Three meditations on matter, appearance and value
Liesbeth Henderickx is a young artist who knows the joys of working a stone. Upon our first meeting I asked whether the half-boulder upon wheels that sat within the HISK common room was one of hers, to which she answered “I wish”. Her studio is sparsely arrayed with earlier projects, many of which are elegant free-standing feats of construction. Meanwhile more recent works-in-progress appear loosely gathered into form, such as a rows of concrete-cast and machine-turned corn-cobs, or a slab of Belgian bluestone that she collected from a quarry in nearby Wallonia. Henderickx informs me that this reflects a shift underway within her work, from an interest in the ideals of architectural modernism towards something that she hasn’t quite pinned down yet, but that so far she allies the 1970s Italian art movement of Arte Povera.
By Arte Povera, Henderickx seems concerned first of all with the promise of the movement’s title, Arte Povera; an art that embraces humility in and through its material being. An art that augers a wealth of significance by shearing away layers of ideological value. While at first this rings with a kind of Franciscan materialism the result, both art historically and in Henderickx’s interest, is nothing so austere. The focus is more organic; concerning matter as it exists in and through systems. Stone as quarried stone, for example, rather than as an exalted material carved into form. Or, as Henderickx offers it in her three works for the HISK graduation show, the correspondences between stone and tiles, stone and cobs of corn, and stone and compost. These three works provide diagrams of matter in cycles that are both and neither ‘human’ or ‘natural’, and in states that confound ‘stillness’ and ‘motion’. So begins their work at the limits of determinacy.
The first of these three works The introduction of a complex relation between two blue hardstones (2018) confronts the mercurial correspondence of matter, value, and appearance through a meeting of five stone pieces. Together they orbit around the uneven mirror of two cut tiles, and one tile emerging from a rough piece of rock. Like the mythic figure of Mercury himself, these tiles sport in the guise of the trickster; telling a story of switched identity and the magic substitutions of trade. The two cut tiles are finished, and sit flush within the floor. These are imported blue stone, quarried and transported from sources such as Shandong province in China, or quarries in Vietnam. The larger, rougher stone is Belgian petit granit, sourced from a quarry in Wallonia nearby to HISK in Flanders. From the raw surface of this local stone a tile has been partially cut by the artist.
While both of these stone sources are sedimentary limestone, the imported stone is marked by circular Oöide calcium markings whereas the petit granit is permeated by crinoids, sea creatures with a similar calcium skeleton. Stones of this kind recently came to controversy when Flemish municipalities such as Leuven, Ronse and de Panne chose to refurbish their public squares in the imported rather than the nearby blue stone, fanning ongoing economic and political disharmony between the Flemish and Walloon Belgian majorities. Although travelling vast distances to reach Belgian markets, the imported stone reaches lower prices than its Walloon counterpart and, according to Henderickx, matters are further confused when some importers simply sell the imported stone as Belgian stone itself, under the name petit granit.
Creating an installation of five pieces, Henderickx has sourced an additional slab of petit granit from the HISK building itself, excised from its façade, and includes also a consumer mortar bowl of the imported stone. With her finishing touch of polishing the surfaces of the tiles, Henderickx adds something brazen to these stone’s presence. They gleam at the viewer. What does one apprehend in their inscrutable, ancient surfaces? Where does their difference lie? What combustible potential lies between these stone faces? Most of all they ask, who is the subject that can be with these stones, beyond the tricks of value?
Given the local-symbolic and real-material weight of these stones, it is tempting to consider them at the centre of Henderickx’s HISK presentation, with the remaining two works offering further interpretive constellations, especially regarding matter in phases of respiration. What the tiles hint towards as an ecological meditation, these two works grasp rather more directly.
Sponsje teire (2018) for example, is sculpture comprised of 35 cobs of corn, each individually cast in concrete and worked smooth with a machine built by Henderickx. Each piece is cast from unique ears of corn, which stands as a paradox to the replication offered by the mould-making and casting technique. At the same time corn, much like the potato, was domesticated in Central and South America and is one of many food varieties that entered the European diet along with its age of empire. While the potato is by far the more locally adopted plant in western Europe, and whereas it would be a far more basic shape to cast, Henderickx has opted for corn with small stones embedded in the concrete occasionally emerge much like kernels themselves. This tells us something about Henderickx’ approach to material, and the way in which the figure of the ‘artists’ intention’ is a part of, but not a wholly determining feature in her work. “I like hard, natural materials” she says, “They are shaped or create already. In order to easily work with them you have to adapt yourself to their energy.” This approach shares in a style of aesthetic critique recently called ‘Raw Materialism’ by critical race studies scholar Denise Ferreira da Silva, and whose radical agenda is transformative justice at the scale of global systems.
The third work Loose matter, originating from decayed remains (2018) is thus a culmination of, and yet also a diagrammatic expression plotting this principle. It creates in itself a circuit of transfers, much like a high-school physics experiment. A pile of wood-chips and sawdust decomposes, generating heat of up to 60 degrees Celsius. Water passes through via a coil of tubing, gathering heat as it goes. By alternating the tubing in steel and isolating plastic, the heat is with-held until it passes through a soap-stone that is exceptional among rock types for its ability to hold heat. With this tiny microbial power-station, Henderickx is underlining the character of metabolism as that which exceeds any singular idea of a body. She seeks for the viewer to look again. To ask how the subject who apprehends the compost may then return to the concrete corn, and to the two uncanny twins of the tiles; and perhaps trace their own share their cycles.
All in all, among artists of the current generation, sculptors who approach stone with traditional tools are relatively few and far between. Sculpture is far more often the result of an artists reflection, research, experiments, and then a long back and forth with suppliers and fabricators. Her skill with a hammer and chisel makes Liesbeth Hendrickx quite unique as a young artist, while at the same time her recent work explores the subtle conjuring of material through cycles and shifts of phase. In the near future, Hendrickx will travel to India, in order to study the stone-masonry techniques of Mamallapuram in Tamil Nadu. It will, without doubt, be fascinating to follow Henderickx’s next steps as the technical scope of her work extends beyond Europe, and yet never beyond the knowledge of her own hand and of the intimacies of material that she works.