The symbolic surrealism of Els Dietvorst

In 1998, Els Dietvorst made the move from Brasschaat to the capital, Brussels. In the project The Return of the Swallows she entered into dialogue with residents of Brussels’ multicultural Anneesens district. The project resulted in long-running processes, in newspapers, presentations, films and above all, in encounters with many of Brussels’ immigrant residents. For Els Dietvorst, art always originates from (a collaboration with) people. She is not one of those reclusive artists who creates a masterpiece in her garret. Dietvorst wants to be in amongst people and, above all, immersed in real life. With her contributions, sculptures, texts, films and drawings, she aims to capture and portray fragments of everyday life, and to give us food for thought. Her search takes her to the very edges of society, to what prefers to remain unexposed and unknown. At the same time, she opens up certain aspects of life that we can only see from a distance. For example, in Anderlecht, near where she was living at the time, she met the homeless Cameroonian ACM or Art-Coeur-Merci. Armed with a notebook and her hand-held camera, she followed him for a period of several years, encouraged him to tell his story of life on the street, and filmed where he lived and how he surrounded himself with objects that others had discarded. In addition to an almost documentary portrait of ACM, filmed between 2009 and 2011, she continues to work on the collected material, and has written a monologue that will be performed in spring 2014 (by actor Dirk Roofthooft). ACM is now integrated into society, is learning Dutch and wants to be a teacher. After the path she travelled with the Swallows group between 1999 and 2004, she has given this philosopher-vagrant a prime position in her work from 2009 to 2014. Her multifaceted portrait of him once again personifies mankind’s battle with life. The films and texts she has created criticise society and give a voice to its margins, but also show both an enthusiasm for and a way of approaching life.

Els Dietvorst allows the choice of medium to be determined by specific circumstances and each project’s unique characteristics. Monumental mud sculptures and pen-and-ink drawings stand shoulder to shoulder with films, photos, texts and sound works. In the nineties, she became famous, along with Veronika Pot, for monumental semi-figurative mud sculptures. She has recently returned to them. In 2009, on the roof of MuHKA in Antwerp, she exhibited the gigantic work Skull, a figure in a cage, fashioned from mud and wood. This powerfully visual work is Dietvorst’s way of reacting to the numerous images of war that the media floods us with. This specific work alludes to Guantanamo; to solitary confinement in cages. Dietvorst made a life-sized model of one of them, inhabited by a gigantic skull. On the roof of the museum, the head appears to be imprisoned in a dovecote, which can be viewed from a nearby bench. After a while, two pigeons built their nest in the cage and hatched out their eggs there – thus a piece about murder facilitates the creation of new life at a totally different level…

Terms like social-artistic, engagement, and social criticism are often bandied about in the discourse surrounding Dietvorst’s work. Embracing a social dimension in a work of art may be an obvious thing to do, but is far from easy; the art world is quick to condemn this as a substitute for pure artistic expression. Contemporary cultural policy is obsessed with participation, added value and public focus. Yet these values cannot be demanded as part of an artwork itself. In her work, Els Dietvorst tries to provide an answer to the question of whether art can be socially engaged. Her starting point is a profound interest in people, in their stories and in observations of the world. She strives to articulate this and translate it into different media and into a contemporary artistic language. But isn’t this exactly what every artist desires, namely to offer an upside-down or alternative vision of the world based on a personal engagement with it? To dwell on the obvious? So what makes her work so different? As an artist, she chooses to stand right at the heart of life – something that is often circumvented by the artists’ milieu. When asked about the social dimension of her way of working, Dietvorst chooses the term ‘symbolic realism’, which is borrowed from Eisenstein. Or ‘humane art’, whereby she intuitively uses the social as a material to work with. “Art is a life experience. Art and life should intermingle. My ultimate aim is to offer my audience an experience. There are three things that must never be absent from my work. Firstly, it has to be aesthetic. Secondly, the communication has to work: my art revolves around communication. And finally, experimentation is also hugely important. As an artist, you need to keep on searching.”

In August 2010, Els Dietvorst left the grey metropolis behind to go and live in rural Duncormick, by the sea in southern Ireland. Together with Orla Barry, she started up a large farm there, with around a hundred sheep and a vegetable garden. In a move that is almost the diametric opposite of life in multicultural Brussels, she wants to live close to nature, in tune with the seasons, the animals and the land. 2012 was a very difficult year in Ireland. Not only was the fallout from the financial crisis being felt by farmers, but it was also a very hard winter, with sub-zero temperatures and excessive rainfall, which led to rotting crops and the spread of disease. Els Dietvorst records the life around her with her camera. In the online film project The Black Lamb, she shows short films centred on six local figures’ resilient fight for survival, battling with nature on the one hand, and working in harmony with it on the other. We pick up fragments of these unconventional individuals’ activities, their musings about events, and we see them at work. On the website there are also observations of animals, as well as filmed rituals, for example those surrounding the slaughtering process. Dietvorst uses as a basis for stories and films the biographies of ordinary people from environments where art and culture do not play a role. These characters subtly take on a metaphorical significance: they represent a multitude of like-minded people. Their reflections on what is happening around them can be extremely simplistic one moment and deeply philosophical the next. These short films display a great generosity. Just as was already the case during the Firefly project, figures, thoughts and fragments from her surroundings are not turned into characters or used ‘to make a point’, but retain their individuality. The shift from the poverty in multicultural Brussels to the survival instinct in Duncormick’s rural farming community seems dramatic, but above all it serves to highlight similarities. Once again, the eye of the camera articulates what Dietvorst sees, experiences, loves and loses.

One was killed for beauty, the other one was shot, the two others died naturally is the title of her latest monologue and exhibition. In this work, which has been created over the past few years in Ireland, death is seemingly omnipresent. The film fragments map the finishing off, slaughtering or killing of animals on and around a farm as a daily event. Killing appears to be a prerequisite for life or survival. Death is much closer here than it is in the city, even though, in this case, the killing of animals goes hand in hand with exceptional expertise, with meticulous rituals to minimise suffering. Beauty and destruction as flip sides of the same reality, of the same nature. The above title can also be read metaphorically, as being about beauty and about active versus passive survival and death. Perhaps even more than before, Dietvorst’s recent work still appears to be about the human condition, about mankind and nature in the 21st century. In the monologue One was killed for beauty…, animals preach wisdom just as in fables. In the text I’m going to see to my chickens she interweaves elements from her period in Brussels and ACM’s stories with situations on the Irish farm. At the moment, Dietvorst is making a new film called The Rabbit and the Teasel. She herself calls the film an experiment in the great outdoors, a fictitious fairytale about the memories of a boy who grows up on a farm in south-east Ireland. Her inspiration for this comes from observations of the community in which she lives as a sheep farmer. In order to portray this, she has created a fictitious character that allows her to re-enact scenes and bring them to life. The fictitious story is partially based on real people who lived in the village in the forties and fifties. Thus the new film will bring about a fusion between documentary and fiction, an alchemy between reality and imagination. By fictionalising reality, Dietvorst can get closer to the truth, tell stories that go further than the people around her, and carry them with her into a universe of beauty, destruction and death. The Rabbit and the Teasel presents a contemporary parable that is both magical and confronting.

Dietvorst uses surrealism and absurdity as a way of dealing with the harshness of life by turning things around. The main thing to arise out of the undeniable omnipresence of death is a vital urge and a willingness to embrace fate. Furthermore, her pen and ink drawings seem both to invoke and to revere what she puts down on paper. Her recent drawings mainly depict animals, posed either to resemble humans, or human figures whose limbs become roots that explore their surroundings. While the films and the web project create a more direct impression, her texts and drawings are a surreal representation of the artist’s ideas and worldview. The meaning of her work lies in the links between these different media; in the networks that are created, and which approach both art and life in way that is always different, and constantly shifting.