'ET DIEU CREA HENDRIK VERMEULEN - ON THE METAMORPHOSIS OF THE THINKING LANDSCAPE'
‘What was it?’
‘A meteorite that came down’
‘A visit from the inhabitants of a cosmic world.’
‘However that may be, in our small country the miracle of miracles appeared—the Zone.’
From Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979)
A crucial turning point in the history of evolution is the great extinction that was caused by the impact of a huge meteorite that fell down in the Caribbean, northwest of Yucatan in Mexico. Researchers claim that at the time huge clouds of dust were created that blocked the sunlight, resulting in a sudden and radical climate change. As we all suspect, dinosaurs—but not only they—were wiped from the face of the earth, leaving room for an entire series of new land animals.
Somewhere in Africa, five million years ago, apemen separated from the chimpanzee, spread over the Earth and learned how to use language and stone tools, control fire, paint shells and cave walls, and invented the wheel—not necessarily in this order, but in any case a series of skills that made it possible to live and survive in often extreme circumstances.
In the course of the next millions of years the come, Homo sapiens evolved, knowing man, ‘conscious’ man, who lives under the stars and bequeaths us his views on the universe—in recent centuries in the form of the standard theory, the Big Bang theory, superstring and evolution theory. It is the same man/woman who racks his/her brain over the question to what extent humans were created by the universe or the universe as it appears to us was created by him/her. Or possibly both.
Today, for some these scientific theories are at odds with the Biblical creation narrative in Genesis. Even to date attempts continue to reconcile science and the Bible . Thus in his book Genesis and the Big Bang the American physicist Gerald Schroeder claims that if God moved at the speed of light—no big deal for Him—the six days of the creation would correspond with the approximately fourteen billion years the universe has existed, taking into account the slowing down of time the Creator would experience according to Einstein’s theory of relativity.
But no matter what stories we make up, and no matter how improbable or impossible they may look, it is a privilege that we, in the course of our conscious existence—how brief that may be—are able to take in and contemplate these phenomena.
The same is true of Hendrik Vermeulen’s universe, in which the artist, averse to scientific of Biblical theories, creates his own creation narrative, which is characterized by it’s own peculiar symbolism and in which the artist confronts us with the remnants of a world after the entire universe exploded due to hypercivilization. We need to think only of the film Stalker (1979) by the Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky, which starts with three characters—the Writer, a Physicist and Stalker himself—meeting in a bar before setting out on their trip to the so-called Zone. As the film begins, the Zone is characterized as the product of hypercivilization; the term is used for an unspecified place where distance and time do not exist. We follow the characters on their voyage through a nature that is ruled and dominated by industry—a voyage that is like a philosophical quest.
In Vermeulen’s robust, eroded landscapes—which often focus on an object (for example a spring, a wheel, a stone, a piece of rock, a staircase, a chair, a ventilator) or a sign (such as a cross, an eight, a pentagon or a hexagon), and only rarely on humans—though all the more on human actions and the traces of their presence!—it always seems as if something threatening has just happened or is about to happen.
But mine were wings that could not rise to that,
save that, with this, my mind, was stricken through
by sudden lightning bringing what it wished.
All powers of high imagining here failed.
But like a wheel that steadily revolves
Thus my will and senses moved.
While late at night I look at the proposal for the cover of this book, I stumble across the above passage from Dante’s Divina Commedia (1320). ‘Waking up’ after his wanderings and his voyage through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise from the dark depths of the unconscious, the writer contemplate the universe again with these words: ‘But like a wheel that steadily revolves/Thus my will and senses moved’... Words that seem written for Hendrik Vermeulen and this book.
A power that idealizes and is in decline at the same time, paradoxes and antipodes combined in a single symbiotic whole as the victory after a duel between Heaven and Hell (the staircase literally connects Heaven and Earth/Heaven and Hell), between illusion and decline, between God and Satan, between renewal and destruction. These are just a few of the thoughts Hendrik Vermeulen’s oeuvre stir in me. Vermeulen’s work comprises an interesting dialectic that does not provoke unrest, but results in a remarkable tranquillity, no matter how stormy the events that preceded the work (both in the artist’s studio, at the exhibition/in the image itself). As if it can only be like this/is like this.
A forlornness that brings hope seems to be a global allegory for this unique oeuvre that comprises drawings and sculptures, as well as panels. No matter how ‘euphoric’ or ‘ideal’, time and again the work seems to evoke a sense of desolation. With this both melancholic and euphoric intent, Vermeulen remains faithful to both his own universe and style. In a certain sense the desolation is so desolate that it can only turn into its opposite and become/be as it were utopian.
It is remarkable that the transience is not merely rendered allegorically and turned into an image (i.e. it is not merely represented as such), but in the complete oeuvre it develops precisely as a single elaborate allegorical thought and an imaginary world, as if it related to and comprised everything that happened just before or after the ‘destruction’ and resurrection of things. In that sense the transient element (which is obvious in for example the remnants depicted: scraps, nuts for bolts, crevices, steaming heaps, smoke, a rock with microphones,...) is the only thing that is accurate and perfect. Inadequacy and imperfection are notwithstanding the principal ingredients of this oeuvre; they constitute a continuity that makes it possible achieve the ‘final’ work—all of Vermeulen’s drawings are characterized by a gust of incompleteness and they combine meticulously finished fragments with unfinished ones that seem to have been drawn faster than thinking or even the light.
To quote Walter Benjamin: ‘In God’s world the allegory awakes’—for a world that surrenders to destruction as the dessert of human existence and its civilization, finds its apotheosis in God’s creation (therefore: Et Dieu créa l’ascenseur; the title of the book may be intended to be frivolous, it is also an artistic and philosophical statement).
It is generally acknowledged that Benjamin precisely praises life with a dark and melancholic counterpoint. Like with the great tragedians, it’s not just about merely naming (or in this case showing) things as such: it’s about representing them allegorically, imaging them, turning them into an image. It’s about the landscape-like qualities and the transience thereof in and of the image within an hypertechnological era that is dominated by humans, about the question how detailed this will be shown, or perhaps not at all.
Every item is thus charged and overcharged with so many meanings and symbolism that things no longer radiate this symbolism, but simply are/have become that into which the artist has turned them: a triumph of subjectivity, personality and self-will, averse to trends and fashion. Rapture creates as it were a force that designs forms, creates and idealizes (in a destructive and constructive manner).
No man’s land
The rapture of creation—and in Vermeulen’s case that involves drawing every day almost obsessively or somehow being busy with drawing—creates a zone (ZONA— it is for that matter no coincidence that this is an important concept in Vermeulen’s oeuvre with which the artist not only seems to refer to Tarkovsky’s masterpiece Stalker from 1979, but also to a sort of no man’s land: nameless, indefinable scenes) in which the alienation from reality reigns supreme. In this indeterminate zone, everything is subjected to two forces that are active simultaneously: one (movement) is a very earthly force and pulls everything down, towards the bottom, towards the depth, whereas the other one (movement) transcends materiality and the earthly, only to dissolve in as it were a void... A horizontal movement involves a vertical one.
It strikes us that in the drawings there is often a space that surrounds things, an emptiness, a vacuum that surrounds the scene and presents it as a space within space (and within the space of the sheet of paper and the space of this publication, which is conceived as a sketchbook). This undermines the indeterminate character, the vastness that continually recreates itself, as well as the vacuum.
‘Therefore the merciful angels often invented
figures, signs, shapes and sounds and presented them
to us, mortals, who are unfamiliar with them
as well as bewildered, for they mean nothing
in ordinary language, but through the supreme
admiration of our reason they result in
a continual study of and the subsequent
respect and love of the incomprehensible.’
Johannes Reuchlin, De arte cabalistica, quoted in Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum
Though there are certainly no merciful angels in Vermeulen’s uncanny works (once there is the word DIEU in mirror writing in one of the drawings, and we can sense the aura and the destruction that came with the Fall of the angels), he uses a remarkable, typical and mysterious sign system that refers to contemporary semiotics. It was devised by the artist himself and introduces us at once, with a single glance, in the imaginary world of Umberto Eco and his way of thinking.
Even though in Vermeulen’s works there is never a real or direct reference to time, the concept of time is very crucial in them. In his mainly black and white landscapes, which are mostly rendered as fragments or parts, and in which colour appears only sporadically, infinity seems to rule: we constantly have the feeling that we are in the middle of a drawing where all sorts of things have happened and are about to happen... As if the artist teleports us in time to one particular fragment of his endless artistic stream of consciousness. In doing so, the drawing does not merely function as a handwriting, but also as a way of thinking and working in an associative manner, like a diary, like a palimpsest of the drawn and drawing memory.
In the Ghent Altarpiece, the fountain is made up of a hexagon. The most famous example of a hexagram is the Seal of Solomon or the Shield of David. In Vermeulen’s work, the hexagram represents power, especially the power of industry over the landscape (cf. the nut mentioned above). As a hexagram consists of two overlapping triangles, it is also the symbol of unity in dualism. The Pentagon (which houses the US Department of Defence) is based on the geometrical figure with the same name. Pentagons thus refer to a militaristic element.
An eight-shaped figure on its side symbolizes infinity. A aeroplane refers to time and space. Staircases connect Heaven and Earth, the world above and the one underneath. The chair refers to the artist, to God, to the creative force. Deus creator omnium.
Arrows appear to indicate a direction, to point to something, to focus, to highlight, to confuse us, to undermine a predictable way of thinking, to generate movement and mobility, to turn time into a living entity in the work.
The landscape functions as a plinth and as the subject of the drawing, of the images. Vermeulen generates meaning through the way and the materiality he renders these. He discloses that he frequently draws in the open air, as a confrontation with the landscape itself and with all its elements. Outside he can also mix graphite with earth, with water. But sometimes the drawing turns into a collage. Sometimes the graphite mixes with charcoal, water colour, and vice versa. Thinking is the result of doing. Decisions are made quickly.
Some drawings can be inverted in order to enhance the sense of spatiality, others serve as a preliminary study for paintings, sculptures, performances, other drawings. Burn marks appear in them, because some of the water colours are dried near the fire to be able continue work on them quickly. Sometimes it rains on a drawing. The colours are invariably earthly.
This book is conceived as a sketchbook that is meant to preserve and present the intimacy and vastness of the drawings. No matter how small the drawings, they promptly evoke an entire world—sometimes Mondrian gazed for hours on end at the stars, only to render them afterwards on the spot with just a few lines.
The anchorage point of this book can be found on the fly leaf, where there is a map that is divided in zones, serving as a navigation system in a coded language. It is the constellation of a creative mind and of Vermeulen’s ever increasing oeuvre, in which the symbols of the chair, the wheel, etc. reappear in various zones. It represents the artist’s universe from various perspectives: not just as a map, as it also provides views from above and in profile. Furthermore, the map functions as the mental lab from which the source of creation, the body of the inspiration and the veins of colour and form originate.
What rests is the ruin, the fragment, the monad that is without context. Or, to conclude with Walter Benjamin: ‘The allegory clings to ruins.’
[translation by Dirk Verbiest from the Dutch version ‘Et Dieu créa Hendrik Vermeulen – Over de metamorfose van het denkende landschap’; included as the preface of the book ‘Hendrik Vermeulen - Et Dieu créa l’ascenseur, 2017]
For Dutch texts click on NL