Atelier van Lieshout

Joep van Lieshout, Dutch multitasker and founder of Atelier van Lieshout (AVL), the now-legendary anarchic free state in Rotterdam harbor, gets on well with Vienna. In 2001, for instance, he brought a mobile field kitchen into the city’s elegant center and handed out home-cooked gourmet goulash à la Bocuse to all comers, be they vernissage attendees or casual passersby. In June 2008, with the city gripped by European Football Championship fever, the utopian and artistic provocateur made it clear that he has as much if not more going on as a producer of self-contained sculpture than as an instigator of participatory situations. His exhibition at Krinzinger is titled “Das Leben” (Life): It is about the life of the materials out of which van Lieshout’s art is made.

Mobile homes and offices, alternative energy and sewage systems, sanitary facilities, and kitchen cupboards were already part of the AVL collective’s catalogue in the 1990s. Corporeality—more specifically, every conceivable bodily function—provides the impetus for architectural assemblages that illustrate themes like sexuality, reproduction, and digestion in ways both radical and laconic. But in this new series of works, van Lieshout heads off into the existential realm and puts the human being as such under his lens: naked and pale, shorn of his attributes, set free. Van Lieshout has stripped away the associative levels, the social relations, the strategies for making money, the apparatus of power, and the entire work-camp/call-center/canteen aesthetic he has cultivated until now. Instead, he showed individual, mostly freestanding figures—totally classic, even monumental.

Van Lieshout’s underlying concern seems to involve the ideas of interior and exterior. This is indicated by his new technique, a new production process: Instead of relying on polyester, van Lieshout deploys polyurethane, an expanding foam used in buildings and in the production of mattresses. The foam is poured into stitched textile molds to harden, and then the surface is reworked. The forms come out crude and craggy as well as staggeringly weak, blistering, immersed in matte dark black. Man Ripped Open, 2007—which was strikingly presented in a niche in the entrance area of the belle epoque gallery—looks like a flayed skin that has been opened to release the body that must once have been inside it. Black Bag (kneeling), Black Bag (crawling), and Black Bag (sitting), all 2008, are sacks lying ready to be slipped into, yawning openings suggesting the hollows inside; insides turn themselves out, gestures and movement stiffen in sitting, creeping, and kneeling.

Three “Blood Bags,” all 2008, evoke shoulder blades, a torso, and a chest and skull; Wall Decoration, 2008, made from sightless dummies without hands or feet, appears to want to take up with the spiders of Louise Bourgeois. A plump Maria mit drei Kindern (Maria with Three Children), 2008, surrenders an iconographic riddle, while the dog dangling from a tree, Death Tree Hanging Dog, 2008, comes directly from Dante’s Inferno. These sculptures are unforgettable. With a markedly erotic method of visualization, van Lieshout extends the artistic practice of the AVL collective and confirms the discreet charm of a coalition of sculpture, democracy, life, and death.

Brigitte Huck

Translated from German by Emily Speers Mears.