Essay on the oeuvre of Ine Schröder for the book Uncorrected Proof, Bonnefantenmuseum Maastricht, 2019
After thoroughly examining Ine Schröder’s working method, I want to see how I can build on her work,’ I boldly wrote a year ago. Build on it: I could already see myself wielding scissors, a saw and wood glue, maybe even a brush, on the assumption that works of art can be traced back to a score, a script, and that anyone who has mastered the instrument can play the piece – only the interpretation differs. But here’s the thing: I have examined it thoroughly, and know how to do it – yet I do not feel in the least like sawing or gluing wood, let alone painting it. Surrounded by Schröder’s works I realise just how futile that actually is: making new work, producing it. But then, if I make nothing, what am I to do? Welcome to the void? I must admit I have no idea – it’s been a long time since I got so bogged down when preparing for an exhibition. At one point I wanted to run away, to flee. But even then people would say ‘He gets it’; for Ine’s work emerged from doubt, from fleeing outside, into the garden, or into her own head. ‘Look, even the curator’s running away, you can just make him out vanishing into the fields – typical Ine Schröder.’
When I started reading up on Schröder’s work in autumn 2017, I saw this as a visual language course. Visual language is a variety of language – so anyone who wants to get to know an artist’s work, I told myself, must learn to read and write all over again. Ine Schröder died in 2014 and was no longer around to teach me her language; I’d never met her. And, of the thousands of works she had made, only a few had survived. She destroyed the rest herself, either to re-use the materials, or because the work had done its job. ‘It’s in my head, and that’s enough’. I would have to learn her grammar through the archives she had left behind, but what to do about the right spelling, stress, accent and pronunciation? One of the first lessons I learned was above all not to talk too loudly, for she didn’t like that, as several of her friends assured me. Exercises with Schröder’s vocabulary began with my own memories of her Tussenstand I-IV exhibition at Hedah in 2010: small wooden sculptures made of fragile laths hanging on the walls and rhyming with the skeleton of a modular ceiling that was doing its useless thing. Then, up on the first floor, a collection of carelessly painted small structures swarming over the walls and floor. It was in this converted shop (or was it a snack bar?) that I first became acquainted with the new language: I enjoyed its rhythm and speed, and the irregularity of its declensions was refreshing. This was a language I also felt I would like to learn – without then knowing that seven years later I would be doing just that. Now I think ‘Was this freshly painted art centre the right place for these small works with their light accent?’ There are places where a language clashes with its surroundings – you don’t want to hear Dutch spoken in a quiet French mountain village.
In the absence of the ‘original speaker’ I have to rely on secondary sources: besides her archives and her sketchbooks, these are mainly other people’s anecdotes and memories. Conversations with fellow artists, friends and collectors make the sculptures clearer. But they also start to merge, and even to contradict each other: all of a sudden the Hedah exhibition space has a cool basement where the way is blocked by a monumental sculpture. Then I walk through a monumental textile installation in the predecessor of the Bonnefantenmuseum, demolished eight years before I was born. There are dozens of photographs of it, but no-one that remembers the slightest thing about this exhibition. I see six hundred metres of hand-painted paper swaying up and down in a station concourse, described in a newspaper as ‘impressive’, but no photographs. Leafing through notes and slides I see Ine Schröder doubting and dallying in her studio, and her doubt is contagious: did I really attend her exhibition in 2010, or did I simply reconstruct all her works in my head, relying on the memories of others who did go to openings? (In 2010 I avoided them, for I was terrified someone would ask me something about stuff I didn’t understand).
But come on, enough doubts, get on with it!
Just look at how she saws laths (carelessly) and applies paint (loosely), just see how many studies are lost in a single work (dozens). Keep on turning these structures made of discarded wood round in your hands until every angle is perfect, at least for today. Share Schröder’s amazement when others carefully hang their meticulously weighed words and sentences on these do-it-yourself objects. Perhaps, it now occurs to me, she sawed and glued things so carelessly just to prevent others from attaching too much weight to them: a ceiling coming down on your head when you hang a light from it, a wall falling to pieces when you try to screw a house number into it. It is her exactitude that keeps things in place; but it is a weightless exactitude that can hang together in so many different ways. Ik-zak-ti-tyood. Ex-act-i-chewed.
So let’s look at things from the opposite direction – for they often look different in reverse. Ine Schröder did not just make works and then dismantle them; she did not just re-use materials. She worked like a nomad, pitching camp and breaking camp again the next day. The camp remained largely the same, only the details changed from location to location and season to season. And, to be quite clear, the one thing nomads never do is keep fussing over their interiors. As far as I can tell, nomads are not interested in bathroom tiles, terrazzo sinks or herringbone oak parquet, nor do they sort their books by colour. They do pay attention to the presence of water, shelter from the wind and sun, and the weight of their baggage. So nomads – and this is the point – are themselves the bathroom tiles, seeking their place in a larger interior.
And yet, one morning in this hot summer, my nomadic eyes were unexpectedly opened: welcome to the void! I mustn’t make anything, I’m already way too heavy. Travel light, say Ine’s archives. No suitcases, not even hand luggage. Time to clear away, sweep up and prune – starting with a trip to the barber’s.
Freshly shaven, I look round and start (once again) with my language lessons. First some vocabulary: ‘Crows picking at an old nest up in a tree’ and ‘swallows landing in last year’s pile of mud’. ‘The wisteria cheekily creeping through the open window into the bedroom’, ‘an old inner tube straightening a walnut tree’. ‘A scarecrow in a garden, made of a broomstick and a rubbish bag among the weeds’, ‘the bamboo springing back with ease as I pick up my tipped-over bike’. All of these are Ine Schröders, visible to anyone that takes the trouble to look out of the window.
Then the grammar and the associated ‘exceptions’: Take the artists graduating this year and working with fabric, wood, mud and plaster – whose work is not figurative or abstract, and lacks all concept, narrative or explanation. They say nothing about refugees, or gender, or even the climate. Their quotes are often the same: ‘It is what it is, it means nothing, but it does matter.’ Their work seldom appears in books – just an occasional photograph in a blog. They are only referred to when people wonder ‘How can you spend four years studying something that means nothing?’ The question is understandable, but also pointless – for grammar is seldom logical.
Time to talk about correct spelling, and the choice between the traditional Dutch spelling and the recently introduced new one. If we follow the old rules, they tell us the following: ‘Ine Schröder (1951-2014) worked for decades on a consistent oeuvre totalling some 3,000 works, about 90 of which have survived. They are small structures made of left-over bits of wood, in which the glue is gradually starting to weaken; occasionally a few lines are devoted to them in a regional newspaper, and they are now to be found in the homes of a few aficionados and family members. In 2019 the Bonnefantenmuseum in Maastricht will be holding a retrospective exhibition of her archives.’ These are spelling rules that reduce a human lifetime to ten lines of history and an artist’s career to a chronological list. What we are left with is a CV, a list of exhibitions, a bibliography and a list of works.
The new spelling rules allow us to get closer to the core of the artist’s work – but unfortunately they are not very specific as to how this can be done. What is recommended is a way of writing in which bycatch may be as important as what is being fished for. And what matters is that the rules are not created by an institutional consultative body, but are drawn up by observing how various ‘speakers’ have continued to develop the old rules. The new spelling can tell us the following about Ine Schröder:
‘Every morning I am struck by the cheerfulness radiating from ten wooden laths that are loosely knotted together. I try to follow how she brushes on some smudges of blue here and there, but some pink is also peeking through. Her work always hangs next to my desk, for it reminds me that nothing in life goes the way we hope, but that even things which are askew can stay upright. Every couple of weeks I turn the work round, for there are no bad sides to it. Sometimes I drop the sculpture while I’m turning it, so there may be a smell of adhesive. Amazing how expressive a work barely six inches high can be. Just think about it: the number of memories that can fit into a painted cigarette packet; how space seems larger if you mark it off; how this small packet of wood becomes a conversation between two strangers separated by time and space.’
The purpose of this 'new spelling' is not to trigger an exhibition of Schröder’s work, or an essay on her as a person. It does not call for chronology, or a clear summary. It is certainly not the intention to save an artist from oblivion or win her a place in art history. But what does it do? Is an oeuvre reconstructed from other people’s memories too vague, too sweet or too random to help us get to know an artist and her work? Should art, or an exhibition, not be more precise?
What is precision about? Is it about naming things with just the right words and letters, which cannot be any other way? It seems so unnecessary – for whole conversations take place without anyone fussing over spelling errors, yet people know exactly what is meant.
What are we trying to prove by clinging to a ‘correct’ way of writing? That the standard of art education in the Netherlands is particularly high? That other people are ‘writing it wrong’, because we know the way it should be? Of course, learning a new language is not just a matter of learning new words or having a credible accent. Every language has its own logic, summed up in rules about correct spelling. But when it comes to deciding who can use the language best, precision and accuracy soon prove to be obstacles that exclude what is different and new. The old spelling seems better than the new, until the new becomes the old. My precision is better than yours, for ‘you don’t know the lingo’.
Without ballast, the road seems easier to travel: it becomes an exhibition about space that breathes; about the yellow glow and emptiness of the desert, and the nomads who can see these as their bathroom tiles; about simple resources that seek to fathom the essence of space and time in a purely intuitive manner, using materials found in the shed and the attic; about the shrewd simplicity with which animals build their nests, but also about ‘nest boxes for intuition’; about the moment when a palisade of laths suddenly ‘says something back’. We throw out all the ballast, and travel on as light as we can. If you aren’t weighed down by heavy luggage, you have the time and energy to look around you.
‘Can I help you with your luggage?’
‘No thanks, I'm travelling light.’