Lecture by Gerrit van Bakel at the Technical University Twente, 1984
Ladies and gentlemen,
I have been invited to make a speech here, but I was originally invited to put on an exhibition as well. Because my work has a somewhat technological character, the assumption was that it would be appropriate to show it in a College of Technology. That is no more than an assumption. I know that in practice it turns out differently, because people with a technological background judge art that has a technological character on the basis of its technological and not its artistic quality. If I were to put on an exhibition of my work in a College of Technology, I would therefore have to take this into consideration. I would have to make a very clear-cut selection of my work to ensure that the possibility of a response of this sort would in any case be eliminated. Quite simply this would have taken up too much of my time.
Well then, in fact I do want to make a sort of exhibition, not by placing things in a hall, but by doing something else. Something that is perhaps related to the matters that concern you as well. At least I hope so.
Before I begin, I would first like to say something else. When someone makes a speech, it is taken for granted as it were that he must have an answer to certain questions or at any rate to the questions that his listeners have. This is one possibility. Another possibility is that someone who makes a speech has a question that his listeners have an answer to. As far as the first possibility is concerned, that is, whether you have questions that I have an answer to, I should tell you that my answer is 3. In other words, the question that concerns me is enormously complicated. And it is in order to find an answer that I make things and when these things are made, they are able to function within the circus of the visual arts. But what comes prior to these things is in a certain sense more important than the things themselves. This means that, because I am concerned with making things when I pose these questions, the questions do not consist of words, but of objects. With how these objects manifest themselves. The origin of these phenomena is to be found in the image, in what I see, in what immediately occurs to me, before I have time to interpret it. To explain to you what occurs to me without interpreting it, I would have to show you what occurs to me. And that cannot be done. Therefore, I am obliged to use words to explain what sort of images, what sort of phenomena, what sort of visible things can suddenly be generated in me. What it implies for my faculty of perception and what that in fact means.
The meaning of the things that go to make up the world of objects that is formed by our eyes or by our biological presence in the world is first of all formed by something that I would call a sort of natural landscape. Because as biological creatures we originate in the upper layers of the earth, our form has to do with the outer appearance of the earth. For this reason, there is a certain connection between us and the rest of the world. It is therefore conceivable that a harmony exists on the basis of which we exist or might be able to exist. Now if we have enough to eat and drink and are no longer cold; if we have these three things, another series of transactions occurs that in any case conjures up an artificial landscape. Technology is a part of this. Many people think that this artificial landscape is not harmonious. And then in a certain sense there is the question when exactly it went wrong.
Whenever I start thinking about a harmony like this, for instance in a discussion, I always get the feeling after half or three quarters of an hour that I could be someone from the 17th century. Someone who has somewhat romantic ideas about harmony. In order to avoid this, I will mention some of the elements of that artificial landscape. Not as an explanation or as a text, but more as a sort of set of footnotes. I think that this is also appropriate, because I have observed that in the few books of philosophy that I have seen, there are also a fair number of footnotes. Sometimes the whole left-hand page is set aside for notes. A number of footnotes that form a sort of encyclopaedia, a sort of content that sustains me. Footnotes that when taken as a whole will I hope at any rate conjure up an image. In this sense the sequence of footnotes that I am going to offer you is a sort of exhibition. Elements of an artificial landscape. Not all of them are material elements and not all of them are entirely material. Because that’s not possible.
To begin with I would like to say something about cranes.
If we look at a crane from a distance, we see a piece of machinery which can clearly be used to shift a load. That the load can be raised and swung to the left or right. What we see then is that things can as it were be shifted on behalf of our bodies, things that we are not obliged to shift, but which we would also not be able to shift by ourselves.
In a certain sense a crane is a sort of function that pertains to a very powerful person. It has come into existence on the basis of a long technological history and a complicated sort of need to shift something from A to B. Many people think that the history of the logic of making something is always old. This is not the case. And this will, I hope, become clear from the things that I am about to recount.
The second element that I want to say something about is Buckminster Fuller. Buckminster Fuller is a man from the USA who has in a certain sense changed our thinking about construction. Not by changing our way of thinking in itself, but by applying another method of calculation to the forms in which it is manifested.
Cranes, for example, have specific dimensions and a specific precision. If this precision could be increased by a factor of 10 or a hundred, then the things themselves, the forms that result from this increased precision will have a different appearance. And Buckminster Fuller is a man who thought about this question. In the way that he conceived of technological things, including household articles, things for houses, bathrooms, cars, everything, he applied a method of thinking that was more precise than it had previously been. This meant that these things began to look different. Someone might of course say that that was all very well but the form concepts must also change with them. This is true of course, but these form concepts could only come into being because Buckminster Fuller had applied a new method of calculation. I consider this to be quite remarkable. I understand it, but even so I still think it is … incomprehensible. The fact that it is possible for a phenomenon to change if one makes a different sum.
Something very different from this, for instance, is the wood carving on the altar of the church in Xanten. Xanten is a small town on the lower Rhine. In the church there is an altar of hard wood. It is carved with religious scenes, but the work is not in relief. Or rather, they are reliefs but they are carved so deep that they become a sort of sculpture.
This wood carving is particularly curious in that we see it now with our eyes. And what makes it so incredible is that it is done by hand. It is so fragile and the carving is so refined. We cannot any longer imagine any way of being able to do this. It is not possible to imagine this way of carving wood as being an element of things that are made now. The fact is that things are no longer made in this way. In itself this is quite remarkable, because all that people at that time had at their disposal, apart from sharp chisels, a good feeling for the weight of a hammer, was a certain kind of patience and a certain kind of attention. The moment that I think or say something like this I get the feeling that I am making a criticism of our time when this sort of sophistication of form hardly exists any more, while at the same time everything is infinitely more complicated now. At least, so it seems. Nowadays in any case we know much more than people did then about how the world is. And perhaps it actually requires an element of ignorance about how the world is in order to achieve a higher level of refinement.
Something much more modern that also has an influence on the way the world appears is the felt pen.
Most of you in the audience, are holding a sort of stick. And if you apply that stick in a regular fashion to a sheet of paper, it produces stripes. From these stripes it is possible for other people to see what is on that piece of paper. This stick is something that is entirely taken for granted. It is possible that it has never occurred to anyone that this thing is an element for conveying knowledge. A small phenomenon that has to do with writing and the registration of thought processes.
Of course the elements that are used for writing have a whole history; what we have here, however, is a new element for writing. That is what the felt pen is. It made its appearance in the world more or less at the same time that I first began to draw. Twenty-two years ago a felt pen was called a ‘flowmaster’. It was a sort of long thick pen; it was shiny; it came with a small pot of ink and it looked a little bit dangerous. Like a small bomb. When you bought the pen it worked perfectly, but when you had to fill it, everything became black. Your hands. The surface of the pen. And your kitchen sink. In a certain sense that thing suggested that you couldn’t write with it. In the course of time the felt pen has been improved and made more amenable to use. And now everyone has a felt pen somewhere. When I wanted to draw with that thing it was in fact forbidden by the people who were trying to educate me. This was something quite odd, because with a felt pen you can’t give any texture to your hand, to your handwriting or to the way in which you touched the paper. It wasn’t possible to produce gradations of thickness. You always got the same flow of colour on the paper. The breadth of the strokes was more or less the same. Although the first of these pens weren’t efficient, they have become so now. But the complaints that people had about them then, I don’t hear these any more now. They are no longer relevant. This writing with equal strokes has simply become an element of the phenomena of drawings. So I don’t know whether anything has been lost as a result or if something new has been added.
Where something has in fact disappeared in the tradition of my profession, visual art, that is, is in technique. I mean technique as opposed to technology. (In Dutch the same word, techniek has various meanings, including both technique and technology, but also engineering. Translator’s note.)
Not the technology that produces a crane, but the technique, the way of doing something. In the older books about the art of painting there is at any rate some discussion about the secret techniques that were used by different schools and masters, at least by people who are now regarded as masters. About what these secrets were, what pigments they used and the order of precedence that these pigments had, and how these pigments were mixed on the palette. If you read a description of Edgar Degas’ palette, someone in fact who was active not so long ago, from the previous century, it is immediately noticeable that the man was exceedingly knowledgeable about the materials he used. It is of course possible that an understanding of materials does not necessarily lead to craftsmanship. In any case up until the middle or the last part of the previous century the fact was that craftsmanship of this kind was a basic requirement. And that this was the basis that was necessary in order for genuine mastery to develop. And that in any case it was not possible for a painting to be beautiful if it began to deteriorate on the canvas after, say, eight years. Because then it did not exist anymore.
In any case the visual arts have a very intricate history, and a very complicated sort of craftsmanship of which not much remains. This was due not so much to the fact that this paint existed, as that there were people who used this paint. By this paint I mean factory-made paint ready to use and in a tube- That in fact was done, more or less for the first time, by Vincent van Gogh. Perhaps people will think that Vincent van Gogh was important for another reason. I think in fact that this is the only reason why he was important. That he used paint straight from the tube. And that this was what was behind his craftsmanship, but he did not regard this as important. This can also be seen in his drawings. Although he was certainly able to draw, he was not a craftsman in this field. Later when one comes to interpret the phenomenon of the work of Vincent van Gogh, what matters is the way that his gesture and his texture refer to his emotional constitution. And I sometimes even get the feeling that all that remains of the whole history of painting is a gesture like this.
Another element, another footnote, is the remarkable fact that at the beginning of this century the need of people to travel, by using a means of conveyance, led to the appearance of automobiles. A sort of horseless carriage initially, that could cover a distance on the road and which could transport people and goods from A to B. In my opinion, the outward form that these cars have taken makes them completely illogical. Specifically because they have an asymmetrical function while they are made symmetrically. In itself this is not so strange, but concurrently with the appearance of symmetrical cars something else occurred. This is the fact that houses that originally had been symmetrical for maybe three thousand years began to become asymmetrical round about 1910. And in fact, they are now asymmetrical. I don’t know what this means, but I do know that it has taken place. There is an old painter, Richard Paul Lohse, who makes coloured squares and who argues that symmetry is in any case a monarchist phenomenon. This would perhaps explain why people get so much pleasure out of sitting in their symmetrical cars. Perhaps because it gives them a feeling of royalty.
There is something very strange about the functional aspect of technology. I think that it is an illusion to think that engineering and technology produce logical and functional things. Just think of this: a distant land where the population is perhaps poor, with not a great amount of food, and with agricultural methods that are maybe more or less primitive. These people are persuaded in one way or another to grow certain kinds of plants in this distant land. These plants are harvested and transported and end up here in very large chopping machines. This transport and these chopping machines require a considerable amount of technical knowledge: of cutting sharpnesses, of molecule thicknesses and all kinds of other things as well. But in the end the result of a whole process like this is that millions of people in a certain country are trying to give up smoking. Yes… a cigarette as a form is surely an indicator of the absurdity of the world.
There is however another function that explains why this happens. This is the need to earn money. I think that in the hierarchy of knowledge and learning a change has taken place. Or that it is possible to detect one. My point of departure is that there was once a time when philosophy for instance was a sort of mother of all forms of knowledge, was the source where everything came from, all knowledge and learning. In my opinion this is in itself not mistaken. It is however at any rate true that this is no longer the case. The situation now is that economics, which in my opinion is not a science, but a way of thinking that admittedly employs scientific methods, plays a more decisive role than does one’s grasp of a subject or any other specific quality. I don’t know if this is also significant, but a number of years ago on the 1000-guilder banknote, the painter Rembrandt was portrayed. And he is now replaced by the philosopher Spinoza. Is this due to the fact that everything that is printed on the money no longer has any meaning? I think that it is something like that. Because on the hundred guilders note there used to be an image of Michiel Adriaanszoon de Ruyter, for whom at least some people felt any respect, and on that note now there is a bird that is almost extinct. As far as that goes my idea might well make sense. There is therefore something illogical in the context within which functionality, and functional technology exist. These are illogical things that are maybe suggested by the existence of money. This is quite simply a fact. Money exists and most people covet it, in order to do things with it.
Something else that is very precious is diamonds. Two years ago, I saw a photo of an enormous pit. A pit that was at least two kilometres long and perhaps a kilometre deep. In it there were a hundred thousand little stakes and ropes. And in this pit a great number of people were looking for something. It was a photo of a diamond mine in South Africa. I thought that it was so terrifying that so many people had made such a deep pit that I began to ask myself what a diamond really is. Of course, I haven’t found the answer.
What I did discover is that a little stone like this, a glittering stone which does not however glitter any more than plenty of other stones, does not necessarily mean anything more than just that. In former times it certainly didn’t. A stone like this gives rise to human activities that are at first sight strange. Activities that an economist might describe as having to do with the law of supply and demand. That is all very well but that still doesn’t explain where the demand came from for people to want to possess such a tiny, brilliant and very well worked stone. It is in any case a fact that you can’t do very much with a diamond.
Another list that in itself also consists of a list concerns how one generates a comfortable temperature. There is something strange about this. I am alive now and in my life, things occur that give me the energy I need to make things. I will give a short account of what has happened. When I was a little boy, we had a stove at home. This was fuelled with peat. And there was an oven. This was lighted with a heap of twigs with peat on top. This served both as a means of heating and for cooking at the same time. That is just one illustration. Around 1950 there was another stove in our house. This one didn’t work on peat, nor on twigs; it had to be heated with coal nuggets. And briquettes. In 1955 there was a new stove in the room once again. This was called a ‘solid fuel stove’ and it was heated with anthracite. About 1960 the solid fuel stove had to go. It was replaced by an oil heater. An oil heater, that’s what it was called. Round about 1965 the oil heater also turned out not to work so well and a gas stove had to take its place. And around 1972 almost everyone in Holland had central heating with all its benefits. It was possible to live and work in all the rooms, etc. But in 1973 there was an energy crisis and in 1975 everyone, or at least, very many people, had once more converted those old chimneys where the stove stood and turned them into fireplaces to give a little extra heat. And to save energy. In 1980 for people who found an open hearth like this difficult, a projecting stove has appeared that has in recent years developed into a multiburner in which one can also burn twigs and peat. Whether this is logical or not, I don’t know. But it is definitely what has happened.
Something that is in fact logical, is the fact that there are screws. A piece of iron and then another piece or iron that you can wind round each other. And which fit. When you see such a logical little thing with which you can do so many things, you might think that a screw is very old. But that isn’t the case. It is true that screws existed, but the fact that one nut was interchangeable with another, is something that only came about in the 19th century. It is only since the war that there have been two or three systems for how the nuts and the bolts fit.
But the fact is that when you put a bolt in your pocket, and you buy a nut in Italy, they will fit each other. There is something very strange about this. It means that elements in the world have become mutually interchangeable. The only question is whether a thing like this did not have something like that as a consequence for humanity.
The last thing that I want to talk about is the horizon. If we take a look outside, we see at the end of the world that the sky changes into ground. I have spent some time studying how this works. Especially at sunset. You can work out how far away the horizon is but this doesn’t explain how the sun goes down behind it.
There is no doubt that the sun does go down. And I can imagine that in earlier times this would be a moment of terror for primitive people. An instinctive moment for which one would need to have extra protection or shelter. What the horizon suggests to me is the idea that we as followers of this primitive way of thinking, as creatures with the faculty of looking, once upon a time came to realize that that same sun also rises.
I don’t know how long ago it is that human beings became human beings, but I can definitely guess what moment of the day it happened. In the evening, when the sun goes down.
Gerrit van Bakel 1984
The text printed above is a copy of a lecture by Gerrit van Bakel that was written down by John Heymans in consultation with the author. On the artist’s request an effort has been made to preserve his manner of speaking and mental leaps so that as little of his personal way of speaking should be lost.
During the lecture the pulpit, which was designed especially for this occasion by Van Bakel, rose very slowly.
Published in the catalogue of Van Bakel’s exhibition in the Kröller Müller Museum, 1992