In April 2016 I had three conversations with Rob Sweere about his art.
Below is the gist of what he told me.
OUT IN INNER SPACE
BEING AN ARTIST
My artistic practice arises from the existential question ‘why am I born?’ Now that I am here, I find that being an artist is the best practical answer. That way I can do something that makes sense. It gives me a place in society, so I can relate with other people and they with me. That involves me in a game that I can understand and play. For me the world of art is the least strange of all the worlds that human beings venture into.
Being an artist implies that you take responsibility for your place in the world and society, for what you make and do. It is important to make your own decisions and not let anyone foist them on you. Real good scientists, philosophers, politicians and so on, have the same mentality as artists. They are also autonomous, creative thinkers who find their own direction instead of figuring out how to best adapt to the environment.
THE WORLD OF ART AND THE ART WORLD
As an artist I communicate by putting my work out in the world. It is my role to be active in society. In another culture I would perhaps have been a monk or shaman (but that may of course still happen). At the start of my career I had already made the conscious decision not to be the kind of studio artist who makes his work in complete introspection and then shows it to the public. I definitely want to make my work in communication with the society. I proactively search for a place and opportunity to make a new work and try to realize it in cooperation with the community that is involved with that place. The work must be made according to my own insights but the most important thing in the end is its effect on the public. The work should give the public an experience from which it in some way may benefit.
The art world tends to take a more formal approach and is not always open to what the artwork actually wants to convey. There is a shift in mentality with the younger generation. Social commitment, cooperation, free mixing of all media and using other venues like festivals and social media come to the fore. The question ‘is it art?’ is then of less or no importance. I feel much affinity with that attitude because it opens many new ways of effective and sincere communication.
THE REAL STORY
I make different kinds of works: installations, photo and video, temporary works with groups of people and commissioned work for the public space. The content of all these works is basically the same and is defined by themes like spirituality, self-reflection and contemplation. These themes were more or less taboo in the art world during the 80s and 90s. In that time I refrained from talking about the underlying reasons of my work because it would not have been functional. It was against the stream and people would not have listened. Today, society is ready for another way of communicating. Last year, in the project ‘Moonbeam’ at Museum Valkhof in Nijmegen, I started to openly explain what my work is really about, namely spiritual transformation.
My task as an artist is to take people out of their usual pattern of thoughts and actions for a moment by inviting them to have another kind of experience. I will for instance create a situation around a tree that one normally passes by without even seeing it. When people use the artwork, they will focus on that tree and automatically other thoughts and reflections will enter their minds. To allow such processes to succeed, I have developed an imagery that makes people immediately understand how they can use the artwork practically, for example by climbing in it, laying down, and so on.
The ‘Moonbeam’ project, by the way, consisted of a large kind of spaceship that was seemingly floating in space. When you lay down on its surface you could feel the vibrations of a sound composition in your whole body, transmitted through the wooden material. This gave a very spatial effect. You would be immersed in a soundscape and float far away. In other works, like ‘Drone 2.0’, I have used a similar technique.
In an exhibition in 1994, I presented video works in which I was standing in silence opposite a tree. The video shows me on my back. I was wondering if the public would be able to see or feel that I was in a state of meditation; if that experience could be transmitted somehow through the image. Later on I realized that my personal experience cannot be transmitted this way and that I should invite people to have the experience themselves. Then I designed the ‘Portable Site For Silent Conversation With The Sky’. It was a steel construction on which you could lay down to make contact with the sky. This is a key project for me and actually the purport of my work has never changed since then. Ultimately, it developed into the ‘Silent Sky Project#’.
For the ‘Silent Sky Project#’ I travel all over the world. Groups of people, who already have some kind of connection with each other like working for the same company or being from the same neighborhood, are invited to lay down outside and look at the sky for half an hour together. Conflicts in the world exist on a horizontal level. However, if we lay down and look into endless space, there is no conflict at all. The project demonstrates that we are all basically the same, even though our conditions may be very different.
In the ‘Silent Actions’ that I perform in a landscape without public, I renew the contact with my source. Moreover, they give me inspiration for works in which I involve other people. It is important that I first experience the action myself. This has led to a work like ‘Silent Conversation With You’ that I realized in the Museum for Modern Art in Arnhem. I was standing on a wooden disc that was attached halfway up the trunk of a tree outside the museum. Directly opposite, at the same level inside the museum, behind a window, there was an exact same wooden disc. If a visitor were to stand on that disc, he would look me straight in the eyes. The contact was incredibly intense and the difference between outside and inside completely disappeared.
In some works I invite the public to enter the inner space of an artwork. Like in the inflatable work ‘Contemplatorium-Vortex’, which was made in response to the Theory of General Relativity. Space-time is warped, which generates a wormhole. On both sides of the wormhole, a different space-time exists. At the ‘Vortex’ you look from outside through the wormhole. To get inside you must enter on your knees through a low opening. When you look up you suddenly see a large white space. That is the moment of transformation. After that you can stay and relax as long as you like inside the ‘Vortex’ with its soft diffuse white light.
Another way of introducing people to the inner space of an artwork is ‘Water Room’. It was made on the Vosbergen estate in Heerde. A stream goes through the estate and I built a white geometrical construction right over that stream. When you go inside you see an oval shape filled with streaming water. I made the ceiling so that you cannot see the sky directly, only its reflection. The waves, the little plants that float on them and the reflection of the sky blend into an amazing living painting.
An example of work that the public may use as it pleases is ‘Instamatic’ that I presented in, among other places, Museum Kröller-Müller. It consists of a number of geometric objects that are placed on pedestals. The work is only finished when people take an object from its pedestal and start to use it in their own way. In this sense the work is a comment on ‘object art’. Most likely, people will put the object over their head and then they will have another perspective on the outside reality. Each object is different that way. When presenting ‘Instamatic’, I ask the people to send me photos of how they use the objects and I put them on my website. Very often I am astounded by the inventive and unexpected ways that people use the objects.
Today, I am more and more focused on long-term projects. In this respect I am interested in making artworks that will have the time and occasion to be allowed to grow naturally. I have made many artworks to compel people to observe natural elements, looking in and out from the work. Now I am curious as to what will happen if the artwork itself is a natural element. My expectation is that it will be an even more direct personal experience. A forest is in itself a perfect work of art to which I have nothing to add. In my artwork I provide a context that involves the public in a game that enhances their attention. People may have an intense observation of, let’s say little blades of grass in the situation that I provided, while the grass a bit further away is taken for granted.
We are surrounded by natural elements like trees, air and water but usually we are just too busy with things of our own human construction to give them much attention. I think it is good to have a conscious relation with the elements of nature, especially because we are still largely defined by natural instincts and urges. When I invite people to come into close contact with natural elements, they may very well come closer to their own nature.
The Kloster Bentlage estate is 500 years old and has never been divided up like most other estates. It is a complete, coherent landscape. A monastery existed there for a long time and the building still stands. The building houses a museum for religious art and its collection contains two ancient relic cabinets. They exude an incredible energy, just like a nuclear reactor. The cabinets are filled with skulls and bones, draped with fabrics dating back to the 12th century and even older. The energy emanating from the cabinets and from the religious practice that has always taken place on this site is tangible across the whole estate. You feel it the instant you arrive there.
With the works that I am going to make for Kloster Bentlage, I want to emphasize this energy. Director Jan-Christoph Tönigs and I wish to develop the project slowly over the next ten to fifteen years. We will take our time and will perhaps add one work each year so that the project may grow organically. The idea is that the works will be portable so that they can wander over the estate. They will add other layers of meaning to the landscape and its history. Visitors may then go from one object to the other for different experiences and insights.