Joep van Lieshout
SlaveCity (in the context of Jheronimus Bosch 500)
11 June - 2 Oct 2016
Joep van Lieshout (Ravenstein 1963) prefers to operate on the fringes. Is he, after all, an artist or a clever entrepreneur? With his sinister installation SlaveCity he also pushes at the boundaries — between good and evil, life and death, man and machine. The exhibition is being held within the context of Jheronimus Bosch 500. Five hundred years ago this visionary painter was already holding a mirror up to his audience. In this sublunary world between heaven and hell, people may well be aspiring to good, but the diabolical temptations of greed and lust can seldom be resisted by them.
Recently the discussion concerning art and social commitment has erupted again with new intensity. Can contemporary art contribute to the solution of social problems? Or does this conflict with the autonomy of art and the artist, an idea that dates back to the age of romanticism? This complex issue has preoccupied Joep van Lieshout since the start of his career. His responses are both headstrong and ambiguous.
After finishing his training as a visual artist at the Rotterdamse Academie van Beeldende Kunsten and Ateliers '63 in Haarlem, he made his debut in the art world in the late 1980s. While the cubical sculptures of stacked beer crates (1987) could still be related to the traditions of pop and minimal art, his series of tables, storage cabinets and bathroom fixtures in cheerfully colored polyester that he produced from 1988 onward went beyond the limit and became everyday utilitarian objects. Although some art critics were able to discern some formal similarities between the crate sculptures and the new works—e.g. standardization, seriality, functional design—the hand of a purposeful industrial designer could also be recognized. The individual tables, chairs, kitchen units, shower cubicles and toilets were the initial building blocks for something bigger, an all- encompassing Gesamtkunstwerk in which Van Lieshout lays out his vision of the world.
A modest start was made with the Mobile Homes, Van Lieshout's variation on the caravan, so popular among the Dutch. At the same time these propagated the idea of a libertine, anarchistic lifestyle involving lots of booze and sex. That was developed in detail not only in the interiors of the mobile homes, where beds and bottles of alcohol figured prominently, but also in drawings and maquettes. What sort of things are needed in order to achieve the ideal of an economically independent commune? From food supply to producing electrical power, Van Lieshout came up with practical solutions for everything. Many of them were very simple or age-old: the raising and slaughtering of pigs, or producing compost with human faeces.
In order to carry out these utopian projects, he founded Atelier Van Lieshout, a cross between a workplace and an artist's studio, in 1995. Today roughly fifteen people are involved in the production of a wide range of sculptures and installations at Atelier Van Lieshout, which is situated in an industrial zone along the Maas in Rotterdam. The promotion and shipping of work for exhibitions all over the world are also based at Atelier Van Lieshout. For the Netherlands, the scale of this art business is unique, comparable only to the approaches taken by successful foreign artists such as Andy Warhol, Olafur Eliasson and Jeff Koons.
During the summer months of 2001, the ideal of a hedonistic, autarkic commune was put into practice on the premises of Atelier Van Lieshout. For the infrastructure of AVL-Ville ingenious installations were designed—not only for the production of food, energy and (of no minor importance) alcohol, but also for the purification of water. Free transportation from downtown Rotterdam to the 'free state' would draw sufficient numbers to the restaurant and thereby generate income. Ultimately, a conflict with the municipality regarding the permit to serve alcohol contributed to its closing.
Joep van Lieshout is 'fascinated with power' and 'with organizations and systems', as he once said in an interview. In his work he reveals the oppositions that inevitably accompany these: freedom and the lack of it, rationality/irrationality, the individual versus the group. Every utopia has a dark side to it. After the closing of AVL-Ville Van Lieshout developed The Disciplinator (2003), a labor camp designed with mathematical precision, where seventy-two prisoners saw tree trunks in shifts.
The Technocrat (2003) goes a step further in the suppression and maximal physical exploitation of human beings. Central to this closed system is a biogas installation that processes human excrement into methane gas. By way of funnels and tubes, a thousand subjects are administered, on a daily basis, food and alcohol that have been prepared with this gas. The ten-meter-long Funnelman (2004) which stretches out along the A27 near Breda, bears a resemblance to the subjects in The Technocrat. At first the sculpture might give rise to associations with the forced feeding of geese for the production of foie gras. But perhaps, to an even greater extent, the man expresses the sense of being in a straitjacket that many working people have when they end up in a traffic jam every day.
To organize rationally and efficiently, earn lots of money and do so preferably in the most sustainable way possible: nowadays almost any business or organization would endorse this motto. And that also goes for SlaveCity, on which Van Lieshout has been working since 2005. He has meticulously calculated that, with the use of 200,000 slaves working in a call center for seven hours a day, the annual profit can amount to 7.8 billion euros. The slaves earn no wages; but expenses, housing, entertainment and visits to the brothel are all arranged perfectly. By now there are maquettes, sketches or paintings of all of the buildings and installations, and the city is—of course—energy neutral. Everything is recyclable, including the slaves themselves. When they no longer function, their bodies are processed and vital organs become available for transplants. Also included in the city planning is a centrally organized hospital with well-equipped operating rooms.
Those who get the uneasy feeling that SlaveCity bears a suspicious number of similarities to a concentration camp are not wrong. These macabre places of mass destruction did indeed serve as a source of inspiration, but according to Van Lieshout SlaveCity is completely up-to-date. In his Gesamtkunstwerk man has been reduced to a cog in a well-oiled machine, which is completely geared to sustainability and profit. Though we aren't entirely unfamiliar with these basic principles, the situation in SlaveCity seems much like satire or a rather sinister joke.
Hieronymus Bosch, too, was a master of humor and satire. Van Lieshout sees parallels between his visionary art projects and the world of Bosch, in which darkness and light, heaven and hell exist alongside each other. Bosch was critical and denounced human weaknesses such as gluttony, greed, folly and lust; but the interpretation of his visions is not unambiguous. It is particularly that latter quality, in Van Lieshout's view, which is Bosch's great strength: 'In the triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights, heaven on earth is perhaps just as alienating and disturbing as hell.'
On the macro level, a great deal has changed in five hundred years; but on the micro level, man's behavior has hardly changed at all. At least it seems that way when we see the most bizarre excesses of the figures in Bosch's paintings. In the Groeninge Museum's triptych The Last Judgment, for example, we discover a large barrel of beer surrounded by naked peeing, pooping and puking people who are getting drunk on the beer that flows freely out of its holes. A Van Lieshout installation before its time! He could have conceived this, but if he actually had done so, it would surely have been organized in a more sustainable way.
SlaveCity is part of the Bosch Grand Tour. In 2016 not only the birthplace of Jheronimus Bosch (ca. 1450-1516) but also all of Noord-Brabant will be dedicated to the best-known medieval painter of the Netherlands. Under the title Bosch Grand Tour, seven prominent Brabant museums are presenting a series of special exhibitions. Let yourself be inspired and surprised during a journey of discovery involving contemporary art, design and culture in 's-Hertogenbosch, Breda, Eindhoven and Tilburg.
The Bosch Grand Tour is a project of the Van Abbemuseum, De Pont museum, MOTI Museum of the Image, Natuurmuseum Brabant, Het Noordbrabants Museum, Stedelijk Museum 's-Hertogenbosch and the TextielMuseum within the context of the event Jheronimus Bosch 500.