Formula B

Although Job Koelewijn is best known for his temporary installations, Rotterdam Municipal Council invited him to create a permanent sculpture on the city’s cultural axis. It was envisioned that Koelewijn’s personal approach would produce a good counterbalance to the more static bronze sculptures further along the sculpture terrace.

Inspired by the presence of the users of the Pauluskerk – a help centre for homeless people – Koelewijn wished to address the passers-by with a message of hope. Koelewijn tested the idea for the sculpture at home using a bath of water, agricultural plastic and a vacuum cleaner. Then, under the artist’s supervision, a team of specialists constructed a stainless-steel framework, drilled 1,200 holes into PVC piping, mounted it on a support and sank the whole into the Westersingel. The sculpture is turned off during the winter months.

Koelewijn belongs to the generation of young Dutch artists who have gained an international reputation with exhibitions in museums and galleries around the world. He has built up a modest, but varied oeuvre comprising performances, installations, photographic works, videos and objects. Many of his ephemeral works are based on his own life. For his graduation project at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam in 1992, he had his mother and aunts ritually clean the glass Rietveld pavilion on the academy’s campus dressed in the traditional costume of Spakenburg, the village where he was born. This simple procedure was rich in meaning. On one level it could be viewed as a ‘cleansing process’ following his studies, freeing himself of the influences of his education, but it was also a show of respect for the traditions of Spakenburg’s community and the elementary architecture of De Stijl, the group to which Rietveld belonged.

Recently Koelewijn made several works inspired by his stay in New York. The city made such an overwhelming impression on him that for the first year he felt alienated and lost. One of the works was a series of bodywarmers with walkmans and speakers sewn into them, which played the voice of a poet. Poetry is often a healing element in his work, a means of summoning vitality and strength and generating a positive attitude. To this end he frequently employs the words of his favourite poets. Initially he made a bodywarmer for himself with poems by Lucebert and Paul van Ostayen, to warm himself with their poems in New York and protect himself against the city. Later he made other bodywarmers with poems by Herman de Koninck, Robert Frost and Elisabeth Eybers, all of whom have a special significance for Koelewijn.

No matter – try again – fail again – fail better is Koelewijn’s first permanent work in a public space. His starting point was that a permanent sculpture is often a monument, a memorial to a historical particular person or event. He did not wish to follow this convention but to represent the fleeting nature of time. Thus the words ‘No matter – try again – fail again – fail better’ bubble up through the water of the Westersingel as fleeting and intangible as a recited verse. The sculpture has a strong connection with the work Dreaming that Koelewijn made in 1996 for an exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Koelewijn covered the floor of a large corner gallery with green insulation sheeting. A boy or girl sat in the space writing quotations from Marsman and texts such as ‘art can change the world’ on the floor with a roll-on deodorant. The words were legible for a few minutes before the alcohol evaporated. All that remained was the smell and a vague bleached-out trace of the deodorant like words that ring in your ears. Whereas the ephemeral quality of Dreaming evoked the intangible realm of the subconscious, the air bubbles in Rotterdam provide an optimistic motto for life.

The message in the water relied upon a complex and fragile mechanism. Doubts about the technical viability of the sculpture initially overshadowed the International Sculpture Committee’s enthusiasm for Koelewijn’s proposal. Koelewijn however, was determined to realise the sculpture. In the end, thanks to his determination, several fruitful talks and a trial set-up, he was able to win over the committee. Koelewijn never gave up and so Rotterdam is now able to read: No matter – try again – fail again – fail better.

Claudine Hellweg


C. Blotkamp, S. van der Meulen, New Dutch Sculptors: Job Koelewijn, Rijssen 1999.
-conversation with the artist, September 2001

Publicatiedatum: 12/05/2015