Lieven De Boeck – letusbeUS

pieter van bogaert

We are (y)ourselves

text for l.i.e.v.e.n.d.e.b.o.e.c.k.//t.e.x.t.s.#1 (2007)

Every exhibition is a presentation. We know that. It also counts for this exhibition. Speaks for itself. More than with any other exhibition, presentation here means introduction, as in the way you introduce people to each other. Introduction as in invitation, an invitation to share yourself with others, an invitation to place yourself into the other. This exhibition is an invitation. Every exhibition needs one. This exhibition turned into one.

It is about encounters. About the unexpected in every encounter. Which turns it into a proposal. A project that does not really exist (yet). A project to (be)come. Something we can only imagine, for the time being.

This makes my job – to write something about an exhibition that does not exist (yet) – a bit easier. [Could it be every exhibition? Would it be possible to write about every exhibition, just like one could write about every museum, every house, every project, every person,…?] Because, even when you go visit the exhibition when it will be there, it will still be a proposal, an invitation to do something with it, together.


The work looks familiar, at first sight. It is about architecture, but not always. It is about dwelling, but not necessarily in a house. It is about ways of existence, of being. It is about opening up the familiar – about making it slightly unfamiliar.

Architecture comes as a medium. As a space that moves along as we move. As a means of transportation, a capsule to move and to protect. 1 A means for communication that makes the private public.

We do not see recognizable places here. No beacons to get a hold on. Unlike this other exhibition, with this one work, a reconstruction of New York , on the moment her beacons were erased. ( Fireworks II: Le Bleu du Ciel. II.09.01 , 2002)

No recognizable places, thus. And still we know what it is about, or nearly always. We can easily imagine what it is about. Our capacity to imagine is the most important tool for this artist.

We see typologies, stripped of what makes them unique, of their characteristics, of what makes them typical. What remains are types. Things , gatherings without peculiarities. Things as such : ideas to fill in. 2

In these things (or should we say reversed things , or reversible things , because every typology can again be turned inside out or upside down to become the opposite of what it first seemed to be) , in these gatherings of characteristics, we have to look for the meaning of letusbeUS – the title of this exhibition : let us in the first place be ourselves and not what others want us to be. Let us share ourselves as organic (re)presentations. Let us be ourselves, plural. 3

(I got you) Under my skin

Architecture is inevitable here. It is like a body. A given, a public body, to get access to, to penetrate. It is not always easy to look at, not always easy to touch (to grab, to take hold of). Not impossible though: the Chinese Gloves (2006), made for delicate construction work – half white, half red: the first stands for care, the latter for danger – are there as an invitation to touch and explore, an invitation to wear, to wrap them around your skin, to try them out. Most works however must be observed from a distance. But still made to appropriate. To imagine. To become. To think. To be.

He showed me a picture once from a performance in New York : the artist was seated under a table that was covered with a white sheet. The work was an invitation for the audience to share itself with the artist. A proposal to spend some time together, to be together in the same space. To share what’s private and thus make it public.

Making Things Public (2004) was the title of his first major exhibition. An exhibition to accompany the publication (the ‘making public’) of the books Wonen and Housing (2004). An opportunity for this artist / architect / author / editor / performer / director to share his private space and thus make it public. Which resulted in the presentation of a Typology House (2004) on the one hand and plans for a ‘model house’ on the other. Extreme efficiency of the Typology House : a storage space for a nomadic existence. A model on scale 1:1. Unbridled fantasy of the model house: a residence, buried on the most trafficked and still most desolate spot of Belgium : the crossing of the E19 highway from Antwerp to Paris with the ring around Brussels . A living space for a nomadic existence. 4

The performance in New York (the construction of this tiny room under the table) and the model house at the side of the highway, make one think of ‘Being John Malkovich’, Spike Jonze’s cinematographic variation on ‘Alice in Wonderland’ for the late twentieth century: the tiny door through which visitors have to crawl to enter the body of the actor and the verge at Jersey Turnpike where they are thrown back into the world fifteen minutes after they entered the body. This body is a house, with different rooms for the different levels of consciousness, for the different I’s, the different persons in Malkovich. Malkovich, as a house, is a shared person: he is singular plural .

[More: a strange coincidence makes that this tiny door, this access to the body, the house of John Malkovich, is found in an archive room: a storage space of temporarily unused things, just like the Typology House (and more: doesn’t this construction of the table under the white sheet, which the artist used for his performance in New York – the very same city where John Malkovich and his visitors live – look like a tiny version of the Typology House ? A model of the model. An archive of Russian dolls). The room / the house as access to the memory / the head of the user. 5 The house as a skin. The model as a head. The house as an invitation – at least for the one who looks for it. The house as a living museum.]

Being (Lieven De Boeck)

In the beginning, sometimes he left messages in the street . That is what he did, Lieven De Boeck, in January 2006 when he just arrived in New York for his one year long ISCP residency. He did exactly the same thing as the main character in David Markson’s ‘Wittgenstein’s Mistress’, a book that can easily be read as another late twentieth century variation on ‘Alice in Wonderland’, about a woman who is convinced that she is the last remaining person on earth. Which turns the whole world into her private space, surrounded by the artefacts of all those who passed before her. Literally, because while wandering over the globe she goes from museum to museum. These archives of artefacts are the places where she resides, lives, works. These are the places, made by persons, she makes her own in such a way that she even makes the readers of her book become (part of) herself.

Lieven De Boeck left his messages on Post-it’s, on small notes, on pieces of paper that could as easily be taken by the wind, the rain or passers by. Or get lost. He also found messages. They were left in the cement of the streets: a name, a print of a hand, a date to remember a declaration. They were all there at his feet. Horizontal, for eternity engraved in the memory of the city. These were the most solid, but also the least visible messages. Others he found at eye level, vertical, as invitations to add, to write, to paste. These signboards carried several layers of messages, attached on fences, doors, poles,… – private rules for public humans that turned the city into a public private space to live in, to reside. By collecting and (un)covering them the artist turned into an archaeologist of the city, an archaeologist of intimacy. An observer of what is in the ground and under the layers on the walls of the city. This way the city, his residence, turned into a museum.

This museification of the city is radically different however of the one we got used to. No disneyfication here; no construction / conservation of the city as a museum that fits the corporate privatisation of public space. What we get here is an individual acceptation of the city / museum as an organism; a making public of what constantly threatens to become private. This artist uses the city, just like ‘Wittgenstein’s Mistress’ makes use of the museum: by simply living in it. Looking for layers of oil on canvas becomes like looking for layers under the glass and the concrete. Alone in the world, together with (the memories to) all the other people.

There is of course a major difference between the writer and resident of the museums in ‘Wittgenstein’s Mistress’ and the artist and resident of the city in Lieven De Boeck. It is as if they are each others mirror image turned inside out. She burns the paintings in the museum to warm herself. He covers them with layers of white paint to cool them down. Or with Tipp-Ex, like with the Danish Cartoons (2006), copied on sheets of paper and loosely placed in open frames, as if they could fly away every moment; just like you can throw away a newspaper every moment – that is how transient, how volatile they are. Slightly layered, slightly transparent.

And slightly familiar of course, like the drawings in m.u.s.e.u.m. (2004), part of his dictionary of space. Copied from a book by Ernst Neufert, these texts and drawings are also covered with a manifest layer of Tipp-Ex, in order to keep only the few characteristics that go for every museum. Neufert’s plans and ideas for the museum are neutralised. Architecture is opened up, made organically again, open for discussion. Just like he did with The Seven Tables of Urbanism (2003), in which he neutralises seven words that referred largely to a modern tradition in architecture of which Neufert’s contemporary Le Corbusier is one of the main figures.

The work on Neufert and the Danish cartoons have more in common however, than this layer of office white. Both works deal with respect for the neighbour. Both are about bringing together, living together and the sharing of common space – whether it is in a building or in the media. By erasing their commonplaces, the artist makes visible the differences. Both fit in this impossible mission of Lieven De Boeck to wipe out traces from the past, to erase traditions, to forget a heritage that cannot easily be forgotten. Every history leaves its marks. No form of iconoclasm is strong enough to beat the past. The paradox of the removal is precisely that it makes visible.

White (Flag/s)

The white in this work is the unavoidable consequence of all erasing, layering, recycling, cutting and pasting. The white of the Typology House , the Tipp-Ex on the Danish cartoons or on the plans of Neufert’s museum. And of course the white of the White Flag (2004), made as a proposal for a new European flag. A typology flag, one might say, uniting all different colours of all existing flags. A flag that unites. White, not as a way to erase, but to bring together. Not to forget, but to remember. Not to minimize, but to maximize.

This white flag is a case of radical appropriation: for we all know that there already exists a white flag, one that is included in the Geneva Convention. It is the symbol of surrender. It is the sign to make clear that you are unarmed, not dangerous and thus vulnerable. It is not a symbol of unity, but of loneliness; not a symbol of co-operation, but of solitude, laying your destiny in the hands of another.

There is more: improper use of the white flag is forbidden by rules of war and constitutes a war crime. I’m not really sure if these war symbols and their rules also count in the context of a museum, which is until now the only place where this flag has been shown. In this safe and protecting space that changes the meaning of objects. What will happen if we take this flag to the streets? If we wave her in real life? Does it mean we surrender? Does it mean we put our destiny in the hands of the other, the one that is supposed to be on the other side? Into the hands of all those, waiting at the borders of fortress Europe and all those who are waiting at the borders of our cities, not to mention the sans papiers – the others in the very centres of our inner cities, which turns this blank flag into a symbol for those with blank papers.

So what then is the difference between the context of the museum and that of the street? None, I would say, if I were Lieven De Boeck. In his typologies, private space is the space where you are alone. As soon as you share a space with at least one other person, you enter public space. Therefore – so much will be clear by now – like any work of Lieven De Boeck, this flag can only be read as an invitation. An invitation to remove all differences, all hierarchies between persons or nations, between inside and outside. This puts this nearly invisible object at the core of Lieven De Boeck’s work, his ongoing invitation. An invitation that makes visible the differences between public and private, between in and out.

During his ISCP residence in 2006 Lieven De Boeck made some more flags: 190, to be precise. That is the total amount of all national flags of all UN member states. It started with a new ordering of the flags: instead of the alphabet, based on the English/American names of the countries, these flags are ordered following their colours and forms. Next, they were copied and made into replica’s in paper. And of course, what did you think, in the process all colours were erased, which means that we do not have 1 white flag, bringing together all characteristics of all the different flags, but 190 white flags as typologies of 190 different nations.

Love (for (y)our environment)

This one absent colour – the colour of surrender – is what these flags, these people, these nations, united by a universal law based on a declaration of human rights, bring together. It is the colour of love, we know, since British singer Dido turned ‘White Flag’ into her personal anthem. It is an invitation to be accepted. It is a way of becoming imperceptible, which is not the same as becoming invisible or inexistent. On the contrary: it is a way to become hyperexistent, to share yourself with the world, to become one with your surroundings. That is the meaning of surrender here: it is an act of love (and not of fear) in which you do not hide, but indeed make yourself visible, or rather: hypervisible, for the other and accept that your fate is in the hands of the other. Radical immanence we can call it with Rosi Braidotti. 6 What we need therefore is not another flag, but a new sort of – and I apologize for not having been able to find another word – but what we need is a new sort of flagellation , in the sense of not more images , but more imagination . What we need is a sensitivity for becoming other. For becoming one. And this may hurt, but it is the ultimate act of love.

Becoming other starts of course with the border between you and the other. Now, if there is a problem in this work, then it is precisely that of the border, that of the beginning and the end. Why this house and no other? Why this plan and no other? Why this flag and no other? (and as we are about to talk about origins: why, for instance, no Palestinian flag and yet an Israeli one?). It is the problem of the chicken and the egg. What came first? The Seven Tables of Urbanism as a reaction on modernism? The Typology House as a reaction on contemporary living? The reconstruction of the events of September 11 seen through the eyes of an architect as one of the defining events of our century? Does it really matter? What matters is the body that brings these works together. The fact that they form a body together. That of the artist, but also of a lot of other people, be(com)ings, things . What matters is that we are together in this work. Therein lies its meaning.

Erasing borders between himself and his environment, becoming other , is precisely what Lieven De Boeck does in We (2007), a work in which he uses snippets of (e-mail)conversations to write a story about encounters. About the encounters which give form to a life, which shape a personality. It is a portrait of the artist through the words of the people he met. It is a form of outsourced authorship; an erasure of the author. A work based on found encounters. How much further can you go to become imperceptible or rather, hypervisible?

That also, is how we have to read letusbeUS (2006) . This neon sign is another portrait of the artist. Made during his recent American residency, this work is a reaction on the new American post-9/11 patriotism, as well as a desire to become one with his environment. The ‘us’ in this image are ‘we’ of course, but it is also the country in which Lieven De Boeck resided at that particular moment in time, as an alien, as an artist in a temporary residency without a green card. This is an image of a guest who invites his hosts to become his guests. It may seem hostile to some – not in the least to American viewers of this image – but it is an act of hospitality, of surrender in the sense as of love. That is what we have to accept, and that is what makes this work so significant.

1As in living capsular . Cf. Lieven De Cauter’s ‘The Capsular Civilization’ (NAi Publishers, 2004) and of course Peter Sloterdijk’s ‘Sphären’ project.

2As in Martin Heidegger: ‘The Thing’ in ‘Poetry, Language, Thought’ (Harper & Row, 1971)

3 Or be ‘singular plural’, as Jean-Luc Nancy calls it, referring to Heidegger’s Dasein that is always already a Mitsein, a ‘being with’. See: Jean-Luc Nancy. ‘Being Singular Plural’. ( Stanford University Press, 2000)

4 For plans of both the ‘typology house’ and the ‘model house’, see: Lieven De Boeck: ‘Housing’ & ‘Wonen’ (both published by Jan van Eyck Academie, 2003)

5 As an access to the private universe of the Homo Habitans . See Peter Sloterdijk: ‘Im Weltinnenraum des Kapitals’ (Suhrkamp Verlag, 2004). In chapter 3, Sloterdijk refers to Walter Benjamin who (in ‘ Paris , Capital of the Nineteenth Century’) calls the interior “the universe of the private person”.

6Who (inspired by Deleuze and Guattari) wrote some extraordinary things about this in her latest book: ‘Transpositions. On Nomadic Ethics’ (Polity Press, 2006)