From mark to man

Caren van Herwaarden, 2004

Go into the park for a walk with your dog. Where we, the masters, see only a movement; the dog, from a kilometre away, recognizes a fellow hound. Kind recognizes kind. We human beings are experts in sorting out from a tangle of forms the contours of others like ourselves, even young children can do it. For this we need the scantiest information; a bat of the eyelid is enough for us to distinguish man from woman, young from old, but above all, friend from foe. This ability - the instant recognition of threat or menace - is an essential for survival itself.

About making marks
The marks, above all those in the foreground of my drawings, are designed to mutate into persons. I mean by this that they must include some physical trace of the human being.  I am constantly and repeatedly surprised by how little our eye needs to suggest what is human: the placement of an ear, a shoulder, a foot is enough. Then the rest turns, of itself, into leg, trunk or head. This, to me, is simply a fact of life. Whoever looks at these drawings completes with his eye what remains of the structure. He sees people because, as I paint, I see people.  That seeing, however, must be accurate, concentrated. I tell the mark: you are man, a human being. The mark obeys. Once it has become human, the neighbouring sign or trace next to it, also becomes an individual. 

The moment that a mark transmutes into a human form is a magical one, as if it has been blown into life by itself. While the process of formation is taking place the balance between control and going free is of vital importance. It feels as if moving into a crowd:  taking a deep breath, abandoning control and the mark or sign becomes us, ourselves, many. The mark’s desire to become an insignificant part of a great whole is ambivalent; it both wants it and yet, on the other hand, does not. It yearns for entry into the crowd but does not wish to dissolve into it.

How is it that individuality is so forcefully defended but that, concurrently, there is comfort in knowing that one is no more than a link in a long sequence? In knowing that one is no longer an individual but a merely a mark among others. While the experience of being an insignificant part of a whole feels almost like vanishing, the desire for this experience seems to be quintessentially human. For under this experience there lurks a basic, foundational yearning: a desire to belong, not to be alone.   One fits in with a whole, one is part of a vast togetherness. Solitude is not absolute. One belongs as a living, breathing and moving being, to a species, a group, an order.  This simple fact extends to every man an unconditional claim to the right of existence. Existence does not have to be earned

‘Jaco’s Ring’, 2004


About Looking

In the cartoon films of William Kentridge (South Africa, 1958) action and thought pass through walls and floors. Things that normally remain hidden become perceptible; thoughts acquire literal form. Nothing of importance is denied to the eye.
For example: somewhere a telephone rings. Kentridge makes the ringing visible by means of a blue line. This line runs underground, through the entire city, into another house where someone dials a number. In this way the action is infused with a power that is retroactive. At a certain moment there are numbers of people ringing at the same time. The town has turned into a clew, a blue tangle. Speech has become colour and form. Kentridge is for me a soul-mate of observation. I, too, observe in this way.
I remember well how it felt as a child to have the idea that God looked down on me from the heavens. I felt more accompanied than spied upon by that watching (except when I did something forbidden). I found it a comforting idea that I was not alone. I had a manner of going about things as if He were taking care of me: I followed His glance and saw myself and the other children. At these moments everything seemed right with the world.
I still observe things in this way, by means, in fact, of a kind of satellite. Then I ask myself what God, or perhaps a bird, would see. In either case a Higher Eye. If this seems a peculiar habit it is, for me, a way of seeing connections. It becomes a means of knowing where I stand in relation to others, a means of placing myself, of relating. Through this birds-eye view I see people in manifold ways. I see the multiplicity of individuals: their movements lead to forms, patterns. It is above all human thoughts, fears, or passions that are the driving force behind such forms. I ask myself how deep or violent human emotions are embodied. For example, what type of physical movement, would result from, say, consolation. Then I attempt to imbue a whole crowd with the form of this passion or emotion. Apart from our intellect I find the potential of both experiencing and extending consolation, the quality that makes us most human. Our bodies with all their different parts - hands, neck, cheek, abdomen - seem especially designed for this. Consolation, or comfort, provides the confirmation that we are not alone in the world and this is a need that we all hold in common. I see it everyday all around me. As an artist one is all-powerful, one can, through drawing, build structures of fervours or passions that are similar. I find it difficult to stop once I am working on these groups. It always seems as if an additional figure can be added, it is addictive, obsessive. These drawings, seen from above, form together a data bank of primary human passions: both good and bad. With my drawings I am conjuring, playing tricks, as if to tame evil by giving it form. Shaping it so that it can be recognized in advance and turned towards something good.
The distance to what you see in my work can vary from nearby, to many kilometres away. With a mere narrowing of the eyes the groups of people will appear to inhabit a different level, seen from very close they look like segments of a strand of DNA. They are unending progressions, perpetuum mobilae of emotions and motifs that will survive so long as there are generations to come. They represent a system with its own logic that is in constant movement.


About Rituals

Rituals are in fact, for me, prefabricated drawings. In pre-arranged actions the deep emotions are invoked or worked out. If I were to arrive from Mars, I would, in order to understand something about people, go in search of human ceremony, of rituals. I would do this to understand what, for people, is important, so as to pin down their greatest fears, their motives, their triumphs. What would I see?

In many churches of the Catholic faith, confession, the acknowledgement of personal sins and impurities by those seeking absolution, is a common ritual of life.
At certain times a priest enters an especially designed wooden box where a man or a woman joins him. The priest is seated; the confessant kneels. Separated by a thin wall they begin to speak, to murmur. In the church other people are waiting, looking, perhaps, at the up-turned soles of the (kneeling) penitent I find this idea attractive: the notion of giving people the opportunity of sharing secrets that will not be passed on. It is an idea that extends a measure of comfort: every secret can be shared, not one person is completely alone. And, while I look at the upturned shoes I become conscious of a chain of individuals, a chain that acquires a form through what I observe before me. Rows of people, each individual burdened with his own secrets, turn themselves over to the man in the box.


’When We Come Close’, 2000

There awaits the Receiving Ear of clandestine things. Once disclosed, the secrets enter the portals of the Ear. There they find a space in the brain. I imagine, afterwards, this man, the priest, walking back to his house with his head filled with the secrets of others. There, at home, he pushes food into the same head, lays it on a pillow, and sleeps. Perhaps the secrets become part of his dreams. The secrets, the private admissions, are physical. Transported through a body, they undergo, through speech, a change of owner. The man who confesses rids himself of a burden, he walks more lightly, there is space, once more, in his brain. It is as if a secret stands by itself, it was always there and needs only to be heard or experienced by someone in order to enter the body.
The human form is permeated with a rich cargo of important themes.

Obvious and there for all to see.

translation: Lin Widmann

Caren van Herwaarden, 2004