The beauty of our ugliness. On the Earthly Vanitas in the Work of Els Dietvorst

Transience

To be honest, Els Dietvorst’s work only received my full attention at the Moscow Biennial of 2015. When I arrived, she was busy making an enormous skull in her eponymous series. Before that encounter her artistic practice had always hovered somewhere between my conscious and subconscious awareness. Don’t get me wrong, Dietvorst has long been in my field of vision, including through the work of my former PhD advisor Rudi Laermans who wrote about her some twenty years ago. ‘Beeldengroep’ (Sculpture Group), a work by Dietvorst from 2002 also featured on the cover of one of his books.

So, I knew her artistic deeds well, but I couldn’t get them into focus and I wasn’t sure how to situate them. One of the reasons for this, it is said, is that Dietvorst’s work falls between many different labels. Her projects are sometimes called ‘socio-artistic’, but still Dietvorst doesn’t make community art. At times she is depicted as an autonomous artist, but that mould also doesn’t quite seem to fit. Dietvorst is at the very least a mother, a shepherd, and an artist, all in one. Many artists combine activities, but for her all these combinations are part and parcel of her artisthood. At other times, her work is understood to be anthropological, but for that she does not have the right qualifications. And finally, in recent years, the artist herself has increasingly referred to herself as an activist, yet she does not reflect the everyday image we have of them. Her work is difficult to connect to collective political action, and it certainly is not pointing a finger or conveying clean-cut messages. Dietvorst as singular activist? Could there be such a thing?

Shall we settle for Hors catégorie? That is of course another blasted cliché, but one which nevertheless comes closest to the truth. For Dietvorst, artisthood is sincerely not a matter of either/or; it is a matter of both/and. The latter corresponds to an engagement with life as it is, and with social reality as it imposes itself upon us. Dietvorst has a distinctive knack of moving onto terrains of life and society where we would rather not venture. It is precisely the reality we relegate to the cellars of our consciousness that fascinates this artist – whether it is the alterity in ourselves or the sub alterity in our society. Dietvorst’ quest unfolds on the edges, just like the boundary between life and death in Skulls. That is what struck me the most in Moscow: a vitalistic, forever optimistic and energetic woman capable of mobilizing a whole group of people to work on a symbol of death. Paradoxically, Dietvorst generates life through death… That vitalism strikes you all the more when you learn that the artist, during the past year has had to deal with her own transience and that of her kin. She distils a joy and zest for life from the knowledge of our own downfall. Martin Heideggers’ Sein-zum-Tode as the foundation for culture: we generate and only have culture because we know that one day an end will come to it all. In the theatre performance Memento Mori/Mori Memento (2019) Dietvorst posits the transience of life as that which gives meaning to that same life. It throws some light on the artist’s hyperactive existence: there is still so much to be done. It feels like Els Dietvorst still wants to save everything that is at risk of being lost, and then especially that which we continually deny: the margins of society, the fringes of a city, a dying trade, the forgotten creases of history or even, our very planet Earth.

Rescue operation

Dietvorst’s oeuvre looks like a major rescue operation of that which is, but which we have for decades – or rather, since the start of modernity –systematically pushed aside. Everything we have been leaving behind since the Enlightenment, because it does not fit in the picture of progress, rationality, growth, individualization and globalization, is of interest. In the rush of modernity at least three aspects are continually pushed into the background. These are our Body, the Earth and the Social – all three with a capital letter in order to emphasize their absolute authority. Their decades-long denial has led to three abstractions: respectively, the cult of the body – in which the body appears as an ideal image; globalisation – in which the earth seen from space is understood as a beautiful yet distant blue orb; and the market and Facebook – in which social relationships are reduced to economic transactions and friendships to furtive clicks of a mouse. These abstractions make possible the advance of a blind march, a course that looks like a progress, but a progress which is as yet hard to prove, because we no longer look back at what we are leaving behind. Are we really still on the path of progress, and if so, at what price? The ever louder clamouring of our Body, our Earth, and the Social already lead us to suspect otherwise.

Certainly, regarding the Social, Dietvorst seems to be looking for answers. And she is seeking specifically in that relationship between body and earth. Skull literally gathers people around earth, clay. In De terugkeer van de zwaluwen (The Return of the Swallows) it is the bodies – their movements and postures – that work as a social attractor to draw people out of the city’s forgotten folds. But perhaps I should formulate it in a better way. Els Dietvorst’s artistic work is indeed, at first sight, engaged with the social, but she does in fact subject that social dimension to a fair bit of expansion. It’s not human beings alone that belong to the social world. Dietvorst’s human zoo cannot exist without the interaction with other sentient beings, without natural and cultural artefacts and not even without absent ghosts. Where has ACM got to? ACM – a homeless person whom the artist regularly spends time with in Brussels, and who by now has grown to be the protagonist of various artistic projects, sometimes appears to vanish from the face of the earth, upon which a new search can begin. We may not, cannot and shall not forget our rejects. Where society sees monsters, freaks and the insane, Dietvorst finds the beauty of life. ‘To obfuscate Ugliness is not the task of art’, the cultural philosopher Marlies De Munck recently proclaimed in a Belgian newspaper. While neoliberal and neo-national hegemonies concur in their penchant for abstraction and ‘purity’, Dietvorst rubs the refuse they have left behind into our faces. Despite political operations of sanitation, that refuse pile just keeps on growing. It is the perfect ground in which Dietvorst’s Beaux Arts can grow.

Earthiness

It looks like Dietvorst wishes to touch upon precisely what undermines our self-image and identity. She wagers on that which we hide in order to present an attractive image of ourselves or our society. Whether it is the homeless person, the helpless person in The Return of the Swallows and A walk with ACM or death in Skull and Memento Mori, all seem to question our identity, our trusted Self.

But Dietvorst also strikes a dent in her own image. Her oeuvre brings the congealed (media) perception we have of what an artist and artwork can be, into a danger zone, at the very least. Just about everything in the ‘survey exhibition’ at MuHKA (2020) has had to be reconstructed. Aside from her documentaries, barely an artwork by Dietvorst survives. This has been a conscious choice on the part of the artist; for her, the (social) process through which the artwork is made is more important than the final product. Better still, that process is in fact the artwork. But that leaves Dietvorst’s oeuvre hard to grasp for the professional visual art world, or at least a part of it. Although immateriality and the idea gained serious traction in artistic undertakings since Marcel Duchamp, the object continues to play a crucial role. What else should there be shown in an exhibition? That turns out to be Dietvorst’s eternal struggle. Does she still want this? Are we at liberty to congeal her works so they might be viewed and consumed from a distance? The artist knows all too well that she needs this – recognition as an artist via an exhibition, a film presentation or a theatre performance – in order to be able to do what she really wishes: to intervene in the world. Dietvorst appears to invert the logic of the art world, or at the very least, the art market. The work of art as material product is not the aim but it is the means of sustaining her engagement with people and the world. With this choice of path, Dietvorst barely ensures the eternity the museum can offer. Instead, she opts for transience. Her artistic performances are like farewell rituals that make us find peace with our fragility and mortality, rituals that at the same time embed us in our earthly existence, our earthiness. That is precisely the beauty that the experiencing Dietvorst’s work gives us. She demonstrates our transience on this clod of earth, in all its beauty. The vanitas theme of course has a centuries-old tradition in art history, but Dietvorst does not spur us on to aim for transcendence and eternal life. With her love for the beauty of our earthly transience, the artist transposes these vectors to the here and now.