Joep van Lieshout: Those Who Can't Do, Make Art

Now I've been a fan of Joep van Lieshout's work for a long time, even if a lot of it's too irreverent or too bombastically oversexualized to evangelize about regularly. ["You see, mom, he builds these room-sized uteruses with built-in bars..."]

But listening to his talk at Tate Modern last fall, it wasn't his successes so much as his failures that stuck in my mind. The arc of the interview with curator Marcus Verhagen was the failure of AVL-Ville, Atelier Van Lieshout's attempt to turn its Rotterdam waterfront studio complex into an independent, anarchic state, and how that flirtation with utopianism eventually led to the artist's current dystopian fascination. The artist then explained his concept for a hyper-capitalist, sustainable, totalitarian slave city with a population of 200,000 that produces EUR7 billion in profits each year. So far so good [sic].

When it got to the Q&A, though, someone asked van Lieshout if his zero-impact utopia, with its organic urban farming, &c., was so great, why not keep developing it? He dismissed the idea, since it would involve actually running the thing, then it'd take expertise, and attention, and involvement with the bureaucracy, and anyway, who knows if it really works? [Obviously, I'm paraphrasing here.]

The gist of his reply, though, was reality's too hard, so he's leaving it as art.

Then when someone lobbed a generous softball of a question by describing his structures and installations as "cinematic," van Lieshout punted again. Though he, too, conceives of his work as the sets upon which some unspecified drama unfolds, he never makes films, because he "doesn't know how."

I'd always thought of AVL-Ville as something of a conceit, but I had no idea how utterly dependent it was on the benign neglect of Dutch bureaucrats, and I certainly didn't know how quickly and utterly it folded when faced with the most rudimentary challenge. And similarly, when even a clueless yahoo like me can figure out how to make a movie, expertise and technology just are not credible obstacles anymore.

Sure, art is not, by definition, the real world, but I'd always somehow considered it to be superior in its distinctiveness. And yet here was van Lieshout's art being defined by its impractical, unproved inferiority in one case, and as the refuge for ignorance in another. We unconsciously give Art a presumption of cultural significance that, what do you know, it may not automatically deserve.

Too often, it gets considered only on its own terms, in a bubble, a world [sic] apart from the real world. It's why the mediocrity of an artist like Mariko Mori gets taken seriously when it's dwarfed technically and philosophically by CG and narratives of the best films and video games. Or why a piddly little spiral jetty is raised to masterpiece status while the US Army's vast earthworks at the nearby Dugway Proving Grounds are ignored and detested. There'll be a reckoning some day, a reality check, and a lot of art that was considered intrinsically valuable or important will end up as worthless oddities, like 19th century jewelry made from that most rare of metals at the time, aluminum.

Talking Art | Joep van Lieshout [ via imomus]

Since 2001 here at, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting that time.

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first published: February 27, 2008.

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