A collection of random ideas surrounding a good idea
Moosje Goosen, mei 2011
Until recently, I had a clear view of John Körmeling’s neon sculpture ‘1989’ from my bedroom window. The date was installed on the roof of the Hillekop apartment block in 1991 and, from that position, has constantly refused to recognise time ever since. In 1989, Francis Fukuyama, the American neo-conservative, sociologist, political scientist etc., wrote that, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, history was coming to its end, and that nothing would obstruct the ultimate victory of liberal democracy. I thought of this at random intervals when staring out of my window on sleepless nights, in the direction of that luminous, green ‘end of history’. I was nine when the Wall came down and now I am more than twenty years, and at least as many ideals, further on. My window view onto this neon glow is now blocked by the tallest office building in the Benelux; seven years from now, Francis Fukuyama will be 65 and eligible for his pension. History could care less.
John Körmeling, commissioned to produce a work for the new residential tower block de Hillekop, initially proposed a simple place marker, to be installed on the roof of the building. The word SOUTH would shine its light over the city; however, and considering existing connotations with the ‘rougher’ south side of Rotterdam, this was conceived of as a stigma. These early objections eventually contributed to a design for a supposedly neutral neon marker of time. The final work ‘1989’ is like time itself: it forges its path into the future and nonchalantly shrugs off any form of weighty significance while nestling itself, timeless and weightless, in the memory of the city. Which doesn’t mean that the work is singularly or unambiguously perceived: from different viewpoints, meaning can be projected onto the work, in the same way that the consumer sees its desires fulfilled in the shimmer and shine of neon ads for beer, casinos, peep shows and the like. As such, the work also reveals the complexity and dynamics of the public domain: nothing is neutral when it serves time, space and human interests.
Körmeling does not like compromises, even though he cannot always avoid them. Imagine, but be sparing with discussion: this could be a personal motto for John Körmeling. The more you discuss, the smaller the chance that a good, spontaneous idea will emerge; Körmeling reminds us of this by conceiving plans that often require no words or explanation. His work – buildings, structures, sculptures and solutions for spatial questions (some of them on paper, some already reality) responds to (and frequently agitates against) spatial planning in the Netherlands, which leaves no administrative desire undefined. Körmeling is like a wolf that, with one puff, blows down a solid plan in order to oppose it with a simple and unadorned idea.
‘The vacillation virus kills every simple and obvious solution.’ This was what Körmeling wrote in 1993 in correspondence with the art critic Cornel Bierens. To back up his argument, Körmeling fished up a number of random examples from the ubiquitous and very Dutch ‘polder’ (consensus-oriented) model of thinking: a railway line that does not change the existing landscape of the Betuwe region; a modern city with a village-like appearance or a car-free city that should be easily accessible at the same time. A high-speed train that stops at every station. Almost twenty years later, one may conclude that the vacillation virus still haunts the Dutch polder: in the year 2011, the Betuwe railway line cuts through the Dutch landscape; a stack of modern facades in the vernacular style of the Zaan region makes you blush with excitement or with shame (the Inntel Hotel in Zaandam, designed by WAM Architects); and there is a high-speed train that stops in Breda. Perhaps vacillation is not a virus but a chronic illness; maybe it also brings forth remarkable talent, in the same way that there are blind piano virtuosos and basketball players in wheelchairs. Körmeling, burning with sober common sense, is also an unforeseen product of this – not so much the spiritual child of the well-intended political consensus as the bastard son of the impulsive deed, who one day turns up unannounced. His obvious solutions for public space represent the exception that confirms the official and orderly climate of rules.
(Personally, I give the benefit of the doubt to the Dutch inclination to have doubts. If the ‘polder model’ was a person, I would imagine him standing on a dike, chewing on a blade of grass, lifebelt at the ready and staring at his own reflection in the water. After chewing things over for some time, he comes to the conclusion that he ‘doesn’t look too bad’, packs up and leaves contented; in the meantime, his companion, Narcissus, has already tumbled into the water three times. Contentedness suffocates all risks and challenges in the cradle: a sensible idea. Whether it is also a good idea, I have my doubts – as befits a true Dutchman.)
Körmeling’s ideas are not only good ideas but also, and more importantly, strategies. The solutions he puts forward (a cloth parking bay that you can roll out, a Ferris wheel for cars and understatements in flashing neon light, to name but a few) frequently constitute a critique of the official approach to space: places that are suddenly elevated, in planning reports, to hypothetical zones of unexploited possibilities. He frequently uses his ideas like a funfair mirror; an absurd distortion of what already exists. The idea behind his proposal ‘No Bridge’ (1991) for the Zocherpark in Utrecht, for example, is extremely simple and requires no explanation: sometimes it is better not to build a bridge. In other concepts, it is precisely the absurdity that appeals to the imagination: a proposal by Körmeling for Rotterdam’s Eendrachtsplein included the installation of machines dispensing free fluorescent chewing gum. You can see the idea was never put into practice, as there are no luminous dispensers or neon-hued chewing gum marks on the pavements around the square; pavements which, incidentally, were not included in Körmeling’s design, being sacrificed for an asphalt-surfaced widening of the road from house to house.
‘How is neon more beautiful than a sunset?’
‘Neon is real and omni-directional. Sunsets are mostly an idea.’
The American art critic Dave Hickey, who until recently lived in Las Vegas, the Valhalla of urban alienation and architectural absurdity, wrote in his essay ‘A Rhinestone As Big As The Ritz’: “One either prefers the honest fakery of the neon or the fake honesty of the sunset—the undisguised artifice of culture or the cultural construction of ‘authenticity’—the genuine rhinestone, finally, or the imitation pearl.” [Air Guitar, p.52]. Like Hickey, Körmeling has a soft spot for post-industrial urban ugliness. With their way of looking at things, both create a modern nostalgia: a hankering, not for the past, but for what presents itself as self-evident, here and now. Körmeling once said “A town that turns away from the road becomes a ghost town.” Perhaps Las Vegas is his dream city: a strip that overcomes the desert, with mega-hotels, mega-casinos and illuminated fruit machines. Aerial walkways between high-rise hotels, which make pavements superfluous. Absurdity, so it would appear, is a relative and site-specific concept.
In principle, Körmeling’s light sculptures can be seen as belonging to this Las Vegas tradition of enchanting irony – functional light that laughs at itself. (‘HAHA HIHI’ in the West Terminal of Schiphol Airport is one of Körmeling’s illuminated works that takes this view fairly literally.)
Neon in the Netherlands is always a good idea when you consider the ‘Dutch light’ conditions of cloudy, changeable skies, little sunshine and an above-average chance of precipitation. In short, neon – in contrast to the sun in the Netherlands – is visible at all times. At the same time, neon has a certain degree of invisibility as an art form. Indeed, ‘1989’ could just as well have been an advertisement, a date that sings its own praise. Without any pretention, it demands its place in the city’s urban landscape. It is for precisely this reason that Körmeling’s neon can be seen in the tradition of the medium in conceptual art.
Dan Flavin, the minimalist artist famous for his light sculptures, described his work as “psychologically indifferent decoration providing a neutral pleasure of seeing known to everyone” and “a buoyant and insistent, gaseous image which, through brilliance, somewhat betrays its physical presence into becoming into approximate invisibility.” Speaking of his first neon text ‘The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths’ (which he installed in the storefront of his studio), Bruce Nauman declared that he wanted to create art that has the potential to disappear in the fabric of the urban landscape. Art that pretends not to be art: a sculpture that is swallowed up by space, which does not turn away from its surroundings but is absorbed by them. In this striving for transparency, duplication arises – a false doppelganger of reality – and under these false pretences one is left free to marvel. The artwork imperceptibly loses its remarkability, thereby acquiring the potential to be constantly seen anew for what it is, over and over again. In the case of ‘1989’, that is nothing more nor less than an unadorned idea: an indication of time in space; the year of birth of a building. Four luminous numbers that flash past weightlessly in the night of the city.
Michael Govan et al, Dan Flavin: The Complete Lights, 1961-1996, DIA Art Foundation & Yale University Press, 2004
Dave Hickey, Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy, Art Issues Press, 1997
John Körmeling, A Good Book, Plug In Editions, 2002