by Theo Ploeg
“I’m amazed at the fact that I exist. It’s something I just have to accept.” She takes a sip of her coffee. Ponders. “In my work I try to make myself invisible. I simply hide myself, hide my character. In that respect,” she adds with a smile, “I’m kind of a Barbapapa.” Talking with Karin van Pinxteren is a voyage of discovery. With the greatest ease she shifts from trivialities to existential issues. Admittedly, that might have to do with me as well. Karin and I haven’t known each other so long yet. We came in touch with each other via Facebook. Her first message to me was about my fondness for the Opel Manta, a German sports car made for the 1970s middle class. We clicked from the start. Logical. Neither of us was hampered by conventions, by good taste, by anything expected of us. In our minds, where we live, there is no room for reality. We give shape to that ourselves. Doing so makes the world around us one big mystery. Creates distance from ‘the outer’ and brings us closer together. Karin and I have found common ground in our alienation from the world surrounding us. The world that we fail to understand. Or want to understand. The world that fails to understand us. That creates a bond. Though we each have a different way of dealing with that alienation. I investigate reality, try to comprehend it, reduce it to its essence, write about it and change it where possible. Each letter that I type on my MacBook changes my relationship to the world around me. Changes me. Such a journalistic/scientific approach brings relief. At least for me it does. Karin opts for the reverse approach. She works on the basis of intuition, listens to her emotions. She senses her own uneasiness and assimilates that into art. It’s her way of questioning things. She and I will be doing that all our lives. This is our tragic flaw and our strength.
Deliberate questioning? That isn’t Karin’s concern. To her, art is not a choice but an urge. “It’s something I’ve had for quite a long time,” she points out. She grew up in a working-class environment in Brabant. Her father was a hard worker, had close ties with nature. Contemplating the world, contemplating life? Didn’t happen. “My mother told me that there was never any time for that in the past. I come from a family with a work ethic. Feelings were never really discussed. At home I never got answers to the questions I had, yet I did feel safe there. I feel lucky to have grown up in this part of the world, to have had the chance to develop. A few thousand kilometers away, in the middle of the desert, that might have been impossible.” A sense of estrangement has always been part of her life. “Even as a teenager,” she says, “I wanted to head in my own direction, was looking for something but didn’t know what.” By way of the Grafisch Lyceum in Eindhoven, she ended up at the St. Joost Academie voor Beeldende Kunst in Breda. There her search went on unabatedly. “What is art? That’s what I kept asking. Where did that urge come from? From somewhere in myself. I can’t explain it.” Karin wanted to hatch her own scheme, not someone else’s. Not that of a dominant instructor, for instance. This resulted in a clash. Quite a big clash. The search isn’t over yet. Never will be: that’s one thing she knows for sure. “Some people are glad to retire at the age of sixty-five. To me, it seems inconceivable. Even now I feel there isn’t enough time to do all the things I’ve got planned. To get answers to all the questions.”
Could that be a problem? Questions keep on piling up.
Karin herself is to blame for that, at least if it can be called blame. She’s a thinker. And a brooder. During a conversation about identity fraud, she suddenly jumps to another subject. “It’s too bad you only have one body,” she philosophizes, “since I wouldn’t mind splitting myself in ten. Then you could go out on the town with ten people. Everyone thinks differently, so you’d get new insights all the time. How rational I am? Extremely rational. I’m nothing but my brain.” She points to her body. “I find my body so tiresome. In your mind you can travel. But not with your body. Yeah, okay, a bit of walking, but that’s about it.” With a sense of relief, she takes another sip of her coffee, as though she’s happy to be rid of that thought. “Making books is the best thing there is,” she remarks in a switch to a lighter subject. “Books are knowledge that you can take with you. People need to come to an exhibition. A book, on the other hand, comes to you. Actually, a book is quite some bargain. A person spends years working on it, but ultimately it sells for twenty euros.” For Karin, everything is a topic to contemplate, to philosophize about. That tendency stems from a fundamental kind of doubt. Even her own body is subject to her distrust. “Your mind comprehends everything. And then you have a body. Between the mind and the body is this stalk. That’s where things go wrong somehow. I can talk with you about the most complicated things in life, but if I fall ill, my mind doesn’t tell me that. I don’t get that. To me, that’s a big mystery.” And: “I can touch you, but I can’t crawl inside you. I can’t see what you see, what you feel; can’t understand how you see life. It astonishes me just how fragile everything is. Everyone is unique. There are seven billion people walking around on earth, and yet not one of them is like you.”
Matters that most people take for granted are the subject of doubt for Karin. Had she ended up on the sofa of the famous French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, he would have concluded that she hadn’t assimilated sufficiently in our Western society, hadn’t ‘bonded’ well enough to its symbolic order. The latter, says Lucan, allows us to experience the world as something completely normal. Language plays an important role in this. The words that we use place a web, as it were, over reality and thereby create a virtual world in which contradictions and irrational matters appear to be completely normal. According to Lacan, complying with that symbolic order is the final stage in the process of becoming human. The psychoanalyst doesn’t mean this in a positive way, though. That symbolic order alienates man, after all, from the ‘real’ world and makes it invisible. Lacan believes that everyone, every subject, is part of three orders: the imaginary, the real and the symbolic. Complete withdrawal from any of the orders is impossible, but every human being ‘seeks’ a different balance. In Lacanian terms, Karin has opted to avoid the symbolic order. Here lies not only the essence of Karin van Pinxteren the human being, but also that of her life as an artist. Subconsciously she questions the symbolic order that is so foreign to her. Although she is inextricably connected to this order, it remains incomprehensible to her and she instinctively attempts to fathom it.
The result? Karin is continually looking for her own place in constructed reality. Her art is the predominant means by which she does this. “Many people live like robots, involved in automatisms. I’m amazed at how many people are concerned only with consumption and entertainment. When I talk about my work, they don’t quite get me; while it’s precisely that deeper level of being human which I try to reach. Then again, I try to understand. Nowadays art has to be amusement too. Many people come to an exhibition for the sake of entertainment. When they don’t find that, it confuses them; suddenly they’re no longer in control of their own worlds,” Karin explains. “People can be made unbelievably angry by art. Really furious. I find that fascinating. Evidently the confrontation with an image can be so intense because that image isn’t the same image to everyone. The anger is fear. Fear of that other image, of that other idea.” This can lead to extreme reactions. “Such a reaction is often much more vehement than the artwork itself, which never can, nor aims to, represent reality.”
“At the moment, the climate for art is worsening in the Netherlands. A great deal is being destroyed in the art sector. Among the wider public, art scarcely has value anymore, only a practical use. The artist is regarded as a parasite who should go find something useful to do. That hurts, since I see art as a universal force which involves a lot of hard work. I will always be making art. I can’t do otherwise.” Karin brings up the composer Arnold Schönberg, who wrote about his need to produce art eighty years ago. A solid argument, she concludes. The urge felt by the artist remains universal. Today, eighty years ago and a hundred years from now.
With Schönberg and Karin, art constitutes a means by which to arrive at the essence of life, to create a realm of one’s own. Here, reduced to its essence, art is all about coming to grips with the intangible surrounding world, about gaining control over it. Karin does so by making herself invisible in her work. In her role as ‘the hostess’, she herself is no longer present. What remains is an anonymous figure, whose sole purpose is to serve (but also to direct and control) the viewer, the audience. Karin transforms from subject into object. In this safe role she can exert control over the space, over the event that she has organized. This theme of objectification continues to surface in her work. The installations are austere, stripped of any trivial matter, ostensibly free of emotion. While these objects appear to have no function, they do take up space and communicate by way of that contradiction. The viewer simply has to respond to the work. Walking away with shrugged shoulders is indeed an option, but not a satisfying one. Her work finds its way, unwittingly, into our minds—in a manner specific to impersonal, trivia-free objects. The objects cry out, as it were, for the observer’s attribution of meaning. Though Karin may not manage to crawl inside people’s minds as a human being, she does succeed at this as an artist. That makes her work highly political, in the broad sense of the word, as the work gives rise to dialogue and contemplation. “I’m always asking myself what I want to achieve with my art. I don’t always have answers. Does art always have to be socially or politically relevant? Does it always need to have meaning? Then I always think of the paintings of Johannes Vermeer. It took quite some time for me to accept that his work is full of meaning: love for a man or a woman, love of space, love of the way daylight is cast into a room.”
With her art Karin claims space and enters the space of the other. By doing so she implicitly questions the balance of power—between the work and the viewer, between the work and the artist, between the viewer and the artist. In his Een Pyreneeënboek from 1924, Kurt Tucholsky describes the way in which hierarchical relationships and divisions of space can have consequences that are entirely irrational but—as with Lacan’s symbolic order—are experienced by nearly everyone as normal. Here Tucholsky reveals the irrationality of nationalism. This book served as a source of inspiration for the installation Kurt’s Zimmer (2006) in which Karin questions, in her own way, the problematic interrelationship of power, centralization and space.
Can art, her art in particular, change people and undermine the symbolic order? That question I didn’t ask Karin. A possible answer lies in her description of Vermeer’s work, which has more to do with love than with beauty. Love, in Karin’s view, is all-powerful: “Love can touch anything, can break all the rules. At a single glance, two people can be attracted to each other and fall in love. Ultimately white people will marry black people anyway, rules or no rules. Love makes everything possible.” But love cannot be directed or controlled. Art, yes, as Karin shows. Although she’ll probably deny that.
© Theo Ploeg, sociologist, journalist, writer, ‘Part of Someone’s Diorama’, Museum De Pont, translation: Beth O’Brien, February 2012