Netherlands : Marijke van Warmerdam


Circles and returns are central to the works of Marijke van Warmerdam, loops trapped in time, whether recognized in film, video and performance or sculpture, photographs, audio and print. The friendly atmosphere suffusing her exhibitions seems somehow to hide a lurking sense of withdrawal hovering just below the surface.

The girl doing a handstand against a wall (Handstand, 1992), the young man doing a somersault (Spong, 1994), the blonde woman drying her hair (Blondine, 1995) and the endless showering man (Douche, 1995) are all caught in the spell of repetition. The natural continuation that should add movement to a narrative has been disrupted. Van Warmerdam traps them in film loops perhaps specifically to arrest the narrative, all the more clearly since a movement like a somersault or a handstand can go wrong. The loop is reminiscent of an autistic child tying his or her shoelaces in knot after knot, until there is nothing left to make knots with, unable to break out of the spell. The spectator stands and looks at van Warmerdam's films, equally fascinated. Does this also have to do with the gambling fever that grips some people at the sight of a one-armed bandit? In van Warmerdam's variant (Enarmige bandiet, 1997), the player hits the jackpot with a combination of certain phrases, like "love you," "rent a car" and "run run run" - an echo of genuine feelings, cruel in its indifference, that involves no obligation to anything. The tokens clatter down, only to be crammed back into the machine, and then there is a new pull on the arm. This is not fun, nor even pleasurable. But it is an effective way of preventing yourself from feeling anything.

Le retour du chapeau was made for a children's hospital in Holland. Every child admitted receives a hat, like the one in the film. The children can take the hat with them when - and if - they are discharged. Here van Warmerdam has used constant return, the recurring moment in her art, as a comforting reassurance for physically sick children. Like Lila la la (1998), Le retour du chapeau refers to a game using repetition to defend against pain. It is probably a coincidence that Heen en weer has the same name as the Fort!/Da! game made famous by Freud. But the function is the same. Forward and back, forward and back, until the game becomes more important than the fulfilment of the longing it was intended to deaden. Until, to put it more dramatically, the game becomes more important than life.

The deprecating gesture of repetition, used to block all associations with the continuation of a life that inevitably leads to death, but also to a change that can be even more painful, is also linked with jokes. Like jokes, repetition diverts critical reason, albeit in a different direction.

It is especially nonsense jokes that come to mind in relation to some of van Warmerdam's works . . . like Poef (1995), in which a pouffe moves around the room via means that are not revealed to us; or, in its own way, the film Chasing Colours (1996), with its capricious car chase after orange and green trucks, in a parody of all the formalists in art.

The nonsense phenomenon, which in a way permeates the whole of Marijke van Warmerdam's work, combines two opposite phenomena. On the one hand, nonsense humour provides us with a badly needed release from the critical reason and "serious thought" that have been forced on/inculcated into us since childhood. I believe this is the source of the exhilaration and sense of liberation that we can feel when faced with van Warmerdam's works. We are released from being adults, while, thanks to the repetition, we are also shielded from the memories of how painful it could be to be a child. Yet, at the same time, nonsense, just like most jokes, is powerfully ambivalent. Nonsense in dreams is there, Freud writes, so as to "represent embittered criticism and contemptuous contradiction" (Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious).

Powerful forces are set in motion. That which makes us feel liberated and full to overflowing is in an instant turned to its opposite - the doubt now affects the meaningfulness of our own lives, in all their futility. How can we stand the fact that our own life is nonsense? Is it this feeling that van Warmerdam is laconically commenting on in her silkscreen print Good days, bad days?

Is it this resentment about life, this "contemptuous contradiction" (Freud's harsh words), that through being held at a distance and only occasionally allowed to burst out, fuels the laughter in certain works and demands constant attempts at reconciliation in others? Is all the play and charm of so much of Marijke van Warmerdam's work an incantatory counterweight to the meaninglessness of life?


Adapted from Gertrud Sandqvist, "Lila la la," Marijke van Warmerdam, exhib. cat., Berlin, Daadgalerie, Oct. 1998.




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