We are meeting up with Stefaan Dheedene in his 1970s bungalow on the outskirts of Ghent. He has just finished an exhibition in Antwerp and apologises that there is not so much to see in his studio. So we do the interview in the living room, where children’s toys are spread all over the place. When he invites us to take a seat, we aren’t quite sure if we are supposed to sit on the baby chair he is pointing at or if that’s actually an artwork – after all, Dheedene is known for making pieces of furniture that, through a small twist in their construction, enter the realm of art…

DAMN°: You use various elements in your practice, like posters and photographs, but sculpture seems to be the most important art form. Do you see yourself foremost as a sculptor?

Billy, 2006, S.M.A.K., Ghent
Stefaan Dheedene: Yes, I do. I also make installations, but not so many. My works are mostly autonomous. But an autonomous object can also function in a venue. For me, an exhibition is a place where things come together. But there was a certain period when I lost faith in sculpture and its critical potential. I started making videos. But by travelling, I got out of that cul-de-sac.

DAMN°: In your series Reconstruction, an occasion for mistake, the sculptures were based on photographs you took abroad. In a way, these works are authentic fakes.

Against the sun, 2010
SD: Indeed. That was the starting point for making objects again. All my work is about translating something into something else. During that period, my video work was very documentary-like. There was a straightforward translation from reality into image. But I didn’t really enjoy it. I also took a lot of pictures. Because I saw so many interesting things, I didn’t have the feeling that I should add objects. But then I started selecting pictures and making a replica of them, making objects that already exist and isolating them from their original context in order to see them in an autonomous way. It was interesting to start working from photos. You only have one perspective of the object, for example. And there’s the matter of scale. The objects are often weathered, too, but I make them brand new again. As with every translation, there are always mistakes. Hence the title of the series.

DAMN°: That series is similar to Fade to Grey, for which you made a sculpture out of memory, of every stove in the houses or apartments you had lived in. So the work was no longer based on a photograph but on memory.

Military table, 2011, Deweer Gallery, Otegem (Belgium)
Pacman, 2007, Deweer Gallery, Otegem (Belgium)
SD: Fade to Grey is an older series, but it’s true that it is comparable. I was quite intrigued by the idea of a stove. When you move into a new house, there’s always a stove. It’s a very ordinary object and, at the same time, it is domestic and psychologically charged. It also contains a kind of window – that intrigues me. It almost looks like a puppet theatre, which also led to another series.

DAMN°: For some of your works, you could easily buy an object or use a ready-made, yet you often make the pieces yourself. Is it the sculptor in you that so much enjoys the physical aspect of making these objects?

SD: Yes, that’s what actually brought me back to sculpture. There are also things that I outsource or for which I use a ready-made. For Against the sun, I used a pivoting pocket-torch mounted on a tripod that always follows the direction of the sunlight. It had to be programmed. That is not something I could do myself - it was made in collaboration with Philips.

DAMN°: The notion of furniture or design recurs in your practice. But you often use objects that you render non-functional, like Pacman, for which you bent the back of an office chair, or Untitled, where you trimmed two windsurf boards into a rectangular form. In Done. Finished. Relax., you turned two office desks upside down, giving them a new look and rendering them no longer functional. Is this functional versus non-functional aspect the big difference between art and design for you?

SD: People often say that I take away the function of an item in my work. I don’t think I do that. It is more about changing its position so that it becomes an image. But I do not take away its function. You can easily reverse it and use it as a desk again. I’m interested in furniture because it has proportions relative to our own scale. When I see a chair, I also see a person in a position. I’m not really interested in design as in innovative, cutting edge pieces, but rather in the way we shape the world around us.

DAMN°: Has the design world lost a designer? You could easily make furniture, but instead you decide to play with the function.

SD: I sometimes also ask myself that question. Maybe I would be happier making ‘normal’ things. But in a way, it is exciting to work with these translations and to make autonomous objects.

DAMN°: In a recent show at Trampoline Gallery in Antwerp, you presented works that looked like a sort of proto-design, in which you could still clearly read their function, unlike some contemporary design that is so high-tech that its function is tricky to determine.

SD: All the works in that show were basically boxes. The original Optimist boat was designed by and for one person. So it has a kind of autonomy. After Optimist 1/2, I made A brand new rocker box. A rocker box is an instrument used by gold miners to separate the nuggets from the river mud. Funnily enough, the motion used to do that is the same as with a slot machine in a casino! I am also fascinated by traditional games. They have certain common characteristics, but those are not fixed. Most are made by a local guy – it’s not like a factory produces them. And it is quite easy to make them yourself. You can’t really call it design, though. Their appearance is rather a kind of agreement amongst people. I quite like that idea.

DAMN°: So it has no copyright. You could call it open-source par excellence?

SD: Exactly. There is no construction plan for these games. But with the Optimist dinghy designed by Clark Mills, there was. Just like with Gerrit Rietveld’s military tables and crate furniture. You could simply get the plan and make it yourself. I made the work Military table, in which I pooled several of those games. The basis of the sculpture is the eponymous table by Rietveld. He made it for the Dutch army, which needed basic furniture that they could make themselves. So he wrote the instructions. I thought it was interesting to use that piece and to put all these games on top of it. You not only have instructions on how to make them, but also on how to play them.

DAMN°: The notion of instructions reminds one of IKEA, a company that managed to translate the modernist social utopia into commercial mass consumption and production. Is that the reason why two of your works – Ingo and Billy – are made with IKEA furniture?

SD: For Ingo, I cut all the elements from that IKEA table into sticks with a very specific form. I sawed them all at different angles and put them together to look like a campfire. In the end, it does not have much in common with the table any more.

DAMN°: Billy is another story. For that work, you seemed to subvert the capitalist logic and turn mass production into a unique artwork. It also nicely tackles the contrast between the carpenter’s practice and serialised production in design.

SD: It was also interesting because Billy looked quite like a work by Donald Judd. It had sculptural qualities. I bought the Billy cupboard at IKEA and asked a carpenter to make an exact copy of it. That was not completely possible, as IKEA uses its own kind of wood, which is one millimetre thinner than the standard. Back then, they had this policy that if you were not happy with an item, you could return it and ask for your money back. So the guy made all the various parts of the cupboard and we put the new parts in the box and returned it to IKEA. We did that the day of the opening of my show in KUNST NU at the Museum of Contemporary Art (S.M.A.K.) in Ghent. I got my money back. The ‘original’ Billy that I had bought was exhibited in the museum alongside a video showing how the carpenter made the piece. My version must have gone back into the IKEA circuit. But it is still a mystery as to what happened to the piece. I though they would contact me about it, as I had also slipped a certificate in with the instructions. After two weeks, I phoned them. They knew about the piece but had no clue where the bookcase went. Once they had checked that the item was OK, it was put back into circulation. So it must be in somebody’s home now. (laughs)

This article appeared in DAM62. Order your personal copy.
Reconstruction, an occasion for mistake III, 2007 Deweer Gallery, Otegem (Belgium)
Fade to gray, 2004, Trampoline Gallery, Antwerp
Billy, 2006 S.M.A.K., Ghent
Done. Finished. Relax., 2014 Trampoline Gallery, Antwerp
Slapstick, 2016, Exhibition view P/////AKT, Amsterdam