On Turn On Art
Marcel Van Eeden. Particles at the Bob Van Orsow Gallery
Marcel Van Eeden, a Dutch living in Zurich, mostly draws on paper with pencil, graphite, or oil pastel, but he sometimes walks the line between painting and drawing, using gouache and watercolor. His modus operandi is to use images from his vast collection (of print material and film always produced before his own birth, November 22, 1965) as the source material for drawings. Sometimes these drawings are sequential and create a narrative, sometimes they are stand-alone. He has also made videos and created environments to support the stories and characters that he envisions and draws about.
Olga Stefan: What is it about drawing that attracts you?
Marcel Van Eeden: Drawing is very close to writing. There is a certain distance created in painting – you use the whole arm and that creates a distance between you and the canvas. Also, you can always correct a painting or go over it. With drawing, it’s intimate, direct, you work from the wrist so it’s a close encounter, and there’s immediacy to it that you cannot get from painting, so correcting is more difficult. You can always do it even on the go and I feel that it’s also a democratic medium – everyone can do it because it’s cheap. You just need a pencil and paper – not the whole set-up that painting often demands. It’s a basic form of expression.
OS: You have some very particular rules in your approach to drawing. Can you please tell us about them?
MVE: Well, all my work is sourced with images from before my birth. But the other rules that you probably allude to are not necessarily so, rather they derive out of necessity or are mere coincidence. For instance, starting from the left-hand corner is not so much a rule but rather a practical solution so I don’t dirty the paper and destroy the shadings. Same for the paper size – it’s not so much a rule but rather a standard that I found versatile. And then there is the myth that I create one image a day every day. Well, we know that is not always possible but from 2000-2007 I kept an online blog and indeed forced myself to publish one image a day – the deadline motivated me to work. Sometimes I would make two images per day and keep one for a sick day when I couldn’t produce, so I would cheat this way sometimes, but I always published one image per day on the blog. Now I can’t always do that. But rules also give a lot of freedom and offer lots of possibilities. If you have absolute freedom, what do you do with it? – You have no point of reference from where to start and where to end. But with rules, you know at least where you can move.
OS: What is your relationship with the time before your birth and why do you choose to depict this past?
MVE: I started this in 1985 and decided to make an encyclopedia about a world in which I do not exist. Initially I started drawing single images from The Hague pre-1965. Then I broadened my scope and started working on series with narratives that included the world in which I, too, travel. Most people are preoccupied with the present and their impact on it – it is the subject of so many artists and thinkers. I enjoy finding elements of the past that have not been treated by others, and not by history itself. There is a space created between me and this time – this space is my niche. Nobody uses this material. It is also somewhat like a dream, a forbidden space because it was so long ago. To some extent, by drawing these found images I give them a new life and it takes me there.
OS: Because the source of your work predates your birth, your person is entirely absent from the work. Do you have moments when you’d like to tell about yourself through serial drawings?
MVE: I’m not interested in an autobiographical analysis. I’m preparing myself for the time when I no longer exist and I do this by imagining a time before my existence – these periods are the same in my mind.
OS: You focus on the little moments of the past, the insignificant, the forgotten ones, basically, everyday events. How do you choose the images you end up drawing?
MVE: Well, I choose images that speak to me for some reason – maybe they resonate because of a war that’s happening or a book I’m reading, something happening in my life or something I saw. But for some of my stories I need specific images and then I search for them. I might need an image of The Hague in 1943 so I do a research and select the one that instinctively speaks to me. I make fiction built out of pieces of found facts collaged together.
OS: Sometimes you zoom in on details of found images you give importance to, by turning them into the center of the drawing. Why do you choose the details, the everyday, the insignificant as the material for your work?
MVE: Because these details and forgotten moments are empty facts that can be imbued with meaning. They were photographed by incident; otherwise they would have been forgotten completely. They are like an empty container that I can fill with meaning and from which I can create new stories.
OS: Your work can be said to avoid subjectivity in favor of a cold representation. The characters in the stories are somewhat flat and the images are unsentimental, and you claim that you are inexistent in the worlds you create. However your presence lurks there behind this surface. How would you make sense of this paradox?
MVE: I always embed myself in my work, of course, by choosing the images I draw, by leaving my mark as human and artist through the act of drawing the images themselves, by determining the date of their end in relation to my beginning, and many times by using autobiographical facts as details in the fictional narratives that I create, like in The Archaeologist whose main character Oswald Spillman traveled to the places where I had exhibitions. I also believe that the material I am built of, which remains in the world, as part of the world, even after my demise or before my existence, is all in these images. These are pictures of me before I turned into the person I am now. So to some extent we are all part of these images in this way – the particles of our bodies remain or are unassembled before our birth.
OS: You used to make single drawings, and sometimes combined text and image in decontextualized ways, both were fragments of some other wholes, but combined together offered mysterious possibilities. More recently you’ve moved towards narratives whose texts, like in graphic novels, explain or complement the story. Why?
MVE: I like writing both as an aesthetic form and as a way of communicating. I always wanted to write. And I like the idea that all these images are connected, that they speak about something, and that they don’t fall apart like sand.
OS: You have created some very interesting characters. Who are they and how did you find them?
MVE: I once saw an ad for an exhibition at a gallery in Munich. Then I found some names of medical doctors and I used them for the names of the artists in the show, and then I began to create their works, shows, etc. like a catalog. It began taking a biographical turn and I liked the idea of creating relationships among these people. Oswald Sollmann, Matheus Boryna and K. M. Wiegand were all born in 1895, and the last one died in 1964, before my birth of course. They were all in the art world somehow, and they also experienced the events of the 20th century. I saw a series on German TV called Heimat that impressed me and influenced me to create these stories. It spans one hundred years in the lives of members of one family who experienced the wars and major historical events of the 20th century but through their own eyes.
OS: You have said that the time before your birth is the same as the time after your death since you are not present. Do you imagine creating a world that represents the time after your death?
MVE: No, the important element for me is the material (images) from which I gain inspiration to build new stories and possibilities. It is the material that testifies about a time when I did not exist. I cannot do this with an imagined future because I don’t work with pure fantasy or speculation. I need facts and images from which I can build other stories.
OS: In your current show, you go back to The Hague, your home-town. Having lived and travelled widely, do you feel the need for home?
MVE: Maybe, yes. I am currently in a phase when I need to reflect on my roots, I have a need to return to the real center. I need to find my essence again.