FOLKERT DE JONG IN CONVERSATION WITH ANA FINEL HONIGMAN
ANA FINEL HONIGMAN: What determines your use of the distinctive candy and mucus colours in your sculptures?
FOLKERT DE JONG: Well, to answer your question I would like to go back to the year 1839 when a German apothecary called Eduard Simon discovered polystyrene. In the 1930s BASF developed a way to commercially manufacture polystyrene. It founds its way in WWII as a floating material in lifeboats and life rafts, to our present time in coffee cups and other household items and as a building material. Companies like DOW Chemicals, BASF and Owens Corning produce the same product that is made from Erethylene and Benzine, but each manufacturer produces it in a different colour, as a granted trademark. DOW Styrofoam is a blue colour, BASF makes it in green, and Owens Corning has a trademark registration in the word ‘PINK.’ They even bought the rights on the cartoon character of the Pink Panther as the mascot of its insulation division, as their extruded foam has a pink colour. The light but eerie looking foam material is just a small chemical invention of its time compared to other products that came to light in the laboratories of some of these companies in the chemical revolution of the early 20th century, Agent Orange, Zyklon B, Chlorine, DDT, dioxin, Napalm.
AFH: What is the lifespan of the polystyrene? Will it erode or rot?
FDJ: The chemical reaction that creates this foam is irreversible; they say that it takes a million years to decay, that it is very polluting, and environmentally dangerous.
AFH: Do the brands determine, or at least influence, which colours you use in each particular context?
FDJ: My awareness of the historical background of the materials that I use has certainly a strong impact in the making process of my art. The chemical products in my work hold for me one big immoral contradiction. I like to call it an anti-material. It is manufactured in such an economical way, that it uses tiny little raw material to become very voluptuous and massive. One part of the component can expand to 40 time its volume. It reflects mass consumption, and market economy in the extreme.
AFH: So, the tactile appeal of the materials and their light appearance is deceptive? It is not only that your colours and the sensual quality of the foam material provide a compelling counter-point to your works’ dark content?
FDJ: The content of work is always dealing with the dark side of life. The content and the use of material in my artistic process go hand in hand. The candy and mucus colours are the nature of the materials itself. The combination of those colours creates certain ambivalence – tactility and repulsion appear in the work at the same moment.
AFH: But beyond the tactility, the colours initially appear joyful. Are you trying to create a contrast between childlike naivety and the darker, complex, social and political realities you are referencing?
FDJ: What matters to me, are the actual moral conflicts that emerge from these materials ones that are being used in sculptural installations. I carefully choose these materials for two contradicting reasons: For its immoral content and because of its tantalizing sweetness, human body-related colours, attractive texture and its very specific gravity and the possibilities they offer to use them in a sculptural way. These two elements provoke both attraction and repulsion in the same time and make it an efficient but disputable sculptural material. Once used in figurative sculptural scenes that represent a specific human drama, the meaning of the materials start to emerge above the technical possibilities and start to show its most politically incorrect side. That is my starting point and it becomes for me a unique artistic medium to reflect on the subjects of dark human drama and complex social and political realities in a most efficient way.
AFH: How would you explain the political aspects of your work, since you often directly reference political or historical figures?
FDJ: Both my father and mother’s family were the last generation of fisherman in the Dutch fishers village called Egmond aan Zee. This village is a rare Catholic community in the well-known strong Calvinistic Dutch society. From youth on, my brother and I have been always told by my grandfather that we are the outlaws. Maybe this early confrontation from childhood on with political statements explains why my view on reality is always political. This caused a permanent influence on my art practice. Having met other artists from other countries during my studies on the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam and the discourse coming out of it, made me realize even stronger that making art is no longer on the aesthetic goal only. Art is a medium.
AFH: Do you mean that art is an expressive medium through which artists articulate larger cultural and political concerns, or are you proposing that art can be a legitimate activist medium that can actually help instigate wider cultural changes?
FDJ: Being active and engaged doesn’t make an artist an activist. With all due respect to activists who fight for their rights and beliefs. Engagement of the artist has to do more with awareness of daily reality, its history and actuality. The artist generates this awareness always on the individual basis and lifts it up to the spiritual level. This element of it is often being forgotten when art and actuality are being discussed.
AFH: How do you see your work fitting in with a historical satirical tradition – maybe along the lines of the ‘Glitter and Doom’ kind of German Expressionism?
FDJ: I am absolutely fascinated by the German Expressionists. Otto Dix, for example, succeeds to reflect the zeitgeist where he lived in by simply using handmade art production like his watercolours and oil paintings. The hand-painted and drawn scenes give you a safe distance to the human drama that is taking place in the picture and make you feel positively excited about it in the same time. Edmund Burke already described this feeling in 1757: “The combination of pain, death or the thought of pain or death experienced with certain distance causes the sublime emotion.” I truly believe that this mechanism of the sublime emotion applies to the work of Dix. Especially the dark satirical twist that he often gives makes it easier for the viewer to look at the cruelties with a smile. With my life-size figurative sculptural installations I want the public to become aware of this mechanism of sublime emotion, and how much we are being manipulated by mass media with this mechanism in order to influence our critical opinion.
AFH: When you say that the media uses the sublime to manipulate, are you referring to popular culture forms, like horror films or mass-market imagery and its sexualized morbidity, or are you directly discussing political propaganda such as the Bush administration’s manipulative use of Americans’ fear of terrorism?
FDJ: All the subjects that you refer to in your question are reflected in my work. They are mixed inside one complex structure of meanings. One cannot just take one aspect out of my work and make that the main subject. When my work touches certain political issues, they function more in a metaphorical way rather then finger pointing exclusively on actuality. As an artist I am more interested in the mechanism that causes the issues, and try to penetrate this in order to get the bigger picture on reality.
AFH: Do you mean the mechanisms of power, or the mechanism behind the particular political narratives you explore?
FDJ: My fascination for the complexity of the human body and mind, and the involvement of science in the trying to understand, repair and control human nature made me study and work as a nurse in hospital. I loved the practice in hospital and the medical theory and to research the historical references from the medical books, but the tough job of working in hospital made me quit the job. I was able to change my studies shortly after into art history and sculpture where I had access to even more subjects of my interest, and combine different fields. Out of the theory and historical references, I started to process my findings and reflections into video taped performances. The locations of my performances were first site specific and later on staged scenes, but they rarely took place in front of a live audience. These physical and theoretical reflections to an environment are still playing an important role in the determination of the subject or the historical references in my work, when I prepare a project for an exhibition space. I always feel the urge to make a special work for each exhibition, simply because the circumstances always provoke me to reflect a specific idea about the context. It has as well to do with the great responsibility that I feel each time I exhibit my work. I feel the obligation to communicate something important and relevant to the audience, otherwise it would not make sense.
AFH: Why reference Pez dispensers?
FDJ: When you take a closer look at the Pez candy dispenser it always represents a head of familiar iconic character on top of a pedestal; a strong sculptural appearance. But the most curious aspect of these candy dispensers that inspired me to introduce it in my sculptures, is the actual idea behind it that deals with how one tries to manipulate the human perception with certain propaganda from early age on: the innocent childhood, in order to create a modern myth with a Hollywood ending, which is actually based on the classical myths. From ‘Star Trek’ to the Richard Wagner opera, ‘The Ring des Nibelungen’, to ancient Hindu ‘Mahabharata’ mythology, the innocent and sweet seductive-looking candy dispenser becomes a modern propaganda machine. In this mechanism, I see a lot of similarity, how the relation between aesthetic and the content in my art functions.
AFH: Pez dispensers are also fertile symbols because people keep them even when they are empty. The candy inside them can be seen as a reward that they promise but don’t always provide. Is that why you tend to use famous wealthy or powerful personages as the faces you feature on your Pez sculptures?
FDJ: I glad that you mention these descriptions. You got it.
AFH: How literally do you intend your art historical juxtapositions and allusions?
FDJ: In my studio in Amsterdam I start the process of art production, a time-consuming labour. I process my analyses and findings on the exhibition location and reflect on the results by projecting them on my personal fields of interests and experiences. Out of this I determine which references to combine and what will be the most relevant and efficient subjects for me to reflect on in this particular moment in time and space. I make the actual work and exhibit it in the hope that my personal reflections will emerge from the work in a spiritual way, that it takes the viewer by surprise, and provokes a curious but in the same time critical look at our personal position to a darker, complex, social and political reality and develop a more conscious awareness of our behaviour in the world that we live in.
AFH: What degree of historical literacy do you expect from your audiences?
FDJ: I try on purpose not to make the different references in my work too literal or to recognizable to actuality or related to one issue, as I want to refer with my work to subjects on a deeper level, and to trigger the curiosity of the general audience with a strong figurative body of work. It is the curious eye that makes the brain want to know more, and by taking a closer look at my sculptural scenes almost everybody starts to participate in the process of association and to recognize an absolute heavy undertone that reflects on deeper human emotions.
Published on 17-05-2007