PRINT March 2008


OVER THE COURSE OF THEIR COLLABORATION, Dutch artists Jeroen de Rijke and Willem de Rooij produced a highly reflective and elliptical body of work tracing the recursive economy of the image: its affective power, its capacity to seduce and organize perception, and its mediation of time and subjectivity. In 16- and 35-mm films, as well as in photographs, objects, and installations, de Rijke/de Rooij—who worked in tandem from 1994 until de Rijke’s untimely death, at the age of thirty-five, in 2006—methodically parsed the mechanics of the image, deploying a wealth of radically heterogeneous sources in the process. Burlesque theater, Islamic abstraction, monochrome painting, 1970s fashion, and Constructivist film: All found their way into the artists’ repertoire, and yet this seemingly antic eclecticism somehow resolved itself into work of unerring nuance and equipoise.

Key to understanding this balancing act is an acknowledgment of “the notion of two,” as de Rooij puts it. The term captures something essential in the duo’s practice—beyond the simple fact of two artists working together. Tropes of mirroring, splitting, and copying occur with uncanny insistence throughout their work (which de Rooij, making art on his own today, still views, in a real sense, as a dialogue and a collaboration). Take, for example, Mandarin Ducks, their widely celebrated contribution to the Netherlands pavilion at the 2005 Venice Biennale. The film opens onto a theatrically stylized apartment where a modular sofa serves as the hub of a social gathering. The scene bespeaks entitlement: Patter is glib and fanciful, food and wine are abundant, the players are soigné. Yet as the figures splinter off into pairs (and occasional trios), the conversation turns progressively brutish and ugly: A seemingly casual exchange between mother and daughter, for instance, betrays its deeply narcissistic underpinnings, while a complaint about someone’s driving descends into a xenophobic rant. These discursive vignettes, registering the violence lurking just below the surface of polite Western society, are often framed through a refracting device. A shattered glass, prisms, and crystalline shards puncture the otherwise seamless images on offer. Imagined as both black comedy and farcical romp, Mandarin Ducks holds up a dark mirror to the viewer’s own deeply internalized beliefs. It casts back on us, through a type of parallax, the brittleness of our own social mores and pretensions, at once as cutting and as fragile as glass.

Given how de Rijke/de Rooij trained their gaze on such relational mechanisms, it comes as no surprise that the actual conditions of display were critical to their larger project. An engagement with the literal encounter between viewer and artwork is, after all, logically continuous with an art premised on dualism and an implicit exploration of otherness. Indeed, when de Rijke/de Rooij began showing their work in film festivals in the mid-’90s, they grew frustrated with their lack of control over the context. This dissatisfaction derived not only from the fact that they did not see themselves principally as filmmakers but also, ultimately, from their sense that the platform did little to address the materiality of the projection apparatus. Yet for the artists, the time before and after watching a movie—the physical absence of imagery on which the illusion of cinematic projection is staked—is as central to the experience of spectatorship as the appearance of the image itself. The “capacity for film to be absent,” as de Rooij has said, is indivisible from our expectations of the image and from the peculiar sway cinematic conditions maintain over our everyday habits of perception.

One could generalize this notion to the range of de Rijke/de Rooij’s work, whether the staging of an exhibition, the play between figure and ground that internally structures much of their art, or a contribution appearing in the pages of a book or magazine. As represented in this project for Artforum, de Rooij takes the occasion of two overlapping shows—the first of which opened at K21 Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Düsseldorf in December 2007, the second opening at Museo d’Arte Moderna di Bologna (MAMbo) this April—to extend the virtual conversation with de Rijke. The shows were originally envisioned as discrete undertakings but have been reconceived as twins of a sort, albeit staggered across time and space. Neither exhibition is retrospective (which would convey a sense of closure or finality), but both might be characterized as dialogic, at both the intra- and the extramural level.

Consider the following examples: As if to underscore the recursive tendencies within their art, objects borrowed from other institutions, including Kurt Schwitters lithographs and a James Ensor still life, have been recruited to provide indirect reflection on the contemporary work on display in Düsseldorf. The themes of bourgeois disaffection and social democracy that percolate through Mandarin Ducks find a historical complement in Ensor’s expressive gestures. Analogously, the film I’m Coming Home in Forty Days, 1997, a meditative, near-abstract circumnavigation of an iceberg in Greenland, was in part inspired by Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Il fiore delle mille e una notte (The Flower of the 1,001 Nights, 1974), aka Arabian Nights. For de Rijke/de Rooij, Pasolini’s film presented a universalizing, pan-Arab vista at once colonial and modernist in its implications. The connection between Greenland and Arabian Nights is opaque, to be sure, but the works nonetheless converge around a certain logic of abstraction. Though the degree of abstraction in Arabian Nights is wholly consistent with the fairy-tale narrative it spins, it further prompted the artists to take up the question of the image within Islamic culture. In advance of the MAMbo exhibition, de Rooij was invited by the Pasolini Archive in Bologna to trawl the auteur’s image bank for supporting materials. However, the results of this search—thirteen Arabian Nights location shots, supplemented by posters for the film’s German and Swedish releases from de Rooij’s own collection—appear not in Italy but in Düsseldorf.

In this project for Artforum, the posters reappear, constituting one of four spreads that provide a glimpse into this kind of switching. Seemingly incongruous elements are held in balance to produce a form of highly modulated collage. The pair of images that introduce the series speak to the peculiar nexus of modernist abstraction and the injunction against images within Islam: that strange place where, as de Rooij puts it, “the white cube meets the mosque.” The first picture is a location shot for I’m Coming Home in Forty Days taken in Greenland. At the close of this fifteen-minute film, the camera lingers on a frame of impossible green. The viewer, by now habituated to the vista afforded by a long tracking shot, struggles to make sense of this monochrome, which provides little information to orient the object in time and space. The second picture is an enlarged lighting study for the set of Mandarin Ducks. Also emptied of any contextualizing information, it was in part influenced by Constructivist film, with an eye toward understanding the role that light would play in staging the narrative.

The second pair of images, the backgrounds of which coincidentally rhyme with the first two pictures in the series, take the work of the Chinese-Dutch designer Fong-Leng as their ostensible subject. A flamboyant dress made for an even more flamboyant Dutch socialite, Mathilde Willink, appears in both. Willink was depicted wearing this garment in a portrait by her husband, the well-known painter Carel Willink. When she died in 1977, the painting went to one museum and the dress to another. This episode reads as a tacit parable about the nature of self-fashioning and otherness: about the inevitable split between identity, image, and representation as shaped by the costumes we wear and the acts we perform. Indeed, in the 1970s, when Fong-Leng, with her outré designs, made a name for herself as a sort of Netherlandish equivalent to Zandra Rhodes, her success was in no small part due to the way she traded on her status as an outsider, both satisfying and reproducing expectations around the “exotic.” De Rijke/de Rooij’s work never thematizes such issues at the explicit level of content—it never descends to the dogmatic—but such concerns about the dynamics of the social relation are inextricable from any meditation on this project.

Following the aforementioned Pasolini posters, the fourth pair in the sequence features a still from Mandarin Ducks and a 1970 shot of the interior of the Gerrit Rietveld–designed Dutch pavilion at Venice. The set of Mandarin Ducks was constructed to echo the proportions of Rietveld’s austerely reductivist structure, which was erected in the Giardini in 1954. The modular sofa that appears in the interior shot was a somewhat later addition: It was designed by Dutch team Jan Slothouber and William Graatsma in the late ’60s and was conceived as a species of democratic furniture, a nonhierarchical set piece materializing the modernist principles of integration, equality, and modularity. The appearance of its doppelgänger in the conflicted mise-en-scène that is Mandarin Ducks, however, suggests that such principles, which find literal manifestation within the visual environment, must be subjected to constant and rigorous scrutiny.

As with all of de Rijke/de Rooij’s art, Mandarin Ducks, compelling for the coolness of its staging and precision, is founded on an endless predilection for doubleness. It reflects on the necessary give-and-take that conditions all forms of social interaction, whether expanded to the terms of collective networks or condensed to the intimate workings of a pair of artists. The following pages distill the notion of two for de Rijke/de Rooij to the most crystalline and prismatic of optics.

Pamela M. Lee is a professor of art history at Stanford University.

Jeroen de Rijke/Willem de Rooij, I’m Coming Home in Forty Days, 2001, C-print mounted on Dibond in wooden frame, 48 3⁄4 x 72". Ringier Collection, Switzerland.

Jeroen de Rijke/Willem de Rooij, Light Studies VII, 2005–2007, one of seven C-prints mounted on Dibond in hand-painted aluminum frame, each 7 7⁄8 x 59 1⁄2 x 1 1⁄2". Courtesy Galerie Daniel Buchholz, Cologne.

Fong-Leng, Luipaardmantel, 1973, leather, silk, and suede, height 61". Original documentation shot. Amsterdams Historisch Museum, Amsterdam.

Fong-Leng, Luipaardmantel II, 1997, leather, silk, and suede, height 63". Original documentation shot. Scheringa Museum voor Realisme, Spanbroek.

Pier Paolo Pasolini, Il fiore delle mille e una notte (The Flower of the 1,001 Nights), 1974, film poster, German version, 33 x 23 5⁄8". Collection Willem de Rooij.

Pier Paolo Pasolini, Il fiore delle mille e una notte (The Flower of the 1,001 Nights), 1974, filmposter, Swedishversion, 39 3⁄8 x 27 1⁄2". Collection Willem de Rooij.

Jeroen de Rijke/Willem de Rooij, Mandarin Ducks, 2005, 16-mm color film, optical sound, 36 minutes. Production still.

Jan Slothouber and William Graatsma, view of the Dutch pavilion, 35th Venice Biennale, 1970. Courtesy Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.