a personal standard, carolyn h. drake
Text by Carolyn H. Drake on the occasion of Translating the standard gold bar (I only take risks I understand), solo show at De Nederlandsche Bank (NL), May 20th until June 2nd, 2016
A PERSONAL STANDARD, CAROLYN H. DRAKE 2016
For her solo exhibition at De Nederlandsche Bank, Sarah van Sonsbeeck was invited to pay a visit to the bank’s vault that stores the Dutch gold reserve. Fascinated by the main ingredient inside the vault and the fact that it remains hidden and secure from the public, she requested to make a mold of the standard gold bar as the departure point for a new series of works. Although the artist continues to further investigate gold’s formal and conceptual qualities through this act, her visit to the vault took an unexpected turn as her eye wandered from the shiny blocks to the shelves on which the bars were stored. Unlike the form of the standard 400 oz gold bar, the form of the shelves was context specific to the architecture of the building. Van Sonsbeeck therefore decided to reproduce the shelves according to the materials she found throughout the building making a direct reference to the particular context in which these universally standardized objects were located.
Almost exactly a century ago, Marcel Duchamp decided to turn a urinal on its side, place it on a pedestal, sign it with “R. Mutt 1917” and name it Fountain. This action proved to have an immense influence on artistic development and is impossible to dismiss when looking at art today. It changed the way we think about authorship and the hand of the artist. Taking the idea of the readymade gold bar as a basis for all of the works in the exhibition Van Sonsbeeck attempts to “translate” a standard form into new visual languages. The shape might change but in essence it remains the same thing, or does it? Melted gold bars populate the interior of the DNB exhibition space, puddles of gold sitting in different corners, some streaming down the stairs as if they were trying to escape the building. Their labeled identity has been evaporated during the melting – artistic – process, except for one bar that is still partly stamped with the name “Degussa”. It is the stamp in this puddle of gold that makes me think of R. Mutt and the artist’s hand. Essentially, the bar’s form is of the least value since it was merely created to have an efficient function, namely to be easily stored and transported. Art, however, is not produced for easy storage and transportation, even though the highly developed art market does provide an infrastructure for it.
By translating the shape of the standard gold bar, Van Sonsbeeck invites us to redefine its value from the commodity of gold to the commodity of art. It’s a continuing balancing act between intrinsic value and intellectual value. As Isabelle Graw discusses in High Price: Art Between the Market and Celebrity Culture (2010), there is a difference between art and other commodities. Art is a special kind of commodity. Its market value is solely justified by its symbolic value. “The specific quality of its symbolic value lies in the fact that it expresses an intellectual surplus value generally attributed to art, an epistemological gain that cannot be smoothly translated into economic categories.” The intellectual surplus value of an artwork, associated with ideas, imagination, and perception is in turn linked to a personal value system constituted by the knowledge, interests, desires and memories of its buyer.
When looking at these works the viewer translates the value of the standard gold bar into something more personal that is simultaneously more and less valuable. We cannot use the puddle of gold to go out and buy ourselves a piece of real estate but perhaps it is much more enriching on another level. Its liquid form inspires us to consider flexibility in its meaning. Usually puddles are associated with negative connotations such as dirt, flooding, waste or an accident. In her earlier series Mistakes I’ve Made, Van Sonsbeeck gave new life to the gold waste that was created whilst gilding other works. She was interested in making something valuable again that was typically regarded as waste. With the puddles she takes this idea one step further by associating the form of a puddle with a valuable material such as gold. In doing so we are forced to question our personal value system that is comprised of both intrinsic and symbolic elements.
Van Sonsbeeck gives us a personal experience with art. Thus, the standard becomes personal and exemplified because it has been created from and for a particular space, namely De Nederlandsche Bank. Once these works leave this space they will always carry with them the aura and surroundings of the vault and the building. If you happen to become one of the lucky owners of a golden puddle please note that they won’t adhere directly to your new space, but the work will once again need to be translated into a new personal standard…
Photo ©Gert Jan van Rooij
conversation with Krist Gruijthuijsen
Excerpt from a conversation with Krist Gruijthuijsen on the occasion of Translating the standard gold bar (I only take risks I understand), solo show at De Nederlandsche Bank (NL), April 20th until June 2nd, 2016
TRANSLATING THE STANDARD GOLD BAR (I ONLY TAKE RISKS I UNDERSTAND)
Extract from a conversation with Krist Gruijthuijsen, Director of Grazer Kunstverein/KW Berlin
Krist: You’re translating gold bars for De Nederlandsche Bank. So in essence, you reduce everything back to this standard shape, even if that shape itself is absent from the exhibition. You’re infiltrating[FvT1] something that mustn’t be removed: the gold bar. De Nederlandsche Bank allowed you to make a gold bar mould right there in the vault, which effectively is a performative act. Hence you’re translating that shape back again. Aren’t currency, circulation, money, coins and banknotes also a translation of value? And, by the way, who determined the shape of gold bars anyway?
Sarah: Maybe a goldsmith was simply requested to ‘ find a practical shape for gold, and make an ingot mould’. But gold always has a history. The Inca people made objects, like cups and even hairpins out of gold! They weren't concerned with the monetary value of the material, but rather its physical and mythical qualities. When visiting the vault, I was fascinated by the gold bar as a functional object, as well as how you could transform it.
Krist: Perhaps the shape of the gold bar is the most non-functional shape.
Sarah: Perhaps it is.
Fragment uit een gesprek met Krist Gruijthuijsen, directeur Grazer Kunstverein / KW Berlin:
Krist: Voor De Nederlandsche Bank ben je goudstaven aan het vertalen. Eigenlijk wordt zo alles teruggebracht naar die standaard vorm, zelfs als die niet in de tentoonstelling aanwezig is. Je infiltreert iets wat niet verwijderd mag worden; de goudstaaf. De Nederlandsche Bank liet jou toe daar in de kluis een mal van te maken, ad hoc, wat eigenlijk een performatieve handeling is. En vanuit daar vertaal je die vorm. Maar zijn valuta, circulatie, geld, munten, briefjes, niet ook een vertaling van waarde? En wie heeft eigenlijk die vorm van de goudstaaf bepaald?
Sarah: Misschien is simpelweg een goudgieter gevraagd ‘vind een handzame vorm voor goud, dus maak een mal’. Maar goud heeft altijd een geschiedenis: Inca’s gebruikten goud voor bekers, haarspelden! Het ging hen niet om de monetaire waarde maar om de fysische en mythische eigenschappen van goud. Ik raakte in de kluis gefascineerd door het gebruiksvoorwerp dat de goudstaaf ook is en hoe je dat zou kunnen transformeren.
Krist: Eigenlijk is de vorm van de goudstaaf misschien wel de meest non functionele vorm.
Sarah: Misschien wel.
Photo One bar of gold, dripped #3 - ©Gert Jan van Rooij
on the use of gold, sarah van sonsbeeck
text by sarah van sonsbeeck on gold and silence, 2016
ON THE USE OF GOLD, SARAH VAN SONSBEECK, 2016
No one will believe me when I say my inspiration to work with gold as an artist came from silence. However, it is true. After having researched silence for six years, due to having horrible neighbours when I got admitted for a residency at the Rijksakademie Amsterdam, I felt the need to research what then was this silence I felt I was lacking. One of my paths of research took me to the common saying ‘speech is silver, silence is golden’. The more I thought it through the stranger it seemed to me. Why would silence be ‘good’? Naturally it can be, but censorship for instance can be a bad kind of silence. It seemed to me silence had no properties, but would be defined entirely by who was experiencing it. And so over time gold seemed to me to share this strange quality with silence. It too, is defined by its surroundings. A ray of light will bring it to light and be reflected a thousand times, as will a shadow. As Junichiro Tanizaki so beautifully says in his ‘In Praise of Shadows’ (1977):
'Artisans of old, when they finished their works in lacquer and decorated them in sparkling patterns, must surely have had in mind dark rooms and sought to turn to good effect what feeble light there was. Their extravagant use of gold, too, I should imagine, came of understanding how it gleams forth from out of the darkness and reflects the lamplight.
And surely you have seen, in the darkness of the innermost rooms of these huge buildings, to which sunlight never penetrates, how the gold leaf of a sliding door or screen will pick up a distant glimmer from the garden, then suddenly send forth an ethereal glow, a faint golden light cast into the enveloping darkness, like the glow upon the horizon at sunset. In no other setting is gold quit so exquisitely beautiful. You walk past, turning to look again, and yet again; and as you move away the golden surface of the paper glows ever more deeply, changing not in a flash, but growing slowly, steadily brighter, like color rising in the face of a giant. Or again you may find that the gold dust of the background, which until that moment had only a dull, sleepy luster, will, as you move past, suddenly gleam forth as if it had burst into flame.
How, in such a dark place, gold draws so much light to itself is a mystery to me. But I see why in ancient times statues of the Buddha were gilt with gold and why gold leaf covered the walls of the homes of the nobility. Modern man, in his well-lit house, knows nothing of the beauty of gold; but those who lived in the dark houses of the past were not merely captivated by its beauty, they also knew its practical value; for gold, in these dim rooms, must have served the function of a reflector. Their use of gold leaf and gold dust was not mere extravagance. Its reflective properties were put to use as a source of illumination.’
Italic excerpts taken from 'In praise of shadows (1977) by Junichiro Tanizaki
Photo One bar of gold, breathed #1 - ©Gert Jan van Rooij
frieze magazine, renske janssen
Review in Frieze magazine of 'Mistakes I've Made' solo at Annet Gelink gallery Amsterdam, 2014.
FRIEZE MAGAZINE, RENSKE JANSSEN 2014
‘Mistakes I’ve Made’ was the title of Dutch artist Sarah van Sonsbeeck’s first solo exhibition at Annet Gelink Gallery. Indeed, the four installations in the show were supposed to mimic an ‘accidental creation’ of the universe, a term Van Sonsbeeck borrowed from the travel writer Bill Bryson, setting in motion a train of thought about the origins of creativity.
But ‘Mistakes I’ve Made’ inevitably also suggests a degree irony. Van Sonsbeeck gave the same title to a series of six pitch-black canvases covered in Faraday paint, an expensive material made of graphite particles that block data streams for wifi or mobile phones. Over the surfaces of each of these dense works, Van Sonsbeeck scattered slivers of gold leaf. The effect was one of looking into a galaxy filled with gleaming stars. Each painting was in turn paired with an acoustic object entirely coated in gold leaf: a box of earplugs, an egg carton and several forms of sound shields hung on either the left or right of the canvas, drawing parallels between space and silence. Though the Faraday paint didn’t appear to have any effect in the gallery (my mobile was still working), it functioned conceptually: together with the sound-absorbing objects it was possible to imagine the silence of space itself.
Van Sonsbeeck started out as an architect. Her interest in sound and its absence began with noises coming from her neighbours. Unable to sleep at night because of their lovers’ quarrels, make-up sex and loud music, she decided to calculate the space that the noise ‘occupied’ in her house. Using a decibel meter and a drawing to visualize sound entering the architecture, she calculated the result as 80 percent of her living space. She decided to write a letter asking her neighbours to pay ‘their share’ of her monthly rent; unsurprisingly, they never responded. Since then, Van Sonsbeeck has used her work to question the popular equation of silence with calmness and privacy.
Silence, clearly, is a relative concept. It might be political: in Turkey, for instance, it could evoke the silencing of journalists. This reference to politics was most tangible in the installationKamyon Gelecek (all works 2013), Turkish for ‘Truck Will Come’. Placed in the middle of the gallery, the sculpture consists of a black ladder with a beam angling outward from its lower rungs. It replicates a situation Van Sonsbeeck came across during a residency in Istanbul, where a carpenter had placed a ladder in front of his workshop in a busy street to keep cars from parking there. Van Sonsbeeck later leant two wooden boards against the side of the ladder, with words painted in bold white lettering:Tren Gelecek (Train Will Come) and Ucak Gelecek (Plane Will Come). Van Sonsbeeck’s work represents a futile, almost satirical, attempt to create silence and private space in a city, with just a minimal configuration of objects, signs and words.
The artist also explored ideas of privacy in Private Space, consisting of seven gold-plated convex condenser lenses in different sizes hung on the wall. These objects – which are usually used as parts of microscopes – functioned less as magnifying glasses than as mirrors, in which the curved glass reflected the viewer and the gallery’s interior. ‘Mistakes I’ve Made’ transcended the possible ironic or self-deprecating connotations of its title with Gold Dust. Installed close to the gallery’s ceiling, a silent machine released a few tiny slivers of gold leaf every ten minutes. As some of the specks whirled down toward the floor, a few ended up on my sleeves and hair. And when I was outside unlocking my bike, I realized I was taking tiny pieces of precious golden silence from Van Sonsbeeck’s ‘mistakes’.
sarah van sonsbeeck is not a very good architect, Annick Kleizen
text by annick kleizen on the occasion of solo show in museum abteiberg (GE), 2011
SARAH VAN SONSBEECK IS NOT A VERY GOOD ARCHITECT, ANNICK KLEIZEN 2011
In fact, though she was trained as one, you can barely call her an architect at all. Her houses just never seem to hold their shape: the walls are fragile, permeable and somewhat ill-defined. Moreover, she makes you aware of their failings – of where sounds leak, the outside world enters and privacy succumbs to the interventions of neighbours. She deconstructs the solidness of the private shelter and lifts the thin veil of privacy.
Sarah van Sonsbeeck works from the inside out: she inhabits and, from that point of view, negotiates her private space. It all started with a letter she wrote to her upstairs neighbours in which she pointed out how much space they took up in her house through their noise, and asked them to pay a corresponding amount of her rent (Letter To My Neighbours, 2010; original Dutch version 2006). This sparked a whole series of studies of her neighbours, both upstairs and on the other side of the street, and resulted in the book Mental Space: How My Neighbours Became Buildings (2010). Although she focuses a lot on silence – or the lack of it – this preoccupation does not spring from a longing for perfect stillness or the total absence of noise. Instead, it has everything to do with determining the relationship between her private space and the world outside it. Hearing her neighbours take off their shoes every night before they go to bed makes them a part of her life; they infiltrate her home. As much as her neighbours enter her world, though, she also enters theirs, staring through their windows, observing them. In Sarah van Sonsbeeck’s work, it is not the inhabitants who communicate but their houses. Their walls and ceilings transmit noises and their façades convey signals. They appear to speak of a human presence that is never visibly there yet that is present nonetheless. She shows this not only as intrusive but also as comforting: though the neighbours’ noises are disturbing at times, they can be assuring as well, a pleasantly familiar part of your daily routine, shaping your personal living space.
In Mental Space: How My Neighbours Became Buildings, Sarah van Sonsbeeck states that your home comprises your living space plus your view; it extends beyond your house. While living in the silent centre of the city of Mönchengladbach for a couple of months and making this place her home, she focused on her view. Not only did the weather and the cars in the adjacent parking lot seem to respond to her mood. By opening and closing their pivot window, the neighbours on the other side of the street seemed to send her the message ‘Keep up the good work!’ By capturing these fleeting moments, she extends their encouraging message of wordless communication. In the same vein, she also ‘collects’ personal experiences and situations (not necessarily her own) that touch on similar issues. Like the moment in São Paolo for example, where buses driving over a loose manhole cover – almost inaudible among the many noises on the busy road – kept an old man who lived beside the road awake.Sarah van Sonsbeeck’s work is two-sided: on the one hand, she tries to define, defend and extend private space; on the other, she simultaneously reveals the impossibility and perhaps even undesirability of doing so. A case in point is when she tried to contain one cubic meter of silence on an as yet undeveloped plot of land near the De Paviljoens Museum in the rapidly developing new town of Almere. One night the reinforced glass cube was smashed with a stone by a local youth. She embraced this vandalizing act and renamed the work One Cubic Meter of Broken Silence (2009). Instead of preserving the increasingly rare silence – which, strictly speaking, because of the rustling reeds and chirping insects, was no silence at all – the focus of the work shifted to contact (however violent), interaction and communication. Working on what she calls the ‘right to silence’, she made a tent out of Faraday fabric that shields the person inside from all electromagnetic signals, and thus from all visible [invisible?] and inaudible noise. The tent becomes a portable personal space that you can take with you wherever you go, and, though the fabric is very thin, it definitely does not keep audible noises out. It may be a shelter, therefore, but only to a certain degree.
Reading about ambient noises and silence, I came across a musical score that strikingly illustrates Sarah van Sonsbeeck’s concerns:
The Building of a Silence
Build a left wall with a drum roll (half a minute)
Build a right wall with a din, a downtown car / street car horn,
voices and screeches (half a minute)
Build a floor with a gurgling of water in pipes (half a minute)
Build a ceiling terrace with chirp chirp chirp srschirp of sparrows
and swallows (20 seconds)
In this score, as in Sarah van Sonsbeeck’s work, the interior space is shaped by what surrounds it. Van Sonsbeeck often mentions that at architecture school, the ideal home had no neighbours; it was an isolated building, an intricate structure of designed volumes and spaces. Her work, in contrast, focuses on the thin permeable line between interior and exterior – without concern for the façade. This detour brings her to an investigation of the more immaterial side of architecture in which she emphasizes all the small elements that determine how we live in our homes, the things the architect cannot control. She stresses these elements and designs shields against them, but also welcomes the unpredictable and reveals the minute but intimate relationships between people who don’t necessarily know each other. In short, Sarah van Sonsbeeck practises architecture after all, but of the immaterial – though no less fundamental – kind.
1) The Building of a Silence (La costruzione di un silenzio) is part of a series of five scores written by the controversial founder of the Futurist movement Filippo Marinetti in the 1930s, called Cinque Sintesi Radiofoniche. Found in: Kevin Concannon, ‘Cut and Paste: Collage and the Art of Sound’ in: Sound by Artists, Toronto: Art Metropole and Walter Phillips Gallery, 1990, online at: http://www.ubu.com/papers (last accessed: June 2011). The original date when these scores were written is unclear.
Photo credit Stephan Sturm