A TOOTHPICK MADMAN (by Guy Rewenig)
Today, we praise the art of burying a tree. It is the most beautiful provocation for a long time. Let us briefly parody the Grand Duchy’s Grandmaster of Permanent Indignation. With his chopping axe language he would take the artist Wannes Goetschalckx apart: an unspeakable shame,
this so-called art event, an appalling mockery of artistic standards, a shameless insult to local art lovers, a Belgian idiot who is allowed to set about a defenceless tree trunk to the applause of the Casino management, yet another impostor in the long line of charlatans who have for many years populated the “Forum for Contemporary Art” in the capital city!
Not so fast! We see it rather differently. Wannes Goetschalckx carves a single toothpick from an enormous poplar tree trunk that is fourteen metres long. At first sight it looks like a metaphor, a sort of critical footnote to our ever- present production of waste, our throwaway mentality, but in reality the artist is actually paying reverence to the power and beauty of trees. Goetschalckx measures his strength against the tree for two whole months. His project is
touchingly archaic. Layer for layer he whittles down the tree trunk, reducing it to practically nothing. This is not a destructive battle; we could almost regard it as a long, drawn-out farewell, a ritual which pays its respects to the tree.
The question is: what is it about this peaceful contest of strength that so strangely moves us? The artist publicly demonstrates how the tree draws every ounce of strength from his body. He only uses manual tools. Of course he could use machines which would fragment and grind down the trunk of the poplar tree in a fraction of the time. And there are surely sophisticated processes which could turn a poplar of this size into millions of toothpicks with industrial precision. But the artist rejects this spectacular superficial approach. If he wants to prove something, it can only be one thing: enormous perseverance and unwavering patience are necessary to “wear down” a tree. At least, as long as the artist relies on “the work of his own hands”.
Goetschalckx’s actions are anachronistic and counter-productive in the best sense of the words. He does not consider the tree from the perspective of commercialisation. He does not want to demonstrate what “products” can be extracted from the trunk of a poplar tree. His artistic event is useless and meaningless, it goes far beyond the narrow confines of utility thinking. The artist makes the tree disappear slowly by working on it day after day, enduring the pain as he pushes his body to the limit. So he slaves away on a silent material, and the grandeur of the tree trunk is all the more apparent as the artist comes up against the boundaries of his physical ability. In the last resort, his project pays homage to the dead tree.
The contrast with virtual magicians’ apprentices could not be greater. In an environment which is increasingly dominated and alienated by unreal electronic worlds, Goetschalckx only uses his own modest physical resources. He does not want to “conquer” or “destroy” the tree trunk. His event leads us to recognise that an individual human being can be worn out by “dealing with” just one tree. Usually, trees are felled and disposed of with an unparalleled carelessness. The artist places his main focus on things which these insensitive tree clearing campaigns overlook, by isolating a single tree and making it accessible in all of its glory.
Goetschalckx certainly does not intend to gain popularity with a cheap philosophy of nature, nor does he wish to lead his audience onto the path of nature-loving virtue. Another touching point about his art event is that it does not have a tangible and usable message. The aim here is not to “learn” something or accept an opinion. The only thing that is made visible is the difficult, unequal and constantly jeopardised relationship between human beings and nature. If we absolutely must draw some “benefit” from the art project, perhaps it would be this: in the end, everything is transient. That would be a worthwhile insight. The other message is that a single tree can (perhaps) drive out our comfortable arrogance.
Goetschalckx’s ironic idea of whittling away the tree right down to its smallest possible fragment, a tiny toothpick, is a clever negation of the cost-to-benefit mentality. At any rate, this toothpick is much too precious to be exploited according to utilitarian principles. Under no circumstances should it be used to clean the teeth of an art lover. Wannes Goetschalckx should simply lose it. By accident. This would be an admirable way to triumph over the commercial artefacts industry, which will probably offer an astronomical price for this artistic treasure.
Translated from the German by Victor Dewsbery This text was first published in the Luxembourg weekly newspaper d’Lëtzebuerger Land on 21 October 2011.
1 STORY (by Ken Pratt)
Perhaps it is purely coincidental that Wannes Goetschalckx is Flemish. Or perhaps there is some unspoken way in which his work connects with the visual motifs and mechanism of using mise en scène to construct complex and frequently amusing discourses that have arisen so distinctly within the Flemish performed arts of the last two decades.
Theoretically, he is a visual and performance artist rather than a choreographer or theatre maker. However, in the case of the Flemish the choice to flout such distinctions has already been validated as an option such as in the works of Jan Fabre amongst others. Likewise, Wannes Goetschalckx not only makes performances and video but also objects, installations, and sculptures.
In the performance works –and residual quasi-documentary video works of them- the kind of intersection between the physical experience and using mise en scène highlight his connection to the established body of Flemish makers of performed arts rather than dismiss it. We see moments in his work, including its quirky humour, that relate far more readily to grounds explored by Wim Vandekeybus or Rosas than what we might think of as “video art” or “performance art”.
Of course, his choice to work, individually or collaboratively, within the context of visual arts (rather than in theatre or dance) is important to the discourse of the works. He chooses to include the gallery space or public spaces in the performances he makes. And, in experiencing the works, we are suddenly confronted with how refreshing this is. If we have managed to stretch our imaginations to viewing the gallery or museum as a venue for live art in a theatrical sense, then we almost certainly didn’t imagine that it could become such an amusing setting for the kind of low-budget, conceptual action movie that “1STORY” (2006) proves to be.
There are also multiple layers: the careful thinking that goes into the making of such a work and the meticulous production of the special tools and objects that will be used in the work; the collaboration with a filmmaker (in this case Kurt Augustyns) that will give the work its specific dimensions of existing as both the live experience and its subsequent traces; the requirements for the body to make the work.
However, at the heart of this work and other performance-based work exploring related ideas is the physical experience. This is work about the physicality of the human body –in this case the artist’s own- and its conceptual relationships to objects and spaces. This is the thread that connects it to the languages of preceding performed arts and largely defies the expectations of languages that we have come to understand as “performance art”. Wannes’ body contorts and twists in a series of clever feats and vaguely pointless tricks as he uses the gallery space and his carefully prepared tools to make his fascinating and somehow funny journey. We are confronted with a similar series of questions about the body, motivations, psychology and meaning in much the same way that choreography from the Bauschian lineage asks us to do so: through using the human body and its actions as a relational interrogative.
The pure silliness of it at times -another key element- not only connects to the humour of the Bauschian lineage, but also to the mechanisms used in the visual arts, for example in the early film works of Fischli and Weiss. The same child-like fascination that allows us to watch –and more importantly enjoy- the endless Meccano-set-science-fair chain of events in their work holds our fascination with Wannes’ journey over, through and around a distinct place or environment. And we particularly relish it when it’s a po-faced space meant for the serious consideration of art.
The mise en scène created in the filmed performance is as important as it would be to any Hollywood blockbuster because, by designing Hollywood out, by effectively making an action pic that is so clearly not a big budget thriller, we are prompted to think about the nature of the physical body’s actions in other filmed or observed contexts. Making an action movie in a gallery can deconstruct real action movies.