A long process full of surprises

Sergej Timofejev


A conversation with the Belgian artist Edith Dekyndt

As I was getting ready for my interview with the Berlin- and Brussels-based Belgian artist Edith Dekyndt, I made a small compilation of quotes about her art. I’d like to start by sharing some that I find most significant, with the help of copy/paste.

“Dekyndt’s work is not easily defined, however, her use of ‘poor’ materials combined with a strong presence of objects introduces a hybrid category relying on a marriage of the material aspects of Arte Povera to a soft, organic and messy minimalism,” says Kitty Scott.

“The physical anchoring point in the real world of her elusive and molecular, fragile and unstable work always results from an intuition. The artist seizes on a moment of life and focuses on it tenaciously, revealing its free configurations of movement,” adds Cecilia Bezzan.

And Dekyndt’s creative style is also described by Elisabeth Milon: “Her works want us to be moved by nothing or almost nothing.”

“Almost nothing” is an essential element here. And what else could you say, for instance, when speaking about One Thousand and One Night, Dekyndt’s installation for the main exhibition Viva Arte, Viva of the 2017 Venice Biennale, in which a man in a very dark room painstakingly and futilely sweeps a square of light projected on the floor?

Edith Dekyndt. Photo:

However, let us now start from the beginning. Edith Dekyndt was born in 1960 in Ypres, studied visual communication and then attended the École des Beaux-Arts de Mons. In 1987 she went to Italy for in-depth studies of the artistic legacy of Piero della Francesca (c. 1420–1492). This reinforced her interest in geometry and light, resulting in collaboration with architects such as Olivier Bastin, who invited her to join his studio in Brussels.

But then, around 1995, came a certain turning point in Dekyndt’s creative self-definition; she describes it in this interview. Since then, her field of experimentation has been centred around everyday objects that she observes and allows to “act”: they undergo various processes of transformation, including the effects of time. Processual actions have now been added to her formal interests. To record her findings, Dekyndt sometimes employs quite technical media, such as photography, sound and video. Nevertheless, she often prefers more primitive or even “wild” means of expression, which are later interpreted by critics using Latouresque terminology, such as “surprising ontological and epistemological debates”. In fact, Dekyndt has referred to children as her most “advanced” viewers: they know from personal first-hand experience that the floor under their feet is floor, and the light coming through the window is light. She (possibly) sends us back, extremely accurately and subtly, to this child-like intuitive omniscience through her works, so simple/complex.

We met Dekyndt and her husband on a cold and windy day in Riga, where she had arrived as one of the invited artists for the upcoming second edition of the Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art (curated by Paris-based curator Rebecca Lamarche-Vadel). It was early March, just a couple of weeks before a state of emergency was declared in Latvia. I decided to take them to the National Library of Latvia, where the 2020: A Perspective on Eternity exhibition by the Orbita text group had just opened on the ground floor of the building. It dealt with the impact of light and mildew on various printed information carriers.

As we were entering the library, Dekyndt lingered outside for half a minute to touch the metal panelling of the library’s exterior wall and marvel at the sheer scope of the glass surface (fourteen thousand square metres). We viewed the exhibition and then settled in on the soft settees under the high ceiling of the library’s café; we were the only visitors at the time. And that is where we stayed until closing time.

Edith Dekyndt. They Shoot Horses, 2017. Installation view, at the Bozar, Brussels

Installation They Shoot Horses, on view in Hamburger Kunsthalle from June, 2019 till January, 2020, is one of your latest artwork. The name is a reference to the Sydney Pollack film of the same title from the 1960s, a story about one of the so-called dance marathons. During the Great Depression of the 1930s in the United States, people sometimes entered such competitions hoping to win prize money and danced for days, stopping only when they fainted or even died from complete exhaustion. The audience, meanwhile, looked on as dancers collapsed one by one. Footage of dancing couples from the film is projected on a giant curtain pierced with countless metallic nails. How did you arrive at this image ‒ the soft waves of the curtain covered in sharp nails?

There are always several levels in my practice. And the first one usually takes place in my studio, where I make various things, trying something new. I first tried doing this in Mexico, without really understanding why. I suppose I was probably quite stricken by the approach to the image of Christ in Mexican culture: his statues are frequently pierced with lots of real nails. It’s a very physical thing. You enter a monastery, and you see a statue of Christ riddled with real nails. So I suppose that’s probably where my idea is rooted.

To take this very bourgeois and comfortable fabric, which we use to cover ourselves and to hide from other people’s eyes and from the cold ‒ something quite homey – and then to add these aggressive nails…there’s something of a paradox to it.

The crisis this work refers to happened in the 1930s, in the United States, but it had all sorts of consequences everywhere in the world. It was truly a global crisis.

As far as I understand, you relate to this idea that our own times are in many ways similar to the era of the Great Depression and the time leading up to it…

It has already become quite clear that, while 9/11 was what the century began with, COVID-19 has become the point of reference for the 2020s. As soon as the first news about the virus emerged, back in January, I immediately said that this crisis will transform the world. I had this very distinct feeling about it. Nothing like the previous epidemic of SARS.

Perhaps it was because I had literally just visited China in November and had seen the way it was happening there ‒ some people becoming incredibly wealthy and others living in places reminiscent of the Middle Ages. And even these markets are, in a way, something that seem to belong to the Middle Ages. Already back then I was thinking that this was a very strange situation between the super wealthy and the super poor. And that if a disease were to emerge there, it would be a catastrophe, considering the close links with China and the sheer scope of tourism between that country and the rest of the world.

So, yes, I see a connection with the 1920s and 1930s, and even with the era of the First World War. Perhaps it’s a kind of obsession with the 20th century, I don’t know. But I do think that history repeats itself, that there is something that does not change in people and causes these repetitions to take place.

Perhaps it was at this time that people first experienced the feeling that both they and the whole world had boarded a train racing to God knows where, and it was impossible to get off that train. And this sensation is now repeating again. And yet, when you’re setting up your works of art, perhaps the socio-political aspect of them is not your main objective?

I try to think on several levels at once. Of course, I live in the 21st century, and I’m in it, so to speak. But there are always various routes ‒ an anthropological one, or one that’s driven by the history of the place where the work will be shown, the physical condition of the venue and things that have previously taken place there. Politics is also one of the levels ‒ but no more than “one of”. When you’re working with the public, that is, essentially, a political thing in itself. If you don’t want to say anything, that’s also a political statement, because you’re surrounded by people. Everything we do ‒ for me, it’s always politics in a sense. And yet I tend to view my own works in terms of anthropology, history or geography.

Edith Dekyndt. The Ninth Wave. 2018.

You work a lot with various materials and the materiality of things as such. Which leads us to the subject of the environment, of our impact on the environment thanks to new materials or a new approach to old materials.

Matter is always here, it’s always right next to us. Matter matters. What I try to achieve is to make the materiality of objects speak. And I don’t discriminate between people, animals and plants. All of it is a sort of universal conglomerate for me. It is, of course, a very intuitive approach ‒ the way it is for children who do not understand the difference between flowers and stones. But all these things are indeed very interrelated.

In the 1990s, designers were very interested in various nanomaterials, something completely new and so technological. Whereas these days designers increasingly think about ways of using things that already exist. For example, about producing fabric from all sorts of plants in order to avoid various chemicals. It’s a completely new approach to material. But it has also been present in my works for quite some time now. I work a lot with textile, and textile can be made of anything ‒ plants, cellulose and so on – and if it’s suddenly very damp or cold, that also leaves its mark on its condition and its appearance.

I remember a work of yours from the Laboratory 1 period ‒ the one with milk that was first frozen and then turned into liquid again.

Choice of material is always the first step for me. And it’s a very important one. That’s what attracts me first and foremost ‒ the actual materiality of an object. It can change. There was a time when stone was liquid lava. And minerals still keep changing, albeit very, very slowly. The same goes for wood. It’s still alive, although the tree has been cut. As for liquids, not only can they freeze into ice, but they can also transform into gas. These are the kind of weird transformations that I find fascinating. My tiny discoveries happen either by accident or because I’ve deliberately combined certain elements. As often as not, I have no idea what the result will be. I generally like surprises. That’s why I work a lot of the time in my studio, experimenting with the materiality of various things.

Even when we apply the same protocols, the result will nevertheless differ a bit every time. That’s because for me objects, inanimate objects, are also dramatis personae, also actors in a way. They’re animistic, not in a religious sense but in terms of movement. For instance, glass: it’s something hard and stable, and yet it’s still a liquid. If you take a bottle and leave it in the same place for a thousand years, it will flatten a bit. These days they add metal to glass to make it more durable, but normal glass made from sand is liquid material. It’s quite an interesting thing to consider while sitting in this building, which will perhaps melt in a thousand years’ time.

I assume that the builders surely added enough metal to this glass!

(Laughs.) Yes, I’m sure they did.

Edith Dekyndt. Die Natur des Nordens in der ganzen Schönheit ihrer, Schrecken, 2019. Freezer, black ink

Has this particular interest in materials been typical for you since the very beginning of your career?

I was never particularly interested in the representation of things, rather in their nature. As a child, I lived near the sea and used to build sandcastles. And those were constructions that were expected to be touched by water. Sand and water ‒ these are the origins of my practice. Later I wanted to study architecture, but life somehow guided me toward art school. At school, I was very interested in etching, but I didn’t make a single representative work in this medium. I always worked with the materiality of paper, ink, metal or wood. That was what I found interesting, because it was both a physical and chemical process. And I loved these repetitive actions, these rituals of making an etching. I was not interested in painting at all, probably, among other things, because even though you do whatever you can think of when you’re painting, the result is still a painting. In etching you must follow certain sets of rules and technologies; it’s a lengthy process. And it already presumes a certain kind of materiality.

But it was only ten years or so after graduation that I fully embraced my interest in these sorts of things. I used to make installations featuring light, drawings on the floor, more architectural and geometrical things. But almost ten years later I decided to go back to my origins, in a way, and started working in a very intuitive and playful manner, as if I was simply doing something that I felt like doing, without any knowledge of art. And everything I’ve been doing since then can be traced back to that moment in 1995, when I decided to turn everything around.

I named my project Laboratory 1, and started doing things right there in my own kitchen, in this completely mundane environment, because the kitchen is also a place of everyday chemical and physical experiments. Or I worked in my basement laundry. I didn’t understand then that it was going to be so important to me. And it was quite unusual to do that kind of thing back in 1995, because people sometimes found it almost repulsive: “What is this thing? Milk, ink? What is this, why?”

These days it’s considered quite “contemporary”, but back then people were questioning if it was actually art. And to this day, when I’m working in my kitchen, I sometimes do not even know if it’s art that I’m making. I don’t care. But it’s really close to being non-art. Somebody once told me that if I took away 1% of my work, it would no longer be art. And I completely agree with that.

But what is this 1% that makes your objects works of art?

We never know the reason why this thing or another is actually art. Why?

Because it makes you think?

I don’t know. Perhaps the very fact that you’re making it…

Edith Dekyndt. One Thousand and One Night, 2017. Installation view at the 57th Venice Biennale

Still, there must be a role played by some sort of opinion from outside. You delegate the right to decide if it’s art to other people.

Yes, sometimes you need somebody from outside. For example, I like this, I like this thing that I’ve made, but I need some other people who will come and say the same thing. As a result, sometimes I simply take something away, put something aside. And ten years later, when I’m making something that seems to be completely new for me, suddenly it turns out that I’ve already done something similar before. But perhaps it really takes getting older to progress to a level of similar surprises: “Oh, my God, it’s super nice! I did that!” (Laughs.)

I like it very much that you use very simple objects, straight from the kitchen, for instance. At the same time, critiques of your art abound in concepts and constructs of contemporary philosophy. Do you think in these terms yourself as you make your works?

To be honest, yes. I don’t read a lot of philosophy books; I’m more interested in anthropology. But I frequently listen to various podcasts on philosophy, and I find it very interesting. It stays somewhere in my consciousness. Deleuze, Guattari ‒ they’re very important for me. And phenomenology, of course.

Indeed, when I’m working in the studio, I have more time to listen to these podcasts. And I find it very interesting that the division that used to exist between various sciences is growing weaker. Biologists work with anthropologists, philosophers work with chemical scientists. For instance, people who develop new computers must now be fairly good at biology.

And it’s the same with matter. We depend on so many things, starting with minerals and plants. We depend on the earth, on soil. And that’s the ecological system in which we live. It’s not abstract ecology like the one politicians talk about. Ecology can be something quite small; it’s the ecology inside this bottle of water, for example. That word is now being used to describe almost anything: eco-packs, eco-bags and so on. And yet ecology is simply a system that’s essentially alive. That’s the original meaning of the word. We use it everywhere today, and not always quite accurately.

Edith Dekyndt. The White, The Black, The Blue, 2019. Exhibition view at Kunsthalle Hamburg

Does your viewer have to be at least familiar with the range of philosophical ideas you’re interested in?

No. I genuinely hope that anyone can view my works without any kind of specialist, intellectual “luggage”. Actually, it’s children who manage it best. That’s because they look at the world through their own eyes and they know better than us what the floor under our feet is or what a leg of a bed is, or what all these other things really are.

I usually put a lot of thought and reflection into a work or an installation, and then I start removing everything I can ‒ until just the essential remains. I do not want to prove any theories, I just want to show my works, and I try to accompany them with as little explanation as possible. It’s not always easy, because people are very keen on clarification. Perhaps the best thing is letting them walk around the installation on their own and then afterwards tell a bit about what it is and why it’s here.

There’s quite a lot of interest in dust and the interplay of dust and light in your works. Does that, too, come from your childhood?

Perhaps… But it’s true, I really have made a lot of works with dust.

How did that start?

I don’t even remember. Back in the times of Laboratory 1, I spread some fabric on the floor, and the floor was covered in dirt. Then I scattered salt all over the fabric; the salt absorbed all the moisture, and the dirt appeared on the other side of the fabric. Dust, earth, water – these are things that have always been important to me. Also light, air, movement…

And yet dust is something directly linked with human activities, with places where we live. We do not think about dust in a forest. Dust is like a domestic animal. In some of your works, for example, Discreet Piece (1997), you show how dust becomes visible in a beam of light.

The initial idea was to use a projector for showing slides with images from the history of art. But when I switched on the projector, I found myself mesmerised by the tiny particles of dust in the beam of light. I loved watching them. And dust is also the tiniest particles of bodies, perhaps bodies of people who used to live here a hundred years ago. If we analysed a sample of dust, it would be like immersing ourselves in the history of the place where it originates from. These are real strata of history.

Natural memory?

Yes, natural memory.

Do you have any interest in or plans to go back to making something with dust and light again? Or perhaps that subject is already closed for you?

Yes, I’d like to do something with dust right here, for the Riga Biennial.

What could it be?

I visited Andrejsala and wandered around the old building between the railroad and the port, the one that’s supposed to become the central venue of the Riga Biennial. And there was something like an old carpet that had absorbed years’ and years’ worth of dust. Previously, for many years, the building had hosted a huge portside warehouse storing all sorts of things. And, of course, it was supposed to be properly cleaned before the biennial. But I wanted them to leave a piece of this space with the dust on the floor intact. Just to have a room full of dust. This layer of dust is about a centimetre thick, and it’s not grey ‒ it’s black. There’s a real sense of industrial history to this building. There’s a lot of oil around there, a lot of dirt and grime. Because industrial history is also the history of pollution. I felt like I found myself inside Tarkovsky’s Stalker – it was a very similar ambience. It’s dark and cold, there’s water from the river somewhere nearby. And I said: “I’d like to leave a space in this building untouched, just the way it is right now.”

On the following day I decided to visit the Central Market. I did not even know why. It was in November; everything around was so grey. And suddenly inside the vegetable pavilion I stumbled across people selling sauerkraut, fermented cucumbers and that sort of stuff in huge containers or barrels. And I immediately thought of these kinds of brined vegetables in containers right next to this dust.

For some reason it seemed to me that this marketplace, these vegetables are also something that has survived the Soviet occupation and forced industrialisation. I was also led to this thought by Soviet Milk, a book by Nora Ikstena that I bought here in Riga. It’s the story of a woman who doesn’t want to breastfeed her daughter, because she doesn’t want to give her “Soviet milk”. And there are lots of other things in the book that somehow correlate with my idea. All of this is about life, about living things…because people ferment vegetables to preserve them until winter or even until spring.

The idea of preserving vegetables ‒ is that in a way new for you? Isn’t there something similar in your own native country?

Of course there is. For instance, we pickle cornichons. But that’s just a condiment, something to add a bit of tang to a meal. Whereas here it seems that these products are an important part of the daily nutrition. And I’ve never seen so many colours in the vegetable preserves at our marketplaces. Yellow ones, red ones… They’re so colourful!

I also think about cheese as a very interesting product. And this morning I spent a lot of time wandering around the fish pavilion. There are also lots of strong, vibrant colours there ‒ silver and gold! Simply wonderful.

You hail from Belgium, but you live in Berlin. How much does materiality and the material world differ in each country?

Belgium and Germany are quite similar in this respect. Instead, the difference lies in mentality; Germany is a Protestant country. But I live in Brussels and Berlin, and all the big European cities are quite similar in general. Although I tend to make different things when I work in my studio in Berlin than I do in Brussels.

In other countries I’m more interested in crafts, particularly the ones that are disappearing. For instance, in Thailand I was very intrigued by lacquerwork. The mass-produced lacquerware souvenirs imitate the vintage look, but what appealed to me was the traditional way of making these things, in which you apply layers upon layers of lacquer. It’s a time-consuming process, and the lacquer only starts to dry in a warm and damp place. Don’t ask me why it has to be damp. I asked the master at the monastery where we were taught this craft the same question, and he told me simply: “It is like that!”

What kind of materials are you currently working with in your studio? What do you find most interesting right now?

I’m currently very into immersing various fabrics in ink. You start by leaving it in for a short while, then a bit longer and longer, and eventually for quite a long period of time. And then eventually the fabric becomes as hard as wood ‒ burnt wood. And each time these fabrics are subjected to the influence of ink they look a bit different. At present, I don’t have a specific idea as to what I’m going to do with it. But I like doing it, and I like the process, which is long and full of surprises.