Essays & interviews

Creative Urge, annex a Zeal for Improvement

Maaike Engelen – Nov 1999


This text by the Dutch philosopher and poet Maaike Engelen was originally written for the presentation of the Mama Cash Art Prize 2000 to Jeanne van Heeswijk. The text tries to give insight into the work and method of the artist. Jeanne van Heeswijk's projects that are mentioned in the text are described further in the Appendix. (English translation: Martien Wijers)


The museum attendant:
However many people may pass, I remain fascinated. Even as a child I was already fascinated by watching people. I picture how they live and what they like, why they visit a museum, whether they really love someone (or not), and what that would mean to them. It (indeed) seems I always end up there: the happy people I see and whom I perceive to be fully absorbed in what they see, are those people of whom I think their heart belongs to someone. I answer their questions readily, especially when they take their time for my answer.

The chambermaid:
Have you seen the amount of sheets I have to iron? It must be pretty obvious, I don't like that, no not at all. Though I do like the rooms being spic and span again, and the beds done, all smooth and white; and since someone has to iron those sheets, why not me? But tonight I'll go out to dance with my boyfriend, which I fancy much more.

The minutes secretary:
I have written it down, that's my pleasure, to record everything in such a painstaking manner that everyone will be able to retrieve precisely what has been said and by whom; in the end, a meeting without my contribution never took place!

The critic:
Art these days isn't much any more. That is, there is so much to be said about it, that it all seems idle and that it doesn't matter any more what is thought about it, there's room for anything whatsoever. Although, when someone comes up with something simple and beautiful, I'm usually tongue-tied, and think: well, yes, that's simple and beautiful, that's art. Not a very critical attitude of course, but fortunately I seldom come upon something simple and beautiful, and to be quite honest, I'm not really sure whether I would recognize it if I did. Sometimes I recall certain works I've run down, but about which I later had to admit that envy had been my only guide.

The dancer:
The music commences, the violins sharpen my feet and the piano stretches my back very far, very far... hear the fleeting sounds, I'm flying through them, floating in them, I'm moving.

The poet:
Fragment: A man came home from his office, he was carrying a soft brown leather briefcase, its scent filling his nostrils. He was wearing Italian loafers, smoothly sensing his way; a jacket, a pair of pure-woollen trousers, a silken shirt, an overcoat in army-colours, gold-rimmed glasses; he was thinking of coming home and hitting the bottle. The pavement recollects his way day after day and slowly, very slowly wears out. The bushes whisper about his hands which in an unguarded moment feel tender; and the windows, which have no-one to hide, those windows place bets as to his name.

The thinker:
All of these voices are definitely female but in this language that isn't obvious from their names. So, I thought of calling myself the thinkress. How awkward it sounds! In any case, I will bear the issue in mind as we speak, and I urge you to do the same. If I am right, it should fit in rather nicely with the topic of our conversation.

Creative Urge annex a Zeal for Improvement

The critic:
The artist Jeanne van Heeswijk appears in many shapes. That is, her work makes her manifest herself in all kinds of different ways. She has worked as a museum attendant, acts as hostess, chairs meetings, composes invoices, makes policies, manages, supervises interns, gives lectures as part of performances, et cetera. And all of this she does as an artist. What urges her to appear constantly in different capacities?
In short: she is her own material.
In creating an artist has the choice between all kinds of different materials, and the same goes for Jeanne van Heeswijk, only she uses her own skills and those of others as the material to work with. She also learns new skills when necessary for a project she does, just as an artist has to acquire the skill to work with a specific material if she is to mould the image that is called for. ('Acte de Présence - Sans Valeur' p.77)

The poet:
A thought which has occupied me a lot in relation to art concerns its necessity. Often I have thought the value of a work of art to be the work itself and to consist in that which the work is independently of whatever it might mean for anyone. That a work of art comes about out of the necessity of its being created, and that it subsequently is self sufficient. That its efficacy is accidental and not seen or thought of as essential to the work itself.

The critic:
But this proves to be short-sighted. There most certainly is art which itself takes into account the effects it is supposed to have. An efficacy which is not just simply and solely devised later on by art critics and art historians.
An essential part of the work of Jeanne van Heeswijk is what she wants to effectuate with it, and what she wants to effectuate is for people to develop a different view on the reality from which she works; and that's why she's so often a tough party to work with for the institutions which invite her precisely to offer this different view. So she develops her ideas in dialogue with others to effectuate a change in the view on the institutions themselves. This leads to a tiresome existence for the artist, as she is continually at odds with her environment. Her environment is a source of inspiration but also a source of irritation, and the artist maintains an unsteady balance between the urge to create and the drive to improve. ('I + the Other. Art and the Human Condition' p.23)

The poet:
So maybe a criticism of Jeanne's could be that she behaves as a missionary in pursuit of converts and that she conceives of art as a possibility to mould this missionary urge; because today art doesn't have to comply with anything, doesn't have its own context anymore and can cover any area of reality? If I were to read from my book of poetry to geriatric patients in an old people's home, record their reactions on videotape and call this art, chances are I would get some sponsoring for it. Under the pretext of art one can furnish many activities with loads of money and give them the requisite amount of kudos. How boring it would be otherwise, if no one would know about me reading to these people of whom I don't know whether they understand a mere iota of it. When I turn the activity into art, at least I've got a public. And that's how Jeanne would put it: it's very lucrative to call oneself an artist nowadays, and then just to go on doing what one wants to do, whatever it may be. Whether it's helping the homeless, preaching in public, or spading over vegetable gardens for the neighbourhood, anything goes - public and money for nothing - when you're an artist and when you know to steer a middle way through all the specialisms. For there's the sting, and the position the artist takes, arguing that as everyone's so locked up in their own specialism, only the artist is able to set up some kind of communication between the specialisms, and who can try to make people realize they wrong themselves - mentally as well as physically - if they let themselves be confined to such an extent to those cramped spaces. The great interest Jeanne takes in architecture and city-planning I most certainly link to this. ('Outside Room' p.21)

The minutes secretary:
Let me resume: by allowing her own skills and those of others to be taken as material, with which she and others create images, moving images, often part of pre-existing structures, she not so much turns her own capacities into roles to play - for she isn't an actress - but rather she herself - in the display of the specific skills she has or has had to acquire - becomes part of the overall picture. As well as all the other people she collaborates with. In principle there is no difference between these people and the performing artist in the total image; the work wouldn't exist or have come about without collaboration and discussion.
Whether or not the desired result will come off every time is another matter altogether, maybe sometimes it won't. Maybe the organisation or institution doesn't change the perception it has of itself, or maybe it does. The artist doesn't have complete control over the results and impact of her work. ('A Christmas Pudding for Henry' p.69)

The museum attendant:
What's at stake for her seems to me to be perfectly clear. The drive to improve it expresses is I think closely connected with the urge to create. The act of creation arises out of the necessity to react to the surrounding reality which is bound to announce itself in different ways. For some people it is important to respond to this by moulding that reality in their own way. Such is Jeanne's way too, and in her response a longing for a better reality than the one she lives in has a say. She responds to the not-yet realised in reality, to possibilities. And she tries to exert these possibilities for what she feels to be 'better' than how things stand as for now. Entering into, and continuing, a dialogue about this with everyone one gets to deal with, is for her an opportunity which she thinks will better the world. ('A house for the community' p.27)

The chambermaid:
And the world a better place, who wouldn't want that? Fair's fair, Jeanne's work shows sincerity and perseverance in that she doesn't recoil from wanting to improve the world. Only the future will tell to what extent her work has really contributed to this, but the endeavour and its moulding I can only acclaim. For in the end what is the use of art which only wants to make life more comfortable? That's not something we need art for (or do we?). If art doesn't know anymore how to touch us most deeply, whether that's experienced as shocking, leads to feelings of nausea, or to sublime experiences of beauty, if art is solely fun, and doesn't have some necessary counterpart, I think the value of art for people is severely minimalised. Whether this at all matters is of course open to discussion, but for Jeanne it does, and for me too. ('Room with a View', 'The Neighbour' p.13)

The museum attendant:
The significance of what she does, she can formulate easily: she doesn't want people to get stuck in beaten tracks, keeping themselves from really entering into dialogue with each other. By moulding these well-beaten tracks differently people are invited and sometimes even forced to reformulate the what and why of their involvements. For this reason Jeanne van Heeswijk's work is also very diverse, for this guiding principle presents itself in countless different situations.
Therefore it is unjust to say of her work - as some critics have done - that she plays all kinds of different roles. I try to explain that roles are not what is at stake here. It is a false explication of her work. For to play a role, to act is reserved for an actress, and maybe also for a performance artist, but she is neither and in her case acting would harm the integrity of what her work tries to say. For then a gap would arise between the artist and the role played, and in her work and projects we would never ever be dealing with the artist herself, but only with the role played.
I don't think that's her intention, and that's why I maintain that she expresses her skills, and (to that) as well as possible, simply because the project calls for it. We, then, precisely are dealing with herself in a most concrete manner, and can also really come in contact with her. We have to do with someone who expresses herself in a certain way because of the circumstances, and the form of expression is the material, which is part of the whole. ('Hotel New York P.S.1' p.47)

The dancer:
The whole itself, the total picture is not thought-out down to the smallest detail beforehand by Jeanne, but often comes about in the very process of working and cooperating. In that way an image and a form and an effect accretes which is larger than the artist and the people she collaborates with. They themselves can be as much surprised by the outcome of a project as all the participating non-artists. ('Subway to the Outside' p.73)

The thinker:
Sounds good, Jeanne van Heeswijk is a socially engaged artist, that much we can ascertain. Often she finds the sources of her inspiration in the social structures of communities. In her projects she often connects these social issues to architectonic elaborations. She seems to perceive the arrangement and / or rearrangement of space - and here space can be taken very literally, but also metaphorically (space in your head, space in your heart, space to share) - as a condition of possibility for bringing about changes, and preferably improvements, in social structures.
She doesn't consider these changes / improvements to be subjective affairs; she really does expect her collaboration with others to bring about a change for the better, about good and bad she has clear ideas; she thinks it bad when people expose themselves to far too cramped spaces (and this one can interpret the way one wants). She is an artist for whom the utopian is important: the longing to mould the not yet realised good (of which we have some inkling in the knowledge of everything we don't want to be realised). All her projects until now are an expression of this longing. This longing itself is of course open to debate. (Valley Vibes' p.49)

The critic:
Yes, it's a metaphysical longing, a longing for a putsch for a better world. Acting is the central point, not listening. The good must be realised, must be attained. The responsibility is ours. That's all very well, but it's by now obvious enough how much misery good intentions can cause. The point is not everyone shares them; it remains a struggle. ('Draw a Line' p.81)

The poet:
The problem is that many will say 'you're right' to the one who refuses to sell himself for money, esteem, power, recognition, friendship or even love. Many will say, 'you're right' to the one who says to be himself, though not to know himself. Who says, 'Though I don't know myself, I won't sell myself, in the name of something I also don't know but which I do live by: a togetherness, wholeness, tactlessness, empathy, freedom of speech, generosity. The ability simply to exist without trying to derive more from the proper name. Wanting to improve the world isn't of the same ilk as changing the world by surrendering to a belief which shows itself as a dream, a longing for beauty, joy and love. The love for a single person changes the world more profoundly than a thousand star-eyed idealists will. Someone who loves immediately stops being an idealist; the world already has changed its countenance by the mere existence of that love. Who says: 'This insight can't be recovered anywhere, nor can it be translated in any way, it shows itself in loving deeds which are self-evident and for that most of the time also far from spectacular. 'Simplicity' still is the only ornament which keeps its lustre, on the body, in the mind, in belief and politics. And simplicity's character is sincere.' The problem is that many people will say 'yes, in that you're right' but it doesn't solve anything.

The critic:
It clearly doesn't solve anything because the longing is spiritual, and therefore easily misused. Jeanne van Heeswijk's work doesn't stand in need of this kind of judging. Then you're bound to wrong it. Her motives aren't unambiguous, she wants to change the things of which she thinks it is important that they are changed. Well, I think she has every right to that, and certainly as an artist I think she doesn't have to reckon too much with present-day opinions emphasising the problematic character of 'acting on behalf of something or someone'.
Of course she herself knows only too well that her intentions and motives aren't free from ambiguity. But then whose are? Of course there is to be found some power-hunger in her, just as in everyone else. And her work can just as well come across as reverent or as irreverent to others; it just depends on your starting point.
But I think this is all rather uninteresting. What is more important is the fact that Jeanne van Heeswijk does what she thinks she has to do, and that she does this regardless of whether she receives support or meets with opposition. She does it with wilfulness. And so she incurs strong feelings of approval and disapproval. Something's at stake for her, and for her surroundings that doesn't go by unnoticed.

The dancer:
Her work moves, that's what I think is beautiful! ('Room with a View', 'Positioning' p.15)

The chambermaid:
I, too, just like it to join in. I clean everything, see to the flowers, make sure there is food enough for everyone, and that no one has to worry about the wet coats with which they drop in. I collect the empty glasses and empty the ashtrays, after everyone has left, and I take care that the windows are clear enough not to hinder the incidence of light. I really enjoy it when everything looks nice and well, and when there is relaxed talk about everything under the sun. I do like to receive people, and I'm good at it. I like helping Jeanne. ('State of Mind' p.39)

The minutes secretary:
I have taken down all the people Jeanne van Heeswijk has worked with over the past years. To a lesser or greater extent all those people (and many more) have made it possible that she can be the artist she is:
Annemarie Aardewerk, Hans Aarsman, Pieter Aarts, John Ahearn, Hester Alberdingk Thijm, Oscar van Alphen, Tiong Ang, Karin Arink, Wendel ten Arve, Lise Autogena, Shirly Azimullah, Carlos Basualdo, Ute Meta Bauer, Claus van Bebber, Pauline Beelaerts van Blokland, Craig Bell, Justin Bennet, Sadie Benning, Madeleine Berkhemer, Bibo, Andrew Bick, Corry de Boer, Maria-Rosa Boezem, Marinus Boezem, René Boomkens, Christine Borland, Ole Bouwman, Lex ter Braak, Marian Breedveld, Marianne Brouwer, Marcia Brown, Raoul Bunschoten, Ineke van der Burg, Dirk Buwalda, Ben Cain, Jonny Clark, Clegg & Guttmann, Jason Coburn, Samantha Coerbell, Beth Coleman, Hieke Compier, Laura Cottingham, Paul Cox, Peter Cox, Cel Crabeels, Crimson, Simon Critchley, Bas Czerwinski, Maria van Daalen, Calin Dan, Peter Dautzenberg, Simon Davies, Tacita Dean, Eugenio Dittborn, Yvonne P. Doderer, Chris Dorley-Brown, Helmut Draxler, Marlene Dumas, Henry Dunant, Moritz Ebinger, Roza El-Hassan, Maaike Engelen, Rolf Engelen, Engelen & Engelen, Wapke Feenstra, Peter Fillingham, Christoph Fink, Andrea Fisher, Jean Fisher, Fordacity, Michel François, Rike Frank, Sheila Gaffney, Chico Garcia, Marianne Gerritsen, Avital Geva, Ine Gevers, Christina Della Giustina, Dette Glashouwer, Bob Goedewaagen, Tijs Goldschmidt, Bart Gorter, Jennifer Greitschus, Pauline Greuell, Marina Griznic & Aina Smid, Milou van Ham, Michael Haneke, Anna Harding, Mona Hatoum, Tina Have Lauesen, Louise Hayward, Paul Hedge, Annemarie van Heeswijk, Huub van Heeswijk, Wim Hofman, Christine Hohenbüchler, Irene Hohenbüchler, Wessel Holleman, Tak Hoshino, Nathalie Houtermans, Annabel Howland, Siraj Izhar, Edwin Janssen, Felix Janssens, Derek Jarman, Koo Jeong-a, Karin Junger, Ian Kerkhof, Suchan Kinoshita, Jouke Kleerebezem, Susan Kozel, Inez van Lamsweerde, Lizzy van Lawick van Pabst, Spike Lee, Leeds 13, Birthe Leemeijer, Liesbeth Levy, Rachel Lowe, Kristin Lucas, Martin Lucas, Ove Lucas, Johanna Luhmann, Kevin Lycett, Marianne Maasland, Tracy Mackenna, Danio Man, Frank Mandersloot, Petra Marguc, Chris Marker, Joseph Di Mattia, Maydayproductions, Ross McElwee, Jan Hein van Melis, Mevis & van Deursen, Menna Laura Meyer, Aernout Mik, Viktor Misiano, Roelof Mulder, Regula Müller, Multiple Autorenschaft, Everlyn Nicodemus, Honoré d'O, Bas Offerman, Willem Oorebeek, Otiose, Charlemagne Palestine, Hervé Paraponaris, Antoinette te Paske, Jan van der Pavert, Mark Pimlott, Adrian Piper, Amy Plant, Sadie Plant, the sailor Plu, Anke van der Pluijm, Bik van der Pol, Linda Pollack, Tom Poole, Conny Purtill, L.A. Raeven, Miriam Reeders, Caroline Reffay, Andrew Renton, REPOhistory, Zeger Reyers, Draga Rinkema, Joke Robaard, Martin Roemers, Arno van Roosmalen, Martha Rosler, Wim Salki, Hanneke van Sambeek, Hans van de Sande, Saskia Sassen, Sarah Saunders, Anke Schäfer, Birgit Scheulen, Lauran Schijvens, Lydia Schouten, Rob Schröder, Jorinde Seijdel, Q.S. Serafijn, Paul Serman, Andres Serrano, Cindy Sherman, Gregory Sholette, Jennifer Siegler, Ross Sinclair, Karin Sloots, Sandra Smallenburg, Alice Smits, Lisette Smits, Femke Snelting, David Sowerby, Tere Spain, Miranda Spek, Nancy Spero, Carol Stakenas, Barbara Steiner, Ellen Stewart, Boyan Stojanovitz, Gijs Stork, Nasrin Tabatabai, Roger Teeuwen, Siebe Thissen, Hans Peter Thoman, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Joke Tjalsma, Moniek Toebosch, Renée van de Vall, James de la Vega, Kamiel Verschuren, Ginette Verstraete, Lucas Verweij, Roy Villevoye, Bill Viola, Henk Visch, Eveline Visser, Marc Vleugels, Max Vollmer, Nelly Voorhuis, Dorine de Vos, Stevan Vukovic, Jeff Wall, Marcel Wanders, Marijke van Warmerdam, Watson & Wakeman, Mark Webber, Lawrence Weiner, Ruud Welten, Werkgroep Westwijk 2005, Mirjam Westen, Albert van Westing, Bettina Wilhelm, Keith Wilson, Camiel van Winkel, Krzysztof Wodiczko, David Wojnarowicz, Kirk Woolford, World War III Illustrated, Florian Wüst, Hulya Yilmaz, Martin Zet, Maja Zomer.

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Playing the City

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In The Field of Players

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Maaike Engelen – 1999

A House for the Community

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