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Interview with Jan Vercruysse

by Bill Sullivan

Bill Sullivan: I don't really have a chronology of your work. I know it only in bits and pieces from photos and interviews in art magazines. The self portraits that I saw in these magazines they were done when?
Jan Vercruysse: In the beginning of my career from about 1978 to `84.
Q: You had a former career before this it was in what ?
A: Poetry
Q: This is what you studied ?
A: No you don't study this.
Q: But literature ?
A: No.
Q: You didn't study literature?
A: No nothing to do with art. In Belgium we all learn how to read and to write and that is all you need to write poetry.
Q: So you did go to university?
A: Yes
Q: And you had no specialty at university?
A: I studied law and philosophy.
Q: So you decided you wanted a career as a poet.
A: No you don't decide this it happens and you have to do it. At one point in my life I guess I did decide that I had to leave this normal world and to become an artist.
Q: So you started scribbling down poems in your early 20s?
A: No in my late 15s.
Q: And who were your influences in your poetry?
A: Nobody.
Q: Nobody?
A: By nobody.
Q: Nobody that's good even at 15.
A: Even at 15 I would say certainly at 15.
Q: So when did you decide you wanted to enter the visual world?
A: It came slowly in the early `70s the urge to make it visual. In the beginning that meant putting words on paper and hanging it on the wall this kind of visual.
B: Oh that's interesting. A lot of people have done this.
A: Yes unfortunately a lot of people have done this
Q: Yes (laughs).
A: And my last poems were simply about the conditions of being a poem or being poetry: very self-reflexive and self-analyzing. And then I stopped doing this and I decided to no longer focus on poetry but on art in general as an idea and an activity. The first works that I made that I would call art were only text. Then I added images. First ones that I found that I took from other sources. Then I began creating my own images which were the beginning of the work before the self-portraits: more and more image and then only the few words of the title and then I dropped everything and I arrived at the self-portraits.
Q: When you say you found images was there a philosophy or a theory about how you would find them or how you would make them your own?
A: No it's not a theory of appropriation. No the ones that I used I just found they were 19th-century French works that I found in dictionaries that I reprinted in black-and-white offset. And they were all about what art does in the world and I called these a "narcissistic activity" not in the sense of the artist looking at himself but narcissism as a methodology--that has art redefining or recreating the world. So I chose a lot of paintings that were in this 19th-century kitschy style that either had a person or a group of people in an object relationship with another person--a narcissist with himself.
Q: In your work there an incredible amount of restraint a certain elegance and simplicity. Is there an impulse that allows you to step back and not do too much?
A: It is not so much that this a reflection on myself. On another level say the works that are called self-portraits are not about me. They are called The Portrait of the Artist or Portrait of the Artist by Himself. So I used myself because well I was there. I couldn't ask a model to sit and play the artist. But my physical presence is irrelevant. It is not about me.
Q: But I also wanted to ask about say the use or overuse of your hand in the work.
A: I am not a painter and I am not a sculptor in the classic sense of the word where the use of the hand is important.
Q: Was it a conscious decision not to use the hand or did the issue never come up?
A: For me it was a very natural thing not to be in it.
Q: In terms of the quantity of work that you produce is there ever the question of ever producing too much?
A: I never have the feeling that I produce too much.
Q: Do you see your work intertwining into an encyclopedic body of work that is always Jan Vercruysse?
A: Yes in the sense that I clearly feel the reasons why I made each work and why I had to make them and why they are connected from the first to the last one.
Q: When you decided to enter the visual world was there anyone who influenced your initial direction?
A: No.
Q: None again.
A: I strongly resent that word influence. People in the art world need to see the influence of a famous artist on the work of another who comes after and if you say "excuse me I don't have any influences " they insist and they find them for you. They give you a list of your influences--"that one and that one " and if you still say "no" they get angry and they say you are lying. But I just don't think "influence" works that way. It is not a conscious decision if I see Picasso then I am immediately influenced by Picasso for me it is not like this. It is much more that you see what you know and see what you know that you need. And other things you don't see. This I don't call influence .
Q: So you can't help but to take what you need to take.
A: No it is more that you take what you already have.
Q: Take what you already have that is very Zen.
A: They say about Picasso with his Cubist paintings that he has been influenced by African sculpture and African masks but I don't agree. I always say that it is Picasso who influenced African masks. Because African masks were there already before him and on a formal level he would have seen this combination in the face that appeared already in his paintings. He saw this because his eye was already a Cubist eye and it is since Picasso that we all look at African masks; that we have "discovered" them. He gave us Cubist eyes with which to look at African masks.
Q: When you look at other artists in books say or magazines or galleries do you think that they have been or may have been influenced by other artists?
A: I rarely think this except on the occasion that I find it so obvious that I would say he was a thief and not an artist.
Q: So do you think that there is a point that someone crosses a line and becomes a thief?
A: Yes and they are around.
Q: Thieves?
A: Yes but I also think that it is quite innocent because they don't go very far.
Q: So if they could go far?
A: It becomes obvious that the content of their work is not their content and they disappear forever.
Q: (Laughs) like us all. Do you see a great deal of artists as being thieves contemporaries the ones who haven't disappeared yet?
A: I haven't focused gone to a lot of shows but I have seen in Europe for some time not one but a generation of younger artists who I find lean very heavily on the works of artists from my generation. This is the first time that I have said this but in a very real way they punish themselves they disappear.

Q: But coming as an American to the work of a lot of Belgian artists there is a certain tone and sensibility both theoretically and esthetically that strikes me as similar in much of the work.
A: I do agree that there is something common in Belgian art but it is very hard to define. I don't know but there is something.
Q: So this is your second show in America?
A: The third.
Q: One show at Christine Burgin....
A: Two one show of the "Tombeaux" and the second show of my prints.
Q: So did the Christine Burgin Gallery show any other Belgian artists?
A: No the gallery had a very short life.
Q: So how did you begin your relationship with her?
A: She came to see me in Belgium to look for me and talk about my work.
Q: So what do you think of dealers and the world of gallery owners?
A: (silence)
Q: Monsieur?
A: The good thing about dealers is that they take off our own shoulders all the pressure that you would have if you had to deal directly with the collectors and for that job I give them happily 50 percent.
Q: What do you think of the art-writing world?
A: The main problem is that there are very few critics in the old-fashioned sense with a point of view. These critics when they write about art they make it clear that it is a confrontation of their vision with the position they see in the work. And this is just the upper level of art criticism and the other stuff all around the world is just journalism.
Q: Yes boring.
A: And if they do happen to have a negative judgment of the work they certainly have a right to their opinion but they are never really able to give an argument to support the weaknesses in their conclusions so they are not critics they are just judges.
Q: How do you view the academy or supposed science of art criticism?
A: As I have said you need a vision but today you have all of these young wolves that want to have a career in the art world not as an artists but as curators. And the first thing they do is start writing but they don't have the talent for this--it is poor writing. But for them it is just the beginning of a career to become known to make contacts in order to become a curator one day. So they spoil the writing--its not what they are it is not their vocation.
Q: So again with the same line do you see art criticism as being a formal thing. In schools its history is treated almost as a science.
A: No its not like that. One must have a vision content and the desire. In a formal system they teach you only the alphabet and the rest you must have already. But now do you mind if I ask you a question?
Q: Sure.
A: Like now we have talked a lot about my work and your knowledge and experience as you have said yourself is for the most part based on reproductions.
Q: Absolutely.
A: That is a bad thing.
Q: Maybe but that is all I have.
A: An example nothing personal earlier today when we talked of a work of mine that you had seen in a magazine you called my chambers "confessionals." And you have never had the experience of being with them.
Q: Never.
A: I am not contesting your choice of words you could call them what you like but it would be more substantial if you had had the experience the real one.
Q: Not to be impertinent but what if it were less substantial what if somehow I were more influenced by the reproduction than by the experience? Not to say it were the case in this instance but in general.
A: But at this moment you would really have no way of knowing and it would be the beginning of a very dangerous evolution in the practice of talking thinking and writing about art--that you only need to see the real works by catalogue.
Q: Yes but the conundrum I was trying to get at was what if one were able from the reproduction to form or take a vision out of the thing that was important to them that they didn't necessarily get in the real work. Do you just think that that is a dangerous evolution?
A: If one no longer felt the necessity to have a confrontation and experience with the real thing yes that would lead to something without substance. Don't you think?
Q: I don't know I could say if you took say someone like Duchamp--I would say....
A: But when you say "I don't know " and then "Duchamp " you are making your own statement. And since I know that you are an artist and you are making your own work at this moment that is like your approach and this belongs to your work.
Q: Yes.
A: So it a very tricky conversation that we are having now. It is one artist talking to another artist debating two different point of view so it is no longer pretending to have an interview....
Q: But....
A: ....but you are making your work at this moment and insisting that you can have a certain sense of works only through reproductions and I still say no I don't agree and you say yes that is what I am doing.
Q: True.
A: But I don't agree as an approach in general to no longer need the real experience basing the reputation of works on secondary images: its the beginning of the end of culture.
Q: Really?
A: Like so many things in our present world.
Q: Ahh I come from the culture of TV.

Q: Do you mind if I ask a few questions about Duchamp not in terms of influence?
A: Sure lets talk about Duchamp.
Q: When did you first become aware of his work?
A: Say 30 years ago. I was very interested in the Dada movement and since he was at times connected with the movement it was through it that I arrived at an awareness of Duchamp. Then I began reading these two very famous interviews the ones by Label and Cabanne and I liked them very much. His cleverness his wittiness.
Q: So do you think without these interviews that you would have known Duchamp or feel about him the way you do now?
A: Well I am not sure how it is I really feel about Duchamp. To start with there really is not just one Duchamp there are at least three four or five Duchamps. When you are talking about his work and you say the work of Duchamp it doesn't exist in say a single work for me really there are several very different Duchamps. And some of the things I like very much and others of his things I simply find dated and old as if belonging to a former sensibility. Like all his pseudo-profound thoughts on the fourth and fifth dimensions.
Q: Like the papers in the white box.
A: Yes but there is this work of his that I really love. It is his "three standard stoppages." It is really a masterpiece and I found in the same Duchamp a very different way of thought than that other pseudo-mystical aspect of his thinking.
Q: But do you think that with his writing that it was because he did not ever want to state any definite position that might leave a trace of who he was that the writing is so obtuse silly or impossible? A: I am not really impressed by that kind of thought because I think that he really was very clever and these things are not really so interesting.
Q: One of the things that has always impressed me about his work was his ability to make things rare both through the limiting of his output and the obliqueness of the works.
A: I think that this is both true and not true on one level yes but this was just his own sensibility which was almost like that of Beckett . But on the other hand it is a myth that he stopped making art he didn't he was very much involved--he personally gave the direction to many major collectors like say Peggy Guggenheim telling them what to think he sold Brancusis he continued working. And in the end in the `60s he made many prints and he sold a lot of them to make money which is fine but it is a myth that he stopped working he didn't.
Q: Do you see that there is a very clear definition between literature and visual art?
A: From the point of view of creation yes. I was a poet who later became a visual artist and from my experience it is a very different existence and a different approach to work. It would take more time than we have to really talk about this but the basic difference is probably that the material that you use to create or recreate the works is very different. Even though I have always thought about words as something material physical almost.
Q: One thing about art that is strange is that it just sits there in its own context supposedly not tied to anything else as an object that should be venerated while the purpose of it is somehow unclear. Where do you think the context of the art object comes from? Is it given by the gallery? Or the history of the person or simply history?
A: Well the culture we all live in is artificial and we are part of this artificiality and that creates a context you may want it or you don't want it but it is. And I wouldn't say that its artificiality is fixed because it can be rewritten every day but there is this tradition and the moment one says I am an artist or let's talk about art one is engaging this context and there is no other one.
Q: So its context can only come from its history its past.
A: Perhaps like with Pop art like when Warhol said "I just do these things" and they belong nowhere. But I think that maybe you can maintain that position for one year but in the second year you are in art with the whole of art history behind you and its future before you. Now today Pop art is a very big chapter in the history of art. But this is not an issue. I say art history is the first context and even if you contest this heavily you are still just adding to art history--this is not to say you can't escape it but it is your context and it simply is not an issue.
Q: Do you see yourself in relation to its past as an evolution?
A: Yes
Q: In what sense?
A: In the most banal sense. I am an artist in the last quarter of the 20th century. With that specific consciousness and I feel it strongly--I am an artist of the last quarter of the 20th century.
Q: So how is that an evolution?
A: From the beginning of art until now? We would need a month to talk about this. And if you say evolution you can only talk about it in relation to time because in terms of content it is linked strictly to its own culture. And qualitatively it is no better or worse.
Q: But has it evolved because artists are of an older or (laughs) I guess of a younger sensibility. Is art continually just a representation of a more evolved sensibility?
A: I would hope that is always intervening in reality and shaping it. The best art I think is always just being but is at the same time a kind of representation of the culture in which it existed. And if you give up even as an idea that art can and does intervene and actually reshape reality that really is the end of culture.

Q: What do you think of the Internet?
A: In an ideal world to simply just get information it would be a good thing. But most of the material is badly edited badly printed the quality is off--so there is a loss a loss of culture. So while you could have a library of information if this were to become the norm then a book a well-made book would become a reality for very few people. And that is what I call a loss of culture. Instead of looking for ways to teach people to appreciate books how to handle them page by page reading carefully line by line. This is completely at odds with the Internet.
Q: You have used the word culture several times and coming from where I do I don't exactly understand what it means.
A: When I say culture I am not using it in the anthropological sense. I use it here to mean high culture. Many human capacities and expressions of these capacities are culture and some of them are disappearing because we have decided that they are no longer able to function in this world of fast consumption. Take for instance the book: you needed a typesetter and a printer. And a very good one is a high talent and that that is culture. To really make a beautiful book and really do it right setting the type just right insisting that quality is important and this is all incorporated in a process. Often you need to slow down give things time really concentrate on the text. To really appreciate the text and be serious about it you need to insist upon taking it slow. But at the moment the insistence upon this "slow" approach is seen as being against progress and for me that equals loss.
Q: I agree to some extent that speed has become everything and we are definitely guilty of that here in America. I think that maybe we created it. It's in our blood it's the one thing that I can't shake.
A: But you say "Yes I admit it it is very bad " but you are absolutely not unhappy with it--you don't look unhappy with it.
Q: I don't know if it something that I can change it is it is perhaps part of how I was bred in the way a dog is bred in a certain way. It is not something that I am happy or unhappy about. And it is something that is at odds with a lot of the past.
A: But for me I resent when I say or think these things they are considered to be conservative or simply belonging to the past and no longer having a connection with real life or culture and I want to say that is wrong. I feel I do have a strong connection with real time I couldn't make my work if I didn't feel that I did. You can say that I disagree and criticize but I do see the world and I am not a closed 19th-century dog. And I do protest the Internet when it becomes the place for culture to meet. There is simply a loss. And the real loss is the fact that it generates and will continue to generate say with writing a type of writing that is especially tailored to these fast transport systems in order to be consumed quickly and that in cultural terms is a loss since the content of the writing must be designed to be consumed quickly.

Jan Vercruysse at Brooke Alexander Sept. 19-Nov. 2 1996 59 Wooster St. New York N.Y. 10012.

BILL SULLIVAN is an artist living in New York.