On the Big Black Ball
I got back onto the train and felt like I was somehow cleaner than three hours before, when I had arrived in the small town of Leeuwarden. I wanted to sit somewhere with facing seats, so that I could talk to someone; anyone really, and tell them about how cool it was to play outside that day. The sun was still out, but it was a little misty; that fall-time mist which kind of works like a comforting glue, linking people walking around in it - it hung everywhere. It has a way, like snow does (not rain though), of making us compatriots and neighbours.
I felt like I had experienced something new - but not really; that I had experienced something I hadn't in a while - but recognised from before; that I had visited someone I hadnít seen in a long time - someone I
hadnít realised I had missed. I felt like telling everyone (and anyone would have done, because right then I felt like anyone could be my friend) that I could teach them a new game; with an excitement one feels when carrying a new piece of important information, which you are certain will make someone else
happy; and, with the assured weight of a full guarantee, I could claim that they should try it too - because I knew they would like it.
A ladybug sat on my shoulder and I got into a two-seater spot by myself. I couldn't really share whatever happened that afternoon in Leeuwarden, I realised as I stepped into the train and saw all my potential friends seated. Not really. And I realised then that it was part of the point: all games can be explained, of course, but the best games have to be played in order to be enjoyed.
"Can art get down from its pedestal and rise to street level?", Daniel Buren once asked.* Naturally, 'yes' is his answer; a 'no' would have seemed far too arrogant and unapologetically elitist. Worse, a 'noí would have come across as cynical. Haughty and cynical and defeatist even. For it is implied that - should art fail at an attempt to come off its pedestal - it will not continue to survive as it has after this effort, at least not survive healthily.
So when read a second time, one understands that the 'yes' (read: a 'YES!' full of the fervour of revolution) is already poorly camouflaged in what appears at first to be a simple statement. Once again: to rise to street level, Buren claims - and that after having just stepped down from a pedestal - art must renounce its solitary position, its lofty outlook. Letís look at that more closely: art on a pedestal, i.e. set up on a throne, set apart (From what? From the street, I assume. The street to which it may return, if and only if it can manage to RISE UP to it. 'Return' I say, a Freudian slip. Was it ever there?) from real life - the street - will attempt to (hopefully - and I say hopefully because I notice a hint of wishful thinking) break through its chains of splendid isolation and (finally - and I say finally because I perceive an intimation of idealism) enter the arena of the real. The street.
Buren goes on to say: "The habit artists have got into over more than a hundred years, of working - consciously or not - for a specific and sometimes enlightened public, that of the museum, has caused it to become drastically cut off from a public that could be just as enlightened but is not specialist, and which, above all, has never received artistic education. In the street, the artist suddenly finds himself confronted with this reality. This reality changes everything."*
In other words: it wonít be easy, this rise up to street level. It necessitates competition; competition with the spectacle of all other things, all other amusement, all other objects which have long been a part of street life. Above all, art will find itself in crooked rivalry with all other things, which have never been put on the street with the intention of critical, meaningful, challenging, and perhaps even subversive longevity.
Yvonne Dröge-Wendel stood back from her (3.5 m in diameter) black, felted ball and watched as others rolled it through Leeuwarden. She stood back from her work, as its maker, and allowed others to complete it; over and over again. She distanced herself from the ball enabling it to become an interface, a trigger, a neutral sponge for others' symbolism.
"Every art work must be completed by the viewer", she explains weeks later, as we sit and discuss the big, black ball. The last time I visited her studio we sat next to the ball and pushed it as we talked, rocking it back and forth. It was so big then that it took up most of the space in the room and when you pushed it away, it bounced off the wall and came back to your outstretched arm within seconds. But it did so softly, like a big awkward bear; the bear you imagine all beautiful bears to be. Not the real bear, the bear who will attack and swallow you whole.
"The ball was meant to be a Ďopení object. It was meant to absorb the stories of those who came into contact with it; it was to be a kind of icon for those stories, but one which formed to them without interfering itself."
A big, neutral bear? Is there such a thing?
"The difficulty of, on the one hand, wanting to coordinate a situation and remain in control of it and, on the other, needing to let go of it so that it will succeed was a constant challenge in Leeuwarden; and one Iíve often dealt with in my former projects. In my work, I often want physical involvement, I want to allow for a physical link between different people. The relationship between people .. or myself .. and objects, is a central question in my work. By relationship I mean both the physical and the mental component. It is an important objective for me to develop a mechanism whereby I can enter these relationships and develop a visual language that can express these dialogues. How can I conduct myself in relation to an object. How do I manifest myself my attitude toward an object within my environment? Is there a mutually enriching experience between object and human subject ?
When I started to work with these questions I chose objects that had clearly identifiable values and meaning attached to them, e.g. a cupboard or an automobile. With development of time I searched for more clarity. I began to look for objects that were more neutral in their significance, with less readily identifiable characteristics such as colour and form in order that their meaning and function became more abstract. Now I am somehow looking for objects that have a permeable surface.
I definitely didnít choose the form of the ball and the black material because it looks nice. Many artists, maybe even every second artist, have produced balls, in that sense itís really not something new. What makes this ball different, in my opinion, is that is was made to interact and to collect stories.
It just fitted through the small streets, leaving 20 cm on each side. The weight and the material of cause are also essential. Itís made from pure wool and itís made in one piece, no stitching. Only felted wool and inside a rubber form filled with air. itís big, but to me it somehow looks more like a black Ďnothingnessí than an object. Unfortunately, in Leeuwarden it not only attracted stories but also leaves got attached to it. Than itís character changed. itís something the object just does. I often took off the leaves, because I didnít want it to reveal itís character. I wanted it to allow others to attach their meanings to it".
ďI had created a certain basis. It could be aggressive and mean but also very sweet. However, it was really up to those who came into contact with it to decide. Its colour and its size were the basis. Black was very important because it is somehow neutral, but at the same time confusing and undefined; it doesnít force itself upon you, it acts more as if it were a sponge. The ball's size was crucial for the same reason: it commanded respect but at the same time was very 'inviting' or rather very 'present'. Being so big, you Couldnít easily miss it nor was it something you would want to miss. Somehow it managed to seduce and attracted attention."
Yvonne described how she initially saw the ballís potential as being one which could subvert a city structure: ďI wanted to infiltrate a standing configuration in order to make it visible again. By bringing in a strange object, I could make an underlying mechanism observable and, at the same time, let this new object act as a kind of link. For instance, having such a large object in the city can make the rules and regulations of public order very obvious. How large can something be before you, as a citizen, require a special permit to 'own' it? At what times of the day is one permitted to travel with it? Where does one park it? Is one allowed to bring it into closed public spaces, bars, parking lots, churches? I could have made a point of collecting all the required permits from the ministry of public space - this could have worked as well to shed light on an otherwise concealed and so-called 'logicalí order - but I decided to make that order clear through action instead. Getting the permits would have been more passive."
Are you pleased with the end results, with all the attention the big black ball received? Are the results the ones you had anticipated?
ďThe people in Leeuwarden were very open, and full of fantasy. They provided me with many beautiful and intense moments. I even thought it would have been interesting to have the ball placed in someone's house for say a week, to have them live with the ball and to then see what arises out of their contact with it. I wanted the ball to be more abstract and work more as a trigger than a supplier of (forced) circumstances where people might feel obliged to react. The ball took over the situation, I only stood by to help".
And your initial plans to make appointments with chosen people at chosen times; did you hold on to that?
ďWhen I thought up that idea, right up to when I actually finished making the ball, I had planned to have more of a fixed itinerary. For example, one important meeting was with the refugee centre in Leeuwarden. I had an idea that the ball could become a symbol for waiting, with refugee people sitting around it in some public space. I wanted it to become a concrete form of the hours and days and months refugees spend waiting for their legal status in Holland. Not a monument, but more like a petrified yet still variable, black spot equalling emotion.
But again, I had to realise that the ball dictated its own route in many aspects, by day but also by night. When I was in Leeuwarden and started working, I had to give into the situations as they came. Some of the appointments I had planned in Amsterdam felt artificial once on location".
You called the experiences 'pure' because they were spontaneous and because they never took place in a sectioned off, made-for-art-space or institution. This implies that they also have to be unique, happen in the moment and remain unedited. How does a catalogue like this one fit into your thinking on this project? How do you feel about documenting such actions?
ďThe main thing now is the there and then, what happened in Leeuwarden; the documentation of that specific moment can never be as strong as the moment itself. Nevertheless, documenting is important to me.
And doing it right has to do with control, as we talked about before: I have to give up some in order to let others take the story on, making it part of little histories. If those responsible can translate the experiences of their 'there-and-then' into stories which also become parts of the project in their own right, then I'm happy."
But then again, come to think of it, the big black ball wasn't always so harmless and soft and sheepish. When I rolled it around Leeuwarden on that sunny Sunday fall afternoon, I was worried a little. Worried Iíd get hurt or it would, or a car on the street. I pushed it through small streets into a small park, together with a kid I met along the way who thought it was a great idea and had jumped in to help. We pushed it right into a short brick wall.
Next to the wall was a staircase leading to the lower level of the playground. On the other side of the short wall was a two-meter drop to the monkey bars. We had rolled it into the wall hard, because we hadn't seen it was there - you canít see over the ball, you have to look around it and then communicate direction and positioning by loudly shouting to one another - and then went around to check the damage. None to the ball, none to the tree below, whose branches were gripping here and there onto the black felt.
We assessed: would we try again, heave-and-ho until the ball had enough momentum to bounce off and up and down onto the lower playground? Or would we go around and attempt the tight staircase, squeezing it through its much too narrow sides, raising it up so as to avoid the bump of each step, and rolling it downwards until it lands, liberated on lower, freer ground?
We did the latter.
And I swear I was working up a sweat - and I think he was too - as we pushed and pushed: we were both completely involved in the ritual we had constructed for ourselves; totally convinced of the importance of getting our ball down to the lower level. And then we did. It landed, after the last shove, next to the swings in the middle of the square; we braked for a moment to enjoy the results and take up the new situation. And quickly enough, without so much as a seconds glance of mild alarm, we both realised that there was no other way out than back up those stairs. We had to start all over again, retrace backwards.
Can art get down from its pedestal and rise to street level? My answer would have to be no. Why? Because if it did or if it had, I never would have pushed the big, black ball around Leeuwarden. I would never even have seen it.
*) Catalogue for the Münster Skulptur Projekte, in 1997
participating artists: R.G.A. Gerlach (The Hague)- Madeleine Hatz (New York)- Harmen de Hoop (Amsterdam)- Sjaak Langenberg (Hertogenbosch)- Yvonne Dröge Wendel (Amsterdam). Public Interests is co-curated by V.H. de Gemeente Foundation (Wim Bosch, Gerlof Hamersma, Wytze Visser), Gerard Groenewoud and Kie Ellens and organized by Andrea Müller.