05.09.2019 | Words by: Liza Strakhova
The first thing I see when I load the webpage is a photo of a beige double-leaf door with two big windows in it. The glass is covered with bubble wrap that creates a layer of haze that blurs the interior of Machteld Rullens's studio. The keys are inside of the door as if extending an invitation to enter her universe. This gesture is a great example of Machteld’s ability to create a rich experience of space that extends beyond the flat surface of a photograph or a painting, a space that reaches out to the viewer without giving away too much. Supported by the wall with one side concealed, her works remind me of portals prompting a speculation about the invisible and how far it extends. Prior to her exhibition ‘Like Water in Water’ in the corridor and the Cafe of De School, we sat down to discuss her practice.
Q: Even though your works are three-dimensional it seems like they cannot be fully separated from the medium of painting. I would describe it as a very spatial take on a painting. How did you start merging these mediums?
A: I have never studied sculpture or painting. Instead I studied conceptual art, but about 5 years ago I did a residency in Paris with a French-Algerian artist Neïl Beloufa who works with film and sculpture. It actually happened by accident. He mentioned to people in Den Haag that he was building a résidence, meaning his own house, whereas people here understood that he had space for a residency. At his studio I learned to weld and work with resin, it was then that I fell in love with the material and proceeded to explore it further and bring it into my personal practice. I’ve always admired painting as an artform but I feel that thinking spatially pushes me further, allows me to capture the feeling of time and gives more freedom and room for experimentation. I can see why you would relate it to painting but I never use brushes to apply resin, instead I rub it with my fingers or sleeve or pour it in... resin requires its own approach. After five years of working with the material and understanding its behaviour I still like to rediscover it and be surprised by it, search for the beginner's luck. For my latest works with cardboard I used the material that is commonly discarded. Everyone orders things online and then has all these boxes at home or throws them out. I actually used the boxes in which canvases came. I ordered them because I intended to make a painting but I was so afraid to touch the white canvas. I thought to myself ‘I don’t like this’, however, I can handle the box in which it was delivered in. When you pour resin on top of the cardboard it becomes totally stiff so you can shape it and it will stay that way. Another upside to using boxes was their modularity, I could shape them and rearrange them as I wished.
Q: The reason why I referred to your works as both sculptures and paintings is because even though you operate with volumes and use materials and techniques common to sculpture most of your works exist on a wall. With ‘Like Water in Water’ series especially, it feels like you are rethinking all elements of a painting. The metal frames that create a gap between the wall and the ‘canvas’ seem to include the wall into your works as well as let the air and light inside of it. It feels like you leave some room for the world to enter. Do you consider the environment as a part of your sculpture? How site specific is your work?
A: I think I get quite influenced by my studio space that looks a bit like a laboratory, covered in white tiles and located in a technical space of an old school similar to De School. Space is very important and can have a big impact on me, however, I don’t want to make site specific works anymore. Working with a specific site made me very nervous because I could only see whether things fell into place at the very last moment. It’s interesting what you say about letting in the light and getting out of the wall but into the wall at the same time and playing with these elements. When I produce works at my studio you can say that I lose and gain control over them at the same time. During the creation process the place where the work will be exhibited is becoming less and less important because the work already contains space and light and colour in itself.
Q: I noticed that your works don’t have titles per se but they are united by the name of the exhibition ‘Like Water in Water’. Do you see them as one piece or are they united by a desire to explore certain qualities of a material or come from a particular source of inspiration?
A: When I was thinking about what the works mean to me and how to put together the exhibition I came across a line ‘like water in water’ in a book I was looking through. I felt it was very grabbing because it talked about flows of the same material in each other, two things being separate and one at the same time. I am not sure if the series are finished yet but I do see the works as continuation of one another. Sometimes I’m dissatisfied with the work so I leave it at my studio and two years later put a new layer on it. For me they are small histories and I know exactly how I felt when I did another layer. I think I have not yet had the time to look at each individual work and give it its own title. In a few years, after taking some distance, it is easier to see what I wanted to say and give it a name. For now, they just have sub names like ‘The Blue One’ or ‘The Pink One’.
Q: You use an initially liquid material that hardens to capture the behaviour of a liquid, you almost freeze liquidity. Even though resin in its liquid state possesses similar material qualities to water it does not feel like you are trying to mimic water, use it to create a literal representation of water be it a river, an ocean or a puddle. Your works seem rather like a speculation on water as a matter, on its origins and narratives behind it. How do you translate water in your work?
A: I live next to the sea so water is always very important. It is a recurring theme throughout my general works. One of my previous pieces was a record with sounds of the harbour and a choir of men who sing songs about the sea. They sing phonetically so sometimes they don’t understand what they are actually singing about. They have a list of a hundred songs that are called Shanty songs. They are written in different languages because they used to be sung on ships. This practice is dying out because these men are seventy – eighty years old and not enough young people are interested in songs about the sea... Sea and water has always been inspiring, but I don’t want to be literal, I let it evolve into something else. I like what you say about resin being a watery substance that I freeze for a moment but I also don’t know how the resin will preserve and look in ten or fifteen years. I don’t know how much colour will stay in it, hopefully a lot. I have no control over that.
Q: I noticed that you incorporated comic patterns in your works. They are commonly used in manga comics to represent space and texture of the world without depicting specific objects. For example, a gradient as a background can give you an idea of light and depth of the space without showing anything concrete. Your works seem to have similar traits. Can you tell me about how these patterns found their way into your works?
A: Recently, I went to a residency in Japan where in one of the overwhelmingly huge art supplies shops I found these manga backgrounds. I was drawn to them because they represent space and tell something about a story without being specific due to the absence of a main character. Once I came back, I glued some to the window of my studio and was inspired by the way light went through them so I integrated them into my works.
Q: In this series of works you combine very intricate and natural looking elements that resemble traditional Japanese art with signs that seem to refer to more contemporary manga or anime. Do you think that your time in Japan has influenced your work among other things stylistically? Are the signs referencing something specific?
A: The signs I made up. People use tags to say I was here, they mean nothing but they look like they mean something. I put them on a gold leaf so it becomes a question of how much is a tag worth? Can I appropriate this cultural element of teenagers? Do you know how they fix pots in Japan? They pour gold down the crack fixing and giving value to something broken. It is called Kintsuki and I really like this way of thinking. As a western society we are concerned with experiencing things ourselves, we think ten years ahead. There, on the other hand, people are concerned with how things will be after a hundred years when they are not alive anymore. I think that is something we can learn from. It is interesting to hear the connections you make. I believe a lot of those things happen without me realizing it yet. Maybe after a while I’ll look at my works and be able to see the influence and say that I made this after I came from Japan. I came back from the residency only a month ago and I have been making these works from 2015 up till now. I guess they evolve with each iteration, each new layer.
Photo by: Stine Sampers
Machteld Rullens's work will be on show in Cafe and Restaurant DS from September 6th until the 29th of October.