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I came back from a foreign country to my own country and I became a stranger. Boundaries. I was alone here more than I ever imagined. Everybody was busy with the image, with the surface, with the illusion of painting and design. I wanted to work a another level. I became resistant to this culture of the surface.”
Thanks to the research of H.M.A. Hollanders it is possible to trace again the biographical details which help one understand the background to the most significant work, probably of the 1980’s, made and exhibited by Bien, and now known under the title, The Death Room Interior.1 Hollanders’ is also the first attempt to situate Bien in an art historical context, and one chapter of his doctorate is dedicated to an account of De Sterfkamer van een mijnwerker (The death-room of a mine worker).
Born in 1949 in ‘S Gravenhage, the Bien family moved to Zuid-Limburg, in 1952, where his father was the manager of a casino which serviced the state mine of nearby Heerlen. The family home was situated closest to the mine Emma. Bien had daily contact with the children of the mineworkers, and knew of intense rituals associated with mining and the dying of miners in the pits as well as of work-related illness. As Bien’s work deepened in its poetic making, with a complex web of personal associations and symbol being incorporated into projects, the observation made by Georges Devereux that ‘Jede Beobachtung ist eine Beobachtung am Beobachter’ brought him increasingly closer to himself even as the scope of his journeys widened. Hollanders’ description is that the Sterfkamer van een Mijnwerker is an autobiographical and commemorative work, commemorative in the sense that it referred to a disappearing way of life which Bien had once known intimately.2
The Dutch government had made the decision to close the Limburg coalmines in 1965. _It may very well be that the encounter with the lost and extinct culture of the Selknam and Yamana had also triggered in Bien a memory closer to home, where statist intervention had literally destroyed a whole community way of life economically, socially and culturally.
The autobiographical element is best described in Bien’s own words of 1997; “I was invited to do a show in the Rotterdam Art Space, an initiative of two people who had worked in the Boymans Museum.3 It was in a private house. They used to mount exhibitions there. When I first visited the house, I just took the rooms in, a normal living room and back room connected with sliding doors. I got stuck within the problem of the room, or, I should say, of a house like this. Then I remembered whether I had ever been in a room or house like this, and my childhood in the coal mine area came back to me, that most of my childhood friends were from coal mining families, and that they lived in similar houses. It was in November I saw the house, and I remembered that the day was the feast of All Souls, and also that I had seen coal miners dying, in rooms like this, with their bed in the window area, visited by the priest bearing the sacrament of extreme unction, and the viaticum of the sick. The lady who owned the gallery asked me casually what I was going to exhibit there. I just said, hardly without thinking, a death room interior. I told her I wanted to reconstruct the room I had in my memory. In my mind I thought of carbon.”4
Bien reports a whole confusion in his mind. He recalled specific scenes; the priest and altar boy walking through the streets carrying a cross and a pail of holy water, the purple stole over the surplice, the biretta, the placing of the cross near the front door, where the dying miner lay, the silence of the community; a pall of silence slowly descending, the sick man, visible through the window, and the overpowering sense of what was being guided into the unknown, the reduction of all movement and speech to what was essential, the unspoken commoness of everyone’s concerns, even some of the words of the funeral liturgy, and the ceaseless tolling of the bells as the burial was prepared, the evergreen graveyards, and his own sense that the coal face was a history of life and death, the possibility of reading down into the earth.5
The notion of the reading of the stones is an old romantic trope, the lapides literati. Novalis, whom Bien had quoted to Peter Heynen in a review based on his Tierra del Fuego works, had developed a concept of historical lithology in his Heinrich von Ofterdingen. Beliefs included, that the caverns contained eternity, or, that time stood still. In chapter 5 of that novel, Novalis characterises mining as the symbolic introduction to the world of nature and transition to the dimension of history. A parallel romantic view is of the sexualising of the earth, and the tellurian depths as the place of chthonic forces, and a journey there is a search for hidden lore. There was initially a misunderstanding as to his intentions, with one of the organisers thinking that he had in mind a theatre decoration in the room. His very first idea was that he needed a sculptural expression in carbon, and he needed a bed and a seat. Choosing a material, like carbon, and requiring it in 6 to 8 cubic meter blocks was to prove complicated. It was not clear that carbon was a tractable material, and even if, where would a supply of blocks of such size come from because Bien had never seen such blocks. He had never seen or heard of large carbon blocks.
Initial enquiries proved frustrating. It happened that an official at the Dutch Embassy in Bonn helped, and had drawn mostly negative reactions. Flustered, he finally handed a card with the name of a coal mine director and wished Bien the best of luck. Glück auf!
The director of the coalmine Fürst Leopold Wulfen in Dorsten, Dr. Kleinschmidt, invited Bien, after an initial telephone communication, to attend a meeting with fellow directors and explain his request. The coal was excavated on the advice of the engineer Schwartz, from the H carbon layers. Four coal miners and a foreman took 2 weeks to quarry the blocks. Bien had rented a studio in Amsterdam and the material was transported there. Photographs survive of the excavation process. A laconic note was sent to Bien by the Bergbau Lippe AG; “Sie erhalten von uns eine Anzahl von Kohlebrocken aus unserem Flöz H 1, die Sie für Ihre künstlerischen Arbeiten benötigen. Wir wollen Ihnen die Kohlestücke schenken und berechnen Ihnen keine Kosten. Wir hoffen, damit einen kleinen Beitrag zur Erstellung eines Ihrer Kunstwerke leisten zu können.”
The company had spent in the region of 50,000 DM in securing the blocks for the artist. Their patronage was without fuss and with no expectation of reward. Bien invited Rutkowsky to come from Düsseldorf to Amsterdam and see the blocks. He felt thrown back to a very traditional sculptural situation, studying the blocks and considering the materiality as resistance. It wasn’t possible to carve the block or to chop it. Because of the pressure the blocks had been under it was necessary to make an iron corset to maintain its stasis. It was also obvious that to create the elements he needed he would have to sand the blocks down. His first choice was to make the chair. The individual items needed to be a choreography. The Catholic liturgy of the Mass, if viewed in terms of its movements is a kind of sacred ballet. The _funeral situation of the laying out of the corpse and burial could also be read as choreography. Joyce interpreted it as pantomime. The most difficult part of the work was the making of the bed. Sanding down the three blocks created an enormous amount of dust. Neighbours complained and the landlord and police were called. Washing that had been left out was soiled by the fine dust, and taut diplomacy was needed for Bien to continue with the work.
The grinding down of the blocks for the bed reduced the blocks from 80 c.m. to 25 c.m. The bed was a problem in terms of the idea of animal static which is identified in the four legs. Bien wanted the shape of the bed to have a crouched placement which would allow entry. The idea of a camel with its crouched fore-legs is kind of idee dirigeant. Whilst standing and sanding the block the trope of the lapides loquens became literally topical, as fossil and plant forms were revealed.
Bien explained the shape of the feet as ‘sich hingeben’, a movement away from the interpretation of gravity in the relation of the horizontal and its support, and a sudden dynamising of the amorphous and immobile space. He also integrated the pillow as a form of asymmetry.
Again he imagined within the thinking of the lying down and rising up that the pillow supported the return to the embryonic state, the curling back to birth of the dying body. _The relation to hearing was caught up with the distinction Novalis had raised, which, by transferred epithet Bien associates with the pillow – the ear that listens to the history of the past and nature as a pressured sedimentation on the process of hearing. The putting of the head down to rest is a suggestion towards strata sedimentation.
In a toolbox under the table, Bien placed a hammer. The hammer has a very interesting provenance, it had come to Bien via a friend of Kurt Schwitters to whom it had belonged, and Schwitters had had it from Lehmbruck.
One of the most difficult concepts in relation to the work is the relation to what the artist calls color theory. The apparition of the iron clad blue canvas as provoked by the desire for light while working in the studio that became black. It can also be that the black and blue were themselves much closer than one thinks. The tightness of the black made it difficult to think of light or color. With the coal the color theory was leaving the track, as Bien puts it, of the physical and optical recognition. The best analogy for the idea of recognising the idea of color and light as the source for carbon, was in the idea of the photo negative, where the very black appears as a light source. What Bien takes as evidence of this is the imprints of plants on the coal mine. For him, the real death room interior, was the space in the earth left behind from taking out the block. The ‘negative way’ opened up the transformation of many fundamental categories. Taking out the blocks could be described as a sculptural attitude towards architecture, as the negative of architecture, the architectural as the result of the sculptural within material. What Bien wanted to achieve was to give proof to the idea of light on another scale and dimension. He makes the telling observation as a kind of hypothesis; if you brought someone into the forest of the Amazon and said on this spot in x number of years it would be excavated to the Death Room Interior then they would realise that the place of extraction was a kind of magical spot. For Bien color theory was intimately connected with chlorophyll and blood.
“Being busy with photography, especially black and white, and developing my own film, I had discovered the equivalence of positive and negative, even sometimes how the fullness of black could be warm and suggest a deep unity. It was very logical for me to read the Death Room Interior from the light source point of view.“ The problem of boundaries, which had occupied him since returning from Tierra del Fuego, was in that of defining zones. The real movement of the flower is ultimately toward light in the of manner the sedimented plants. The side cupboard which initially he had thought of in terms of its traditional association and function, he started to read as a border stone. The dynamic action of the sluice in the billiard table had also been an attempt to move between the public and private sphere. The liminal was transgressive, and within the marking of a rudimentary territory, there was the shifting sense of the boundary, the body itself, which was condemned to labour, sweat and die because of the mortality of knowledge. The biblical phrase; ‘by the sweat of your brow / Shall you have bread to eat, / Until you return to the ground – / From there you were taken. / For dust you are, / And to dust you shall return (Bereshit 3, 18 f), indicates that by choosing knowledge man attained death, even tough in the Midrash Tanchuma there is a speculation that the Angel of Death was created before man, thus relating death to providence itself. What is rich in suggestion is that the return to dust is related to the eating of the fruit from the “Tree of Life”, thus light, plant, knowledge, death, dust, or earth from which ‘man’ is first fashioned, a circularity to the breath, the acoustic shaping, and the problem of transgression within the bounded existence of the living being.6
Bien would have it: you indeed are light, and unto light shall return. It is a more Platonic inflection, and indeed one is reminded that for Tolstoy, the concept of dying was a form of hallucinated geometry. For Bien, and this is fundamental, the border stone is the principle of metamorphosis.
Other elements which are included relate to the specifics of Bien’s own memories of liturgical furniture.
“The window has a grill. Once again I realised the relationship between the confession grill and the light theoretical level. I thought of absolution as a light source. Within the screen I integrated a chair. One part became filligrain, half transparent one could look through, for me a site of the future. By setting up the boundary in the sense of the screen I realised here was a movement of integration within spheres.”
During the 6–7 weeks of the sculpting process news came that Beuys had died: “… then I heard that Beuys died, and I don’t know, from that moment on there was this idea of light, a desire for light, to bring light into it, in an optical visual way. There was a desire for the blue, a desire for blue to appear. I needed to find the source of the woven light.”
“I wanted a form that was square. I wanted square as non-form. You can realise this when you study the Platonic figures (Timaeus) the only difference between square and circle is direction. I wanted no dominance of any kind. I did not want it to expand or compress. I wanted to make sure you could recognise that I had, with a razor, cut a piece out of space, but, that the space, the spatial exposure I was showing, could also be recognised as a piece of a larger canvas. Then one is in the drama of the canvas.”
Bien constructed an iron frame around the canvas but again wished to state the frame as boundary with an opening, and so on the top left the lines extend over each other and move out of the territory of the canvas. This breaking of the frame may be interpreted as a typical fauvist gesture, although the idea can be found early in Bien’s work, in a work related to the static pedestal. That is his cupboard with the hare and dog [_1982-003_], where the motoric action of the signature becomes sculptural. It was an effort to create also a form of dramatic contrast, where the dominant mineral existence of the carbon has the apposite countering of the liquid element. In a highly Goethean formula Bien refers to “mineralising of the form process going from sprouting plants into mathematics” Thus the direction in which the blue was moving was, in one way, as a blue still related to the mineralisation and crystalisation, he wanted the understanding of the process of liquid dynamics.
The inner aesthetic processes were also leaving from one ‘field’ to the next, a kind of inner homology to the presence of the work and its physical situation. Here was a ‘moving across’, that was the idea of the internalised journey, the innerness itself is the ‘interior’. The phrase has echoes from spiritual literature of the 17th century, especially French devotional writing on the ‘interior life’. In his first detailed conversations about the work with Hollanders, Bien had emphasised this aspect.
The blue of the canvas had a traditional transcendental referent.7 The blue of the sky and the blue of distance Hollanders maintains, was painted in response to the news of Beuys’ death on 22 January, 1986, “... als eerbetoon aan hem heeft Bien toen een doek van 1.50 x 1.50 meter met regelmatige lichtblauwe toetsen tempera geschilderd en in een ijzeren lijst ingeraamd.”8
The essential dynamic is the movement of space and counterspace. The ‘cupboard’ mark the anchoring of the territory. Initially conceived in a literary form as a cupboard, Bien destroyed the definition of furniture and left on the block the traces of excision and compression. He placed an iron corset on the block which he felt held a tension in which the transforming tracks were visible. Not only is the notion of journey and boundary interiorised, but the transformative creative process is indicated in the materiality of the work.
Again Bien describes what the border stone is not in order to suggest what it is, “The border stone is not about geography, geology, or topography. In this setting the border stone has mobility. It is the border stone of the principle. I placed the border on the kind of support I associate with Egyptian furniture.” [_1982-004, 1984-011_]
In one sense it is possible to relate elements from all the preceding works of Bien to the Death Room Interior. It occupies a pivotal position in his entire œuvre, and in the traditional language of value-ascription, is his masterpiece.
The reception of the work has to date been fitful. Initially in Rotterdam it provoked confusion, being interpreted in as a form of social melodrama. According to an interview which appeared in De Limburger in 1986, it was a farewell to Beuys. The exhibition in Rotterdam attracted the attention of Hollanders, who under the direction of Ron Manheim, then teaching at Nijmegen University, to write a Doctoraalscriptie on Bien with the title De Spirituele Kunst van Waldo Bien, een hedendaags plasticus – a typescript of 82 pages including bibliography and some illustrations in black and white. Two other notices appeared, one by Kusters in the De Limburger newspaper for 21 March 1986, entitled ‘De mijnstreek als sterfkamer’, and a further one in 1987 – ‘Ode aan de mijnwerker, Rotterdams Nieuwsblad, _23 January. Hollanders’ thesis has not been published nor has he contributed any articles.9
In the immediate period of the work, it returned Bien back to his own past, to the territory of childhood and youth, it was as if two spirals of motion had been created; one out from his home which went North and then West, now, his journey would take him South and then East.
The problem of territorialisation is central to an account of the Death Room Interior. While it can be shown that different thematics announced in earlier works are re-situated in the Death Room Interior the multiple overlapping and use of transient, even ephemeral, discords (such as the confessional grill) point to complex re-territorialisation where there is no fixed centre. Like a fugue it is as if the dissonant emergence of different themes can be shown to exist harmoniously if one takes a particular cross-section. In one sense it could be argued that one is faced with a baroque territorialisation, thinking of what Heinrich Wölfflin states about the baroque, ‘Line as boundary is eliminated and so much movement is introduced into the surfaces that, in the impression of the whole, the quality of tangibility more or less vanishes.10 In a very specific way, there is a geometry of position which has entered into multiplicative relations. Daniel Klébaner, speaking of Bernini, offers an interesting point of reference, he argues the insecurity of boundary between interior and exterior, due to the hidden lighting, and also the re-territorialisation which insists that the exterior/interior is constitutive.11 In the Death Room Interior its very visibility may be its most problematic aspect; the threshold of invisibility. This would link Bien to Richard Serra and Robert Morris and to what Lyotard has identified as ‘neo-baroque’ strategies in which there is a complexification of the theoretical transformer between the subject and its environment.12
After all that, there is the stark fact, that Bien, at the age of 37, started to recall something long since buried, the Catholic heritage of the southern Netherlands, itself the main source of sculptural production in the history of the Netherlands, and secondly and specifically, the casualties of capitalism; the miners whose wage labour was exchanged for their very life in some instances, young, and literally put on the scrap-heap of history, their memory abandoned.
The most extensive interpretation of the Death Room Interior is that of Leonie See written in Berlin in 1993–94. The text has not been published; its running title: Text für Waldo Bien The Death Room Interior (July 1994).13 See had visited Bien in his Atelier in Adalbertstrasse in 1991. The studio was in the Berlin-Kreuzberg. See had been writing on an artistic Aktion in the Urals and when photocopying her text met Bien in the photocopy shop. After her first visit or as she was leaving during her first visit, Bien showed her a photograph of the Death Room Interior which had only been exhibited once previously. She thought to write about the work, and found sometime later that Bien had gone to an enormous amount of trouble to make a miniaturised version of the original, later she visited Amsterdam and saw the original.
“… nur ein Bild hierfür, als inszenierter Raum, der schnell erklärt ist, ein Symbol, eine Metapher für das Ende? Ein Verweis auf ‘die letzten Dinge’? Vielleicht auch der Versuch, das Übersinnliche zu begreifen. Eine Hommage gar, aber an wen und wozu und warum aus Kohle und Eisen?”14
Drawing on a text of Rudolf Steiner, Kunst und Kunsterkenntnis, Neun Vorträge, 1888–1921, where Steiner argues that the artist must give a necessary shape to that which in nature cannot happen, to crystallise the tendency of nature in his specific work.
She identifies the Kristallisationspunkt as being rooted in the encounter with the small artisan dwellings around Heerlen, and extends her conception by concentrating on the description of a fundamental characteristic of the dying person, the breathing process diminishing, interrupted, contact with the outer world diminishing, and the collapse of basic physiological functions. She parallels the work of bringing coal, warmth and light, to others, with the failure within the body itself, and the binding element of human life as giving and taking, the rhythm in which we live. Breathing is the taking in of spirit (Geist), and blood the means human living. Again following Steiner she argues for the cosmic connection of breathing. For Steiner this has the consequence that man must learn, in a conscious relationship, to connect with the cosmos.
Describing the elements of the work, See takes the position that the screen is ‘Schutz vor fremden Blicken’. The seat is seen in an hieratic and archaic fashion. The corset element read, as with the horns of Michelangelo’s Moses, the seer’s contact with God. The very shape of the block for the seat opens the waiting to the above, by virtue of its non- specific being.
Steiner is central for her account of the work and the understanding of the process of the ‘color theory’ on which he had been working. See assumes throughout that Bien is familiar with Steiner, and indeed both Kloppenburg in Amsterdam and Bien’s partner Eliane Gomperts were consistently involved with Steiner’s teaching; Kloppenburg through private study, Elian Gomperts as a teacher in a Steiner Waldorf school in Amsterdam. See’s essay is the first and most complete anthroposophical ‘reading’ of a work of Bien, and brings a crucial documentary source to light which undoubtedly influenced the intellectual context of the works of Bien at this time.
Wouter Welling in an article in 1990 was to make a further explicit interpretation of the work.15 Firstly, he observed that the ‘vegetation’ idea which runs through it concerns unending life, or, metamorphosis, and secondly, that the cross and confessional screen place the overall setting into a Christian context. Welling, valuably, draws attention to drawings which he had seen at the Gallerie Holleder in Amsterdam, “I saw the drawings which Bien had produced underground and which relate directly to the project. They were chalk drawings on carbon paper. I particularly remember a resting figure with a floating triangle above the body [_1985-023_].
One of those drawings, with a subscript, Neues Hirn, alte Masse [_1985-013_], done in white chalk on carbon paper, seem to represent a pair of struggling figures lightly outlined, and to the left a strong phallic projection. The drawings introduce the erotic as part of the work. In the Dag Nacht drawing [_1985-015_], a long figure of spiralling flesh hovers over a bird’s-eye view of perspective landscape. The ribbon effect gives a kind of intestinal feeling and the technique of the drawings is fluent and schematic. The light/dark polarisation reverses the concept of the photo negative, and the use of carbon paper extends the material resource. The drawings also suggest the repression within the space of death, the ambivalent and powerful relationship of sexuality to dying.
For Bien the problem of body is not abstract. There is no ‘the body’ as there is no ‘the object’. He refers to ‘my body’, and this is always being expressed. That process indicates the relation to nature, and through the interrogation, more than nature. In speaking of ‘my body’ then, the act of symbolising refers to the self, and that is achieved through ‘my body’. Kalyankumar Bagchi raises the point well in his ‘Man-in-Nature as a phenomenological datum’; ‘But in the case of the self-symbolising of consciousness there is a deeper necessity. Such necessity is not formal or analytical. For in the context of self-symbolising the “form” is nothing apart from what the “form” stands for. The form or symbol is understood as though it is consciousness. Self-symbolising through the body constitutes the peculiar reality of “man-in-nature”, a fact which makes him spirit incarnate in nature.’16
The object too does not stand over against the subject. The interlacing and research of the world has its own existential implication, if the expression ‘my body makes sense ‘my world’ also has the possibility of meaning. The search for meaning is through a multiplicative and interactive approach which refuses to dichotomise, i.e. interior/exterior, communication/_alienation. The human search can proceed within the existential situation of self-interpretation. This also raises the double problem of nature, and man as nature who questions the nature of nature and himself, therefore engaged in the search for meaningfulness as direction for existence.
The search itself may confirm the existence of nature as radically objective, yet only insofar as the subjective research is constantly individualising itself, by emphasising what Tymieniecka calls ‘individualising virtualities’; ‘Through the rational articulation of his mobility, the existential route not only offers an access to the working of Nature itself, but it exhibits the territory of external objectivity.’ In this relation she places the essential spontaneous, generative correlation between nature and the living individual.17
As Bien’s interdisciplinary work demonstrated, anthropology is the question of nature raised again in the nature of man as questioning, of what gets asked. The concepts of self and world are then translated as polar, or poles within the existential situation, in which the reflection takes place, thus part of the nature of the one who reflects is the capacity to be an ‘object’ for self-reflection, the objectivity of nature towards which the self, nature, world, cosmos, is questioning, also raises the meaning of nature within Nature. The nature of nature for man is placed in an intermediate situation, either res cogitans or extensa. Thus the anthropological problem of the world leads to the question of self-experience. 18
Bien’s mother with her two husbands