TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT January 2005

Jan de Cock

Jan de Cock,  Denkmal 2, Astillero, Ascorreta 2, Pasajes San Pedro, Donostia-San Sebastián, 2004.  Installation view, Manifesta 5, Donostia-San Sebastián, Spain.

While there have been several opportunities to see Jan de Cock’s sculptures and photographs over the past few years, the twenty-eight-year-old Belgian’s particular brand of site-specific art first made an international splash last summer at Manifesta 5 in Donostia-San Sebastián, Spain. For that remarkable installation, de Cock took over an abandoned ship-building warehouse, erecting a large structure that, as is typical for his work, mined the fecund territory between art and architecture. Part sculpture, part building, de Cock’s supersized piece filled the interior of the warehouse space and spilled out onto the roof, literally blurring the boundaries between inside and outside. As one walked around—and through—the soaring structure, its walls and exposed beams snapped in and out of visual alignment, creating compelling vistas and strange spaces, which had a strong perceptual, even bodily, effect. Constructed with quotidian, commercial building materials over a nine-week period—during which it looked like it may have doubled as the artist’s crash pad—the work was memorable and surprisingly ravishing. I, for one, had no idea green fiberboard could look so good.

Following shows at galleries in Amsterdam, Cologne, and Vienna, as well as at SMAK Ghent and De Appel in Amsterdam, de Cock’s Manifesta project was the latest in an ongoing series of architectural interventions begun in 2003, which he calls “Denkmal.” As others have noted, the artist’s use of the term—a German word meaning both “monument” and “memorial”—knowingly alludes to Adolf Loos’s famous quip in 1909 that the tomb (Grabmal) and the monument (Denkmal) were the only architectural forms that could rightfully be considered art. While de Cock’s work certainly challenges the rigid taxonomy that has until recently allowed only slivers of overlap between the fields of art and architecture, its engagement with acts of memory extends beyond smart art-historical quotation. Indeed, with his “Denkmal” structures de Cock evokes the particularly nostalgic side of remembrance, yearning for a time—for Loos’s time—when art and architecture seriously and self-consciously positioned themselves as vehicles for social change. His rigid geometric structures dance between the gestalt of monolithic sculpture and the inhabitability of architecture, and they strongly recall both the paintings and environments of de Stijl, that multidisciplinary movement that so trumpteted its potential to change our perceptual world. Caught in a seemingly irresolvable bind, de Cock’s “memorials” seem to court social engagement while mourning its apparent futility. This two-pronged dialectic—which simultaneously pulls de Cock back to earlier moments of avant-garde radicality and propels him toward his own era—is common in much new art today and is one characteristic that makes his work utterly contemporary.

De Cock’s architectural/sculptural project extends to light-box photographs, which document his structures in use. Made with three-second exposures, they capture the movement of people interacting with his installations during their short lifespans. After the constructions are disassembled, de Cock typically installs his photographs in the spaces they depict, creating a frisson between a visitor’s memory of the installation and the artist’s record of it. Sometimes, however, he shows the light boxes elsewhere, exploiting the particularly historicizing (and memoralizing) function of photography. (This month, for example, Fons Welters will mount an exhibition of de Cock’s photographic record of his Manifesta project in Amsterdam.)

Jan de Cock,  Denkmal 19, Henry Van der Velde University Library, Posier 9, Ghent, 2004. Installation view, Ghent, Belgium.

One of the primary objectives of de Cock’s interactive and self-reflexive art is to pierce the doldrums of the viewer’s everyday consciousness through active involvement. This strategy of engagement was, of course, crucial for modernism’s pioneers, and de Cock’s consistent use of the title “Denkmal” underscores both his appreciation for their aims and his desire to move beyond the sense of belatedness that inevitably haunts his project—and our historical moment more generally. Apart from meaning “monument” and “memorial,” “Denkmal” can also be phonetically understood as the German slang imperative denk ’mal , meaning “think about it.” By imploring his viewers to “denk ’mal,” de Cock brings monuments and memorials back to life, pulling them from dusty history into our living world. With two more “Denkmal” projects on the horizon—in May at Frankfurt’s Schirn Kunsthalle and in September at Tate Modern—we will, indeed, have plenty more chances to “think about” de Cock’s monumental, melancholic, and memorializing work.

Jordan Kantor is assistant curator in the Department of Drawings at the Museum of Modern Art and an artist.