herman de vries (1999)
in the earlier centuries, scientists and men of learning were dispatched or undertook an enlightened form of performance that we now call the voyage of discovery. in this drama, the new lands of the non-europeanized borders were made known, their fauna glimpsed and categorized, and their geographies mapped and seen. today's world is now so overly known that different works are needed, and different undertakings have to begin. in this regard, the lifework of artists such as herman de vries, begin a new chapter in the continuing diaogue between humans and their environment.
de vries began his own voyages in the 1950's, which can be seen as one of re-covery. the point of such a voyage, of it's searches and discoveries, was not to find the new and unknown, but to rediscover the known anew. de vries does not intend to add to the long lists, but to broaden and re-orient them.
when a work of hermans is first encountered, whether it is a small sheet of paper with collected plants attached, or a large floor installation of mounded materials, the work is readily apparent and available. we see the substance of the plant, the color of the soil, perhaps some notes as to its geographic origin. beyond that, there is no overlaid mystery, no artistic 'technique', no plot or narrative. to encounter the world through de vries's work requires an ascendance of the ontological method over the teleological. in his work, being comes before meaning and design.
in his article, 'relations of nature (sign, specimen, sacrifice)', david reason spoke of herman de vries's work as being based in the idea of the sample, as opposed to the sign or image. this distinction is more than an academic one, for the very nature of what we take our art to be, what it actually is for us as a society, is an indicator of how we see ourselves in relation to what is external. this might be the environment, nature, another human or the product of someone else's creative force. if the world outside of our minds, perceived by our senses, is a forest of signs, shifting in meaning and plastic in form, why should we give it much more thought than we would in choosing a brand of toothpaste? if the world is knowable, discernable by it's pieces and samples, then it becomes is something that can be related to with a measure of trust, constancy, and perception.
in grappling with this distinction, reason states: "de vries's art pursues its quarry of presenting the material of life as directly as possible, in a form which is far too real to mean anything. he cannot rest content with signs of nature, for signs point without getting their fingers dirty ..." [1. David Reason, 'Relations of Nature (Sign, Specimen, Sacrifice)', in exhibition catalogue herman de vries : from earth (cairn gallery : nailsworth 1990)]. the distancing mechanism which contemporary life and contemporary art seek to require of us are not a part of de vries's work. the part is always directed towards a comprehension or summation of the whole. later in the essay, reason continues this thought:
"neither sign nor image but a token of the thing itselÍ... (yet) the sample is not the thing itself even though it speaks immediately, as it were, of the substance of the thing itself. separate, the sample nonetheless still participates in that of which it is a sample." [2. ibid..]
born in northern holland and trained as a botanist, herman de vries began his art career in the 1950's, working in tandem with artists of the zero movement which included piero manzoni, yves klein, and otto piene, de vries produced reductive white paintings and initiated a decade long exploration into the use of chance procedures to create the collage works entitled: random objectivations. in the early 1970's de vries left his post at the institute of applied biology in nature and went to live in eschenau, a small village in northern bavaria, on the edge of the steigerwald.
once there, de vries began to work directly with nature, presenting and selecting objects and circumstances from the larger environment. with the artist's declaration "my poetry is the world", these works in nature have continued to the present day, reflecting the artist's interest in chance, change and the environment.
one of the first works by de vries which brought this to light for me was a simple edition which he made in 1976, entitled october, february, june. this work serves to illustrate the connections that herman had made between his past training and life as a biologist, his interest in the intersections of chance procedures and non-involvement, and his decision to work with ideas of process and collaboration as methodology for practicing an expanded art. this work, which consists of 3 leaves from the same tree collected over a span of several months, presents the case that the natural world provides its own excellent examples of how these theoretical positions can and do intersect.
the title of this work, october, february, june (which refers to the 3 months wherein one of each oÍ the leaves was collected), effectively introduces process into the matter, and the reading, of this piece. using an act of selection over one of creation, de vries asserts a biologists mindset onto the production of images. why make something, it asks, when so many things are being made without you? rather than generating a work of art, generate a system (in this case, it is the experimental parameters of a sequence of months designated for collecting). this will allow a work of art to be seen or happened upon.
herman proposed several ideas for a large scale floor piece to be installed at refusalon, mounds of lavender, dried roses... fragrant and colorful masses of accumulated flowers. these works affect other senses far more diligently than they work the eyes. herman also suggested the installation of an equal amount of hemp and oat seeds, lying in 2 squares, side by side. remarking on the choice to include the hemp and oats, herman commented: it is not so much about smell with this floor piece, but in the very different visual properties which the 2 seeds have. When you see them, you see how different they are. Alongside the illustrations of the diÍÍerent seeds in this catalogue, a small sample of them has been included. through this inclusion, the catalogue contains an axiomatic reduction of the larger floor piece.
there is a curious sort of symmetry to having such a floor work by the artist beside his more contained works on paper: the earth rubbings and the small, framed selections of natural materials. the works on paper are each samples from a specific place and they maintain this connection within the gallery. they are specific, and navigate backwards (or forwards) to larger places, environments, wholes. the floor works turn this relationship around. in these the material is gathered together from many places, many plants, many different gardens and fields. these assemblies lack a central origin, so we are left with the option oÍ letting them be wholly here for us. they are in this room, as present as we might be, regarding them.
it is in the field of hemp and oats that a question re-arises. where indeed is herman's art? works such as herman's require a new geography of art to be written, one that seeks to find the source and location of the new forms of expression which arise in the minds of the artists' of our time.
if the hemp squares are broken down into 2 separate pieces, 4 different smaller piles, or into an series of a hundred smaller divisions, the artwork remains the same. for the work is not these seeds, or how many seeds, or even how the seeds are seen or arranged. the artist intends a subtler location for the work. this is found in the moment, the space, of comparison between a hemp seed and an oat seed. that is where the work itself, the actual work, lies.
the question of where becomes more important than the question of what in this new geography of art. this is perhaps why contemporary art history must transform itself into aesthetic geography, a shift of discipline and perspective. the challenge is now not just for us to see, but to travel, either across time or across space, and to arrive. this landfall is made at the point of conception, the actual location of the work,or at the recognition of an action or an external factor beyond our mind or eyes, which perhaps is simply right before them.
source: Ted Purves, herman de vries', in foldout for the exhibition 'works from there and here. herman de vries and chris drury' (Refusalon Gallery : San Francisco 1999).