Fail to learn


When I was asked to find a subject for my thesis, I panicked almost immediately. I felt that my subject would need to relate to my work and connect to my artistic research. It also had to inspire new work, be original, innovative, and relevant. All in all, it had to be perfect.

During each and every one of my assessments and work presentations at the KABK, I’ve been told that I need to learn to let go. To dare to let go. Dare to fail. On the first day of each academic year, the head tutor Johan van Oord proclaims the necessity of failure for the student’s artistic development. In his opening speech, he refers to the academy as ‘the temple of failure,’ where one is expected to produce a multitude of ‘bad’ works rather than ‘good’ works, a place where failure is valuable. Failure is the only way in which the student can learn, improve his artistic practice and develop himself. But is this really the case?

I decided to dedicate my thesis to a study of failure within the artistic process and its influence on artistic development. I named it Fail to Learn.
But what does it mean to fail? I turned to the most practical tool first: the dictionary. The Oxford English Dictionary listed a number of definitions that I applied to a work of art as well as to the artistic process. In a nutshell, it seemed that what doesn’t succeed, fails, and what doesn’t fail, succeeds. The context in which the word is used is of utmost importance. An influential figure in the ‘art world’, a gallery owner, or art critic might refer to an artist as ‘failed’. But does this really mean that the artwork and the artist have failed? Or is it the artist who determines whether or not his work has failed? There’s one thing I’m sure of: we can’t control failure. Failure is dependent on coincidence and purposely failing is impossible. Maybe this is the source of my frustration when I’m summoned to take a risk, to dare to fail. Being a perfectionist, I tried to learn by doing my best to fail. In the end, I fail to learn.

I also looked at the psychological factors that influence failure within the artistic practice. For example, my greatest enemy: fear of failure. In Creativiteit onder druk, Maria Hopman writes that fear of failure is a fear that exists exclusively in our own experience. Her research uncovered that people who see themselves as fearing failure are equally tense as those who don’t consider their anxiety to be fear of failure. It seems that fear of failure is a phenomenon inherent only in the way that someone experiences or defines their fear. Still, fear of failure can have a stifling impact on the artistic practice. Hopman claims that taking responsibility and maintaining an active attitude are the only effective weapons against the blockade that fear of failure can produce. Additionally, Klaus Ottman describes the importance of assuming a certain attitude when dealing with failure. He calls it the ‘genius decision’, which boils down to the artist’s attempt at making the impossible possible. Art’s possible significance lies within this relationship between failure and striving for success.

Thinking back to Johan van Oord’s statement, I kept wondering how one could truly learn through failing. I realized I was looking for a practical use of failure within the artistic learning process. To study this further, I looked at the psychologist B.F. Skinner’s research into behavioural therapy. I attempted to apply his ideas on ‘operant conditioning’ on ‘art-making’ behaviour. According to Skinner, all behaviour (like art-making, for example) can be conditioned (taught) by giving the promise of a positive reward, which encourages and possibly even improves behaviour. But when behaviour is met with a negative response, like when your teachers disapprove of your work, this behaviour will be avoided in the future. In this sense, the ‘use’ of failure lies in its ability to teach someone to cease certain behaviour in order to avoid failure. Most important, according to Skinner, is that failure related to ensuing negative consequences, leads to a change in the artist’s behaviour and a modification of his artistic strategy. This can be seen as a positive influence that learning through failure can exert on the artistic development.

However much sense this principle might make, it’s obviously not that simple within the every day practice of art education. Here, the art student is expected to conduct fundamental research for his work on a ‘theoretical’ and ‘artistic’ basis. This sounds very broad, and it is. It’s difficult to discern whether a student has failed or succeeded to live up to these expectations. In any case, it’s essential for a student to learn how to deal with consequences such as negative feedback, because criticism from tutors and students is the most influential and important frame of reference available to the student. As long as the student remains open to the learning process inherent in criticism and feedback, the artistic crisis and failure can be overcome.

I spoke to Johan van Oord about the academy as ‘the temple of failure’ and asked him about the photo he used to illustrate this: Leap into the Void by Yves Klein. According to van Oord, this is a good example of a work resulting from failure. During the making of the photo, Klein had to fall in order to fly within the photo. Falling to fly. Failing to succeed. Failure and triumph are of equal importance within artistic development, said van Oord, upon which he concluded by saying that it would perhaps be better to refer to the academy as ‘the temple of failure and triumph’ instead.

  1. M. Hopman, Creativiteit onder druk, omgaan met faalangst en kritiek in kunst en kunstonderwijs. Assen: Van Gorcum, 1999
  2. K. Ottman, The Genius Decision: The Extraordinary and the Postmodern Condition, Putnam, CT; Spring Publications, 2004
  3. J. van der Tas, De muze als professie, Onderwijsvernieuwing aan de Koninklijke Academie van Beeldende Kunsten. Raamsdonksveer: Drukkerij Dombosch [z.j]


21.05.2014 BY KOEN KLEIJN

Let me tell you a story about bananas.

I was a staff writer for De Groene Amsterdammer for about five years; I was also editor in chief ad interim for one of those five years. This meant that I chaired the weekly staff meetings, looking for things to fill next week’s edition with.

Usually, these meetings were fun. These were truly intelligent, intellectual, experienced journalists. When they mentioned Marx, or Weber, or Pushkin, you could be sure they had actually read Marx, and Weber, and Pushkin. This included the strange guys who did the corrections and the guys who did the tele-marketing, calling people at home to sell subscriptions. Most of these were published authors, philosophy students. De Groene was a bit of a sanctuary, a reservation or, if you like, a zoo.

But a clever zoo.

I remember distinctly a young intern. In his second week, I asked him if he had anything to contribute. Yes, he said, I’d like to write about bananas. De Groene has many faults, but it also has a great tradition of trust. Bananas, I said. Fine. Two pages? 1500 words? By next week? Yes, great, the intern said. It was only after we had jotted down the word ‘Bananas, 2 pages’ on our list that someone in the group asked ‘What’s with these bananas, then?’

Out came the story: banana’s are a monoculture, every banana is genetically the same as all other bananas in the species, there’s a virus raging through banana-plantations and as all bananas are vulnerable in the same way, the traditional chiquita banana (the Cavendish variety) may actually disappear. There are other banana varieties, of course, just as healthy and wholesome and nutritious, but these are usually a bit smaller, and have darker skin, and customers in the western world don’t like them much. So: crisis.

A very good story. Got picked up by all sorts of other media – radio, TV. If you don’t believe me: VPRO’s Labyrinth has the story again, next Sunday. Well done, for an intern.



Raymond Roussel

At nineteen years of age, Raymond Roussel worked feverishly at his first grand novel, La Doublure. With great care, he shut the curtains of his study to prevent the light of his genius from escaping through the windows. Above all, Roussel refused to be distracted by the banality of the everyday world. His books were fuelled by nothing more than his endless imagination.

Many contemporary artists are just as fond of hermetically shutting their studio off from the rest of the world. There’s one artist I know who meticulously keeps the sliding doors to his studio, directly annexing his living room, firmly shut. Sometimes, when he leaves the room to fetch a book, I try to peek inside, but it’s absolutely impossible to catch even a glimpse. His scanner is in The Studio. but there’s not a chance in the world that I might make a scan myself, or even to accompany him to the other side of that door while he does it for me.

Having become slightly apprehensive at so much secrecy, I sometimes fantasize about an illegal photographer hiding in there, making all his work. Or that my friend copies all his work from old encyclopaedias or from smutty porn. That’s the great thing about art today, everything can be used as a source, which means that everything is possible.

The studio is traditionally seen as the place from which work originates while at the same time, it’s the prison in which the artist must endure hour upon hour of lonely isolation. Doubt seeps through the walls of the workplace like damp, and the artist asthmatically gasps for air. Every artist in the studio is a lonely hero.

Pollock’s studio

Replica by Joe Fig

Artist Jackson Pollock needed the loneliness of the studio to come to his unique expressive drip paintings. “I am nature” was his response to the artist’s endless attempts at replicating nature. Like a gladiator, he stands in the middle of his canvases, allowing the paint to drip from the stick in his hand. The artist and his work are one. It’s precisely this location, laden with expression and drama, which is seen in replica form in a photo by Joe Fig.

Within the miniature sculpture, the studio is recreated in minute detail (based on Hans Namuth’s photos) and shows the master in the midst of his canvases on the ground, surrounded by paint in shades exactly corresponding the photo. Each detail is correct. The sculptures demand knowledge of the perspective, of the colour, and insight of the artist. Joe Fig’s craftsmanship is praised, and so it seems that a genius is needed to make a perfect copy, However fascinating the work may be, it never quite extends past the original, nor does it exalt kitsch nor the Gepetto-syndrome.

Charles Matton, too, makes replicas of studios and presents them as photographs within a catalogue. His studios are equally miniature and precisely fabricated as Joe Fig’s.

Rhinoceros: Homage to Eugene Ionesco​​

Diorama by Charles Matton, mixed media

Matton wanted to find a modern way to create realistic interiors like the painters of the 17th century, without having to rely on their level of craftsmanship. Initially, he wanted to photograph his friends in their studios and paint over these images. Not too difficult. In the end, he made dioramas in which he carefully made an exact replica of the studio that he photographed. These works were incredibly time consuming and ultimately, the complete opposite of the quick method he initially aspired to. The dioramas were a success (because secretly, everyone loves a doll’s house.)

The dioramas take things a step further because by portraying some sort of primal idea of the sculptor or painter. The spherical sculptures of the modern sculptor fill the space, while in Francis Bacon’s studio chaos prevails. A hippopotamus models in the middle of a studio. These strange boxes, with all their fantasy and precision, explore a world that exists out of our line of perception, even out of our presence.


Replica of Fischli und Weiss’ own studio by themselves

Fischli and Weiss also made a copy of a studio, their own studio, in full scale. Everything, even the juice packages have been precisely replicated. Just as painfully exact as Joe Fig. But instead of peering through a keyhole into the artist’s sanctuary, you walk through their reality, their reality which is just as banal as our own daily existence. And it’s exactly this deconstruction of the world and it’s enormous ability to place things into perspective that makes this copy genius.

Instead of locking their doors, Fischli and Weiss invite all to enter their holy land. But there’s nothing left to steal here, they’ve already stolen it themselves.

Warhol’s studio

Replica by Joe Fig

Boites Comme Fins en Soi

by Charles Matton

The Neighbours


Since I began working on my project The Neighbours (2006) every sound started to have an impact. At first I couldn’t work properly as I was constantly irritated by the sound of the upstairs neighbours. I was cross with myself that something so trifling could loom so large in my head. I lay on the bed. I tried for a while not to hear anything; it forced itself on the periphery of my consciousness, like a hum, like a dripping tap. I was quite astonished when I realised that this could lead to my making a work. Precisely because it is so trifling. Precisely because it is on the edge of my conscious perception.

The more I became preoccupied with my neighbours, the more sounds I’ve begun to notice. My ears have become more sensitive to detail since listening to my neighbours even for the subtlest of sounds. When visiting someone, I hear more. It is amazing how often you hear someone coughing in the house next door.

This applies even more to hearing the neighbours above me. In the six months they’ve lived here, my home has changed. They have taken over my space. I went mad with irritation lying awake on my bed and so I decided to reverse the roles by taking the noise they made as a starting point for this project . Ironically, I now miss them if I don’t hear them for a minute and I am glad of any strange new sound they start to make. Listening to them gives me a feeling of being busy with something (acute and exciting). I was devastated when they insulated their floor with new underlay flooring. I think it is new but I can’t be sure as I only hear their sounds and I have never met them.

Imperceptibly, the process of being aware of the upstairs neighbours in my daily routines reached the point where one Friday night I realised I was waiting for their shoes to fall next to the bed. I knew how this would sound. I knew that this would be followed by the dreary hum of the satellite dish above my window. I was, I realised, constantly preoccupied with them: people I once briefly spoke to over the phone but with whom I never actually met. I know their bedroom habits down to the most intimate (acoustic) details.

I try to imagine them, but the image remains vague. I imagine them as people who often go to the local gym (on the corner), with something inflated about them, as if they’ve been carefully pumped up to a critical point. But what am I actually basing this on? Also, it isn’t their physical appearance that keeps me awake. It is the space they take up in my home with their sound, since this makes me always aware of them.

Because I hear my neighbours, they’ve actually infiltrated my space: not with their bodies but with their sound. They disturb what my home is for me – a place where I can do what I want and others can’t.

The silence of my home is my home. My private space. But what is this silence in fact? It is not what I would term real silence. There are the birds, my fridge hums, and cars drive past. However, that is the background noise to my home, I am used to it.

There is a prodigious link between sound, space and awareness.

The notion of background sound, already has something spatial about it like a kind of environment, a private room you can always – when it is quiet – take with you. Certain people might feel exactly like this about a lot of sound, which is then their ‘background’ and perhaps they feel uneasy when it is missing. Unexpected noise is saying that this private space doesn’t exist, especially noise from which you can’t escape and about which you can’t do anything. A dripping tap is less frustrating as I know I can also switch it off, but the neighbour’s noise is uncontrollable. The only thing I can do is adjust to it, or phone them up and hear my phone upstairs, or have the music very loud, which gives a kind of temporary satisfaction.

If my upstairs neighbours are unexpectedly quiet, something strange happens. The quietness drives me mad. It is like a story I read about a man who every night was resigned to hearing his upstairs neighbour throwing off his shoes one by one. One night, the upstairs neighbour, in a sudden fit of awareness after having taken off one shoe, thinks the sound is antisocial. He is overcome with guilt. With the precision of a moon landing, he then places the right-hand shoe next to the other. After fifteen minutes he wakes up with a start. He hears a voice crying: ‘For goodness sake, take the other shoe off, then I can get some sleep!’ I am now so used to my neighbours’ routine sounds that they’ve become almost my background noise and indeed I now notice when they’re missing.

Computer art

08.10.2013 BY ARIE ALTENA

T.V.C. 20 68179 71, 1971.

During the fifties and sixties of the last century, the first pioneers in digital art used computers to realize their visual experiments to create algorithmic art. They would write computer programs, otherwise known as algorithms, to generate images, usually by using advanced programming language such as COBOL or Fortran, but also by using machine language. They would often work in the dead of night, whenever a university or research institute would grant them a few hours to make calculations on their expensive IBM-mainframes. These computers were built for computing punch cards, which meant that using them to make visual art became an abstract and mathematical procedure that called for the formulation of rules to determine the construction of an image. The computer carries out the algorithm after which the output is made visible on a plotter (a drawing machine) connected to the computer.

Cubic Limit, plotter drawing, ink on paper, 1977

Artists in this field of visual computer art, such as Ben Lapofsky, Lilian Schwartz, Frieder Nake, Manfred Mohr, Edward Zajec and Vera Molna, were strongly influenced by cybernetics and closely linked to the informational aesthetics developing during that time. It became evident that composing algorithms that performed repeatedly to produce the same image was not particularly artistically interesting, however valuable this development would appear for the later advancement of computer graphics. Much more interesting are the algorithms that, when repeated, produce different results. Although the first generation of computer artists created an output of unique plotter drawings, their main artistic interest lies in fundamental research into composition. They also touch upon complex questions concerning the essence of the artistic practice, by often bluntly addressing the question of authorship with computer generated plotter drawings. The question, what is art, is approached conceptually through an algorithm that automatically spits out one unique drawing after another, as though produced on a factory assembly line. Generally, the question was answered by assigning authorship and artistry to the actual formulation of the algorithms. The construction of algorithms for artistic purposes was seen as a scientific form of visual research that opened up a new stage for the development of art.

P148, “inschrift”, plotter drawing ink on paper, 50cm x 50cm, 1973

The works made by these pioneering computer artists is closely linked to the avant-garde movements of the sixties (like GRAV, de Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel), and conceptual art. After all, Joseph Kosuth and Sol Lewitt likewise made works that consisted of formulations. Indeed, the end of the sixties saw a short-lived convergence between computer art and conceptual art. The computer artist’s attitude towards technology was incomprehensible to those involved in conceptual art and classical art criticism, and was to some even suspect. Nevertheless, many computer artists (like Frieder Nake) were even more radical in their rejection of the bourgeois art system than the conceptual artists, who were operating within the galleries and museums.

P-133, “cluster phobia”, plotter drawing ink on paper, 50cm x 50cm, 1972

The innovations made by the first generation of computer artists are simple when compared to what’s possible now, fifty years later. But their experiments laid the foundation that makes the prefab box of tricks possible. What’s more important – for art, that is – is that the computer artists also pioneered in the exploration of conceptual questions that still remain fundamental for computer art.

144 Trapèzes (16 variations), plotter drawing, ink on paper, 20×25 cm, 1974

P91, 1971, plotter drawing, ink on paper, 50 x 50 cm

P-122, “scratch code”, plotter drawing ink on paper, 50cm x 50cm, 1972

P-71, “serielle zeichenreihung”, plotter drawing ink on paper, 40cm x 50cm, 1970

T.V.C. 20 68179 71, 1971.

Quadrate, 1969/1970.

Plotter drawing, ink on paper, 1965

51/80 Scratch Code, 1970-1975.

P-050/R, “a formal language”, Ink/paper/wood, 1970, 100cm x 100cm

A List

20.07.2014 BY JIGNA UMERIA

As entries, strike-throughs, spelling mistakes, re-entries, question marks, lists within lists, bullet-points, dashes, personalised bullet-points, squares, asterisks, circled entries, bold entries, ambitious entries and already-done entries are scattered across the page, the mind moves quicker than the pen to create this masterpiece in its initial form. Margins, the bottom of the list or the space in between the lines are an opportunity to add information that could not keep up with the mind or that were simply forgotten. At times, these secondary entries will appear in a different colour where an alternative writing tool has had to be used.

The creator of a list has no intention to design their thoughts but merely to order them visually in tangible form. The back of a card, an old envelope, some scrap paper, a notebook, a smart phone, a saved email draft, a train ticket or a post-it note provide the canvas for this mind montage to be drawn out.

The activity of list-making is both common to all yet entirely individualistic.There is a sense of urgency attached to something that is created on-the-go or in between activities and maybe it is the extent of this pressure that when making a list, normal writing conventions are ignored. Baselines are misused, words are written across them rather than on them; the ascenders on letters become muted; the descenders have added flamboyancy and the margins are no longer a no-go area for words but a place to fill with words, additional thoughts, numbers, sketches and question marks.

In a moment’s pause, a second thought is given to putting these thoughts into better order or form, perhaps in order of priority or alphabetically.This can be done at a later date. Sometimes, a complete re-draft of the list might be necessary. If it is a list of that type it can be prepared to make sense to others. It is at this point a design element might be added: colour coding, font selection, margin widths and line lengths.

There is an unspoken hierarchy to the various forms of lists that surround us in our daily lives.Train times, shopping lists, gift lists, hate lists, wish lists, to-do lists, today’s food specials, contents pages, registers, stock lists, missing lists, menus and guest lists. The different forms of lists are matched and paired with a tried and tested format. Registers are done alphabetically; shopping lists by memory, train times chronologically etc.

When a list finds itself in the hands of someone other than its author, different aspects of it might be scrutinised. The graphologist looks at the space between the lines and the curves or flicks of the letters, the size of the capital letters, the margins around the texts and the slant of the handwriting. The artist dreams up the story that precedes the list and what might follow. The curious looks around to find its owner. And others disregard it.

When an individual has shown extraordinary qualities or talents, the contents of a list they have made might become valuable to others. The lives of great scientists, musicians, actors, writers or designers are retraced and dissected by making their diaries or notebooks public. Whilst the content of their home is on show so is the content of their minds. Private information, messily scrawled across the page with changes and errors, supposedly give insight into a frame of mind. A laundry list suddenly reveals secrets of their lifestyle, an unseen side to their character.

Michelangelo’s menu list

This information, analysis, format, or story is irrelevant to the author; the content is what is of interest to them. Their document is plagued with encryptions of coding, different methods of ‘crossing off’, ticks, strike-throughs and circles around ticks. Only some entries have numbers, where clearly an attempt at prioritising has been made. Some have dates next to them, for deadlines and finales, giving an added importance, a ticking reminder. These juxtapositions need not make sense to others.

Having been created, a list triumphantly sits at the top of important papers. It is versatile and can be used as a bookmark, a coaster or a space to sketch; it is embellished with important things, mustn’t forgets and mental notes. It ages well. Every mark on this creation is part of its existence. Folds in the page create creases across the unused printed lines; they battle with the thoughts sprawled across them. A new dimension is added to the form where the author has rolled the corners back and forth between their fingers.

A list by Charles Darwin

At the height of its usability, the list holds authority over its creator; unchecked items glare at you and make you feel guilty for the things you have not yet accomplished. A mutual resistance grows and other lists arise. Before the list has peaked it finds itself at the bottom of a bag, on a supermarket floor, wedged in a shopping basket, slotted in the corner of a sofa stuck to some crumbs, at the end of a book that was being read, in the shredder, at the back of another list, propping up a table, underneath a doodle, fallen on the pavement or sitting helplessly in the recycling bin, sitting next to the envelope that wasn’t chosen and another list that has efficient strikes through most entries.

On the off chance that a list may be revisited or found again by its creator, they might experience the sense of satisfaction that comes with being able to cross off multiple items from the list. The single action of drawing a line, or the flicking of a tick enhances the achievement of completion.

Much ado about nothing.

Most of us would reach for the dictionary to find a description for “nothing”, so here goes nothing:


Nothing is: nothing (pronoun) is not anything, not a thing: nothing. But is there more to it? The term nothing makes its appearance in the works of many great thinkers and philosophers. Like Socrates, for example who said, “I only know one thing: I know nothing.” In this context, nothing refers to knowledge, in other words, that which is not tangible. But isn’t nothing the intangible immaterial?


Leonardo Da Vinci said, “Nothing has no centre and it borders on the nothing”. He situates the “nothing” as an endless given. What would I do with absolutely nothing? Before “something” exists there must first be “nothing”. Could you describe this as a cause and effect reaction? In today’s society, one must be sure to do “something” to stand out. But doesn’t this great collective desire for “something” not simply heighten our desire for the “nothing”? “Although one can profit from something, we can only find that which is useful in nothing”, according to Lao-Tse3.

Tom Friedman, Erased Playboy Centrefold

Let’s get this straight. At this point, I’m convinced that “nothing” indeed, is intangible. But I do think that “nothing” becomes tangible when it is the starting point for an idea. The absence of “something”, or in other words, “nothing”, acts as a foundation, and creates the urgency to fill the space of that which is lacking substance. Does “nothing” really exist?

When I look around me, I see many concrete things, but I don’t see a sign of “nothing”. Is “nothing” not just a term that humans have devised? Maybe we created the “nothing” so that we have a word for the incomprehensible and the unfathomable, an idea translated into vocabulary. Is “nothing” simply a made-up thing that we’ve grown accustomed to?

The Nothing

The villain from the film The NeverEnding Story: a dark cloud that engulfs all.


Artistotles said that everything that exists within the mind has first existed within the senses. Haven’t we just talked each other into the concept of “nothing”?

For example, when I look at the sky, I ask myself if this is “nothing”. No. The air is made of particles, molecules, and these are made of atoms. Has science, then, spoiled our mystical idea of “nothing”?

The thought of a complete vacuum is exciting. But science has rationalised this concept and to told us that this is impossible.

Martin Creed, Work No. 227 The lights going on and off

So if an external “nothing” is impossible, what does this say about an internal nothing? Is it possible to not think or feel anything? These are questions that I still struggle with.

But I can share my own experience. I can’t think of “nothing”. There is always something going on in my head. If I tell myself to sit quietly and think of “nothing”, I’ll only think of the word “nothing”. Feeling “nothing” seems like even less of a possibility. “Nothing” must then also be impossible internally. But what, then, remains of “nothing”?

“Nothing” is intangible. “Nothing” can be the start of “something”. “Nothing” can become “something”. “Nothing” could be just a man made word. “Nothing” can be a thought or a feeling. “Nothing” does not really exist: simultaneously the meaning of the word itself. In the end, this text is much ado about nothing.

The Lustful Turk


Patrizio Di Massimo, Curtain No.10 (Portrait of Emily Barlow), 2013. Triple pleat pinch,
inverted box pleats on duchess satin, tassels, trimmings, wood. 200 x 270cm.
Thanks to Peter Pilotto Fashion House.

Photo: Matthew Booth


The Lustful Turk is a pre-Victorian erotic novel published in England in 1828, written in the form of a correspondence between the heroine, Emily Barlow, and her friend, Sylvia Carey. While sailing to India, Emily is kidnapped by Moorish pirates and is forced into the harem of Ali, dey of Algiers. Although initially resistant, Ali awakens her sexuality and she willingly indulges herself in sodomy, a great taboo in England of the time. When Ali tricks Emily’s pen pal, Sylvia, into coming to Algiers and entrapping her in his harem, a similar sexual awakening occurs. However, Slylvia refuses sodomy, resulting in her vicious dismembering of Ali’s penis. Emasculated, Ali sends the women back to England. Emily returns home carrying Ali’s amputated phallus with her, conserved in a jar of spirits.

Patrizio Di Massimo, The Lustful Turk (Harem), 2012, oil on linen,152.5 x 112cm.

Raffaella and Stefano Sciarretta Collection, Nomas Foundation, Rome.

The following text is taken from a conversation between the artist Patrizio di Massimo and Robert Leckie in October 2013:

I first came across The Lustful Turk while reading Edward Said’s Orientalism – a foundational work of postcolonial theory, as you know – during my MA at Slade School of Fine Art in 2009.

Patrizio Di Massimo, The Lustful Turk, installation view.

Edward Said makes reference to The Lustful Turk – a work of epistolary erotica published anonymously in England in 1828 – which he describes as a “black book” of Western Orientalism. Intrigued, I quickly bought a reprinted edition online. When first flicking through, I found it to be a very curious document. American academic Steven Marcus lucidly describes it as something like [paraphrasing] “a condensation of the stereotypes that the West produced about the Orient.” But its erotic, Oriental staging also fascinated me – you could say that I participated in the writer’s fascination. And I did this despite having originally encountered the book through Said, knowing therefore that it as deeply oriented in the ill-informed authority of Western “knowledge” about the Orient.

Patrizio Di Massimo, The Lustful Turk (Blow), 2012, oil on paper, 30.5 x 22.9cm.

Raffaella and Stefano Sciarretta Collection, Nomas Foundation, Rome.

Photo: Matthew Booth

After discovering The Lustful Turk book, I questioned for a long while what form my engagement would take. I began roughly three years ago, while reading it, to do some drawings, which I never exhibited. I was in residence at the time at De Ateliers in Amsterdam and I remember trying to describe the project to some tutors and peers. My ideas then were admittedly very vague and while some of them found it a very intriguing prospect, others insisted that I shouldn’t pursue the subject and so I didn’t.

It wasn’t until some years later that I returned to the idea after receiving an invitation from Alessandro Rabottini to present a solo show at Villa Medici in Rome.

Patrizio Di Massimo, Cushion No.3 (Portrait of Eliza), 2013, 4 velvet cushion, 4 satin cushions,

tassel, cord, trimmings, iron. 120 x 45 x 45cm.

Photo: Matthew Booth

The path leading to that exhibition was rough and frustratingly slow. Looking back, I think I had three main difficulties: how not to banalise such a loaded subject, how to translate such an interpretation into painting, and how to “follow” the text, or not.

I think that reworking the cultural production of the past can encourage us to re-think what, where and how we have been before, culturally. And although The Lustful Turk may not be of interest to some, we all continue to be influenced by the way in which Western empires deformed the relationships between countries during the colonial period. The astonishingly simplistic and dichotomous relationships between East and West, so grotesquely portrayed in the book, are still politically relevant today and the fetishisaton of the Orient also persists. For the writer of The Lustful Turk the Orient was the place to imagine a series of sexual encounters that weren’t permitted in pre-Victorian England. For us, opening a space for debate about the representation of sexual desires and practices in the Arab world is I think crucial to our understanding of that culture.

Patrizio Di Massimo, The Lustful Turk (Haberdashery), 2013, oil on canvas, 200 x 270cm.

Photo: Matthew Booth

When I started this project thought a lot about what position I should take. I could have, for instance, proceeded with moralistic judgement and political correctness, seeing the book as nothing more than an emblem of a retrograde and “racist”” culture, or otherwise I could have reiterated the author’s highly questionable motive, weaving my work into his, unquestioningly. But neither path felt like mine, and so I eventually realised that all I wanted was to somehow bring this topic to the table and do it in my own way.

Patrizio Di Massimo, The Lustful Turk (Bang Bang), 2013, oil on canvas, 200 x 270cm.

Photo: Matthew Booth

In this sense I don’t consider my project to be a replication or re-staging of the book – I see it more as a proposition regarding how entrenched we still are in our past cultural heritage. My referencing the book also serves primarily to emphasise the connection between the Orientalist tradition and sexual desire, which I believe remains an interesting lens through which to pick apart our relationship to the “Other” nowadays, no matter how problematic and ambiguous that relationship may be.

Patrizio Di Massimo, Cushion No.4 (Portrait of Eli, Sultan of Algeri), 2013, 10 cotton cushions,

8 velvet cushions, tassel, cord, trimmings, iron. 250 x 50 x 50cm.

Photo: Matthew Booth

I didn’t want to detach the project from the illustrative tradition… I didn’t want my work to follow the narrative of the book page by page, with my images responding, secondarily, to particular passages of text. As far as I understand it, painting has always referred to literary sources historically, whether the bible or Greek myths, and my work looks for contemporary “ways in” to this kind of art-making. So that’s why I wanted to embrace illustration and to understand my work as continuing that tradition… These images are illustrative, but I also like to think that they can stand up on their own.

Patrizio Di Massimo, Curtain No.10 (Portrait of Emily Barlow), 2013. Triple pleat pinch,
inverted box pleats on duchess satin, tassels, trimmings, wood. 200 x 270cm.
Thanks to Peter Pilotto Fashion House.

Photo: Matthew Booth

Imagining the harem interior, I became particularly interested in elements of décor – cushions, curtains, tassels, candelabra—in this way, I created a sort of meta-language. There is a reconnection with language through the use of visual “figures of speech”. In the same way that you can replace language with image, I found I could replace a leg with a tassel, for example, or buttocks with a cushion.

Patrizio Di Massimo, The Lustful Turk, installation view, Gasworks

Photo: Matthew Booth

I also think these works are unapologetically over-the-top because I don’t think there is any reason to be apologetic. Racy as it may be, I have to follow through on my decision to make a project about this thorny subject, and I think, for me, that necessitates pleasure, playfulness and enjoyment. If The Lustful Turk book is based on stereotypes and how these stereotypes condition our understanding of an “Other” world, and if I don’t want to be moralistic about these stereotypes then I must make use of them.


One of the greatest clichés of the art academy is that we’re taught how to think and look. This could almost be considered an insult to those who are newly admitted to the academy, as if they’re not yet able to think. But according to the great writer David Foster Wallace, we do have a choice in what occupies our thoughts, and how we can learn to use this choice in a constructive way. If he’s correct, we’ve learned to look at another way of thinking at the academy, as well how to see something that does not yet exist and find a form for it. In other words, this is the thought process that happens inside the studio. But when an artwork is placed within an exhibition we’re forced to begin our thought process anew. The placing of the work in a physical construction demands the gears of thought to start their churning once again.

Any space where art is presented has it’s own signature. In an ideal situation, it should act as a refuge—a habitat for the artist, the art, and the public alike. Presenting work is a contextual and relational matter. This is inherent in the agreement in which we build a set, a display of temporary nature in which works begin a dialogue with scale, atmosphere, and the significance of both the place and the other works within that space. We build new sentences.

Roman Signer

A space speaks to us (‘It’s a place full of known and unknown unknowns,’ as Thoreau puts it. This text will restrict itself to the presentation space, because the public space conjures wholly different questions and criteria etcetera.) Is it a dead white cube, or an eloquent, stimulating white space?

Should we begin by ‘depersonalising,’ a space? In other words, to find meaning in meaninglessness, or to neutralise the space as much as possible? Space breeds hope and future: the promise of explosions of colour on a neutral canvas! In any case, an exhibition must inhabit a space by correctly analysing it; by thinking and searching transforming it into mental architecture, and subsequently the ideal habitat for a work. By doing so, each work becomes site-relevant and in turn, becomes empowered. Something from nothing. A room as a generator of energy. A measure, a guide. It requires vision to be able to interpret a space and imagine the work within it. The space must be considered as a partner: an ideal physical relationship. Similar to love, the work comes to life only when the relationship is wrought.

Ola Vasiljeva, 2014

An ensemble of works, whether by one artist or many, creates a route within the presentation space. As the viewer walks through the space, viewing bold statements or zooming in on details, a story unfolds, or an essay is relayed. A dialogue is created between the works by their placement and the space surrounding them, and is completed by the presence of the viewer. Often, the viewer is alone, or at least needs to find their own, personal, relationship to the space so that fellow visitors might become a figure, another element to relate to. Just like an architect can only truly see his work once it’s in use, a viewer and his own subjective world of experience finalises the completion of the exhibition. Art simply does not exist without this last element. The viewer expands the significance and complexity of the works: in a similar way that the storeys of a skyscraper ultimately, when seen from a human scale, allude to imagination.

gerlach en koop

The audience uses the intentions of the works as a reference for their own findings. Through presentation we find the sole evidence of whether our intentions are visible to The Other. A text and a title offer metaphysical foundations. However, this relationship only works when the work and the written correspond. ‘Theory without practice is sterile. Practice without theory is futile,’ someone once said. I believe in tactile theory; concept must be implicit within the full picture, and not just within the A4 placed beside it. Tangible.

An exhibition touches on many matters; an explicit placing, a forceful conglomeration of works, or the meaning of silence, the experience of seeing, the logic of poetics, light and space, contextual theory, the passing of time in multimedia, but also the duration of time within motionless sculpture… In fact, and this is the beauty of it, every good exhibition includes a relevant thought on the presentation and placing of an artwork. But also: the invisible, the intangible, the non-existent, and the subdued. It can rouse an emotional response. We all seem to be afraid of this, but in fact, it’s the most beautiful of all: the emotion that is stirred within the symbiosis of theory and practice. The right thought in the right place.

There are few general statements to be made about fine art, except that her immense power is likewise her weakness. Within the contradictions that make her lies her fragility. It stands, hangs, or simply exists. Irreproducible. That’s why art has a harder time drawing a large public than cinema or music. But in essence, I find silence and inertness the greatest qualities of fine art. Dead, worthless material that can suddenly strike a chord within one person, which can explode with energy, life, and magic and incite an endless hunger for thinking and feeling. This is art’s immanent tour de fource. As soon as the newly enlightened viewer moves on, the material reverts back to lifelessness. For this reason, art needs protection. Protection that can be found in a well-constructed exhibition.

In the novel ‘The House of Leaves,’ by Mark Danielewski, a family moves to a new house. Along the way, they discover that the interior of the house is far larger than the outside. The interior keeps expanding endlessly, as though mutating, while the outside remains the same. I often think of this when I exit a good exhibition and look at the building from outside. Inside, I made a journey through dozens of hallways, rooms, colours, and ideas. The solidarity of the physical space has collapsed, but it brings new mechanisms of perception.

Thinking about how to present art is relatively new. Of course, medieval painters knew what they were doing when they painted allegoric images above the cathedral altar, but the very conscious placing of artworks as an intrinsic ensemble in a space, or the idea that art is only ‘temporary,’ are ways of thinking that have only been around since the 1950’s with the rise of the Situationists. They were the first artists that came together to reflect on concepts such as urban planning and the vague distinction between art, life, and participation. They deconstructed the society of the spectacle and introduced terms such as psycho-geography. Art became a tool with which to understand the world, and art could be anything: a newspaper or a distorted radio broadcast.

A new light was shed on culture in general, and most pertinently on the classic exhibition, because for the first time, the context of a work was given a defining importance. It was no longer just a thing in a chamber, but a means to view and alter the world. It’s these revelations and all that came as a reaction to them, that we work with and have to reinvent. Research and Destroy. From the first mega exhibitions and curators like Harald Szeeman, to where we are now; an ever expanding field where art is no longer merely something, but also somewhere.

Antwerp, December 2011

Wolf or Shepherd?

At the brink of a new century in which less is more has a bio-political connotation, paradigm shifts will dramatically alter the boundaries and limits of social, economical and media-landscapes and therefore the discourse on the opportunities and the responsibilities of the designers involved has become exceptionally urgent. It is obvious that tomorrows design-problematique demands an integral and responsible approach. No longer can the role of the designer be limited to obeying the rules of functionality and aesthetics. Although the impact of the latest rapidly evolving developments in media-usage cannot be measured in full effect yet, we now have reached a state where the best of both of social and mobile is being combined, enabling anyone to operate on a global scale, from the comfortable setting of our personal phone. New applications are being put on the market every day and new functionalities of usage are being discovered by users as well. Everyone has become a photographer, a video-artist/journalist, editor , news/content-caster and a graphic-designer.

The professional designer (or design instructor) has two options during this media-avalanche. The first is to join the masses, but maintain some leverage. This implies that the level of involvement in the new media-landscape is more or less the same as the large group of participants, but the trained eye of the professional will spot strengths and weaknesses sooner than the masses and could therefore take a leading role within this community. This person will adapt to new developments very quickly and could gain momentum by riding on the front-end of this wave. Authority will be generated by knowledge of the present, and therefore has to be maintained carefully. We will call him/her the Shepherd. 

The second role the professional could assume is that of the outsider. Standing firm in the midst of the storm, keeping a strong believe in concepts and originality. Is much more theoretical based and chooses types-of-media as they seem appropriate for the process. Will stick to outdated systems and analogue techniques if necessary. Claims that quality will always have a market (and is probably right), but misses large scale connection with the public. Will behave very critical towards the revolution, but does not theoretically oppose to the development of new media-systems. We will call this type the Wolf.

Note that both types have abandoned the notion of objective media-design. Designing without a clear and well profiled opinion on the urgent global matters is a violent and destructive act. To look or not to look is a political matter.