Het HEM is a home for contemporary culture, situated in a former munitions factory on the Hembrug site in Zaandam.
We each understand artworks in our own distinctive ways. Moreover, a single person might gain different understandings from just one work. For the coming nine Chapters, Ko van ’t Hek will be dating the artwork Still Life by RAAAF, writing a column each time he does so.
And then, all of a sudden, wham, there it was. Like a small big bang. We’ll never know what came prior to this, but now before us are instantaneous forces, unleashed at the very moment of their creation. Pancake batter in an overheated pan. Blossom. Love at first sight. Petrified in a flash. Irrevocably. The onset: it’s here.
The result: four flat planets. Fusions of the sun’s golden glow and the untouched disarrayed surface of the moon. The best of each parent, children of the universe. A new constellation called into being. A magnificent quadruplet, avid to be seen and loved. Look at us, they say, and we can do nothing but oblige.
Here I am, stood in the brand new Het HEM, face to face with Still Life. Between the rows of columns, four colossal brass plates hang vertically from the ceiling. Owing to the vast space, from afar they look innocuous. As they draw closer, their presence suddenly becomes titanic and there’s no escaping them. Their momentous weight and dizzying mass of incidental organic details are nothing short of overwhelming.
From up close, I see four ‘Zaanse’ steppes, every square centimetre entirely unique. Expanses with tracks, nodules, hollow mountains and a smooth rim towards the edges. Landscapes to disappear into – even get lost in. It’s a shame that in getting lost the emphasis is on the thing that’s lost: the way. Why not emphasise what could be found, if only one would stop searching? In that light, these are giant golden treasure maps as well as the treasure itself.
Face to face with this brass force, I detect an insignificant presence. Myself. Confronted with these matt yet generous mirrors, I am nothing but a mortal being. These four celestial bodies don’t revolve around me, just as nothing revolves around me. They do what they do, even without my looking. I’m of zero consequence to them. And that’s not a frightening thought, on the contrary, it’s liberating. Just think of the massive burden I no longer have to bear.
Vast stretches of emptiness offering space to just be. I imagine myself in a golden heathland, nothing but this as far as the eye can see. That which came into existence in a flash, but now seems it will never change. Nothing more. Just as the moon will be the moon, and the sun will be the sun. And who I am, I shall simply be.
The slowness doesn’t mean you can hardly see it moving — because you can. But when it comes to speed, things are different: they whisk ahead. So, when something doesn’t go as fast as you’d like, it’s a good exercise in patience. You might ask yourself whether anything goes quickly enough. Because we love speed. It’s a contemporary virtue. Rushing. Always busy. It’s held in such high regard that we often forget the beauty of slowness.
It’s the second date, and I succumb to the seductive slo-mo of Still Life.
Like flattened carcasses in a no-frills slaughterhouse — as you’d expect such a place to be — four brass slabs await better times. Not because they aren’t good enough yet — they’re already wonderful. But because things mature with time. The hunks have a fleshy quality. As if the gold-coloured hardness was once living. We do not know whether life returns, which could be the case, but with patience, they will become more tender, better, deeper, fuller.
Inertia has a power that rapidity lacks. Speed has a swiftness. Order before ten o’clock for next-day delivery. It’s like a live blog. Or a blazing shot at the back of the net. It’s mouth-watering. Yet I will always choose the chip over the screamer. With its carefulness that rapidity can never have. Or a quiescent caterpillar in a chrysalis before metamorphosing into a butterfly. These things can never be rushed. That which gradually gains beauty doesn’t become so rich and ripe at lightning speed. Which is precisely why they say what they say about Rome. Ah, slowness, with your beautiful resolve.
And yes, there is such a thing as love at first sight (Kaboom! Impulsive! Ravishing!), but, to be honest, this has little to do with love. For love must grow, ripen and blossom into something bigger than you and the other. Like meat, like fruit. Maturing is requisite. A second date to start with, because no love is more profound than dawdling love. Because, then, time can do its work.
Faster isn’t always better. Perhaps never, actually. This is certainly true of the arts: those who take the time to look will see more. It offers a moment to reflect on all the movement. The plates move back and forth, unhurried. Never again shall I say that something goes too slowly.
Sometimes you just don’t know. I’m standing in between Still Life, third date, but for a moment I just don’t know. Not what to feel, not what to think. What are we doing? What in God’s name are we doing?
I just don’t know. And that’s fine. I just don’t know and that’s fine. Fine to feel lost for a moment, fine to be lost for a moment. Reconcile. Don’t immediately reach for your phone, don’t immediately have your phone in reach. Distraction is just a distraction. Let the tiny torment rather be: the not knowing, the stillness of life, the lost. For a moment lost. To then have it remorselessly roaring, beating, streaming, bursting, clashing, crashing, shaking and roaring again. Let it happen (it’s gonna feel so good).
Four vast brass plates, a beautiful mankind metaphor. The plates move endlessly back and forth and I see mankind. Mankind who gets up everymorning to make the best of it. Back and forth. That’s what we’re doing. Back and forth and I see Sisyphus, who was punished by the Greek gods to roll a rock up a mountain, after which the rock would roll back down and he would have to roll the rock back up again. Back and forth. And so forth. Every day back, every day back forth.
According to writer Albert Camus we should imagine Sisyphus as a fortunate man. Fortunately. Because when he sees the rock rolling down again, when he sees his own torment, he sees the absurdity of his fate. And so the absurdity of life. Absurd. And here’s the thing: by accepting the absurdity, the darkness of the world dissolves. By accepting the absurdity of life we can manage to remain courageous in this unjust world. That’s what makes Sisyphus heroic. See the absurdity of life, don’t hope for something different, accept it, reconcile with it, appreciate it, let it roar.
I don’t know. I don’t know if he’s right. I don’t know if that’s the answer. We don’t know. We don’t know and that in itself is a fantastic given. I see Still Life and for a brief moment, briefly, I manage to reconcile with the absurd.