Art and Text, no. 57 (1997).
In art-magazine features, art writers are routinely expected to write up artists in terms of their distinguishing features, to trace their signature strategies, to argue their individualities. Modernism may be passe, but the scene still invests heavily in a rhetoric of personal vision, praising a distinct paradigm, commending a unique way of looking at the world. Success, in such terms, requires conquering circumstance, not being impressed by it. This is art as a kind of existential project, a will-to-the-proper-name.
Given this, inscribing Ronnie van Hout is a tall order. On the face of it, his installations don’t seem so distinctive—they are rather skittish, even faddish, since the artist chops and changes and picks up on things in the air, dropping them just as quickly. A rabid browser, his work feeds off the prevailing zeitgeist—appropriation, film noir, model photography, abject art, loser art, X-Files art. But he doesn’t stay in any genre long enough to master it, to make it his own. Pure Salle one minute, Nauman the next, he takes so much pleasure in following in others’ footsteps that it’s hard to register the trails he blazes in the process. That makes his a particularly fugitive and elusive art to trace.
In I’m OK at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth last year, a stag’s head was drawn on the wall in coloured plasticine. Beneath it, a machine-knitted woollen plaque told a UFO abduction story. Other works in the show included a home video of the artist intercut with footage of monkeys at the local zoo, a found duck embroidery, a silver suit, a stack of plastic planters with carrots stuck in their orifices, and cast amputated limbs piled up with a Groucho mask on top. Written in plasticine on a wooden bench was the plea, ‘Help Me, I’m in the Land of the Giants’, and on the walls speech bubbles made of cord declared ‘I’m OK’ and ‘Buzz Off’. The result was a kind of inferiority complex invoking, among others, Brancusi, New Plymouth artist Don Driver, Paul McCarthy, Marc Quinn, Rosemarie Trockel, and Australian ingenue Kathy Temin. I’m OK was not just a scatter show—it was a scatterbrained show.
Van Hout could be accused of making ‘student work’, if it were not for the fact that he has always done so, even when he was a student. Originally studying film at art school, his first Super-8 films paid homage to Warhol: thy were one-reel, no-edit studies of a simpleton’s birth-day party, a second-hand bookseller, and a guy making a burger. Van Hout kept the camera steady, but toyed with the focus. As with his 16mm Elvis Presley Movie of 1981, starring Elvis impersonator Ritchie Venus, these films were totally derivative and thereby self-effacing. Even when he moved on to other media, van Hout always fell for particular artists. In 1986, he had a two-person show with Colin Lee called Advanced Capitalist Realism, in which he modeled himself as an antipodean Polke. His Multiplying Personalties show three years later, featuring photographs of plastic models, owed much to David Levinthal, if not Thunderbirds‘ Gerry Anderson. Even his performances as lead vocalist in the heavy metal band Into the Void attempt to work through rock-star personae of Jim Morrison or Iggy Pop.
Early on, critics pointed to van Hout’s excessive reliance on name artists. But rather than correct this error, he has tried to make something of it, turning it into an adventure. ‘I cannot fulfill the concept of myself as a “genius artist”’, he says. ‘So, I’m going to do silly, not silly, but small things, small acts … I just want to get to that edge where its kind of nothing, where meaning starts disappearing. It’s like getting to a kind of end of modernism and the modernist ambition to create yourself and then the failure of that.’
Indeed, van Hout has titled shows I Forget, Failure, and I’m Not Well. In I Want My Mummy, he photographed himself bandaged up—a Kippenberger steal. Another work has the embroidered line ‘I Am Not a Fly’ as well as a plastic fly with a white head to signify the epitome of the ‘misunderstood’. Van Hout always seems to be dwarfed and overwhelmed (‘lost in the land of the giants’), or suffering a split personality, speaking in tongues, with voices in his head. Further, his tendency to resort to feminine forms of art making—embroidery, appliqué, knitting, and other fibre arts—suggests a confused sexual identity, especially when his subject is serial killers, rock bands, strings of sausages, or intestines.
Yet, at the same time, there are countless references to war and violence—swastikas and Stuka dive bombers abound. In fact, fascism is the whole key to his work, because it is precisely about being weak, about giving oneself over to charismatic images, about losing and finding oneself in whatever one finds compelling. Van Hout is a tabula rasa. Reiterating or embodying images, phrases, and individuals he finds cool, his is the art of the ultimate fan. He will do as higher beings command. This compliancy is dramatised in a 1996 exhibition, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. In it, van Hout camps up his fixation as a supernatural leaning: tablets embossed with swastikas, the Gestapo SS insignia, and war-comic exclamations like ‘Urgh!’ and ‘Arrgh!’ lie about the floor as foundation stones for a new world order. There are extracts from letters to magazine ‘agony aunts’, and a photograph of a toy Fuhrer is paired with a Star Wars poster, implying a comparison between Adolf and Darth Vader (or Luke). The crucial element, however, is a circle of rubber casts of the artist’s head plugged into tape recorders, apparently implicated in a seance. One head sings ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight’, a second explains ‘I wish I was made by somebody special, like Picasso’, a third provides instructions for hypnosis, while the last babbles mindlessly. The voices come out of the heads, but clearly their origin lies elsewhere. The artist as a conduit for mystical truths, or else a dupe or charlatan—you decide.
Van Hout’s 1995 photo-romance Mephitis plays up the idea of something rotten in the air. The title alludes to ‘poisoned air’ (the pungent stench that arises from a graveyard, for instance). The work is a series of photographed toy models suggesting stock characters or scenes: the boy in long shorts who could be from the Hitler Youth, the shapely beauty queen in her swimsuit, the elderly father figure, the decapitated head resting on a chair. The story has an ambiguous setting, perhaps a house or a gallery. Its inhabitants look at abstract paintings, their own shadows, or at each another, suggesting infinite, unfathomable possibilities of a sexual or artistic nature, or perhaps of neither. For the published edition, van Hout added a short text about someone enjoying getting their first obscene phone call. Once again, the point seems to be the pleasure derived from occupying the subordinate position—that blank nothingness redolent with infinite meaning.
Fascism is certainly one answer to the malaise of meaninglessness. Putting one’s faith in a totalising paradigm dictated from above avoids having to operate as an independent, authentic self or ‘artist’. Van Hout does neither, in fact. He’s quite a fickle follower: he likes sausages, Blitzkrieg, and sewing. His work is a rejoinder to the idea of the artist as a force with leverage in the world, as a little Hitler. If Ronnie van Hout expels a whiff of totalitarianism, it is simply to dissolve it in lines of flight.