in Features | 04 MAR 04
Featured in
Issue 81

O brother, where art thou?

Erik van Lieshout

in Features | 04 MAR 04

In the past few years the artist has based his drawing and video installations on excursions that delight in opening one can of socio-political worms after another. These real-life experiences - including a trip to a West African village to learn how to rap (Lariam, 2001), wandering around drinking and looking for love on the tough streets of Rotterdam South (Respect, 2003) and camping in a forest near Heimerstein, a home for the disabled (Happiness, 2003) - give rise to dodgy encounters with the Other. Each of them involves an extremely personalized and hands-on exploration of social limits and sore points. In the works that emerge in the comparatively safe and sober environments of the editing suite, studio and exhibition space van Lieshout tackles complicated issues including sexuality, racial divides and head-on culture clashes, but always with plenty of infectious energy, self-effacing humour and in-your-face bravado.

Other works - in particular, numerous conflict-ridden figurative drawings such as those gathered and reproduced in the billboard work for the Museum in Progress project Urban Tension (2002) - are visual tirades and occasionally tawdry exorcisms peppered liberally with Hip-Hop machismo, political extremists and images appropriated from Pop culture, pornography and cartoons. Van Lieshout's approach could be understood as an attempt to externalize difficult subjects and reactions in order to create critical distance. While they can be lurid, brash and blatantly tasteless, and may be shocking to anyone who either lives an extremely sheltered life or holds the view that art should be exemplary rather than symptomatic, the real impact comes from their impatient demand that the audience should sort out what it thinks and respond. They don't ask to be liked, and imply that a likeable artwork is probably too soft for this world. If van Lieshout's work provokes offence or disagreement, it is probably because the artist is convinced that ivory-tower complacency is the real enemy. All this makes his art seem eminently open to abuse and misunderstanding - and in part it is about abuse and misunderstanding, even though in his most recent work van Lieshout ostensibly sets out in search of heartfelt good times and social harmony.

A raucous example of this pursuit is Happiness - a video installation comprising a projection housed in a one-way-mirror Perspex-clad pod or droopy eye-shaped nut that looks like something that crashed out of the office of a frustrated biomorphic architect. The video inside, whose title recalls Todd Solondz' satire of the same name from 1998, perhaps has closer parallels with Lars von Trier's The Idiots (1998). The work is the rough-cut result of a stay at Heimerstein, where van Lieshout accepted an invitation to work with the residents. The artist used the opportunity to have a discussion about normalcy and to try and bridge the lack of intimacy between himself and his brother Bart. The residents play the part of a free-spirited Greek chorus in the brothers' trag-icomic drama. The work makes the simple point that it's not the residents who benefit from art as therapy but the artist himself. The viewer is reflected on the warped external surface of the pod in a light-hearted carnivalesque take on Dan Graham that shows how weird we all look and act, especially in the institutionalized setting of a commercial gallery. Surrounding the pod in the recent exhibition 'How to Get Into the Hospital' (2003) at the Stella Lohaus Gallery in Antwerp were striking large charcoal drawings that for the moment seem to have superseded the large 'bad' painting that characterized the artist's earlier post-academy production.

Van Lieshout's drawings are playful, skilled and seem to result from a black-hole-like process where all the things around him (or in him), whether joyous or troubling, are drawn inextricably into their vortex. He harnesses all the qualities of the medium, including spontaneity, unpretentiousness, incorporation of risk and error, creating works that would recall the work of Berlin's streetwise realist Heinrich Zille (1858-1929), if that artist had lived in our media-saturated social landscape. The Heimerstein drawings series (all Untitled, 2003) show the residents and brothers hanging out, and include a forlorn self-portrait as a cheap cross-dresser. It is typical that when van Lieshout appears in his own work he doesn't shy away from implicating himself in an unflattering way or showing himself up. He is probably shocked by his own lusts, conflicts, inadequacies, failures and confusion, and may well be his own harshest critic.

This is also implicit in his video installation Respect, which was presented for the first time at last year's Venice Biennale in a lean-to shanty based on the Schröder House (1912), by Gerrit Rietveld, who also designed the Dutch pavilion. In the video, Erik and Bart go on a fruitless search for boys among the young Turks who hang out in Rotterdam South. What ensues is a series of lively interactions where friends are made, but in which the brothers end up in an incestuous embrace, French-kissing each other as the amused gang looks on. With its combination of inexpensive Turkish carpets and battered replica Rietveld chairs the interior of the shack echoes the video images. The ensemble lampoons the idea of tolerance at a safe distance, and favours contact, exchange and genuine respect.

An earlier work, Growshop (2000), also involved the participation of people hanging out on the streets in van Lieshout's neighbourhood. Here the artist cultivated a marijuana plantation in his studio. Video documentation of the long project Groei en Bloei (Grow and Blossom, 2000) includes a truly joyous harvest scene, in which a smiling gent plays accordion while local kids help pluck fresh heads. Later van Lieshout invites some black guys to come and help consume his home-grown from an enormous bong powered by a vacuum cleaner. As far as it is possible to tell, everyone has a lot of very bent fun, which seems vastly preferable to estranged multi-ethnic co-existence. A darker manifestation of the subject of Dutch multiculturalism can be seen in a recent group of drawings, Logbook Pim Fortuyn (2003). The work deals with the disturbing paradoxical right-wing and openly gay Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn, who favoured a halt to all immigration and was murdered by an animal rights activist during an election campaign in 2002. Lieshout's sketches are a vicious satire and depict the populist like a figure from a surreal pornographic nightmare.

The making of Lariam took van Lieshout and his cohorts much further from home. The finished work is also a video installation housed in an enormous cardboard box, aping the packaging for the anti-malaria drug that gives the work its title and which is too expensive for the locals. Inside is a holiday video that shows the artist failing to learn to rap convincingly and a party he throws for the village where the song lyrics are based on the package warning that 'there have been reports of suicidal tendencies, but a connection with Lariam has not been proven', which eventually everybody gets thoroughly into. Van Lieshout's work tests his and our capacity to identify across entrenched racial, gender and cultural divides. Even while this exposes hardship and problems, his work shows that there's no use turning a blind eye, because we're all in this mess together.