PRINT May 2009


FOR TWENTY-FOUR HOURS, starting on April 28, 2007, our blue planet went one way and Guido van der Werve went the other. Compressing that day into eight minutes and forty seconds of time-lapse photography transferred to high-definition video, Nummer negen: The day I didn’t turn with the world, 2007, shows the black-clad Dutchman standing on tundra at the North Pole, dwarfed—in the static composition—by blank icescape and endless blue sky. Making gestures that semaphore frozen discomfort, the artist slowly shuffles clockwise. Meanwhile, as evidenced by the sun’s accelerated passage from left to right behind him, the earth spins counterclockwise on its axis. Accompanied by low bursts of arctic wind, a rhapsodic and rambling Chopinesque piano étude tickles our ears throughout: van der Werve, an accomplished classical pianist, playing one of his own compositions. In watching and listening, interpretative thought turns schizoid. The worldly half of me understands that Nummer negen takes some beating as an overripe analogy for away-from-the-pack contrarianism, with its outmoded, Caspar David Friedrich–indebted conception of the solitary sublime. But the other half—the unhip half, which responds almost involuntarily to gestures that evoke both human insignificance and our contrary potential to broach self-knowledge by communing with vastness—that side is seduced. Conflicted? Absolutely, and I have to assume the artist who engineered this balancing act is too.

Of all the artists associable with the concept of “Romantic Conceptualism” minted by critic Jörg Heiser in 2002—from Douglas Huebler to Bas Jan Ader to Tacita Dean—the Papendrecht (near Rotterdam)–born, currently New York– based van der Werve arguably swings closest, and most perilously, to the “Romantic” side of the classification. While Ader, to whom van der Werve is often compared, devoted his truncated career to a conceptual and critical interrogation of the Romantic mind-set, the younger artist has repeatedly, in interviews, invoked the notion of art’s aspiring, as Walter Pater famously had it, to the condition of music—by which van der Werve means instrumental classical music and its condensation of experience in a democratic form of communication beyond language. This explains his art’s steady gravitation toward powerful singular images of haikulike concision. Still, the power of his films comes more from their reflexive undertow—their attraction to and ambivalence about high-flown emotionalism. The Walking Pigeon, 2001, a video lasting slightly less than two minutes and filmed while van der Werve was studying at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam, finds the artist struggling to walk while wearing a homemade mechanical contrivance that makes his head bob, pigeon-style, with every step. As an objective correlative for a mood or emotional circumstance, this suggests a state of being forced forward—by some relentless inner mechanism, or, perhaps worse, by conscious choice—when it’s painful to do so. Signally, though, the film again blends angst and bathetic absurdity, and the latter modality functions as legitimation: It sanctions our relation to a tragic condition which, were it made metaphorical in a more po-faced way, we might be inclined to laugh at rather than with, or to simply disregard.

Presently van der Werve would move from existential anguish to something more recherché: melancholia. “In the morning I can’t wake up, in the afternoon I’m bored, in the evening I’m tired, and at night I can’t sleep,” he says, in voice-over on black, at the beginning of his 2003 film Nummer twee: Just because I’m standing here, doesn’t mean I want to. (With this piece, he began numbering his films and videos as if they were classical compositions.) Delivered of this bleak summa, the (again black-clad) artist walks backward into a road in Papendrecht and is immediately hit by a maroon car. As he “dies,” a police van pulls up. Five ballerinas step out and, to the swooping baroque strains of Arcangelo Corelli’s “Christmas Concerto” in G Minor, pirouette and arabesque in graceful tribute before his downed body. It’s something like a perfect death—if, that is, you live in a modern suburb, believe you were born centuries too late, and fatally identify with a historical chain of tragic goners: Shakespeare’s black-garbed Hamlet; Goethe’s suicidal Young Werther, who spawned a rash of copycat suicides after his sorrows were published in 1774; the tubercular Keats, who was “half in love with easeful Death.” In the 35-mm film Nummer vier: I don’t want to get involved in this. I don’t want to be part of this. Talk me out of it, 2005, van der Werve watches a plane trailing a sign reading IT WAS NOT ENOUGH, then sits down at his battered upright piano on a wooden platform in the middle of a lake, playing Chopin’s Nocturne no. 1 in B-flat Minor. He faces away from the camera, a small figure framed by mist-laden conifers (in another obvious homage to Friedrich). We then see a barge floating down a river, carrying an orchestra and choir performing the Lacrimosa from Mozart’s Requiem, bringing strong shades of the ending of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo. Finally, very fast, a black-clad man—we can guess who—drops out of the sky and is swallowed up by the water.

Nummer vier and Nummer twee can’t wholly be parsed in terms of narrative. Dreamy, they operate at the level of compound tone poems: mournful, ironic, surreal, couching in their knowing circumlocutions a yearning to feel wracked by life, even unto death. In this sense, it may not be going too far to see van der Werve’s emphases as paralleling those of a recent generation of authors—whose daystar might be the late David Foster Wallace—who, while dissecting the mechanical ironizing that descends from postmodernism, have sought to figure, against such numbness, a perpetual ache for felt experience; to argue for being brutalized by one’s time on earth as the price of not sleepwalking through it. A parallel suggests itself with the way in which Romanticism’s cult of sensibility—“Feeling is all in all,” as Goethe put it in Faust—reacted against the artifices and profligacy of the rococo; one difference, though, is that we are now suspicious of the intellectual surrender that the Romantic impulse seemingly entails.

The presiding virtue of van der Werve’s art is that, in a very contemporary manner, it admits of this suspicion. Wistful, yet distrustful of its maker’s own desires, it feels empirical not in its argument for the existence of the sublime but in its affirmation of an ongoing, helpless desire for higher, deeper experiences. This is what seemingly undergirds Nummer acht: Everything is going to be alright, 2007, in which the artist walks slowly in front of an icebreaker in the Finnish Arctic, as solid-seeming ground is broken into water behind him. For all our technocratic sophistications, much in us remains irrational, impulsive, and sentimental; and much outside plays upon us, exerting a primal pull while resisting attempts to master or understand it. Nostalgia for an unknown past as well as curiosity about realms beyond our own are part of this, and the sense of the artist as both epigone and cosmic fantasist drifts through Nummer zeven: The clouds are more beautiful from above, 2006, which features van der Werve musing in his apartment’s classically Dutch interior—all timeworn wood and checkerboard floor—before walking in a picture-perfect lowlands landscape, toting a homemade rocket whose nose cone contains a silvery chunk of meteorite. At the film’s conclusion, rather than blasting this object back into space, the elaborate rocket simply blows up on the spot.

This is where van der Werve habitually pitches us: midway between majesty and mockery. His most recent, two-years-in-the-making project, Nummer twaalf, variations on a theme: The king’s gambit accepted, the number of stars in the sky and why a piano can’t be tuned or waiting for an earthquake, 2009, involves the artist’s self-designed “chess piano”—a hybrid contraption both beautiful and comical, upon which van der Werve and New York–based grand master Leonid Yudasin play a predetermined game of chess that “performs” one of the artist’s compositions—as well as scenes of van der Werve standing on the active volcano Mount St. Helens in Washington State, attempting to count the stars in the night sky. The chess composition/game opens with van der Werve playing a variant of the king’s gambit, considered the most romantically suicidal of all openings because it exposes the king’s side. It’s emblematic: If van der Werve routinely positions himself as the melancholic stargazer in black, he’s also a relentless and sly tactician. And if Nummer twaalf is, as the artist says, an awed meditation on overwhelming infinities—the endless permutations of chess games, the impossibility of perfectly tuning a piano (due to the insoluble problem of the Pythagorean comma), the unattainable goal of enumerating the stars—then its madcap Professor Branestawm element appears explicitly designed to plane off ponderous solemnity. The line between the sublime and the ridiculous is vanishingly fine, such art admits. But there’s little comfort in discounting what we can’t intellectually compass as inevitably tainted by the discredited verities of two centuries ago, and one comes away from van der Werve’s films recognizing it. A romantic he may be, but no fool.

Martin Herbert is a writer and critic based in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, UK.