Krijn Giezen - in memoriam
Metropolis M magazine
Text in Metropolis M, october 2011.
Obituary for artist, teacher and friend Krijn Giezen.
Such is Life. On the death of Krijn Giezen
How do artworks relate to the mortality of their creator? With that question in mind, I drove to Kemzeke near Antwerp for the opening of the Krijn Giezen retrospective. He died in January in a French hospital at the age of seventy-one.
I knew Giezen well enough to call him Krijn and to be aware of his ambivalence about museum presentations. They conflicted with his autarchic lifestyle, far from the art world and the internet. Fishers, butchers, farmers, cattle breeders: those were his role models. The work he made was intended above all to be touched and used.
The Verbeke Foundation in Kemzeke manages to reflect that mentality. Minimal resources have been deployed to convert what were once the sheds of a transport company into exhibition spaces and the policy is, as far as possible, anti-museum.
‘Waste = Material’ it says in big letters on one of the walls. Nowadays that’s a cliché, but not in the 1970s, and as a creed the slogan actually hangs over Krijn’s entire oeuvre. You see it in his tapestries of the 1960s, his smokers and wood ovens of the 1970s and ’80s, his mail order products of the 1990s and the assemblages he made over the years for his own enjoyment. Krijn was a beachcomber.
Recycled display cases have been used to exhibit the many notebooks and sketchbooks Krijn wrote and drew in over the course of his life. It’s striking that while around half are behind glass, the other half are touchable. Deliberate or not, it’s a telling portrayal of the transition Krijn’s work is currently going through; having started as everyday objects, the books are on their way to becoming untouchable artefacts. That transition is where the friction begins.
If you look inside the books you can still touch, you will see that Krijn intends his work to create an experience. Not of the kind that has since become such an empty concept, but instead something fundamental, stripped of modern layering. His landscape designs, for instance, often focus on the experience of the specific character of a place. In achieving this Krijn often wanted to take things away, but in the Netherlands that is harder, in practice, than adding something. His plans did not always come to fruition by any means, perhaps because they ran aground in bureaucracy, or because they did not have the kind of visibility that many clients are after these days.
More than once a sketchbook is all that remains of the design process. On the cover – which might be made of tree bark or dried fish skin – are the titles of projects: Haarlem Wood Stoves, International Scything Club, Scuff Marks, Amphibian Residence. They are held together with masking tape and bulge with inserted photos, photocopies, news-cuttings, and rapid drawings or notes. Not from the wrist but from the shoulder, sparks in search of fire.
Krijn was a purist with a sense of humour. What his terrestrial reporting ultimately shows is how a more spiritual touch lies embedded within physical contact. His art was a means, not an end. From 1990 onwards Giezen lived in Normandy, in a ruined château and an old shed that stood nearby, behind the dunes. These were places where the mind could wander freely. The niche he created for himself testifies to a love-hate relationship with art, which you see reflected in the work. Art gives freedom, but it is also overcoded. In the end it’s just as effective at locking the spirit up again, with rules that can be as Kafkaesque and constraining as the excessive bureaucracy that he continually had to deal with as a landscape artist.
One example of how regulations affected Giezen’s own work is Kijk uit (‘Look Out’), a project that did in fact come to fruition and can be seen as a scale model in the exhibition. Kijk uit is in the sculpture garden of the Kröller-Müller Museum and it was opened to the public in 2005. It’s an endless staircase leading from the foot of a hill to above the trees, where you are rewarded with a hallucinatorily panoramic view out over the landscape of the Hoge Veluwe. An accident happened, however, and for the past five years visitors have been forbidden to climb the steps, even though the climb is essential to the experience Krijn wants to share. Merely looking is not enough. What you see acquires meaning only if you can combine it with other sensory perceptions. The body must participate to free the mind.
I think that’s the essence of what it was all about for Krijn. And with that kind of freedom goes the realization that it’s a matter of only passing moments. Sparks ignite fire, but then the fire goes out. Krijn would have preferred completed works to perish than to see them ‘conserved’ like monuments for the wrong reasons. The entire first floor of the château was inhabited by owls. Let it all decay, for such is life; conservation is death warmed up.
That self-relativization is a problematic legacy that he left to his wife Martina – and to us. In sporadically published overviews of his work, Krijn is mainly remembered as a pioneer, a man of cradle-to-cradle before the term existed, an artist’s artist, a Droog designer avant la lettre. These are labels that do justice to his free spirit, but they pass over a vulnerable side of his own legacy. For the most part, Krijn’s work is destined for a merely temporary future. Not because it’s bad, but ironically because of the inexorable consequences of his exemplary artistry.
Arnoud Holleman is a writer and artist living and working in Amsterdam.
Krijn GiezenVerbeke Foundation, Kemzeke (BE)
1 May through 30 October