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Louise Schouwenberg
December 2008


Yvonne Dröge Wendel and the Quest for the Energy of Things

‘Our lives were organized around the things we possessed. Because my father's place of work changed fairly often, every couple of years, the entire household moved from one little provincial farming village to another. That meant not only that things were moved, but it also meant shifting the fixed relationships between things. A typical Dutch interior was rebuilt, over and over. That was strange, to put it mildly, because we lived in the mountainous areas of southern Germany and Northern Switzerland. Which house my parents would choose largely depended on whether their things would fit, and especially if the living room was large enough for our old carpet. In other words, things actually determined where we lived and how we lived. That has always been an enormous fascination for me.’

This fascination for things became the consistent factor in the career of artist Yvonne Dröge Wendel (b. Karlsruhe, 1961), a career that has seen many curious highlights. In 1992, Yvonne Dröge married Wendel, a decorative cabinet inherited from her mother, and added the name to her own. In 1994, her Renault 16TL was consecrated in Rome. Since 2000, she has organized performances with her Black Ball, a gigantic ball of felted wool, in Leeuwarden, Bolzano, Newcastle, Istanbul, Odense (DK) and Rotterdam. In early 2008, she founded a store for things that still need to be defined: the Item Store. Things that contribute to happiness as intimate objects of affection, things that are worthy of being cherished forever, things that require labels in order to determine their value, things that ask themselves what they actually are: ‘things’ have always been a source of inspiration for scientists, designers and artists. Where others try to find answers, Dröge Wendel is engaged in making the questions more personal. What is my relationship to objects? How do my desires and attitudes manifest themselves in the things around me? How do physical objects determine my behaviour?

Things have several characteristics in common, but they also have distinct differences. According to Martin Heidegger, the German philosopher, by distinguishing the object nature of works of art from, for example, utilitarian objects, we not only gain insight into the distinction, but we also gain insight into what we can understand as truth, as he argued in 1936, in Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes. In a work of art, ultimately, nothing less is taking place than Sich-ins-Werk-Setzen der Wahrheit des Seienden, truth being put to work, because it shows us the struggle between revelation and concealment. The object character of works of art in fact falls away, as it were, as their effect reaches farther than the things themselves. In the case of a functional object, the function corresponds with the thing, which means that the object negates itself in its familiar servitude. Once it has done its work, the hammer is put out of sight. Shoes only attract our attention when they hurt, when they fail to function properly. If they function well, we are no longer even aware that we are wearing them.

More than half a century after Heidegger, people think differently about the functionality of functional objects. Thanks to the explosive increase in welfare in the Western world, the function of the products of design is increasingly shifting towards added value, the meaning or narrative power that the products represent. In the vanguard of the design world, this has resulted in experiments that have broken the constraints of the profession wide open. Conceptual and sculptural chairs and tables have now for decades been presented in museum contexts, as if they were works of art. This same shift has moreover meant a questioning of the essence of art. When, for example, does a work of art become design or styling, and by what means does it achieve its envisioned higher purpose? Added value is indeed not just reserved for the vanguard. At a more basic level as well, it is no longer the instrumental functionality of products that convinces people to buy them. In Western consumer society, everything revolves around the added value of design products that, for example, can make a difference in the distinctive signature of a star designer (as in Prada shoes or Philippe Starck chairs), or in the extravagances of expensive materials and wild explosions of form. It is always new, newer, newest.

With an all-prevailing system of consumerism, value is defined in economic terms and people are consumers. According to the French philosopher, Jean Baudrillard, things function as coded characters, by which we can distinguish ourselves from others. The insider can flawlessly distinguish the types – Prada , Comme des Garçons, H&M, or inexpensive Zeeman. In sophisticated circles, the Martin Margiela non-label is always recognized, and in the Wunderkammers of our consciously styled homes, we demonstrate good taste with what seems like a personal mix of design objects, works of art, souvenirs from overseas and newly purchased heirlooms from the long-gone pasts of other people. The fact that we want to distinguish ourselves with clothing, products and works of art makes us vulnerable to manipulation by the market. We consequently heartily accept being seduced by grand promises and, disillusioned by the actual products, we go right back out in search of new promises. In a world of two much, too much is inevitably more of the same, and with this, the search for new things becomes an objective in itself. Shopping is now just a way to spend our free time, another form of entertainment. Where things were once not only granted long lives, but were expected to have long lives, the objects that occupy our modern lives no longer pretend to either a past or a future.

Over the last decade, the fact that the value of things is increasingly defined in economic terms has also permeated our cultural reach, as we see in the rising importance of galleries, art fairs and auctions. While museums traditionally focus on conservation, collecting and contemplation, the aim of galleries, trade fairs and auctions is the distribution and consumption of art and design. This not only has consequences for value and appreciation, but also for what is being produced. Reflection and discourse require attention, depth and a search for substance, for quality criteria based on content. Consumerism requires readability, seduction, spectacle and communications skills. According to Yvonne Dröge Wendel, ‘The laws of economics have obviously also penetrated the cultural world. It had long been assumed that there would always be a separation between the objects of the art world and the objects of the “real” world, but that idea is now untenable. Today, there are smart refrigerators that can talk to milk bottles, so as an artist, you cannot turn your back on that reality. And the fact that the world is overloaded with images, photographs, videos and television images unquestionably influences how we look at painting. Art is a part of the same system in which all other things also function.’

Things are given a great deal of attention in our contemporary society, but the value that we attribute to them is in doubt. Functional objects that conform to what Heidegger referred to as the essence of their being are, as it were, lost in their expected function. Things that aim to touch the imagination, the works of art and those design products that focus on added value, are also lost in their being objects – their ‘objectness’. As illusory, mediagenic images, they scream for our attention in the glossy magazines, it is here that they take on value, while their material identities either disappear into the private collections of the powerful wealthy or in the trash cans of the quickly-bored consumer. Indeed, consumer society does not tolerate any long-lasting satisfaction. As Dröge Wendel, explains, ‘It is possible for us to throw things away so easily because we apparently do not engage in any particular relationship with those things. Imagine if you were to relate to people that way – that you were to automatically value your most recent friend the most, the newest of the new, the same way that you select your mobile telephone. That makes it clear that we have a strange relationship to things.’

Yvonne Dröge Wendel understood very early on that things demanded loving care because their importance and their power were greater than their functional, purely practical value, and also greater than their speculative economic value. She was formed by her personal history. Her mother's Jewish family had many possessions that were lost during World War II. Her mother survived the Holocaust and received financial compensation from Germany after the war, with which she immediately purchased new things, ‘Mostly vases. Throughout my whole childhood, I saw how my mother defined her identity by way of the objects that she bought for herself and the things that we had inherited from my father's wealthy family. Altogether, it was an enormous collection of paintings, clocks, porcelain figurines, vases and tableware. They were a mega-something to hold onto, not just for my mother, but for me as well. I was in love with my mother and all her valuable things. She was always perfectly attired in well-tailored dresses and high heels on her feet, in a kind of hall of mirrors, in an entourage of antique objects and furniture. For her, all these attributes symbolized the idea of ultimate value and stroked her pride. They even gave her a kind of position of power. Things determined how we as a family lived. They were the most important authors of our lives. As a child, you knew that you had to be extremely careful when walking through the rooms, so that you didn't break anything. I must have also realized at a very young age that something strange was going on. I can, for example, remember asking my father why the Jews didn't move when Nazi Germany became more and more anti-Semitic. He gave me a bizarre answer: You had to realize that they had such an unbelievable amount of things. Even just that piano…. Imagine, the Jews were given the death sentence because they could not part with their possessions. That at least was the way it had always been engraved in my memory.’

Her mother's fascination for collecting beautiful objects was passed down to her, and when Yvonne Dröge was a student, ‘things’ would quickly become her most poignant theme, first at the Rietveld Academy and later at the Rijksacademie in Amsterdam. But collecting things increasingly failed to fit her lifestyle. ‘Actually, it never suited me, because I could never meet the demands that were made by things. That is how it always felt. It was only with a great deal of effort that my mother would give me anything valuable. In her view, I did not live well enough to own them. In time, I moreover noticed that things became a burden, because they took such an incredible amount of space in my house and I always had to look after them and maintain them. As a student, I had very little money and lived in a squat. Economizing was a necessity, because we had to make do with very little. We could find the things that we needed everywhere, on the streets. I could simply not allow myself a lot of extras. You had to have money to be able to take care of things. At the same time, as a student, I had a growing awareness that it was important to nurture your relationship to things, to make it special. Because most people do not get attached to things, they always have to have a new form, a new skin or a new colour. That only reaches the surface. We collect things, yet they have no value to us at all. That is a strange friction, and a very familiar, recognizable friction. In fact, we engage in a daily battle with the material world, because we are always having to ask ourselves if we are going to throw something away or save it. I love that fight, but at the same time, it has something absurd about it. For that reason, in 1992, I made the decision to limit myself to a single thing. It was Wendel, the beautiful little cabinet that was in my mother's bedroom, where she kept all her cosmetics and jewellery. The name was on the bottom of the cabinet. It was apparently made by the German company, Wendel.’

Yvonne Dröge Wendel formally married the little cabinet, promised it eternal fidelity and organized all the rituals that belong with matrimony. In 1994, to celebrate their second anniversary, she published Dröge-Wendel: Objects Make Our World, a book filled with photographs and diary fragments that tell about the loving relationship between cabinet and human. The new bride certainly did not eschew humour in reporting their honeymoon, but it is also very clear that she takes her relationship with the cabinet very seriously. This is evident in the many details that point to the love and attention that she devotes to the needs of the object of her affection. At a certain point, Wendel acquires wheels, so that he can move more easily. When it becomes too hot, she lovingly wraps him in a custom-made cover. This marriage and its documentation communicate Yvonne Dröge Wendel’s message of how miserable we are in the way we relate to the things around us. Caring for the cabinet, however, must necessarily remain a one-way street, as does the entire enterprise. As a non-living thing, the cabinet is in no position to take initiative on its own. Nonetheless, the book shows how satisfying the caring can be, and it generates a distinct kind of loving exchange between person and object.

‘For me, the reciprocity is very clear. Objects were even present as witnesses to the wedding. A cabinet like this will be in service to me for an entire lifetime. This way, it gives me the feeling that it also takes pleasure in being with me.’ A comparable reciprocity is also evident in La Benedizione della Macchina, with which Dröge Wendel won the Prix de Rome in 1994. Here too, events were recorded by means of photographs: the rugged trip to Italy with the Renault 16TL and ultimately, the blessing by a Catholic priest near the Colosseum in Rome. The benediction was meant not for the safety of the owner, but for the beloved automobile. ‘Everything revolved around the Renault. It absorbed the entire journey, as it were. Every movement was determined by the state it was in, its condition. We were not watching the beautiful landscape as we travelled, but the owner’s manual.’

What role the blessing might have played in granting the automobile a long life before giving up the ghost remains unclear. In any case, the trip certainly lengthened its life, because art centres have actually fixed it up before exhibiting it (Le Crédac, Centre d'Art d'Ivry in Paris and Witte de With in Rotterdam). ‘I want to recharge objects with new emotions, create an emotional cradle to cradle. You also see that in Madonna with Child (2001). I added a layer of felt to an existing marble sculpture, so that it functions as a second skin. That clearly offers many possibilities. I could imagine that you could extend the lives of all outdoor bronze sculptures by giving them a second skin. That way you not only protect them, but you also imbue the existing sculptures with new meanings.’

In the same way that objects in Yvonne Dröge Wendel’s work almost become creatures of flesh and blood in need of loving attention, in his seven-part novel, À la recherche du temps perdu (1909-1922), Marcel Proust described how perfectly things lend themselves to the projection of our desires and to absorbing our stories. Proust justified and explained why it is worth our while to intimately treasure things, at both the physical and the emotional levels. ‘As soon as each hour of one’s life has died, it embodies itself in some material object, as do the souls of the dead in certain folk stories, and hides there. There it remains captive, captive forever, unless we should happen on the object, recognize what lies within, call it by its name, and set it free.’ (Contre Sainte-Beuve, 1908)

We recognize and treasure things in their physical capacities because our most important human experience is a physical être-au-monde, being in the world (Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phénoménologie de la perception, 1945). According to Merleau-Ponty, we have for centuries been aiming all our arrows at our supposed superior power of thought, while that reasoning is in fact unthinkable outside our physical being. We give sense and meaning to the world by way of our bodies. Before we can give a name to what we see on another level of consciousness, to our experiences, or to things, we have already acquired knowledge of that space in a purely bodily, or physical sense, knowledge about things in that space, about the relationships that we have with them. While the function of things in Proust’s and Merleau-Ponty’s day still centred on furniture and basic functional objects, the experience also applies to contemporary technological ‘things’, such as computers and mobile telephones. Consciously or otherwise, it is because of our physical senses that we know how the chair feels, how the contour of the screen defines itself against a background and how the mouse moves over a mouse pad until it reaches the edge and runs into interference. That experience colours our journey in virtual reality. Our perception of the world, regardless of whether it is physical or virtual, begins with our being bodily, physically present in the world.

Merleau-Ponty ascribed considerable value to the physical rapport between person and thing. He nonetheless followed his predecessors in making a distinction between subject and object and placed the subject markedly higher on the hierarchical scale. Indeed, perception begins with the person. But each subject is also an object, and one could ascribe more power to each object than just its inert, passive relationship to people. Yvonne Dröge Wendel refutes the idea that there is a hard break between the person and the thing, agreeing with the vision of anthropologist and philosopher Bruno Latour. In the past, anthropologists and archaeologists studied artefacts for whatever functional value they once possessed. Since the 1970s, increasing attention is being paid to the (symbolic) meanings that are expressed by the things with which people surround themselves over time, and to the social relationships within which these things function. Only in the last few years, in so-called Material Culture Studies, are people focussing attention on the things themselves, to their material and functional characteristics. Here, one avoids the danger that the influence of things is reduced to their function or their symbolic meaning, as that would be turning back in time. Things not only invite a given use (perceptual theorist J.J. Gibson coined the word ‘affordance’ for this), they represent not only symbolic and social meanings, but they also ‘do’ something. They are themselves actors that exert influence over the behaviour and the thinking of people, and vice versa. This revolutionary approach also brings a change in thinking about the relationship between man and thing, subject and object, or the mental and the material, entities that are not opposed to one another, as they have been supposed to be during the entire history of Western philosophy. Bruno Latour even completely avoids the words ‘subject’ and ‘object’, speaking of hybrid ‘actants’ who are always a part of any network of relationships.

Just as things regulated life during her childhood, Yvonne Dröge Wendel believes that the things with which we surround ourselves in everyday life possess greater power than we are accustomed to thinking. ‘Material things carry feelings. They have character. But what they are, precisely, how these determine our lives, is difficult to understand. Some of my projects, such as my marriage to Wendel and the blessing of my Renault, seem to be protests against the consumer society, protests against the loveless manner in which we deal with things. To a degree, that is true, but for me, that is not what it is really about. I am not trying to preach or moralize about consumer behaviour, or the way the market works. I want to show something about my struggle with this difficult material. We have never given justice to things. We see them as art objects or as functional objects. We worship them on pedestals or have no qualms about throwing them away. But how things influence our behaviour and even our lives, and how we are inevitably who we are because of our relationships to things and their contexts, are phenomena for which we have not as yet even developed a language. Many artists have rejected the material, the thing, but I am interested in understanding the relationships between people, things and contexts, and knowing how to translate that in objects and installations. We live in a new era, but we look at things with the concepts of the past. We still uphold inadequate categories that have long since made no more sense in the contemporary age. Jacques Tati convincingly showed that friction decades ago in his films, Mon Oncle and Playtime. We need a new language. In my work, I show something of that quest, that struggle.’

In her search for a balanced and mutually enriching interaction between person and thing, Dröge Wendel uses different approaches. The objects in her earlier projects consistently possessed a definite form and clear function, as a starting point for playing with meanings in relation to herself. In her more recent works, the forms have become more neutral, or more diffuse. Because of this, they invite more interaction. ‘Even before I went to art school, I was curious about the mutual effects between things and users. I built that into my half-finished clothing designs that I made when I was around 23, for my fashion boutique. The user had to complete the designs.’ Active participation by the user is an even greater desire in her recent work, her ‘just enough’ forms, which possess just enough character of their own to be recognized as ‘something’, but not enough to definitively identify them. They are neutral, ambiguous, or in her words, ‘challenging constellations of restrictions’. They are inclined to be something, so they are not formless. Nor are they useless. Instead, they allow the viewer a great deal of freedom in binding his or her own thoughts to them.

‘This way, the interaction is already built into them, by definition. I am myself a part of the object, and that is also true for the viewer.’ Black Ball (2000) has a diameter of 350cm. It is made of a rubber ball filled with air and has a skin of black, felted wool. The ball travels to various cities, where it is rolled through the streets by coincidental passers-by. Its journey is recorded in photographs. ‘The ball has to infiltrate the structure of a city, like a conspicuous, alien object, in order to make the structure of the city visible. It contains just enough traits or characteristics of its own to be both nothing – emptiness – and to give a framework for the imagination to flourish. I wanted it to work as a kind of black hole, an empty space that inspires creating stories of your own, a surface for projection that can say something about people, but nothing about itself. Because of its ambiguous character, as it moves through the streets, it continually creates new situations that demand a response. Participation by the public is an essential part of the work. Finally, the people literally determine where the ball will roll, and with that, which stories and events the ball “experiences”. The photographs present a network of relationships.’

In Item Store (2008), ambiguous forms are strewn about, ready to be picked up, in what looks to be a purposeful space. The forms are provided with a variety of labels. Balancing on the fence between ‘something’ and ‘nothing’, and possessing ‘just enough qualities’, they await the meanings that they will all acquire in the perception of the viewers. And viewers are all too happy for them to be ‘something’! Indeed, we do not know what to do with ‘nothing’. ‘They must become things that you can never throw away. Something that has no function can never lose that function, and in this way, its value remains forever open. I have a great fascination for non-functional things. We acquire them in order to acquire identity. In order to relate to things, all we need is a label. It was extremely difficult to create forms and select colours and materials that do not by definition already evoke some kind of recognition and fixed identity. In our Western consumer society, everything is already defined. We can certainly no longer look with an open mind at what a product might mean to us. With each product, we also get a whole constellation of rules accompanying it, and those rules determine our exact behaviour. That is death to the imagination! You are not allowed to use the toothbrush as a nail brush. That is the communication. That is, for example, very different in Africa and parts of China. In China, people use washing machines to wash potatoes. Here, the only place where we can resolve that dilemma of labelling is perhaps the visual arts, or design.’

By working with functional objects, Dröge Wendel intentionally operates in the design domain. There, she meets kindred spirits, including designer Jurgen Bey, whose products ask essential questions and appeal to a richer imagination than the limited ‘affordance’ that most products provide. ‘In his tree trunk with bronze back supports, Bey not only presents more possibilities for sitting down, he also opens up what is essential about sitting. He labels his work as an industrial product, yet at the same time, he undermines that label.’

People and things, things and people are equal partners in a world that does everything in its power to tie them both down with rules and labelled patterns of expectations. Yvonne Dröge Wendel does not see things as unresisting victims of our obsession with labelling. These things can turn against us. We can always imagine a turning point when they no longer do what we want them to do. A pistol does not know its owner, according to Yvonne Dröge Wendel’s other husband, artist Saliou Traoré. As soon as it falls into the wrong hands, it can turn its destructive power against you. She adds, ‘We express ourselves in things. Things are the extensions of our bodies. But as soon as we really get attached to things, we are to some degree afraid of them. When do you trust a thing because it still serves you and when does it start to lead a life of its own, even turn against you? Science fiction films often make use of this fear. But it is also visible in ordinary scenes, such as when someone gets snagged on his own belt, or the bus starts to drive away while your jacket is stuck in the door. In our consumer society, we put complete trust in the owner's manuals that are delivered with the products. That is a kind of protection against things operating on their own. It is ultimately always about the combination of person, things and the context in which they are found. I want to design that process, the aesthetic process in which that interaction is not only imagined, but initiated. When you learn to trust your intuition and your imagination, you can become bound to things in an even match. You then easily accept them as the fellow actors that they are.’

Jean Baudrillard, Le Système des Objets, 1968
Martin Heidegger, Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes, 1936
Maartje Hoogsteyns, Artefact Mens, 2008
Bruno Latour, ‘Can We Get Our Materialism Back, Please’, 2006
Henk Oosterling, Radicale Middelmatigheid, 2000
Marcel Proust, Contre Sainte Beuve, 1908
Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu, 1909-1922