Edwin Janssen

The Boymans museum is renowned for its extensive collection of old-master paintings and sculptures. Edwin Janssen’s installation, Narcissus en de poel des verderfs (Narcissus in the pool of corruption, 1994), consisted largely of works already in the museum’s collection: sculptures by Nam June Paik, Auguste Rodin, and Duane Hanson, and others, as well as paintings by artists including Peter Paul Rubens, Gerard Ter Barch, Honoré Daumier, Rembrandt, and Jan Steen. In addition, Janssen used mirrors, a skeleton, and reproductions of paintings in this installation, which could be reached only after passing through several exhibition halls in the museum.

The old master paintings selected were presented on latticelike structures. If Janssen could not obtain the original of a particular work, he used a reproduction. The works were grouped under various themes, in contrast to the way that the permanent collection is organized—by period and artist. From these groups of works, he created what he calls “panel paintings,” which consisted of paintings, newspaper clippings, and photographs. Each included a mirror as well. Janssen uses the museum’s collection to create his own paintings, and to raise questions about the nature of representation itself.

The sculptures were exhibited across from the paintings, facing a row of large mirrors, their backs toward the spectator. The row began with an image of a costumed ape reading, and ended with a sculpture of a robot by Paik, presenting not only a humorous take on evolution, but also a short history of our desire to shape the world in our own image. Narcissism is a theme the artist has addressed in earlier installations. One such project was entitled Monkey Business, in which Janssen focused on the practice in 17th-century Dutch painting of using apes and fools holding mirrors to represent artistic practice: both symbolize the mimetic roots of art. The figure of Narcissus also appeared in the row of figures chosen for this installation, as if to point to the narcissistic origins of representation.

Janssen’s installation presented the art work as a mirror of the world. One is reminded of Joseph Kosuth’s 1990 Brooklyn Museum installation, The Play of the Unmentionable, in which artworks that had at some point been objectionable were juxtaposed with texts explaining the reasons for the objection. Unlike the Kosuth installation, in Narcissus en poel des verderfs, the observer also encountered his own reflection. It remained unclear, however, what was being reflected and who held the mirror—the viewer, the artist, or art history’s reservoir of images.

Sabine Vogel

Translated from the German by Franz Peter Hugdahl.