In his 1962 collection Cronopios & Famas Argentine writer Julio Cortazar included a selection of witty, poignant how-to instructions for ordinary tasks such as singing, crying, climbing a staircase, and winding a clock. Somewhere between Situationist manifestos and self-help literature—though much more readable than both of these genres—these short pieces constitute a provocative invitation to introduce imagination into the everyday and question accepted rules (or rather, ignore them altogether).
Guido Van der Werve confesses he hasn’t read Cortazar’s short stories. He also admits he learned about Dutch conceptualist Bas Jan Ader and Casper David Friedrich, artists to which he is inevitably compared, only when his friends likened his work to theirs. But he shares with all of them an evident wariness of Cartesian rationalism and a flair for the absurd, the dreamlike, the unpredictable, and the miraculous as best remedy for existential angst. A selection of Van der Werve’s films are currently on view in New York: two at Creative Time’s quadriennial on Governors Island, “PLOT09: This World & Nearer Ones,” and another as part of a group show at Marian Goodman Gallery; “Black Box: Guideo van der Werve” also remains on view at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C.
Van der Werve’s undeniably romantic, absurdist films could have easily resulted from following such a bizarre instruction handbook. The directions for Nummer Zes (2006), for example, could be: “play a Chopin in your living room.” In the video, we see the artist negotiate with a Steinway vendor. Soon thereafter, a crane delivers a grand piano through the balcony of the artist’s tiny apartment and a full-sized orchestra squeezes itself into his living room. After the performance, the orchestra leaves, the crane takes the piano back to the store and his apartment remains almost the same as it was. Nummer Acht (2007), on view at Marian Goodman and the Hirschhorn Museum, could similarly make a fantastic chapter in a guide for the reckless flâneur. In this film, our hero takes a walk across the frozen sea, followed by a massive icebreaker. His promenade across the sublime landscape is accompanied only by the sound of the ice cracking behind him.
Nummer Zeven, on view at Governors Island at part of Creative Time’s quadriennial, This World & Nearer Ones, shows Van der Werve’s attempts to change his luck (or at least, increasing the chances of having an elusive wish fulfilled). The film begins with the artist complaining about his lack of fortune, despite repeatedly asking for the same one wish every time he sees a shooting star. Rather than losing faith, the resolute van der Werde decides to take control of his own destiny: Hoping to produce a shooting star, he loads a meteorite into a home-made rocket and attempts to launch it back up to the sky. The result of the mission is a perfectly beautiful explosion.
Also showing on Governors Island, Nummer Vier (2005) offers a more existential meditation on failure and as the visual and musical references suggest, death. The film opens with a few lines on a black screen: “I woke up early and watched the sun rise. I felt it came up just for me.” The poetic overture is soon silenced, as the scene fades to a plane crossing the sky, towing a clear message on a banner: “It was not enough.” The next two long shots depict the artist, a trained classical pianist, playing Chopin’s Nocturne No.1 in B flat minor on a platform in the middle of a misty lake and a barge flow down a river, ferrying a choir and orchestra performing Mozart’s Requiem Mass. Again, Van der Werve’s dry, dark sense of humor is reserved for the last moment: As the barge slowly disappears down the river, the artist suddenly plunges from the sky, feet-down into the river. In his caustic vision of the romantic quest for the sublime, it all just ends with a splash.
[Video still from Nummer Acht (2007) courtesy of the artist.]
Creative Time’s quadriennial on Governors Island, “PLOT09: This World & Nearer Ones,” is on view through the summer. “Black Box: Guido van der Werve” is on view at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. through October 11.