Ever wondered if it were possible to have art without references? Berlin-based artist Willem De Rooij investigates ‘non-referential art’, art that just ‘is’. Hung on a temporary wall in the darkened glass cube of Ludwig Mies Van de Rohe’s Neue Nationalgalerie are paintings of fighting birds by 18th-century Dutch artist Melchior d’Hondecoeter. Set back further are feathered masks and capes – 19th-century ceremonial objects brought to Europe from Hawaii.
Intolerance, which took four years to complete, brings together objects from collections around the world. De Rooij wanted to see what happened when they met…
The piece at the Neue Nationalgalerie is described as a three-dimensional collage. A three-part publication is part of that. Where is the work exactly?
It lies in the conversation between these two groups of objects – the feathered objects and the paintings. And, even more, between the installation and the 400 images that form the core of the catalogue. I’ve taught myself to read images since I was quite young. That’s basically what I do: I consume images in the way other people consume text.
If you walk around that wall a few times, the objects seem to turn into a frieze – or a tapestry or a triptych.
I constructed it like a storyboard. Combining and selecting the images felt like cutting a film – like editing – and as you move past, it feels like a story. On the front wall, where you come in, I tried to focus on representational and confrontational elements. That’s where you find the objects with the most visual impact. The rear side feels more intimate, more spiritual, and there are more exotic birds.
The paintings seem allegorical. But they’re hard to figure out.
Right. I suspect metaphorical content, but there’s no art historical proof. Only one piece has proven allegorical content: it shows a raven being attacked by this heterogeneous group of birds, because he has stolen their feathers and dressed himself in them to look better. So all these different birds come together to attack one isolated bird: it’s something I found quite interesting – how scapegoating unifies a group.
Hondecoeter’s religion isn’t known, but a recurring motif of his, the pelican, is a Catholic symbol. In 17th-century Amsterdam, Catholics weren’t allowed to build churches. But they could hold sermons in ‘hidden’ churches in houses and barns. These churches often had bird’s names. It’s much like how, in our times, European societies ban minarets, but it’s much less a problem to build a mosque in a school or a garage.
Is your work about excavating images?
I’m not an archaeologist. But this project became a bit of an excavation because there was nothing published about these two groups of objects. I would rather say my work is about combining, grouping, comparing and analysing images.
Why is this piece called ‘Intolerance’?
The title isn’t supposed to explain everything… I’d see the title as the 12th feathered object or the 19th painting in the installation – one of many ingredients in the story. It has a lot to do with whether these two groups of images would be able to meet. I find it exciting to make two entities clash, or test their capacity to mingle and this notion of ‘the two’ has always been important in my work.
So it’s not about colonial intolerance?
Many visitors automatically mistake the feathered objects in this installation for loot. That annoys me, because in this case, and many others, the story of global exchange is much more interesting. Hawaii was a sovereign state at the time these objects were brought to the West. Most were given away in acts of diplomacy designed to strengthen ties with the Western world.
So, what is it about?
The paintings visualize global exchange of another kind: the exotic birds painted by Hondecoeter were transported on the same Dutch ships as slaves taken from Ghana to the Caribbean. One way of looking at Intolerance is that all these objects and paintings were produced to indicate, decorate and radiate power. On a visual level, they want to impress. But it’s not a riddle I can explain… if I see the installation now, it’s still an accumulation of loose ends trying to meet and merge. Where the electricity is located is hard for me to say.
What kind of artist are you?
I don’t sincerely feel at home with just one medium. I’ve done all sorts of things – film, installation, photographs and sculptures. In art school I started as a painter, but I couldn’t stand paint. I guess I’m not a dirty hands-type person.
INTOLERANCE | Through January 2