Meaning is a Verb, not a Noun

In 2005 the Dutch art historian and writer Riet van der Linden made her debut as an artist. The occasion was a défilé de mode in Bordeaux of the young French designer Carine Abbou. Riet was showing the very exquisite manteaux of Abbou, combined with her own Portable Sculptures. Tire Dervan-Nelden was present at the show in Bordeaux and interviewed her.

Tire Dervan-Neldin: You are educated as an art historian, you are also writing short stories and in July you will have your first exhibition at Suzanne Biederberg Gallery in Amsterdam. Is this the beginning of a whole new career?

No no. Career is too big a word for what I'm doing; I don't like that word anyway. Art, in the sense of imagination, a way to create your own reality, has always been very important to me. As a child I was a compulsive reader and had - according to my mother - too much fantasy. I was lying constantly about almost everything. I simply needed to change and enlarge the reality I lived in, make it more adventurous, more beautiful, and more interesting. On my way to school for example I imagined I had to walk for hours through very dangerous forests to get there. I actually took different routes and never managed to get to school in time. At the butcher I saw how they slaughtered a pig, once I saw men running after a horse that galloped away, things like that. I simply forgot the time completely, until it was too late. To excuse myself I invented the story that my mother was very ill and I had to take care of her. My schoolmates had to pray for her, but my story was unveiled and I was punished. Until today, when I am writing short stories, I have to convince myself that I am free to invent whatever I want. That I am aloud to lie.

No Title 2005

Was your upbringing very Christian?
Yes and no. My father was a non practising roman-catholic but my mother was a so called heathen. But I was educated by nuns until I was eleven years old and that period made a deep impression on me. There was a thick, high wall around the school that was connected to a cloister. I loved that world, full of mystery, suspicion and super
stition, devils and angels, hell and paradise and Christ sitting on his thrown in heaven who knew everything about you; a higher power who decided about death and life. I loved the stories about the persecution and the suffering of the early Christians by the evil Romans, and the rituals like the confession, the changing of bread and wine into the blood and body of Christ during mass, the smell of scent. In our church we kept bones from a leg of a saint in a sort of jewellery box.
I liked the nuns who were very sophisticated but they didn't like me very much. Because of my heathen mother and my lying I was always a little suspect; which I liked by the way.
Then our family moved and I went to a school with boys and girls. That was at the beginning of modern times, the secularisation, the breaking with traditions, families that fall apart; the great liberation.

You make 'liberation' sound a little bit negative. Am I right?
Maybe. I suffered terribly after my father left us for another woman. Not only did he leave, he also broke completely with us. The good thing was that I could leave home too and start my own life. I was sixteen at the time, I had to leave high school and find a job. At the time I was working all week including Saturday morning and went three times a week to evening classes to finish high school. I felt very lonely at that time, without any direction. Fortunately I had one good friend, a girl whose father left for another woman as well and who was interested in art and poetry. I was renting a room in the house of an elderly, divorced lady who hated men and told me how bad they are. But she taught me a lot of other things too. She had a wonderful feeling for aesthetics and was a very good cook. She told me that I was a bohemian, like herself. I liked that word. I was also told that I am ambitious. I think that she was right; these two characteristics are part of my nature.

In 1974 you started to study art history at the university. What career did you have in mind? Why did you not choose for the art academy for example?
I had a big need to develop intellectually and my boyfriend at the time, who was much more rational than I was, advised me to choose art history. I am still very happy about that choice. Not only did I love art but I also loved to travel and see the world. Art gave me an excellent excuse to do that.
I never thought about a career. Like most young people at the time, I studied in the first place to develop personally. After ten years of studying and travelling extensively I finally finished university and became involved in the women's art movement.

Was that because you hated men?
That is a bullshit question. You must be joking!

I was just reacting on what you told me about your life. Men didn't play a very positive role in your youth.

That's true but I don't think that had anything to do with my feminist involvement. I never felt a victim of patriarchy, I saw myself rather as a hero. I still remember how shocked I was when I was confronted with the fact that women are discriminated; that they were not taken seriously as an artist for example. In the seventies feminism was in the air. It was the start of the so called second feminist wave. At the university women's studies started and I realised for the first time that art history was completely dominated by males. Women started to write HERstory and fill in the gap. A whole new world opened to me. I became interested in women artists. Not only their role in history and why they had disappeared, but especially in women now and here.
In 1977 in Amsterdam, a small group of artists and art historians founded a feminist organisation, a platform with possibilities to organise exhibitions and to organise workshops. Their first aim was to make contemporary women artists visible by starting an archive with documentation about there work. In the early eighties I became an active member of this organisation, organised discussions about the professional situation and small art exhibitions. I also became one of the editors of our Newsletter which developed over the years in a serious magazine. This was a very happy period in my life with close friendships with women and a lot of solidarity and shared interests.
This all ended in 1995, when women's organisations were no longer funded by the government. After that I lived in Chicago (USA) for a year. I enjoyed every minute of it. I made friends very easily and went out a lot. I was quite surprised by the broad variety and the richness of cultural activities in capitalist headquarters and by the openness with which people approached me. I was invited for example by the University of Illinois in Chicago to teach a feminist course about women and art.

You lived for more than twenty years in Amsterdam. And now you live part of the year in a small village in France. That is quite a change.
The real change took place after my return from Chicago. After ten, very active years as organiser, editor and art critic in the women's art movement I was left with empty hands. Our Foundation for Womenís in the Art, Ruimte Magazine, everything had disappeared. The movement was over. I missed my old friends and colleagues and had no idea what to do. Used to my freedom and independence I am not able to function in a so called 'normal' job. Working in a museum or gallery is not for me and I'm not a journalist. Partly it is my personality but I am a typical product of the sixties I guess, a little bit spoiled and opposed to authority. I continued writing reviews for a feminist magazine called Opzij and every now and then I received a commission to write an article for a catalogue or give a lecture about woman and art. Then, in 1996 - to the surprise of my friends - I married, and five years ago my husband and I started to live together in The Hague. The change from Amsterdam to France came as a result of the freedom I enjoy with my husband. I always lived in different places at the same time. Before I moved to the south-west of France in 1998, I owned a simple beach house close to Amsterdam. I stayed there practically every night during the season, from May until the end of September. The difference is the distance. Now I have to travel 1000 kilometres to get here. So I stay every time for four to six weeks and than return to Holland for two or three weeks to catch up with actuality, see exhibitions, meet my friends etc. Thanks to modern communication techniques I can write my articles in France. I am a little bit of a nomad, a bohemian if you like. I need to feel the possibility to leave, to move. But I must say that my place in France is the first place where I feel completely at home. And my husband feels the same. The house itself is a real treasure and it is beautifully situated on the river Dordogne. I can walk freely with my dogs through the vineyards and Bordeaux is only 45 kilometres away. And the weather conditions are excellent.

Portable Sculpture 2006
When did you start to make art?
There has been no fixed moment. It started in a playful way without the intention to make Art. My ambition was much more directed to writing. In Chicago I wrote my first short stories and I also made a few assemblages of found objects. In fact I incidentally made little things for a long time. I need the intellectual exercise of writing but now it excites me to create concrete, material objects as well; to work with my hands. Also I'm very much inspired and stimulated by some dear artist friends like Erik Fens, Isik Tüzüner and Toscani & Cornel.
Last year I had an explosion of creative energy. I was writing a lot and during a walk with my husband and the dogs through the vineyards, I made my first 'portable sculpture'. I picked up a piece of wood and then started to collect so called 'ficelles': little pieces of textile that they use in the vineyards to wrap up the branches of the vines, and pieces of plastic, metal and paper, bones and empty gun shells from the hunters; anything that met my eye.

And while walking I assembled this waste material, in the order I found it, to the piece of wood. I arrived home with the finished piece. I liked the whole process of collecting, recycling and transforming waste into something beautiful. The finished piece became an image of my walk, of a special location. I labelled the pieces with information about the exact location and the date to make a reference to archaeology and ecology. I was cleaning the earth and my pieces became Magic Sticks, objects 'brut' and rough with a spiritual power. Walking through the landscape with the stick in my hand I felt like a shaman performing a ritual.

The pieces you were wearing in the defilée de mode in Bordeaux were made of different materials I remember. More clean.
Yes, you are right. Carine Abbou saw me when I was wearing the first colliers made of ficelles wrapped around a piece of wood. She loved them immediately. Later she gave me a phone call and proposed that I make some pieces for her show, made from the tissue she used for her own creations. She was saying that my work in its original form was too rough for her clientele. I accepted her offer as an experiment, but the artistic process was less interesting. The material was dead material, without a history or a connection with walking, the vineyards, and the earth. In the process my hands stayed clean and the objects were nice but a little bit sterile; decorative if you want.

Did you get any reactions?
Yes, the public was enthusiastic about my performance. Abbou told me that people are still talking about me. But they were more impressed by me as a foreigner, a mannequin from Holland, than by my so called 'jewellery'. To start with I was much older than the professional mannequins and compared with them rather large. And then my shaved head always fascinates people. But there was also an experimental composer musician who showed interest. He proposed using my portable sculptures in a concert or something like that. But I lost his address and never reacted.

I understand that for you your work has a deeper meaning. But do you mind if people regard your work as decoration? This summer in Amsterdam you take part in an exhibition at Suzanne Biederberg Gallery that is part of an international fashion manifestation.
First about the exhibition at Biederberg Gallery. The actual fashion manifestation is taking place in an old gas factory that has become a famous location for cultural manifestations. About twenty galleries in Amsterdam use that occasion which will be covered by a lot of publicity, to show art that is related to fashion and design. I know Suzanne Biederberg very well and she saw my work when she came to have dinner with me and my husband in The Hague. She proposed to me to curate an exhibition in the context of Amsterdam Fashion Week that would include my own work as well. I invited two other artists, José de Bruin and Olivera Micovic, who - like my self - create portable sculptures with a reference to disappearing local traditions and culture. I situate our work in the broader context of globalisation which caused an unexpected uprising of national and tribal sentiments; a reorientation on the meaning of cultural identity. It is a contemporary issue that interests me. Do I mind if people regard my work as 'decoration'? In fact I donít mind if people react to its aesthetic qualities, the beautiful faded colours, the tactile feeling of the material or its ethnic reference. But if they do experience something of the ritual and the spiritual power it represents I prefer that of course.

3 pieces 2005 (driftwood,rope ,ficelles)
But I understand that your question comes from the connection with fashion and design. The term 'decoration' implies something superficial, something which looks nice, like an embroidered table cloth or a colourful tapestry. In fact decoration refers to handicraft as opposed to art as an intellectual, more conceptual approach. In historical perspective the cut-off between handicraft and art started in the 18th century, during the Enlightenment. In Asian or so called primitive cultures this contradiction does not exist. But in Western culture the artist became an intellectual and every form of art which was not a painting or a traditional sculpture became craft. In this hierarchy craftsmen and women - who were excluded from formal education and seen as dilettantes who by nature could only imitate - were at the bottom. Painting was regarded as high art, ceramic - which is highly estimated in Asian cultures - and textile art, were regarded as low art.

Modernism cut the ties with tradition, with technical skill, with society in general. Today in our post modern culture, pluralism is the keyword and because of the reign of popular culture the traditional difference between high and low has disappeared. We are living in a capitalist, secularised society and art has become a commodity. The question: what is art? is nowadays difficult to answer. Everything can be art, but because of that it also can never be more than that. Every artist has to legitimate her- or himself. But in the end it is the power of the art market, the institutional art world of museums and galleries that uses the commercial marketing instruments to promote art, which give it money value and legitimacy.
In fact you can conclude from what I'm saying that all art - because of the way it functions - has become decoration. It no longer speaks a language people in general understand and share. But maybe I'm going too far now.

Let's go back to your own work. Do you think people in general understand and value what you do?
You always need a broader context to explain yourself, to be able to make yourself clear. I think the exhibition in Amsterdam (Local Flavours, Local Behaviours), will be an excellent context. The three of us are dealing with the same issue from a different angle. But still you need an active, open mind to understand. Meaning is a verb, not a noun.
Of course the visual qualities have to seduce you to take a closer look. But as I said before, if someone is only attracted by the aesthetical qualities it's fine with me too.
Outside the context of a gallery it's much more difficult to legitimise your work, people look with different, innocent eyes. In Bourg, when the weather is nice, I like to work on the quay in front of my house. Passers by who see me working, are curious about what I'm doing. They feel no restraint to take a look and ask me what it is. Normally I start by explaining where the material comes from. Although they are living in the middle of the vineyards, they often don't recognise the ficelles. Then I explain that I'm making sculptures out of waste, that it is a form of recycling. A transformation process in fact, because I turn something negative into something positive; that I create harmony between nature and culture. People normally react with surprise, and find the idea very original. Suddenly they look at the ficelles with different eyes. They ask also technical questions, like if I use glue to modulate the textile around the wood. And then I show them that it is a natural process, that by putting the ficelles in water, the earth itself becomes the glue. But people seldom regard the objects as a form of art, they say things like: 'Well, it keeps you occupied', or 'Do you use it as decoration?'
It is the natural result of the way art functions in the western world. A price we pay for freedom. But I am proud to live in a society where people are able to live without the illusion that there is a Christ sitting on a throne in heaven, a higher authority that comes from above, to which we are subjected. Every individual has to create meaning to his or her own life. We have learned to accept the relativity of truth, of right and wrong, to trust our own judgment. In the process of democratisation of culture we gained much more than we lost. Space has been created for difference, for women, for people from other cultures. Every one has to think for her- of himself. We understand I think that meaning in general is not an intrinsic quality, but a form of communication and acceptance. As human beings we need to communicate, to exchange experiences and feelings. We all have our own spiritual life, rituals and traditions. In the end nothing will stop the artist from creating. Creation comes from passion, an inner need, and the most important thing is stay passionate, and honest to yourself, otherwise you will become a producer of saleable objects.

For your first so called Magic Sticks you used anything you found. Now you are using mainly ficelles.

Yes, at the moment I collect only ficelles and I create my objects in the studio. But although you no longer see whether I was walking through a vineyard in the neighbourhood of a waste belt, or a grave yard, or a place where they are repairing a house, every sculpture is still made out of material from a specific location. Recently I found a vineyard where they use blue velvet ficelles. And I also know one where only black is used, this gives me new possibilities to play with colour. I pull the little ficelles out of the earth like a bird does with a worm.

No Title 2006

And sometimes I feel as if I travel through time I imagine myself living in primitive society where women collect wood and roots while men are hunting. That must be the child in me.
After the Magic Sticks I started a series of portable sculptures called Friends. I assemble ficelles around sarments (twigs of the vine) that by its form can hang around my shoulder. Two years ago my husband and I adopted a little poodle who was seriously neglected and ill. He has become very attached to me and loves to hang around my shoulder like a boa. This image I had in mind. You can actually wear these pieces like a form of jewellery. But together, installed against a wall, they look like signs, a mysterious alphabet.
I'm more experienced now. I learned that it is very important to find twigs that not only have the right form but also have to be the right kind of wood. Not too dry for example because that breaks too easily. At first I used the ficelles the way I found them: dried by the sun or wet after a rainy day. Now I prefer to dip the ficelles in water first because then they are more flexible and the clay becomes the glue. When I started dipping I suddenly was reminded of my youth. As a small girl, before going to bed I had to kneel in front of my mother with a cup of water and a bag with tissue in the form of ficelles. With a comb she would divide my hair in locks and roll them, the one after the other, around a wetted strip of textile. In the morning she removed the ficelles and my head would be covered with curls.

You never have a fixed idea about what you want to do when you start. Coincidence plays an important role in your work I think.

Yes that is true but of course there is always a balance between, instinct, coincidence and an idea. And when you become more experienced you dare more. The very first objects were very small and timid. Now my work tends to become bigger and bigger. My most recent pieces are Conversation Pieces. On a walk along the ocean I found a beautiful piece of driftwood, the size of an adult person and formed in a way that it could hang over my shoulder. At home I hung it over the table and it suddenly occurred to me that it looked like a personage who wanted to take part in a conversation. It has become one of my favourite pieces, very rough and impressive. I made a little table for her/him that has exactly the right size to be comfortable. The wood with the ficelles: nature and culture, are in wonderful harmony. It is as if (s)he wants to show us that this is possible if we respect each other.
In the vineyards you not only see the wonderful changing of the seasons and the hard labour of many people who make long days for very little money. You also see the big spray cars arriving filled with insecticides. In a way it is a good thing that the famous Bordeaux wine has lost its leading market position because of competition from cheaper, high quality wines from countries all over the world. More and more châteaux are fighting back by creating a new market for organically produced wine. I really hope they will succeed. Not only for reasons of health, and out of respect and love for nature, but for cultural reasons as well. Because when the market for our wine disappears, it might be the end of an old, very beautiful cultural landscape of vineyards and châteaux.

Bourg sur Gironde
June 2006