Guido Geelen


In a golden cage. About a six-work installation by Guido Geelen

Philip Peters, vertaling Marie Louise Schoondergang / The Art of Translation

solo expositie Guido Geelen, Nieuwe Beelden

In a display case all kinds of precious and vulnerable valuables are shown to the public. The case gives the object an added aura of untouchability for the simple reason that it, in fact, is untouchable, thus creating an atmosphere of rarity and of precious, irreplaceable value. Very often unique objects, such as illustrated manuscripts, custom made, signed pieces of jewellery, rough diamonds and artefacts from ancient, exotic cultures are shown in display cases. In fact, a display case has two corresponding functions. It protects and nurtures and, partly because of the latter, it also creates a new value that, as it were, encompasses or synthesizes, the others (material and immaterial, financial and aesthetical). This affects the status of the objects in the display case. They obviously retain their unique qualities, but because of the isolated context that differentiates them from the rest of the world they become representations of themselves. They express something about themselves that they don't or can't say outside of the display case, or at least to a considerably lesser degree. In other words, the way in which objects are presented, influences the objects themselves or, more importantly, this kind of presentation is at the same time a kind of representation. In their isolation the objects belong only to themselves and to others of their sort in similar display cases. They are in fact not tangible anymore in the very literal sense that they cannot be touched. No longer are they physical objects that - in the same way as a sculpture - also belong in the ‘real life’ spectator’s space. They have differentiated themselves to such an extent that they hardly truly exist anymore. The (re)presented objects find themselves in a kind of vacuum. Even though they do refer to a possible existence in some other place or time, their meaning has become completely different from that of the purely physical object. It now consists of associations. It has, in fact, become fiction. The function of the physical object has been taken over by the packaging, the display case. The case, therefore, becomes part of its own content and is at the same time transformed by it. The spiritual quality is inside the actual object, thus giving the display case an almost ritualistic function, like a reliquary in a church.

The beautiful brass and glass display cases that Piet Hein Eek made for a series of artworks by Guido Geelen ‘embody’ this function extremely well. Although the artworks are autonomous, variations on the same theme, once arranged they can be regarded as a coherent installation that consists of six vertical display cases of various heights, segmented into four to seven levels. A life size human figure, executed in matt white ceramics, is placed in each display case. The figure’s posture, either standing up or kneeling down, corresponds with the height of the display case.

Like precious items these characters are stylishly preserved in a safe display case. Or so one would think. The fact is that every display case has shelves. Consequently, not one of the characters is in one piece. Every body is made up of parts that fit on one of the shelves. In other words, the bodies have been severed, sawn, and the parts have been stripped of their coherence. Each part is now like a cherished, precious object. At the same time each part of the human figure is only a fragment, which implies that, apart from the aesthetics that were observed earlier, something horrible is going on simultaneously.

One might say that this is a vertical version of the bed of Procrustes. The measurements of each display case are the same and so the character has been adjusted to fit inside it. The fact that this means that ‘the whole’ has disappeared and the character in his new appearance has had to conform to norms and standards that have been formulated beforehand, is apparently of lesser importance than a design that is just right.
Of course, this should also and primarily be taken as an important metaphor. It should be seen as frighteningly relevant cultural criticism. In this day and age we are facing increasingly extreme fragmentation. Individuals and individualism are accommodated in rigid, contradictory systems and we have lost sight of the big picture. Michelangelo freed his characters from the stones. Geelen mutilates them and locks them up in a golden cage: the difference between 1500 and 2011.

To a certain degree the installation’s design leads us to observe our own day and age from a distance. It is as if we are studying artefacts from a long lost culture that has rituals and habits we consider to be strange and cruel. Then, shockingly, we find out that we are actually standing face to face with ourselves, with the rituals of the here and now, with a complete existential crisis in which a utopian ‘whole’ can only be (re)constructed by the sum of its parts. For these parts will never again form a true whole. At most they will refer to it and in our imagination we might glue the parts back together. However, the scars are so essential and irreparable that the characters can never be brought to life again. And, if it is a utopia, it is one of memory rather than of the future. Now we finally realize that the work is in fact dystopian, making the display case both torture room and tomb.

And there is still more to it. Originally the bodies were casts of existing humans whose actual names they bear. Then the plot of the characters’ drama thickens and the message is brought closer to home, under the skin. This time they may be called Jeroen or Hein, Marenthe or Cécile. Next time it may be us because this recipe suits all.
To complicate things even further the occasional part of an arm or a leg has fallen off, as it were, without the display case's construction even provoking it. Body parts are just lying on the floor (if it's a leg) or on one of the glass shelves (if it’s an arm). In other words, we can’t just blame this fragmentation on impersonal ideologies and structures; apparently it’s also ourselves who are falling to pieces.
This aspect of the presentation reminds us of museums where one sees antique statues on display in a similar way. Body parts or pieces of body parts are missing while retrieved parts are put on display near the statue. Never, as far as I'm aware, is a statue restored in a case like this. The statue is simply presented in the state it was found in and placed in a museum – i.e. a very large display case - in a time in which the culture that it represents no longer exists. In other words, a set-up like this will literally give a disfigured image of that culture. In its own time the statue would have undoubtedly been looked upon in a different way. It would often have had a function as an idol or a devotional object or something else. Its function would certainly not have been 'standing in a museum’. We, the spectators, duly realize that we are looking at (an image of) history.

But what does it say about a culture when one, as in this case, is looking at one’s own time, when it is represented in a way in which usually only long lost cultures are shown? What should one make of body parts falling off while still alive and of limbs that, in general, already have no connection to the whole anymore? To a certain extent this is frightening. Apparently the world we live in is already in a state of literal dismemberment; long before time and bad preservation have taken their toll and have caused the artefacts to disintegrate.
Jeroen and Marenthe are no gods; Jeroen is not Apollo and Marenthe is not the Venus of Milo, so to speak. This so-called democratic culture we live in offers everyone a change to be cut into pieces and put in a display case to be shown to others.
Still, even though their origin is abundantly clear, Geelen’s characters are only partly ‘real people’. This is because they have no eyes, the sockets have remained empty. We might look at ‘Cécile’ or ‘Hein’, but they will not look back at us. They will stare past us at some unfathomable distance. This not only distinguishes them from the spectator, but also connects them to the statues of antiquity. It is this impersonal, serene and transcendental ‘stare’ that makes them part of an atmosphere that we have no access to. An atmosphere of eternity and infinity that all characters in monuments may be part of, but that is unattainable to us. Maybe one has to be an artwork first to attain this, preferably cleansed by imprisonment in a beautiful tomb. In this way the display case will become a kind of pyramid and the whole will become a monument to our culture, to the disintegrating image of man that remains a portrayal of man. Even a dilapidated culture knows niches and moments of great beauty, of great quality, things are never just black and white. It is at this stage that ‘Jeroen’ and ‘Marenthe’ have stopped being Jeroen and Marenthe and have attained the suprapersonal status of symbol, emblem, personification. This is the transformation the artist has put them through.
Those who make an effort to look at the characters' eyes once again may now come to a (somewhat) different conclusion. One might now think, and experience, that because of the eyes’ incapacity to watch they are also unable to see and therefore are not looking outward, but inward. Ultimately, all Greek visionaries were blind; they were not distracted by the fuss and bother of the outside world.

But these statues have another visually eye-catching and intrinsically essential element on offer. All characters are in fact surrounded by quite a number of butterflies in a great variety of species and colours, giving every display case, at first glance, a bright, polychrome appearance that evokes feelings of aesthetic wealth and delight. But this has a price tag. While looking at the characters in the display cases up close, one will see that their entire surface is covered in small holes, looking a bit like tiny, black dots. Small sticks with butterflies attached to them have been inserted into some of the little holes At first glance it looks as if the butterflies are swarming around the characters, or that we are at least looking at a still of such an event - for in fact nothing is moving. Then it turns out that the butterflies are even actually, physically, attached to the characters. They are inseparable. I would almost say that they were living communal lives in those display cases of theirs, the fate of one becoming the fate of the other.

A few remarks on this remarkable partnership.
Although the butterflies look truly stunning, they have been attached to the characters in such a way that it brings to mind the iconographical image, used so often throughout art history, of the martyrdom of St. Sebastian who was pierced with arrows and eventually lost his life. What makes this scene so striking is that in the majority of examples the arrows and the wounds they inflict do not seem to harm Sebastian. He always just stands there, untouched, as if it is no concern of his, as if he isn’t at all aware of what is actually going on. One of the reasons for this may be that the iconographical instructions were a chance for the artist to paint a beautiful, ideal, often positively sexy looking male body. Arrows were merely added for the sake of formality and martyrdom never becomes the main theme of one of these frescos or paintings. If necessary, one could always argue that the, invariably attractive and young, saint’s indifference to the incident was an extra demonstration of his saintliness. He was already 'on higher grounds' and no arrow was able to hurt him internally. This might also be associated with the analogy between sexual and mystical ecstasy, although it might be wise for an artist not to shout this from the commissioning church’s rooftops.

Guido Geelen’s characters also appear to be unmoved. They seem unaware of the butterflies, even though they have been prodded viciously into their flesh in much the same way butterfly collectors pin their little creatures someplace. So there is an element of subtle and unnoticed cruelty in these scenes that the protagonists might not notice – or that they transcend – but we, the spectators, do notice. To us it seems a dubious pleasure.

At the same time these butterflies and the way in which they are combined, are of an extraordinary beauty – as opposed to Sebastian’s arrows – and play the visual lead in this work of art. So it is possible to have different points of view, but that is quite alright. In art one viewpoint will not necessarily exclude the other. If one interprets the butterflies as metaphors for an ideal, liberated, flying existence in nature’s infinity, this might very well be understood as a utopian image. It can also be seen as a representation of man’s most advantageous development, his transformation into a being with a glorious, free and innocent state of awareness. In this case the butterflies are our role models and are not just aesthetic, but also educational and moralising, thus contrasting with the image of a declining culture. Moreover, they seems to offer an alternative, a celebration of individual freedom, beauty and differences.

The role that is assigned to butterflies in chaos theory is significant in this context. It is said that when a butterfly flaps its wings this causes minimal changes in the atmosphere that could eventually influence a tornado's path. Even the smallest events can have the greatest consequences. Therefore, according to this theory, even a tiny, innocent little butterfly can decisively change the world. When formulated like this, the butterfly is of course no more than an anecdotic example. Nevertheless, in this case it is a suitable metaphor: the butterfly is not powerless even though it is unaware of its influence. From this perspective, the combination of butterfly and man is a real find. They are ‘birds of a feather’, role models, each other’s metaphors, both aware and unaware of (the effect of) their actions, masters of free choice and at the same time subject to the tricks of fate.

It is not by accident that there are six display cases in this context. They represent the six continents in which butterflies live (lepidopterist – i.e. butterfly experts, I had to look this up myself - classify the continents somewhat differently from geographers). This gives the installation as a whole worldwide proportions. It encompasses the entire globe.
But butterflies are endangered species and their possible extinction has everything to do with all kinds of human activities and the way in which man treats the earth. Once again, the image becomes gloomier. Even though it is nice that these creatures are protected in display cases, these specimens – among them rare examples from all corners of the world – have been dead for quite some time. Nature is as much in decline as our culture and the causes are similar. In this sense man and butterfly are equals in this piece, both endangered and preserved for generations to come as the past of the future. One could even twist this interpretation in a way that brings us back to Sebastian. The butterflies return the favour by viciously piercing our skin. Nature and culture are not only interdependent, but also (even literally) in conflict with each other. I do not want to venture into further psychologizing interpretations about the relationship between man and butterfly, but there are associations in abundance.

The characters in the display cases have been pierced so many times, that they seem almost entirely porous. In theory, there is certainly enough space inside their bodies for numerous butterflies. But apart from aesthetic and compositional considerations there aren’t even enough butterfly species in existence anymore to add to the ones that are already there. The holes in our culture cannot be filled with the beauty of free, poetic thoughts. On the other hand one could argue that the butterflies have not been pinned into the skins of the characters at all. On the contrary, they have emerged from them. They are metaphors for freedom and beauty and all those things that, these days, are only spoken of ironically - perhaps because their imminent loss is too painful.
Whatever interpretation we choose, in all cases there is some kind of symbiosis - between nature and culture, beauty and decline - that is presented in an exhibition set-up in a way that even today is almost thought of as outmoded.

In line with all this I would finally like to comment on the aspect of beauty, which has remained underexposed as an autonomous value. Of course, after Auschwitz ‘beauty has burnt her face’ and since then the world has not exactly improved. These days, beauty in art more or less equals unnecessary kitsch or unwanted escapism. But I don’t see why this should be the case. Beauty is also comforting and it can bring about unforgettable experiences. And surely, pure beauty may be interpreted as mystical.

In the end, I think that this installation of works by Guido Geelen is also about these things. In spite of the pessimistic cultural denotations that can easily be distilled from it, this work offers comfort and pure visual and sensory pleasure which allows us to forget all else for a moment. And this is the final meaning of the work. It is a celebration of the splendour of colour and its diversity of shades and contrasts, brought straight from nature into an artistic context, like fundamental data of life on earth. Those who do not stop and take time to consider this will run the risk – especially when it is done on ideological grounds – to miss an essence that can be use to draw strength. De profundis ad lucem, out of the depths towards the light.