ARCO Madrid, 30th anniversary
16.02.2011 — 20.02.2011
Harmen de Hoop
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Interview by S.R. Kucharski, december 2004

SRK: Do you think your work falls into a type of history, within art, and do you think your work is more tied into the past or the future?

HH: First, when I started, it was very clear to me I didn't want to make an art that has a philosophy built into it that transcends death, as in Rembrandt: 'he still lives on because you can still see a Rembrandt painting'. Somehow, a lot of artists have that motive, that sort of cheating death. I had no problem with death what-so-ever, so I wanted to be pragmatic -this is the here-and-now and people are just tiny specs, ants, unimportant... let's not be arrogant, there are five billion others just like us in the world! I wanted that attitude to be in my work, so the choice was to be temporary in my work and that I had no influence on whether it stayed there for one hour, three weeks or ten years. That was going to be out of my control. I wanted to be anonymous, just part of society, an everyday man. About art history: I reacted to everything that was done before me, so I was certainly aware of the experiments in art at the end of the sixties and throughout the seventies, where people were questioning what art in a gallery was. Knowing your history, and going beyond that, that is the adventure!

SRK: Do you feel like your work, as a whole would show some reflection of self? Like a similar attitude?

HH: I think it is very coherent. It is more or less ones own limitation that gives work a character, which is then both a positive and negative thing. I would like to make work about some things... If I try to comment on very political or big, contemporary questions, the terrible issues of today... my work is going to be horrible! I feel the urge to do it, but it doesn't work. I have to make very small and very direct actions. There are social, political and philosophical ideas behind my work, but I can't make it very obvious. That is the way that I, in the end, can be satisfied.

SRK: Maybe you could also say that if you are developing a work and you focus it on something, maybe indirect, that it leaves open all the other things one could be addressing, therefore calling attention to the 'bigger picture'. An example for me is your piece Grow Your Own Vegetables, which was a hand-painted sign placed in an open, sandy section of a larger stone tile plaza in Rotterdam. Because the work focuses the attention on the impossibility of growing vegetables in that one by one meter plot of land, you become aware of the bigger picture of the massive concrete jungle that exists around us in the city.

HH: There has to be all these things that are indirect or opposite. I have the feeling I make these works about the use of public space and our connection with food, that it changed when the concept of the supermarket arrived, all these kind of opinions are hidden, but you can feel it. I am sure that the passersby who see the work feel that. That is what and how I judge if it is good work or not. I don't like obvious, political art that preaches to your own crowd. There are a lot of art created in this way and the artists behind the work are being naive. I don't think art should be just illustrating: for example illustrating some aspect of youth culture and then thinking it actually says something about youth culture. No way. It just appeals to the crowd who identifies with that culture, but it doesn't actually say anything about it. That isn't enough for me and that is the same for me with political art that has an agenda. Just showing that there is racism in the world, is in my opinion not enough, you have to reflect on the complexity of human existence...

SRK: There is an idea of art being readable, by other cultures, by other people than from where you come from. I think this is a topic you can address, because in your own artwork, you aim to travel to different places and make artwork in new cities. How does this traveling affect your artwork and how do you find yourself relating to the places you go? Like, for example, when you traveled to Hamburg, Germany and soon will be traveling to South America.

HH: I always though my work was about the behavior of human beings, so it was universal. But then fifteen years ago, I went to India, for the first time, to make a work, and I came to find that it didn't 'work' there. I found that I was commenting on a certain use of public space, with rules. And, those rules simply didn't apply in India; it was much more chaotic and a whole lot of things were happening at the same time. It was not this... Western, more restricted, encoded, environment. So I didn't make any good works there. Now it has changed. I have started to work with people, to ask people to do something, like actions, events, whatever. I can go somewhere, stay there a while, to feel the culture, and play within those specific set of rules. And working with people somehow makes it easier. But maybe I can also make these public objects still; I don't know yet. It surprised me, that my previous work wasn't universal, or as universal as I hoped.

SRK: What makes you keep up this activity of traveling to new locales and developing new work in the context of the place you visit? Especially if you think that in the Dutch culture, there are enough sub-cultures to address and receive varied responses to your ideas.

HH: I get really inspired by new places and new information. I like it if these places don't confirm what I already know, my own culture. I want to learn from that. You can comment on anything, the whole human existence, better by seeing your own culture through experiencing other cultures.

SRK: How many times have you gone away and spent time working in foreign places?

HH: I try to go at least once a year, for a working period of a few months. I am trying to accelerate it a bit, so I try for twice a year, for a long working period.

SRK: Do you consider yourself a Dutch artist?

HH: I never considered myself a Dutch Citizen in the sense of nationalism. But, in a cultural sense, I am aware that I am totally a Calvinist Dutch person. I am made by that culture, and I don't fight it. It would be an illusion to say I am anything else. I see other people in other cultures, such as Spain or Italy, that they have a different upbringing. What I want to say is, in a cultural sense, I am totally Dutch. My work, I think it is hard for me to judge because I am the insider, I think other people will say it is typical Dutch art. Well, it isn't that strict, they could think that I am German or at least Northern European.

SRK: Meaning that there is a type of regionalism to your work, they way it is developed with a Northern European style?

HH: Yes, and I think that is a good thing, because the only other thing I can think of is people trying to be 'international' and copying some idea of being international. Like what happened after the Second World War up to the eighties, when America was dominating the art world, and all over the World artists made copies of this American art.

SRK: I think that is an interesting comment you made, about between WWII and the eighties, that the rest of the World was looking at American art and copying it, and didn't look towards their own culture. I see a trend in the arts of a growing 'International Artist,' someone who works without borders, no nation and no boundaries. They could be born in Thailand, grown up in Berlin, now making work in New York and exhibiting around the world, becoming eventually from no place yet every place at the same time. I wonder how that affects an artist, by being so mobile, so trans-national.

HH: I think if that was your life, that you weren't fixed to one country the first twenty years of your life, your parents moved around and took you all over the globe, than that is the situation you have to work from. And, you can judge the artist's artwork on that, whether it appears fake or not. I think it is wrong, if someone stays in a little village in Germany all his life, trying to make his art about the fast life and airports. But if your life is lived being on airports all the time, then the work can have that feeling to it. Well, it is different for every person, and you have to define it for yourself. It is about honesty and integrity. I have been brought up in Holland and traveling started relatively late. Now, I travel a lot, but I do it on my own terms. So I am not this artist who is invited to do shows all over the globe. That is not part of my life and it is not part of my work; that content is not in my work. My work isn't about traveling, it is about the places I stay. And I would be dishonest if I made work about other things.

SRK: You position yourself in a way that you self-initiate works, and you take yourself places, and you make your work without it being expected or even known. Therefore, there is always the possibility that the work turns into something you don't want to show and you stop the process.

HH: I hate it when artists continue to make artwork because it is their financial support and with no motive to make good art, to really push yourself to make a new dialogue with the art world and art history. In my case, I would just stop. I do think that I make artwork in order to reflect upon being human, philosophically. I can imagine, for myself that it will continue to go on until my death. And, I am sure it is the same for everyone, whether you're an artist or a scientist.: it is something you do for yourself. The second step in the process is bringing it outside of the personal and placing it in the world, the art context or give it some kind of use. That is always my criteria, first, that I am in dialogue with the world and art history, and I position myself in that. But it is not related to being a part of the art world, to have a career or to be famous or get rich.

SRK: Even though your work is found outside in the public space, how do you feel about it being for free, essentially a public property? Because after you have made it and leave it out in the open space, it starts to belong to everyone who witnesses it...

HH: Well, that is not a problem if you do not see artworks as a capitalist good that you have to make a living from. For me, art is always a reflection, so it isn't related to the money; you have to find your own way of financing it. And that isn't such a strange thing. It was inspired by experiments in the late 60's where artists tried to get out of this art market. I like this idealism. I am also part of a Dutch system where there is not an art market, different from Germany and Belgium where at least there is a bit of an art market. We Dutch have this system of grants. So the first time I was in America and I showed documentation of my works to American artists, they couldn't understand it because you couldn't sell it! This whole 'free' thing, they had a very strange reaction to it, up until the point I told them they should see the work as European subsidy/grant art. And then it was OK.

SRK: You do things out in the public space that aren't meant to be seen as 'artwork', it is just placed. Because it isn't given any attention as Art, like objects placed in a gallery or museum, is it therefore more open to being misunderstood?

HH: I like to think about it as trying to create an authentic moment. I always separate the works, as they are outside, from my oeuvre, my documentation that I present to the art world. For me, it is very clear that those art works are temporary and unofficial, and they are often gone before they could even become the new academism! But, my ideas, my oeuvre, can become the new academism, because it is based on documentation, a web site, catalogue and in that way is solely part of the art world. Ok, maybe twenty years down the line someone will look at my documentation and say, 'yes, that is a typical Harmen de Hoop'. Whether they will ever recognize it on the street is another thing!

SRK: I really like that statement you made: 'looking for an authentic moment.' It really does seem like an attitude towards artmaking in which something can't be owned or forced, it just has to happen...

HH: Yep. I was lacking it in the art world, especially with sculpture placed in the city, where one had a map and could go around having art pointed out to you. That experience is totally non-authentic, that is why I did not make work like that, in that context. My work is just for the passerby, and the reason is because this is the only way to have an authentic moment. The work is looking for an unpretentious, personal dialogue.

SRK: I think the work is also making a point that you see many things around you in your daily life that could be read in an artistic context. That is one thing I see in the work you have made, that it made me realize that things that are not artworks, that are not intentionally developed to be read in an artistic context, can be misunderstood and then read in an artistic context.

HH: Behind anything is an intention. Anything that exists in the public outside of nature, there has to be some kind of intention. But, there are of course all kinds of levels. What I do react against somehow, what I position myself against, is a lot of what you see in the public space has a certain kind of power structure behind it, the banks, the city council etc. There are all kinds of powers working behind the scenes and the individual has no control. So, in everything I see, I feel there is a certain power structure, a certain group and a certain motive. For me, a city is an accumulation of groups who want something. And from that urge comes culture. And with culture I mean everything, not just art. So, I react to that, by taking, although it is anonymous, an individual position. And although it might be an absurd action, you can tell, you can see that there isn't a whole group behind it...

SRK: OK, in that regard, where you are blurring a line between an action by an individual person and an action that might have been done by a group with an agenda, have you ever been stopped from making the work? Has anyone ever reacted to you, as if you were defacing something?

HH: Oh yes! Of course, both by the general public, who stopped to ask me what I was doing, and the police, a representation of the power structures that be. In general, it didn't get me into trouble. With the police, if they stopped me, I really had to stop. I had to give my name and they said they would send me a ticket...

SRK: Did you ever try to explain yourself, your actions and the context in which you were doing the work to the police?

HH: No, no, no way! Because, I work with the fact that I believe that every group, every person has different motives, and I know that the policemen cannot share my motive, they are coming from a different perspective. And, I try to understand their position, and know they won't understand me. I do not expect respect in that sense for art, because I think art has a very bad reputation, in part because it is an elitist language, not because it is for the upper class, but because it is for a small group of the general population. In general, I think, humans tend to dislike or not want to be burdened by the actions of smaller groups.

SRK: I wouldn't necessarily say that the work you are developing, at least the work I have seen in person and in documentation, is you making a statement against any one thing. You are making work about certain things you are personally interested in. And maybe that is why they affect people on such a personal level.

HH: But what I do is still a critical reflection. If you are just improving the situation or making a place more beautiful or adding functions to the space that make it more useful, chances are the public will have a more immediate response to the work. That isn't what I want to do. So even if I am suggesting that I am improving something with my action, it should still remain off-center, remain un-useful and that is the comment I am trying to retain. Therefore I never expect a straightforward, positive reaction. The work is not meant for that; it is more meant that people are slightly disturbed at the moment of thinking. That would be enough for me.coming soon

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