Essay: Crossing the Water – the work of Remy Jungerman

By Vincent van Velsen Monday, July 20th, 2015 Categories: Features, Reviews, Updates
 

Critic, writer and curator Vincent van Velsen reviews the work of Surinamese-Dutch artist Remy Jungerman in an essay entitled ‘Crossing the Water’, which shares its name with the artist’s ongoing exhibition at Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, the Netherlands. In his in depth study of Jungerman’s practice, van Velsen examines his portrayal of various cultural references and heritages, as well as the origin, migration and appropriation of the materials he uses. The show ‘Crossing the Water’ runs until August 16, 2015. Read the full essay below:

Portrait Remy Jungerman. Photo © Alice de Groot.

Remy Jungerman. Photo © Alice de Groot.

Remy Jungerman (Moengo, 1959) deals with subjects that relate to culture, migration, heritage, identity, black diaspora and art history. Within his work he addresses different backgrounds and visual languages and aims to combine autonomous elements to constitute a new existence. This cultural collage is rooted in the lineage of art, as well as societal components. Born in Moengo (Surinam) and living in Amsterdam since 1990, Jungerman’s recent works deal with his Surinamese roots and global citizenship in contemporary Dutch society. To bring his message across he utilizes collages, sculptures and installations to show cultural critique(s) on the local and the global, the internal and the external. He places traditional materials and objects in different contexts that challenge the established notions of their representation within Western society. Jungerman derives his inspiration from Afro-religious elements, specifically the heritage of Maroon culture in Surinam. At the same time, he also is inspired by Western traditions and contemporary tendencies in the arts. In general, Jungerman uses material, colour and pattern references that nod to the twentieth-century Dutch De Stijl and other Modernist and Abstract movements, next to the manifestation of the worldwide black diaspora traditions.

NOBODY IS PROTECTED edition - mixed media, 2000-2008 - 145 x 60 x 52 cm - photo © Aatjan Renders.

NOBODY IS PROTECTED edition – mixed media, 2000-2008 – 145 x 60 x 52 cm – photo © Aatjan Renders.

For the 7th Havana Biennial in 2000, Jungerman created different microphone stands that resemble those used at press conferences. The strings at the end of the microphones are entangled and, instead of leading to a plug-in source, are all interconnected. This self-referential position is a critique on political rhetoric, the emptiness of politicians’ engagement and pursuit of their personal interests. Since it is such a well-known image, it can be viewed as a global issue relating to public representation, performance, politics and power dynamics. Over time Jungerman has slowly but steadily moved away from this more distant subject matter. The passing away of his father can be seen as a specific turning point. Jungerman was forced to reflect on mortality and the finiteness of life, and reconsidered his practice and future aims. The funeral itself brought him physically back to his roots in the inner parts of Surinam and its spiritual culture.

Detail family altar at Rorac Surinam.

Detail family altar at Rorac Surinam.

Since then, the Maroon rituals and his personal relation to the Netherlands have become central to Jungerman’s practice. In the Dutch context he is one of the artistic pioneers dealing with black diaspora subject matter and post-colonial thought. His position is one of a migrant from a former colony who traded in his home country to study on the land of the former occupier. His position can be considered a privileged one, as he is now nestled right in the heart of the civilization that invented and thereby dominated the art canon, as we know it today. At the same time, he is able to draw from his knowledge of multiple cultures, different perspectives and plural positions to enrich the Western legacy with novel expressions. Looking at these modes of expression and the way Surinamese, like other Caribbean and non-white arts and cultures are generally viewed and positioned, Jungerman’s presence on the old continent gives him the opportunity to, from the inside, create a bridge between the Caribbean culture and the European art realm.

In 2012, Remy Jungerman did a residency at the Tembe Art Studio, which is located in Moengo. Returning to his hometown made him aware of certain circles in life. The residency is part of a Dutch-Surinamese cooperation and headed by artist Marcel Pinas. Here Jungerman, as all residents do, taught at the local primary school and worked together with craftsmen to create a sculpture for the Moengo Sculpture Park. For this project, he reimagined a subject he used during the ’90s: the toad. Jungerman sees toads as a metaphor for migration. In his collages featuring the toad, he taps into the questions and constitution of identity relating to migration. In these images, Jungerman combines his own roots and heritage with the history of both countries and Surinamese folk tales. He thus creates a whole new entity by mixing and matching aspects from various countries and cultures. Just as toads return to their birthplace when grown and able to reproduce, Jungerman felt it was time to reunite with his roots. He constructed twenty-one concrete toad sculptures in Moengo, which after being placed were anointed with kaolin and blue pigment (blauwsel) – both these substances are used in ritual washings that aim to provide prosperity.

HAPPY LAND: APUKU RETURN BLUE EYE, 2012 - 2500 x 2500 x 120 cm. Photo ©: Hugo Ment.

HAPPY LAND: APUKU RETURN BLUE EYE, 2012 – 2500 x 2500 x 120 cm. Photo ©: Hugo Ment.

In the drawings and prints from the ’90s the toad functioned (amongst others) as the visual carrier of different flags from Jungerman’s personal background: Germany, the Netherlands and Surinam. These symbols of national identity include a relation to identity and ways of purveying both belonging and history. Flags are a frequently addressed subject within the arts to raise questions about a broad spectrum of subjects, such as identity, borders and culture. Their appearance also relates to painting, as they share their textile background. Up until now, textile with symbolic value still has a prominent position in the oeuvre of Jungerman. For example, the pangi, or traditional textile wrap, carries patterns and colours that are brought into connection to one’s personality and spirituality. At the same time, this type of cloth is considered a symbol of Africa and the black diaspora – as produced by Vlisco, or described by Nina Sylvanus. She, in her article The Fabric of Africanity (2007), extensively sets out the different steps and developments of textiles that are associated with Africa and the black diaspora alike. Yinka Shonibare is one of the contemporary artists who extensively features these types of fabrics in his art works. He also interweaves references to folk tales from different cultures to constitute a new existence.

FODU. COMPOSITION 24, 2015 MDF, textile, kaolin (pimba). Photo © Alice de Groot.

FODU. COMPOSITION 24, 2015 – 410 x 270 x 35 cm – MDF, textile, kaolin (pimba). Photo © Alice de Groot.

Detail: FODU. COMPOSITION 24, 2015 MDF, textile, kaolin (pimba). Photo © Alice de Groot.

Detail: FODU. COMPOSITION 24, 2015 – 410 x 270 x 35 cm – MDF, textile, kaolin (pimba). Photo © Alice de Groot.

Remy Jungerman uses mainly textiles with patterns that seem to be direct forthcomings of the abstract works by Mondrian and his fellow De Stijl artists. However, they also carry the heritage and cultural meaning of early twentieth-century Caribbean cloth. Furthermore, they relate to the abstract Modernists, such as Robert Ryman. The latter demonstrated that pictorial complexity can be achieved by using an extremely restricted vocabulary. In his white works, Ryman attributed great importance to the (painted) surface and the artist’s touch. He used the two as essential elements in his highly refined examination of the optical and material properties of the act of painting and thereby the entire medium/discipline. Ryman focused on art itself, aiming and investigating possibilities along with transitions within materiality – not referring to the outsides of the picture’s frame. Everything lies in between the four edges of the square. Jungerman also makes use of the square while reflecting on the meaning of art. Specifically, on the disparity in accounted value to works of art from different geographical areas. At the same time, he investigates the materiality of the object itself, like Ryman within his manifold white squares. The squares Jungerman uses are not necessarily confined to the definition of mere monochromes, but often partake in the bigger picture.

Robert Ryman, Untitled (1965). 10.125 inches square, enamel on linen. Collection SFMOMA.

Robert Ryman, Untitled (1965). 10.125 inches square, enamel on linen. Collection SFMOMA.

For Ryman, the how was more important than the what: gesture outplays external references. In Jungerman’s works these connections to the outside world play an important role, too. Jungerman’s aim is not to release the material from its references and external significance, but to combine the material and its underlying legacy, creating both visual and conceptual collages. The fragments become parts of a composition, much like the way cultures and societies are made up of multiple backgrounds and histories that morph into one novel, heterogeneous, forever shifting shape. For example, the square patterns that can be found on pangis would in a Dutch context relate to Daan van Golden.

FODU APERRANE 2015, 90 X 90 cm - mdf, textile, kaolin. Photo © Aatjan Renders.

FODU APERRANE 2015, 90 X 90 cm – MDF, textile, kaolin. Photo © Aatjan Renders.

Daan van Golden - Compositie met rode ruit uit 1964.

Daan van Golden – Compositie met rode ruit uit 1964.

In the early sixties he turned from abstract expressionism to a more controlled manner of painting. A stay in Japan inspired the artist to translate the objects and patterns around him onto canvas; which he then expanded to a size so large they became abstract visual presences. He applied this mode of working on just about everything; from curtains and wallpaper to wrapping paper and handkerchiefs. At the same time, he included different art historical references, such as the blue by Yves Klein and the geometrical patterns of De Stijl. Van Golden’s reinterpretation of the daily vernacular and mass produced objects can also easily be traced back to Campbell’s soup cans, Andy Warhol or pop art in general.

Andy Warhol, Campbell’s soup cans.

Andy Warhol, Campbell’s soup cans.

This pop art inspired appropriative act, could just as well be found in the way everyday objects of vernacular African descent were perceived, positioned and used in the arts of the twentieth century. They, of course, have been indicated as direct references and inspiration to Picasso and Paul Klee, and are also evident in the works of Chris Marker, Ad van Denderen and Ed van der Elsken. The use of and connection with black diaspora and related references within the arts is numerous. In the ever-referenced exhibition Magiciens de la Terre (1989), Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France, the South African artist Esther Mahlangu exhibited her work.

Esther Mahlangu.

Esther Mahlangu.

The fact that she would normally paint these presented patterns on houses, as part of a traditional way of decorating, relates to the act of highlighting the ‘exotic’, ‘other’ or ‘African’ vernacular within the realm of art; thereby altering perception and considered value – an ‘elevation’ from the decoration of N’debele huts to contemporary artworks in the Centre Pompidou. Mahlangu’s visual language was considered highly Modern due to the primary colours and abstract patterning. Similar patterns and manners of colouring can also be found in the Surinamese textiles, as well as Kuba and Kente cloth on which Jungerman bases his current works. Furthermore, the use of mainly primary colours and grid-related patterns can be traced back to manifold art historical subjects, such as De Stijl, Suprematism, Abstract Expressionism and Modernism. At the same time, it can also be found in the black diaspora, Surinamese culture, the Dutch cultivated landscapes and the blueprints of the cities in the New World.

Exhibition view ‘CROSSING THE WATER’ 2015 Gemeentemuseum The Hague, NL.

Exhibition view ‘CROSSING THE WATER’ 2015 Gemeentemuseum The Hague, NL. Photo © Alice de Groot.

Exhibition view ‘CROSSING THE WATER’ 2015 Gemeentemuseum The Hague, NL.

Exhibition view ‘CROSSING THE WATER’ 2015 Gemeentemuseum The Hague, NL. Photo © Alice de Groot.

Another important component of Jungerman’s current work is the altar-related elements. Here, bottles of Dutch Jenever and candles can often be found. These are used in rituals and offerings, next to cloth, soil, plants and herbs.

In his Gemeentemuseum solo presentation Crossing the Water (11 April – 16 August, 2015) Jungerman constructed an interpretation of the altar that carries precisely all of these elements. Taking into account that both Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich were highly spiritual persona, embeds the work into a transcendental artistic tradition, which can also be found with Wassily Kandinsky, James Turrell and Jackson Pollock. Mondrian’s blue triptych Evolution (1910-1911) is based on theosophic levels of mystical progression towards enlightenment. Malevich is well known for his intention to create art that transcends all earthly meaning and that relates to perceiving different dimensions. The Black Square is considered the culmination of his aims. Jungerman refers to these spiritual elements within the Modern art movements, as well as to Surinamese spiritual components. One such component is kaolin.

Remy Jungerman, Altaren in Werk.

FODU. HOLDER, 2015, 70 x 70 x 95 cm – wood, textile, kaolin(pimba), bottles. Photo © Alice de Groot.

FODU APERRANE 2015, 90 X 90 cm - mdf, textile, kaolin. Photo © Aatjan Renders.

FODU APERRANE 2015, 90 X 90 cm – MDF, textile, kaolin. Photo © Aatjan Renders.

This white clay is used for ceramics and in spiritual rituals, but also utilized as paint. Art historically, the material refers to the earlier addressed Robert Ryman, but also to Piero Manzoni. Manzoni used kaolin as material input for his works. He aimed at excluding the artist from the production process by only dipping his canvases into the paint and letting them dry. Gravity and the interaction of the material with its environment constituted the eventual works. Manzoni’s Achromes, or Colourless Surfaces, from the late fifties are a specific part of gesture painting – relating to Pollock and Fontana – as well as a base for successive conceptual movements.

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Piero Manzoni, Achrome (1957-1963)

Overall it can be said that Remy Jungerman addresses the appreciation of ‘other’ cultures within the Western artistic realm, appropriating visual languages from several cultures, heritages and lineages. In doing so, he uses collage-related manners that metaphorically and conceptually relate to questions of identity, belonging, and the ‘mix and match’ of different cultural backgrounds. Exchanges are of main essence, similar to constituting connections between seemingly different visual languages. Jungerman interweaves different histories into one contemporary object. He connects his practice to the migration of both men and material, and presents autonomous physical carriers of streams of thought that were once separated entities but now join to become a new artefact. By combining different heritages relating to geometric figuration, Jungerman has combined and constructed subjects in which all these elements collide, coalesce, and come together to create a synthesis of meaning, identity and culture; all at once present in his artworks.

HORIZONTAL OBEAH XV, 2015 - 360 x 18 x 6 cm  painted wood, textile.

HORIZONTAL OBEAH XV, 2015 – 360 x 18 x 6 cm painted wood, textile. Photo © Alice de Groot.

HORIZONTAL OBEAH XV, 2015 - 385 x 16 x 14 cm  painted wood, textile.

HORIZONTAL OBEAH XV, 2015 – 385 x 16 x 14 cm painted wood, textile. Photo © Alice de Groot.

Exhibition view ‘CROSSING THE WATER’ 2015 Gemeentemuseum The Hague, NL.

Exhibition view ‘CROSSING THE WATER’ 2015 Gemeentemuseum The Hague, NL. Photo © Alice de Groot.

TRANSITION NKISI, 2015 - 84 x 42 x 40 cm - wood textile, iron nails, kaolin.

TRANSITION NKISI, 2015 – 84 x 42 x 40 cm – wood textile, iron nails, kaolin. Photo © Alice de Groot.

Vincent van Velsen
Vincent van Velsen

Vincent van Velsen (1987) is a critic, writer and curator with a background in art and architectural history. He frequently contributes to Dutch magazine on contemporary art Metropolis M. Aside from working with artists, galleries and institutions such as SMBA, Lo-kaal01, Kunsthuis SYB, Castrum Peregrini and Platform BK. Currently he is a resident at the Jan van Eyck Academy, Maastricht (NL).