In 2005 Els Dietvorst presented The Return of the Swallows in Brussels, a project that resulted in a series of short films, a feature film and a multimedia installation she had embarked on six year earlier in the Anneessens quarter near the Brussels South Station.
In 2012 she chose the same place to start the multimedia project The Black Lamb—a project in and about her everyday world. Like in all her Brussels works, in this instance too, she attempted to bring to life all aspects of living, working and dreaming in the Irish countryside with films, drawings, stories and sculptures. And like in The Return of the Swallows she does not resort to a romanticizing aestheticizing language, but departs from a strong personal involvement and constant interaction with her real and fictitious characters. Dietvorst seems above all fascinated by the question how people (and animals) interact with each other and with the surroundings, and how living/surviving is possible in an intrinsically hostile and unsuitable environment.
A voice of dissent without alternative
Both projects, which cover a fifteen-year time span, are related to each other in both their aim, method and scale and can be viewed together as a diptych. They are more than a subjective and artistic representation of a reality: the artist is looking for both everydayness and transcendence in more or less extreme situations (or at least in situations and living conditions that are considered extreme by the average person interested in contemporary art). As such, both projects are a metaphor for a human condition that transcends the individual stories that have been integrated in the projects.
This approach functions like a voice of dissent: the artist registers and shows a microreality that is at odds with the image of the ideal society we are fed every day in the media, news reports and advertising—a reality we all too often prefer to ignore instead of embracing. But the multitude of individual stories and images Dietvorst presents us transcends all clichés about this reality on the fringe of ours. The stories broaden our horizon and are more like an addition to than a correction of the prevailing view of society.
Yet Dietvorst goes even further. She does not present an alternative but shows things as they are. Things that are an integral part of the world we live in. She does neither create a utopian world view, nor a complete dystopia. Using the power of imagination and focussing on human stories, life and surviving, she creates a world that could be ours, in which we recognize ourselves and with which we can identify to a certain degree. She holds up a mirror in front of us. A mirror that reflects shared longings, strategies and stories.
Above all, Dietvorst’s work shows us images and stories from a space that cannot be compressed. She shows us things that play at a local microlevel. She does not zoom in on aspects that are part of our reality, in the way that a tree is an inherent part of the wood—she shows us a different space that is at the same time part of a larger whole, but that also seems to be entirely separate of it.
We could in fact see parallels here with the research Paul Vandenbroeck did for making the exhibition Azetta. For this project Vandenbroeck attempted to find a pure form of femininity. Due to the extreme isolation of women in the Berber tribes, Vandenbroeck discovered in the carpets he presented at the exhibition an almost pure female cultural product.
In her own work, Dietvorst precisely looks for pure forms of common humanity, for that which is everyday in an almost alienating manner. It could be argued that analogous to Vandenbroeck and his methodology, Dietvorst succeeds in finding the everyday in situations in which it features in extreme circumstances.
In a world in which the farthest continent is just one telephone call away from us, Dietvorst’s work shows us that no matter how small the world becomes, we can always live somewhere, i.e. in one well-defined and defining place, a place that conditions how we relate to each other and reality.
In Dietvorst’s work, both the farmer and the homeless act and respond to the surroundings in a direct way in an attempt to appropriate them. This confronts us inevitably with the complexity of the here and now and also demonstrates that in a theoretical sense, globalization is never absolute.
Enumerating and collecting
Another striking feature is multiplicity. Though the drawings, films, stories and sculptures are autonomous works of art, they are inextricably linked with each other and they generate meaning through cross-referencing.
In his novel Life A User's Manual, Georges Perec describes life in a large Parisian apartment block. A separate chapter is devoted to each room of the building and the reader is initiated in the details of everyday life, which are as it were enumerated.
Like the title indicates, Perec wants to provide the reader with something to hold on to in an increasingly fragmented world, so that he or she is able to get a grip on reality and understand it. Perec’s strategy involves a detailed enumeration. The world as a whole is as such impossible to grasp today. Precisely by enumerating reality and turning it into language, or in the case of Els Dietvorst, into images, the artist succeeds in getting a grip on it again.
The subjects Dietvorst describes in her work cannot be compressed into one single image. What is needed, is multiplicity, and only through this multiplicity the spectator will manage to get a grip again on the universal everyday.
For Dietvorst, the only way to describe something that actually eludes description, is through enumeration. She collects scraps and fragments of the world and models them, films them, draws them, tells their story in images. Not so much to point out certain abuses and even less to save the world through art, but above all to provide something to hold on to for herself and the spectator, to create order where there was chaos and through the enumerated reality to hold up a mirror that allows us to tune in to the universal everydayness, to the common, to that which in a mad world is increasingly considered uncommon.