What Remains of Public Art: Conversation 2 with Harmen de Hoop
In part two of this series of conversations with Harmen de Hoop, we asked him to share his views on perceptions of art in public space: ephemerality, audiences and the role of the media. Conversation pieces are below.
On Ephemerality, Art and Everyday Life
"Before creating the 'actions' which I've worked on for the last 5-10 years, I used to create what I call 'staged events'. The problem was these were like small, theatrical plays. They would happen once and usually, no one saw them—only the photos remained. So, it didn't function in an interesting way on location. There was usually no residue, and often it was not organized.
The 'actions' I work on now are different. They are meant to be 'moments' where something happens in the real world. It doesn't aim or believe in changing or improving things. There is a more critical aspect, Samuel Beckett-like: I'm trying and I will fail, I will fail again and I will fail better.
It is a real action and as long as there are passers-by, they see it and may not know how to interpret it. In life too, there are many things that happen, and you can't analyze them, particularly if you lack the information about the artist or the actors' ethnic/professional background".
On Public Art and Public Audiences
"I joined the discourse of art in public space and tried to do something different from what had existed before. I come from art, so I reflect on what can art do and can be. The whole thing of public art didn't interest me initially. Sculptures in public space use a language not understood by the general public, and this excludes people rather than including them. I am not a fan of curated festivals because they attract a new public into a closed loop—that is my problem with it. I don't like this idea of being comfortable in your own group and doing things. It's not critical enough, and even social or community art projects are now the dominant discourse.
Similarly, community-based art is possible because of the art context and money. Helping the unemployed or addressing social issues function more as a social process, for the welfare of people. I think that this functions outside of the art world, and it's legitimized by the using the label of art. That's why it gets the money. I don't have a problem with it, but I am unable to do things like that. I have a problem with how everyone wants to improve the world with social, community or public art stuff. It's a total cliche, and it is not meant to be critical. Art has always had to be critical, but now it is supposed to be about helping people or building stuff, which is not my cup of tea."
On Critical and Political Art Performances
"Some of my works have a more positive tone, like the flowers for the war memorial, or freeing the animals. They are a kind of parody of community art projects. Then my works became more political. In 2012, when we had a new political system that believed all artists are assholes taking grants. They cut half the budget for artists in the country and there was an 'anti-art' climate.
I copied that tone of the discourse from the other side, but the irony was that I had connected this with abstract sculptures and gave them absurd meaning. It would not have been good enough to be straight political parody. There was a humor in it that after reading this flyer you would not see the sculpture without this extra layer that I had created for it. So, creating a new image is part of the process. Without that it would not have been enough for me.
On the Role of the Media
The most intense reactions were when I distributed a flyer against the art world, targeting the city council for placing a 'multicultural' sculpture in Rotterdam. The neighborhood around the sculpture consists only of expensive high-rise buildings, and so in general only well-to-do white people live there. The tone was copied from racists and anti-islamists, combined with anti-art people, because that is what was happening in Holland at the time. I didn't expect to know what happened. But, it turned out that someone sent a flyer to the art institutes.
I was bombard with e-mails and discussions on the internet about this action, which people believed was going to happen. They didn't know it was me, but they asked if it was. I kept silent, but there was 24-hour police surveillance around the sculpture, because it could have been a real fascist. In the newspaper they reported that nothing happened, but on that day, I rode by on my bike and saw the artist and people next to the sculpture. It was kind of hectic, but when I do something, it's out of my control. I was not aiming at the art world or at this response. Generally, I don't have a specific goal, it's all very open, but this was a first major incident with a big public reaction that I know of, including an article in important Dutch newspaper, NRC Handelsblad.
What interested me most was the whole discussion on the internet and all the arguments that were used. People responsible for the maintenance of the sculpture said ' it's not a multicultural sculpture, its an abstract version of a bouquet of flowers, its a marathon sculpture', but all of this was not true. Later, I found out this artist said it's about all the different ethnic groups that come together to do the marathon, which is always won by someone from Ethiopia or Kenya.
It was very un-intelligent and showed they were all still in their small art world and didn't understand how or what other people thought about them or of the social processes that happen in the city. They were just too comfortable with their routine incomes and all-white friends, so that was interesting, to see how bad they were at doing PR for themselves. The whole discussion on an art blog after receiving the flyer before they knew what is was, or from who.
As part of the abstract art-flyer-project, I sent a letter to the city council of Groningen with the proposal to make a monument for gay people, a 'homo-monument)', by asking the maker of this abstract sculpture to paint the red triangle pink—a cheap solution to please the gay community). They had many meetings and I received letters from the city council , the art department of the city and the committee for sexual minorities ."
On Public Reactions
"After I make a work, it's not in my control — so every response is a good response and there is nothing like failure because it can be a cheerful or an aggressive reaction, it's already in the work itself usually. It's never something that was totally unexpected. I tried to make it about certain dilemmas, so I know there can be positive and negative reactions.
When I began to experiment with the opposite of what was common, I made the decision to not try and be impressive or try to reach the broadest public, like Jeff Koons. I chose to do the small things. I like to direct my work to a small place or a small audience. Ideally, I like to leave a small trace and with flyers, it's a small group of people who see the action. I cannot control what happens and I cannot know afterwards what people think, unless it comes in the media. I like the fact that its personal in that sense. I am just a person doing something in the city, but I direct my action at 20 people or maybe a few hundred—I am not trying to create a big impact.
The fact that I cannot control anything gives an authentic and romantic feeling. Community art is based on a 1-to-1 relationship, but with me it's not face to face. I'm not doing it myself, I hire someone to do the action. I seek a direct communication between object and passer-by, and sometimes between actor & passer-by, but without the 'let's make life better' humanism as a goal. A small audience feels nice and special."
On Urban Interventions, Authenticity and Replicability
"This is now a general culture, but in 2014 it's not interesting from an art point of view, or if you have a fascination for originality. When someone does something completely new, good or unexpected, which makes you admire it or get a new perspective on things—that excites me.
The medium is not important, but to me, the communication of the idea is important. I am not interested in street art that is close to my work, or even ripoffs. But also, I don't really care. It's uninteresting, like yarn-bombing, which is now everywhere."All images taken from the artist's website: