The Village, 2011

In-between Sleeping and Waking

September 2013

An interview with Gert Robijns
In making a home and workspace for himself in Charleroi, Belgium, it occurred to Gert Robijns that it would be fitting to occasionally ask other artists to come and present their works there as well. This kind of interchange is mutually beneficial to Robijns’s artistic practice and to those who accept the invitation. In fact, projects that involve interchanges between people and places feature quite often in the artist’s oeuvre, which ranges in scale from the petite to the village-size. DAMn° asked Robijns some pertinent questions and discovered what lies behind his  works and just how they connect with his life.
DAMN°: You live and work in Charleroi, in a space you like to refer to as your ‘test space’. Do we notice a certain experimental undertone?
Gert Robijns: Indeed. In the very first years, I was still working in Borgloon (Limburg), and then moved to Brussels after my studies. After that, I attended residencies in Berlin and New York, and eventually came back to Belgium. I was working in Brussels for the first five years, but during that time I was actually searching for a new space to further develop my artistic practice. The space in Charleroi was a great opportunity for me, with a big basement and enough room to create my works. I decided to make a unit upstairs where I could present my work without any tools or disturbing elements around. When you make installations or sculptural interventions, every element tends to become part of the spatial setting, so I wanted to have a space where I could present the work without anything else. 
DAMN°: So you will make a replica of the existing house using only bricks?
GR: The replica will be positioned 10 centimetres beyond the perimeter of the house, and will therefore be approximately 10-percent bigger. The roof, as well as the front and back sides, will be made out of bricks. So the actual house will be sitting underneath the brick house. We will close the house in the front, and open it up in the back, to look onto the meadow. The Village was also about taking an aspect out of life, just as I did with the pieces in the M HKA. But now I will actually intervene or cut directly into life, even on top of it. At this moment I’m thinking of the title Face, The End, Continue, evoking the idea of an interface, together with the idea of a façade. But there’s also a temporal dimension to it, of something coming to an end. And the house is situated in a dead-end street, with just one other house. The third aspect I was thinking about was continuity.
DAMN°: And will the replica of the house be publicly accessible?
GR: I want to continue with the idea of The Village, but to also base this on the ideas I had in Knokke-Heist. In that sense, the ‘Make’ phase has already been completed by my grandparents, Jozef Robijns and Maria Vanhaeren, before I was ever there. The ‘Sleep’ and ‘Move’ phases are actually one. The ‘Sleep’ phase is where I copy the house, but it’s also a ‘Move’ phase, since we will be moving everything by 10 centimetres. Then, we are thinking of inviting artists to work, at different times, in the back of the house and on a kind of terrace. In Knokke-Heist I had asked people to make things on top of the existing work. Here I want to invite people to work inside a piece of art. The house will have a living space and an exhibition space, plus a garden where we people can do things. In this sense it is quite an ambitious project.
DAMN°: It sounds pretty ambitious, indeed. Do you have a team to make this happen – do you work together with engineers or architects, for instance?
GR: First of all, you have to buy the house, and then you have to ask an architect to make the plans in order to get the necessary building permission from the city. We also want to make the roof out of bricks, so we will also need some engineering work. Everything will also happen in close collaboration with Sofie Van de Velde. For the production of the project we will make editions, in order to finance the work step by step. ‹
DAMN°: But you also tend to invite other artists into your own space?
GR: Yes, at a certain moment that idea came into my mind. I was moving out of my habitat in Belgium in order to instil a certain distance or silence, both in time and space. The next logical step was to invite people to bring their work into that space. Instead of throwing a party, I’m inviting people to present their work. At the same time, it’s something very basic. Artists make work but they often don’t have the opportunity to actually see how the work functions before showing it to a broader audience. In this sense, I try to create a kind of buffer, an in-between zone where things can be tested out, or where installations can be made that would otherwise not be shown. It’s also convenient for documentation purposes; you can just install the work and take a photo. So it really is a space in-between the project and the gallery or museum.
DAMN°: Inviting other artists also generates a certain dynamic, something you were playing with in your recent solo show in Knokke-Heist at the White-Out Studio. You decided to work in five phases (Make – Sleep – Wake – Move – Place), creating a ‘performative exhibition’, one could say. What was the idea behind this?
GR: I was asked to make a solo exhibition, but to involve other artists. The person who asked me also knew that I was inviting people into my studio in Charleroi. So the idea really suited my artistic practice, and I started to think about making a solo show with other artists in a sequence of different phases. For instance, for the third phase, ‘Wake’, I invited different people to put their pieces on top of mine, in order to activate the sculptures. I invited them to do this, but I still decided where everything would be placed. So it was really a group exhibition of people and things, with my solo exhibition running underneath it. This created a kind of web composed of different horizontal and vertical connections. Working on this project was a like a strategic game of chess, of positioning, filling, or emptying things. 
DAMN°: Is that your way of challenging the classical exhibition format?
GR: I wanted to install different kinds of rhythm within the exhibition. I wanted to make a parallel sequence of breaking things down and building them up again. In one way, it was a very complex, layered and ingenious project, but in another, it was something very simple, using the principle of movement in an exhibition. It creates a kind of magical experience, with things being there one moment, while the next moment they might be gone.
DAMN°: One of your previous shows, ‘Speed dating’ at Galerie Les Filles du Calvaire in Brussels (2010), has a title that nicely sums up your artistic practice. It has a certain movement and rhythm in it, while at the same time referring to an encounter between contingency and necessity.
GR: It is always about creating a balance. On the one hand, it’s a logical process, where you create a kind of playground for yourself, with certain rules to operate by. On the other, it’s also a process of constantly being awake. The more you try to create a setup where you expect certain things, the more you will start encountering unexpected things. When you try to achieve results in a direct way, you inevitably miss all the moments of chance. I don’t have a strategy for building up my oeuvre, in the sense of going from point A to point B. A lot of works are there just by accident. There is one work that I’ve shown in Knokke-Heist, which is a cup of ice cream with a spoon in it (Nice Cream). I was eating ice cream while lying on the sofa, and I put the cup on a small table when I was falling asleep. I was practically eating with my eyes closed. When I woke up I saw it standing there in perfect balance. There are lots of things that just happen, and suddenly you start to notice this beautiful kind of poetry. Of course, you also see these things only because they are playing a rôle in your work. So you also have to stay awake.
DAMN°: One of the largest projects you’ve done so far, at least in terms of the dimensions, was a couple of years ago. It’s entitled The Village (2011), a scaled replica of the village you grew up in. Would you consider doing another project in the public space?
GR: The request for this piece came from the mayor of Sint-Truiden. It made me think of a project I already had in mind ten years ago, when I made an exhibition at M HKA in Antwerp, where I was supposed to relate my work to the museum collection. I decided to replace all the works that were present at that time with models in black and white. So the works were still there in three dimensions, but deprived of colour. Something you would normally only see in photography was recreated in the three-dimensional realm. It was around that time that the idea for The Village arose, even though the request from the mayor came ten years later. I proposed a piece that was a strong statement and that incorporated a lot of layers inherent in my work. As you say, it really received a lot of response on different levels. People from outside came to see the piece, but also went to the actual village, comparing the scale model with reality.
That was 2011, now it’s 2013. A few months ago, my grandmother decided she couldn’t remain any longer in the house she had always lived-in. At first she went to stay with my aunt, until she could move to a retirement home. Around that time, the whole family was having discussions about what to do with the house, and nobody wanted to buy it. So it seemed better to sell it, which was a pity really, since it was my grandmother’s house and also the place where I grew up. I was thinking of buying it, but buying property also entails a lot of responsibility and financial investment. In the meantime, I was doing that project in Knokke-Heist. When I was installing the ‘Sleep’ phase, I suddenly made the connection between the exhibition, my grandmother’s house, and The Village. I saw the beginning of a new project. So I decided to buy the house, and to start reconstructing it out of bricks. 
Take a deep breath, 2005
In concert, 2007
Hold the line, 2009
Face, the end, continue (provisional title), project in progress