World Artists and their Story, 14 - Silvia B.
Early in the year 2015 I saw in TENT Rotterdam the work of four nominees for the Dolf Henkes Prize 2014. The Dolf Henkes Prize is the main prize for the visual arts in Rotterdam. One of the four artists was Silvia B.
I was just in time to see the exhibition – which was extended by a week. In the first of the three rooms was a huge variety of items made by Silvia B. to be seen. On white boards on the wallls were white shell lights, snakeskin purses, stuffed cobras, a sewing basket made of an an armadillo, feather decorations, horn cutlery, large birds and small crocodiles, hundreds of items of animal origin.
Up front there is a winner’s podium for sporting. Sitting on it is a boy in white dress with a golf stick and a jock – like hockey goalies are wearing. He has a Balinese mask on his face. His title is Lord Rangda. On his knee is a white rat with a dog collar with spikes. The animal as an accessory, which itself carries accessories. The whole looks beautiful. The curios on the walls seem to react to one another and if you look closely you see smaller networks of matching objects.
Silvia B. must have taken a tremendous quest to get it all together. This is indeed the case. Sivia B, who has just guided me in her own exhibition: “I am glad to show my collection here for the Dolf Henkes Prize. It is no new work, but it was important in the development of my art. “
On the set of animal curios on the walls, she says: “I saw these objects always in markets, but I never bought them. Until I saw the armadillo. That evoked so many emotions and thoughts with me. The ‘processor’ who had reversed and hollowed the armadillo and made a sewing basket out of it, had his front paws put firmly over his eyes, as if the animal didn’t want to see the danger. The brutality to choose such an attitude I found offensive. But I also felt attracted to this exotic beast with its beautiful leather scales. In addition, there was the repulsion because its satin lining was broken and the inside of his shield looked pulpous. At the same time the satin was a thing from grandmothers time, reassuring. I was totally struck by the absurdity of the fate of the beast: dying to be a sewing basket and then subsequently die a second death among the troop at the flea market. I bought the animal.
That was at the Lloyd Pier in Rotterdam in 1996. In those times I went six times a week to second-hand markets, a few years long. Everywhere. In and around soccer stadiums and gymnasiums, at flea markets, in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, even Belgium. I was hunting. Hunting for animal curios, for all that we people made of these species. Made, bought and ditched again.”
“While collecting, there were all kinds of amazing developments. The artifacts of shells for example came later into the picture. You don’t identify yourself so much with a snail-like creature that inhabited a shell as with a deer. And of course we haven’t picked up those shells innocently. Just like feathers, from which in the 18th century corsages for ladies’ hats were made. It evoked the first form of animal protection. The Paradise Bird was threatened with extinction. Not so innocent, those feather hats. Furthermore, it appeared more convincing to show multiple copies from a curiosity, showing that it really was a product. But five openers with a chamois leg as a handle is enough. At some point, you have all the usual things. So there was a development in ‘atrocity’: it had to be more marked: a bottle opener of an arm of a wallaby, that feels real. It is almost as big as your forearm. That made my hunt crazier: At the same I wanted those objects not to exist but for my purpose they had to arouse constantly more disgust to be added to the collection. I did have a guiding thought in my head: the idea that this collection would be a composite image. So far I have exposed it ten times, the first time in the Salle de Bains in Rotterdam, which was an area of 3 x 3 x 3m, which I could fill in well in 1998. For the last time at the Verbeke Foundation in Belgium in 2014. There I had a long wall of 5 x 44m. There I could hang almost all of it, much more than here in TENT.
Within the collection on the walls of TENT there are also – if you look well – groups to be seen. In terms of color or material the different species overlap seamlessly: the bird eggs connect with the animals in formaldehyde, through the shell plates it goes to the snakeskin bags, then the alligator key rings, then the hartshorn cutlery sets, along the deer’s feet to koala dolls and puppet fur jackets, past cowhide to cow horn and bone jewelry. Silvia B.: “It is striking that the species include certain related things. The reptile-like objects are all women stuff: purses, bags, shoes. The horn objects are often desk accessories: pen trays, letter holders. All hunting items from several deer have to do with eating: knives, corkscrews, cheese platters.”
This collection is also the key work in her oeuvre. “It gives a lot of conflicting information and raises as many conflicting emotions. The whole presents all sorts of questions about ethics and aesthetics. The collection is very strong as an image. I already made ambivalent figures, hybrids, but in later work I started to use collections of accessories for one figure that gave very contradictory information. I think it’s great if one cannot judge right away.”
It is not surprising that the central theme in her work is about human behavior. Instinctive behavior on the one hand and civilized behavior on the other hand. B: “If fascinates me. Whre is the line? Originally we are animals, we are driven by fears and desires. But we have learned to interact in a civilized way.”
Silvia B. thinks that our civilization, since the economic crisis of the ‘80s, is in the phase of decadence. “We now are the First World, but we will be the Second World. We’re going to lose this. Asia will be the First World. The endless riches will not come back.”
The white series
In the white series, which she exhibited several years ago in the Hague GEM under the title Les Plus Beaux, decadence was there already. It was an installation consisting of white-clad boys playing a game with white toys and white masks. It could be a masquerade, but also a game of life and death. One of those boys, Lord Rangda with Balinese mask is in the first room of Silvia B’s TENT exhibition.
Silvia: “I made a gang of young boys who were all on their own winners podium with their white toy – golf, stilts, jump rope, cricket bat – in the attack. You felt there was something in the air. Their behavior is blasé, bored and at the same time animal like and instinctive. In such a pack rank dominates and a constant battle is going on, everyone must uphold the image. You see that they are rich kids. There is attraction because of the childlike innocence and repulsion at the same time.“
The black series
In the years 2010-2014 she made the black series, titled Le CIRQUE, appearing last year in her permanent gallery Ron Mandos and now in another room of TENT. You see kids with animal furs and animals with human behavior. Circus performers and figurants. A jackdaw on a ball with a party hat. A monkey holding a rabbit in a top hat. A boy in the attitude of a cortortionist, with a fur (lamb fur like grandmothers used to wear when they wore their Persian fur coat). Sylvia B.: “It’s a circus after closing. All images are in the ‘pause’. It is a dark melancholic series. Marking time. It is autobiographical in the sense that private things happened which brought this dark mood to me. Le CIRQUE plays here in TENT again in a dark room, as visitor you really have to get into it. I found it interesting to present not only the individual works, but also the whole atmosphere, so that the viewer gets a total experience. In Museum Beelden aan zee (Sculptures by the Sea) there was two years ago ‘The Office’. All black in black, carpets, curtains, artworks, photos, everything. Each artwork was entirely his own space, its own lighting, nice concentration. People were whispering.
If I have the chance I try to find a space for my artworks where they can come to their right, or I customize the space. As in Sculptures by the Sea, in Ron Mandos’ gallery and here in TENT. Here my part of the exhibition starts with a very bright, frenetic hall with the craziness of the collection and the decadent Lord Rangda. Then a dark gray-painted room with one left artwork, then the small black area where some black work of Le CIRQUE is shown.”
Girl on rope
In the second room there is a girl on a rope, La Dolores. The hall is concrete gray, murky, at La Dolores is a targeted spot. She wears a skin-colored sleek and seductive acrobat uniform. She has wavy, almost real reddish hair. A piercing in her lower lip and a naturalistic painted face with freckles. A blindfold over her eyes. La Dolores herself holds a rope with a doll with wooden legs. Those twisted sculpted legs hang from suspenders to the doll body. She herself has a loose leg, which is almost invisible restored, an artificial leg that is as charming as her ‘natural leg’. B.: “It is unclear whether she has staged an air dance act or that she has been left behind after a bondage party.” The artwork offers prospects for a new series. “A naked, vulnerable, skin-colored series , where the issue of the free will is going to play a role in.”
At the moment I spoke to Silvia B. she was working on a Rat King. “The Rat King is an unexplained phenomenon. There are about 50 rat kings in various museums, ranging from groups of six rats to a large Group of 32 rats with their tails together, all tied up. How this happens is a mystery. They don’t bite it loose and they don’t attack each other. The tails are often broken and grown together again. Everything indicates that they are kept alive by other rats. They are mostly found dead and dried out and it almost always comes to black rats. I am now working on a Rat King of seven white rats. When alive, they have pink snouts, tails, ears, hands and feet. Quite a job to paint it on the stuffed animals. Rats are like us, social animals, omnivores, same brain structure. They are the most popular test animals for a reason. Their IQ and EQ can be compared to ours. I think it’s an intriguing idea that beneath every city there is a city, with as many inhabitants, families, neighbors, communities, codes of conduct. Perhaps the Rat King is a form of punishment, a ritual, a form of decadence, bondage? In any case, it will be an artwork that plays with attraction and repulsion and sets ethical and aesthetic questions.”
Silvia B. studied at the Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts, now called Willem de Kooning Academy. “I wanted to combine fashion and sculpture. That went wrong. Now multidisciplinary thinking is everywhere, not then. In 1987 I quit the Academy. I continued on my own. So I’m partly autodidact. In 1991 I had my first exhibition and now, in the end I do combine fashion and sculpture.”
She felt the economic crisis. “In 2009 I was walking around with two assistants. Now I do everything myself again. There is much less purchase and there aren’t many grants anymore. It is no longer as it was, I guess, but that’s maybe not so bad. It would be nice if there is some more fee for the artist when he makes an exhibition in a museum. It remains strange that everyone is paid, except the one that delivers the content. So it is with art magazines. The editor, the printer, the postman, everyone gets a salary, but the supplier of the photos, the interview, the reason that people buy the magazine, has to do it for free.“ In any case, she has no shortage of shows, about ten – twelve. And also a new series at gallery Ron Mandos.
The latest news that a retrospective of the work of Silvia B. wil be shown at Rijksmuseum Twenthe, from November 20 on. There will be a book launch coinciding with the opening. The book has 264 pages and will be in full colour. With essays by Marcel Möring, Werner van den Belt, Jaap Roëll, Anne-Marie Poels, Sarah Cheang, Lidewij Edelkoort.