Sep 7-Oct 20, 2012, Luhring Augustine Gallery, 531 W 24th St, NYC
The explorer George Mallory was once asked "Why do you want to climb Mt. Everest?", to which he famously (reputedly) responded: "Because it's there." This economic but meaningful quip expresses something about the willingness of spirit that must consider triumph and failure in equal measure as potential outcomes of any endeavor. It is this same spirit that artists, generally speaking, understand all too well: the aspiration of overcoming self-imposed obstacles; the uselessness of doing things just for the sake of doing them; the poignant pointlessness of it all.
Guido van der Werve, the Netherlander artist and oft-described 'Romantic' (and triathlete, marathon runner, filmmaker, classically trained composer and pianist), also tried to climb Everest; or rather, the equivalent of it (he failed). He documents a more successful labor in his latest film, Nummer veertien, home, the centerpiece of an exhibition on view at Luhring Augustine gallery. The film follows van der Werve's elliptical journey from Poland to Paris as he swims, bikes, and runs a circuit that traces the birth, death, and unusual burial arrangements of composer Frederic Chopin. Chopin's dying request was to have his heart removed and smuggled back to his birthplace in Warsaw; his body, however, remains entombed at a pubic gravesite in Paris. These dual points of interment mark the start and end points for van der Werve's circulatory, oddball triathalon-as-pilgrimage, which concludes with the exhausted artist placing a small container of soil from Chopin's birthplace upon his grave.
The twelve-act film (structured after the classical musical form of the Requiem) is certainly replete with enough melancholic, wide-framed landscapes to earn the artist his "Romantic" credential, but also contributes to the canon of 'Endurance Art', which enacts extreme physical stress as a process and a kind of performance (see: Matthew Barney, Marina Abramovic, Ragnar Kjartansson, or--why not-- David Blaine). However, van der Werve's exertions are not an end unto themselves; they are actions which position and isolate the character within the broader visual narrative of his films and projects. We are rarely subjected to close-ups of the artist's bodily or emotional trials; rather, the film's dispassionate formality captures the wide, precisely-split horizon lines and flat, constructed 'Nature' of modern European suburbs. The inescapable grid of civilization, even in these semi- bucolic environments, undermines whatever sublimity the 'lone figure in the landscape' trope might evoke. Endurance requires a sense of rigorous interiority and discipline; it is no surprise that the lonely duress and directed purposelessness of the marathon runner is a state that appeals to van der Werve's sensibility.
Perhaps alienation is our contemporary Sublime, but, despite the beautiful, elegiac score (written by van der Werve), the artist undercuts any pathos or heroism with small episodes of abrupt, whimsical absurdity. In the opening scene, we see the artist playing a grand piano while outfitted in a swimmer's wetsuit; in another, the artist--who has inscrutably set himself on fire--calmly extinguishes the blaze by jumping into a small canal. Periodically, a full orchestra and chorus appear, nonchalantly performing the film's score while seated in fields, driveways, bedrooms, and other incongruous pop-up locations, in moments that seem more Monty Python than Greek chorus. The meaning of these moments is left open to interpretation, thankfully, adding a bit of mystery and shock to contrast to the film's otherwise top-heavy explication--and to help the audience forget about the ponderous, mostly unnecessary side-narrative about Alexander the Great.
Unlike traditional narratives, which rely on external conflict and heroic resolution, van der Werve sets up a course of self-determined problems to solve, working from what he knows and pushing towards the outermost edges, seeking meaning, as most artists--or athletes, or explorers, or maybe anybody-- would do. Nummer veertien, home is not quite an indie film, a performance document, or an art installation. If anything, it's an extended-cut music video, by way of an act of self-flagellating devotion. It's a total work that threads together the physical and aesthetic enthusiasms of van der Werve, a (self-described) non-artist who nevertheless employs the the art world to provide a context of meaning to his variegated activities, skills, and obsessions. Why climb Mt. Everest? "Because it's there?" Nah. "Because I can. Because I must."