You were asked, as a conceptual artist, to do Jan Hoet’s headstone. Quite an honour, especially since he was a curator and museum director who knew so many artists personally.
Absolutely, but I didn't really make a new work for him. The sculpture was not initially intended as a tombstone; it was a project for the garden of Düsseldorf’s K21 museum. Above ground, chiselled into the marble stone, is the inscription Unter der Erde, and below ground the stone continues with the text Scheint die Sonne. Only Jan gets to read that second part. That sentence suits him perfectly, actually. It talks about his fire and optimism, but also about his faith. That stone was not chosen
by chance, either, you know. It's green-veined marble, a pattern that gives it an interesting dynamic. It makes the stone less flat. Jan wasn't a flat character, either.
Was he an important person to your career?
Enormously important. He was the first curator to exhibit my work. I had just started as an artist, after doing a period as an architect and designer, when he invited me to Sonsbeek, an open-air exhibition in Arnhem. Thanks to him, I got to start abroad. We only really came to know each other during the last three years of his life, when we worked together on Sint-Jan, his last exhibition in Ghent. So, in a way, the tombstone was an homage to the road we travelled together.
Is marble or natural stone a motif in your work?
Stone is a constant in my life, absolutely. Jan Hoet and I didn't have that much in common, but there was one thing: we both always carried a stone. I've done so since childhood. I would busy myself looking for small stones on the car parks of industrial estates. I would also collect minerals and look up all their names. I still often work around stones. They have become a regular medium. A stone is very interesting symbolically: it represents eternity as opposed to our mortality. Humans have limited expiry dates; not exactly so stones. Stones are the opposite of human beings. Lifeless and cold, but very meaningful. That's also the reason why I'm so attracted to them as an artist. You create art in a material that can carry your message for longer than you can as a finite human being. That's the very paradox of life: only dead matter such as stone or paper can spread your ideas after your death.
What pieces of art has this led to?
Summit, for instance, an installation consisting of a series of big boulders shaped like mountaintops, with little crosses on their summits. I've been known to sell someone a stone to put in their shoe. Pilgrims put stones in their shoes to make their journey extra painful. To do penance for and be aware of their deeds. An important motif in my work is Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. I'm quite marinated in the contents of that book about penance and guilt. When I put a stone in the front of a shoe, it’s a round one. Not a sharp one that causes wounds. But a big enough one that it is felt with every step. It enhances your alertness; it keeps you concentrated on your lesson; it gets people out of their comfort zones. Without shocking people, such a stone incites them to think or to reflect about themselves. Just like art does.
This idea about an inconspicuous presence is essential to your work.
My work is never meant to shock. It is never abstract and always concrete, but also discreet. Its meaning remains open to interpretation. Just like Altar, the silhouette of the Mystic Lamb with the inside left open. It is literally a tableau-vivant that frames the landscape. I like making works that ignite viewers’ fantasy. You must never underestimate them. Don’t forget that man has the monopoly on fantasy. It's just more strongly present in some people than in others.
What are you working on these days?
From January until May a public art project will be running in Ghent, an edition for the city's citizens commissioned by the S.M.A.K. The Public Art Fund in New York wants me to make an artwork for its public space. For The Warehouse of Rachofsky’s, one of the biggest collectors of contemporary art in the world, I have been asked to come up with an exterior sculpture in Dallas. I'll also be doing a fountain for the Swiss locality of Aarau this year. A big chalice, actually, with a hole in it that water comes flowing from. It's a small nod to the Mystic Lamb, where the lamb has blood spurting out of it. Although you could also see it as a bullet hole.
You have also just held an accrochage exhibition of your own work in the three-star restaurant Hof van Cleve, right?
Peter and Lieve Goossens have started an art programme together with Jan Hoet junior in which every issue is dedicated exclusively to a contemporary artist. After Tine Guns I am the second artist to have received this honour. All the works I chose revolved around religion and rituals, because these come very close to the experience of eating. By the way, I consider Peter Goossens to be a fellow artist. What he does totally transcends cooking.