jan de cock: repromotion (2009)

rebus design as a cult object


After a prelude in the Tate Modern (2005) and a prologue in the MoMA (Denkmal 11, 2008), Jan De Cock (°1976) built a giant installation 'Repromotion' in eight halls of the Palace of Fine Arts by Victor Horta in Brussels, with as subtitle: 'A development of the artist studio in space' (2009). Hall after hall, the visitor walks through a labyrinth of constructions in plywood, stuffed with photos and three more than life-size 'Hercules' (1909) from Antoine Bourdelle.


At the entrance to the exhibition, there is a booklet with an interview with Jan De Cock by Yves Aupetitallot, where we read that Jan de Cock brings us a new category of 'sculptures'. Also the artist understands himself as a sculptor. To be more precise: as the culminating shackle in the chain Rodin, Bourdelle, Brancusi, Boccioni en Judd*. He thinks to validate this presumption by making all kinds of allusions to modern sculpture. Most conspicuous is the reference to Brancusi's 'Endless columns': piled up plywood cubes separated by plywood squares. But the reference to Brancusi goes further: in the introductory text, the artist draws a parallel between his 'Development of the artist studio in space' in the Palace of Fine Arts and the reproduction of Brancusi's studio in Beaubourg*. the subtitle of the exhibition refers to another pioneer of modern sculpture: Boccioni - although it is not clear whether we are referred to his 'Sviluppo di una bottiglia nello spazio' (1912), than rather to his 'Forme uniche della continuità nello spazio' (1913). Rather in the vein of 'Sviluppo di una bottiglia nello spazio' the 'development' from the subtitle seems to be a kind of amplification of the studio to the proportions of a parcours of eight halls - whereby we inevitably have to think of the firstMerzbau of Kurt Schwitters, who let a sculpture develop into a three-dimensional construction in ever more rooms of his house. But in the introducing text we also read that Jan de Cock has thoroughly studied 'the problem of the representation of movement in modern sculpture'''*, which rather refers to 'Forme uniche della continuità nello spazio (1913). Development in space as well as representation of movement: both concepts are condensed in the concept of the move from the studio to the museum, with the concomitant amplification in space on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the structuring of the sequence of this move/amplification through captions citing the precise time of execution.According to Jan De Cock, 'space is thereby transformed into time''...*

Al these references to the history of modern sculpture only make it painfully clear that, in the entire exhibition, there are many three-dimensional constructions, but not one single sculpture from Jan De Cock himself. To be more than a three-dimensional object - mere design - an object has to be mimetic. It seems that Jan De Cock has its place in the history of modern sculpture indeed, but rather as a representative of one of the many moments when sculpture debased itself into thredd-dimensionale design. Needless to remind that Brancusi was not only a remarkable sculptor, but also one of the first to cross the border between art and design: he pushed abstraction so far as to end up with mere geometric volumes. - the stride from his 'cock' to 'The endless columns'). The jump was announced in his sculpting of 'pedestals'. It is not for nothing that De Cock departs form these pedestals: in the introductory text, we read that some of his sculptures are meant as pedestals for other sculptures. Jan De Cock goes even consistently further by introducing peek-a-boo cut-outs, meant as a kind of 'frames'. Also Kurt Schwitters transformed sculpture into spatial design in his Merzbaüte. And that goes from the beginning with figures like Carl André or Donald Judd: a head of Brancusi that is nearly reduced to an egg,is worlds apart from the cubes of Donald Judd, which are just cubes (see our text: Donald Judd: turning point in the history of sculpture?). In that sense, this exhibition has more to do with Kurt Schwitters' Merzbau, Van Doesburg's Aubette, or Donald Judd's Marfa, than with the Musée Rodin or the studio of Brancusi.

The absence of sculpture is even more accentuated by the presence of the three more than life-size 'Hercules' from Pierre Bourdelle, who point their arrows to the birds in the lake of Stymphalis. In De Cock's installation, they may serve as 'indicators of the sense in which space has to be 'read' from point A to point B* They thus have to enhance the effect that the captions citing the time of execution were supposed to have. In fact, Bourdelle's sculptures have rather the opposite effect: the enormous power and tension that emanates from them contrast sharply with the total lack of movement in De Cocks plywood constructions. Jan De Cock however, bluntly pretends the contrary: 'the development of their utterly dynamic forms' would 'enhance the movement expressed by Bourdelle's archers'*... It is only in De Cock's mind, nevertheless, that 'space is transformed into time' - totally different from the magnificent ''Forme uniche della continuità nello spazio' where time pervades the sculpture as visible movement indeed.

As far as I am concerned, the emphatic presence of real sculpture, together with the countless references to sculpture, and the emphasis with which the three-dimensional constructions continue to be called 'sculptures', have to convey another message; all those who had the impression of having been dropped into a carpenter's workshop, are emphatically reminded of the fact that they has been allowed entrance into the studio of a sculptor. In that respect, De Cock is situated in a meanwhile long tradition of figures who try to adorn themselves with the aura of art: suffices it to refer to Spencer Tunick who wants to turn his piles of naked human bodies into art in calling them 'body sculptures'.....


No sculptor, hence. But that is not so much of a problem: Jan De Cock is too many-sided to confine himself within the limits of one single branch of art! Although he is more interested in more modern media like photography and film - he is also something of a painter. Here too, it begins with references: echoes of the pattern of horizontals and verticals of Piet Mondriaan, or of the diagonals of El Lissitzky or Van Doesburg. But this time, the artist does more than refer: he proceeds to 'real painterly interventions''* - meant are the strokes of yellow paint on the 'sculptures' and on the Horta floor of the exhibition hall. Needles to remind that applying paint does not suffice to make a painting, even less than that making three-dimensional objects suffices to produce a sculpture.

It is revealing, besides, that the colours in these 'paintings' are not more than a mere code. The yellow of the brush strokes is the 'colour of Kodak, which introduces a photographical layer in the sculpture'* The green 'reflects the idea the nature cannot be reproduced''*. The white 'evokes the museum as a universal space for representation as well as the film screen on which stories are projected'...'*


No sculpture hence, even less painting. But there is no doubt that the exhibition is stuffed with real photos, not with just references to them.

No! But let us have a closer look!

To begin with, there are the photos of the Eastman Kodak Museum in Rochester,the ruins in Kosovo, two skyscrapers in Sarajevo and flamingo's from the Everglades. The visitor - 'der mal denken muss' - has to discover the relation between the images in what turns out to be another 'Denkmal' again. That is not always obvious. What to think about the flamingo's in the third hall. Eliane Van Den Ende knows that it is a 'wink to Marcel Broodthaers, who, in 1974 entered the Palace of Fine Arts with a camel, in an attempt at chocking the cultural establishment.' I must confess that this would never have occurred to me. According to Jan De Cock however 'there are multiple layers of significance here. In the light of my many references to Muybridge and the representation of an animal in movement, their presence has something of a parody'*. And: 'the compact mass of the group contrasts sharply with the boundlessness of the buildings in Kosovo'*... That equally escaped my attention! That is why I leave it to the reader to find the explanation for the presence of the photos of the Eastman Kodak Museum and the skyscrapers in Sarajevo. Be that as it may, it is clear that the only artworks in the entire installation are not there for their own sake: they function as signifiers in a more encompassing discourse. And, till further notice, art is not a discourse. Also photography degraded hence, albeit this time not into design, but into instrumental mimesis, a fate that already befell Bordello's sculptures, which were degraded to signposts.

Next, there are also the photos where shots from different angles are combined. The reader has got it immediately: the dimension of time is introduced in the image! Like with Muybridge, although it is not the object that moves here, but the camera (yes, think of Cubism!). Photography conceived in terms of film - next to Muybridge and Boccioni, also Godard is summoned up as a reference. Nevertheless, the photos themselves, as well as their mutual relation, are even less 'dynamic' than the 'sculptures': it does not suffice to combine several phases of a process to conjure up the impression of movement. Just like with the three-dimensional constructions, the movement is only in Jan De Cock's head, as a mere concept, not in the real world as a visual phenomenon.


And that reminds us of the fact that there is also a second kind of 'movement' in the installation. There are also photos of 'sculptures' that remained in the studio of the artist. Only some of the 'sculptures' have been assembled in the museum. From the other sculptures, we get only the photos. There is, hence, also the movement from the studio to the museum. And that movement coincides with 'reproduction' of a 'sculpture' as a photograph: whence a possible interpretation of the title 'repromotion'. The same procedure was used in 'Denkmal 11' in the MoMA, although with artworks from other artists. The exhibition 'Repromotion' as a whole will undergo the same move/reproduction. It is meant as the first phase in a more encompassing process. From the entire exhibition, photos will be made, which will then be exhibited in the 'Magasin' in Grenoble in 2010. And, no doubt, Jan De Cock will design his usual book with photos of the whole process as a third phase: the book as 'monument' or 'tomb' (Denkmal) of the sculptures. Photos in a book as the ultimate synthesis of 'reproduction' and 'motion': the entire process will be reproduced and the character of a process is maintained in that the book has to be leafed through: the book as a super film in which all the separate images remain present.

The movement from sculpture to photography finds its counterpart in the movement from photo to sculpture. Thus, Jan De Cock describes how the photos of bomb holes in the walls of the buildings are abstracted into he peek-a-boos in the walls of the plywood 'sculptures'. And that sheds a new light on these 'sculptures': we can read them as three-dimensional stills from a three-dimensional film: 'I divided the movement in eight- to nine hundred stills. When the visitor walks through the exhibition, movement is generated''** ...

Sculptures that are in fact three-dimensional stills from a film, become paintings in their turn or photos, who are transformed into film when leafing through the book. This is not so much the modernistic 'integration of the arts in architecture', nor the rather post-modern 'multimedia' or 'cross-over', but a permanent metamorphosis of the arts into one another...


The 'sculptures' of Jan De Cock always resonate with the architecture in which they are installed. On first view, it seems as if there is a fifth art that comes to participate in the permanent metamorphosis of the arts. Already in 2004, the artist transformed the then restaurant in the Palace of Fine Arts into an 'artwork': 'Denkmal 23' Part II'. But there is more at stake here than a new form of 'reproduction' of the arts in one another. According to Jan De Cock, Victor Horta's building is 'the symptom of the failure of the modernistic utopia and at the same time one of its ruins.''* 'The museum must be freed from the task of merely providing walls with paintings as decoration'* - a tradition with which the Bauhaus wanted to break in proclaiming the ideal of the integration of the arts in architecture (with the concomitant reduction of the other arts to design). It seems as if Jan De Cock's installations join this idea, and thus resuscitate the modernistic utopia from the ashes of one of its ruins.

Were it not for the fact that other overtones are resonating here. The concept of metamorphosis/reproduction surreptitiously shifts to that of 'questioning' the museum as an institution. In 1968, Marcel Broodthaers occupied this very same Palace of Fine Arts, and subsequently installed his 'Musée d'Art Moderne, Département des Aigles, Section XIXème Siècle' in his own house. He thus completed a movement that is totally opposite to Jan De Cocks movement from the studio to the museum. Jan De Cock explicitly refers to these events and toBroodthaers' Musée d'Art Moderne'*. Now, Marcel Broodthaers is certainly a contemporary of modernism, but not precisely a 'modernist'. That alone would suffice to question Jan De Cocks supposed admiration for modernism. We soon come back to what is really questioned her....


De Cock's 'art is almost fetishistically hermetic,
a closed system of references and rules that bathes in inaccessibility
and obdurately shrouds its meaning behind shifting layers of obscurity.

It is a secret rebus waiting to be deciphered by a code.'

Steven Kaplan

The link to Broodthaers makes it clear that this work is conceptual in the first place, no matter how many times Jan De Cock may repeat (as during the press conference at the opening of the exhibition) that we are not dealing here with 'an exhibition of ideas, but with pure sculpture'. From his 'Denkmäler' onwards, Jan De Cock will have us think. In German, 'Denkmal' means not only monument, but also 'Think!'. And in Dutch, it means that Jan De Cock is providing us a matrix for our thoughts.Although Jan De Cock would presumably break with the tradition of his 'Denkmäler', the continuity prevails over the discontinuity. More than ever, Jan De Cock wants to 'open our minds for new ideas''**

The question is what Jan De Cock may have to teach us. Now and then, the master is prepared to lift a tip of the veil. Thus, in an interview on occasion of Denkmal 11 in the MoMA, he confesses: 'What I mean to say is that our understanding of the artwork is not fixed, but constantly changes'. Granted: we would never have discovered that on our own! Understandably, Jan De Cock is sparse with comments on his own work: otherwise all his hall filling constructions would be superfluous...

For further insights, teh, we have to resort to the works themselves. Which would not be a problem if the works spoke for themselves. But that is not precisely the case. We are not dealing here with the unambiguous, universally understood symbols of language, but with objects that are promoted to symbols by Jan De Cock, and which have a meaning that is specific for Jan De Cock - pure idiosyncrasy. We already referred to the meaning of yellow, green and white, which we could only decipher after reading the introductory text. There are still more symbols in this inexhaustible encyclopaedia. Failing an exhaustive dictionary, everybody is free to - creatively and interactively - decide which part of the installation is a symbol and what its meaning might be. Thus, the critic Hans Theys interprets perforated profiles as 'film footage'. Although he feels only confident when the master himself - who accompanies him on his Odyssey through the labyrinth - authorises his daring interpretation...

No wonder that we read the most diverse interpretations. Many admirers of Jan De Cock do not see the problem here. Ilse Jansoone laconically remarks: 'Quite an achievement to leave us with so many questions in the age of ready-made opinions.' And also Eliane Van Den Ende does not want to be thought badly of: 'As with poker, you do not know what cards your opponent is holding. But that is precisely the thrill.' That is perhaps the reason why Jan De Cock - contrary to the modernistic slogan 'less is more' - summons up such an abundance of means to convey his message. The maximalistic overkill of allusions and references and echoes allows him to display his 'encyclopaedic' knowledge of the history of modern art, whereas the visitors can reckon themselves to the experts when they have discovered the 'deeper sense' of all those references and allusions and echoes. In that case, an inexhaustible and poly-interpretable rebus comes in handy...

That does not prevent Jan De Cock from feeling rather uncomfortable with all these 'free associations': as befits a good modernist, he often feels misunderstood, or comforts himself with the idea that 'he is ahead of his time' - which implies that an unequivocal message was intended, as is apparent from all his comments and guided tours for the connoisseurs. That goes not only for the interpretations, but already for the sheer perception of the installation: the master had to lead our poor premier to the' one and only place from where the movement in his work can be seen'. Also the cut-outs are meant as delineating a frame, as a camera that the artist is holding before your eyes ('Marcoci). The artist often talks about 'looking machines', and also the term 'denkmal' (matrix of thinking) is plain enough. It all reminds me of 'Clockwork Orange'...

Not only no art, but even less a proper - solvable - rebus to test our brains....

What is it, then?


Already the cooperation with Daniel Buren sets us on the right track to answer that question. His 8,7 cm broad stripes are nearly concealed logos left by the artist in the guise of 'interventions' at the most diverse places, like graffiti.The meanwhile standard procedure of Jan De Cock - plywood constructions stuffed with references - functions in a similar way. You cannot overlook it: Jan De Cock was here! Whereas Daniel Buren at least distinguishes himself thought the economy of his interventions, Jan De Cocksummons up heavy artillery. His megalomania has its roots in recent - albeit rather post-modern - art history. From the American Action Painting onwards, size has become an important marketing argument: suffices it to refer to the giant photographs of Andreas Gursky. Size indicates importance. As soon as large formats became commonplace, a new phase in the arms race had to be inaugurated: soon, entire halls were monopolised, and recently only entire museums will do: just think of Jan Fabre's show in the Louvre (The Angel of Metamorphosis, 2008) and Paul McCarthy's show in the SMAK, where the museum had to be rebuild. Whoever is allowed to fill an entire museum surely must be an important artist - or have to tell an important message.

Not only the size of De Cock's labyrinth of references, also its content speaks volumes. The quality of Brancusi's sculptures amply justifies the reconstruction of his studio after his death. But we hardly can understand why the studio of a young artist must be amplified in an prestigious museum during his lifetime, and it is even less understandable why the visitor has to witness this amplification another time?

The answer dawns on us, when we have a closer look at all those references and allusions and echoes. When Jan De Cock applies his logo on top of the architecture of theCasa del Fascio van Giuseppe Terragini in Como, does he intend to have us 'think' or 'properly look at' the architecture of a great modernistic architect, or does he simply use the famous architecture as a pedestal to exhibit himself via his logo? It appears that all those references to famous artists are merely meant as boomerangs, who finally turn out to point in the direction of Jan De Cock, the man who surpasses all these illustrious forebears and summarises them in a dazzling synthesis. The focus is thereby not so much on the work, as on the genius, from whose brain such super construct sprang. We cannot but join Jan Antonissen when he writes: 'The giant plywood constructions are eclipsed by the electrifying présence of the artist: it is he who fills the space''**. The artist as the ultimate art work, so to speak. Perhaps it would have been more modernistic - more minimalist - had the master just exhibited himself on a pedestal, like Ben Vautier or Gilbert and George. But, apart from the fact that we had such performances more than enough, and that it has entered its academic stage in figures like Jan Fabre, who just cannot stop casting himself in bronze, the trick of the eight halls full of references is, in its way, far more effective: with your own electrifying présence, you can eclipse the levers that lifted you on the platform, while they at the same time continue to surround you with an impressive entourage.

At the same time, it becomes clear what Jan De Cock's most important problem with the museum is: not so much that painting is degraded into the decoration of the museum walls, but rather that they are not devoted to him alone. Behind the reference to Marcel Broodthaers, another reference shimmers through: that to Jan Fabre, who was allowed to occupy, if not not the entire Louvre, than at least an entire wing - although he had still to leave the old masters on the walls. The eight halls ofHorta's Palace of Fine Arts, are in that sense a rather modes beginning. It must be Jan De Cock's wettest dream to fill, on occasion of a mondial show, all the museums worldwide with one gigantic megaparcoursof plywood constructions stuffed with references to the world history of art - which in the end would all refer to the apogee in himself. FromBroodthaers' 'Musée d'Art Moderne, Département des Aigles, Section XIXème Siècle' to Jan De Cocks 'Musée de l'Art Universel. Section de l'Aigle' (Section of the Eagle).......


This approach allows us to place Jan De Cock on the proper pedestal. With Rodin, Bourdelle and Boccioni, he has nothing in common, just like with Godard. He has already more to do with the Brancusi who had sculpture transform into design, and with Donald Judd, who was a designer from the beginning. But even here, the similarities are rather superficial and besides the question, not more than an alibi. Where Jan De Cock, on the other hand, really belongs, is in the tradition of figures like Duchamp, Dali and Warhol: the tradition of those who discovered how to use art as a means of stealing the show themselves, of replacing the cult of the artwork with the cult of new stars, posing as 'artists'.

Only when we have placed the man on the proper pedestal do we understand to what he owes his success - for it cannot possibly be his 'art'. A minority openly speaks out that we are dealing here with an emperor without clothes. A majority lies low out of fear of being left behind by the man who is so much ahead of his time. But everybody agrees that from Jan De Cock, not otherwise than from Dali and Warhol, emanates an undeniable charm: he is young, dynamic, self-assured to the point of being idiot, and above all: performant! Not everybody manages to conquer the Tate and the MoMa before his thirties, let alone to build up al those labour consuming mega shows.

No wonder that many an entrepreneur admires and sponsors him.How they must envy him! From even the most successful entrepreneur, it is foremost the products that become world famous, whereas they themselves have to remain in the background. Jan De Cock on the other hand, succeeds in letting not only all his references, but also all his works refer to his person: in the press, we see only photos of the master, only occasionally against the background of his works. What is more: he succeeds in making the ideal product: the product that is only a brand. The poor entrepreneurs have always to produce something that has some use or another. With Jan De Cock, things are turned upside down: his products are no more than a kind of relics, who derive their value from the master to whom they owe their existence. That is the moment of truth in the fact that Jan De Cock uses to destroy his 'sculptures', and has them only survive as photos in book, as a pure monument (Denkmal)....

Next to entrepreneurs, CEO's and the like, there are also other mortals who see their wettest dreams come true in heroes like Jan De Cock: the endless mass of 'losers' who are pushed from the raft by the aforementioned merciless 'winners'. In an age where the slaves have even forsaken their 'morality of the slaves', many a rejected dreams of no longer to belong to the herd, but to the wolves - Jan De Cock rather speaks of grey sparrows and lonely eagles. Everybody his own 'Section of the Eagle''!. As opposed to CEO's and the like, the artist has the advantage that he does wrong to nobody, but above all that he just sells air, otherwise than pop stars or football stars, who, just like entrepreneurs', have to rely on real accomplishments. The fame of figures like Andy Warhol and Jan De Cock, is pure - 'fine' in the full sense of the word: only derived from the person, not from his works: success 'an sich'!.

The plywood constructions of Jan De Cock: cult objects in the new thymotic cult of the winner, cult that parasitizes upon the old cult of the artwork.In that sense: unsurpassed!

But, by no means art...

© Stefan Beyst, July 2009.

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