Points of condensation in a continuous stream of thought | Jaap Bremer | 1992

..but in the end it is the power of the imagination that gives rise to the world.

DE PEEL

Gerrit van Bakel AlbinoniDroefheid
Back to the source of the search for the origin of Albinoni’s grief (1980)

De Peel, the region that covers a part both of East Brabant and Central Limburg, was not only Gerrit van Bakel’s principal source of inspiration, it was quite literally the ground of his being. This was where he had his roots.
He was born in 1943 in the village of Ysselsteyn and he died there in 1984 in Deurne, the place where he had lived for a number of years and where he produced his most important works. He felt such strong emotional ties with this countryside and the hard existence of the generations of farmers who had lived here, that he never wanted to leave it. ‘I have an identity here that is confirmed by every blade of grass and I don’t have this if I am in the Camargue, for instance, because I don’t know the blades of grass there. (1)

As the son of a farmer he loved the land, with its seasons, its cycle of sowing, the cultivation of the crops and the harvests, but he also witnessed the great changes that took place in farming in de Peel after the Second World War. He saw how through the arrival of agricultural machinery and ever-increasing management efficiency the harmonious relation between the farmer and his land slowly disappeared: the harmony of the cart track, as he called it. ‘I am interested in recapturing a certain harmony. I am forty years old and I know what it is to have walked in a cart track. In the meantime this cart track has disappeared. I intend to find out what has happened to it. When I was a little boy, Deurne where I lived was the most backward agricultural region of Europe. Now it is one of the most modern regions. What has happened? I have felt the pain involved in the disruption of this harmony. I really don’t care whether a rope of hemp is better than one made of nylon. I want to know in what way I can preserve my own harmony and in what way I can hand information down to the future. This is why I go in search of it, and this is why I give it form. It is something I can’t do directly. My arguments aren’t words but objects. (2)
There are also some works in which his native soil plays a central and concrete role, such as the Papin machine, 1981, the ‘Eindhoven presence machine’, 1980 and the ‘World trolleys’, 1982-1984.

wereldwagentjes Gerrit van Bakel
World trolleys Foto: Michiel van Bakel

The choice of a site for a project that he had worked on for years and which was never completed, ‘Glowing Man’, is also proof of the significance he attached to the soil where he was born. He took it for granted that this project would only be realized towards the end of his life. The site he had planned for it was in between the village he was born in, Ysselsteyn, Helenaveen, where he took up residence in 1966 after his years as a student and the village of Deurne where he lived and worked in his later years. Van Bakel considered that this piece of ground would be the point where many lines in his work, his ideas and his personal life would converge. ‘In the project, ‘Glowing Man’ all ideas about place, time and identity, inherited tradition and communication will be brought to- gether. (3) Dees Linders, who has studied Van Bakel’s work in depth, gives the following description of the many different meanings of the ‘Glowing Man’ as follows: ‘In January and February, 1981, the first major exhibition of his work was held in the Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven. In this exhibition his plans could be seen for the ‘Glowing Man’, a project that was not only not completed but had hardly been begun and which remained however an extremely important one for Van Bakel. A map was drawn with a dot, the Glowing Man Point, which is the central point of a network of connecting routes. This point is in fact a piece of undeveloped ground in de Peel, a no man’s land: a strange and silent spot from which in theory every part of the world is accessible by old roads and new, along cart tracks, by bicycle, by car, by boat, train or plane. For Van Bakel this was also the invisible borderland between important areas and events from his own life story. In this project he makes a connection between his own personal life story and the whole world and the universe. His plan was to buy pieces of land around this crucial point, including the elements that already stood there and to create the existence there that he wanted. Along the railway track that goes from the Hook of Holland to Vladivostock and Abadan, notice boards would be placed. He planned an inundation system for the water of the river Maas; landmarks should be erected in the landscape like the Glowing Man Pole that would be lit from three sides by a laser beam; vanishing boxes would also be placed in the landscape and a ‘follower of the sunset’ that would be about 30 metres high and from which you would be able to see beyond the horizon. (4)

EARLY YEARS

Gerrit van Bakel was born on 17 October 1943 and was the sixth in a family of eight children. His father died in an accident while he was dismantling a gun turret that was left behind on his land after the war. At the age of eight he went to live with an aunt and uncle in Deurne. His uncle would prove to have a great influence on his work and ideas, in particular because of his philosophical cast of mind, his anarchistic ideas and his headstrong personality.

Gerrit van Bakel Painting 108×156 cm

At the beginning of the sixties he first came into contact with art. He became acquainted with artists such as Johan Lennarts and Willi Martinali, whose independent and original life style made a deep impression on him. “When I made the acquaintance of an artist, I was fascinated, not by what he made, but by the freedom he had. He had chosen his own way of life and to my astonishment it also seemed to work. In my view this way of life was also akin to what happens on the farm. Everything there functions in the service of a complete process of development with a beginning, a middle and an end. All the other professions seemed incomplete to me; they never made a complete product, only a detail of one or sometimes only a detail of a detail. After that I went to art school, but it wasn’t a success.”
This was in 1963. In the paintings that he made in the art school in Den Bosch, abstract and figurative (people and animals) elements go hand in hand. During those years he was preoccupied by the work of Paul Klee. It is a striking fact that he continued to regard painting as being the root of all his later work. ‘I paint with a power drill, ‘he said in an interview in 1984. (5) In this interview he also talked about why he left the art school and gave up painting. He had the feeling that he was betraying his world ‘of the open countryside’. At a certain point I got the idea that I was doing something that was very odd. All those trends in art that we discussed had never existed in Deurne. It occurred to me that it was inappropriate here to be making abstract paintings which were the final point of a very long journey that had its origins somewhere in Italy. The art of painting originated in the Renaissance, when the poet was commissioned to sing the praises of his patron’s portrait. I realized that even if I wanted to make an anti-traditional painting, I was still working in a tradition, a tradition that had ended up here as if by accident and which had nothing to do with my own world. (6)

In 1966 Van Bakel moved to Helenaveen, a small village in de Peel. It was during this period that he began to turn his attention away from illusionistic painting that in his view was too non-committal and started becoming concerned with the concrete world of things, the designed object. Perhaps this was also a way of bridging what he experienced as a distance between art and life. In this shift in focus and activity his frequent meetings with the architect Arne van Herk and the designer Jos Jansen certainly played an important role. He gradually developed a very specific way of thinking about the objects that human beings have made and invented during the course of history. Later on, in 1980, he gave this view of the world a name, calling it ‘het voorwerpelijk denken’, or objectcentred thinking. He has often given an elegant and highly original description of this way of thinking – hence the fact that he is often quoted in this text-, but in the end it is his works, that are the most effective embodiment of his ideas, since they are ‘points of condensation in a continuous stream of thought’ (1982). The step from producing paintings to making objects-his furniture and later the machines- was in fact no break. Looking back over his work he said that ‘the process of changing from producing paintings to making machines in fact occurred very gradually. It was a very logical development. In fact I still paint. My working method is that of a painter rather than that of a sculptor. When I make machines I also work with flat surfaces. (7) His machine phase was however preceded by a period in which he worked intensively on designing furniture, toys and objects for walls.

FURNITURE, TOYS, OBJECTS FOR WALLS (1966-1975)

Gerrit van Bakel spin stoel M20
Spiderchair 1969

From 1966 on Gerrit van Bakel became more and more convinced that the world in which we live, and our own immediate environment needed to be drafted all over again on the basis of elementary needs and very simple principles. ‘At a certain moment I cycled with a couple of friends to the South of France and went and lived in a cave. That was where I got the idea, that I would have to redesign the world.*(8) Typical of his designs were the following priorities: first of all the function of the furniture (sitting, eating, working, storage, etc), then the clear, visibly functional construction and finally the use of plywood which is a natural easily- worked material. This second phase in his work is in fact also called the ‘plywood period’. The plywood parts of each piece of furniture were in each case joined together with iron corner-pieces. Even the one element of comfort and the only decorative element-the rounded corners-was due to the fact that with rounded shapes a much more economical use of the standard plywood board could be made. The drawings showing how the wood should be cut for some of his pieces of furniture (for example, the ‘Hymen chair’ 1967) show this clearly. Plywood would become Van Bakel’s favourite material, one that he got to know through and through over the years, in the same way as a farmer knows his own land.

Between 1966 and 1975, then, a very varied series of chairs, kitchen chairs, stools, sofas, children’s chairs, large and small tables, desks, bookcases and sets of shelves came into being. He also designed tiny rocking chairs, toys and Wendy houses for children. The basic idea behind these objects was that a space needed to be provided for the ‘original consciousness’of children. By this he meant “that we shouldn’t make any distinction between toys and any other objects. Coffee pots, mugs or door mats are just as important for a child as a chair, a doll, a toy car or a ball”. (9)

gerrit van bakel hymen pubbremer3
Zaagplan / Saw-plan Hymen chair
gerrit van bakel meubels a-symmetrische stoel pubbremer4
Linksboven: Hymenstoel met hoofdsteun / Hymen-chair with head-rest (1975) Rechtsboven: A-symmetrische stoel / Asymetric chair (1971) Linksonder: N-stoel / N-chair (1966) Rechtsonder: Zitstoel zonder leuning IV / Sitting-chair without arm-rest IV (1968)

An inventory and description of all his toys and pieces of furniture can be found in the catalogue entitled ‘Gerrit van Bakel, de multiplex periode’, Gemeentemuseum de Wieger, Deurne, 1987. (Multiplex is the Dutch word for plywood. Translator.).
In addition to their great simplicity and self-evident design, a typical feature of many of Van Bakel’s pieces of furniture is their striking plasticity. The sculptural character and the attention to form increase sharply towards the end of his furniture period, as the 1975 series of Hymen chairs clearly shows. When these chairs are unfolded for the user, they reveal a variety of complex forms and surfaces. His need for a broader way of thinking about furniture and for a reassessment of the way that we relate to our world that is so full of objects, can clearly be seen in his wall objects. These would turn out to be of great importance for the whole of Van Bakel’s oeuvre. The aim of these wall objects is to make one’s home environment more pleasant by visually compensating for excessive cold or heat. In a situation where it is too cold they suggest warmth by turning their red and yellow sides to the front and when it is warm they show their blue surface so as to provide a visual cooling effect. These wall objects have to be moved by hand; later on he took them a stage further by mechanizing the hand movement that produced the complementary colour effect’. He did this by using the natural phenomenon that par excellence produces a regular alternation between heat and cold: day and night. Van Bakel made use here of the typical effect on matter of this natural phenomenon. It is the first time that the element of movement appears in his work, a movement that is produced by a mechanism that harnesses the expansion and contraction of materials produced by alternation in temperature.

THE DAY AND NIGHT PRINCIPLE

Day and Night Machine, 1975-77 (steel, aluminium, polyester, nylon, 810 x 375 x 240 cm)

Differences in temperature are most pronounced in the case of the change from day to night and vice-versa. By day the sun gives the earth light, heat and energy; at night they disappear and the earth gives back the heat of the day. The alternation of day and night provides our existence and the whole of nature with an essential rhythm, which people who live and work in the country are very conscious of and it is this primary fact in particular that Van Bakel applied in the ‘machines’ that he developed and produced after 1979. He gave the name ‘Day and Night Principle’to this principle of movement which is based on a difference in temperature. ‘And then the machines came. They came out of nothing, just like me. Because I am no more than a medium for forces that exist outside me. I come out of nothing, out of prehistory. The things that touch me most closely are prehistoric. My logic belongs to a time before Socrates. I am trying to catch up with history. In the countryside there are forces at play that existed prior to history. (10) He applied the Day and Night Principle not only to small machines that produce a movement that is visible, but also in the monumental ‘Day and Night Machine’ of 1975-1977; this machine that is 8 metres high was first erected outside the Meyhuis in Helmond during Van Bakel’s first one-man show there in 1976 and then on the grounds of the former Technische Hogeschool (the present Technische Universiteit) in Eindhoven. In the top of this machine, which is no longer complete, two oval-shaped shields or wings were attached; the difference between the cold of night and the heat of day caused an expansion and contraction of two metals, that caused the wings to lift during the day and to fall at night. In doing this they make a curve of not more than 90 degrees. The work is almost a gesture of homage to day and night, an affirmation of the eternal rhythm that all life is subject to. In this work Van Bakel combines the organic shapes of a flower or a butterfly with the straight-lined character of a functional technological construct of steel. Technology here is an accessory that is used to render visible the powers that operate in nature. On the other hand this work is a declaration of opposition to current technology, which in his view had betrayed its own origins.

With this work Van Bakel made his definitive entrance on the terrain of the visual arts; he was no longer concerned with redefining extremely concrete objects of everyday use such as items of furniture, but rather with thinking about and going in quest of the origin of forces in nature, of phenomena such as movement, time and temperature. The creation of objects and that of art were moreover very close in his view. Art and objects are neighbours. ‘It is at the point where things are summarized and reformulated that images, thoughts, forms and possibilities of identification are generated. This begins with art. This is art history, but we see that this is a good road to follow. Its climax would be a redesigning of the world. (11)

THE MACHINES

gerrit-van-bakel-Utah-machine1980
Utah Machine (1980) Photo Ton Hartjens

In the next few years, 1976 to 1981, he produced machines in which the kinetic principle was given a variety of different forms. Movement did not only occur in a vertical direction as in the ‘Rabbit’, 1978-1980 which only moves its ears, but also horizontally, for example in the two ‘Circle machines’, 1979-80, which are day and night machines on wheels. As a result of the influence of the alternation between heat and cold these machines draw a circle in pencil or chalk over a period of three months. In this way the principle of day and night is rendered visible but extremely slowly.

In this machine and in other ones wheels make their appearance. They are an element that in terms both of function and of form play a considerable role in the work of Van Bakel. The fact of going forward, of moving from one place to another, fascinated him. Once again in order to make their origin visible he gradually looked for and eventually discovered a new form of power and the technology needed to execute it. The alternation in temperature between day and night and the difference in the coefficient of expansion of different materials were the natural element he required to design machines that move extremely slowly. He therefore accepted being dependent on forces over which he had no influence whatsoever. This was certainly the case with his splendidly constructed ‘London machine’, in which he used mist as a source of energy instead of heat and cold: the expansion and contraction of nylon threads. The counterpart of the ‘London machine’ is the ‘Berlin machine’, 1978-1980. This machine only moves at night in response to the expansion of brass wire.
All these machines for ‘driving’-he even called one of them ‘Little Automobile’ are not simply an ironic comment on our advanced technology, but are rather a fundamental criticism of it and certainly when it is applied to the design and production of cars.

The most succinct example of this is the ‘Utah Machine’, 1980, that ‘takes on’ the ‘Blue Flame’ rocket, that achieved the world land speed record in the Utah salt flats. This rocket reached a speed of 750 mph., faster than sound in other words; the ‘Utah Machine’ covered 18 mm per day. The latter machine was ‘driven by the sun’ and in fact is nothing more than a moving wheel held up by a pair of supporting struts. The shape of the wheel is a metaphor for movement. The counterpart of the ‘Utah Machine’ is the much bigger ‘Tarim Machine’ which was intended to cross the Tarim basin in Tibet on the other side of the world, a distance of 1100 kms. The concept for both machines originated during the years 1979-1980. He gave them the combined title, ‘The Utah-Tarim connection’. Theoretically the Blue Flame would be able to cross the Tarim Basin in an hour, while according to Van Bakel’s calculations the ‘Tarim machine’ would take 30 million years to cross it. ‘The connection is complete when: a. the machines are constructed, b. the press reports have been distributed across the world, c. the journey of the ‘Tarim machine’ is completed. During the course of its existence the ‘Tarim machine’ can be altered or replaced.

Tarim-machine Photo: Hans Biezen

The ‘Tarim machine’ that was constructed later on in 1982 for the Documenta 7 in Kassel is much larger and more complicated than the ‘Utah machine’. This machine that is six metres in length makes one think of a caterpillar-like animal that with its four antennae and numerous feet can continue for ever on its way across the desert without any interruption.
It is clear from both machines that Van Bakel does not resort to reflection or to language but realizes and makes his ideas concrete through the machine itself. In this case these are ideas about the meaning of speed and time rather than about movement. ‘It advances on its little feet one little step forward in the desert. Over sand, salt, rocks, and up the sides of mountains. Even if it falls over it makes no difference. The fact that it has to take so long to go across the desert is itself a part of what it is all about: time and not movement. (12) Van Bakel makes the notion of time a relative one and reduces it to proportions that a human being can understand. ‘Just imagine that the Tarim basin remains un- changed and that the grandfather in his hut is saying to his son, ‘you see that machine that is moving towards us. You will have to tell your grandson that when he builds his hut, he will have to build it a little bit to the left; otherwise the machine will ride over it. (13) This conceptual moment is the heart of the work, but the form in which he has given shape to his idea is also of the utmost importance for Van Bakel. In an interview in 1980 with the physicist Dr. Hans Beltman that is crucial to understanding his work and ideas, Van Bakel talked about the relation between ideas and form. “Art is about things, about forms and a form has to include a message about the road that has been taken to arrive at that form. It has to be contained in the form. If you only show the finished goal, you are no longer involved in anything more than some reduction or other. If you only show the process you are involved in something that is merely theatrical. I want to do both things at once. I want to show not just the form but also the road I have taken to arrive at it and this means that my sketchbooks are just as important as the machines and the other things and that everything overlaps with everything else. I want to show people all this all at once. Of course you can’t do that. So people have to take their time about it and get to know what I am doing bit by bit and become enthusiastic or share my own enthusiasm with the things that I have made. My attitude, my attempt to achieve a harmony with the subject, if this is correct or convincing, if it possesses the right degree of power then it is there also for other people. Of course it is not the most effective way of sharing one’s feelings, but perhaps it is effective in showing how I think about things. However-and this is a disadvantage in my work-my explanation of it is indispensible. As far as that goes I am not a real artist. At least not in the classical sense, the notion of the artist who only gives you his image, who gives material form to his emotions. I start with the assumption that the people who see it also have thoughts. If they also have thoughts then in fact I don’t need to say anything. Then they will figure it out for themselves. And they can hardly go wrong there, because what I do is not unambiguous. I am not just dealing with something like heat = movement. It is just that I have paid a lot of attention to heat and movement because that is something that is difficult. I don’t really want to specialize.” (14)

A third important work that has the Utah-Tarim theme is the ‘Summer Wheel’, 1982-83, which however was produced much later on.

THE SUMMER WHEEL 1982-83

gerrit-van-bakel-zomerwiel
The Summerwheel

In this work Gerrit van Bakel has once again presented us with a discussion on a very large scale, this time of the wheel, one of the most important human inventions. It is striking that he has paid plenty of attention to formal plastic features; the wide tread and the long rods that keep the wheel steady and contain the oil tanks give this machine a monumental force.
During the years 1979 and 1980 a striking expansion of the contents of his work occurred: he put a number of important inventions and discoveries in the field of technology and culture in a historical perspective, often by bringing them together in a single work. Sometimes he draws a direct connection between technology and nature by referring with some emphasis to the origin of the invention, as for instance in ‘Small concert for laser, bulldog (tractor) and bird’, 1979, that he produced a number of times.

In comparable works from a later period he tried in the first place to evoke and again bring back to life the crucial moment of creation and, above all, before the creation of important works of the past in the fields of art, nature and technology. This is also at the core of the work ‘Back to the source of the search for the origin of Albinoni’s grief’, 1980 that was the subject of a performance at the opening of the first major exhibition of his work in 1981 in the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven. For this performance that was directed by Van Bakel himself in the guise of a scientific researcher and magician, he conducted an experiment, consisting of an iron bottle containing gas, a burner, steam, mirrors, a blue lamp, a helium neon laser, and sound equipment. With the aid of a steam turbine engine he got the laser beam to trace a red circle, which rose slowly due to the increasing pressure of the steam. Together with the hissing of the steam one could hear the stately sounds of the ‘Adagio’ of the baroque composer, Tommaso Albinoni (1671-1750). All these different elements contributed to the magic of the moment when the circle reached its highest point. With this extraordinary moment where technological achievements and discoveries through the ages-such as glass, iron, the steam pumps of the Greek physicist, Hero of Alexandria (1st century BC), perspex, the reproduction of sound, laser beams, and the sorrowfulness of Albinoni’s music were brought together, Van Bakel wanted to refer to the creative moment itself. Many of Van Bakel’s works are a sort of homage to this ‘sacred moment’ while at the same time being an attempt to ‘recapture this fundamental silence’. (15) In Dr. Hans Beltman’s interview with him in 1980 Van Bakel said about this: “My idea here is the sort of awareness that exists before something has been created. Something that has not yet been thought of. The relation that exists between Hero’s attitude as a man involved in research and Albinoni’s attitude and my own attitude, which moreover is also an interpretation of that of Albinoni and Hero, this attitude of mine is to bring these people together. I have such a mournful feeling if I think of the night before Albinoni wrote his adagio. I can imagine him so easily, and Hero too with his little bail of steam… I think that something happened then. People like this make themselves open so that they can arrive at a discovery, it has something to do with being vulnerable. Maybe I am sentimental by nature.” (16)

Personal elements occupied an increasingly important place in his work as we can see from the ‘Eindhoven presence machine’ that was made for the same exhibition in the Van Abbemuseum. In this object damp soil from Van Bakel’s birthplace was heated; the moisture rising from the soil causes the ropes that are joined with two wooden rings to contract. As a result these rings shift slowly in relation to each other. This was not so much a question of the soil itself – what does ‘native soil’ mean anyway? – but of the concrete reference to the region that he came from: de Peel. He also planned the ‘Glowing Man’ to be constructed in this region. He had designed two huge horns for this project that would function as voice amplifiers. These horns would be erected in the fields at a great distance from each other. Through them his brothers and sisters could tell each other things about the landscape, the landscape of their youth, without raising their voices. An aid to communication about nature between people.

RESEARCH AND POETRY 1981-1984

Gerrit-van-bakel-Seismograaf-
De Seismograaf – de nachten van Richter / The Seismograph – the nights of Richter (1982)

In 1981 striking changes appear in his work and concepts. The abovementioned major exhibition in the Van Abbemuseum and his moving to a new house with a large studio -an old factory premises -on the outskirts of Deurne certainly played a part in this. His work became rapidly better known particularly after he was invited by Rudi Fuchs to take part in the Documenta 7 in Kassel. Even before 1981 he shows signs of a utopian and more magical way of thinking about the world and about the objects that human beings have surrounded themselves with, as Dees Linders points out in her article. A typical feature of his work is his need to look for the origin of things and to try and find a harmony with nature, a harmony that the technology of the 20th century has lost. The word ‘harmony’ crops up with increasing regularity in his sketchbooks. ‘Harmony is the prototype on which my story is based. (17) His notions about the function of his work are idealistic and of an almost romantic utopianism. Van Bakel is convinced that the object in its development from neolithic times to the present has lost its way. ‘Redesigns will have to be made. All over again, beginning at the beginning with an attitude that was already present in the distant past. The linking up of poetry with science and with tech- nology in particular. (18)

He hoped that he himself could play a role in this reformulation of the world of objects by designing his objects and his machines that he deliberately described as art. ‘Let me try and find a place for myself in the art of the past 50 years. I cannot see further back than that. I hope that the things that I make, or at any rate a number of them, will form part of the idiom, the idiom of the objects that people will require 10, 100 or 1000 years later in order to arrive at a definition of the world of objects. In this sense what I do can be compared with fundamental scientific research; even though I am myself not a researcher. I do not define myself by saying what I am doing but by doing things and letting people see what I have done. The result of my activities is a thing, an object and not a word. (19)

After 1981 a more realistic investigative attitude also began to appear in Gerrit van Bakel’s work alongside this idealistic and utopian attitude; this was stimulated above all by his astonishment at natural phenomena -on the earth and outside it- and by discoveries in the field of the natural sciences, which he once described as a ‘cool phenomenon, that also represents emotion!’ He looked for a closer connection with these sciences: mathematics, physics, chemistry and research into outer space. He read a great deal of literature on the subjects of technology and physics and he made contact with physicists at the University of Technology in Eindhoven.

gerrit van bakel papin van abbe 1469
Papin’s Machine, or ‘A new possibility of Papin’s Joy’ (1980-81) Van Abbemuseum Eindhoven

He continued to be inspired by the moments in which the great scientists of history came up with discoveries or inventions that turned out to be very influential. These moments of inspiration, prior to the experiment or the realization of an idea, formed the point of departure for works like the ‘Papin machine’, 1981 and ‘The Seismograph (the nights of Richter)’, 1982. In the former work there are other elements that also play a part. The occasion for the ‘Papin machine’-one of the most powerful and influential of all his works -was the invitation from Rudi Fuchs, who at the time was director of both the Van Abbemuseum and of Documenta 7 (1982) in Kassel, to contribute to the Documenta. This was of course both a challenge for him and an acknowledgement of his quality. In Kassel Gerrit van Bakel exhibited four works, including the ‘Tarim machine’, ‘The shape of a terror (atom bomb)’, 1980-1982 and the ‘Papin machine’.
It was the stratified character of his work in particular, the bringing together of very different elements that are typical of the way that Van Bakel often constructs his work only gradually to expand on it later. The subjects come from the history of science, from recent world history and from his own personal history. They are also a product of his idea about the relation between culture and nature, between raw materials and technology, and about the physical element in the metaphysical. He literally found the concrete occasion for this work in Kassel which he visited in 1981. In a square there he saw a memorial tablet commemorating the fact that the French physicist Denis Papin (164 7-1712) had tested out his invention of the steam cylinder there in 1695. The full title of this work, ‘A new possibility of Papin’s joy’ refers to the joy of the moment when the idea came to Papin to develop through the compression of steam a force that would be countless times more powerful than that of a human being. Afterwards, by means of numerous sketches, an associative process began that led to a machine that would be capable of raising a heavy slab of granite with a pile of sand on it. The four supports with the steam cylinder and piston in the middle comprise a sort of sacrificial altar, an open structure of iron tubes and bars, narrow below and broad on top. So far all it is is an entirely new design for a steam engine, a sort of reexperiencing of Papin’s discovery. A second essential theme in this work is however the death of Gerrit van Bakel’s father, who died just after the Second World War as he was dismantling a gun turret. He was hit by a spring that shot out of a tube under a high pressure of oil. The soil on the granite slab came from the field where his father had died. This became the symbol of his father’s death and at the same time a reference to his native soil. It is probable that Van Bakel chose granite as the material for this ‘altar’ both because it is a very solid and long-lasting material and because of the classical significance of this stone for sculpture and the fact that it was used for altars in Catholic churches.
The ‘Papin machine’ does not produce anything; its only purpose is to raise the heap of sand a few centimetres and in this way to pay homage to his father and perhaps in a more general sense to the earth, to the source of all life. The idea of a sacrifice of earth is not only suggested by the towering form of the construction-small below and wide above-and by the granite slab, that gives one the picture of an altar, but above all because of the literal lifting up of the slab and the sand.
The form and function of this machine give enough reason to believe that its creator has tried to give one the idea that he has made a connection between the material (sand and granite) on the one hand and the immaterial, the indescribable or ‘higher’ on the other hand. Human beings (particularly as a group) have an enormous need for a certain amount of ‘mystery’ (sketchbook, June 1979). Thinking in terms of a unity between the two areas was nothing new for him. He was very open to making connections of this kind, as one can see from the comments that he made on his own works. In the case of the ‘Papin machine’ he would seem to be referring to a connection between technology and nature, between the physical and the metaphysical, between life and death, but also to the connection over the centuries between the physicist Papin, the farmer (his father) and the artist that he was himself. (20)

The ‘Papin machine’ was made at the beginning of the third and last period of his work. In this period that begins with the year of his first major retrospective exhibition in 1981 and ended abruptly with his death in 1984, changes appear as I said earlier in his way of thinking and working. He becomes increasingly concerned with questions about the character of natural and physical phenomena, and how we perceive and record them, and less with the magic of unaccountable forces on this earth and in the universe. With one group of works at least this is the case: with the ‘Tetrahedron’, 1982, the ‘Seismograph’, 1982, ‘Concerning cold’, 1983, the ‘Telescope for the Pole Star’, 1983, the ‘Perseids tele- scope’, 1983, the ‘Experimental construction Oil l and 2’, 1984 and the ‘Gyroscope’, 1984.

gerrit van bakel paneel papin machine
Sketch A new possibility of Papin’s Joy

The function of measurement is of course the most important aspect of the ‘Seismograph’. This work results from his astonishment at the phenomenon of the earth, that is constantly in motion: ‘the earth as a round object, a system like a sort of slowly vibrating pudding. (21) And this led to a question about a method for recording it, without making use of existing seismographic instruments. ‘Daydreaming with a piece of paper. That’s something that I always do. I try and imagine something and I let my hand lead me. Every day. In the course of time a certain sketch recurs with increasing frequency in my sketchbook. During the past few months I have maybe drawn the seismograph a hundred times in my sketchbooks. It begins to become serious if the moment is right and I pick up a ruler. It acquires a measurement, a form and a comment on its feasibility.
When I was finished with the seismograph I was quite pleased. I had a shower, put everything straight again in the kitchen and went to bed. But I couldn’t fall asleep. I imagined the movement of the earth. A seismograph is a thing to measure earthquakes. The earth is a system of waves and vibrations. This stable thing on which I live is always moving. Very slightly. Very slowly. However still I am sitting, I am never quite still. (22) And elsewhere he adds: ‘The earth moves with intervals of 8 seconds. What I experience then is the fact that I am standing on a moving earth, and this is the feeling that I want or hope that someone who sees that thing and thinks about it, that he will also get that feeling a bit. (23) Van Bakel wanted this instrument not just to make vibrations visible and palpable; he also wanted to refer to the history of the seismograph and to pay homage to the man who by establishing these measurements had devised the system of scales of magnitude for earthquakes, the American seismologist Charles Francis Richter (born 1900). ‘Six and a half on the Richter scale. That was something that used to be mentioned in news items. A sound. For me Richter has once again become someone who pottered around in a shed with a lot of suspended weights. The name of Richter will certainly be remembered for a thousand years. But nobody still remembers that Richter was someone who ate sandwiches. I now know that he did. Did Richter have a father? Why did he begin to work with these vibrations? That’s the sort of question I ask. I don’t have to know the answer; all I need is the space to conjecture how it took place. This is the feeling I’m looking for. I share a fraction of his consciousness. This feeling must continue to linger in the form of the seismograph. What I make, it’s an ode to the nights of the people who have lain tossing around in their beds. And have invented something. It is the frontiers of consciousness that interest me. A consciousness like this can take on very dramatic forms. People who live in a state of tension, often have dreams about earthquakes. In actual fact a seismograph is the opposite of an earthquake. The invention of the seismograph has something to do with the overcoming of fear, the exorcizing of fear. This is in fact true of most technological inventions. They are aids that help us to know where we are. And what is going to happen. Consequently the essence of the form gets lost in the course of time. (24) It is the same sort of ode as he made to Hero of Alexandria, to Albinoni and to Papin. Moreover he also saw the absurd aspect of his undertaking, of inventing something that already exists: ‘What I’m concerned with is of course total nonsense. Who would do a thing like this nowadays, making a seismograph in Deurne? (25) But at the end of John Heymans’s interview with him that took place just after he had made the seismograph, he described with great accuracy what in fact led him to making all his objects. I am looking for the form of the technology which is rarely the same as its subject. I don’t invent any seismograph. What I do is to individualize a notion such as that of a seismograph. This is a very emotional process. I do all over again, as it were, everything that has ever happened. In a different way. The objects that I make are in fact no machines. I only call them that. What is a machine, in actual fact? Is the wheel of fortune a machine? Is a try-your-strength machine really a machine? No matter how odd they may look, most machines make products. My machines don’t make any products. They produce consciousness. In this sense however my machines are machines after all. (26)

gerrit-van-bakel-noordpoolsterkijker-P245_02
Telescope for the Pole Star 1983 Photo Gerrit van Bakel

Another, quite different, measuring instrument is the ‘Telescope for the Pole Star’, 1983. In this case the subject of the research is not the earth but the universe: his dream was that he would be able to use it during daytime to see the most important point of reference through- out the ages, the Pole Star. This could be done by eliminating the influence of the earth’s diffused light by means of two long tubes (6 metres) through which one would look at the star. The viewer gazes through a dark tunnel and at its end he sees a point of light: one can imagine that one is looking directly into the universe. This large telescope, that combines with a globelike structure halfway along to form an open construction, connects the place where he (and the earth) are situated with the infinity of outer space. It is this awareness that this machine aims to stimulate in the person that uses it.

Van Bakel also continued to search for new forms for producing movement as for instance the ‘Winter Trolley’, 1982-84 that works by the expansion of ice and which has a splendid vertical form due to the column of ice required for the piece. The column itself is crowned with an adjustable flower calyx for catching the rainwater. This ‘Winter Trolley’ is an immediate precursor of the ‘Rain Trolley’, 1982-83. When the receptacle of this trolley is filled with rain water, it tips backwards as a result of the shifting of the centre of gravity and the rain trolley makes a big lurch forward, which causes the sticks to go up. ‘It prays for itself and it applauds itself. (27) Here too the form is determined by the function, but as a result it also acquires a primitive archaic character. A special feature are the wheels that were executed following a very original design and principle. ‘These wheels, they are wheels that are made of a flat plate, that I have sawed out and bent so that I have turned something that really isn’t at all strong into something that will take the pressure of 80 kilograms per wheel.’
During his last period Van Bakel did not only make works whose purpose is measurement and movement; he also made a number of machines whose meaning is much more complicated and that bring together many different elements-historical, cultural, personal and sometimes philosophical. What they have in common is that they do not have any practical function, but are vehicles for an idea or belief of their maker. In this sense these works are pure art, they only refer incidentally to technology or physics. Form also begins to play an increasingly important role and occasionally there is a work that is only made for the sake of the image, such as the ‘Medium-sized carrier of problems’, 1984, where the important thing is the plasticity of the huge adjustable wheels and the tension of the bow. The only function that this thing has is to be there.’ The egg trolley which he named ‘Concerning the origins of piety’, 1982 cannot move, but it does however have an adjustable mechanism and massive metal wheels. It is the product of Van Bakel’s great love for metal in all its forms and his admiration for all the smiths who have worked these metals with great love and knowledge. By hanging two eggs from the upper part of this trolley, he adds another dimension to this work of homage to the smiths of all times. He brings the iron into relation with an object of nature of great perfection. ‘They belong together in my opinion. An egg and an iron bar are equivalent objects. The moment that you pick up these objects you are involved with what men call the Divine. In my view therefore it is a sort of summing up of religion. Piety is the fruit of human beings’ ability to make abstractions, and to take a distance from things. (28) This work is typical of his associative way of thinking and working; his commentary shows how the material- in this case iron -and the processing of it in the service of technology was what preoccupied him. The most fascinating thing about this trolley is the marvellously poetic combination of the eggs and the iron construction. Here perhaps he succeeds in rendering visible and tangible something of his never explicitly stated notion or assumption that there is a unifying principle at the basis of the whole of matter and of nature and human life.

Over de Oorsprong van de Godsvrucht / Concerning the Origin of Piety (1982)

The other trolleys that he produced in 1984 or just before are also a representation of an idea or story in the form of a vehicle; as for instance the elegant ‘Baldur trolley’, 1984, that the young German god Baldur is said to have made with his uncle to ride to follow after Donar, the god of thunder and to make wind. Or the two ‘Trolleys for good and evil’, 1983-84, whose structure and symmetry stand for dualistic thinking, including the many limitations inherent in this way of thinking. The trolleys become messengers bringing a poetic or philosophical content. In making the wings of the ‘Baldur trolley’, for instance, three metals are used; iron, copper and aluminium, because Baldur was no longer able to tell his uncle that it was absolutely necessary for these to be used. For this reason Baldur’s chariot was incomplete. Van Bakel added these metals with their magical power for humans to the trolley. ‘I have now added these three elements to this fan-like structure. I thought that there should have been a spell, that an exorcism should have occurred and that because this exorcism did not happen, Christianity arose with one God in three Persons. Because these three things were left out and because the Trinity began to play a role, it took much longer before men were able to fly. That they failed to follow in the steps of Icarus. (29)

The seven ‘World trolleys’, 1984 brought a small quantity of Van Bakel’s native soil to very different places over the whole world. Two of them have already completed their journey and are concealed in the temple in Incallatja in Bolivia and in the Acropolis. The native soil is a metaphor for his own person and for the significance that he attributes to the earth in general. The trolleys too stand for what is an essential value for Van Bakel, that of metal; they are made of five different metals: iron, copper, bronze, brass and aluminium. The great precision with which the trolleys were designed and produced attest to the great advances in technological knowledge that have taken place during the second half of the 20th century. For those who will maybe come across them in centuries to come, they comprise a link in the chain of the development of technology, but here too they refer back to their origins, the earth, that is, that the trolley contains.

In the last year of his life Van Bakel worked very intensively on a number of major projects. One of these was ‘The Wheel’, 1982-89 that he was commissioned by the Energiebedrijf Tilburg NV (gas and electricity company) to make for an outdoor situation. The company devoted a very informative publication to this work. The theme was stated in Van Bakel’s own words, ‘At the end of the age of the machine it would seem to be a good idea to offer a large-scale and simple homage to the Wheel. (30) ‘The Wheel’ was indeed one of his largest machines; it is 6.30 metres high and has a rotational radius of 8.10 metres. On one side it is supported by a shaft, that is fastened at one end and in which oil is placed. It moves in an extremely slow circle on its broad rim and it is propelled by the heat of the sun: ‘a sort of ETERNAL energy’. A filter and a transmission device causes the oil to expand so that the wheel is pressed a tiny bit forward. Its site in particular makes ita comment on all the known and accepted forms of energy. In fact the wheel has constantly played a part in Gerrit van Bakel’s thought and work.

The Wheel ‘Het Wiel’  Tilburg Foto: Ton Hartjens

It has always intrigued him because of its powerful form and its numerous symbolic implications but also because it is one of the few things that do not have any obvious prototype in nature. He talked about this during a lecture at the Art Academy in Kampen, in March 1984, just after he had completed the drafting stage for this work. “When the wheel first appeared, there was no natural reference point for that wheel, a rolling stone perhaps, or a rolling tree trunk, but, that’s all very well, but it still isn’t a wheel, a wheel is something a little bit more subtle, because it contains the possibility of being able to leave the world behind some day and that is what is in fact happening now, people are working with the help of rockets to leave the system and framework of the earth behind (…). That wheel is thousands and thousands of years old, it has taken thousands and thousands of years for it to reach a certain degree of sophistication (…) so that while you no longer see anything of a wheel, because a rocket doesn’t look anything like a wheel, people can leave the place where they are behind, this is something so gigantic, it is almost inconceivable.” Van Bakel died just after he had made the detailed draft for ‘The Wheel’. Fortunately during the next few years, 1984-1989 the project was realized as a result of the combined efforts of many people.
The second large-scale project was an enormous sowing machine, that once in seven years would pour out seed over the fields. The machine would be activated by rain that would be collected in a system of containers. The commission to produce this work came from the Academisch Medisch Centrum, a hospital and medical research centre in Amsterdam. The draft drawings that he made for this project are splendid, but because of his premature death in the night of 18 to 19 November 1984, the project was never realized. In the Summer of that year another exhibition of his work was held entitled ‘Uit de Werkplaats’ (from the workshop), that covered all his work since 1981. The catalogue that accompanied that exhibition contained an exceptionally interesting in- terview with Gerrit van Bakel by the curator of the museum, Piet de Jonge, in which he talked about the background for a number of his works.

In the months before his death he produced more theoretical and philosophical statements than he had done so far about the world of objects. He wrote columns in the magazine, ‘Delta’. In September 1984 he gave a lecture entitled ‘Elements from an artificial landscape’. This was held in the context of the ‘open day for philosophy’ at the Technische Hogeschool Twente in Enschede (a College of Technology).During the reading the speaker’s chair rose slowly so that at the end of his lecture Gerrit van Bakel could look out of a high window. At that moment he was discussing the horizon and the phenomenon of sunset.

FROM THE PEEL TO THE UNIVERSE

Gerrit-van-bakel-Zonsondergangvolger
Gerrit van Bakel standing on top of the ‘Follower of the sunset’ 1984

The sunset was also the theme of one of his last works, one that was never finished, the ‘Follower of the sunset’. For ‘Follower of the Sunset III’, 1984 he made a construction of two very long poles, at right angles to each other; anyone who wanted to follow the sunset and to extend that moment could use this device which rose very slowly. The work is about the elusive quality of that impressive moment that to the primitive mind was a moment of terror. ‘What the horizon suggests tome 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. ‘ ‘This Follower of the sunset ‘should also have been situated on the piece of land in de Peel where all the lines in Van Bakel’s work come together: in the unfinished project ‘Glowing Man’. The concept of the ‘Follower of the sunset’ is particularly poetic and magical. It renders visible something of his efforts to step outside the limits of the earth and to continue with his research in the universe. In fact he had already on a number of occasions stated in his notebook his desire to free himself from the earth and to fathom the immensity of the universe. Words such as ‘levitation’ and ‘floating’ occur regularly. As early as June 1979 he wrote in his sketchbook, ‘whether or not a work of art is (or is capable of being) Marxist is not relevant because the adventure involved in understanding and in floating is much more interesting than any involvement in social events that may take place in a radius of a. 10 b.100 c.1000 d.10.000 kms around us’. This desire is also the basic theme underlying a number of his works, such as ‘The telescope for the Pole Star’, the ‘Perseids telescope’ and the ‘Seismograph’. ‘My reason for making that thing was in fact the desire to leave the world behind. (32) His deepest ambition however went beyond research and measuring. What he wanted above all was to arrive by means of his objectcentred thinking at the common origin of science, technology and art, because there was a unity there of intellect, emotions, intuition and respect for the earth and for nature. He dreamed above all of ‘a sort of redesigning of the world’ (1981). His dreams were quite without limits.

In a note in one of his last sketchbooks one can read:

Of course I want to redesign the universe, but that is something that I cannot do.”

 

Jaap Bremer

In writing this essay I owe a debt of gratitude to a so far unpublished doctoral thesis, ‘Gerrit van Bakel 1943-1984, van de Peel naar de Peel met een omweg langs de wereld’ by Dees C.M. Linders (Groningen 1989). (Gerrit van Bakel 1943-1984, from de Peel to de Peel with a detour by way of the world. Translator). This in-depth analysis is indispensible for anyone who wants to understand Van Bakel’s oeuvre.

Notes:

1. Interview on the Brabant local radio station, 13.6.1982.
2. ‘Naar de harmonie van het karrespoor’, a conversation between Gerrit van Bakel, Dick Raaijmakers and Victor Wentinck, Delta, 20.12.1983.
3. Exhibition catalogue, ‘Gerrit van Bakel, Het voorwerpelijke denken’, p.28, Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven.
4. D.Linders and others, ‘Gerrit van Bakel, Het Wiel’, p.9, Energiebedrijf Tilburg NV, 3.1.1989.
5. Anna Tilroe, ‘Gerrit van Bakel, Ik schilder met de boormachine’, Haagse Post, 25.8.1984.
6. Idem, p.42.
7. Gasuniek, 20th year, no.25, December 1984, p.30, Gerrit van Bakel.
8. R. Boonstra, ‘Machines om je wang zacht te maken, Gerrit van Bakel op de Dokumenta’, Elsevier Magazine, 19.6.1 984.
9. Exhibition catalogue, ‘Gerrit van Bakel, De multiplex periode’, p.8, Deurne, 1987.
10. R. Boonstra, idem.
11. Exhibition catalogue, ‘Gerrit van Bakel, Het voorwerpelijke denken’, p.16, Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, 1981, interview with Dr. Hans Beltman.
12. TV interview, Teleac, 1982.
13. Exhibition catalogue, ‘Gerrit van Bakel, Het voorwerpelijke denken’, p.30, 1981.
14. Idem, p.35.
15. Sketchbook, June 1979.
16. Exhibition catalogue, ‘Gerrit van Bakel, Het voorwerpelijke denken’, p.11, 1981.
17. Idem, p.15.
18. Idem, p.24.
19. Idem, p.21.
20. In the above-mentioned unpublished study, ‘Gerrit van Bakel 1943-1984, Van de Peel naar de Peel met een omweg langs de wereld’ (1989) by D.C.M.Linders this work is discussed and analyzed in depth.
21. ‘Gerrit van Bakel, Uit de werkplaats’, p.11, Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, 1984.
22. John Heymans, ‘Een ode aan de nachten van Richter’, an interview with Gerrit van Bakel on 7.11.1982, p.18.
23. ‘Gerrit van Bakel, Uit de werkplaats’, Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, 1984, p.11
24. ‘Een ode aan de nachten van Richter’, p.20.
25. Idem, p.19.
26. Idem, p.20.
27. ‘Gerrit van Bakel, Uit de werkplaats’, p.31.
28. Idem, p.55.
29. Idem, p.59.
30. ‘Gerrit van Bakel, Het Wiel’, Energiebedrijf Tilburg, 1989, with articles by Dees Linders, Nico de Glas and Guido Lippens.
31. See Gerrit van Bakel’s lecture ‘Elements of an artificial landscape’.
32. John Heymans, ‘Een ode aan de nachten van Richter’, p.19.