Lawrence Malstaf – the flexible universe

pieter van bogaert

Complication, explanation, implication

The flexible universe of Lawrence Malstaf

(for ‘Exhibiting the visitor 01997-02010‘ – 2010)

(liever Nederlands? klik hier)

In the year 1988 the French philosopher Deleuze publishes a concise work on his German predecessor Leibniz entitled ‘Le Pli’. The fold is characteristic for Leibniz’ time and thinking: baroque. I often think about this book when looking at the work of Lawrence Malstaf. It may look stern and modern, but at the same time I recognize the dashing of baroque. It curls and folds, it creates endless movement. It shows and hides itself at the same time. It moves the perception from the artist to the audience and back.

Just like reality seems to fold back upon itself in Leibniz’ baroque – the core of his monadology: the smallest functioning units in reality – these works form a complete world on their own. The result being multiple realities, carrying their own world. These are objects that function in a network: you need both an artist and an audience to make it work.

This is how these creations lead a life of their own: a life full of complications, explanations and implications. Time and again a new reality is born in a new box. The entrance can often be vague – you find yourself inside before you know it. The exit is often even more difficult to find.


In the e-mail: two future projects by Lawrence Malstaf. In the first project (working title: TERRITORIUM, 2010) the walls move like the arms of a plotter, dividing the room in flexible compartments. In the second project (Unknown / Pavilion I, 2010/2011) the ceiling folds like a piece of paper, turning the difference between inside and outside, above and below, upside down. (Deleuze on Leibniz: “the problem is not how to end a fold, but rather how to continue it, le faire traverser le plafond[Pv1]“ – Le Pli, 48)

Why am I not shocked by these projects? Because I have seen walls move before? (the autochoreographic architecture of NEVEL[Pv2], 2004) Because I have seen inside and outside being flipped upside down somewhere else? (the self-image that was zooming out in PERISCOPE, 2001) These works are just ordinary (but what is ‘ordinary’ in this work?) continuations of his previous work. They are developed along the same line.

This development is important for a good understanding. De-velopment, en-velopment. The key to this work is in the packing, in the fold. This is work that likes to step inside and outside of itself, work that is easily turned inside out. The consistent confusion of inside and outside in –again – PERISCOPE or in ORBIT (the reconstruction of solar movement from 2002) and SAUNA IN EXILE (the theatrical wellness, also from 2002). This is work that functions inside and outside of itself. The suggestion of a perpetuum mobile in MADONNA (2000, de life-sized breathing hollow sculpture of a pregnant woman) or THE LONG NOW (2002, the perfect silence in slow motion of a floating clock).

Nothing is as volatile, as hazy, as transient as the fold. Nothing is as unpredictable, as incalculable, as flexible. Nothing is as intangible as that quieted movement: the aleatory in ROPE (1999, a computer-guided rope swinging a chair back and forth in the room), the tension of CRITICAL MASS (2000, in which the artist piles up 60 chairs; if the pile does not collapse because of a wrong movement it will eventually collapse under its own weight), the game of TOLLEN[Pv3] (2006, doubt, thoughts and emotions cheating the laws of nature), the menace of KNOT (2008, a metal belt swinging dangerously across the room).


The artist Lawrence Malstaf has a history in industrial design. There is another word for this: product development. That development in all its intricacies is the start of each and every project. Each design, each product is a complication of reality. The four scanning walls in TERRITORIUM form such a complication, an envelopment and a development. An alteration of an existing state, a problematization of space.

Every complication raises questions. In TERRITORIUM these were for example: which material is best suited for the walls? What is the tactile quality, the weight, the visual density? What is the relation between movement, speed and sound? How to quiet a fast movement? How to get sound from a slow movement? What are the acoustical qualities of the installation without a live performance?

Different questions / complications are at the heart of UNKNOWN / PAVILION I. How does it feel to walk on the floor of a big aquarium? How does it feel to ignore the existence of water and only keep the surface, the roof of the ocean? What if this roof starts moving like a huge piece of paper? How will the visitor react to this kinetic pavilion, this non-euclidian space, this hyperspace? How can you make the visitor comfortable in this uneasy space?


Is this artist making things too complicated? Possibly. But still I have every faith that this new work will also reveal its intricacies in the next step: the explication.

The realisation of each project, the completion, is in the cleansing: penetrating the essence of things. Removing superfluous elements and finding solutions to (un)foreseen problems. This phase has to lead to the result looking like it was always meant to be like that.

TOLLEN (2006) is a good example. The conical bodies are not only enlarged to the fullest, they are also highly schematic. They have been reduced to their pure essence, a vertical stick with a horizontal plate. The artist – armed with a drilling machine – puts them in motion in a big arena. Unpredictable, hesitant, careful but stubborn they test the laws (emotions?) of physics.


But do not think the work ends there. Each cleansing, each schematic, each explication requires a final elaboration, meaning, implication. That implication is the viewer, the user, the visitor of the work. Or better still: in the work.

This work can only be experienced from within. This makes the framework essential. Malstaf is working on the edge, he creates a borderline experience. Controlled danger. You are either in, or out: your whole body on the conveyor belt in TRANSPORTER (2008), your head in the tube of SHAFT (2004), your fragile body in the periphery of KNOT, on a chair surrounded by the particles of NEMO OBSERVATORIUM (2002). This is also how it started in one of the first – and since then legendary – works of the artist: vacuum-packing his own body in SHRINK (1996).

When we look at it like that, SAUNA IN EXILE is the acme of Malstaf’s fold. Or rather: non-fold. The body of the viewer is completely naked here: unhidden and unprotected by the folds of clothing. But still it is completely packed in the installation, acting like a second skin. With the fading of the consciousness of space, time also fades, like in a genuine sauna experience. The only thing that remains is an intensification of oneself. It seems like Malstaf is looking for an answer to that bizarre but typical Leibniz-question: “why is there something, rather than nothing?”.


The machines of this artist are nothing without the body; either the artist’s body or the body of the audience. These machines are bodies. Not just extensions of bodies, but pure – abstract – bodies, that wrap themselves around the reduced – organless – bodies of the visitors. Making this work into a Gesamtkunstwerk that appeals to all the visitors’ senses, to all disciplines of the arts.

This turns each work – again – into a monad. A completely closed world unifying all the arts: with an emphasis on the classical tableau in MIRROR (2002, in which the audience see their own image twisted into a living baconian painting) and WHIRLPOOL (1999, in which the portrait of Isabella by Frans Pourbus de Jonge is sucked into a vortex); an emphasis on the sculpture in MADONNA; on the scripture in SAND BIBLE (1999, a book with a vibrating landscape made of sand); on the dance in ROPE and KNOT and, strictly speaking, in each movement of this work, that was once developed in the large surroundings of choreographer Meg Stuart; on the music (the halting, rattling rhythm of SHAFT, the dangerous, sweeping sound of KNOT, the theatrical piano in TERRITORIUM).

The Gesamtkunstwerk is where all these disciplines come together, where all these experiences meet and overlap one another – where they fold into each other. At times, this gives this work a religious dimension. Getting things out that are (not) in there: the Jesus-figure in SHRINK, the invisible road in COMPASS (2005), the imaginary dust and ashes in SAND BIBLE, the breathing and yet empty casing in MADONNA, the empty throne in NEMO OBSERVATORIUM…

The unlimited nature of the total work of art makes these installations infinite: the conveyor belt in TRANSPORTER (a belt that is covered with the audience, a continuous exhibition of visitors), the 8-shaped knot in KNOT or the one in UNKNOWN / PAVILION I. There is no exit. The question is not “how did I get into this work?” (this usually just happens by itself), but rather “do I want to get out of this?”. Because, s/he who enters here, easily forgets the outside there.