El Lissitzky, 3D Interpretation after ‘Lenin Tribune (lectern)’
reconstruction 2012 (original 1920), tinted plexiglass, 117 x 84 x 36 cm, production design and execution Henry Milner,
collection Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven
Theo van Doesburg, Design monument for Leeuwarden
reconstruction 1968 (original 1917-1918), painted wood, 45 x 34 x 34 cm, collection Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven
IRWIN, Black Square on the Red Square
1992-2004, video (PAL, color, sound), duration 00:03:15, collection Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven
Text Steven ten Thije, collections curator, Van Abbemuseum:
The art of sculpture
A special feature of sculptures is that they are both image and form. A sculpture is a thing. Its relation to its surroundings is different from that of a picture. The sculpture and the world around it are on the same level, which means they correspond in a special way – and they can transform into one another. The world becomes the sculpture and the sculpture becomes the world. Each human society has a different response to this magic, which may be one of the oldest forms of magic that people have had at their disposal.
The question ‘what is the art of sculpture?’ has been a common thread in Jean Bernard Koeman’s oeuvre for years. Describing the approach he takes investigating this question is no simple task. He doesn’t look for an answer as a solution. Rather, we could say he continuously re-explores the field that opens up when the question is posed. The art of sculpture unites a number of components. A person who sculpts, an object being sculpted, and a place where
the sculpture is installed. Resulting from this is a composite whole that other people relate to in some way, making this form of art a social phenomenon. In Koeman’s world, the line between useful and useless is porous. A car, a building, a nuclear reactor: aren’t these all sculptures in their own way? Koeman certainly has no hesitations presenting them in that capacity.
The method he employs could be described as reverse archaeology or geology. Instead of carefully unearthing layer after layer with chisels and brushes, he builds layers on top of each other, one shape superimposed on the next. This makes viewing the work more of a slow reading of an image that keeps revealing new, often unexpected relations. It provides specific insights, such as the paradoxical relationship between the UN military jeep exploring dangerous terrain and the geologist uncovering and collecting layers of sediment. It also gives general insights into the tension between discovery, conquest, destruction and understanding. Building and sculpting always entails breaking and cutting. The new can only exist on top of the old, which is forced underground. Koeman’s works sometimes seem to rebel against human building law of nature. His sculptures appear first and foremost to honour and study the battle between new and old. A material ode to the struggle of sculpting.
The method Koeman uses shows a connection to that of a museum. Museums also struggle with the battle between old and new. A collection honours what already exists by preserving it, even as it ravenously hungers for new things. That’s why it seemed fitting to respond to Koeman’s exhibition not by showing a single work, but rather a little ensemble of works that plays with Koeman’s themes. For this occasion, Koeman designed a wide open platform to serve as an arena for the works.
One of the models is a maquette of a public sculpture in the Dutch city of Leeuwarden from 1917-1918, designed by Theo van Doesburg; the other is a design for a tribune for Lenin from 1920 by El Lissitzky. Both models were made later, in 1968 and 2012. The intervention is an action in the Red Square in Moscow, initiated by artists’ collective IRWIN, Black Square On The Red Square, performed in 1992.
Van Doesburg and Lissitzky’s generation lived in an age of revolution. The 1917 Russian Revolution had shown the world a glimpse of a new reality: there was a sudden, newfound space for exploring and shaping a new world. What art would be more suited to the task of designing this world than the art of sculpture? Later on, city planning and architecture would complete the process and manifest the designs.
Universal, abstract, geometric shapes would knead the world into a unified whole. No frills or embellishments – only crisp lines, planes and shapes. Onward to the essence! This vision formed the foundation that artists built their sculptures on. The end of history would come when humanity had reshaped its world based on the modern language of shapes.
This prediction was not to be, though change certainly came. The models they made for the world weren’t implemented wholesale, but the language of shapes they developed has become a part of the grammar of our visual imagination. The old world that was thought to be swept away by the grand movement of the Russian Revolution has persisted, but the modern language of shapes by artists like Van Doesburg and Lissitzky dominated architecture and design for years.
IRWIN’s 1992 guerrilla action was held following the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had been around for over seventy years. A moment that should have marked the end of history became a point in history itself. Their action can be interpreted as a grandiose homage to or a scathing critique of the universal system of Soviet
communism and the modern world. For one brief moment, IRWIN placed a giant black square on the Red Square, in a reference to Kazimir Malevich’s revolutionary work of art par excellence, which served as the end of history in 1913. The entire image was engulfed by a black square. But at the same time, the work marked a new beginning: the old is invariably followed by the new.