nature, myth and morality

In 1985, Nol de Koning made a start with five paintings about the seventh ring of hell from Dante's Inferno; the area where violent criminals, squanderers, fanatics and usurers undergo their punishment. These paintings form the basis of Terra Morale, a cycle of video works. Together, the installations presented can be interpreted as a paysage moralisé. In both form and content, they are inspired by the classical literature (Dante, Virgil, Vitruvius, Hesiod). 'Where heaven and earth, sea and wind, lightning and volcanoes are constantly used as metaphors for developments in and around the inner world of the characters, and for the spiritual, cosmological and political ideas unfolded' (V. Pöschl). This is why landscapes and elements from nature play an important role in Nol de Koning's video works. But such writers as Borges, Gombrowicz, Lautréamont and Connolly have also greatly influenced his work. Nol de Koning combines his work with music, sound and contemporary TV footage.

Video installation Palinouro

From January 25th to February 12th, the exhibition Terra Morale – Malebolge was presented at the Netherlands Media Art Institute. This exhibition included six video installations, four works from to the period 1987-1992: Bulicame (1987/1988), Palinuro (1989), Miseno (1990), and Vulcano Eolico (1991/1992), and two recent installations: Malebolge (1999) and Nox Umida (1999).

>50% beeld (>50% image)
The second edition of >50% beeld, which took place on January 18th, was devoted entirely to this exhibition. The full evening's programme included two lectures and a discussion. Nol de Koning gave a lecture on his own interpretation of the art-historical concept of paysage moralisé, under the title: Terra Morale: nature, myth and morality. De Koning spoke about the relationship of word and image in his work, and about the meaning of the myths, notably that of the 'golden bough' from the 6th book of Virgil's Aeneid. Moreover, he showed various slides of works by painters whom he chose as his examples, among others, Giorgione, Nicolas Poussin, Paul Cézanne, Yves Klein and Cy Twombly. David Rijser (classicist, critic for the newspaper NRC Handelsblad) was invited to be the second speaker. Like a true rhetorician, he delivered a trenchant lecture on Virgil and the way he incorporated the Southern-Italian landscape in his poetry, which was illustrated by slides from Rijser's private collection. The same landscapes form a motif in Nol de Koning's works. Jan Hein Sassen (visual-art curator at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam) was invited to be panel chairman during the discussion afterwards, in which the audience also participated. Jan Hein Sassen already knew De Koning when the latter was still working as a painter and graphic artist, and when later he changed over to the medium of video.

Palinouro stills

In the context of this >50% beeld session, we asked Nol de Koning three questions about subjects that came up for discussion. This article also includes David Rijser's response to Nol de Koning's work.

Referring to your changeover from painting to video, and knowing about your preference for Cézanne and Poussin, Jan Hein Sassen asked you whether – unlike the younger generation and what they are doing with video - you are trying to make classical art with this new medium, just as you were trying to create a classical image in your paintings.

My changeover from painting and graphic art to video art was largely caused by the turnabout, around 1980, in the development of visual art, which put an end to avant-garde thinking in the arts. I, too, felt that with only very few exceptions, avant-garde art, which was my breeding ground, had reached a dead end, and that the visual arts, including my own work, was in dire need of change.

I notably experienced this when in 1982, I visited Kassel for Documenta 7, which was organized by Rudi Fuchs. On the one hand, this visit meant a confrontation with art that I loved, but had already become classic itself, and on the other, with new, so-called post-avant-gardist developments, such as the 'Young Italians' and the German 'Neue Wilden', with whom I had little affinity. What did fascinate me were works by certain American artists, who linked their visual art with film, video, music and photography. Particularly the video installation PM-Magazine by Dara Birnbaum made an enormous impression on me. I had the feeling that works such as these, rather than paintings, would be able to innovate the visual arts in both form and content, but this did not mean that I immediately wanted to start making this kind of work myself. I regarded the work of these artists as that of a distinctly different generation – one with a totally different background. At the time, the effect of this experience was that I abandoned my painting and graphic art, and, for a period of two years, stopped making visual art altogether.

When after this period, which I mainly spent reading, I went back to work, I first started painting again, but this time as part of what you could call installations, and from this form of painting I moved on to actually making video installations. This does not mean that the use of a different medium has also essentially changed my way of working; I make my video installations from my own background. This background still has to do with certain classical avant-garde ideas. In this respect, quite apart from the fact that I am now drawing on classical sources - classical in the proper sense of the word -, you could indeed say that I am trying to make classical art with a new medium. Or rather: tried to make. Art-historical considerations no longer play a role in what I am now working on.

That evening, Jan Hein Sassen described your work as 'pleasantly old-fashioned', as being is rooted in what is now called 'modernism'. How do you see the work of the young contemporary artist, and how do you place it in comparison with your own?

Jan Hein also mentioned that the younger generation has grown up in a more fragmented world, and that I am the product of the safe world of the 1950s. That it is not easy now, to be a visual artist in a culture that is constantly called into question. According to him, it was easier for me, with the background of a still fairly transparent world, to query the fragmented world than for young artists with that fragmented background, who turn in on themselves in their art, or make art that reflects the fragmentation.
And about the 1950s: it depends on what you call 'safe' and 'fairly transparent'. I doubt that, in the1950s and the two decades after, the world was particularly safe and transparent. Even in those days, aspects of culture were constantly called into question, but I do understand what Jan Hein means. The modernism of that time indeed stood by a number of ideals, which seem to have eventually floundered because, as Jan Hein said: 'all kinds of systems did not work the way we wanted'. But to me that is no reason to throw in the towel, or to become cynical – even though I can now see the relativity of it all.

Certainly, there is room for different approaches: you can question certain matters or choose not to. It is perhaps best to question things sometimes, and at other times just to go ahead and do things without too many questions. Nevertheless, I still miss something in art that turns in on itself, or only reflects the fragmentation. To me, that sounds too passive.
And moreover – I brought it up it that evening – there is the matter of an 'inner need', which, according to Kandinski, is essential to creating art. Even though you could argue that this inner need can also be there when you turn in on yourself in your art, or use it only to show the fragmentation – for me, such an attitude just will not do.

According to Kandinski, this inner need is based on three mystical elements. He wrote this in 1912, so I would rather dispense with the mysticism and speak of 'being confined between three poles'. These poles are: the element of the artist's personality, the characteristic time-based element, and the element of what Kandinski calls 'the pure and eternal artistic sense'. Even though, in his own work, Kandinski was unable to realize what he had written, I still attach great value to these ideas. If I understand him correctly, these three elements must be evenly proportioned in all art. I would not go as far as that. I find it rather fascinating when art is now more attracted to one pole, and then to another – which is the case. But in my opinion, something of the three poles together has to be discernible in art, so even what Kandinski called 'the eternal artistic sense', which, even in this fragmented world, determines my attitude to life. In other words, I feel that art has to have a certain depth, and show some idealism, but I can understand that there are generations of artists who could not care less about my ideas - or about my work, for that matter – and whose work and thought is based on a totally different attitude. Therefore, I find what is now happening in young people's art interesting as a phenomenon of this time, even if, apart from a few exceptions, I do not have much affinity with it. But I find it difficult to judge. Each generation in turn has to rearrange the world, and discover its own forms of expression. In this respect, generations work at cross-purposes.

Someone in the audience asked you to specify your own inner need to make art. And how do you see the element of commitment within your work, how important is it to you?

During the discussion, a kind of mix-up developed over the concepts of inner need and commitment, through my own fault, but also due to the barrage of questions. My first reaction to that question had mainly to do with the form-related content of art, which is also the context in which Kandinski places inner need. I told the audience that, during the period in which I did not work, I repeatedly asked myself how, in our times, you could create something similar to La Tempesta, a work by the Venetian painter Giorgione, and by what means. That it would have to take on a cinematic form, so in any case it could not be painted, and certainly not in the reduced imagery of a modernist painting. Eventually I took on Dante, not Giorgione, using video rather than film, which is completely different. In this connection, I talked about the formal structure of Dante's main work in relation to the time-based character of the medium video when I began to make use of it; about the graphic qualities of the Inferno, and about the not only very explicit, but also subtle, forms of commitment it incorporates.

When it comes to 'commitment', perhaps I should first say something more about what I called classical avant-garde. Even in its twilight years, and even in developments in the visual arts which were strongly inclined towards reduction of imagery, it was still engagé in a certain sense. At least, that is how I felt it. The commitment just was not laid on thickly; it had to do with certain ideals and humanitarian values, which these works of art expressed in an intrinsic way, in other words by means of the imagery itself. But the problem was that the world had become so complex and chaotic that, in this way, you could not get a grip on it any more. And even if you were aware of this, and even if you felt, in your own work too, that modernism was threatening to turn into formalism, you still did not change tack just like that. In this connection, I could see Jan Hein's point when he said that my work is not post-modern art, because my origins are in modern art and he interprets my recent work as an attempt to sort out the chaos – unlike the younger generation of artists who precisely give expression to the chaos, with work that is much more chaotic than mine.

When, in 1984, I went back to making 'art', my first work was an installation, which consisted of paintings, photo works and reproductions, and an unperformed performance (but the props were there). In connection with this work, I published a booklet, which also included a motto that I had better quote because it is relevant your question. 'The ambivalence of present-day art is given so much emphasis because, despite frantic attempts, it has proved to be impossible to liquidate art. Unless I renounce art, as some have done to be become activists (and are therefore forgotten), I can only follow my fascination for more ancient works of art, which art hands down as an intact, but obsolete instrument. Today's art remains art inasmuch as it is powerless, and is only political through the obsession with commitment.' This motto was a paraphrase of a statement by Roland Barthes from his Le Degré Zéro de l'Écriture, in which I replaced the word 'literature' by 'art'. Looking back on the discussion and the things I said about inner need and commitment, this motto is the best recapitulation of what I have to say about this. So, in my opinion, commitment in art has nothing to do with black-and-white thinking, or with what is now called 'political correctness'. It is much more complicated than that. Commitment is something that art, powerless as it may be, cannot do without, but I feel that, just as inner need, it has more to do with the form than with the content of the work of art – with formal content, therefore. And with how you develop as an artist.

In conclusion, David Rijser's reaction to Jan Hein Sassen's question as to how Rijser, as a classicist, perceives Nol de Koning's images, and what the artist had to say about them.

I really perceive them as non-iconographic images. I find it very difficult to read his work in the same way as I can read Poussin. This language is basically encoded, which sometimes makes it dull as well. You cannot read Giorgione either, which is not our fault, but Giorgione's. One of the mysteries of the Venetians is that they are unfathomable; those Venetians just liked being difficult.

I cannot read modern art, because I do no know the grammar. You are then faced with the 'painted word', with having to read the story before you understand it. I think Nol's work is very beautiful and impressive, and I recognize images because I happen to be rather familiar with the Miseno episode. But as such, this is one of the problems involved: the how and why of the iconography. I think Nol's effort to enter into all this is very brave and admirable. But the problem is that in our society, in our culture, everyone has a grammar of his own. There is no longer an elite whose members pass on books to each other and exchange meaningful winks via paintings. We have all become kings, which means that the world is full of small kingdoms, and that poses a problem for art. It leads to pure aesthetics, and pure aesthetics is fantastic and delightful, but dangerous too. It is balancing on the brink of disaster.

In connection with the exhibition Terra Morale, a brochure has been published which includes detailed descriptions of the works exhibited. This brochure can be ordered free of charge from MonteVideo/TBA. The next edition of >50% Beeld will take place on February 29th, and will focus on the exhibition Wouldn't it be nice (see agenda).