‘I hate ordinary people.’ So says Erik van Lieshout in Janus (2012), one of a trio of films that makes up his exhibition ‘Three Social Works’ at South London Gallery, each of which prods, with uncommon wit and soul, at the tender spot where art meets daily life.
Screened in a room hung with naff net curtains and blowups of chi-chi interiors shoots, Janus begins with the Dutch artist wandering through Rotterdam-Zuid, a working class suburb in which he once lived. His camera lingering on shabby bodegas and modernist social housing, he chats with a young guy about his tattoos (three teardrops, spilling perpetually down his face) and to a girl in a hijab about her broken foot. Finding his old neighbourhood ‘boring’, Van Lieshout resolves to draw it into his ‘inner world’, where it will provide him with ‘nutrition’. Such digestion, he tells us, without apparent irony, ‘is the task of the artist’, as it was ‘for Rembrandt’. Clearly something’s about to blow up in his grinning, bespectacled face.
Chancing across a yard sale of the possessions of a recently deceased man named Janus, Van Lieshout gets talking to his family. With practiced – indeed almost weapons-grade – guilelessness, the artist offers to use a government grant to buy Janus’s riotously kitschy collection of memorabilia (novelty phones, neon jukeboxes, a CD rack made out of a pair of Levis) and turn this ‘little museum’ into an installation work. These negotiations are intercut with footage of Rotterdam-Zuid’s residents, who grumble about immigration, gossip about Janus’s death from an infection caught in hospital and reflect on the scant, fuzzy role that art plays in their lives. Rapidly loosing faith in his project, the artist begins to hear ghosts speaking to him through a TV (enjoining him to ‘Learn! Learn!’) and hires an actor to play ‘Erik van Lieshout’ in a series of manic, self-excoriating monologues. (Sample line: ‘This is me, […] the ADHD man with so many fears.’) Eventually, government cuts mean the grant falls through, and with it, the promised transubstantiation of Janus’s tchotchkes into art. In one of the closing scenes, Van Lieshout wanders the suburb’s streets dressed as a bacterium – an opportunistic parasite looking for a new host.
If Janus is suspicious of its own motives, and by extension those of much socially engaged art, then it has nothing on Ego (2013). Installed at the foot of a long, sloping ramp that threatens to spill the viewer into the screen, this film begins with Van Lieshout deciding to collaborate with his parents and siblings, nearly all of whom are social workers, on a ‘family movie’ that will ‘make a difference to others’. His brother’s response is brusque: ‘This is bullshit.’ What follows is a funny, painful portrait of Van Lieshout family values, in which the artist shadows his relatives as they meet with aggressive clients, run art classes for child refugees and massage sick patients in a mission hospital. In short interview fragments, his father discusses his own spiritual journey from childhood Catholicism to adult atheism. The confession of sin comes up a lot, as does the concept of vocation. We might note that his son’s nervy, pitilessly honest work embodies both these things.
How then, might art escape the artist’s ego, and make the ‘difference to others’ Van Lieshout describes? The film Basement (2014), in which he refurbishes the subterranean living quarters of the Hermitage Museum’s resident mouse-killer cats, provides one answer. This home improvement project was the artist’s contribution to Manifesta 10, not that the Russian kitties noticed. They were too busy enjoying their new scratching posts and blankets. What did they care if we strange, hairless apes call such things art?
Main Image: Erik van Lieshout, The Basement, 2014, HD film, colour, sound, wood, carpet, photocopies. Courtesy: the artist and Maureen Paley, London; photograph: Andy Stagg