers, when all language, coded or not, is a trace of a calculated move? Every conversion from one domain into another can have a transformative effect on the narrative of an object. And if that is the case, it becomes impossible to store and retrieve without acknowledging the possibility of deception and recovery; of meaning lost and gained in every kind of transfer.