Marcel van Eeden

Galerie Bob van Orsouw

For the Hague- and Berlin-based artist Marcel van Eeden, it seems, the word death refers to the time before one’s life as well as after its end. His “Encyclopedia of My Death” (as his body of work was once described by a curator—the name has stuck) is a lifetime’s work in progress: Since 1993 he has made at least one drawing a day, copying images from magazines, books, albums, postcards, and archives, all dating back to between the ’20s and 1965—the artist’s birth year. He intends to continue until his death (or should one call it “second death”?), in a resolute attempt to work against the irreversibility of time by appropriating images of a lifetime’s span before he was born.

But this description sounds more solemn than it really is. There is a dark humor in van Eeden’s drawings, all 7.5 x 11" and executed mostly in soft graphite pencil, and all sketched beginning in the upper left corner and on down to the lower right. It’s there in the way narratives are created and destroyed, fact and fiction constantly breached, and self-given rules redefined to keep a concept going without getting boring. Important events or renowned people are conspicuously avoided. Frequently depicting scenes of war, modernist architecture, art, and people dressed in the style of the postwar era, the images all carefully maintain an aura of anonymity. Often fragmented and blurred, they are more reminiscent of frames from a film noir or a Hitchcock thriller than of ordinary press photos.

Though following this practice of a drawing a day since 1993, van Eeden first gained wide attention with a cycle of 139 drawings forming a more or less cohesive storyboard, “K. M. Wiegand—Life and Work, 2005–2006,” which was shown at the 2006 Berlin Biennial. The story was based on the life of an obscure botanist, but spiced up with innumerable details of other possible lives to become that of a hyperactive entrepreneur who was also an artist, a man of letters, a world champion boxer, and an actor married to Elizabeth Taylor. The more than one hundred sheets on view in his recent exhibition at van Orsouw included self-contained individual drawings as well as some smaller series and a new story cycle, “The Death of Matheus Boryna,” 2006–2007, consisting of thirty-eight drawings, which gave the show its title. As in previous cycles, such as “Celia,” 2006, his largest so far, the inserted text fragments have nothing to do with the images—but nevertheless, they add to the story in the viewer’s mind. “Boryna” relates in style and content to “K. M. Wiegand,” but it is too fragmented to be pieced together as a coherent narrative. Only so much can be made out: The protagonist is a fictional person, probably a character from a crime novel, and apparently an artist as well, among other things. “Some people think in music, some in paragraphs, some in receipts; Matheus Boryna thought in pictures,” says the text—a statement that could apply to van Eeden himself—under one of the drawings, which shows a man in a suit, from behind, bent over a table covered with papers. Some black-and-white abstract expressionist compositions appear later in the cycle, which could be interpreted as the fictive artist’s works. The story centers on the protagonist’s unnatural death, but the circumstances remain obscure. Somewhere between reporter and archaeologist, with a touch of the obsessive, von Eeden creates his own “atlas” of the past, puzzling together a personal prehistory through fragments. The impossibility of drawing everything is compensated for by the possibility of “rescuing” anonymous lives and creating new identities—reinventing lives that were never his own.

Eva Scharrer