Today I’ll be talking about my online presentation ‘Human after all’. Over the past two years I have been working on creating a narrative installation. It reflects on the personal challenges that I think many of us are familiar with. Through the choice of subject, materials and process, this project has been an exercise in self-overcoming and being awesome while failing miserably. The installation, close to finished but without some pieces in this online presentation, is intended to create an introverted setting. It plays with references and symbols in ways that are mostly intuitive and without a fixed storyline.
In our fast-paced, individualistic society, I think we all feel alone at times, stressed out, anxious or insufficient. Who doesn’t relate with the pressures of being our best selves all the time? To what extend is our best self our true self? How do we life up? What does succeeding actually mean and why do we always end up feeling inadequate and vulnerable? How do we hide our shortcomings? To what extend do we really know each other and why is so hard to be completely ourselves? Why do we lie awake at night, thinking about all those lost opportunities? Why do we feel so disconnected and lost? How do we feel safe, secure, nurtured?
I think many of us -at times- struggle to battle the hardships that life throws at us, but also the battles we’re having with ourselves. We feel ashamed for the things that actually make us human, we shy away from possible failure, we fear uncertainty and we feel a constant need to make pretend – and act like the clowns in the Plays of our Lives. We hardly ever think about it, but there are nuanced, invisible forces in place that keep us from questioning the way we live our lives – after we replaced our churches and villages with factories and cities.
Central to the installation Human after all is the liberating yet oppressive nature of personal autonomy. It takes the work of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche as an important source of inspiration. He states that we are not ready to face the consequences of the kind of life we shaped for ourselves after we took away the thing that was most central to it: faith and absolute certainties. Or to put it differently: How well are we able to live without a deity that has a plan for each and every one of us? Do we actually know how to live a life without unquestionable truth and moral certainties? Are we ready to accept that life is treating us with indifference? That everything we believed in or stood up for has lost its absolute value? That we are in complete charge of our own life? That life is there for the making?
In his book The Gay Science, the Madman (or what we call the town fool) asks a question that still resonates with most of us. “How shall we comfort ourselves […]? In today’s world (a godless world without absolute certainties, if you will), we seem to have no other choice than to take full responsibility for ourselves, forcing us to live with anxiety, to fear failure and personal shortcomings, and to glorify success, performance and perfectionism. We cope by playing around like harlequins, continuously adapting to persona’s that would serve us best, but hide that we often feel, in fact, lost, alone and vulnerable – human, all too human.
But what does it mean then, to be human, truly? Nietzsche urges us to come to terms with losing, failure and anxiety – to achieve power over one’s own self, to decide for yourself what determines you, and to accept that hardships are essentially part of life and necessary for personal growth. Have faith in yourself. Become who you are! Only by self-overcoming, by embracing the struggle as being an inherent part of our personal goals, we can become what we are meant to be – that we can be awesome if we allow ourselves to fail miserably.
A triptych of stylised self-portraits – a reflection on a painterly tradition that has lost its significance as objects for worshipping. The deities are gone and we are left with none other than ourselves. No depth, no emotion, only solid colours, stark lines and generic features to hide behind – like the Wizard of Oz, who sits alone, hidden behind a curtain, afraid to show that he is actually very much human. Blue, no longer the colour of heaven or Mary’s cloak but just a monochromatic void – a confirmation that, yes, we’re alone here on earth.
Monks and magicians, disenchanted, morphing into clowns, grieving. We spend time thinking while we lie in bed, when we sit on our chairs. We wiped away the promise of the divine when we took down heaven; there’s no future beyond the solid horizon. We play around like jesters in the courts of everyday life, only allowing ourselves brief moments of relaxation before shapeshifting from one persona to another. Like harlequins, we put on masks and diamond patterned suits that make us look our best. But we are also wise fools, on a journey through Arcana. The world’s secrets can’t harm us, we’re on an adventure, gazing to the sky and charging forward to the unknown – and the steep mountains ahead of us. Things keep moving on wheels and reflecting like mirrors.
A tiny chest contains the beautiful things that are hidden. Playing cards are scattered over the floor but a small part of the house of cards remain. Three wicker panels on the wall, handmade with care – an exercise of learning, failing, succeeding. Icons of a time that is gone, a time that is yet to come – they make us feel at home. Seven handwoven panels resemble the Groningen kitchen towel – used to wipe spilled water from kitchen counters. Across the wall – like the photos and accomplishments in our dwellings. – all the things we overcame when we allowed ourselves to faile miserably.
With the installation Human after all I wanted to create a narrative environment that transcends time and place but feels strangely familiar and logical. Through references, materials and execution – and by (re)visiting multiple places, times and contexts- I wanted to flesh out a world, free from the restrictions of time, place and logics. This world reflects on personal autonomy, its history, what determines it, the challenges and particularities that come with it, and explores ways of overcoming and being awesome while failing miserably – on both a personal and universal level.
All pieces were executed in ways that were a deliberate challenge to make – and to overcome. Each object carries the traces of this lengthy exercise in commitment and trial and error – of learning the hard way, of allowing mistakes to seep in while moving towards the end goal. The extra-pigmented black lines on the canvasses did not allow any misplaced strokes but reveal some shaky lines anyway. The furniture resembles factory-made pieces but needed design adjustments and repairs along the way. But also the process of learning traditional Groningen crafts like wickerwork, weaving and woodcutting. These final pieces add another layer to the work: literally working through and with the material of a personal past and revisiting a (remembered or envisioned) place where the struggle is reconciled with the goal.
Human after all is about learning that we are our own person, that growth happens in small steps and in nooks and corners of our lives, that mistakes are there to be made but also to be fixed, that we can set out goals even though we’re not certain if we’ll succeed, that we’re essentially always a becoming. It mixes references from religion, commedia dell’arte, play, the home-dwelling, modernism, comics, Tarot, popular culture, colour theory and Groningen crafts into a narrative environment, for everyone to further explore for themselves. Through its subject, its materiality and the process, the installation explores how embracing struggle can be a way to become what you are – that you can be awesome if you allow yourself to fail miserably.