by Gloria Cárdenas
Gloria Cárdenas: Your pieces are provocative; some subtle, others more direct. From the pieces where you recontextualized interior spaces (such as Introduction New Politician, 2016) to public sculptures that break with everyday life (such as Mona Liza Tafereel, 2017). Have you ever seen any of your public artworks vandalized? Because I have different layers and different types of works of installations, which I realize simultaneously.
Guillaume Bijl: These works became variations to my root works and “Project Pleasures” on paper of the ’70s; they have different types of expressions and intrigues (transformations, situations, cultural tourism, compositions, sorry’s (more absurd works), scenery sculptures). Sometimes these realistic interventions work like a “Trompe l’oeil” experience.
An example are my “Situation-installations.” They interfere in public spaces by putting fiction into a reality (ex. Forbidden to Camp).
The emphasis is on the situation, not so much on the visual, sculptural aspect of these works. They surprise or irritate the public indirectly. Forbidden to Camp, 1985 Bornem, is an example of these; exposed in a public park, vandalized a short time after installing.
My more recent series of Sceneries in public spaces over the last years with mostly banal themes, like the bad art-joke Mona Liza Tafereel sculpture, stay rather untouched because people respect them in some way; the very “realistic” form of it (it looks more like art and crafts than, in this case, “realistic painted bronze”).
GC: Humor is an element that is very present in your pieces. They make us doubt whether they are true or false, reality or fiction, serious or not; I suppose they should provoke interesting reactions. What is the weirdest / funniest thing you’ve ever heard about your pieces?
GB: Humor is an important element in my artwork. I’m more like a “tongue-in-cheek witness” of this so-called “Civilization.” There are also my “transformation installations,” transforming art spaces in realistic decors; mostly borrowing furniture from firms, like Shooting-Room, Eastern Carpet Shop, Atomic Bomb Shelter, Mattress Discount, Supermarket, Casino, Lamp Shop, and Caravan Show.
Sometimes there is a lot of confusion and interaction going on, involving the art-interested public or casual passers-by.
There are always some anecdotes during most of the installations. For example, at ArtBasel in 1984 where I put a Lampstand in Galerie Média—Stand; a wrong stand at the wrong fair.
I was completely unknown at that time, and the director came while we were installing it to ask what I was doing there. Some people of the board wanted to put my work away. Luckily, I had some photographs from some previous realistic ready-made-installations, so I could show this is my form of artistic expression. Especially Gallery Zwirner from Köln (father of David Zwirner, who showed Picabia, Duchamp and Man Ray ready-made works in his stand) was furious... My gallerist at that time came later to solve the problem. Afterward, this installation became the first work I sold.
Another funny story was when I showed a Casino at the Kunstverein in Ghent in 1983. The Belgian Secret Police came to inspect whether it was not an illegal playhouse because they saw pictures in the newspaper from the Opening of the Expo.
GC: You have pieces in public spaces and private spaces. How do you decide if an artwork should be inside or outside? What differences do you find between the readings of your public pieces and the private ones?
GB: They ask for the strangest interventions in group shows to contemporary artists these days.
Mostly it is a curator or a public institution that asks for interventions or commissions in an outside space. I seldom choose a random location by myself.
At group shows in art galleries, I mostly choose a particular space demanded by my type of installation.
A space near the entry of the Kunsthalle museum; or near to a window on the outside. Even near to the cash register, bookshop, or art shop. It’s one of my favorite spaces; also, commercial galleries with windows to the streets.
GC: The economic and social panorama is perceived very different today to 1979 when you produced Art Liquidation Project (Manifesto). The Internet has transformed the way we communicate, sell, consume, and think. Do you believe that the project would change a lot if you did it today?
GB: With this written “liquidation-project,” I had a lot of misinterpretations. Although it was clearly a fictional pamphlet featuring big letters stating “By Government Order,” some art critics interpreted this wrong at the beginning of the ‘80s. They thought, and perhaps hoped, that I meant that museums and galleries should close and become shoe-shops, gym rooms, travel agencies, psychiatric hospitals, etc.
At the beginning of the ‘80s, when there was new attention on artists involved with ready-made, they found me as a new “Dadaist” and supported me in articles that way. Which, of course, was the opposite of what I meant. They thought I wanted to liquidate art and that it was a comment on the art world.
Still, in new Transformations, I tell interviewers that the Kunsthalle became a discount mattress shop because there was no money for art anymore, so they rent the space out as a “Mattress Business Shop.” Which still has the same concept of the old Liquidation Project. Except I don’t state “By Government Order,” and I don’t hang the sign anywhere at the entry of the installation.
After all, I find it too obvious visual and evident to show that something strange changed in the art space with my transformation. I show what should not happen—showing unexpected realistic decor (like a sort of mirror of this “Civilization” in the wrong spaces, art spaces).
In some installations, such as the wrong booths in Art Fairs, for example, Lamp-Stand, 1984, Four American Artists, 1987, and in The Chair in Art from 1980 till now, 2006, I had some comments about the trendy art world.
Whether the pamphlet would still function now, and be relevant? Yes, I think, why not. I saw a lot of art spaces close down in my career, which then turned into more capitalistic businesses, where once I did a transformation-installations before. I think that, despite the existence of the internet, my 3-dimensional realistic installations still work; confronting the public or even in the virtual world. It’s also like that: my consumer-shops-decors, I never let them function. It’s more like visual “Trompe l’oeil” or weird “Still life.” Something no one could ever buy. Not even at the temporary “Tableau Vivant’s,” (a sort of realistic, insinuated performance at some openings, intended for the art-public itself). It would have been over-statement to do so, and too funny and theatrical.
GC: As critical as we try to be and although we try to be aware and stay out of “advertising networks” it is challenging to be objective in the face of the invasion of images that are made to attract us and get our attention. What is your experience as a consumer? Could you define what type of consumer you are or what you do to have this critical outlook on this daily experience?
GB: Advertisement, whether it is on new media, billboards, magazines, or TV, never influenced my personal consumption, which is a more basic and practical one. It was one of the first clear critical issues that I experienced as a young artist.
Although, I have to say that I became an “Instagrammer” last year mostly because it’s an art-communication tool with other artists and friends.
GC: There is a quote from you that refers to how your installations transform exhibition spaces into the real and existing critical situations and how, through them, you try to visualize the social determination and conditioning of the masses in a tragicomic way. In your day to day, what are these critical realities that you currently face that most attract your attention?
GB: Some of my themes are more “hardcore” themes, or political, such as Shooting Room, Introduction of a New Politician, Voting Booth Museum, a Psychiatric Hospital, Lederhosen-Museum, Atomic Bomb Shelter, among others. Other themes are more soft “kitschy” themes: Wig-shop, Dog-salon, Walk of Fame, Wax-Museum, 5 Historical Hats, Composer Memorial Room, Travel Agency, and Caravan Show. The same generation built atomic shelters while they went to travel agencies and bought dog toys.
I’m showing a visual epos and reflection of the 20th & 21st century. It’s like showing “an archaeology of this time, now” and hoping for a better future.
GC: In 1996 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Antwerp (MUKHA Antwerp) you presented Auction House (among other pieces). How was this piece perceived when shown in a public institution? Were you looking to point at the conflict between institutions and trade forums?
GB: Although I showed an “auction house” décor in several art institutions, like at Castelli di Rivoli, Muhka Museum, Kunstverein Hannover and Arken Museum, more an old cheap antique “auction house,” I was not particularly thinking of commenting on “art prices.”
A bigger installation that intentionally dealt with art institutions and the Trade Forum was my piece Fair Installations at Lyon, 1986, and Rotterdam, 1990; and, more recently, my fictional Flanders Extra Fair, 2008, at SMAK/Ghent. The whole ground floor of the museum became a decor/installation of a commercial fair, including 15 commercial stands, a Marriage Office, an Interphone Center, a Travel Agency, a Military Information Center, and a Formal Wear Center. There was also a disco, a cinema, and an election space for “Miss Flanders Beauty.” The museum disappeared into a so-called “Consumer Paradise.”
Sometimes museums rent out because of the lack of subsidies; to the craziest commercial firms for parties and dinners, etc. Also, let’s not forget the bad-taste museum art shops. At the Antwerp Muhka Museum, they even rent out exhibition spaces to a local Yoga-club, where people exercise in between the artworks.
GC: On this same subject matter, globalization and the media (among other things) have given auction houses a spotlight like never before. What do you think of auction houses today? Of the record-breaking auctions? Of the “scandal” pieces like Banksy’s, shredded as soon as it was auctioned or the mysterious “Da Vinci” piece?
GB: I also have my doubts about the rising, sometimes manipulated, prices of contemporary masters at auction houses in the past years. It gives a wrong impression about serious and honest work from some living artists.
On the other hand, I think good art pieces have a unique value. So, I’m not really lying awake because of it. I have a nuanced feeling about it. Of course art-prices are sometimes too exaggerated, but on the other hand, millions are going to more doubtful purposes like real estate, weapons, sports, etc. In a way, it could be that art gets more attention in general and has a bigger public because big money is involved.
What is also a strange phenomenon is that “wealthy galleries” now discover often not respected and unsuccessful aged female artists far too late. It’s a lousy job by these galleries and curators who are then very proud of their too-late discoveries and recuperation, making good business from them after their death. Maria Lassnig, Ana Miendiëta, Joan Jones, and Alice Neal are good examples of this phenomenon. The same happens to some black artists these days. Jack Whitten, for instance. It becomes a new specialization too between these galleries and these aged artists in general, which I find curious.
GC: What do you think of the “image” consumerism we are currently facing where the vast majority of what we consume (be it products or services) is pristinely made up to sell more and better? Even on a personal level, how everyone on social media sometimes appear so perfect that it seems that the image they give or the way they are displayed is more important than what they truly are.
GB: I’m not surprised, but rather shocked. People are full of artificial values, images, and populist attractions these days.
One of the most striking pieces of information I heard the last time which I found really frightening, was the facial-recognition system in public spaces in China. With the establishment of a behavior-point/social credit system already functioning in some areas, losing all your rights as a citizen. This is worse than 1984 and The Brave New World: everybody programmed and controlled?
GC: What do you think of personalized advertising based on big data where the information we receive or the ads we see are targeting us according to what big data thinks we need or want?
GB: Newly “democratically” voted nationalist dictators taking over and functioning in the new digital age, and later A.I., is a big danger to humankind. Next to the polluting of the planet because of capitalist greed and envy, reasons existing within the last 200 years. Personal advertisement is a part of it, that is used by the powerful nowadays, exploiting human resources.