Guido van der Werve’s videos, currently on show at the Hayward Gallery, are the kind of thing art writers describe as ‘hilarious’, although they’re only hilarious in an art way, meaning that any laughs that do come are snorty expulsions easy to mistake for symptoms of the cold that everyone seems to have at the moment. I think van der Werve knows his work is only funny in a limited way, the sort of intentionally weak gags coming soon to a Christmas cracker near you.
His video Nummer acht, everything is going to be alright (2008; the titles are a little precious: one is even called Nummer twee) – shown this summer at Manifesta – is literally an ice-breaker: the artist himself, about five inches tall on a huge screen, walks, in a slightly worrisome amble, in front of a huge icebreaker in an otherwise featureless expanse of grey arctic sky. The ship, a big, rusting, beat-up behemoth, splits open the ice immediately behind the artist; the cracks and gulps are amplified.
Whatever kinship it has with the great artist-loner-Romantics of the art historical past (Caspar David Friedrich and Bas Jan Ader are never not mentioned in any text about van der Werve, and I’m not about to start bucking tradition now), what the film really is is a ten-minute sight gag worthy of Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton. (I kept thinking of the scene in Keaton’s The General (1927) when he sits on the front of the steam train, frantically knocking off planks of wood lying on the line). As in slapstick films, van der Werve pits a protagonist against big, dumb, inexorable modern things, and watches him mess up. The ship is to van der Werve what the clock tower was to Lloyd, or the train to Keaton: the visualised straight man, the sounding board for self-deprecating tomfoolery.
In the second van der Werve film showing at the Hayward, another ‘big black thing in continuous movement’ (as the artist described it in a recent interview with curator Tom Morton) provides a kind of counterpoint to the slim, black-clad figure of the artist: a Steinway piano. The contrast between a big, heavy, unbelievably cumbersome thing and its capacity for beauty and grace (the ship has a similar contradictory presence) has a comic and artistic heritage as long as your arm, and the generosity and elegance of van der Werve’s work allows apparently contradictory allusions to coexist to mutual advantage. I never thought I’d be reminded of Richard Serra and Laurel and Hardy at the same time, but nummer zes: Steinway grand piano. Wake me up to go to sleep and all the colors of the rainbow (2006) plays elaborate, melancholy games with ideas of lightness and weight in the same way as both of them. The voiceover describes the history of the Steinway piano over a series of scenes of the artist looking glum in bleak bits of Amsterdam. In a scene that might be a dream, a piano is lifted by crane into the artist’s second-floor flat; he then plays Chopin’s Piano Concerto No.1 in E minor Op.11 (Van der Werve is a classically trained pianist), accompanied by a small orchestra. Once he finishes, the apartment immediately empties, and a rainbow appears on the wall. It’s less cutesy than it sounds, although van der Werve, unlike some of his contemporaries, doesn’t flinch from the Romantic flourish.
In another work from the series, shown as part of the second iteration of the underwhelming GSK Contemporary show at the Royal Academy, van der Werve stands in the middle of another arctic landscape, tiny and dead-centre on the screen, occasionally shuffling his feet as the wind whips around him. It’s called Nummer negen, the day I didn’t turn with the world. He’s at the North Pole, shuffling against the rotation of the Earth. It’s a bit knowingly slight and borderline sentimental, but in that company it looks like a masterpiece.
Van der Werve’s work encapsulates how we experience romanticism now: always filtered through self-deprecation and nudge-nudge irony. The romantic project is reconstituted as a willfully quixotic one in the works of van der Werve, Hans Schabus, and Simon Starling, to name but a few, with Pierre Huyghe as the unofficial patron saint. Hard-wiring failure into artistic projects is maybe a function of the shrugging-off of modernist utopianism, a sort of embarrassment about art’s claims on the sublime. Are we really too sophisticated for pure, unadulterated romanticism?
- Originally published on Art Review Asia.