Guido van der Werve

In a digital video shot in 35 mm and shown on a monitor, Nummer twee (Number Two), 2003, Dutch artist Guido van der Werve addresses the camera with a deadpan stare as an inner narrative reveals his ennui: “Just because I’m standing here doesn’t mean I want to.” Standing on a suburban street, he walks backward slowly; focusing on the audience rather than the traffic, he is hit by a car. A blue police van pulls up; five young ballerinas emerge and dance to Corelli’s Christmas Concerto in front of his inert body, against a backdrop of nondescript condo buildings. Projected sequentially on a large movie screen, Nummer drie: Take Step Fall (Number Three: Take Step Fall), 2004, and Nummer vier (Number Four), 2005, continue the theme: reflections of a youthful creative genius in an existential crisis. Number Three begins at the artist’s local Chinese takeout, where eight nubile dancers perform a minuet to Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet on a cramped balcony above a tableau vivant of patrons too preoccupied with their own thoughts to take notice. Next our hero lurks against a building between two second-floor windows, dressed in black, like a burglar; the only sound is the gently swooshing traffic below. The image fades out as the passing headlights get brighter; we can only guess that he may jump at any moment. Finally, an angelic ballerina dances to a Chopin Nocturne among misty trees lit by streetlamps; she does not lose her poise when, comically, a random tree falls behind her. All of these surreal juxtapositions construct a timeless poetic reality.

Number Four begins with the words, “I woke up early and watched the sun rise; I felt it came up just for me.” In a humorous twist on Caspar David Friedrich, the artist stands on a beach facing the sea—but then a plane flies overhead with a banner reading “IT WAS NOT ENOUGH!” Next he sits at a piano on a platform in the middle of a lake surrounded by a misty green landscape, again with his back to us, and performs another intensely sentimental Chopin Nocturne. The camera remains fixed, evoking a lush Romantic landscape painting, until the scene shifts to a slow-moving barge absurdly overloaded with an orchestra and a chorus performing Mozart’s Requiem; it moves toward us and then exits the frame, in which suddenly we see our hero dropping into the lake from above. The stunt recalls not only the artist’s compatriot Bas Jan Ader—who disappeared at sea in 1975 at the symbolically fraught age of thirty-three—but also the depressed main character of the film Harold and Maude (1971). Indeed, van der Werve’s first video, Suicide 8945 till 8948, 2001, simply depicted the artist shooting himself in the head repeatedly with a gun.

The incongruent interruptions of the sublime punctuate the Romantic grandeur with wry humor and signal the inner turmoil of the artist, approaching art as therapy. Anxiety and irony mix, with past traditions serving as both crutch and foil. The matter is perhaps best expressed in a previous work, the photograph I’m sorry, but not surprised about the skylight, 2003, which shows van der Werve jumping on top of a roof in homage to the famous video of Ader sliding down one (Fall 1, Los Angeles, 1970)—except that here there is a playful feeling and a backdrop of sunlight, conveying hope.

Cathryn Drake