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Non-Working Doing Its Work: An Interview With Hendrik Wittkopf & Lee Rourke

By Andrew Gallix.

3:AM: How did the collaboration come about?

Hendrik Wittkopf: We engaged during discussions of Lee’s first novel, and he published some of my paintings in his online journal Scarecrow. We just connected through words and images.

Lee Rourke: I first saw some of Hendrik’s paintings at an exhibition some time ago and was immediately struck by their layers of intensity. I visited his studio to look at more of his work and when we began talking about art and literature we seemed to share the same ideas. I tackle the writing process in the same way Hendrik approaches his paintings. So, it just kind of made sense to do something together.


3:AM: What inspiration did you draw from Beckett‘s essay, “Les Peintres de l’empêchement”?

HW: Beckett’s way of writing is very close to what I think, and reading him it feels as if he was painting himself. Most of my inspiration from Beckett dates back some time ago. When I was young, I read his texts as if they were the very translation of what I did with my painting, only stretched out over pages, whilst I stuck all of it on different layers, vertically, a frame, a still. I am not interested in creating something meaningful, but in confronting the perpetuity of creating ‘something’ within a framework of constant change. Trying to do this within a two-dimensional playground of colours gives me immeasurable pleasure and immeasurable pain.

LR: Beckett points us towards rapprochement, or the struggle of bringing the objects of our consciousness together. Contained in this struggle is the concern of ’empêchement,’ where the object becomes invisible and unrepresentable because objects are what they are. Beckett’s essay merely illustrates to us the thin veil of transparency that separates our practice: a shared struggle to represent the objects of our consciousness. Although, I don’t wish to wrap our art in theory to such an extent that it removes the viewer from the thing itself. The philosopher Simon Critchley (who has written some of the best stuff on Beckett today) calls this thingness art’s ‘truth.’ I guess – and I feel Hendrik feels the same way – we want to avoid what Critchley calls a ‘Philosofugal’ situation, where theory ‘spins out’ from within to cover art, or smother art’s truth. I think we are attempting an outwards, ‘artopetal’ state where any ‘theory is drawn into the orbit of the thing’ because our show is what it is and nothing besides. All this is contradictory, of course, but it is what interests us right now. I think we are just trying to show the unrepresentableness of things.


3:AM: Is the title, non-working, a reference to the gap between word and image that you wish to explore?

HW: The title links Lee’s and my work, literature and painting. I like to think of literature and painting as something that continuously changes its frame of reference; non-working as outside/beyond such a frame of reference to what we like to see as a meaningful work; non-working asks what is meaningful work; non-working presents the continuous dialogue we engage with, as in “it works, it doesn’t work, it works, it doesn’t work…”; non-working as the inevitable failure of this show; and to make it five, non-working as something we thoroughly enjoy and still pursue with gusto.

LR: We are both quite obsessed with stripping down our work, peeling off layers in the process of editing (in my case) and painting. Doing the work that makes art look like it has taken no work to produce. As Bram van Velde so precisely pointed out: “You have to let non-working do its work.”

3:AM: How did the collaboration work, or rather not-work?

HW: We had extensive discussions about how we could position our work next to each other, and the parameters shifted numerous times. What we came up with might change again between now and the opening. I see this as an ongoing project, which is open-ended, and we plan to take this show to other places next year, to engage with a different setting and different audiences.

LR: I suppose it’s difficult to ask viewers to engage with text in a gallery scenario, especially when exhibited next to paintings. So, naturally, I enjoy that confrontation. I have kept the text minimal; layered images, based on a theme of transparency, polymerisation and fossilisation (amber, and copal fissures are the ideal image for me in these texts). They are taken from a larger collection of poems I have recently completed called Succinosis which will be published at some point towards the end of next year. My writing reveals no connection with Hendrik’s art other than our shared philosophical practice. It will be interesting to see if people can make this connection just by looking at our work side by side.

3:AM: Tom McCarthy claims that the art world is far more interested in literature than the publishing world, which is largely in the hands of the money men and marketing departments. Do you agree with this?

HW: The art world might have slightly closer links with public funding and non-profit organizations, and a lot of great stuff is driven by curators who are critical towards their own institution and position within the market. That doesn’t mean that capital doesn’t determine the production, distribution and consumption of art. And the commodification of a painting and of a book is comparable, and it proves equally damaging for the artists themselves. Visual artists who do engage with the place and the politics around their work will always challenge these parameters, and per definition their work is incompatible with the idea of art as a commodity: the moment your work becomes a commodity it becomes less meaningful, the moment it is musealized it turns against itself. I am part of the New International School, where this is addressed. This is still the serious struggle of many great artists, who mostly resent the way their work becomes fodder for mass entertainment the moment it finds a wider audience.

LR: Well, Tom is absolutely right. I always remember a very prominent editor from a large publishing house who requested to meet myself, Heidi James, Ben Myers, Adelle Stripe and a few other emerging writers in a pub in Clerkenwell. All we wanted to do was discuss literature, philosophy and art’s meaning; why we are writers, who makes us tick, et cetera. We wanted to talk about the things that mattered to us, to pass on a sense of why we all do what we do . . . all the editor wanted to do was snort lines of coke and get wasted with the ‘writers’ . . . It was all very sad.

Lee Rourke is the author of Everyday [Social Disease Books] and the forthcoming novel The Canal [Melville House].

Hendrik Wittkopf is a London-based artist. non-working opens Thursday 19 November at Pages of Hackney, and runs until Sunday 24 November.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, November 19th, 2009.