Joep van Lieshout
The Design Edit interviews the artist and designer as his shows open in New York.
The Armory, New York
5th – 8th March 2020
Carpenters Workshop Gallery, New York
4th March – 25th April 2020
TWENTY FIVE YEARS ago Joep van Lieshout established Atelier Van Lieshout (AVL) in a large warehouse in the harbours of Rotterdam, Netherlands. The company, a guise to poke fun at the myth of individual artistic genius, has since grown into a multidisciplinary practice, attaining international recognition for objects-based projects that balance on the boundary between art, architecture and design. The workshop has over 20 designers, artists, metalworkers and craftspeople involved in the manufacturing process of each product, ensuring that each piece is the result of a collective effort, although all under the sole creative direction of van Lieshout.
Sophie Hastings meets the Dutch artist and designer shortly before the opening of his two New York shows, both entitled ‘The Good, The Bad, The Ugly’.
Sophie Hastings (SH): When did you start making things?
Joep van Lieshout (JvL): I went to art school [the Rotterdam Academy of the Arts] at 16 and started painting, but got fed-up with it and changed to sculpture. Right away I found myself making functional objects and furniture, which was not very common in the eighties. I was making sculptures for an imaginary world: a boat, an operation table, a blacksmith’s workshop. I was creating a new system in my mind, with its own science, perversions, power structures – a mixture of good and evil. And that’s still very much part of my work.
SH: So, your teenage vision led directly to the setting up of your studio, Atelier Van Lieshout (AVL), as a collective in 1995, and the establishment of your independent state, AVL-Ville, in the port of Rotterdam, in 2001?
JvL: Yes, I was defining the borders between art and life and undermining the myth of artistic genius. Looking at society led to thinking about the future of fascism, which I first tackled in my work ‘Darwin’ (2006), a giant sperm you can sleep inside, referencing Darwin’s survival of the fittest. Natural selection has made us what we are, but social Darwinism – or the purification of the race – is a system related to dictatorships and fascism.
SH: Are you engaged in an on-going internal debate on the meaning of life and if so, how does it affect your practice?
JvL: I make decisions and they are informed by consistent ideas, yes, but there’s no consistent approach. Sometimes I make drawings for two years before I make the sculpture; other times I draw and immediately turn it into an object; sometimes I don’t draw at all, just make. There is no strategy – I like to be unpredictable and unreliable for the market. I just follow my intuition, my passion and my instincts. If I think about meaning, it’s later.
SH: Does it frustrate you to have to contend with the market, to be commercial?
JvL: If I were a billionaire, I wouldn’t sell artworks, but I need money to produce my work. If I cared only about the market, though, I’d go back to painting. Everyone understands a painting, you can flip it, sell it, hang it on your wall. Sculpture is a much harder sell.
SH: You seem to enjoy making things that people might find difficult or uncomfortable.
JvL: I don’t like to hear “Oh, it’s so beautiful, so unique … it fits so well in my apartment.” That makes me aggressive [he laughs.] If someone says, “Oh, it’s so ugly,” I know I’m doing something right. When art is disturbing, it means you’ve touched something.
SH: Your installations have often featured bathrooms and toilets, why are they so interesting to you?
JvL: I like toilets, they are an extension of the body, digestion, consumption, life. If you don’t go to the toilet, you die. It’s kind of taboo, or at least not a popular subject, so it sits well with my work. Our bodies are the physical evidence that we exist. I’m very human-centric, I don’t have a big relationship with trees and nature, I’m interested in what we do, our impact on the environment: art, design, architecture, fashion, whatever.
SH: Do you think there is a difference between art and design?
JvL: Art and design are different. There are fields where they come together but design tries to provide answers, to meet society’s needs, and art doesn’t have to give an answer. Art is ‘Fuck you very much!’ But it’s complicated because some design can be art, and some so-called art is so bad it will never be real art.
SH: Tell me about your solo presentation at the Armory Show and your exhibition at Carpenters Workshop, both of which are coming up in New York.
JvL: Unusually, they have the same title – The Good, The Bad, The Ugly. I have drawn from three ongoing series of works: The New Tribal Labyrinth; Cryptofuturism; and The End of Everything and the Beginning of Everything. Both exhibitions are about life, the walk from cradle to grave, time, visions of the future, destruction and recycling, and the emerging fascist tendencies we see now. Who are these sculptures in crisis, who is the old man in the narrative? ‘Old Man Lamp’ is a self-portrait, I’m dragging myself from one creation to the next; in ‘Caveman’ chair, he sits back and takes it easy. ‘The Leader’, an object with no function 3.5 metres high, could be a future fascist leader, a figure made for worshipping, or an empty shell.
SH: I think there are also works about the family and human reproduction, some new swimming sperm objects – and your trademark humour is present, even in these dark times.
JvL: Sperm are the end of everything and the beginning of everything. There are pieces about fertility, youth, age, family, love, destruction, the internal struggle. ‘Prick Lamp’ is a nod to the horny anthropologists who brought back fertility totems from far off lands, and because every prick needs a light.
SH: You also have a new project in Rotterdam and I hear you are becoming a property developer – a far cry from your years of living in a squat?
JvL: Instead of being pushed out by developers, I’ll be the developer myself. I bought some old buildings on 11,000 square metre of land in Rotterdam Harbour and I will build a cultural cluster with debates, exhibitions, films, music, performances, the kind of communal space you used to have in a village, as well as artists’ studios and science labs. The commercial proceeds of the property will go into supporting the not-for-profit cultural centre.
I still have my old squat, by the way, although it’s now been legalised and I pay rent. I might move into one of my new properties, I don’t know; that certainly wasn’t the point of doing it all [laughter].