In the 17th century cantors knew a lot of appeal. In these interactive pieces of furniture, also called display cabinets or art cabinets, every effort was made to appeal to the intellectual wonder of the viewer. In Long’s drawings, photomontages and installations one can get carried away into a similar erudite game. The attentive spectator will discover multiple layers of meaning.
The first impression can be one of chaos, restlessness and complexity. One can feel the resonation of the dynamic of the physical creation process. From a distance, however, it’s the contrasts, geometrical patterns and structure that catches the eye. The composition is provided by the inspiration of maps: even as a child Long was fascinated by the way borders and demarcations were constructed. An eye-catcher is a lyrical game of lines in which dialogues, crossovers and rhythm are the main focus. A key scripture and cadence that bring certain works by Paul Klee to mind.
Through the creation of an illusion of depth, the picture plane is put up front. Long’s version of trompe l’oeil is guiding the eye of the viewer. The compositions are mostly constructed asymmetrically and it is particularly striking how much it relates to the measurements of the golden ratio. Works with a figurative trait are to be seen in their abstract form. Despite their instantaneous, loose lines they contain something laborious and elaborate. The unruly and archaic technique of working with charcoal is intensified in a way we can also see in the works of Käthe Kollwitz, Paula Modersohn-Becker, Albert Servaes and William Kentridge, to name but a few.
From a closer point of view, one can notice a layered structure with subtle nuances and liquefactions. Black implies shades of ‘Noir de fumée, d’ ombre et d’os’, to cite from a title of Pierre Alechinsky. White is used as lightning and in rays of light that help create a transcendental effect. What is also striking is the use of saturated colours to accentuate and punctuate certain areas of the work. In order to obtain this effect, Long mixes several shades of sidewalk chalk and brushes them with a kneaded eraser. The effect reminds us of the patina of ancient frescoes as seen in the thermal baths of Herculaneum or the undefined colour palette of Japanese woodcuts.
Scratches appear frequently and spread as scars across the surface. These scars allude to the expressiveness and the ‘ visible parlare’ as described by Giotto. Intentional imperfections in perspective and other technical shortcomings are a fundamental part of Long’s artistic output. He doesn’t intend on creating technical or constructive perfection and foremost wants to convey a certain feeling. When this initial feeling is right, the image will fulfil its objective. Imperfections bring something playful into the work and are also one of the reasons he has a preference for medieval art.
Our visual world still contains many elements from that period, even if we are more and more inclined to shift our focus towards multimedia. The 11th century Bayeux tapestry can’t be read as a mere historical chronicle, but deviates from the known historical facts. Representations of battles depict personal preferences and tastes and, furthermore, are much inspired by biblical or mythological context. Long uses the internet as a source for the figurative aspect of his drawings. The way in which he incorporates this reflects a personal reconstitution technique. Because coincidence prevails, projection is not used as a method.
As a child Long watched Club Dorothée on French television. In the Japanese cartoons he saw violence wasn’t shunned: this fascination soon found its way into the subject of his art. Furthermore this also poses a question to what exactly happened in his homeland during the Vietnam war. This unspoken aspect shines through in the seemingly peaceful landscapes and explains on the one hand his deep affection for German-Austrian art produced during the Interbellum and on the other hand for neo-expressionism. The representatives of these movements, which are mostly born outside of war, are according to Long, very much invested in the theme of guilt. He wishes to continue this tradition and considers it essential to bring the visual aspect back to the audience just like they did in the past.
In order to reach this goal, he uses scale-sizes that differ in atmosphere and focus: in the smaller works the main focus is intimacy, in bigger ones the focus is on mentality. Smaller works are created in series, which he regards as an ensemble. Each drawing has nevertheless kept its own individual mood. At the same time the viewer can compose his or her own scenario with these drawings, just like the small paintings by Robert Devriendt. In Long’s work however the composition receives an aura of monumentality which one can find in his large works as well but in a different way. It’s not a coincidence the work is so astonishing. It is the artist’s intention to create the cinematographic effect that forces the audience into being a spectator.
According to Jean Baudrillard we live in a culture that is dominated by the simulacrum: a copy of reality is perceived as reality itself and acquires truth as an entity on its own as a hyper-reality. Long criticizes this notion of being manipulated by the representations we see in media, such as television, by in turn tricking our minds. The scenes can be interpreted in different ways and there are double layers. In the same way as Los Caprichos (1797-1798) by Goya, they are a testimony of a turbulent era. Baudelaire invented the term ‘Negative Ideality’ to refer to scenes that are wedged between the perfection of one’s fantasy and the sensory reality.
In Long s work for example, buildings seem alien to their environment, they drift around like islands or distort one another. They contain the closed and fortified character of underground shelters or Romanesque pallozas. On the other hand we can recognize the template pattern of facades, windows and boxes of bricks piled up in disarray characteristic of Masereel ’s diagram. They don’t offer accommodation but are the remnants of societal relations. Within this evasion of one sided interpretation lies the hidden political aspect.
Long is intrigued how the kings of Ancient Mesopotamia use there power and the practice of Gerrymandering in the United States. His drawings give us a personal reflection of the sublunary. The artist as transnational and cultural documentarian. Documenta 14 affirmed the notion that the artist is more and more taking on the role of a critical journalist, correction: is forced to take on that role. The documentary Crossing (2017) by Angela Melitopoulos which was screened in a nineteenth century foundry, illustrated this evolution.
Long also wishes the urge to reflect. The accessibility of his oeuvre only contains the persona. Behind this surface the forces of humanity and of existence operate. Over the shoulder of Friedrich S Rückenfigur we stare into the depths of our own souls and they look back at us. Similar to Bosch’s hollow globe on the outer panels of his folded triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights, Long’s work is unpopulated. An existential loneliness prevails. Because of the absence of people, their footprint is most striking. In 1975 the exhibition New Topographics marked a key moment when the participating photographers claimed that no landscape can ever be completely neutral. It’s always inhabited, exploited, private or public property etc. So much so that we have ended up in an era that Alain De Botton describes as the era of the technological sublime. This is because, he says, nowadays our utmost awe is no longer incited by nature but by supercomputers, cruise missiles and particle accelerators.
Long even goes one step further in this, because he creates what is called ‘guilty landscapes’. A term first used by the Dutch artist Armando, in his own words: “ a landscape that has seen happening”. Because in the beauty of nature the most horrific events have taken place, are still taking place. Even Long’s creations that don’t have anything to do with war, have an ominous air. The combination between drawing and performance by Robin Rhode also reflect this feeling of imminent danger. Mostly because of the movements, speed and sharp focus in which they are formed. This is exactly how Long works as well.
Besides that, both artists use a certain aspect of playfulness. Long uses music as catalyser when he starts working in his atelier, sometimes even accompanied by a dance move, with the same spontaneity and intuition as when he is in the process of drawing. His work contains jocular details similar to Gustave De Smet’s. Yet if one wishes to really understand the work, it will divide itself like mercury in other entities. Philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer compared the capacity of a work of art to a game because it is prone to a constant flux and never complete, as is the world.
The revival of humour and irony is one of the merits of conceptual art. There are links with the minimalist movement within the conceptual art movement. For example: how serialisation and geometry is incorporated into the build up of Longs work, sometimes with a connection to photographical images. For example this can be paralleled with Ed Ruscha’s photographic series of 26 petrol stations, about which he says they are ‘technical data’ and ‘ simply a collection of facts’. Or how Bernd and Hilla Becher meticulously investigate series of industrial buildings by photographing them and calling it ‘typology’.
This notion connects with the meticulous, almost obsessive way in which Long registers the remaining traces of charcoal after the drawings are removed from the wall. The resulting small photographs are a wink to the 19th century carte de visite that were a much loved collector’s item. Long has chosen to print them in sepia because he likes the nostalgic touch. In this edition they are presented as a simulation while at the opening they were displayed as if they were in the imaginary museum of André Malraux. Creating works in situ using installation as an artistic technique is Long s favourite way of presenting his output. Minimalist art is characterised by this dramatizing of space. Long succeeds in creating a physical impact on his audience and invites them to enter his phantasmagoria. The surrealist puns also add to this.
Decoration is not his cup of tea, declaring himself an admirer of the artists of ‘The Style’. In their aesthetic recipe they eagerly use, in accordance with Bauhaus, the ideas of constructivism and the latter above everything of Le Corbusier. His Modulor or anthropometric scale of architectural proportions is part of a long tradition that was followed by the International Style. The way in which they developed architecture by means of simplicity appeals to Long as well. A similar pureness arises in his creations. This attention for the aesthetic has made him take time for more observation and to allow his work to rest.
When in 1966 Anselm Kiefer visited the monastery of the Dominicans in La Tourette, France, he didn’t solely admire Le Corbusier’s architecture, he decided to stay there for three weeks. In 2018, Long will stay for three months in Platvvorm in Deinze: the rest is (art-)history.
Regina Van Landuyt © - Art Historian - 2018
Evelien Claeyé - English translation
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Interview with Thanh Long Lam: february 17, 2018.
Interview with Thanh Long Lam: march 31, 2018.
Interview with Thanh Long Lam: april 7, 2018.