Romantic Conceptualism: A Conversation with Guido Van der Werve

Article excerpt

Guido van der Werve's films teeter between slapstick humor and the macabre, drawing together sources as disparate as Casper David Friedrich and masochistic body art. In Nummer Aeht #8 (anything is going to be alright) (2007), for example, he is the lone protagonist walking just ahead of a gargantuan icebreaking ship as it plows through the frozen waters of Finland's Gulfolliothnia. Dressed all in black, he is nearly invisible against the brooding hull of the ship. Yet, despite the physical obstacles, he continues on, oblivious to the vessel that trails threateningly at his heels. The artist becomes a stand-in for the "everyman" who strides the globe despite the onslaught of forces he cannot control. His actions are in line with a familiar trope concerning viewer subjectivity thatyirg Heiser has termed "Romantic Conceptualism," a new form of romanticism that is "completely secularized" and stripped of any pretention that "the artist's soul is a medium of the otherworldly or godly." What is left is an art that favors the "open process and the fragmentary over the systematic and concise," as focus shifts from the conceptual to the emotional. (1)

Van der Werve's most recent film, Nummer veertien, home (2012), is structured on three movements in twelve acts, and interweaves tales of Alexander the Great, Frederic Chopin, and the artist's own life. This multi-layered narrative is tied together by footage of the artist performing a grueling thousand-mile triathlon of swimming, biking, and running from Warsaw to Paris. His trek retraces--in reverse--the path that Chopin's heart travelled to its final burial place. When the Polish-born composer died in France in 1849, he was buried there, but: his heart was removed before the funeral, following his dying request. It was preserved in alcohol and later smuggled across Europe by his sister, where it was buried in the Church of the Holy Cross in Warsaw. Viewers accompany the artist on his journey through the woods and over the hills, from the hustle and bustle of European capitals to the quiet expanses of rural countryside. In the vignettes concerning Alexander the Great, panoramic footage of ancient ruins from the Middle East, North Africa, and India scroll across the screen--suggesting the artist's similar affinity for exploration and discovery.

The film is further interspersed with various actions performed by the artist, such as running through fire or being hoisted high into the air by a large crane. And while these feats are a marvel--and humorous--to watch, it is the soundtrack that is most captivating. Various small orchestras and choirs appear in random locations throughout the film, either on the side of the road or in cramped domestic spaces, and perform the requiem--reminiscent of Chopin and written by van der Werve.

In the final act, titled "I don't feel the pain anymore," van der Werve, covered in sweat, hobbles through Paris's Pere Lachaise Cemetery. Whet he finally reaches Chopin's grave, he sets down a silver cup filled with dirt from Poland. There is no apotheosis or sense of resolve, which he explains in the interview below as "a feeling of continuation."

This interview took place over email in December 2012.

HARRY J. WEIL: You have worn many hats, having studied industrial design, archeology, and Russian before focusing on painting. How did you finally settle on film?

GUIDO VAN DER WERVE: I grew up playing piano and wanted to be a musician. My brother and father are both painters and I couldn't paint, nor did I want to paint. My father bought a video camera when I was about 12 years old. I played around with it a lot. After I dropped out of the conservatory, I went on to study industrial design at a technical university. I had always liked to build things but I didn't like their approach, so I dropped out. Then I studied classical archaeology for two years, just because I thought it was interesting. Realizing I never wanted to become an archaeologist, I applied to art school to study industrial design. …