Thilo Westermann ‘Notes on Willem de Rooij’s ‘flower bouquets’ Or: How to deal with the ‘exotic’
published: August 27, 2017, Berlin
Installationsansicht: How To Live Together, Kunsthalle Wien 2017, Foto: Jorit Aust: Willem de Rooij, Bouquet V, 2010, Courtesy der Künstler und Sammlung Haubrok, Berlin
Departing from Documenta 14 and Venice Biennale I came to a majestic ‘flower bouquet’ by Willem de Rooij at Kunsthalle Wien. The bouquet seemed exotic not only because of the choice of flowers used but rather by the fact that it has been staged right within an exhibition space. I was thinking about the term ‘exotic’, which originating from Greek ‘exotikos’, meaning ‘from the outside’, ‘foreign’ or ‘unusual’ as this was the exact feeling which this amazing “bouquet” left with me. I have seen flamboyant flower bouquets in hotel lobbies or luxury homes; nevertheless placed within a museum space, the arrangement seemed as if something from the outside (not art) world has entered the sacred exhibition halls. What a beautiful flower bouquet might contribute to the Kunsthalle’s current socio-political exhibition ‘How to live together’, I was wondering.
Installation view of Willem de Rooij: Entitled Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt, October 15, 2016-January 8, 2017
De Rooij began developing the ‘bouquets series’ in 2002 together with Jeroen de Rijke and continued alone after the latter’s untimely death in 2006. The 16 different bouquets existing to date may vary in size and flower breeds, but they have one thing in common: they come with a certificate, a description and an exact list of the botanical names of the flowers to be used. In general, the bouquets are not arranged by the artist himself, but by different florists, who are chosen by the artist and listed on the final object’s name tag as ‘interpreters’. In this regard the arrangements can be claimed conceptual art pieces: ‘Setting aside the personal touch in the execution of the bouquets indicates a discursive, conceptual stance: the work’s essence lies in the development of an idea, not in its execution.’ (Jan van Adrichem: Willem de Rooij. The Bouquets (2002-2010). In: Marente Bloemheuvel and Toos van Kooten (ed.): Windflower. Perceptions of Nature. Rotterdam 2011, pp. 177-190, here p. 184.)
But yet, some earlier pieces are supplemented with texts written by the artist(s). For example, Bouquet II (2003) comes with the text ‘Azra Akin, Agbani Darego, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Amina Lawal’, which has been published in the Austrian art magazine Springerin (Vol. IX, No 1/2003, pp. 42-45) telling the story of the title’s four women. Not interconnected with each other, the women had to face Islamic fundamentalism, nationalistic populism or racist threats, which in the case of Amina Lawal ended up on a north Nigerian court’s sentence of death by stoning, because she became pregnant without being married. Of course, reading about the women’s tragic histories influences the perception of the bouquet next to the text. So I found myself attributing the different flowers of Bouquet II to the text’s female characters.
Willem de Rooij -Jeroen de Rijke -‘Bouquet II’ 2003, courtesy of Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam
While this early flower piece may still refer to the four women, later arrangements lack this kind of direct link. For example, the descriptions of Bouquet IV (2005) focus on mere formal issues: ‘The overall impression of the arrangement is dense and compact; all flowers have the same height and thus form quite an even, dome-like shape. The hierarchy between the flowers is designated by their colors and shapes, not by means of their placement within the arrangement. In other words: the different flowers are evenly distributed over the whole, never coming to a concentration of any sort in any area. An exception are the euphorbia and the lisanthia. Although they are also distributed in an even rhythm over the total ensemble, parts of these flowers extend somewhat higher than the other sorts, thus forming protrusions above the entire surface of the piece. […] The essence of Bouquet IV lies within its color palette, which extends to many different varieties and mild shades of pink, peach, orange yellow, light green… and even soft blue… but never arrives at an extreme. Avoided are whites or light yellows on one side of the spectrum, and reds, purples, or deep blues on the other. There are no green leaves whatsoever.’ (Willem de Rooij cited in Daniel Birnbaum: Floral Imperative (Artforum, September 2016) pp. 289-297, here pp. 292-293.) The two spectra mentioned in this description relate to some flowers’ colors, which would appear super bright or pitch dark in a black and white photograph. Flowers of these colors have to be avoided as – different to all other bouquets – Bouquet IV always becomes exhibited together with a black and white picture of itself. This two-part installation gains something like a closed circuit quality and can be called the self-referential turn within the flower series: the flower arrangement refers to its photographic image and vice versa. From now on, there are no more clear references at all.
Bouquet IV, 2005, Flower arrangement in white ceramic vase, dimensions variable, courtesy of Friedrich Petzel gallery, New York (exhibited on Jan 19-Feb 18,2006)
Jeroen de Rijke and Willem de Rooij Installation view, Friedrich Petzel Gallery, New York, 2006
Bouquet V (2010), which is currently part of the show at Kunsthalle Wien, comes without any further notes and therefore it stays open to all kind of interpretations. It has been developed in the year of Willem de Rooij’s landmark exhibition ‘Intolerance’. To the
Willem de Rooij, ‘Intolerance’, 2010, Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin. Painting, Melchior d’Hondecoeter, Pelican and other waterfowl in a park, c. second-half seventeenth century, 132 x 161.5cm. Collection Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Photograph: Jens Ziehe
end of this show at Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin the artist had juxtaposed 18th and 19th century feathered objects from pre-Christian Hawaii and bird paintings by Dutch master Melchior d’Hondecoeter (1636–1695). Starting from two pieces in the collections of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, De Rooij concentrated on the rare pieces, which had been brought to Berlin in former times to satisfy the hunger for exotic objects. Instead of merely appropriating these objects, he initiated fundamental research to put the artifacts in their own right. Studying the exhibition’s three-part publication not only the hidden power structures implicated in the religious Hawaiian objects and the hierarchical symbolism of the birds depicted become obvious, but also early global trade and intercultural conflicts are discovered as the backdrop of the objects’ and paintings’ provenience. Therefore, the exhibition’s title can be related to the (post-)colonial aspects of so many First world collections, their institutional practices and the aspects of global market systems, which handle even religious items and animals as mere products without any deeper understanding nor commitment.
What does all this tell us about the flower bouquets? Well, in reference to this 2010 exhibition De Rooij claimed in an interview, that the ‘very notion of ‘representing’, of ‘imaging’, is what my [his] work is most deeply concerned with’ (artists-at- work-willem-de Rooij). We may interpret for example the variety of 95 different flower species making up ‘Bouquet V’ that ‘the work deliberately avoids any hierarchy’ and therefore speaks ‘to the diversity and tension between the politics of collectivism and individualism’ (David Trigg on Willem de Rooij, Arnolfini, Bristol). But what do the bouquets really have to do with representing and imaging? I think that we might travel further back in time to the very core of Netherlandish still life painting, which flourished in De Rooij’s native country in the 16th and 17th centuries; as these early masterpieces may contain religious and allegorical symbols as well as dead animals and foodstuff, De Rooij’s pieces concentrate exclusively on the mere beauty of the flowers. Looking at his ‘bouquets’ we ‘find ourselves face-to-face with beauty in its purest form’ as art critic Daniel Birnbaum wrote in his essay ‘Floral Imperative’ (Artforum, September 2016). Even death – the vanitas tradition’s main subject – is excluded in Willem de Rooij’s exhibitions as his bouquets’ flowers are replaced as soon as they start wilting. Therefore, the bouquets’ beauty remains ideal. Presumably, the flowers stay faultless like their artificial equivalents, which finally become included in Bouquet VII (2010). Indeed, after all the research on De Rooij’s bouquets and despite of knowing about the flowers being replaced, it still feels strange to see one and the same flower bouquet blossoming all year long and touring the different stages of the art world without any symptom of fatigue. It seems like the idea of a certain arrangement has become manifest in an eternal form.
Isn’t this exactly what we expect from ‘pure beauty’ – no aging, no wrinkles, just freshness and perfect shape? Yet, this has nothing to do with our everyday life. It is something different than what we are used to. It is this other – ideal – mode of existence facing us with its opposite by reminding us of our own bodies’ mortality. This kind of ‘otherness’ revisits the ‘exotic’ and the core of Willem de
This kind of ‘otherness’ brings us back to the term ‘exotic’ and the core of Willem de Rooijs bouquets. In the exact moment where we start thinking about the flower arrangements, we start taking sides by trying to define (more or less consciously) our own position in reference to those bouquets. Not far from that we can’t call something or someone exotic, foreign or unusual without having a more or less clear understanding of what is non-exotic, local or familiar; we can’t distinguish ourselves from the ‘other’ without having any idea of who/what we are. Apparently, specifying this very dichotomy and reasoning about its relevance today is the crucial point, where tolerance turns into intolerance and vice versa. It’s the exact starting point for any responsible socio-political life. Hence, I am overjoyed to see these pretty flowers within the exhibition ‘How to live together’.
Thilo Westermann Berlin, August 2017
Thilo Westermann, is an artist, art historian and lover of nature and flowers
The exhibition ‘How to live together’ at Kunsthalle Wien closes on Oct. 15th, 2017. Willem de Rooij’s retrospective show ‘Whiteout’ opens at Kunstwerke Berlin on Sept. 13th, 2017 (through Dec. 17th, 2017).