Impossibility of an Island
Bizarrely entitled Forward Snowy! Onwards to Arden!, my last show was subtitled 100% Hateful!—the inscription was emblazoned across the poster, in Eminem-style handwriting; it was in no way hyperbole. From the outset, I got on to the subject of the conflict in the Middle East, which had already brought me significant media successes—in a manner which, wrote the Le Monde journalist, was “singularly abrasive.” The first sketch, entitled The Battle of the Little Ones, portrayed Arabs— renamed “Allah’s vermin”—Jews—described as “circumcised fleas”—and even some Lebanese Christians, afflicted with the pleasing sobriquet of “Crabs from the Cunt of Mary.” —Michel Houllebecq, The Possibility of an Island1
Erik van Lieshout is the bad boy of Dutch art, the coolest artist in Holland, the Michel Houllebecq of video, a self-loathing, self-exposing, self-obsessed wannabe queer rapper. Working in painting, architecture, and video, he has created a body of work over the past fifteen years that remorselessly interrogates every shibboleth and sacred cow of the political spectrum, including far-right politics, incest, race relations, homosexuality, art world tensions, and crack dealers. His recent retrospective (2006–07)—dubbed “a sampling” by Rotterdam’s Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen—focusses on work from the mid-1990s to the present. And while the exhibition features paintings and drawings that are energetic and brilliant, I’ve little doubt that what will endure of van Lieshout’s canon are his videos and the environments that he creates in which to watch them.
This is because his videos confront the viewer, both formally and thematically, both visually and physically, with the barriers, the cordons sanitaires, that we erect to separate us from the Other—be the other a racial minority or a political opponent, a rich art patron or a poor immigrant, the mentally disabled, or the sexually voracious. This is accomplished formally through a video style which often presents van Lieshout both as first-person protagonist and as our stand-in. Thus, any disdain we have for his petulant wanking is likely to shade into a creeping awareness that often we, too, are similarly neurotic. Thematically, the videos again and again stage confrontations that segue into friendship, or family relationships that break down into animosity; so, again, we have to admit that, yes, our relations with others are seldom monolithic. And while this is all accomplished visually (and via cacophonous soundtracks that mix rap, street noise, ambient sound, and badly recorded dialogue), the physical surroundings in which one watches van Lieshout’s videos also do their own work.
I first came across van Lieshout’s work in an issue of the journal A Prior. I then saw his Happiness (2004), a low-rent version of Lars von Trier’s The Idiots (1998), in which van Lieshout and his brother talk about their neuroses, wandering through a pastoral setting that they share with a group of “mentally handicapped” adults. The scare quotes are there for a reason. Is there a way to say people are retarded without using a shilly-shallying euphemism (indeed, “retarded” itself used to be a euphemism)? Van Lieshout and his brother, Bart, wallow in self-pity over their stymied homo/hetero/bi/sexual desires whilst envying the idiots’ affectless joy, all to the haunting/annoying/kitsch sounds of a didgeridoo. I watched this video while sitting in a cramped, crappily-assembled plywood shack, an environment typical for van Lieshout, according to Sven Lütticken, in that it “posit[s] possible forms of reception which complement and further complicate the uneasy encounters in the videos” or, more poetically, “look[s] like the TV room in a homeless shelter clumsily mimicking a bourgeois living room.”2
In the Boijmans survey of van Lieshout’s work, interspersed among the shacks and garages housing videos were his paintings: think Pettibon meets Baselitz meets outsider art (heavy charcoal outlines, a rough and ready drawing style, large portraits that are less about veracity than overwhelming the gallerygoer with a pretentious lack of pretention). A number of his videos and projections were presented in settings that incongruously appeared to be outdoor market-ish (although still within the Boijmans’ large exhibition halls), such as the twelve-minute video Awakening (2005), which is van Lieshout’s Communist Manifesto, his Queer Nation ACT UP, an acerbic take on Europe’s slide into xenophobia. Awakening alternates between interviews—mostly in Rotterdam, I think—with supporters/mourners of Pim Fortuyn and Theo van Gogh. Fortuyn was a gay, right wing intellectual and politician whose anti-immigration message looked set to propel him to national leadership when he was assassinated nine days before Dutch elections in 2002. Theo van Gogh, also right wing and anti-Islamist, was assassinated in November 2004.
Awakening digs into the soft underbelly of Europe’s most liberal society, as van Lieshout eggs on supporters and opponents of Fortuyn and van Gogh. But this is no outraged liberal artist’s take on homegrown reaction, for interspersed are a series of encounters in a Rotterdam shooting gallery. Is fascism, then, the smack of the middle class? And here, as elsewhere, van Lieshout’s willingness to put himself in the middle of the action and his camera’s erratic movement around bourgeois households and dilapidated drug dens assert parallels between not only habitus but also artist as fascist/junkie. And the viewing situation of Awakening—among the drapery of blue tarps that resemble a market blown apart by a suicide bomber—thus renders the video, like a demonstration, a performance for the public (if only rhetorically), and, like a manifesto, a work of art, a poetics in its take on politics.
Van Lieshout’s assertion of his own subjectivity as narrative focus reaches it fullest zenith in Respect (2005) and Rock (2006). Opening with 50 Cent’s “In da Club,” Respect shows van Lieshout and his brother, Bart, cruising Rotterdam’s Zuid, or southern district, home to many of its Moroccan-Dutch citizens. Erik is trying to hook Bart up with a Moroccan boyfriend and deal with his own polyvalent sexuality. The look of the video, both in terms of stock quality and narrative, is reality TV meets autobiographical wanking. I was going to compare it to COPS, a by-now dated ur-reality show. This comparison isn’t half-off, as Tom Morton has argued,3 given that the video opens with the brothers and their “friends” searching each other as if they’re all cops and robbers in a Bruce LaBruce video. The action, such as it is—mostly following the brothers around as they talk to locals—heats up with a mock drug deal, reaching a climax, of sorts, in which Erik and Bart engage in a heavy French kiss, the camera circling around.
Rock, the twenty-seven minute centrepiece of the Boijmans exhibition, concerns itself with van Lieshout’s ascendancy in the art world in the past few years. The narrative and video follows the artist on a trip in a posh sports car—a Lamborghini by the looks of it—to a Spanish resort. Intercut are scenes of van Lieshout hanging out with his nouveau riche patrons and talking and crying on his mobile phone as he deals with his sudden notoriety: “Everyone understands me, that’s the new thing.” Whether poking into a lingerie show in Marbella, engaging in New Age male bonding (also to be found in his video UP! ), or fixed on van Lieshout’s Charlie Brown roundhead, Rock succeeds because it refuses to engage in a predictable “institutional critique” that would see the tender/political artist sneering at his patrons’ lamentable bad taste. Rather, van Lieshout seems to revel in their bad taste, their flashy cars, their trophy wives, seeing in the art collector’s habitus a reflection of his own trash and flash video style.
Here the environment of Rock is key to the work, for we “watch” the video projected on to a large screen in front of a dozen wrecked cars, each of which has a speaker attached playing the sound. I don’t know if Holland ever had a tradition of drive-in theatres, but for a North American visitor, the collision of drive-in culture with art world cynicism was oddly refreshing, not least because of how a video largely set in a fast-moving car, screening in front of wrecked vehicles, added a frisson of danger. But it was a bit weird to be asked by a docent not to sit on the crumpled hood of the car that I was leaning against. Institutional critique indeed.
Like the French novelist Michel Houllebecq, van Lieshout confronts the hypocrisy of attitudes towards the Other—from liberal multiculturalism, which insists that everyone is authentic and worthy of respect to right wing xenophobia that would rather pathologize than admit its own desires. Indeed, van Lieshout wants us to own up to our own conflicted desires, arguing (though it’s a bit of a stretch to say that van Lieshout’s work argues anything) that our political, sexual, and artistic tendencies are always indebted to each other. Admiration for hip-hop, then, is not purely a respect for black self-determination, but also predicated on sexual envy and artistic scorn. Similarly, the typical bourgeois artist’s disdain for the politics of the right has not a little to do with classism (the North American term “redneck” is all about class prejudice: it is workers, and especially agricultural and outdoor labourers, whose necks get red) as well as our smugly liberated sexual freedom. We feel much better when reactionaries are prim and proper than when, as with Fortuyn, they are queer and sexy (Fortuyn was the Foucault of the Right). Right wing censors (Jesse Helms) reassure us; but when reactionaries are murdered for their artistic expression (as was Theo van Gogh), things are more complicated. And, finally, artistic theories of the gallery and the museum remain fixated on Bourdieuesque determinism (art is only about domination, photography is always imbricated in class réssentiment, literature is inevitably the record of patriarchal canonization) rather than seeing culture as a much more complicated space of (in the van Lieshout image-repetoire) inner city gymnastics, rough sex as dildo-envy, Muslimphilia embracing Muslimphobia, and art patronage as two-way prostitution.
For van Lieshout is, in the end, the Mel Gibson of video art. Where Gibson, the people’s auteur, reveals the perverse core of popular culture (Passion of the Christ : yes, Christianity really is anti-Semitic, and Apocalypto : yes, post-colonialism really is fixated on the fantasy of the savage) via the slick technology of Hollywood movies, Erik van Lieshout similarly espouses, with techniques and subject matters alike that are much more crude, both his own pathologies (familial obsessions, as when, in a therapy session, he imagines his mother in bondage) and our social phobias. Tellingly, both, in the final versions, resort to sub-titles, but for reversed reasons: Gibson for artistic reasons of purity (using ancient Aramaic and Maya) and van Lieshout to reach the Anglophone art world.
Van Lieshout wants to wrench difference out of post-Derridean quietism and restore it to its proper historical messiness: we are all aliens in his world.4 As Caroline Eggel argues, “the explicit portrayal of awkward situations crosses the demarcation line between the admissible and the inadmissable,”5 and thus renders the repressed desires and too-close-to-home anxieties public, making the domestic political and the political domestic.
A couple weeks after seeing van Lieshout’s work, I was in a London Fields chip shop late one night. Talking boxing with an habitué, I punctuated our conversation with a fist-bump and “Respect!” “No man,” he corrected me, “RAS-pect!” Our encounter had all the hallmarks of a van Lieshout scene: the nerdy white guy put in his place by the black other, but in a humorous way. Indeed, the merit of van Lieshout’s art is that it awakens us to our own conflicts, our own inadmissible desires, our own need to connect with others as others, neither the multi-culti neuter nor the right wing demon.
- Michel Houllebecq, The Possibility of an Island, trans. Gavin Bowd (London: Wiedenfield and Nicolson, 2006), 37-38.
- Sven Lütticken, “Erik van Lieshout’s Video Shacks,” A Prior 12 (January/February, 2006): 8.
- Tom Morton, “Isaac and Ishmael,” A Prior 12 (January/February, 2006): 73.
- Ibid., 76.
- Caroline Eggel, “Up!: A New Film by Erik van Lieshout,” A Prior 12 (January/February, 2006): 98.
About the Author
Clint Burnham teaches at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby and Surrey, British Columbia, Canada. His latest book, The Only Poetry that Matters: Reading the Kootenay School of Writing, was published by Arsenal Pulp Press in 2011. His art criticism has appeared in Artforum, Fillip, and the Times-Colonist, and he has lectured at the Art Institute of Chicago, Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art (Rotterdam), and the Carnegie Community Centre (Vancouver). He lives in Mount Pleasant, Vancouver.