Your Witness, Karin van Pinxteren, 2005

by Ulco Mes

… on this matter I would like to declare the following.

My first encounter with Karin van Pinxteren and her work dates from 2001. In that year she participated in the f®icties exhibition at the Van Bommel van Dam Museum in Venlo, Holland. I remember the way she performed in the museum entrance hall, where, dressed up as a hostess, she greeted the unsuspecting visitors. During the friendly but also perfunctory welcome she stamped the text ‘Share your warmth with me’ in red ink on every visitor’s right hand. On mine as well.

In the installation ‘Approach’ she showed there, I again came across the words I wore on my skin. There, in the twilit museum, the red characters were shining on the end sides of two opposing light boxes. I haven’t forgotten how the cool austerity of the two architectural blocks inhibited the intimacy Approach called for. And I still remember that I wondered if  my hesitation had caused me to betray the hostess’ trust, as she had emphatically asked for my sympathy when I entered the building.

In ‘Approach’, a light installation which was based on the work mentioned above and which Karin van Pinxteren made in 2003, the artist projected the words ‘Share your warmth with me’ plainly on the wall. An intimate message in blood-red lettering. The kind of red about which she once said that it’s the colour ‘you always have with you’. What was I to do with this appeal, in such an extreme form?

A year later, at Vertoningsruimte (exhibition venue) Argument in Tilburg, Holland, I saw ‘Creature’. Against the background of the unlit exhibition space Karin van Pinxteren had placed a man-sized light box. That the luminous white front of this ‘creature’ contained the message ‘Give me your order’, was only visible at close quarters.  Again I was addressed in a radical way. How should I relate to this work and to the other person whose voice was conveyed through the work?

I never found it easy to penetrate into the art of Karin van Pinxteren. Still, the question about the relation between me and the other held certain possibilities. I started to see that the artist, in every performance and every installation, aims at contact. And that she, investigating the nature of this contact, focuses all her attention on the visitor’s reaction – the reaction of an individual with his own responsibility.

This is most obvious in her performances. For her presence enables Karin van Pinxteren to approach the visitor personally and observe the effects at first hand. Let me illustrate this by using ‘Approach’  as an example.

At the time in Venlo, when she stamped the text ‘Share your warmth with me’ on the back of my hand, she held it just a bit longer than necessary. As if she wanted to stress the intimacy of the moment by prolonging the contact. I hadn’t counted on that kind of closeness. I had expected a neutral and formal greeting, all the more so because Karin van Pinxteren had ‘cast off’ her personality to take on the perfunctory role of hostess. She must have felt the confusion and doubt which the relatively prolonged contact induced in me. She must have noticed that I wanted to withdraw my hand – maybe out of anxiety? Now I understand that she wasn’t so much interested in the nature of my reactions as in their individuality. That was what she wanted to witness.

I don’t know if Karin van Pinxteren deplores the fact that she’s unable to witness the reactions to her installations. I just observe that she’s not only physically absent, but that she also does her very best to strip these works of every kind of personal touch and anonymise them completely. Speaking in general, her approach results in severe, architectural images. Apart from that I find that the impersonal nature of her installations is extended to the texts which are part of them. She does not divulge which voice hides behind assignments like ‘Share your warmth with me’, ‘Give me your order’ and ‘Stay with me’.

Remarkably, it’s precisely the sterile and clean nature of the installations which confronts the spectator with his own personality. When a piece doesn’t provide any possibilities to get into contact with the other’s voice which it contains, the image will act as a mirror. The resulting silence leaves the spectator no option but to question his own presence.

I can illustrate this by my experiences with Creature. I was touched instantly by the text which was incorporated in the installation: ‘Give me your order’. Even if here was an elusive other speaking, an assignment had been given. But to whom? Presently I realised that it was an appeal to every person individually. Whether to respond to the appeal or not is a responsibility which evidently could never be shared. So the question remained what I would do.

Of course I could ignore the assignment. However, passing over the appeal would imply negating the unknown other. That was unacceptable to me. Disregarding the other could very well be explained as intolerance on my side. Intolerance which I couldn’t justify, simply because I didn’t know the other.

What if I would accept the assignment? Then I’d let myself be ordered to order. Could an order like that be called a proper order? Now who was submitting to whom? The other to me, or I to the other? What does it really mean to give an order, just like that? Did I feel orders were attractive or repulsive? Did I want to answer that question? I became frightened and realised that the whole situation had confused me. I wanted to get out.

In the course of time I came to realise that Karin van Pinxteren asks questions in her work which everyone of us has to answer for himself. In her performances and installations it’s the direct or indirect presence of the other which prompts the spectator to reflect on his presence and behaviour as an individual. After all, when you are addressed by another person, everyone of us has a nontransferable responsibility. You can call up Karin van Pinxteren to bear witness.

Otherwise, I have only been prepared to make this declaration so that you yourselves …

© Ulco Mes, 2004, art historian, publication ‘Your Witness’, translation Mels Dees