Exhibitions

Dominique Stroobant

15.10.2015 - 29.11.2015
Dominique Stroobant
Finding the source: Dominique Stroobant and the joy of beginnings

In the beginning there was kneading. The Word didn’t come until later. (1)  

- Dominique Stroobant, Carrara, 2011

How can the work of an artist be transformed into words? How can decades of studying and creating be condensed into just moments of compressed thought? And how can something that is presented visually and experienced physically be conveyed linguistically? The writing of texts that create knowledge is an ambivalent process, since making essence readable is not so straightforward and always fraught with irrationalities. The discrepancy between an object and the description thereof is inherent in the medium of language. The visual artist therefore uses other media to try to get closer to reality by creating a truth that can be perceived by several senses.

As a creator, Stroobant is able to translate the questions born out of his curiosity into ideas and visions, which he then transforms into matter. His sculptures rise up from the depths of a creative spirit that might be compared to a quarry, having been built up from the traditional sediments of cultural and technological history. “Art doesn’t have an essence. For me, the abstract term ‘art’ is associated with a dream or a drive I have. A dream of something I want to make, so that I can see it and the drive I feel when I’m trying to solve something. It would be best to stop using the term ‘art’ entirely.” (2) The questions Stroobant poses and the solutions he finds might serve to classify his complex actions as those of a sculptor, mason, photographer, draughtsman, scientist, engineer or mediator – if such definitions were not precluded by the inspiring anarchic streak in his nature. He is motivated by the interplay of order and disorder, a search for rules within seeming lawlessness and the joy of originality.

Ever since a scholarship took him to Carrara in 1970, Dominique Stroobant has worked in a community of stonemasons whose spirit and organisational principles are rooted in those of the medieval guild. Aside from the quarries themselves, whose history dates back to ancient Rome, the region’s anarchist tradition also exerted an irresistible pull on the artist. In 1945, the Federazione Anarchica Italiana was founded in Carrara, of which Stroobant, like many sculptors and stonemasons there, is a member. Set between steep mountain slopes and the Riviera di Levante coast with its sea port, the geographical location and scarce flatland has infrastructural benefits as well as disadvantages for an internationally active sculptor. Storage areas for stone and sculptures are rare and therefore expensive, but ship transport facilitates delivery of non-local types of stone, such as the approximately 180 tonnes of Sardinian granite that Stroobant and his colleagues used in their famous sculpture “Continuity” for Max Bill. (3) In a 1998 text about his adopted Tuscan home, Stroobant wrote: “Here in our narrow mountain valley facing the sea, there is very little space. How do we reconcile our love of the mountain and marble with the needs of industry? What should we give up? These are our next greatest challenges.” (4) A passion for stone awoke in him at a young age: “I already knew when I was 13 that I would be a stonemason one day. I wanted to work on something that would allow me to exert myself physically and creatively. Stone provided the necessary resistance. This resistance transformed the strength I had to muster into energy that flowed back into me, in a figurative sense. It fascinated me. Certainly, this physical exertion could have been attained simply by mountaineering, but working with stone allowed me to see the traces left behind.” (5)

Stroobant’s choice of the professional title “Steenkapper” (stonemason) on his Belgian identity card makes a statement about his craft and stone itself. Back in 1966, when he began his studies at the Brussels-based academy École Supérieure des Arts Saint-Luc, hardly anyone wanted to work with stone any more. Most sculptors were experimenting with metals or plastics. (6) The artists of Russian Constructivism and Bauhaus movements were the ones who blazed new trails in the development of sculpture as a constructive or concrete art form. Departing from mythological and historical themes prevalent in 19th century sculpture and their extensive use in nationalist monuments; constructive and concrete sculpture succeeded in catching up with modernist painting by abandoning representation and the imitation of nature in favour of transcribing ideas and concepts: “Invisible, abstract thinking becomes concrete, vivid and thus perceptible to the senses. Unknown spaces, almost unimaginable axioms take shape; (...).” (7) This perspective on sculpture, outlined here by Max Bill, deeply influenced Dominique Stroobant’s work. Many of Stroobant’s works are rooted in this notion, but he goes even further in his artistic conception of sculpture than Bill: “By making stonework, sculpture intended for use, I’m pushing the limits of sculpture.” (8)
 
Wherein lies the topicality of Stroobant’s work? What makes his sculptures so rewarding to see and experience? His sculptures form a counterpoint to a high-tech, accelerated world and its excessive demands. Sculpture and the engagement with the medium provide the chance to rediscover the meaning of slowness in our own lives. Deceleration has become a hot topic, the search for it born out of distress caused by the spiralling and overwhelming acceleration of so many processes during the past twenty years. Growing as a person and enjoying the little things in life is achieved through focus, repose or moments of contemplation, and not through hyperactivity. Stroobant already began acting on this impulse at a time when nascent problems were becoming apparent, but the extreme acceleration brought by digital media and the Internet still lay far in the future. His traditional choice of materials and techniques make him a sculptor who seeks to create balance or reintegrate what is simple and slow – to go back to the origins. Every visitor to his downright archaically fashioned house in Carrara is enveloped in this atmosphere.
 
In addition to stone sculpture, Stroobant has also employed the nearly forgotten technique of pinhole photography since 1977. While working on his stone sundials, he asked himself this simple yet surprising question: “What does a sundial see?” For Stroobant, this was the beginning of an exciting journey into the world of the pinhole camera. For him, it is an artist’s duty to probe the unknown and the possibility of failure is an essential component. In his work, Stroobant often deliberately assumes the position of a beginner who is not satisfied with established methods, and instead seeks primary experience from the sheer joy of experimentation. In the context of a new appreciation for slowness, we must mention Stroobant’s trials in which he prolonged the exposure time from one day to the unbelievable interval of six months. The result was a series of photographs that derive their allure from the path of the sun. They are playful experiments in producing previously unseen images, which expand the viewer’s perceptual horizons. The slow process of etching the image into the material is the connection between pinhole photography and sculpting. The light and the tool both leave their marks. In addition, both techniques require methodical planning according to scientific criteria in order to achieve relevant, verifiable and in principle also repeatable results.

Looking at Stroobant’s sculptures, one can’t help but be fascinated by the lightness of the dynamic forms carved from marble or granite with diamond wire. A hyperbolic paraboloid featuring a curved surface without a centre point is created by moving a straight line through space. If the stone block being worked is placed on a rotating pedestal and turned on its own axis while the straight wire saw cuts straight downwards, parabolic shapes are formed that challenge our perceptual abilities and are almost impossible to capture photographically. A picture can only be seen. A sculpture is a thing you can see, touch, experience or walk around and its appearance changes with every movement. When looking at a sculpture, you always imagine the other side at the same time, which is inevitably invisible to you, as opposed to what happens when viewing a picture. The appeal of Stroobant’s works, composed of ruled surfaces, lies in the difficulty of comprehending the continuity of the curved surfaces of the front and back sides. According to Max Bill, sculptures are “knots in space”. (9) Knots get their tension from the energy they harness and store. They are difficult to imagine spatially. Knots, like sculptures, beg to be understood, and consequently figured out and “untied” through perception and reflection. Stroobant’s works are fascinating studies in this respect. They draw attention, attract, arouse curiosity and also reveal to the viewer the fundamental differences between sculpture and picture.

Stroobant confronts the general perception of the image, developed and established in our culture over centuries through the production and reception of paintings, drawings or photographs, with how we are ‘supposed to’ perceive a sculpture. In everyday life we are surrounded by objects that represent themselves. In the art realm, definitions have shifted. Is a lithophone by Stroobant art or a stone work or just an instrument? Stroobant’s considerations once again make clear the concept that has been essential ever since Marcel Duchamp’s challenge to the art system: “Something is called a work of art because it is declared as a work of art.” (10) This is a path that rephrases the seemingly eternal question of the substance of art and artworks. As mentioned at the beginning, Stroobant cares little about what category a piece from his oeuvre is assigned to in relation to other artworks. “The identification of my work as art is not important to me. The recognition that I get from my family and friends, however, is vital.” (11)

Shortened version of Dirk Pörschmann’s essay, written on the occasion of the Dominique Stroobant’s monograph published by Axel and May Vervoordt Foundation in association with Axel Vervoordt Gallery and AsaMER, an imprint of MER. Paper Kunsthalle, October 2015.

(1)   Dominique Stroobant in conversation with the author, Miseglia Carrara, 31 July to 1 August 2011.
(2)   Ibid.
(3)   On Stroobant’s personal and artistic relationship with Max Bill, see Angela Thomas’s essay Complex Pivotal Character in this publication.
(4)   Dominique Stroobant, “Carrara, Island and Metaphor” in: Luigi Biagini, La Pelle del Monte, Carrara: Aldus Editions, 1998, p. 31.
(5)   Dominique Stroobant in conversation with the author, Miseglia Carrara, 31 July to 1 August 2011.
(6)   See Monika Wagner, Das Material der Kunst: Eine andere Geschichte der Moderne, Munich: Beck 2001, p. 171.
(7)   Max Bill, in: Antoine Pevsner, Georges Vantongerloo, Max Bill, exh. cat. Kunsthaus Zürich, 1949. Quoted in: ibid., p. 147.
(8)   Dominique Stroobant in conversation with the author, Miseglia Carrara, 31 July to 1 August 2011.
(9)   Max Bill, in: Max Bill, exh. cat. Städtisches Museum Leverkusen, Schloss Morsbroich, 1959, p. 15. Quoted in: Eduard Trier, Bildhauertheorien im 20. Jahrhundert , Berlin: Mann, 1971, p. 64–65.
(10) Dominique Stroobant in conversation with the author, Miseglia Carrara, 31 July to 1 August 2011.
(11) Ibid.    
Dominique Stroobant
Dominique Stroobant
Dominique Stroobant
Dominique Stroobant
Dominique Stroobant
Dominique Stroobant
Dominique Stroobant
Dominique Stroobant
Dominique Stroobant
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