Artist Joep Van Lieshout

Note: I originally posted this review of an Alaska Design Forum lecture for the Fairbanks Open Radio(FOR) site in April 2007.  FOR had a tragic accident and lost a bunch of data.  I retrieved it for my blog via the wayback machine.

He looks like a lawyer, my wife, Aida, remarked disappointedly. We had come to the Alaska Design Forum's last lecture of the season at the Blue Loon, and the speaker, as far as I knew, was supposed to be an architect from the Netherlands. If Joep Van Lieshout's outward appearance made anyone worry that we were in for a dull slog through an hour of slides of shiny glass buildings photographed from interesting angles, what we ended up experiencing was enormously entertaining, subversive, disturbing and surprisingly ... Alaskan.


For starters, Van Lieshout points out that he is not an architect, but an artist. He was trained as an artist but because he is "handy" and a good liar, no one asks him to see his license. The first few projects that he showed us were remarkable in their similarity to something you might find renting for $400 dollars a month in Goldstream Valley. One piece included a large bulbous bulge that appeared to be covered with expanding foam insulation. As he clicked through the slides of the mobile homes he has created we get an introduction to his anti-authoritarian sentiments; he builds mobile homes instead of fixed structures because it means he doesn't have to follow building codes. As he continued with the presentation he introduced his favorite themes: toilets, sex, alcohol, weapons. It soon became clear that much of his artwork was meant to offend us; an addition to a museum, bathrooms for both genders, was shaped like a penis and "penetrated" the building, the tip emerging on the other side. Somehow, his friendly, humorous tone, and deadpan humor, kept the audience on his side even as he made us squirm.

So much of Van Lieshout is so characteristically Alaskan, that the talk regularly inspired chuckles and mutters of surprise and approval from the audience. He's proud that every piece of the structures he builds are made by his company, hinges on the doors and the faucet in the kitchen sink are all made in his shop. In a spirit that would be familiar to the inhabitants of the Republic of Ester or the members of the Alaskan Independence Party; Van Lieshout and his company founded a "free state," on property donated by the mayor of Rotterdam.

The project proceeded in defiance of all municipal authority from building codes to liquor laws and lasted 9 months before being shut down because of weapons violations. When after confiscating his mortar shells the police left without confiscating his custom elcamino-ized Mercedes with mortar launcher (they had run out of time before the end of their shift at 5PM) Van Lieshout called a museum for help, they agreed to buy the vehicle and in the morning papers, the good people of Rotterdam learned about how the museum had saved a work of art from the hands of the police.

Van Lieshout's most disturbing projects are his most political. An installation at the Museum of Applied Art in Vienna centers around a set of rough bunks stacked to a warehouse ceiling. Brightly colored hoses are ready to connect the occupant of each bunk to a variety of tanks. Van Lieshout described this piece in an interview with Icon magazine:

“[It] consists of a biogas digester that we designed and developed and which is made for the excrement of a thousand people,” says van Lieshout, explaining a picture on his laptop of a work called The Technocrat. As he clicks through a selection of images, his explanations of the processes at work become a graphic monologue of horrors. “So we have here a big vacuum tank with a thousand hoses … we are collecting shit from the burghers and the gas is used to cook the food for those people … This is the force-feeding … This is the distillery, to produce alcohol which is used to keep them happy or quiet or whatever … there are two hoses: one in the mouth and one in the back … storage of waste liquids that still have a nutritious value … silos …”

At the lecture, the only clue Van Lieshout gave that the project was a piece of social criticism is when he described these horrors, in a somewhat offhand comment, as being a lot like the real world. "The Technocrat" immediately made me think of the holocaust, though Van Lieshout never mentioned history during his talk; the next project he showed us consisted of minutely detailed plans for the creation of a concentration camp. Knowledge workers would be enslaved as call center operators in this camp which would have the side effect of creating all sorts of social benefits like medicines, and of course a hefty profit for its owner: Van Lieshout's business plan for the concentration camp predicts a profit similar to that of Microsoft Corporation, the plan which he displayed from a laptop running Microsoft Windows XP, included a huge and artfully laid-out Excel spread sheet detailing projected finances. Again, we in the audience had to draw the connection to the Holocaust for ourselves, Van Lieshout was presenting his plans earnestly. At the end of the presentation, one audience-member asked if he had the freedom to pursue his work because he lives in The Netherlands, he replied with subdued glee, that he thought the US is more likely to build a concentration camp. In the Icon interview he does address the holocaust directly, “It’s happening here at the moment,” he says referring to The Netherlands, “it’s just that we don’t see it.”

The spirit of revolt that inspires Van Lieshout's artwork comes from the same well of independence and lust for freedom that inspires a young person from a major American metropolis to move to the sprawling cabin-burbs outside of Fairbanks. Van Lieshout's desire to be left alone to do whatever he feels like in a world of 6.5 billion very much mirrors the sentiment of the majority of middle class America in general and Fairbanks in particular. With someone who is so thoroughly dedicated to maintaining the consistency of his satire, it is hard to make criticisms: was that misogyny I detected, or was it a joke I didn't get? Was it some kind of racist jibe when he said that Africa has no art? Is he just messing with me, or was that social criticism too? Certainly, Van Lieshout's artwork is decadent and confrontational, but much like expletives sprayed on a highway overpass by an angy teenager, Van Lieshout's artwork is honest and its anger aimed squarely at illegitimate authority.
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