Maria van Oosterhout in conversation with Job Koelewijn

Maria van Oosterhout [Mvo]: Literature and poetry have always been driving forces for your artistic practice. A practice that, although diverse in media, material and references, is brought together in a new synthesis, in which art becomes an act of regeneration and purification. How do you look back on your early work in which literature and poetry played a role, such as Passage (1995)? For the work Passage, you packed stock cubes with poems from Dante's La Divina Commedia and framed one of the passages in the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam with the cubes. 

Job Koelewijn [JK]: That's right, from day one it has always been like that, for me there was something existential in it. Initially, at the Rietveld Academy, I tried to express poetry through painting. That did not work. Then I understood that a poem is very expressive in spirit, but that painting has challenging formal questions. It took five or six years before I found a form to express it. I couldn't let go of poetry, but I could let go of painting. The first time it came together was in Passage, with Dante. Broth is a positive energy, a concentrated form of energy, and that's what poetry is, essentially. According to Dante's ideal of beauty, you have to let a material or a figure speak for itself. If you have a villain, you have to let that villain talk like a villain. You have to find the right voice for every figure, the right material for every idea. So that it fits, then it is beautiful. This has become my guiding principle. 

MvO: You started the Ongoing Reading Project in 2006. Every day for 45 minutes, the length of a cassette tape, you read aloud James Joyce, Spinoza, Baudelaire, Susan Sontag. You record this. Date, book, pages read and time are noted. After sixteen years, you still read every morning. What has occupied you these sixteen years? What does the reading mean to you personally?

JK: I started reading aloud on 1 February 2006 as a kind of statement to the world, but of course I didn’t read on 2 February. You start something, you search for the right form. After the third book, I started reading two books interchangeably. That felt very strange. Only after the seventh book, after almost a year of practice, I understood that the rhythm was important. The deepening of the rhythm. The penetration of the everyday. Whether the book is thick or thin, you read for 45 minutes. 

After ten years of reading, a new phase came about. I was all about verticality. I wanted to go deeper. I started to listen to the recordings again. The repetition worked well; what I read began to resonate. I started making CD books, books with CDs containing the recordings, drawings and texts from the books. 

MvO: What do you mean by verticality? The ever deeper recording and elaboration of what has been read?

JK: Yes, I read the book again, listen to the recordings and then get new insights. Mondrian and Malevich said of their oeuvre, if we were to detach our work from the intention that we want to change society, all that would be left is narcissistic grandeur, the fetishisation of objects, the expansion of your oeuvre in a horizontal fashion. That is why I am looking for verticality. The meaning of the words must be sought in their depth. 

MvO: In 2009, you started making reliefs, wall sculptures with the books you read on shelves and the accompanying cassette tapes on top. The thicker the book, the higher the pile. Date, book, pages and time are noted on the cassette tapes. This was followed by a digital version: a laptop-shaped sculpture, with again date, book, pages and time lasered into the 'screen', and USBs with your recordings in the place of the keyboard. And now QR codes. Is this the first time that the viewer can hear the recordings?

JK: Before, I built a large sound box in which the spectator could stand and listen. [2010, exhibition in Almere]. I struggled for a long time, how do you give shape to something like that? Duchamp spoke of the dictatorship of the retina, the retinal code. He was referring to art that mainly or exclusively appeals to the eye and not so much to the mind. In my latest works, the sound is almost more important than the visual aspect.

MvO: Your analogue works have a certain tension, one learns that the cassette tapes contain your voice reading the book, but cannot verify it, or listen to it themself. With the QR codes, on the other hand, the work is very accessible.

JK: Yes, this is what I aspire. A book is a physical thing, but its contents are intangible. In this work, I make the intangible tangible. Sensible, one can experience it.

MvO:Your work appeals to the senses, the sensory, the experience. Not only seeing is important, but also smelling (with materials such as inhalation ointment, peppermint, eucalyptus, baby powder) and hearing (breaking spaghetti under the feet of the audience). The Ongoing Reading Project is now also an auditive work. Can you say something about this? What is the relationship between performer and audience? What is the role of the spectator?

JK: I am always searching for the right way to convey my ideas and want to transcend the purely visual. What is more important? Breathing or looking? There is a hierarchy! I want to wake people up, intensify the experience of a moment or a place. My artistic practice started with my accident, when I was in the intensive care. I was overwhelmed by a kind of re-experience of reality. From that moment on, I read literature and poetry with the letter and the spirit. I now use my own voice as material, it is authentic, it is my own, it is available in unlimited quantities. My voice is the brush with which I paint the words from the books.

MvO: Where does the reading come from?

JK: As a child, I never drew, but I always read books. I started with the Kameleon and Pietje Bell. I actually read those six times too. Language and reading was something that was always in the background. When I was fourteen, I learnt by heart: O solitude, how overcrowded you are. I did not know what it meant.  

I discovered Sartre's existentialism in my own little room. I was brought up a Christian, but when I first read that Jean-Paul Sartre said, “God does not exist and we are doomed to freedom, everything is possible”, I was stunned. Many boys would have put the book away, but I was savouring it.

When I went to the Rietveld Academy, I “zap” read for a few years. I had a table at home with six open books. I would read page 46 of one book and page 8 of another, for example. I felt like a contemporary reader. And then I thought, the hardest thing you can do now is read a book and finish it, because you haven't done that for at least ten years. We are living in a time wherein your concentration is being pulled from all sides.

I am not a Taoist, but Taoism has inspired me. I could never have made Cinema on Wheels (1999), a mobile cinema where the visitor sits in a cinema chair and looks at an empty frame, the cinema screen is replaced by a rectangular window upon the outside world, if I hadn't read a lot of Buddhist and Taoist literature. About the idea of time. About silence and stillness. During rest, the real work begins: “Learn to work without effort”.  

MvO: As you said, your works are often seen as interventions with the aim of intensifying the experience of a place, a moment or an action. For sixteen years you read aloud for 45 minutes every day. Could we interpret this reading as a kind of lifelong performance?

JK: In a way. Reading is part of my life and the backbone of my artistic practice. It's about setting yourself a goal. Even pressing the button of the cassette recorder after my accident was a kind of victory.

MvO: It requires discipline and effort, themes that recur in your artistic practice.

JK: It is a form of addiction. In the first place, it is to sharpen the mind. My mind, but through the QR codes also other minds. How great would it be if every child at school would learn one poem a year by heart? That will be my next project.

Biography Job Koelewijn:
Job Koelewijn had solo exhibitions at amongst others: Museum De Pont, Tilburg, NL; Henry Moore Foundation, UK; Foksal Galerie, PL; Kiasma Museum for Contemporary Art, FI; Chisenhale, UK; Van Abbemuseum, NL. His work was part of the 1st Asia Biennial/5th Guangzhou Triennial: Asia Time', Guangdong Museum of Art, Guangzhou, CN; 'Everywhere', Busan Biennial, SK; 'Post Natural', Ca'Zenobio, 49th Venice Biennial, IT; ‘Appertutto’ 48th Venice Biennial, curated by Harald Szeemann, IT; 'Among Others (curated Bart de Baere)', San Francesco della Vigna, 46th Venice Biennial, IT. Koelewijn’s work is part of the collections of amongst others Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam (NL), MUHKA (BE), Guangdong Museum of Art (CN), S.M.A.K. Gent (BE) and Museum Voorlinden (NL).