Eat Shit in the Atelier with Joep van Lieshout
uncube magazine, 5 November 2013
The present ecological crisis seems to demand a paradigm shift in patterns of consumption and the methods by which we handle the mess we’ve made. But how uncompromising should our strategies be? The Dutch artist Joep van Lieshout, working under the name Atelier van Lieshout, asks this question by proposing numerous solutions – some more realistic than others, but almost all of them unsettling. Cannibalizing the bloodless logic of design and urban planning, his work affects the marriage of best intentions and unsavory methods. Curator Nadim Samman visited van Lieshout in his Rotterdam studio to talk about his recent work and decidedly provocative approach.

Your work frequently sets the themes of sustainability, recycling, and efficiency within a disturbing, dystopian frame. It can seem as though you are suggesting that the technical pursuit of these goals can engender some exceedingly unsustainable ethical positions. How should one read a series like Cradle to Cradle, for instance – a vision of a closed loop of production and reuse in which humans are raw material?

The goal is to create awareness. People are easily fixated upon things that can seem important while ignoring more significant issues. For example, everyone is currently super-obsessed by carbon dioxide but there are bigger problems to think about, like over-consumption and the death of privacy. Before our world will flood and the ice bears go extinct the human race may already be wiped out. What I try to do is to disturb regular thinking. Naomi Klein tells an interesting story in No Logo: She says something like ‘when we were at university everyone was thinking, talking and taking action for gender related issues, while behind our backs something momentous was happening – industry was globalized, with production outsourced to far away countries.’ She said, ‘we didn’t know it at the time, we didn’t see it, because we were totally focused on our concerns.’ Similar general failures of perception obtain now. My work turns around this understanding.

To go back to recycling – are you saying that it is not a good thing?

Our society has become hyper rational, with many decisions made on the basis of Excel sheet outcomes and calculations. I have a love-hate relationship with rationality. On the one hand it’s good to improve life for humans and the world, at the same time it can be very dangerous. In the universe of Cradle to Cradle I have completely hyper-rationalized all decisions, leaving no ethics, only financial and sometimes crazily instrumental decisions. The series is a warning about our society’s rationalization.

What does your current series, New Tribal Labyrinth, bring to this thinking?

My works have more than one layer of meaning. That said, one agenda in New Tribal Labyrinth is to recreate appreciation for raw materials and simple products. Nowadays the whole world is obsessed and preoccupied by merchandise, by consumption, by material goods that can be bought, sold, and discarded for something new and better. There is little awareness of products and where they come from; little appreciation for raw material. Materials and products are cheap; labour is extremely expensive. This is not a sustainable system. Here in the West we are all in the service industry. There is hardly agriculture, hardly production; basically everyone is in sales or marketing. We have to ask ourselves how long this can continue. What I want to do is re-invent real industry, to re-invent how to make steel, how to make textiles, and bring a new spirit to these materials. If you make your own steel then this material is much more important to you. If you make something yourself it is for life.

In your New Tribal Labyrinth rituals are important…

Yes, in a way the series is a comment on religion, which seems to be very far away from daily life today. Food or environment is the new religion. I talk about worshipping nature, worshipping industrial products, new rituals. At the same time I pervert religion because my new rituals are a little cruel, or have to do with cannibalism – breaking taboos.

Speaking of taboos – A lot of your works that have taken up the theme of recycling have revolved around faeces and, to put it bluntly, eating shit. In New Tribal Labyrinth the citizens of this world are engaged in farming insects for food. Why are you drawn to the unpalatable, the alimentary, when making works that take on a social/economic issues?

Good question. I think it is curiousity. Maybe it is also a comment against hypocrisy. Human beings tend to be hypocrites and forget a lot of things.

Where does hypocrisy figure in the ideology of recycling?

It’s very clear – the biggest producer of carbon dioxide is the human being. If you want to do something about carbon dioxide then start killing people. Kill them and then they won’t pollute so much. The best thing would actually be to sterilize people at birth. People don’t realize that. They blame the car, they don’t blame themselves.

You’re being provocative but is this really your position?

I don’t know if it is really my position but I am challenged by the idea. For example, people who are very old and sick can be kept alive for a long time. Nowadays it is possible to live to a hundred. This costs a lot of money, though, which has to be paid by someone. It also pollutes a lot. Why don’t we give people an option at the age of seventy: “you can choose to keep on living for the next thirty years and we’ll take care of you, or you can commit suicide voluntarily and you’ll get a rebate or money for your children.” Perhaps you get five years on a Caribbean island and then you step out. Why not? This kind of thinking is an edge or tripping point in my work, having to do with morality or ethics and non-ethics. On the one-hand I propose to make new factories for ethical reasons. On the other hand I propose that people can kill themselves and get tax rebates. This whole question about the relationship between rationality and ethics is one of my key concerns.

Power too, it seems. Your work is very concerned with autarky, and it seems to invoke fascism. How do you go from making icons of brute control – which one presumes are critical – to producing commissions for corporate offices and government spaces? How do you convince theme to take on the world of AVL?

One of the reasons that I made Slave City was because I was very much interested in the holocaust. It was pursued in a completely rational manner. We’re living now in extremely rational times and, as this example demonstrates, rationality is dangerous.

Yes, but i’m talking about design commissions. In your art you make works about naked power, and yet you find it easy to make furniture for the corporate sector. How do these two aspects of your practice come together? If I was working for a corporation and wanted a new furniture setup I might get scared off by your other interests!

I’m a good designer, so that helps. And by doing this I can use the money that I earn to produce things that no one wants to have. I rarely have clients who say “the other work has too much deviant stuff in it so we won’t buy your chair”. The thing with my work is that you never ever know if it is serious or not, if it is good or bad.

When you produce a design commission for a corporate office do you try to smuggle in a critical element? Or do you ever try to offer the client a piece that might make their office feel a little more sinister? What I mean to say is, do you consider yourself a secret agent when producing these commissions?

Yes, I always try to do something but I’m not interested in provocation as such. It’s too stupid on its own. I’m more interested in bringing in some kind of imbalance. That’s one of my aims. Pure provocation – confronting people with very sexual or fanatical stuff – is not.

Work that might seem unprovocative in Holland may be quite the opposite elsewhere. Your sperm is about to go on five year display in a central public space in Rotterdam. Does the Netherlands have a uniquely open-minded approach to what public art can address or look like?

Dutch people are extremely pragmatic. The original commission was to design public furniture for the square. It’s a huge square and not a very cosy one, all asphalt, and there were little funds available. I told them that with a little bit of money one can make something, but not really the kind of work that the space deserves. I said “don’t buy a bad work- rent a good one.” This way we have a big piece which makes sense. They agreed. For the amount of money with which we could have had some stupid tables and chairs we now have an artwork for five years. It’s great for me because I get the piece back!

And there was no problem with the fact that this is a sperm?

That piece is about Darwinism, which is very much related to Fascism and other dictatorial systems. On the other hand, it’s about nature and how humans evolve. There’s a thin line between the good and bad things about natural selection. That’s the whole piece. If you say it has to do with sex then I say “sorry I don’t understand.” The work is about nature and fascism.

So you can say to the local government commissioner in Rotterdam that you want to put up a public sculpture about nature and fascisim instead of picnic table and they’re say “great, no problem?”

I tell them it’s a tadpole.

There are images of totalizing systems throughout your work. Now we’re in your studio, but it’s not just a studio it’s AVL Mundo. You’re spreading out into the garden next door, and your studio manager tells me you have designs on numerous buildings in the neighbourhood. What is your agenda for this area? Why do you feel that you need to work in this part of Rotterdam.

I make sculptures, I do design, architecture, and create gesamtkunstwerks in which numberous individual pieces function together. What I want is to create new worlds. I’m happy to sell a work but I’m also very happy not to sell, so I can keep it and eventually build a kind of universe in exhibition form. It’s one of my dreams that I would like to accomplish. To do this I need a lot of works, I need some money and I need a huge building. There are a lot of empty ones around here, I just need to take one. This is a neighbourhood that will be developed in the next ten/twenty years. Although it’s not completely in the centre it is still very central, it’s near the subway, close to neihbourhoods, and in between two towns that will grow together – making this a new centre in twenty or thirty years time. My idea is to make something that is publically accessible, something which has an ideological frame. Of course I will make this thing for the public. The vision is something between ideology, selfishness an messianism.
A classic example of Van Lieshout's fecal sensibility: a portable, functional bar in the shape of a human rectum. Developed for the Yokohama Triennale in 2005
Lieshout’s 2011 show called New Tribal Labyrinth at Gio Marconi Gallery in Milan viscerally represented loops of production and reuse