Erik van Lieshout

South London Gallery, UK

‘I hate ordinary people.’ So says Erik van Lieshout in Janus (2012), one of a trio of films that makes up his exhibition ‘Three Social Works’ at South London Gallery, each of which prods, with uncommon wit and soul, at the tender spot where art meets daily life.

Screened in a room hung with naff net curtains and blowups of chi-chi interiors shoots, Janus begins with the Dutch artist wandering through Rotterdam-Zuid, a working class suburb in which he once lived. His camera lingering on shabby bodegas and modernist social housing, he chats with a young guy about his tattoos (three teardrops, spilling perpetually down his face) and to a girl in a hijab about her broken foot. Finding his old neighbourhood ‘boring’, Van Lieshout resolves to draw it into his ‘inner world’, where it will provide him with ‘nutrition’. Such digestion, he tells us, without apparent irony, ‘is the task of the artist’, as it was ‘for Rembrandt’. Clearly something’s about to blow up in his grinning, bespectacled face. 

slg-evl-028.jpg

Erik van Lieshout, Janus, 2012, HD film, wood, carpet, lace curtains. Courtesy: the artist, Maureen Paley, London and Galerie Guido W. Baudach, Berlin, Annet Gelink Gallery, Amsterdam; photograph: Andy Stagg.

Erik van Lieshout, Janus, 2012, HD film, wood, carpet, lace curtains. Courtesy: the artist, Maureen Paley, London and Galerie Guido W. Baudach, Berlin, Annet Gelink Gallery, Amsterdam; photograph: Andy Stagg

Chancing across a yard sale of the possessions of a recently deceased man named Janus, Van Lieshout gets talking to his family. With practiced – indeed almost weapons-grade – guilelessness, the artist offers to use a government grant to buy Janus’s riotously kitschy collection of memorabilia (novelty phones, neon jukeboxes, a CD rack made out of a pair of Levis) and turn this ‘little museum’ into an installation work. These negotiations are intercut with footage of Rotterdam-Zuid’s residents, who grumble about immigration, gossip about Janus’s death from an infection caught in hospital and reflect on the scant, fuzzy role that art plays in their lives. Rapidly loosing faith in his project, the artist begins to hear ghosts speaking to him through a TV (enjoining him to ‘Learn! Learn!’) and hires an actor to play ‘Erik van Lieshout’ in a series of manic, self-excoriating monologues. (Sample line: ‘This is me, […] the ADHD man with so many fears.’) Eventually, government cuts mean the grant falls through, and with it, the promised transubstantiation of Janus’s tchotchkes into art. In one of the closing scenes, Van Lieshout wanders the suburb’s streets dressed as a bacterium – an opportunistic parasite looking for a new host.

slg-evl-044.jpg

Erik van Lieshout, Ego, 2013, HD film, wood, carpet. Courtesy: the artist, Maureen Paley, London, Galerie Guido W. Baudach, Berlin; Annet Gelink Gallery, Amsterdam, Anton Kern Gallery, New York, Galerie Krinzinger, Vienna; photograph: Andy Stagg.

Erik van Lieshout, Ego, 2013, HD film, wood, carpet. Courtesy: the artist, Maureen Paley, London, Galerie Guido W. Baudach, Berlin; Annet Gelink Gallery, Amsterdam, Anton Kern Gallery, New York, Galerie Krinzinger, Vienna; photograph: Andy Stagg.

If Janus is suspicious of its own motives, and by extension those of much socially engaged art, then it has nothing on Ego (2013). Installed at the foot of a long, sloping ramp that threatens to spill the viewer into the screen, this film begins with Van Lieshout deciding to collaborate with his parents and siblings, nearly all of whom are social workers, on a ‘family movie’ that will ‘make a difference to others’. His brother’s response is brusque: ‘This is bullshit.’ What follows is a funny, painful portrait of Van Lieshout family values, in which the artist shadows his relatives as they meet with aggressive clients, run art classes for child refugees and massage sick patients in a mission hospital. In short interview fragments, his father discusses his own spiritual journey from childhood Catholicism to adult atheism. The confession of sin comes up a lot, as does the concept of vocation. We might note that his son’s nervy, pitilessly honest work embodies both these things.

How then, might art escape the artist’s ego, and make the ‘difference to others’ Van Lieshout describes? The film Basement (2014), in which he refurbishes the subterranean living quarters of the Hermitage Museum’s resident mouse-killer cats, provides one answer. This home improvement project was the artist’s contribution to Manifesta 10, not that the Russian kitties noticed. They were too busy enjoying their new scratching posts and blankets. What did they care if we strange, hairless apes call such things art?

Main Image: Erik van Lieshout, The Basement, 2014, HD film, colour, sound, wood, carpet, photocopies. Courtesy: the artist and Maureen Paley, London; photograph: Andy Stagg

Tom Morton is a writer, independent curator and contributing editor for frieze, based in Rochester, UK.

Issue 189

First published in Issue 189

September 2017

Most Read

Ahead of ARCOMadrid this week, a guide to the best institutional shows in the city
A report commissioned by the museum claims Raicovich ‘misled’ the board; she disputes the investigation’s claims
In further news: Jef Geys (1934–2018); and Hirshhorn postpones Krzysztof Wodiczko projection after Florida shooting
If the city’s pivot to contemporary art was first realized by landmark construction, then what comes after might not...
Ignoring its faux-dissident title, this year's edition at the New Museum displays a repertoire that is folky, angry,...
An insight into royal aesthetics's double nature: Charles I’s tastes and habits emerge as never before at London’s...
In other news: Artforum responds to #NotSurprised call for boycott of the magazine; Maria Balshaw apologizes for...
At transmediale in Berlin, contesting exclusionary language from the alt-right to offshore finance
From Shanghai to Dubai, a new history charts the frontiers where underground scenes battle big business for electronic...
Hauser & Wirth Somerset, Bruton, UK
Zihan Karim, Various Way of Departure, 2017, video still. Courtesy: Samdani Art Foundation
Can an alternative arts network, unmediated by the West's commercial capitals and burgeoning arts economies of China...
‘That moment, that smile’: collaborators of the filmmaker pay tribute to a force in California's film and music scenes...
In further news: We Are Not Surprised collective calls for boycott of Artforum, accuses it of 'empty politics'; Frida...
We Are Not Surprised group calls for the magazine to remove Knight Landesman as co-owner and withdraw move to dismiss...
Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film is both gorgeous and troubling in equal measure
With Zona Maco opening in the city today, a guide to the best exhibitions across the Mexican capital
The question at the heart of Manchester Art Gallery’s artwork removal: what are the risks when cultural programming...
In further news: Sonia Boyce explains removal of Manchester Art Gallery’s nude nymphs; Creative Scotland responds to...
Ahead of the India Art Fair running this weekend in the capital, a guide to the best shows to see around town
The gallery argues that the funding body is no longer supportive of institutions that maintain a principled refusal of...
The Dutch museum’s decision to remove a bust of its namesake is part of a wider reconsideration of colonial histories,...
At New York’s Metrograph, a diverse film programme addresses a ‘central problem’ of feminist filmmaking
Ronald Jones pays tribute to a rare critic, art historian, teacher and friend who coined the term Post-Minimalism
In further news: curators rally behind Laura Raicovich; Glasgow's Transmission Gallery responds to loss of Creative...
Nottingham Contemporary, UK
‘An artist in a proud and profound sense, whether he liked it or not’ – a tribute by Michael Bracewell
Ahead of a show at Amsterdam’s EYE Filmmuseum, how the documentarian’s wandering gaze takes in China’s landscapes of...
In further news: Stedelijk explains why it cancelled Ettore Sottsass retrospective; US National Gallery of Art cancels...
With 11 of her works on show at the Musée d'Orsay, one of the most underrated artists in modern European history is...
Reopening after a two-year hiatus, London’s brutalist landmark is more than a match for the photographer’s blockbuster...
What the Google Arts & Culture app tells us about our selfie obsession
At a time of #metoo fearlessness, a collection of female critics interrogate their own fandom for music’s most...
A rare, in-depth interview with fashion designer Jil Sander

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

October 2017

frieze magazine

November - December 2017

frieze magazine

January - February 2018