The book contains projects, drawings, photos and texts that show how the work was made and how it could be made again. It also has long quotations from De Sade’s and Machiavelli’s Manuals for sex and politics. The book’s logical simplicity is however upset by contributions from two curators and two critics. It includes a letter written to a friend by a curator while sitting in the Study/book skull about the books about which he found himself thinking. There is a personal report by the curator about the personal bathroom the artist built for him personally.
There is an article which explains the primal Eros and Thanatos urges that underly the works, urges of the ‘proprioceptor’ to create extensions to his body – and which explains that the accompanying photo expresses the ‘phantom pain’ caused by the ‘missing prosthetica’. The image concerned shows Van Lieshout grinningly sporting the ‘Bioprick’ before his crotch.
It is a pity that an artist who makes such communicative work, who expresses himself with such directness and who has so determinedly hacked out a niche for himself, nonetheless feels impelled to seek a stamp of approval from art intellectuals. Perhaps it is a symptom of uncertainty.
Why write an article about Joep van Lieshout at all? You could use the work as a vehicle to advertise your erudition by discussing it in relation to books you have read; or you could take the opportunity to air your personal feelings by discussing it in relation to how it moves you as a human being. In neither case will much become clear other than the critic’s intense inner life and extensive knowledge.
I could start my piece with a personal account, for example of how I mentioned to someone at the opening of the exhibition that the Orgone/Study/Book Skull would be an ideal place to get some work done; to which he replied sarcastically, ‘Sure, and once you’re in there you can put on the Sensory Deprivation Helmet – it’ll be just like writing in your own brain’. And next I could tackle the subject of sensory deprivation by referring to Samuel Becket: the paralysis, the blindness, the inability to communicate etc. Finally, I could draw the interesting and sensitive conclusion that Van Lieshout’s work is about loneliness and death, that the sexual theme is merely a flight from intimacy, that the macho/ survival theme derives from mortal fear and that all this comes together in the final section of the Manual in which a pig is dismembered by a skilled butcher after being killed with a stun mask, the ultimate sensory deprivation device. As a criticism, I could add that the work fails to make any statement about the decline of public space and that the title cards were skew. No problem/no point.
To write something that is effective in getting closer to the work in question, it would be enough to repeat the message of the book: ‘try this at home’. A manual is after all not just a guide to someone who wishes to cover grandma’s old cupboard with fibreglass, or who wishes to butcher and pickle grandma herself, but it’s also useful as a textbook for other professions. So let’s see what the Van Lieshout studio has in mind for architecture.
Van Lieshout shows that the exterior of a thing, what it can do and what it makes you think about, can be compressed into a single, utterly direct work. There is no architectural design intervening between you and the object: it’s simply there. This is one side of the matter. The other is which activities and which thoughts such a thing might contain. These could be congenial and refined, but they could also be dirty, sleazy, bad and nasty. Dirt (whatever its salacious delights) is something you rarely come across in architecture made by architects. It is often said that architects are unable to put it into their work because they make things for people to use. Artists are presumed able to deal with smut because their work is autonomous. The objects Van Lieshout makes prove that that isn’t the point; it’s precisely because his things are toilets, campers, washbasins, caravans, bars, beds or kitchens that everyday filth automatically enters the picture.
The history of architecture could be described as a age-long struggle to camouflage the ordinariness of the building, with the result that buildings are incomprehensible except as architecture. A building can be seen as testimony to a series of design decisions and judgements, things that reside in someone’s brain, portfolio or computer. It is difficult to visualize a building itself as a thing, as something that is really going to happen. Architecture is bashful about reality.
Which is the better highway architecture? Buildings whose form is inspired by the highway, or Van Lieshout’s mobile homes and campers that simply travel along it? Which is the better architecture theory? Texts about viruses, topology and swarms, or a manual for building a house onto which you can click various units in various configurations? This is not a plea for absolute, mindless pragmatism; just look at the results.
The translucent sleep-lump, like a boil on the outside and heavenly inside, the back door that is so thick it can contain a shower, bath, toilet and washbasin within it in one continuous green fibreglass convolution, the pale blue fake-fur lining of the floor, wall and ceiling interrupted by bottle-holders in La Bais-o-drÙme: these are all attributes of an architectureless architecture, of a styleless style. In 1931, the architectural historians Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson wrote of an architecture consisting of a series of omissions, which hitherto people had not even considered as architecture: ‘We have an architecture still’. The same might be said of Van Lieshout’s work; architecture might become worthwhile again if it were to take as little note of architecture as Van Lieshout does.
This is of course hard for architects to swallow, besides being self-contradictory and impossible. Yet some people manage it. I refer among other things to the brilliant toilet building that Lars Spuybroek designed for his water pavilion. The concept is described as follows: ‘The building establishes a dynamic equilibrium between internal pressure (“gotta go”) and huge external forces’. These are not ideas that one is expected to read into the form of the structure or find in books the architect has read, but they really are part of it. The wind howls through the building and defecating in the cubicle gives a sense of liberation, of ‘total release’.
The experience of the building, its functioning and its conceptualization coalesce into a single moment, spent in isolation on the w.c. The literalness that is more literal than literalness itself (because no literature is involved) creates room for ideas and personal associations. The building is an exception within Lars Spuybroek’s work, but perhaps it will not remain so. It is an isolated outburst of something that has acquired a consistency and a system in the Van Lieshout studio. Another example is One Architecture’s Matthijs Bouw, who has been doggedly pursuing the idea of an architecture that can be vile in the same way a work of art by, say, Mike Kelly can be vile.
In my view Van Lieshout’s work is the harbinger of a new architecture that no longer has to arm itself with a craftsmanly faith in the profession against the incomprehension of the world, and which enjoys a juvenile fascination with crap, piss, cunt, prick – and cooking too. As an architectural historian, I cannot imagine a greater compliment to Joep van Lieshout than to misuse him in order to propagandize a new Dutch architectural style that as yet has barely been formulated: dirty, delicious and direct.