A collective surviving through punk
Nelleke Cloosterman links centuries-old symbolism with personal memories and elements of everyday life in an attempt to find her own sense of self in the world. As we jump on a train this dreary Sunday afternoon, it whisks us away on a journey to the wondrous exhibition currently held at Be-Part Kortrijk. There, the surreal universe of Belgian artist Tinus Vermeersch meets the craftsmanship of Mexican artist Santiago Borja in their joint dialogue around ideas of covering and protection. While the work of Vermeersch evokes feelings of long lost time, Borja’s textiles and drawings reflect upon the nomadic existence of the contemporary artist and the role of one’s family in the context of artistic creation. Among the enchanting greenery of Be-Part’s secret garden, we talk with Nelleke about the lingering effects of her upbringing, the healing force of painting and our changing relationship with art.
Interview by Silvija Daniunaite
Photos by Tiny Geeroms
Through painting I find ways to let my thoughts out
How would you describe your own work?
At the moment, my work is about me searching for my own identity. My upbringing was very religious – I was taught how to think and what to believe in a specific way. Then, I came to a point in my life where I had to find myself and my own thoughts in this world. Last year I had a crisis, because I was lost in my own identity. It felt as if there were two parts of me – the rational me, who’s concerned with matters of everyday life, and then, the other side of me, who was in this crisis. Those two together can really clash sometimes, and they are both represented in my art.
You’re a painter. What is it about painting that allows you find peace in your personal crisis?
I have always wanted to be an artist. Creating paintings and objects is the core aspect of my life. The past two years I have been able to link this passion to a personal topic. For me, painting is very therapeutic: through painting, I find ways to let my thoughts out. I have one painting called ‘Sunday Afternoon Self-Portrait’. It’s a really personal work of mine. At first glance, it’s just a pretty, decorative painting of an oak tree and some butterflies. The oak tree, however, is an ancient symbol which represents knowledge, and the butterflies have always been a symbol for new life. That painting was made out of two symbols that really represented my life at the time – finding my own knowledge and beliefs and letting myself have a new beginning. A lot of my paintings have a personal approach like that.
The inspiring power of beauty is more important than the search for objective facts
Your works link elements from every-day life to centuries-old, oftentimes lost, symbolism. What’s the idea behind this approach?
I draw inspiration from my everyday life. This I link to ancient and often lost symbolism because it gives me an opportunity to work on a very personal level without being too overwhelming for the viewer. This way, they can still have their own thoughts and fantasies when looking at my work. My interest for symbolism and mysticism originates from my upbringing. Every symbol that’s represented in my work is based on a memory or something I’ve encountered naturally or found by accident.
When discussing your work previously, you’ve mentioned the Romantic poet John Keats. What is it in his thinking that resonates with you and your work?
John Keats is someone who opened my mind greatly. I read his letters, where he writes about the idea of ‘negative capability’, a theory about artists having access to truth without the pressure and mindset of logic and science. According to John Keats, the inspiring power of beauty is more important than the search for objective facts. This is an idea in which I can find myself. My work represents a search, not an answer or a factual truth. It eased my mind to know that I can make art without the pressure of having to explain it to someone as some kind of truth. I often have the feeling that a literal explanation of each separate work can result in a let down for both the artist and the spectator. Therefore, I enjoy it when people project their own fantasies on my work.
When we came to Be-Part Kortrijk, you didn’t want to be introduced to the works of Santiago Borja and Tinus Vermeersch before first getting a chance to experience the art yourself. Why was that important for you?
I really hate it when you enter a museum and the first thing you see is this big wall with a big block of text. Or, there’s a person sitting on a chair and waiting to do the explanation for you. I feel like they are already telling you what you should think and what the artwork is about. I like to observe and let my fantasies run, to let my feelings and thoughts in, without someone telling me what it is that I’m seeing. When I have experienced every work myself, then I’m interested in hearing what it actually stands for. That way, I can also be surprised, because I already had my own thoughts about it. Those thoughts wouldn’t be there if you knew what the artwork was about from the very beginning. I think that’s the strange thing about the art world today – always having to explain everything before someone has had a chance to have their own thoughts about it. That can be really suffocating.
I feel like art is becoming too much of an inaccessible world
You’ve made a distinction between more organic art spaces, such as Be-Part Kortrijk, and the bigger museums/galleries. How do you think these different spaces affect our relationship with the artwork that is displayed?
I feel like art is becoming too much of an inaccessible world. In spaces like Be-Part Kortrijk, where you have nature, lights and a garden, you see people coming together in a beautiful space surrounded by art. I love it, because it brings art so much closer to everyone, not only curators, artists and the ‘elite’. When I go to museums with my friends, who are not involved with the art world, and I ask them what they think, they often say they don’t know enough about art to give an opinion. I think that’s a shame, because why do you have to know a lot about art to be able to give an opinion about an artwork? I think that’s proof that art has become too detached from mundane life. I really hope that won’t be the case with my own work. I think it’s really important that spaces like Be-Part Kortrijk exist and people can just enjoy art in a more mundane, approachable setting.
What’s your reflection on the exhibition?
I really loved the idea of two artists working together and inspiring each other. It’s beautiful how they manage to inspire each other, yet stay true to their own thoughts. I think it’s one of the best duo shows I’ve had a chance to see so far.
I like people engaging with my work and being drawn into their own surreal universes
What are your favorite works from the exhibition?
I loved Santiago Borja’s ‘Totemic Sampler’. When I first entered the tent, it felt really nostalgic – the lights, the cushions, the fabrics with all the beautiful colors and patterns, all handmade. Growing up, we all made tents and forts from our bed sheets. You’d put little lights on the floor, and your parents weren’t supposed to know. It was such a warm feeling. I really loved that the artist was able to build a space that feels so connected to you even when you’ve never seen it before. That’s the dream of every artist – to create something like this. Now that I’ve read about Santiago Borja, I like that he stays true to himself and his nomadic existence. It’s very authentic. I also liked green painting from Tinus Vermeerschs’ ‘Untitled’ series. It has this mysterious yet cozy feeling to it. You don’t really know what it is.
Strolling through the exhibition, can you trace any similarities to your own work?
Santiago Borja also draws inspiration from his upbringing and his heritage. We have the same drive to create. When it comes to Tinus Vermeersch, he talks about his own ‘surreal universe’, and there I can see myself. I like people engaging with my work and being drawn into their own surreal universes. Our work is very different, but the thoughts behind the creation are similar. I feel like that’s where I can connect with them.
Tinus Vermeersch & Santiago Borja
On view at Be-Part Kortrijk until October 6
Free for all